More about Harvey Cox’s writings:

The Future of Faith Unabridged By Harvey Cox

Book Description

Legendary Harvard religion scholar Harvey Cox offers up a new interpretation of the history and future of religion.  Cox identifies three fundamental shifts over the last 2,000 years of church history:

The Age of Faith was when the early church was more concerned with following Jesus’ teachings than enforcing what to believe about Jesus.

The Age of Belief marks a significant shift-between the fourth and twentieth centuries-when the church focused on orthodoxy and right beliefs.

The Age of the Spirit, that began in the 1960s and is shaping not just Christianity but other religious traditions today, is ignoring dogma and breaking down barriers between different religions. Spirituality is replacing formal religion.

Reflecting on how his own faith journey mirrors these three historical shifts, Cox personalizes the material in a compelling, practical ways. The Future of Faith is a major statement by one of the most revered theologians today.


Read an excerpt from The Future of Faith (HarperOne, 2009) by Harvey Cox:

It is true that for many people “faith” and “belief” are just two words for the same thing. But they are not the same, and in order to grasp the magnitude of the religious upheaval now under way, it is important to clarify the difference. Faith is about deep-seated confidence. In everyday speech we usually apply it to people we trust or the values we treasure.  It is what theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) called “ultimate concern,” a matter of what the Hebrews spoke of as the “heart.”

Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion. We often use the term in everyday speech to express a degree of uncertainty. “I don’t really know about that,” we say, “but I believe it may be so.” Beliefs can be held lightly or with emotional intensity, but they are more propositional than existential. We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live. Of course people sometimes confuse faith with beliefs, but it will be hard to comprehend the tectonic shift in Christianity today unless we understand the distinction between the two.

The Spanish writer Miguel Unamuno (1964-1936) dramatizes the radical dissimilarity of faith and belief in his short story “Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr,” in which a young man returns from the city to his native village in Spain because his mother is dying. In the presence of the local priest she clutches his hand and asks him to pray for her. The son does not answer, but as they leave the room, he tells the priest that, much as he would like to, he cannot pray for his mother because he does not believe in God. “That’s nonsense,” the priest replies. “You don’t have to believe in God to pray.”

The priest in Unamuno’s story recognized the distinction between faith and belief. He knew that prayer, like faith, is more primordial than belief. He might have engaged the son who wanted to pray but did not believe in God in a theological squabble. He could have hauled out the frayed old “proofs” for the existence of God, whereupon the young man might have quoted the equally jaded arguments against the proofs. Both probably knew that such arguments go nowhere. The French writer Simone Weil (1909-43) also knew. In her Notebooks, she once scribbled a gnomic sentence: “If we love God, even though we think he doesn’t exist, he will make his existence manifest.” Weil’s words sound paradoxical, but in the course of her short and painful life—she died at thirty-four—she learned that love and faith are both more primal than beliefs.

Creeds are clusters of beliefs. But the history of Christianity is not a history of creeds. It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes cobbled together creeds out of beliefs. It is also the history of equally faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded those same creeds. As with church buildings, from clapboard chapels to Gothic cathedrals, creeds are symbols by which Christians have at times sought to represent their faith. But both the doctrinal canons and the architectural constrictions are means to an end. Making either the defining element warps the underlying reality of faith.

Several years ago an acquaintance of mine described himself to me in a casual conversation as “a practicing Christian, not always a believing one.” His remark puzzled me, but it also began to clarify some of the enigmas that had swirled within both my personal faith and my thinking about religion and theology. His remark suggested that the belief/nonbelief axis is a misleading way of describing Christianity. It misses the whole point of not only Christianity, but other religions as well. I have never heard this insight expressed more eloquently than I did one evening in Milan, Italy, where in 1995 Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini had invited me to give a talk at what he called his annual “Lectureship for Nonbelievers.”

I had not known what to expect, but it turned out to be quite a glittering occasion. A large crowd draped in Armani and Prada had assembled in an ornate public hall, and I was already seated when Martini, who stands well over six feet tall, entered in a scarlet cassock and black biretta, the full regalia of a prince of the church. He welcomed the audience and then went on to say that by calling this an event for “nonbelievers” he did not intend to imply anything about the people present. “The line between belief and unbelief,” he said, “runs through the middle of each one of us, including myself, a bishop of the church.”

The Market as God

Living in the new dispensation

A few  years ago a friend advised me that if I wanted to know what was going on in the real world, I should read the business pages. Although my lifelong interest has been in the study of religion, I am always willing to expand my horizons; so I took the advice, vaguely fearful that I would have to cope with a new and baffling vocabulary. Instead I was surprised to discover that most of the concepts I ran across were quite familiar.

