Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ships Already Launched -- Future of Faith #3

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox's Future of Faith (HarperOne, 2009)

Chapter 3: Ships Already Launched:
The Voyage from Mystery to Faith

Harvey Cox opens chapter 3 of Future of Faith with this statement:
Faith begins with awe in the face of mystery. But awe becomes faith only when it takes the next step (p. 37).

The step that he speaks of is to live with this mystery in culturally appropriate ways, through theories and myths that give meaning. But, the way in which we live with awe and mystery differs from culture to culture. This means that the world’s great religions aren’t all the same. They may be seeking to accomplish a similar purpose, but they don’t do it in the same ways. Indeed, even a Christian atheist differs from a Buddhist one, “in part because they are each rejecting radically different concepts of the divine” (p. 38).

Some seek to approach religion from a neutral one-size-fits-all vantage point, but such a platform isn’t possible. Thus, the only way to truly understand the other is start with our own tradition. By participating in my own tradition, I’m enabled to better understand the other. With that in mind, Cox seeks to understand mystery – the religious – from three cycles of tradition – Hebrew, Christmas, and Easter. These are, as one might suppose, Judeo-Christian platforms. Cox looks to the stories of the Hebrew Bible, to the nature of God as described and defined in its pages, and finds words about creation and renovation, about shalom and God’s favoring of the “little guy.” The Hebrew view differs from the Buddhist, for instance, for it “depicts a reality that is moving in a certain direction, even though that direction is hard to discern” (p. 42).

From the Hebrew Cycle, he turns to the Christmas Cycle, in which the stories of the first cycle are distilled into the story of one particular man – Jesus. As in the earlier cycle, Jesus experiences the life of the refugee and offers, as the prophets of old, the promise of a new day, when God will reign. In this cycle we learn that Jesus, not Caesar (or Herod) is Lord and Savior. In his life and ministry we see embodied the reign of God – indeed, the “reigning of God.” This reign is not static but dynamic and ongoing. Even as Jesus embodies the reign of God, he is also a man of faith. We see his faith expressed in the one in which he placed his trust and confidence – “Clearly the object of Jesus’s own hope and confidence – his faith – was the Kingdom of God” (p. 45). In this cycle we learn that the point of the Gospels isn’t the development of a faith in Jesus, but an understanding of his faith, as he embodies the Kingdom.

There is a sense that the kingdom is something that we await, but the reality here is that we can begin living the kingdom now. Cox notes Vaclav Havel’s statement to the Czech people under Communist rule that they could “live as though they were free even under a freedom-denying regime” (p. 49). The same is true of the kingdom. As we consider the Reign of God, we must understand Jesus to be the “‘pioneer’ of faith,” and the exemplar of the life of faith. What we see is his hope and confidence as he faced setbacks and losses, and are encouraged to do the same.

The third cycle, is the Easter Cycle, a point at which Jesus faces the reality of resistance and opposition, leading to his death. What is important to note here is Cox’s belief that the pre-Easter and the post-Easter Jesus need to be kept together, or at least not separated to a great degree. He writes that “for the early Christians, the reality of ‘Christ’ included, but was not exhausted by the historical Jesus” (p. 51). He’s not dismissing the insights of historical criticism, but we miss out when we make to clear a distinction, and then ultimately decide to choose between the two. The resurrection – even if one might not be able to comprehend the nature of this idea or event – reminds us that “the life Jesus lived and the project he pursued (the Kingdom of God) did not perish at the crucifixion, but continued in the lives of those who carried on what he had begun” (p. 52). Here we must recognize the value and importance of such terms as the “body of Christ,” and the message that Christ dwells within us.
The Easter cycle, with all its harshness, joy, and impenetrability, tells of this enlargement of the historical Jesus story into the Christ story. It says that who Jesus was, as the embodiment of a different possible world, was not ultimately defeated by the crucifixion, but continues (p. 52).
This is the good news that the Christian community is called to embody and proclaim as it lives the kingdom in creation.

If we’re to return to the original point, that our understanding of the religious and spiritual begins as we understand our own faith traditions, we must acknowledge that the “‘Christ Spirit’ is not restricted to the Christian community alone.” Pentecost is a reminder of the breadth of this message. It is a mistake, therefore, to assume that the Spirit of God is present only within Christian believers (or as St. Cyprian put it, only in the church). And so, as we continue the work of Jesus, we acknowledge that the cross did not extinguish the light. For the Christian, the world’s hope is found in Jesus, and the promise of shalom, which he embodied.

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