A Look Back
Life Is Short
Peter J. Gomes in The Memorial Church at Harvard University, 2007.
On February 28, 2011, Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, died at the age of 68. The Harvard Divinity School community was deeply saddened by the loss of a loyal friend, a beloved mentor, a witty colleague, and a challenging teacher (his preaching class was one of the most popular courses in HDS history). As a small tribute to our cherished “Reverend Professor,” we print two excerpts from past Bulletins here: the first from his 2004 HDS Convocation Address (“The Backward Glance and the Forward Look”) published in the Fall/Winter 2004 issue, and the second from a Winter 2009 interview with Daniel Smith about his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus (“The Hard Stuff Is the Good News”).
Never more than today have we needed every possible resource available to combat religious illiteracy and the ill-founded prejudices that proceed from [it]. All too easily we speak of the dangers of radical Islamic fundamentalism, but what about radical Christian fundamentalism? Who will address the fact that many people of goodwill place responsibility for their social prejudices upon their religious convictions? The source of most homophobia in America is religious, and the Bible as the culture’s iconic book is read in such a way as to sustain prejudice. Where are the seminary-educated preachers who teach us how to take the Bible seriously without becoming dangerously selective literalists? Where is the theological debate joined on the ethical issues of the day, including everything from stem cell research to just war theory? What do religiously educated public citizens have to say about the fifty-year-old conflict between the Palestinians and the Jews, in what to all of us is still the “Holy Land”?
Surely a theological education is not the solution to all of the ills of the world, but a divinity school worthy of the name responds to the times in which it lives with the best resources it has at hand. Silence is death, and we with our skills and talents have never been needed more than now; that is to say, if we understand our mission to be greater than academic or institutional self-preservation.
I think I’m a lot simpler now than I used to be, a lot clearer, which is an odd thing because you’d think the older you get the more complicated you get, but that’s not true with me. I won’t say I’ve reached the stage of simple truths, but I think I see things clearer than I did. When I was a young man, I saw all the problems, all the why not’s, all the ambiguities, and I wanted to be honest. You often want to preach ambiguity when you’re honest. I’m beyond that now. Life is short. Time is short. We could all die tomorrow. I have to tell the good news the best I can. . .