Expecting a terra incognita, I found myself instead in the land of déjà vu. The lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of Time and Newsweek turned out to bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and Saint Augustine’s City of God. Behind descriptions of market reforms, monetary policy, and the convolutions of the Dow, I gradually made out the pieces of a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things had gone wrong, and how to put them right. Theologians call these myths of origin, legends of the fall, and doctrines of sin and redemption. But here they were again, and in only thin disguise: chronicles about the creation of wealth, the seductive temptations of statism, captivity to faceless economic cycles, and, ultimately, salvation through the advent of free markets, with a small dose of ascetic belt tightening along the way, especially for the East Asian economies.

The East Asians’ troubles, votaries argue, derive from their heretical deviation from free-market orthodoxy—they were practitioners of “crony capitalism,” of “ethnocapitalism,” of “statist capitalism,” not of the one true faith. The East Asian financial panics, the Russian debt repudiations, the Brazilian economic turmoil, and the U.S. stock market’s $1.5 trillion “correction” momentarily shook belief in the new dispensation. But faith is strengthened by adversity, and the Market God is emerging renewed from its trial by financial “contagion.” Since the argument from design no longer proves its existence, it is fast becoming a postmodern deity—believed in despite the evidence. Alan Greenspan vindicated this tempered faith in testimony before Congress last October. A leading hedge fund had just lost billions of dollars, shaking market confidence and precipitating calls for new federal regulation. Greenspan, usually Delphic in his comments, was decisive. He believed that regulation would only impede these markets, and that they should continue to be self-regulated. True faith, Saint Paul tells us, is the evidence of things unseen.

Soon I began to marvel at just how comprehensive the business theology is. There were even sacraments to convey salvific power to the lost, a calendar of entrepreneurial saints, and what theologians call an “eschatology”—a teaching about the “end of history.” My curiosity was piqued. I began cataloguing these strangely familiar doctrines, and I saw that in fact there lies embedded in the business pages an entire theology, which is comparable in scope if not in profundity to that of Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. It needed only to be systematized for a whole new Summa to take shape.

At the apex of any theological system, of course, is its doctrine of God. In the new theology this celestial pinnacle is occupied by The Market, which I capitalize to signify both the mystery that enshrouds it and the reverence it inspires in business folk. Different faiths have, of course, different views of the divine attributes. In Christianity, God has sometimes been defined as omnipotent (possessing all power), omniscient (having all knowledge), and omnipresent (existing everywhere). Most Christian theologies, it is true, hedge a bit. They teach that these qualities of the divinity are indeed there, but are hidden from human eyes both by human sin and by the transcendence of the divine itself. In “light inaccessible” they are, as the old hymn puts it, “hid from our eyes.” Likewise, although The Market, we are assured, possesses these divine attributes, they are not always completely evident to mortals but must be trusted and affirmed by faith. “Further along,” as another old gospel song says, “we’ll understand why.”

As I tried to follow the arguments and explanations of the economist-theologians who justify The Market’s ways to men, I spotted the same dialectics I have grown fond of in the many years I have pondered the Thomists, the Calvinists, and the various schools of modern religious thought. In particular, the econologians’ rhetoric resembles what is sometimes called “process theology,” a relatively contemporary trend influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. In this school although God wills to possess the classic attributes, He does not yet possess them in full, but is definitely moving in that direction. This conjecture is of immense help to theologians for obvious reasons. It answers the bothersome puzzle of theodicy: why a lot of bad things happen that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God—especially a benevolent one—would not countenance. Process theology also seems to offer considerable comfort to the theologians of The Market. It helps to explain the dislocation, pain, and disorientation that are the result of transitions from economic heterodoxy to free markets.

Since the earliest stages of human history, of course, there have been bazaars, rialtos, and trading posts—all markets. But The Market was never God, because there were other centers of value and meaning, other “gods.” The Market operated within a plethora of other institutions that restrained it. As Karl Polanyi has demonstrated in his classic work The Great Transformation, only in the past two centuries has The Market risen above these demigods and chthonic spirits to become today’s First Cause.

Initially The Market’s rise to Olympic supremacy replicated the gradual ascent of Zeus above all the other divinities of the ancient Greek pantheon, an ascent that was never quite secure. Zeus, it will be recalled, had to keep storming down from Olympus to quell this or that threat to his sovereignty. Recently, however, The Market is becoming more like the Yahweh of the Old Testament—not just one superior deity contending with others but the Supreme Deity, the only true God, whose reign must now be universally accepted and who allows for no rivals.

