Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Future of Faith -- A Blogging Project

Harvey Cox, emeritus professor of religion at Harvard, has written a new book entitled The Future of Faith. I was asked to read and provide a blogger's guide for the book as part of the Transforming Theology project. There will be a number of other bloggers delving into the book as well -- along with another book by Philip Clayton and Tripp Fuller, entitled Transforming Christian Theology (Fortress).

So, over the next several days or so, I'll be releasing a chapter by chapter interaction with this book. I hope you will join in the conversation as well, and of course buy a copy. Here are my thoughts on chapter 1 of the book (page numbers refer to proofs not the final published book).


THE FUTURE OF FAITH. By Harvey Cox. San Francisco: Harper One, 2009.

Chapter 1: An Age of the Spirit:
The Sacred in the Secular?

Where is religion heading? What trajectories do we see forming? Is secularism on the march, ready to displace religion? Is the wind at the backs of the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for example)? Or is something else happening? Harvey Cox, best known for his book The Secular City, a book I’ve not read, but which I understand foresaw the downward spiral of religion a generation ago. In the opening paragraphs of this, his latest book, Cox takes a bit different perspective. Rather than seeing religion in the process of disappearing under the weight of secularism, religion is alive and well in the 21st century. Of course, we all know that to be true just from watching the news! Perhaps, however, there is more to this than meets the eye. In fact, what seems to be happening on our TV screens may mask what’s really afoot.

As we head into the new millennium, Harvey Cox observes three things happening, three trajectories that need to be traced. First is the very visible resurgence of religion. Second, and perhaps more surprising, is the decline, and perhaps death, of fundamentalism. Third, and finally, he suggests that we are on the edge of a “profound change in the elemental nature of religiousness” (p. 1). It is this third point that drives the book that we will be reading. In his estimation, having watched religion over the course of many decades, the nature of religion and spirituality not only will continue to be prevalent in society, but the forms that they take are changing and will continue to change over time.

All of this is quite unexpected. It was long assumed that religion would collapse under the weight of science, increased education, and the patterns of modern life. And yet, religion has remained a powerful force, although Europe has become rather secular. But Europe has proven to be the exception, not the rule. One might have expected a fundamentalist response to modernity, but it’s the third component that is most surprising. Faith and spirituality seem to be evolving. Indeed, they may be in the process of making a rather major leap, morphing into something rather different from what has been – and yet as we will discover – in keeping with some rather ancient understandings.

If this resurgent spirituality isn’t fundamentalist in nature, what does it look like? Cox suggests that this new trajectory involves the “rediscovery of the sacred in the immanent, the spiritual within the secular.” That is, God is present not just in the usual sacred places, but everywhere, including nature. With this change of direction people seem to be turning to religion more to help deal with this world than to prepare for the next (pp. 2-3).

As we contemplate this new direction, it is helpful to distinguish between faith and belief. Faith is, according to Cox, “deep-seated confidence.” It’s about trust, values, and that which is of “ultimate concern.” Belief, on the other hand, is opinion. It expresses a degree of uncertainty, and is “more propositional than existential” (p. 3). Although often used interchangeably, it is impossible to understand the “tectonic changes” going on without making the distinction. With this in mind, he speaks to the creeds, which he speaks of as “clusters of beliefs.” Creeds have a place as symbols of faith, but they are not the same as faith.

The future is about faith and not beliefs. Creeds may be present as markers of where we’ve been, but they’re not definitive. With this sense of markers of the journey in mind, Cox moves on to exploring the direction that history has taken since the beginnings of the Christian movement. Unlike Phyllis Tickle’s series of five-hundred year cycles (The Great Emergence, Baker Books, 2008), Cox’s eras are quite uneven. The first, the “Age of Faith” lasted only a few decades at most. This is the first age of the church, when the Christians lived in the spirit of Jesus. This was the “dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated” (p. 5). This era gave way to the “Age of Belief,” an age that began in the early years of the third century and continued on into the present. It was an age of clergy development and of Constantinianism. Christianity became an official religion, one that both molded and was molded by culture. In this new age Christianity became imperial, people joined the church because it provided social status, beliefs were codified, and heresy became treason – punishable by death. With the first execution in 385 for heresy, some 25,000 have died since because of a lack of creedal correctness. In this long era of belief, the church has given birth to, Cox points out, both Chartres Cathedral and the Spanish Inquisition, St. Francis and Torquemada. Not even the Reformation changed the underlying nature of this understanding. Still, despite the overarching nature of this era, it was not all darkness. There are many examples of people and movements marked by faith rather than belief. Thus, it was “for significant numbers of people, a spiritually vital ‘age of faith’ as well” (p. 8).

Having traversed this long age, we’re now standing on the cusp of a new era, one Cox calls the “Age of the Spirit.” It’s not a new idea – Joachim of Fiore spoke of a coming age of the Spirit during the 12th century. While there is a touch of utopianism present, which he acknowledges, he sees this age of the Spirit boding well for the church and the world. This new age will be as unpredictable as the Holy Spirit. It likely will be less institutional – marked by a growing number who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Recognizing that “spirituality” can range from contentless self-reflection to the “disciplined practice of meditation, prayer, or yoga” which leads to “deepened engagement in society,” he would have us move toward a socially engaged spirituality, not simple navel gazing. (P. 11). Of course, things aren’t as polarized as might seem at first glance. People move back and forth between spiritual and religious dimensions. Indeed, pointing to a Willow Creek or a Saddleback, he suggests that the boundaries between secular and spiritual are already blurred (even in evangelical settings). In this new era the community – often small groups – will redefine the sacred. In this new age, the experiential will stand over the doctrinal.

We are here because there is growing discontent with institutionalized Christianity, people are feeling the need to better express awe and wonder at nature, and there is a growing recognition that the borders between the various great religious traditions are porous. The question is – will the forms developing have both sufficient ardor and cohesiveness to sustain themselves.

In speaking to the coming age of the Spirit, Cox both notes the absence of lament over the demise of fundamentalism and his own evolution out of fundamentalism, a process that included periods of confusion about the nature of belief and faith. In this process he discovered that there is a line between belief and unbelief present in us all – indeed, he speaks of the possibility of being a “practicing Christian, but not necessarily a believing one” (p. 17). There is, therefore, room for doubt, for recognizing the possibility of faith even in unbelief. In this process of evolution, we’re recognizing that Christianity is not a creed, and therefore it’s no surprise that we are looking back to the earliest days of the Christian faith, back before codification for inspiration and insight – that is, back to the Age of Faith. While it may seem restorationist or primitivist in its orientation, this new “emergent Christianity” seems to have much in common with the earliest forms of Christianity – before codification and imperialization (pp. 19-20).

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