Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Future of Faith -- Conclusion

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

Chapter 15: The Future of Faith

We have come to the end of the journey with Harvey Cox’s The Future of Faith. The question that remains before us concerns the possibility that the original Age of Faith, which, according to Cox’s interpretation, was distorted by a long and abiding Age of Belief where clericalism and dogmatism reigned, about to emerge again as an Age of the Spirit?

The question that permeates the book focuses on the contrast between faith and belief. Faith is praxis-oriented, and open to the future. Belief on the other hand is focused dogma, and is marked by narrowness and literalism. While this is how things have been, it doesn’t have to be that way. So, as Cox surveys the landscape, after decades of observation, he says that dogma is dying, while faith is not. Although this sounds wonderful, it does raise a question – what of the substantive issues of faith. Pluralism and variety are all wonderful, and while Cox does make it clear that we must come to the conversation out of our own tradition, is it possible or even wise to completely abandon belief? And from a historical perspective, can we really say that neither Paul nor Jesus was interested in belief? These are questions that we need to consider as we go forward.

In concluding this interesting and readable book, Cox takes a broader focus. To this point the focus has been on his own faith tradition – that of Christianity. He has been calling Christians out of their narrowness to a new broader vision of God’s work in the world. Now, he wants to invite us to consider our relationships with other faith traditions – to see what we might learn from them, and they might learn from us. He offers to others this path of faith, in the hope that they too can break free of dogma. He looks to touchstones of reform and notes that, for instance, hope for reform within Islam is found in that faith’s concern for the poor. By observing the teachings of the Qu’ran – not in a literalistic way, but in a more humane way – the seeds of reform can be found. Indeed, he points to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Americans typically view as as a terrorist or proto-terrorist group, but it is in fact a movement of equality rooted in Islam. Although it has embraced violence at times, it has also embraced democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood has also influenced groups like Hamas, which while also given to violence to reach its aims, also has strong commitments to providing for the social welfare of the people (one of the reasons why it gained support with the Palestinian people). In Japan the Soka Gakkai movement, which is largely a lay-led Buddhist movement has challenged traditional Buddhism to take a broader view of reality, to move away from authoritarianism and allow for creativity and freedom. And there are also signs of reform and renewal within Judaism, a sort of post-denominationalism.

Turning back to Christianity, Cox sees signs of renewal on the American scene within the “emerging church movement.” What is not clear is what he means by this. He suggests that this movement comes out of New Zealand, but doesn’t provide any details. Although the terms emergent and emerging reference movements related to Emergent Village and the work of Brian McLaren, Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt, the terms are also used by Marcus Borg, among others, to speak of another movement within Christianity. The movement that Borg is connected with, is according to his quote of Borg, committed to a theology that is “historical, metaphorical, and sacramental.” It is committed to a “relational and transformational” way of living the Christian life (p. 218). My sense is that he has Borg in mind, but he could have been clearer. Still, whatever the specific reference points, Cox is suggesting that there are movements afoot that focus less on doctrinal propositions and more on a way of life that is deeply spiritual.

A conversation about faith must take into consideration two variables – the presence of unbelief in society, as well as the impact of culture and society on faith and practice and the reverse. On the former, Cox points to a Vatican-sponsored conference on unbelief that featured a paper by Robert Bellah. According to Cox, Bellah suggested that philosophers and theologians are faced with two competing convictions. On one hand, since at least the time of Plato, they’ve recognized the importance of religion to social order. It was a view that even Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood and affirmed. On the other hand there has been the realization that they could not “honestly assent to such mythical propositions” (pp. 219-220). In other words, one need not give assent to the truth of a particular doctrine (belief), to give trust and confidence (faith) in God. In the past, one gave assent to doctrine for the good of the community, but that no longer works. Religion must engage society in a different way than before.

Ironically, it was the attempt to connect Christian faith with Greek philosophy that, in Cox’s mind, distorted Christian faith by slipping from faith into ideas. In trying to fashion a Christian philosophy, Christianity (and later Islam) sought a doctrinal precision that caused distortion. He suggests that Asian religions lack this sense of precision. Being not an expert on Asian religions, I’m not sure what to make of this suggestion. Instead, faith has been passed on in rituals, ethical insights and narratives. The Creeds, which are so much a part of Christianity, are, according to Cox an invention of theologians, but are generally ignored by much of lay Christianity, whose faith is embodied in ritual and narratives. That is likely quite true, especially in this day and age, when a deep knowledge of the faith seems to be lacking. It is also true that people choose places to worship, less for the theology and more for the programs offered.

