The Secular City 25 Years Later


by Harvey Cox

Dr. Cox is Victor S. Thomas professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of such books as The Secular City, The Feast of Fools, The Seduction of the Spirit and Turning East. Cox wrote this essay for Macmillan’s republication of The Secular City. This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 7, 1990, pps. 1025-1029. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

I wrote The Secular City after having lived for a year in Berlin, where I taught in a church sponsored adult education program with branches on both sides of the barbed wire. The wall was constructed a few months before I arrived, so I had to commute back and forth through Checkpoint Charlie, whose familiar wooden shack and warning sign— “You are leaving the American sector”—have now been placed in a museum. Berlin had been the home of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many of his friends and co-workers were still there. So we talked a lot about Bonhoeffer that year, especially about the musings he set down during the last months of his life about the hiddenness of God and the coming of a “postreligious” age in human history. In the tense and tired Berlin of the early 1960s that made a lot of sense.

In retrospect, of course, it is easy to see that human religiosity is a much more persistent quality than Bonhoeffer thought it was. Nearly everywhere we look in the world today we witness an unanticipated resurgence of traditional religion. The renaissance of Islamic culture and politics, the rebirth of Shinto in Japan, the appearance of powerful Jewish, Hindu and Christian “fundamentalisms” in Israel, India and the U.S.—all these have raised important questions about the allegedly ineluctable process of secularization. But where does that leave us?

If anything, I believe these developments make the central thesis of The Secular City even more credible. I argued then that secularization—if it is not permitted to calcify into an ideology (which I called “secular- ism“)—is not everywhere and always an evil. It prevents powerful religions from acting on their theocratic pretensions. It allows people to choose among a wider range of worldviews. Today, in parallel fashion, it seems obvious that the resurgence of religion in the world is not everywhere and always a good thing. Do the long-suffering people of Iran believe that after the removal of their ruthless shah, the installation of a quasi-theocratic Islamic republic has turned out to be a wholly positive move? Do those Israelis and Palestinians who yearn for a peaceful settlement of the West Bank bloodletting believe that either the Jewish or the Muslim religious parties are helping? How do the citizens of Beirut and Belfast feel about the continuing vitality of religion?

The truth is that both religious revival and secularization are morally ambiguous processes. Both heal and destroy. We still desperately need a way of welcoming diversity that does not deteriorate into nihilism, and a sober recognition that neither religious nor secular movements are good or bad as such. Both can become either the bearers of emancipation or the avatars of misery, or some of each. Wouldn’t a modest sprinkling of secularization, a de-religionizing of the issues, come as a welcome relief in Ulster, and help resolve the murderous tensions in Kashmir and the Gaza strip?

I can understand the people who are encouraged by the worldwide revival of religion today. The victims of atheistic and antireligious regimes are just as dead as those of clericalist terror. But the people who welcome the re-emergence of the rites and values that give people a sense of dignity and continuity—a bar mitzvah in Warsaw, churches reopening in Smolensk, thousands of American college students thoughtfully exploring comparative religion—sometimes forget that a revival of religion is never an unmixed blessing. The same somber icons of St. Michael and Our Lady that sustained Russian believers through the winter of Stalinism and its aftermath also provide the anti-Semites of Pamyat with their most potent symbols. How do we weigh the promising new interest in Judaism among so many young people in America against the fumings of Rabbi Meyer Kahane? Shinto is another case in point. The spirit of respect for the past and reverence for the land that enables the Japanese to adopt modern technologies without destroying their environment also feeds an ominous sense of special destiny and a revived emperor cult that democratically inclined Japanese are watching with extreme misgivings.

The thesis of The Secular City was that God is first the Lord of history and only then the Head of the Church. This means that God can be just as present in the secular as in the religious realms of life, and we unduly cramp the divine presence by confining it to some specially delineated spiritual or ecclesial sector. This idea has two implications. First, it suggests that people of faith need not flee from the allegedly godless contemporary world. God came into this world, and that is where we belong as well. But second, it also means that not all that is “spiritual” is good for the spirit. These ideas were not particularly new. Indeed, the presence of the holy within the profane is suggested by the doctrine of the incarnation—not a recent innovation. As for suspicion toward religion, both Jesus and the Hebrew prophets lashed out at much of the religion they saw around them. But some simple truths need restating time and again. And today is surely no exception.

In rereading The Secular City after a quarter of a century I smiled occasionally at its audacity, the way a father might chuckle at the shenanigans of a rambunctious child. Its argument is nothing if not sweeping. By page 12 of the introduction the reader has been wafted through a dizzying tour of nothing less than the whole of human history, from tribe to technopolis, from Sophocles to Lewis Mumford, from the Stone Age to Max Weber. And all of this before chapter one. Then comes a theological portrait of the “coming” of the secular city in which Barth and Tillich and Camus and John F. Kennedy jostle each other in what might have seemed to all of them a somewhat unfamiliar proximity. The next part of the book is devoted to what I called “revolutionary theology,” a phrase that, at least in those days, struck people as a world-class oxymoron. It is followed by an attack on Playboy magazine, which I called “antisexual,” that drew me into a furious (at first) and later tedious debate with that magazine’s publisher. A lot of territory to cover in a 244-page book.

