The Past Meets the Future -- The Future of Faith #12

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009

Chapter 12: Sant’Egido and St. Praxedis:
Where the Past Meets the Future

The message that Harvey Cox wants us to hear as we read his latest book is this: we are entering a new age, what he calls the "Age of the Spirit." If we're entering a new age of Christian existence, then that means we're exiting another -- the "Age of Belief." If he is correct, and only time can truly tell us, then we are at a transitional moment, that is, we're living out our faith commitments with one foot in the old age and another inside the new one. Even if the ultimate outcome is certain, these remain uncertain times. But, perhaps there are hints of trajectories from the ancient church, and even from this middle age of belief, that can give us a sense of where we're going.

As an illustration of how the new can be born out of the old, Cox points to a community of lay Christians that in 1968 took over an old Roman church that had once been the chapel for a community of Carmelite sisters. That community – Community of Sant’ Egido has echoes of a movement founded centuries earlier by St. Francis of Assisi. It sees itself called to witness to peace and serve the poor (just like the early Franciscans). The comparison of the two movements is a reminder that the church has continually given birth to new movements of faith that are not tied to traditional structures and interests – even if they are blessed by the structures. This community, like many others, is a sign of the rebirth of faith that Cox continually speaks of – People are becoming concerned more about social justice than doctrinal minutiae.

But perhaps a more important sign of change is the fact that Christianity is transitioning from being primarily a western religion to being a global one. Today the Christian church finds its strength not in Europe or North America, but in the Global South. This new vibrant and growing community has many parallels to the church of the earliest centuries. They tend to be more practice oriented than doctrinally oriented. Ironically this change in dynamics is a result of European migrations, migrations that often had conquest as well as evangelism in mind. Thus, many non-Western people became Christians under less than desirable conditions. Nevertheless, due to the spread of the faith globally, it’s no longer possible to see the church in Euro-centric terms. Whereas, just a century ago Christians were predominantly found in Europe and North America, now the West is increasingly post-Christian and the church is increasingly post-Western.

Although Cox celebrates the increasingly diverse nature of the church, he’s under no illusion that this is an unmitigated blessing. There are divisions and practices in the Global South that are as expressive of the Age of Belief as any that are found in the North. The danger signs are, as Cox has suggested earlier, distorted and prescribed beliefs and clerical domination. Another issue that has expressed itself is a dismissiveness toward women.

But if we look back to the earlier days there are signs of another way of life, such as a mosaic in the 9th century Roman Church of St. Praxedis that pictures Bishop Theodora – an obvious female name. There are other references in early church history to women bishops that suggest that at least in some parts of the church women took leadership roles that were eliminated over time. Those roles, however, are now being restored -- though there continues to be plenty of opposition. Indeed, the vast majority of Christians continue to reject the idea that women can be priests and bishops!

Another issue that has been, and continues to be, disruptive to the harmony of the Christian community is the relationship of faith and science. Cox insists that in this new age there’s no reason for warfare. The two can be seen as complementary, not oppositional.
The two have quite different but complementary missions, the first concerning itself with empirical description, the second with meaning and values. Unfortunately, however, although the war is over, sporadic skirmishes between die-hards on both sides continue (p. 182-183).

One might question the assessment that these skirmishes are sporadic. They seem to be getting more frequent and more intense, but the point that Cox wants to make is a good one. At the end of the day, one cannot return to a pre-scientific age, nor can science offer answers to every question that faces humanity. Still, science does require people of faith to adapt to new understandings of the world.

As the church becomes a more globalized faith, in this new age the church faces growing diversity – ethnic, cultural, theological, and political. As the faith has spread, new forms and new ideas have entered the conversation. Of course, there has always been diversity – otherwise there wouldn’t be any heretics! But, while some groups insisted on existing outside the traditional structures, some reforming groups remained inside and expressed their differences with the status quo by simply getting permission from the authorities – as did St. Francis. In Cox’s view, this method of survival and growth will continue on as we move forward into the future.

In Cox’s view, the thing that has made Christianity so successful over two thousand years has been its ability to adapt to new situations. It is a movement “designed to travel” and that “takes on new life with every succeeding cultural transition” (p. 184). As we move into the future, into this Age of the Spirit, an Age that has similarities to the Age of Faith, we must understand that we can’t simply reinstall the earlier age. Instead we must seek the jewels among the junk – both from the Age of Faith and the Age of Belief.

Even though we still live with the scars Christianity has inflicted on itself, we cannot dismantle the soaring cathedrals, silence the music, shred the theological texts, or discard the splendid liturgies. They are ours as well as theirs (pp. 184-185).

The future is rooted in the past – it offers us resources and warnings as we enter a new Age of the Spirit.


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