Harvard’s Noble Lectures

by Phil Johnson

Dr. Timothy Johnson, Medical Editor of ABC News, delivered the 2004 William Belden Noble Lectures at Harvard Divinity School in November. Chaplain Peter Gomes, author of Strength for the Journey and other collections of excellent sermons, read Tim’s book Finding God in the Questions and decided to ask Dr. Johnson to give the Noble Lectures. This report is based on a recording of the three lectures ($7 for the three CDs postpaid from Pietisten).

The Noble Lectures were endowed by Nannie Yulee Noble in 1898 as a legacy to her husband who died while preparing for the ministry. The list of lecturers through the years is a “Who’s Who” in American Theology and church life. A few of Tim’s predecessors are: Paul Tillich, Harvey Cox, Eugene McCarthy, H. Richard Niebuhr, Hans Küng, and Joseph Sittler—one of Tim’s professors at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

The rubric of the lectures was “Finding God.” Lecture one: “Finding God in the Universe;” two: “Finding God in Jesus;” three: “Finding God in Everyday Life.”

Dr. Johnson’s stated purpose is to wrestle honestly with questions of faith. The first evening, he addressed the question of the creation of the universe. He accepts the “Big Bang” description of the beginning of the known universe billions of years ago. The Genesis six-day account is not science and is not to be taken literally. Nor, should creationism be taught in public schools as an alternative historical/scientific account.

I agree with this. What is most important, I think, is to realize the astounding length of time, relative to our human chronology, that the universe and the earth have been around. If one takes six days literally, it is impossible to reconcile the Genesis account with reality. However, as an answer to the mysteries of the universe, the Big Bang leaves me wondering. I’m not saying it is not true but I wonder where this dense pin head was when the explosion happened and what went on before that. But, there are a lot of things on earth alone that are so astounding they would be incredible if they were not the case. If our knowledge of how babies are born was not commonplace, as Luther observes (Lectures on Genesis, pp. 126, 127), who would believe that story?

Regardless of how things started, we face another level of questions. Was somebody or some agency behind this big bang? Is intelligent agency evident in the functioning universe? In single cells and amoebas and every other amazing thing? Did God create it? Is God creatively present in the universe?

Tim says yes. It is more difficult, he thinks, to believe that life is here by accident. Recent scientific discoveries in physics and microbiology have been especially compelling. But, he warns, a recognition of intelligent design, the conviction that God is present, does not tell us what God is like. So, how do we find and know God?

This brings us to Dr. Johnson’s second lecture: “Finding God in Jesus.” I listened to the beginning of this lecture several times and more than once, I was moved to tears (are tears a part of the answer?). He began by reading the story from Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing about Grace about a teenage girl from Traverse City, Michigan who ran away to Detroit. She was enticed into prostitution and, initially, lived very well. However, things deteriorated rapidly when she became ill and drug dependent. She decided, after much hesitation, to try going home. She was not very hopeful. Unable to reach her parents, she left a message on their phone and figured if no one met her, she would continue on to Canada. When she arrived at the bus depot in Traverse City rehearsing her apologies to her father, she walked into a waiting room filled with her whole family. A huge banner proclaimed “Welcome Home!”

Without comment, Tim proceeded to read the parable of the Prodigal Son. Here, he believes, we find what God is like. Jesus of the Bible shows God to us and we discover that God is a loving heavenly father concerned, involved, and self-sacrificing. This heavenly father seeks everyone and graciously accepts all.

Tim said he prefers to call himself a follower of Jesus rather than a Christian. He wants to “distance” himself from the ill that has been done in the name of Christianity and from those who make certain beliefs a requirement, exclude most of humanity, and ignore the real teachings of Jesus.

The subject of the third evening was finding God in everyday life. The lecture was a combination of looking for what God is like and acting ethically. The core of the lecture was the parable of the last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). Tim called attention to what is not mentioned as criteria for separating the righteous from the unrighteous. Correct thinking, religious practice, and “moral values” are not mentioned. Tim thinks most of the moral opposition to things like gay sexuality and stem cell research is wrong-headed.

To move toward the heart of God, he concluded, means caring for “the least, the lost, and the lonely.” He finds this parable both liberating and troubling. Liberating because following Jesus and moving toward the heart of God is not a matter of knowledge or right belief or social standing and is open to all; troubling because we know we don’t come close to Jesus’ standard. This brings us back to the good news that, through grace, God, the loving father revealed to us by Jesus, seeks us out.

I encourage you to read Tim’s book and to listen to the Noble Lectures. The recording gives the whole context including the introduction and the discussion that followed each lecture. Tim’s book and the lectures are courageous, thoughtful testimonies. I appreciate his unflinching assertions with respect to science and moral issues while at the same time demonstrating compassionate and passionate faith—territory often yielded to more conservative and fundamentalist brothers and sisters. If we are to build bridges, we need to reveal deep commitment and compassion so as to be taken seriously as Christians by any Christians. The 2004 Noble Lectures did that.