A Theologian for the Secular Age: The Retirement of Harvey Cox

Yesterday afternoon, I attended a most unique retirement celebration for a professor who has been a mentor in theologically engaging culture for me and for thousands of others. Dr. Harvey Cox, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, retired in his own style, with an event that featured a cow and the big band sounds of Soft Touch, in which he plays saxophone. The cow, originally named "Pride" and renamed for the event "Faith," and then further renamed "Faith Pride" and "Pride Faith," had to do with the traditional right of the Hollis Professor (the oldest endowed chair not only at Harvard but in the United States, it was said) to graze his cow in Harvard Yard, a right dating back to the founding of the chair in the early 18th century.

Harvey Cox was a crucial influence for me during my graduate studies in theology at Harvard in the mid-1990s, teaching me about field research in theology, about the place of music in the life of a theologian, about sustaining a restless and searching attention to the meaningful practices of others, religious and secular, and about the fundamental large-heartedness of the theological life. He modeled for me that the question of how to live as a Christian in contemporary society, what one does with Christianity in the present, must be asked with almost reckless curiosity, a zest for conversation, lightheartedness, and an existential plunge requiring an emotional and intellectual exposure and even waywardness on the part of the scholar.

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He is perhaps most famous for his book from the 1960s, The Secular City, and the passion for his theological navigation not only of secularity but of the rich opportunities for Christians to learn from, and take the side of healing in, the present -- this persists throughout the remarkable intellectual itinerary he has charted in his many books.

Two symbols from the afternoon are with me this morning: one is of Harvey saying from the podium that the old debates between science and religion "are dead, they're over," and waving his hands, exhorting us to pay attention to the new situation of friendships and alliances and shared ethics between religion and science. This stood out for me as a driving insight of so much of his work: realize what is over, stand ready for what is coming. Now that I write it, it sounds vaguely Pauline. (And Cox is a Baptist, after all.) And then there was an irreplaceable moment yesterday when he stepped down from the podium after a brief speech outside the Divinity School, and in the space of a few strides, shed his academic gown and put on his saxophone, and immediately began playing. Those dozen short steps, that little procession, from the gown to the tux, from the lectern to the sax, all of which seemed to hang together so naturally, stood for me for what is so unique, what he is able to hold together, in his theological life.

He has occupied that Hollis chair from his mid-30s through today, some 44 years later. Apparently Professor Cox will still teach part time at HDS for a while. Many stories were told yesterday of his capacity for helping his students make their own way, and that was just one of the many deep appreciations that were part of the day.

Tom Beaudoin

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Cross-posted, with pictures, at Rock and Theology

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