The final section is a polemic against the so-called “death of God” theologians who were au courant at the time. I portrayed them, correctly I think, as remaining obsessed—albeit negatively—with the classical god of metaphysical theism, while I was talking about Someone Else, the mysterious and elusive Other of the prophets and Jesus, who—like Jacques Brel—was very much alive although living in unexpected quarters. I have never been able to understand why, after having unleashed this guerre de plume against the death-of-godders, some critics persisted in including me among them.

In any case, the death-of-god theology had an unusually short half-life, whereas the issue I tried in my youthful enthusiasm to tackle—the significance of the ongoing battle between religion and secularization—rightly continues to stoke debate and analysis. To illustrate the dilemma from my own Christian tradition, how many Mother Teresas and Oscar Romeros does it take to balance a Jim and Tammy Bakker? And how do we measure Pope John II’s courageous vision of a “Europe without borders” against his worldwide crusade against contraception? So much good and so much mischief is done—as it always has been—in the name of God. Perhaps the suggestion I made at the end of The Secular City, which sounded radical to some readers then, is still a good one: we should learn something from the ancient Jewish tradition of not pronouncing the name of the Holy One, live through a period of reverent reticence in religious language, and wait for the spirit to make known a new vocabulary that is not so tarnished by trivialization and misuse.

I actually said a little more than that, and the final paragraph of the book may be worth recalling because it prepared the way for the theological movement that was to pick up where The Secular City left off. On that last page I speculated on the significance of the puzzling fact that, according to the book of Exodus, when Moses asked for the name of the One who told him to lead the Israelite slaves from their Egyptian captivity, the Voice from the burning bush refused to give it. Moses was to get about the business of liberating his people. “Tell them ‘I will do what I will do’ has sent you,” the Voice said. That, apparently, was enough. The name would come in God’s good time. Reflecting in 1965 on this astonishing episode, I wrote:

The Exodus marked for the Jews a turning point of such elemental power that a new divine name was needed to replace the titles that had grown out of their previous experience. Our transition today … will be no less shaking. Rather than clinging stubbornly to antiquated appellations or anxiously synthesizing new ones, perhaps, like Moses, we must simply take up the work of liberating the captives, confident that we will be granted a new name by events of the future.

Although I was only dimly aware of it at the time, in this paragraph I was actually proposing an agenda for the next stage of theology, one which was taken up with a brilliance and daring far beyond my hopes, first by Latin American theologians and then by others throughout the world. For between these concluding lines, which crystallized the thrust of the entire book, can be detected what were to become the two basic premises of liberation theology.

The first premise is that for us, as for Moses, an act of engagement for justice in the world, not a pause for theological reflection, should be the first “moment” of an appropriate response to God. First hear the Voice, then get to work freeing the captives. The “name” will come later. Theology is important, but it comes after, not before, the commitment to doing, to what some still call “discipleship.” This inverts the established Western assumption that right action must derive from previously clarified ideas. Liberation theology’s insistence that thought—including theological thought—is imbedded in the grittiness of real life is one of its most salutary contributions.

The second premise of liberation theology is that “accompanying” the poor and the captives in their pilgrimage is not only an ethical responsibility, but that it provides the most promising context for theological reflection. Not just “history” in general, but the effort of excluded and marginalized people to claim God’s promise is the preferred “locus theologicus.” As the Catholic bishops of Latin America put it in their influential statement of 1968, one must think theologically from the perspective of a “preferential option for the poor.” It is not hard to see now, although I was scarcely able to see it then, that the next logical step after The Secular City was liberation theology. But the link between the two was neither simple nor direct.

At first I was puzzled at how much attention the Spanish translation of my book, La Ciudad Secular, received from Latin American theologians. They criticized it vociferously, but they also built on it. They invited me to Peru and Mexico and Brazil to debate it. But as I listened to their criticisms I became convinced that they understood it better than anyone else, maybe even better than I did myself. Still, they made use of it in a way I had not anticipated. Gustavo Gutiérrez, whose controversial book The Theology of Liberation appeared a few years after mine, clarifies the connection best. In the economically developed capitalist countries, he explains, secularization tends to take a cultural form. It challenges the hegemony of traditional religious world views, calls human beings to assume their rightful role in shaping history, and opens the door to a pluralism of symbolic universes. In the poor countries, however, secularization assumes quite a different expression. It challenges the misuse of religion by ruling elites to sacralize their privileges, and it enlists the powerful symbols of faith into the conflict with despotism. In the Third World, as Gutiérrez puts it in one of his best-known formulations, the theologian’s conversation partner is not “the nonbeliever” but rather “the nonperson.” This means that among the tarpaper shantytowns of Lima and São Paulo the interlocutor of theology is not some skeptical “modern man” who thinks religion stifles thought; rather, it is the faceless people whose lives as well as faith are threatened because tyrannies grounded in some religious or nonreligious mythology strangle them into an early death. The distinction Gutiérrez makes shows that he is applying the same praxis-oriented approach to theology I advocated in a different religious and political environment. Liberation theology is the legitimate, though unanticipated, heir of The Secular City.