So, what does the future of faith look like? Well in the future, religions are going to be less regional (Islam is a growing presence in Europe and America, as is Hinduism and Buddhism). Christianity is a growing presence in East Asia and South Asia – growing especially in China and Korea. It will be less hierarchical, and finally it will be less dogmatic and more practical. Regarding the last statement, Cox writes:

Religious people today are more interested in ethical guidelines and spiritual disciplines than in doctrines (p. 223).

What is interesting about this statement is that it’s not all that new. This was the principle of latitudinarianism – a movement within late 17th and 18th century Anglicanism. John Tillotson and Benjamin Hoadly were key embodiments of this view. Still, the question remains – is there to be no guiding substance to this conversation? Does doctrine/theology have no place in defining this ethical patterns and spiritual disciplines? And, if people are turning to religion to give meaning to their lives, will they not desire some theological definition to these answers? Upon finishing the book, you recognize that in many ways what Cox has done is set out the questions to be explored, rather than offering the answers to our questions. He envisions a new age, where narrowness will give way to openness, but he seems to recognize that we will have to still do the hard work of interpreting our faith traditions for a new day.

Now, as for that vexing issue of fundamentalism. Cox insists that it is dying, but most observers would want to point out that it’s still breathing and it’s still reacting – often violently – to modernity. We have parties trying to Hinduize India, Israeli settlers trying to reclaim the Promised Land, Islamic fundamentalists trying to drive infidel off their land, while here in America proponents of a Christian nation make their point with increasing ferocity. And then there is the ongoing schism within Anglicanism, which interestingly enough is being assisted by Anglicans in the Global South. So, I'm not sure I’m ready to sign the death notice of fundamentalism quite yet.

What I do think Cox may be on to, is the need for a new way of looking at things. Being a non-creedalist myself, I recognize the problematic nature of creeds, especially when they are made tests of fellowship (that’s a Disciples of Christ way of putting it). But questions remain. Perhaps Cox is a bit too hopeful at some points. And this faith/belief distinction might be just a bit too strong. Still, there seems to be the promise that reform is happening in many religious traditions, and that with reform and renewal, there will be peace between us. And if we can get closer to what Jesus envisioned, and get beyond the distortions of Constantine and rigid doctrinalists, then things will be better in the future. So, welcome to the Age of the Spirit!


Steve said...

The faith/belief problem is tackled quite effectively by Karen Armstrong in "The Case for God." I recommend it to your readers as a way to deepen the insights raised by Cox. (Of course, Borg takes this on in "The Heart of Christianity", but in a summary, not comprehensive, fashion.)

I'd like to see some conversation around the notion that is at the heart of this issue, yet remains on the periphery of discussion. That is, as long as we hold on to the notion of a special revelation from God in the form of sacred Scripture, we will never free ourselves from our parochialism and open ourselves to the insights of other religions.

matthewgallion said...


You suggest that the only options are to accept revelation and embrace "parochialism," or to reject revelation and "parochialism." I think this is mostly just a perjorative term that doesn't actually make a case. In other words, you're presenting a false dichotomy. For one, you're obviously loading the term "parochial" with all sorts of negative connotations. While there are accurate critiques of most -- if not all -- churches, to suggest that all expressions of parochialism are inherently negative is a bold assumption.

On the other hand, to suggest that the only way one can be "open... to the insights of other religions" is through the rejection of Scripture is a bit of a stretch. I understand that you are promoting an attitude of tolerance, but I don't think it's true that tolerance and belief are mutually exclusive. I can maintain a belief in the revelation of Scripture and still find insights in other religions. In fact, in my academic study of religion at a secular institution, I experience this daily. This doesn't mean that I must assimilate all the beliefs of whatever religion I take insight from. I don't even assimilate all the beliefs of the Christianity that I claim as my own religion!

Anonymous said...

especially in this day and age, when a deep knowledge of the faith seems to be lacking."

You mean a deep knowledge of history and dogma? Both are highly suspect. Don't worry, science will sort it all out eventually. David Mc

Steve said...

Matthew, thanks for engaging in this conversation. I hoped someone would wish to enter in.