Divine omnipotence means the capacity to define what is real. It is the power to make something out of nothing and nothing out of something. The willed-but-not-yet-achieved omnipotence of The Market means that there is no conceivable limit to its inexorable ability to convert creation into commodities. But again, this is hardly a new idea, though it has a new twist. In Catholic theology, through what is called “transubstantiation,” ordinary bread and wine become vehicles of the holy. In the mass of The Market a reverse process occurs. Things that have been held sacred transmute into interchangeable items for sale. Land is a good example. For millennia it has held various meanings, many of them numinous. It has been Mother Earth, ancestral resting place, holy mountain, enchanted forest, tribal homeland, aesthetic inspiration, sacred turf, and much more. But when The Market’s Sanctus bell rings and the elements are elevated, all these complex meanings of land melt into one: real estate. At the right price no land is not for sale, and this includes everything from burial grounds to the cove of the local fertility sprite. This radical desacralization dramatically alters the human relationship to land; the same happens with water, air, space, and soon (it is predicted) the heavenly bodies.

At the high moment of the mass the priest says, “This is my body,” meaning the body of Christ and, by extension, the bodies of all the faithful people. Christianity and Judaism both teach that the human body is made “in the image of God.” Now, however, in a dazzling display of reverse transubstantiation, the human body has become the latest sacred vessel to be converted into a commodity. The process began, fittingly enough, with blood. But now, or soon, all bodily organs—kidneys, skin, bone marrow, sperm, the heart itself—will be miraculously changed into purchasable items.

Still, the liturgy of The Market is not proceeding without some opposition from the pews. A considerable battle is shaping up in the United States, for example, over the attempt to merchandise human genes. A few years ago, banding together for the first time in memory, virtually all the religious institutions in the country, from the liberal National Council of Churches to the Catholic bishops to the Christian Coalition, opposed the gene mart, the newest theophany of The Market. But these critics are followers of what are now “old religions,” which, like the goddess cults that were thriving when the worship of the vigorous young Apollo began sweeping ancient Greece, may not have the strength to slow the spread of the new devotion.

Occasionally backsliders try to bite the Invisible Hand that feeds them. On October 26, 1996, the German government ran an ad offering the entire village of Liebenberg, in what used to be East Germany, for sale—with no previous notice to its some 350 residents. Liebenberg’s citizens, many of them elderly or unemployed, stared at the notice in disbelief. They had certainly loathed communism, but when they opted for the market economy that reunification promised, they hardly expected this. Liebenberg includes a thirteenth-century church, a Baroque castle, a lake, a hunting lodge, two restaurants, and 3,000 acres of meadow and forest. Once a favorite site for boar hunting by the old German nobility, it was obviously entirely too valuable a parcel of real estate to overlook. Besides, having been expropriated by the East German Communist government, it was now legally eligible for sale under the terms of German reunification. Overnight Liebenberg became a living parable, providing an invaluable glimpse of the Kingdom in which The Market’s will is indeed done. But the outraged burghers of the town did not feel particularly blessed. They complained loudly, and the sale was finally postponed. Everyone in town realized, however, that it was not really a victory. The Market, like Yahweh, may lose a skirmish, but in a war of attrition it will always win in the end.

Of course, religion in the past has not been reluctant to charge for its services. Prayers, masses, blessings, healings, baptisms, funerals, and amulets have been hawked, and still are. Nor has religion always been sensitive to what the traffic would bear. When, in the early sixteenth century, Johann Tetzel jacked up the price of indulgences and even had one of the first singing commercials composed to push sales (“When the coin into the platter pings, the soul out of purgatory springs”), he failed to realize that he was overreaching. The customers balked, and a young Augustinian monk brought the traffic to a standstill with a placard tacked to a church door.

It would be a lot harder for a Luther to interrupt sales of The Market’s amulets today. As the people of Liebenberg discovered, everything can now be bought. Lakes, meadows, church buildings—everything carries a sticker price. But this practice itself exacts a cost. As everything in what used to be called creation becomes a commodity, human beings begin to look at one another, and at themselves, in a funny way, and they see colored price tags. There was a time when people spoke, at least occasionally, of “inherent worth”—if not of things, then at least of persons. The Liebenberg principle changes all that. One wonders what would become of a modern Luther who tried to post his theses on the church door, only to find that the whole edifice had been bought by an American billionaire who reckoned it might look nicer on his estate.