Heirs, of course, go their own way, and there is one part in my book that I wish had played a larger role in the subsequent development of Third World liberation theologies. In one section I argued that in the Soviet-dominated countries of Eastern Europe it was not religion but communism that needed “secularizing.” Here I wrote from direct observation. I had personally seen the bizarre attempts of communist regimes to set up ersatz confirmation, wedding and burial services. I had noticed that in Poland, smothered under an imposed Sovietized culture, it was the Catholic intellectuals who were the most outspoken advocates of “cultural pluralism.” I can still remember the young Czech pastor who told me in 1964, four years before the Prague Spring, that he opposed communism “not because it is rationalist but because it is not rational enough … too metaphysical.” By entering into an honest dialogue with the Marxists who ran their countries at the time, Christians, he said, were trying to force the communists “to be what they said they were, socialist and scientific, and to get them to stop trying to create a new holy orthodoxy.”

It was these courageous Christians, I believe, who eventually saw the fruit of their patience blossom in 1989. Unlike some other believers, they refused either to flee to the West or to knuckle under to the regimes or to retreat into “inner immigration.” They opted to stay, to participate, to criticize, and to be ready when dialogue became possible. They were also practicing a form of liberation theology, staying in a difficult situation and accompanying an oppressed people in the long quest for freedom. When an interviewer asked the pastor of one of the churches in Leipzig that had provided the space, the inspiration and the preparation for the East German revolution of November 1989 what the theological basis for his contribution was, he answered that it was “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Latin American liberation theology.”

There is much continuity. But there are also many important contemporary theological currents for which I can find little foreshadowing in The Secular City. For starters, in reading the book again in 1990 1 winced every time I saw the word “man” blatantly wielded to refer to any body and everybody. The first page of the introduction: “The world has become man’s task and man’s responsibility. Contemporary man has become the cosmopolitan.” And so on. I would feel better if I could claim that it was, after all, only a matter of blunderbuss pronouns, that today my language would be gender inclusive. But I know it cuts deeper than that. The truth is that The Secular City was written without the benefit of the two decades of feminist theological scholarship that was to begin shortly after it was published. What difference would it have made?

A lot. In fact, knowing what I know now, I would have had to recast virtually every chapter. How could I rely so heavily on the themes of disenchantment and desacralization, as I did in the opening section, without coping with the obvious fact that these historical processes—which I saw in a positive light—suggest a certain patriarchal domination of the natural world with which women have been so closely identified in Hebrew and Christian religious symbolization? More basically, I have learned since 1965, often from my own students, that we can no longer read the Bible without recognizing that it comes to us already severely tampered with, expurgated, and perhaps even edited with an eye to perpetuating the authority of men. I have learned that many of the classical sources I was taught to rely on so heavily, from Augustine to Tillich, sound very different when they are read with women’s questions in mind. And my last chapter, “To Speak in a Secular Fashion of God,” would have had to take into consideration that employing exclusively male language for the deity has contributed to the marginalization of half the people of the world.

But even on the issues later raised by feminist theologians, The Secular City contains some hints and anticipations. The chapter that, to my amazement, became the most widely discussed and quoted is titled “Sex and Secularization.” It contains the aforementioned onslaught against Playboy which exposes the pseudo-sex of the airbrushed centerfold, the ideal woman pimply adolescent boys prefer because she makes no demands whatever. They can safely fold her up whenever they want to, which is not possible with the genuine article. It also lampoons the Miss America festival as a repristination of the old fertility goddess cults, reworked in the interests of male fantasies and commodity marketing. Was I at least a proto-feminist? Not on a par with current feminist cultural criticism, but not too bad for 25 years ago, and for a man.

There is another important theological current that at first seems strangely missing from The Secular City but whose absence, in retrospect, one can understand if not forgive. The American city is the principal locus of African-American theology. It was not until a few years after the publication of my book, however, that black theologians began making that fact evident to the wider theological community. It is all the more surprising that I overlooked African-American religion in 1965 since I was personally caught up in the civil rights movement. I had first met Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1956, during the summer of the Montgomery bus boycott. At the time I was chaplain at Oberlin College in Ohio and I invited him to come speak. He flew in a few months later and we started a friendship that was to last until his death in 1968. As a member of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference I marched and demonstrated in both the North and the South. I responded to the call to come to Selma, was arrested and jailed briefly in Williamstown, North Carolina, and took some of the responsibility in organizing the SCLC’s effort to desegregate St. Augustine, Florida. All through these years my family and I lived in Roxbury, the predominantly African-American section of Boston.

Still, it was only later, with the advent of the Black Power movement and the coming of black theology, that I began to take seriously what the modern American city meant to African-Americans. Again, if I had thought about this very carefully at the time I could have foreseen some of the reservations black theologians voiced about The Secular City. Its controlling metaphors of “the man at the giant switchboard” and “the man in the cloverleaf,” which were meant to symbolize the communication grid and the mobility network of the modern metropolis, seemed implausible to people who had been denied both mobility and communication, and for whom the city was often not a place of expanded freedom but the site of more sophisticated humiliations. It became clear to me only as the years passed that The Secular City reflects the perspective of a relatively privileged urbanite. The city, secular or otherwise, feels quite different to those for whom its promise turns out to be a cruel deception.