Perhaps my intention would be clearer if I had written "an exclusive special revelation" as, unless we accept that qualification, all other claimed special revelations become secondary at least and demonic at worst.

Parochialism, as I see it, entails an unwillingness to grant to others the dignity of a valid point of view. As a panentheist, I view all scripture as coming out of the human/divine encounter. Mine is special only in that it arose from my cultural perspective and engages me personally. The fact that most other sacred texts don't does not lessen the reality that they perform the same function in that cultural setting.

So, this is far from wanting to be merely tolerant. It is, instead, a plea for those who hold a particular religious point of view to give to the other the same consideration they give to themselves.

matthewgallion said...


I can see your point, but aren't you implying that we should all then accept the panentheist perspective towards Scripture? Isn't that the sort of expectation that you encourage us to avoid? It seems to me that if I want to grant other people the right to hold viewpoints different than my own, then I must necessarily hold on to my own personal expressions of belief even more dearly. This is not so that I can push those on people, but so that they can enjoy that freedom also. To minimize belief in the name of tolerance isn't tolerance, just belittling to each individual system of faith!

I'm absolutely convinced that each person needs to have the freedom to share their beliefs in a culture of mutual respect. And as my sisters and brothers from other religions share their passionate belief, I'm entirely convinced that I can learn something from them but only if I have a faith that I am equally passionate about with its own distinctives. If we were to eliminate the distinctiveness of our Selves, we would eliminate the distinctiveness of the Other, and vice versa.

Finally, the suggest that a reverence for one Scripture demands that the others become secondary or demonic only holds if we must prove the truthfulness of each text. I simply don't think this is the case. I agree that I can appreciate the value of my Scripture due to its existence and prominence in my own culture and time, just as the Other has awe for a different culturally significant text, but I don't think that I need to make value claims about the Other's Scripture to maintain my own beliefs.

I think the overwhelming debates that we see between religions that are vying for authority is primarily about power. One religion wants to assert its authority and dominance (read, "rightness") over another. Often, these debates become primarily about the Afterlife, probably because its speculative, and the one who argues loudest often wins. I just don't think such speculation is necessary. Nor do I believe any avoidance of said speculation means that I do not or cannot believe what I believe wholeheartedly.

Anonymous said...

Good points matthew. You're on to something there. If we can't be brave enough to learn what makes our neighbors tick, how effective can our personal beliefs be? I’m trying to understand and experience faith, and be part of a Christian community based on no fast beliefs- other than the golden rule. I figure if I keep my dues up I'm ok... just kidding? David Mc

Anonymous said...

Oh, I should add that I (probably) came to faith in the golden rule, and am at peace with it, through pondering the narratives and quotes claimed to be of Jesus. That’s where I came from. David Mc

Steve said...

Well, Matthew, you stated my case beautifully; I couldn't agree more. You presented the panentheistic view of the other, at least in my understanding of it, as I would have. And believe me when I say that I hold my Christian beliefs dearly, just as I am convinced my differently religious brothers and sisters do as well. I think that to love my neighbor or enemy as Jesus would have me do demands no less than this. So, you are right, I would hope that all people would act accordingly and adopt this panentheist perspective towards Scripture.

I must repeat myself, now, because you insist that this is a matter of tolerance when it is nothing of the kind. “So, this is far from wanting to be merely tolerant. It is, instead, a plea for those who hold a particular religious point of view to give to the other the same consideration they give to themselves.” Matthew, isn’t this precisely what you argued for?

matthewgallion said...

Hey Steve:

I'd say that is what I'm arguing for, and at this point we're quibbling over minutiae. I think in terms of the lived expressions of our faith, the results will be freedom, mutual respect, and dialogue. To go back to our original disagreement, I still don't think that one needs to abandon a faith in a "special revelation of God" -- or any other belief one might have -- to accomplish this. In fact, as I've argued above, just the opposite.

That being said, what matters most is the outcome of inclusion, or what Miroslav Volf calls "embrace." And, again, you and I obviously agree there. I'm truly glad we've had this little dialogue, Steve. Thanks.

Steve` said...

You are very welcome, Matthew. I hope we continue to see your comments from time to time; you are a great addition to these pages.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Steve and Matthew -- thanks for carrying on this conversation -- good stuff all around. And Matthew, I echo my good friend Steve, I'd love to have you join in the conversation here -- and bring friends with you!!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the golden rule...