It is comforting to note that the citizens of Liebenberg, at least, were not put on the block. But that raises a good question. What is the value of a human life in the theology of The Market? Here the new deity pauses, but not for long. The computation may be complex, but it is not impossible. We should not believe, for example, that if a child is born severely handicapped, unable to be “productive,” The Market will decree its death. One must remember that the profits derived from medications, leg braces, and CAT-scan equipment should also be figured into the equation. Such a cost analysis might result in a close call—but the inherent worth of the child’s life, since it cannot be quantified, would be hard to include in the calculation.

It is sometimes said that since everything is for sale under the rule of The Market, nothing is sacred. But this is not quite true. About three years ago a nasty controversy erupted in Great Britain when a railway pension fund that owned the small jeweled casket in which the remains of Saint Thomas à Becket are said to have rested decided to auction it off through Sotheby’s. The casket dates from the twelfth century and is revered as both a sacred relic and a national treasure. The British Museum made an effort to buy it but lacked the funds, so the casket was sold to a Canadian. Only last-minute measures by the British government prevented removal of the casket from the United Kingdom. In principle, however, in the theology of The Market, there is no reason why any relic, coffin, body, or national monument—including the Statue of Liberty and Westminster Abbey—should not be listed. Does anyone doubt that if the True Cross were ever really discovered, it would eventually find its way to Sotheby’s? The Market is not omnipotent—yet. But the process is under way and it is gaining momentum.

Omniscience is a little harder to gauge than omnipotence. Maybe The Market has already achieved it but is unable—temporarily—to apply its gnosis until its Kingdom and Power come in their fullness. Nonetheless, current thinking already assigns to The Market a comprehensive wisdom that in the past only the gods have known. The Market, we are taught, is able to determine what human needs are, what copper and capital should cost, how much barbers and CEOs should be paid, and how much jet planes, running shoes, and hysterectomies should sell for. But how do we know The Market’s will?

In days of old, seers entered a trance state and then informed anxious seekers what kind of mood the gods were in, and whether this was an auspicious time to begin a journey, get married, or start a war. The prophets of Israel repaired to the desert and then returned to announce whether Yahweh was feeling benevolent or wrathful. Today The Market’s fickle will is clarified by daily reports from Wall Street and other sensory organs of finance. Thus we can learn on a day-to-day basis that The Market is “apprehensive,” “relieved,” “nervous,” or even at times “jubilant.” On the basis of this revelation awed adepts make critical decisions about whether to buy or sell. Like one of the devouring gods of old, The Market—aptly embodied in a bull or a bear—must be fed and kept happy under all circumstances. True, at times its appetite may seem excessive—a $35 billion bailout here, a $50 billion one there—but the alternative to assuaging its hunger is too terrible to contemplate.

The diviners and seers of The Market’s moods are the high priests of its mysteries. To act against their admonitions is to risk excommunication and possibly damnation. Today, for example, if any government’s policy vexes The Market, those responsible for the irreverence will be made to suffer. That The Market is not at all displeased by downsizing or a growing income gap, or can be gleeful about the expansion of cigarette sales to Asian young people, should not cause anyone to question its ultimate omniscience. Like Calvin’s inscrutable deity, The Market may work in mysterious ways, “hid from our eyes,” but ultimately it knows best.

Omniscience can sometimes seem a bit intrusive. The traditional God of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is invoked as one “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Like Him, The Market already knows the deepest secrets and darkest desires of our hearts—or at least would like to know them. But one suspects that divine motivation differs in these two cases. Clearly The Market wants this kind of x-ray omniscience because by probing our inmost fears and desires and then dispensing across-the-board solutions, it can further extend its reach. Like the gods of the past, whose priests offered up the fervent prayers and petitions of the people, The Market relies on its own intermediaries: motivational researchers. Trained in the advanced art of psychology, which has long since replaced theology as the true “science of the soul,” the modern heirs of the medieval confessors delve into the hidden fantasies, insecurities, and hopes of the populace.

One sometimes wonders, in this era of Market religion, where the skeptics and freethinkers have gone. What has happened to the Voltaires who once exposed bogus miracles, and the H. L. Menckens who blew shrill whistles on pious humbuggery? Such is the grip of current orthodoxy that to question the omniscience of The Market is to question the inscrutable wisdom of Providence. The metaphysical principle is obvious: If you say it’s the real thing, then it must be the real thing. As the early Christian theologian Tertullian once remarked, “Credo quia absurdum est” (“I believe because it is absurd”).