In the years that have passed since The Secular City was published much has happened to the cities of the world, including American cities, and most of it has not been good. Instead of contributing to the liberative process, many cities have become sprawling concentrations of human misery, wracked with racial, religious and class animosity. The names Beirut, Calcutta, South Bronx and Belfast conjure images of violence, neglect and death. Ironically, the cities of the world have often become the victims of their own self-promotion and the failure of the rural environs to sustain life. Millions of people, both hopeful and desperate, stream into them to escape the unbearable existence they must endure in the devastated countryside, but what do they find?

If Mexico City spells the future of the city, then the future looks grim. Lewis Mumford, who began his life as a celebrant of the possibility of truly urbane life, became disillusioned before his death in 1990. He once wrote that when the city becomes the whole world the city no longer exists. That prediction now seems increasingly possible. By the year 2000 Mexico City will have nearly 32 million residents, of whom 15 million will eke out a marginal existence in its smoggy slums. Calcutta, Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta, Manila and Lima will not be far behind, all with populations between 10 and 20 million, with half the people in each city locked into ghettos of poverty. Indeed, in some African cities such as Addis Ababa and Ibadan, somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of the population will live in shantytown squalor.

In the cities of the U.S. we have not fared much better. Real estate values gyrate, making millions for a select few, while homeless people, now including increased numbers of women with children, crowd into church basements and temporary shelters. The already marvelous cultural mix of our cities, spiced by the recent arrival of increasing numbers of Asians and Latin Americans, could enable us to prove to the world that ethnic diversity is a plus. Instead, in some cities at least, we hover on the edge of a technicolor war of all against all: white against black against yellow against brown. And the whole picture is worsened by the diminution of the middle class and the increasing chasm between those with too much and those with too little. One is sometimes tempted simply to give up on the city.

We should not. One of my main purposes in writing The Secular City was to challenge the antiurban bias that infects American religion (at least white church life). How many times did I hear, as a child, that “God made the country, but man made the city”? This is a gravely deficient doctrine of God. We need a spirituality that can discern the presence of God not just “In the Garden” as the old Protestant hymn puts it, but also, as a better hymn says, “Where cross the crowded ways of life, / Where sound the cries of race and clan. . .”

The Bible portrays a God who is present in the jagged reality of conflict and dislocation, calling the faithful into the crowded ways, not away from them. Nothing is further removed from this biblical God than the inward-oriented serenity cults and get-rich-now salvation schemes that inundate the airwaves and pollute the religious atmosphere. Here Bonhoeffer had it exactly right. From behind bars he wrote that we are summoned as human beings to “share the suffering of God in the world.” If the divine mystery is present in a special way among the poorest and most misused of his or her children, as the biblical images and stories—from the slaves in Egypt to the official lynching of Jesus—constantly remind us, then allegedly religious people who insulate themselves from the city are putting themselves at considerable risk. By removing ourselves from the despised and the outcast we are at the same time insulating ourselves from God, and it is in the cities that these, “the least of them,” are to be found.

I have no intention of rewriting The Secular City with benefit of nearly three decades of hindsight. I cannot. Even if I could, it would be pointless. After it was published I experienced what literary critics often point out, that any work of art—a poem, a painting, even a book of theology—quickly escapes its creator’s hand and takes on a life of its own. Within a few months of its modest first printing (10,000 copies), and even though it was scarcely noticed by reviewers, the book began to sell so briskly the publisher moved to multiple reprintings. Soon it appeared on the bestseller lists—unheard of at the time for a book on theology. Sales moved into hundreds of thousands. The publisher was astonished, as was 1.

I cannot pretend not to have enjoyed those initial years of unsought notoriety. I was attacked, feted, commended, analyzed, refuted. A publishing house that had brusquely refused the manuscript when I first submitted it thoughtfully telephoned to ask if I was planning to write a sequel. The book seems to have become a special favorite with Roman Catholics, perhaps since it came out just as the Second Vatican Council was ending, and they were eager to test the new atmosphere of free inquiry. Even Pope Paul VI read it and, in an audience I had with him later, told me that although he did not agree with what I wrote, he had read it “with great interest.” Professors began requiring it in classes. Church study groups took it up. Within a couple of years the book’s sales, in all editions and translations, were approaching a million.

What did I learn from all this? For one thing, that most theologians and most publishers had severely underestimated the number of people who were willing to spend good money on serious books about religion. The Secular City may well have marked the end of the unchallenged reign of clerical and academic elitism in theology. Laypeople were obviously ready to get into the discussion. In fact, they were demanding to be part of it and were unwilling to allow theologians to continue to write books just for each other. Whatever one may think about the ideas in The Secular City, they are neither simple nor obvious. The book cannot be read with the television on. I do not take credit for having called forth the vociferous and critical laity we now seem to have in every church, and perhaps especially the Catholic Church, who make so much marvelous trouble for ecclesiastical leaders. But I like to think that The Secular City helped create the climate that forced church leaders and theologians to come down from their balconies and out of their studies and talk seriously with the ordinary people who constitute 99 percent of the churches of the world.

