It may come as a surprise to 21st Century Americans that the original official motto of Harvard University, first adopted in 1692, was Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, Latin for “Truth . . . for Christ and the Church.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, Harvard students were encouraged to have a biblical worldview and embrace God’s Truth as the foundation of all knowledge and learning.
21st Century Harvard grads are taught something entirely different, something opposed to any sense of absolute truth. “Everything is relative” would be more accurate. Today’s academic elite believe truth is merely a human construct and God has nothing to do with it.
This brings me to the irony of ironies…
In 1906, Harvard University constructed a new building, Emerson Hall, for its philosophy department, naming it after the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was common for such Greek architectural campus structures to have a motto or slogan engraved over the main door or on the building’s front facade.
The President of Harvard at the time, Charles Eliot, invited philosopher William James to suggest a suitable inscription for Emerson Hall’s north facade. Taking a cue from Greek philosophy and undoubtedly reflective of the growing secular worldview of the time, James suggested a quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras, “Man is the measure of all things.”
James never heard back from President Eliot. His curiosity surely grew as he witnessed artisans working on the scaffold behind a canvas atop the entrance to the new hall. To James’ surprise, and no doubt disappointment, President Eliot had chosen a different inscription.
“WHAT IS MAN THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM”
These words, taken from Psalm 8:4, reflect godly humility about creation and, later in the Psalm, speak of the majesty of God’s name — a humbling reminder to anyone whose hubris sees man as the measure of all things.
Interestingly, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the namesake for Emerson Hall, was often described as a Transcendentalist or a Pantheist, but always an Individualist. One wonders which quote he would have chosen above the lintel of a Harvard Hall named after himself. On the one hand, he was quoted as saying, “Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.” But he also recognized the power of what one worships when he said, “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
Today, the scroll on Emerson Hall stands in stark contrast to the philosophy of modern academia. But before I take any satisfaction in the thought of humanistic Harvard students walking under the etched banner of godly wisdom, I must ask myself —
What motto is etched upon my soul, my heart, my mind?
Such a question prompts me to reflect upon Jeremiah 9:23-24:
“Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” (RSV)
Who is the measure of all things? Man or God? At Harvard, their past says one thing while their present says another.
What will our future say about us?