Friday, July 22, 2011

Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (2009)

I have an unusual hobby: I collect generalizations. The scholars who supply them have a magisterial grasp of their subject, and can offer outrageously simple ‘global statements’ without fear of contradiction. This book is full of them.

Harvey Cox retired from the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard University in October 2009 (he was the ninth person to hold this prestigious post which, established in 1727, is the oldest endowed professorship in American higher education.)

I remember as a theological student reading his The Secular City when it was first published in 1965: and I’m not surprised it’s sold one million copies.

An ordained Baptist minister, Cox’s main area of interest has been trends in global Christianity (its history, geography, theology and spirituality) with a special focus on Latin American liberation theology. In 1900 90% of Christians lived either in Europe or in the US but today 60 percent live in Asia, Africa, or Latin America. Dr Cox writes: ‘Since the vast majority of people in this “new Christendom” are neither white nor well-off, their theological questions center less on the existence or nonexistence of God or the metaphysical nature of Christ than on why poverty and hunger still stalk God’s world. It is little wonder that liberation theology, the most creative theological movement of the twentieth century, did not originate in Marburg or Yale, but in the tar-paper shacks of Brazil and the slums of South Korea.’

This readable book is a cross between autobiography and polemics. Cox takes us on a journey through three phases of the evolution of Christianity: the Age of Faith (kiboshed – my word – by Constantine), the Age of Belief and the Age of the Spirit. His sympathies are categorically with the first and last of these, and his vitriol is mostly reserved for institutional and theological fundamentalisms of all kinds. The early churches were vibrant, enthusiastic communities dedicated to ‘following’ Jesus. But in ‘The Age of Belief’ from the fourth to the twentieth centuries, faith became entangled with rituals, liturgies and creeds, orthodox theology mostly replaced personal religion, and a stifling clericalism developed.

So the gist of The Future of Faith can be summarized thus: the church world-wide is in good shape when it jettisons at least three concomitants of ‘Constantinianism’ – institutionalism, hierarchicalism, and creedalism. These three destructive tendencies are not compatible with the church as a missional community; they destroy faith (as distinct from ‘beliefs’). Cox reckons the Pentecostals in Latin America (those influenced by the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and liberation theology rather than Western notions of ‘prosperity theology’) point the way to a dynamic ‘Age of the Spirit’. One of the key secrets of these ecclesial communities’ social justice ministries? They make lists – lists of people in their neighbourhood who need help. And – importantly - they and the Catholic ‘base ecclesial communities’ are not imprisoned within a fundamentalism of ‘Jesus as personal savior whose mission [is] to rescue them from a sinful world…’

‘Faith is resurgent, while dogma is dying. The spiritual, communal and justice-seeking dimensions of Christianity are now its leading edge as the twenty-first century hurtles forward, and this change is taking place along with similar reformations in other world religions’ (p.212). So the healthiest Christianity emphasizes faith as a way of life (rather than the fundamentalists’ doctrinal boxes we must tick), respectful inter-faith dialogue, and ‘deeds not creeds’ (his quote from conservative pastor Rick Warren).

‘Christianity came to birth in the midst of cultural change — it is a movement born to travel – it takes on life with each succeeding cultural transition. But for this to happen again, some old wine-skins must be discarded, and the incubus of a self serving and discredited picture of Christian origins must be set aside’ (p.184). ‘We stand on the beautiful threshold of a new chapter in the Christian story – Christians on five continents are shaking off the residues of the second phase (the Age of Belief) and negotiating a bumpy transition into a fresh era for which a name has not yet been coined. I would like to call it the Age of the Spirit’ (p.8).

For Cox, faith starts with awe, not propositions. ‘It begins with a mixture of wonder and fear all human beings feel toward the mystery that envelops us. But awe becomes faith only as it ascribes some meaning to that mystery.’ (Interesting that. As I pondered where my Christian faith began, I have to say it wasn’t awe – though that came later – but a commitment to the person and teaching of Jesus…).

Harvey Cox would probably not categorize himself a ‘theological progressive’, but critiques that movement as he does all others. (You’ll be hard-pressed to find here any reference to Spong or Crossan: Borg, I think, is mentioned just once – or N T Wright or John Stott for that matter. And interestingly he doesn’t cite any websites in his references/ endnotes).

Here’s the best quote in the book:

‘I have often seen what damage both fundamentalist literalism and historical-critical skepticism can do to otherwise thoughtful and serious people. Take the critical specialists with a grain of salt: they are not experts in what the Bible means for today. And the fundamentalists? Their literalistic reading is a modern and questionable one.’ (p. 168)

This readable book is a real page-turner! You can get the paperback edition post-free from the Book Depository for AUD $14-78: excellent value.


Rowland Croucher

July 2011



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