0f course, there are things I would do differently today, not only in how I would write The Secular City, but in virtually every other area of my life. “We get too soon old,” as the Pennsylvania Dutch aphorism puts it, “and too late smart.” Knowing what I do now about the Jewish religious tradition, I would not counterpose law and gospel as captivity to the past versus openness to the future, as Rudolf Bultmann and a whole tradition of German theologians taught me to do. The law too, I have come to see, is a gift of grace. I would also try not to base my theological reading of current world history so narrowly in my own Christian tradition, but would try to draw on the insights of other traditions, as we must all increasingly do at a time when the world religions elbow each other in unprecedented closeness. After all, Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus had already created cosmopolitan world cities when Western Christendom still consisted of backwater villages. We may have something to learn from them about transforming our urban battlefields into communities that nurture life instead of throttling it. We need all the help we can get if Mumford’s dystopian nightmare—a planet transformed into a vast urban non-city—is to be avoided.

Was The Secular City a harbinger of postmodernism, as one writer recently suggested? The word itself did not exist then, and I am not sure I know what it means today. But if it suggests a willingness to live with a certain pragmatism and provisionality, a suspicion of all-encompassing schemes, a readiness to risk a little more disorder instead of a little too much Ordnung, then I think the book qualifies. Nearly ten years after The Secular City Jonathan Raban published a book titled Soft City: The Art of Cosmopolitan Living. It is sometimes cited as the first clearly postmodernist text. If it is, it may be significant that when I read it, a few years after its publication, I immediately felt I had found a compatriot. Raban says:

. . . the city and the book are opposed forms: to force the city’s spread, contingency, and aimless motion into the tight progression of a narrative is to risk a total falsehood. There is no single point of view from which we can grasp the city as a whole. That indeed is the distinction between the city and the small town…. A good working definition of metropolitan life would center on its intrinsic illegibility.

This “illegibility” is part of what I was getting at. It is one of the principal features of the new secular world-city we are called to live in today, bereft of the inclusive images and all-embracing world-pictures that sustained our ancestors, We will always need those orienting and value-sustaining symbols. But today we must learn to appreciate them in a new way because we know in our bones that no one of them, and not even all of them together, can provide a point of view by which the totality can be grasped. In short, living in the city should be the school of living in the postmodern, “illegible” world. It should be a continuous lesson in “citizenship,” in how to live in the world-city. But we still have not learned. As Raban says,

We live in cities badly; we have built them up in culpable innocence and now fret helplessly in a synthetic wilderness of our own construction. We need … to make a serious, imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and the city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and its freedom.

It’s true: “we live in cities badly.” But we must learn to live in cities or we will not survive. We are missing our big chance, an opportunity that God or destiny has provided us and which, if we muff it, may never come up again.

Tucked away on page 177 of The Secular City comes a little-noticed paragraph that perhaps I should have used as an epigraph for this essay, or maybe it should be put in italics. Secularization, I wrote, “is not the Messiah. But neither is it anti-Christ. It is rather a dangerous liberation.” It “raises the stakes,” vastly increasing the range both of human freedom and of human responsibility. It poses risks “of a larger order than those it displaces. But the promise exceeds the peril, or at least makes it worth taking the risk.”

All I could add today is that we really have no choice about whether we take the risk. We already live in the world-city and there is no return. God has placed us in this urban exile, and is teaching us a more mature faith, for it is a quality of unfaith to have to flee from complexity and disruption, or to scurry around trying to relate every segment of experience to some comforting inclusive whole, as though the universe might implode unless we hold it together with our own conceptualizations. God is teaching us to approach life in the illegible city without feeling the need for a Big Key.

This does not mean we have to become nihilists. Far from it. Several years ago a friend told me he thought the implicit concept underlying The Secular City is the good old Calvinist doctrine of providence. At first I balked, but I have come to believe he is right. We live today without the maps or timetables in which our ancestors invested such confidence. To live well instead of badly we need a certain strange confidence that, despite our fragmented and discontinuous experience, somehow it all eventually makes sense. But we don’t need to know the how. There is Someone Else, even in The Secular City, who sees to that.


BOB ABERNETHY, host: Now, a profile of writer, liberal activist, and Harvard University theologian Harvey Cox on the occasion of his remarkable retirement ceremony after 44 years of scholarship and teaching. The celebration had everything—good weather, old friends, short speeches, laughter, and music, all starring the honoree.

That’s Cox, the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity, on the tenor sax with his big swing band the Soft Touch. The chair Cox has held was endowed in colonial times, when some professors got to graze cows in Harvard Yard.

REV. PETER GOMES (Minister in the Memorial Church, Harvard University): Pasturing cows in those days was equivalent to parking privileges today.