Finally, there is the divinity’s will to be omnipresent. Virtually every religion teaches this idea in one way or another, and the new religion is no exception. The latest trend in economic theory is the attempt to apply market calculations to areas that once appeared to be exempt, such as dating, family life, marital relations, and child-rearing. Henri Lepage, an enthusiastic advocate of globalization, now speaks about a “total market.” Saint Paul reminded the Athenians that their own poets sang of a God “in whom we live and move and have our being”; so now The Market is not only around us but inside us, informing our senses and our feelings. There seems to be nowhere left to flee from its untiring quest. Like the Hound of Heaven, it pursues us home from the mall and into the nursery and the bedroom.

It used to be thought—mistakenly, as it turns out—that at least the innermost, or “spiritual,” dimension of life was resistant to The Market. It seemed unlikely that the interior castle would ever be listed by Century 21. But as the markets for material goods become increasingly glutted, such previously unmarketable states of grace as serenity and tranquillity are now appearing in the catalogues. Your personal vision quest can take place in unspoiled wildernesses that are pictured as virtually unreachable—except, presumably, by the other people who read the same catalogue. Furthermore, ecstasy and spirituality are now offered in a convenient generic form. Thus The Market makes available the religious benefits that once required prayer and fasting, without the awkwardness of denominational commitment or the tedious ascetic discipline that once limited their accessibility. All can now handily be bought without an unrealistic demand on one’s time, in a weekend workshop at a Caribbean resort with a sensitive psychological consultant replacing the crotchety retreat master.

Discovering the theology of The Market made me begin to think in a different way about the conflict among religions. Violence between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster or Hindus and Muslims in India often dominates the headlines. But I have come to wonder whether the real clash of religions (or even of civilizations) may be going unnoticed. I am beginning to think that for all the religions of the world, however they may differ from one another, the religion of The Market has become the most formidable rival, the more so because it is rarely recognized as a religion. The traditional religions and the religion of the global market, as we have seen, hold radically different views of nature. In Christianity and Judaism, for example, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all that dwell therein.” The Creator appoints human beings as stewards and gardeners but, as it were, retains title to the earth. Other faiths have similar ideas. In the Market religion, however, human beings, more particularly those with money, own anything they buy and—within certain limits—can dispose of anything as they choose. Other contradictions can be seen in ideas about the human body, the nature of human community, and the purpose of life. The older religions encourage archaic attachments to particular places. But in The Market’s eyes all places are interchangeable. The Market prefers a homogenized world culture with as few inconvenient particularities as possible.

Disagreements among the traditional religions become picayune in comparison with the fundamental differences they all have with the religion of The Market. Will this lead to a new jihad or crusade? I doubt it. It seems unlikely that traditional religions will rise to the occasion and challenge the doctrines of the new dispensation. Most of them seem content to become its acolytes or to be absorbed into its pantheon, much as the old Nordic deities, after putting up a game fight, eventually settled for a diminished but secure status as Christian saints. I am usually a keen supporter of ecumenism. But the contradictions between the world views of the traditional religions on the one hand and the world view of the Market religion on the other are so basic that no compromise seems possible, and I am secretly hoping for a rebirth of polemics.

No religion, new or old, is subject to empirical proof, so what we have is a contest between faiths. Much is at stake. The Market, for example, strongly prefers individualism and mobility. Since it needs to shift people to wherever production requires them, it becomes wrathful when people cling to local traditions. These belong to the older dispensations and—like the high places of the Baalim—should be plowed under. But maybe not. Like previous religions, the new one has ingenious ways of incorporating pre-existing ones. Hindu temples, Buddhist festivals, and Catholic saints’ shrines can look forward to new incarnations. Along with native costumes and spicy food, they will be allowed to provide local color and authenticity in what could otherwise turn out to be an extremely bland Beulah Land.

There is, however, one contradiction between the religion of The Market and the traditional religions that seems to be insurmountable. All of the traditional religions teach that human beings are finite creatures and that there are limits to any earthly enterprise. A Japanese Zen master once said to his disciples as he was dying, “I have learned only one thing in life: how much is enough.” He would find no niche in the chapel of The Market, for whom the First Commandment is “There is never enough.” Like the proverbial shark that stops moving, The Market that stops expanding dies. That could happen. If it does, then Nietzsche will have been right after all. He will just have had the wrong God in mind.

Harvey Cox is a professor of divinity at Harvard University.