ABERNETHY: For this occasion, Cox borrowed a cow whose name turned out to be Pride. Cox pretended that he had been worried that a cow so named might be inappropriate for an event at the divinity school, but then another professor reassured him.

PROFESSOR HARVEY COX: He said, “Harvey, at Harvard we do not consider pride to be a sin.”

ABERNETHY: There was a tuba ensemble, a speech in Latin, and many tributes to Cox’s lifetime of combining the study and teaching of religion with a commitment to liberal activism—and, of course, the more or less contented cow and signed copies of Cox’s latest book, The Future of Faith. We talked with Cox about what he sees as religion’s surprising strength.

COX: The resurgence of religion around the world and the various religious traditions, which is unexpected, global—there were people who were predicting the marginalization and even disappearance of religion in my early years as a teacher. That disappearance, that marginalization did not happen. It’s a basic change in the nature of our civilization. It will continue.

ABERNETHY: Except for fundamentalisms, Cox says, in all religions.

COX: Fundamentalisms—I use the word in the plural. I do not think that they’re going to last out much longer.

ABERNETHY: For Cox, that includes the religious right.

COX: The last couple of elections have exposed the religious right as really kind of being in part a paper tiger. They just didn’t produce the votes. I think they are in considerable disarray and, frankly, I’m not mourning over that.

ABERNETHY: Meanwhile, especially in Christianity, Cox sees a shift away from beliefs and hierarchies to an emphasis on individual faith.

COX: I call it an age of the spirit, the yearning for some kind of personal experience, even the yearning for some kind of, let’s call it, an ecstatic encounter with God or with the divine.

ABERNETHY: Cox sees this most clearly in Pentecostalism, which he calls the fastest growing branch of Christianity. He also says Pentecostalism is now balancing its well-known exuberance with more and more social service.

COX: This combination of social ministry and experiential worship is a dynamite combination.

ABERNETHY: Within Protestantism, Cox takes some of the blame for the decline of many of the old mainline churches.

COX: The clergy, and I take some responsibility for this, having been involved in it for over 40 years, was trained in Christian thought, Christian philosophy, Christian theology and not enough in how to nurture the experience of God, the experience of the spirit and encounter with Christ.

ABERNETHY: As Cox looks at the US, he sees a huge social problem.

COX: A rampant culture of market-consumer values really has a grip on many people in America. Everybody seems to be driven by, especially, the lure of advertising, which says you ought to have this, you really need this, you owe it to yourself to have this and that. I think the role of religion at this point is to make very clear that this structure of values, of consumer values, is not coherent with Christianity, with the gospel, with the life and example of Jesus. That’s not what he was talking about.

ABERNETHY: Cox condemns the so-called prosperity gospel, preaching that says if people are faithful God will make them rich.

COX: Can you imagine that kind of sermon coming from the mouth of Jesus himself? No. I mean, it’s a rank contradiction. It’s really, let’s call it by its name—it’s a heresy.

ABERNETHY: Cox has been a popular teacher. One year a thousand students signed up for one of his courses. It is the students now who give him a lot of hope.

COX: The change that I’ve seen is the enormous growth in the hunger and interest in religion and spirituality among students at this university. It’s phenomenal. When I first came here we didn’t even have a religious studies program at Harvard College. I notice increasingly among my students, both undergraduates and students in the divinity school, a deep suspicion of this life of accumulating, consuming, to the soul, the dangers to the soul of consumerist values. Let me tell you that the urge to graduate from college, like this one, and immediately go down to a Wall Street investment firm is greatly shrunken this year from what it was last year.

ABERNETHY: At his retirement ceremony, Cox’s wife Nina was beside him. She, too, is a scholar and professor. She is also Jewish. Cox is an American Baptist. They have a college-age son.

COX: We did not want our marriage to be one of these religion-free zones.

ABERNETHY: So out of respect for Jewish law and custom when the mother is Jewish, their son was raised Jewish. Cox became his Judaism teacher.

COX: We have successfully shared in each other’s spiritual traditions, and it can be done, and it’s also very enriching. I really believe that I understand Christianity better having participated in Jewish life—and remember, Jesus was a rabbi—than I would have if I hadn’t done that.

ABERNETHY: Cox also told a bookstore audience this week about religions borrowing from each other.

COX: I’ve been to three or four synagogues recently where they have quite obviously introduced forms of Buddhist meditation within the synagogue service. When we have the opening chant here let’s hold it for a very long time, the way you might hold “Om”—but they say “Shalom.”

ABERNETHY: As Cox studies the variety of religions in the world, he says he has made a big adjustment.

COX: I have learned how to think about Christianity as one of the possible religious and symbolic ways to approach reality, among others. The plurality of religions in the world is a check on any one of them, including ours, not to get too pretentious and think that we have the whole truth. One of the most dangerous things in any religion is to identify my understanding of the truth, my take on it, with the truth itself. The truth itself is something out there, it’s absolute, but my take on it is relative. God is larger than this. God is much larger than any particular understanding of God.