Over the fifteen years that Harvey Cox taught “Jesus and the Moral Life” to undergraduates at Harvard, the course grew so popular that the lectures had to be given in a theater usually reserved for rock concerts. Cox’s students came from a wide variety of backgrounds (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist) and from all different programs at Harvard. Eventually the classroom included visiting fellows, postdoctoral scientific researchers, midcareer diplomats, city planners, and journalists. The overwhelming response was a clear signal of the hunger for guidance in a confusing world, where moral guidelines seem to shift daily.

In When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today (Houghton Mifflin, publication date: December 3, 2004) Cox translates the method and message of Jesus into today’s idiom. Cox reminds readers that Jesus was a rabbi and a storyteller, and that the most profound lesson we can take from his stories is the value of imagination. Jesus taught and applied Torah, the Jewish law, and in good rabbinical fashion he never delivered an easy answer to a hard question; instead, he told stories, forcing the seekers to come to their own decisions.

“What motivates people are stories,” Cox writes, “narratives, accounts of situations in which choices must be made and stands taken.” Jesus invited others — especially through his parables — to sharpen their moral insight and then to make their own choices. He encouraged people to draw on the imagination to solve moral dilemmas, something Cox believes we need to practice more. “Of course we need reasoning to lead a moral life, but we need — even more — the capacity to intuit what is important and to see a way through what sometimes appears to be an impasse. We need to appreciate not just how other people see things but how they feel about them, and to do this our most potent resource is still the human imagination, awakened by compelling narratives.”

With this in mind, Cox considers the stories in the New Testament, both those Jesus told and those that were told about him, and shows how each can still inform moral choices today. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, the Sermon on the Mount provides rich insights into our yearning for safety, comfort, and wealth. “[Jesus] was asking people, then and now,” Cox writes, “to try to seek an alternative to the kind of security — itself often very shaky — the world of money and accumulation seems to offer.”

And as for those parables he and his students found confusing, Cox suggests that “perplexity and confusion are not always obstacles to learning,” and that perhaps what we need to take from these stories is that “growing up means learning to live with unsatisfying and incomplete endings. The parables remain vivid because they refuse to cater to our craving for tidy completion.”

Teaching a class of hundreds of students of various cultures and beliefs how to make moral choices in today’s world may seem a tall order, and to focus the lively discussions that he knew would fill each class, Cox encouraged his students to consider a special approach to moral reasoning. During heated discussions of modern dilemmas, he would first tell his students to check the facts of a given situation: “What, exactly, is partial birth abortion?” “Who, precisely, is cutting down the trees in the Amazon?”

Next the class had to decide if the argument a student was making was consistent, coherent, and logical. Counter-arguments were considered, as well as possible responses. Then the class would focus on loyalties. “What, I asked them to consider, are your fundamental life commitments — to family, nation, faith, community, ethnic group, gender? How do these loyalties, even if you hold them in varying and changing degrees, influence your thinking about moral questions?” Finally, and perhaps most important, Cox asked students to think about “grand narratives,” or worldviews, formative narratives that all of us carry around and that influence our every decision.

This way of dealing with each issue as it came up sparked a lot of discussion, and required that people tell their own stories and listen to those of others. It proved to be one of the reasons the course became so popular. Another was undoubtedly the professor leading the group. Cox’s distinct voice carries the reader through the book, as it must have during the semesters of “Jesus and the Moral Life.” His style is playful, conversational, and his remarkable talent to stimulate discussion about the life of Jesus even among nonreligious students and readers comes through on every page.

In a chapter on biblical genealogies, he writes that he instructed his students not to read them but to sing them. After considering some of the racy plot lines about Rahab and Tamar found in accounts of Jesus’ ancestry, he adds, “With this kind of scandalous stuff inside the covers of the Good Book, who needs to waste money on true-romance magazines?” Cox is also quite open about his own experiences, and offers some of his own story over the course of the book. He writes of stumbling blocks he faced while teaching the class, and points at which — sparked by something that came up in a class or that he was preparing for his students — his approach to moral reasoning changed.

After he had been teaching the course for a few years, he began to study the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and after some hesitation, Cox found and worked with a spiritual director on these exercises. Ignatius thought that to truly follow Jesus, one should imagine carrying on a conversation with him. Cox writes, “Now, years later, I still carry on imaginary conversations with the rabbi from Nazareth. It has become my principal form of meditation.” This, in turn, led him to talk to students about self-examination, about solving moral dilemmas by joining the questions “Who am I?” with “What must I do?”

When he published his international bestseller, The Secular City, in 1965, Harvey Cox argued that even though the institutional power of religions might well decline, the questions religions have grappled with would remain. Religion, he believed, was changing, but it was certainly not dead. This remains true today, and makes When Jesus Came to Harvard all the more relevant. In his new book, Cox shows how we can extrapolate insights from Jesus’ parables and bridge the gap between the ancient and modern worlds.

About the Author

In 1965, Harvey Cox published The Secular City, which became an international bestseller (nearly a million copies sold) and was translated into fourteen languages. That same year Cox (who had studied with the theologians James Luther Adams and Paul Tillich while earning his Ph.D.) joined the faculty of Harvard University, where he is now Hollis Professor of Divinity and chair of the Committee on Academic Programs. Along with courses he’s taught on his own, Cox has paired up in the classroom with Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School and the late Stephen Jay Gould of the Department of Paleontology.

In addition to When Jesus Came to Harvard and The Secular City, Cox has published several other books, including On Not Leaving It to the Snake, The Feast of Fools, The Seduction of the Spirit (a runner-up for the National Book Award), Many Mansions: A Christian’s Encounter with Other Faiths, Religion in the Secular City, Fire from Heaven, and, most recently, Common Prayers. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, both scholarly and popular, including the Yale Review, the Journal of Oriental Philosophy, Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, the Atlantic Monthly, and the op-ed page of the New York Times.

Before Cox entered academic life, he worked briefly in the merchant marine, on relief ships carrying horses and cattle to Europe. After receiving his doctorate, Cox left immediately for Berlin (then divided by the Wall) and served for a year as an “ecumenical fraternal worker,” traveling almost daily through Checkpoint Charlie in an effort to maintain contact between the two sides of the divided city.

Upon his return he worked actively with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was one of the founders of the Boston chapter of the SCLC. In the fall of 1963 he was arrested for participating in a civil rights demonstration and spent a few days in jail in Williamston and Washington, North Carolina.

These days, Cox plays tenor saxophone with a Boston jazz and swing ensemble called Soft Touch, and in November 1999 he was guest saxophone soloist with Mark Harvey’s jazz orchestra, Aardvark, at the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Cox is married to Professor Nina Tumarkin, who teaches Russian history and is codirector of the Russian Area Studies Program at Wellesley College. He has four children and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A Conversation with Harvey Cox

Why do you think it’s important for students who receive an education grounded in scientific reasoning to take a course in moral reasoning? How did you hope your students would change after taking your course?

Science and technology (and gigantic economic and political institutions) play such a powerful role in all our lives that we really need to be prepared to live with them, and to manage them, with deepened moral awareness. At least students need to be able to recognize a moral issue when one confronts them. I hope the course helped with this.

Did students of different backgrounds interpret moral issues (and how to apply Jesus’ teachings to those issues) in characteristically different ways?

Jewish students tended to put more emphasis on acts, while the Christian students looked more at the inner motivation. Buddhist students tended toward nonviolence in all situations, the Muslims toward the just use of power. The nonreligious students were often surprised by how much of Jesus’ ideas and life they could accept.

Are certain stories of Jesus easier to relate to in the twenty-first century? Did people in previous centuries turn for guidance to different stories than we do today?

I think all the stories of Jesus still retain a sharp relevance, although we do of course read different things into them. The question of how Jesus treated “outsiders” looms with greater importance today.

Over the more than fifteen years that you taught “Jesus and the Moral Life” at Harvard, can you name one change you made to keep the class fresh and relevant?

I started with a focus mainly on the ethical and moral issues, but over the years I noticed that the students had an intense interest in the philosophical and spiritual issues that lurk everywhere, both in the Bible and in life around us. So I included more of those, and the students responded positively.

Was there a particular lecture in the syllabus that seemed to generate the most debate?

Yes. When we discussed Jesus’ warnings against the spiritual danger of wealth and his obvious preference for the poor, this raised serious questions in the students’ minds about their own career plans and goals. The exchanges were always lively, sometimes sharp.

What are some of the challenges you encountered when preparing “Jesus and the Moral Life”? How did the university support you? Now that the course is “retired,” has anything been created to replace it?

The biggest challenge was the unexpectedly large enrollment, which neither the university officials nor I had anticipated. This required moving the lectures to a much larger hall than I had been used to. I also had to find additional section leaders, since the discussion sections played such a key role in the course. Harvard helped me find them and provided good training opportunities for them. Unfortunately, no course quite like mine has been introduced, and now the whole “core curriculum” idea is being reexamined and may be eliminated.

Can you describe how the course was organized? Were topics presented in a special order?