Harvey Cox Extended Interview

Read more of Bob Abernethy’s September 15, 2009 interview in Cambridge, Massachusetts with theologian Harvey Cox:

Q: Let me begin by inviting you to sum up, if you would, the central idea of The Future of Faith.

A: Let’s say it’s a tripartite thesis in this book. One is that the resurgence of religion around the world and the various religious traditions, which is unexpected, global—there were people who were predicting the marginalization and even disappearance of religion in my early years as a teacher. That disappearance, marginalization, didn’t happen, and in various religious traditions, almost all of them, there’s been a resurgence for complicated reasons. I do not think that is a mere transient phenomenon.  I think it’s a basic change in the nature of our civilization, that it will continue, and so, therefore, programs like this one probably have a future. You deal with religion and ethics. The second part of the thesis, however, is that fundamentalisms, I use the word in the plural, which have often been associated with this resurgence of religion, at least in the popular mind, are on the decline. I do not think that they’re going to last out much longer. It’s a recent phenomenon, began in the early 20th century and has appeared in various different religious traditions, always as a kind of a reaction against something that’s going on in that tradition. They claim to be very traditional, but they’re not. It’s really a modern movement, and I think there’s evidence that, in every one of the religions, they are on the decline. The third part of the thesis, and I think it’s one of the most important, not the central part, is that we’re seeing a change in what I call the nature of religiousness, that what it means to be a religious person, or frequently now people will say a spiritual person, they have some questions, occasionally, or often, about the word “religion.” We’re seeing a fundamental change there so that it means something now different than it did 50 or 100 years ago, to say nothing of 500 years ago. And that’s the main thesis of the book. It’s a a mixture of some of the things we’re talking about here as well as some autobiographical illustrations—my experience with liberation theologians, my experience with Pentecostals, with the Catholic Church, in fact with the present pope, and also my early years of formation in a Baptist evangelical congregation. I think it’s important when people are reading about issues as important as this that they know something about where I’m coming from when I’m saying these things and what life experiences have led me to make the kind of statements that I have here.

post03-harveycoxinterviewQ: So how is it changing? Tell me what the elements are of this new thing that you see.

A: For Christianity, in particular, to single it out among the various world religions, there’s a movement away from a more belief-and-doctrinal formulation of religion into a more experiential, practical, you might even say pragmatic understanding: How do I get through the day? How do I get through my life? What resources do I have—spiritual resources? There’s a very distinct move in that direction away, from hierarchical kinds of structures in religion toward a more egalitarian form of religious organization. I think the major evidence for that is the enormously new and important role that women are playing which they didn’t play 50 years ago, and there are other evidences for this egalitarian tendency.

Q: Let me take you back to the emphasis on faith and the movement of the spirit and the presence of the spirit in people’s lives, or the hope for it, and contrast that to 1,500 years in which beliefs and doctrines were primary.

A: I contend in this book that for roughly the first 300 years, early Christianity was a faith movement. They didn’t have creeds until the early fourth century, until Constantine. They didn’t have hierarchies. There was enormous variety of different expressions of Christianity which we’re now uncovering, with the different scrolls that are found, have been there all that time. Then, around the early fourth century, with Constantine in particular, there was a massive movement toward hierarchy, a clerical elite, and a creed. Now remember that the creed was insisted upon by the emperor. Not by the bishops, not by the pope. He wanted a creed so he had a uniform expression of Christianity as an imperial project. He wanted something that would bring the empire together. Now it didn’t work that well for him. Nonetheless, I think the creedal understanding, that is, the rather doctrinal and hierarchical understanding, goes back to that very, very unfortunate term under Constantine, which then set the pattern for the next centuries. Now we’re in a new phase in which that is no longer the case, a third phase.

Q: Define for me, if you would, just what are the principle components of this turn toward emphasis on faith?

A: I call it an age of the spirit, with the age of faith in those early years, and then the age of belief, and now this movement toward an age of the spirit, because the spirit indicates, at least in Christian history, the personal, communal, even subjective element as opposed to the hierarchical and doctrinal element in Christianity, and that’s where everything is moving, I think, clearly. The fastest growing movement in Christianity today is the Pentecostal charismatic expression of Christianity—vast variety of them. Nonetheless, what they have in common is an enormous emphasis on community and spirit and experience, and that’s drawing a lot of people away from these previous forms.

Q: Why do you think that is? I mean, why is there this emphasis on the spirit now, as opposed to creeds and beliefs?

A: Well, I think that, given the fact that we are often deprived, in modern technical society, of very much chance for deep, personal experience—we pass each other by in elevators—the yearning for some kind of personal experience, even the yearning for some kind of let’s call it an ecstatic encounter with God or with the divine is there, and the Pentecostals offer this, and they offer it in a community where people support and take care of each other, where there’s also healing. A lot of people are drawn in by the healing. So I think it combines elements that have an enormous appeal. It has no hierarchies. That’s why it branches out in so many different directions.

Q: But you have said that this is not just among Pentecostals, that this movement of the spirit, this emphasis on the spirit, is very broad.