The trajectory was quite simple. We followed the life of Jesus as it is told in the Gospels, from the Nativity stories to the Easter accounts. Along the way, we turned to whatever moral and/or philosophical/religious issues these stories raised, especially the ones the students themselves were facing. I used this approach because even relatively uninformed students were familiar with the general outline of Jesus’ life, and I also believe the Gospel writers had good reasons for presenting the narrative in this order.

You write that as our communities become less homogeneous, it seems to become more difficult to find common moral ground. How can Jesus, who is so firmly linked to only the Christian tradition, be an accessible moral example to people of other faiths?

Actually, Jesus is linked to more than one tradition, though in different ways. Nowadays some Jews see him as in the line of the prophets and rabbis. (Notice that some of the blurbs on the book’s jacket and in the publicity materials were written by rabbis.) Muslims also see Jesus as one of the prophets, with several prominent mentions in the Qu’ran and the Hadith. Buddhists respect him as a bodhisattva, and he is an important figure in popular Hindu devotion. What is perhaps most important about the course and this book is that the students address precisely the question of the moral relevance of Jesus in a religiously pluralistic society.

How do you personally deal with moral relativism?

I start by admitting that my own perspective is necessarily relative, but that the moral basis of life, which we all grasp from our own perspectives, is ultimately not relative. But the fact that we live with different perspectives today necessitates a continuing and intense dialogue about the choices we face.

Who are some of the theologians you turned to for inspiration and guidance when creating the course?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Thich Nhat Hanh.

Which parable or story about the life of Jesus means the most to you?

The Good Samaritan. It’s not a morality tale but the unlikely casting of an improbable character as “the one who showed mercy.” But I also like the King’s Banquet, when none of the invitees show up, so unsuspecting passersby are pulled in. That’s life!

Praise for When Jesus Came to Harvard:

“Sparkling prose . . . Ever since his groundbreaking study of religion and society (The Secular City) more than forty years ago, Cox has devoted his work to a fascinating array of topics: Pentecostalism, interreligious dialogue, liberation theology, and Eastern religions. Now, after more than twenty years of teaching a course on Jesus and the moral life to Harvard undergraduates, he shares his experiences.” — Publishers Weekly

“For the last four decades, Harvey Cox has been the leading trend spotter in American religion. Here he weighs in on the contemporary Jesus boom with his usual sagacity and wit, finding America’s latest and greatest obsession alive and well among Christians and Buddhists, believers and unbelievers, and even in the secular citadel of Harvard. A timely rebuke to those who would do with Jesus whatever they will.” — Stephen Prothero, chair, Department of Religion, Boston University, and author of American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon

“From an exciting amalgam of his students’ inquiries and his own imaginative interpretation of Scripture, Harvey Cox has woven a wondrous, contemporary understanding of Christianity. Here Jesus, the rabbi-storyteller, and Jesus, Cox’s mentor and friend, complement one another in a way that will stimulate thought in people across the spectrum of doubt and faith. Harvey Cox continues to be a fine teacher to us all.” — Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue

“Among the many virtues of this book is its theological exploration of the ‘Armageddon syndrome,’ the all too prevalent insistence that the world must be brought to an end in order to be properly purified. Cox contrasts the violence of Armageddonists with Jesus’ gentle but powerful ‘good news.’ In so doing, he makes a valuable critique from within of the kinds of religious totalism — and secular forms too — that so endanger our world.” — Robert Jay Lifton, author of Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World

Harvey Cox’s knowledge of the Bible is matched by a daring moral imagination rarely found in most Bible readers. For years he reintroduced to thousands of his students facing twenty-first-century moral dilemmas a first-century rabbi named Jesus. The students, believers and nonbelievers alike, found that Jesus didn’t give easy answers but posed hard questions. Their story has now become this remarkable book, so beautifully written that I read it with the same pleasure and profit I’m sure will be shared by a host of thoughtful readers of all religious and nonreligious persuasions. Heartfelt thanks, Professor Cox.” — Reverend William Sloane Coffin ”

A timely word from Harvey Cox is always welcome, and this book, drawn from his extraordinarily popular course at Harvard, speaks to needs and opportunities far beyond Harvard Yard. I don’t know which is more compelling, the bright students or their wise teacher, but both give us much-needed insight into a world where life is still difficult and Jesus still counts.” — Peter Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University

“As one who enjoys rabbinic Midrash, I appreciated Professor Cox’s Midrashic interpretations of the teachings of the rabbi from Nazareth.” — Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People