A: It is very broad. I think in the mainline Protestant churches and the Catholic Church the emphasis on community and experience, and also the language of the spirit—and one of the favorite ways for women theologians and ministers now to refer to God is using the language of spirit, because the traditional language of the sovereign God and so on seems, and is, rather hierarchical and masculine.

Q: People have said when they’re referring to this experiential part of the heart it is often described as the heart versus the head—that for a religion to be healthy, it has to have both the spirit and some kind of structure, creeds, or beliefs, to hang all the rest of the feelings on.

A: I agree with that completely, and I think what we’re seeing now is a compensation for centuries in which the main emphasis was on doctrinal assent, hierarchical control suspicious of laity and lay movements, and now we’re seeing a kind of reaction to that, if you will, which inevitably is going to have to find some balance. I study the Pentecostal movement pretty carefully. The younger Pentecostals now are saying, “Hey, we ought to deal with the head a little bit here, too, you know,” some doctrinal or philosophical basis. So you’re noticing that, and they’ll work on that, as well. But what it is is really a complementary movement.

Q: I was particularly interested in your idea that the so-called apostolic succession after Jesus  wasn’t something that right back to his giving the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter, but it was something that was created by human beings some centuries later, and I’m wondering if you could describe how that happened and then tell me, particularly, how you think that affects the authority of the Catholic Church.

A: Well, I think the evidence is now in that the whole idea of apostolic authority, apostolic succession, came in much later, let’s say in the 200s and 300s, when Christianity was growing and people were looking around for some way to assert, especially the early bishops, their own authority, and you can see this emerging. The bishops would say, “Well, I go back to Matthew” or “I go back to Peter,” and they would even construct or write gospels and statements that were really—we would call them forgeries. They didn’t have that term in those days. And the interesting thing now is we’re beginning to find these things. You know, that whole stash of documents in Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, and all those things, which are late. They’re not early. They’re not the apostles doing that. But it was an invention. It was an invention to secure the authority of the church leaders who needed to have some kind of historical backing. I think it means a rather serious rethinking of the basis on which churches that claim the apostolic authority continue to assert their authority. Now, whether they are going to do that or not is another whole question. But when you find out that the historical basis for this is a little shaky, does that affect the way you exercise authority today? I think it should.

Q: Not only how you exercise it, but how the rest of us look at it. Does the scholarship you refer to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church?

A: Well, yes. I think it does. You know, there was a document around just about the time of the Renaissance called the Donation of Constantine. You may have heard of it, and it was supposed to be a document by which Constantine gave a lot of the property in central Italy to the church, and they used that to claim the church’s sovereignty over that. It was proven to be a forgery, and the Catholic Church made the adjustment, and eventually they gave up, many years later, secular sovereignty over central Italy and in some ways the moral authority of the pope became greater after he didn’t also have to be a secular sovereign. I think the Catholic Church can adjust to this quite well, and maybe it’s a very good thing that they have this coming. Now, I don’t know. I’ll be interested to watch, but they have to deal with the fact that the early historical grounding for apostolic succession is really no longer held by most scholars.

Q: In 1965, you published a book called The Secular City in which you thought that the role of religion in modern city life was becoming pretty less important than it had been, and some people said you were wrong about that assertion.

A: The original title of that book was God in the Secular City. Most people don’t know that, and the thesis of the book was the decline of institutional religion should not be viewed as a catastrophe, because God is not just present in religious institutions. God is present in all of creation, in other kinds of movements and institutions and to be discerned, presence of God to be discerned there and responded to.  The publisher said no “God in the Secular.” It’s too complicated. Let’s just call it The Secular City. So I’ve lived with that title now for—that was 44 years ago, and I have learned a few things since then. I wouldn’t swear by every sentence in that book. Nonetheless, the central thesis of the presence of God in all of creation and historical institutions, culture, and politics and family I would certainly hold to enthusiastically and say that what I say in this book is the decline of creedal Christianity and hierarchical Christianity is also not a catastrophe. Maybe it points to a really important renewal of facets of Christianity that have been repressed over many, many years. I think it does.

Q: What are the implications of an age of the spirit for everybody who’s religious?

A: Well, I think it means, among other things, that we’ll be seeing, and should be welcoming and affirming, a much wider range of expressions of Christianity. I’ve often been thought of as normative over these 1,500 years of what I call Constantinian Christianity. We see it happening frequently, now, all around the world, especially since Christianity is no longer a western religion. That’s a central and important change in the composition of the Christian world—dates back to only about 20, 25 years. The majority of Christians in the world are no longer in the old steer of Christendom in which Constantinianism was the rule. So we see all kinds of very interesting new theological and liturgical and ethical movements emerging, often around what we used to think of as the periphery. But it’s not the periphery anymore.

Q: And what are the implications of that for the influence of religious life?

A: Oh, I think the influence of religious life is continuing. Not necessarily institutional, hierarchical religious life, but the influence of people who are religiously informed and inspired and supported in communities, working in various kinds of even nonreligious structures and movements. I think that’s on the increase and will continue to be.

Q: The spread of this kind of emotional Christianity throughout the southern part of the world—what do you think that implies for the future of Christian practice in the United States?

A: You know, the term “emotional” doesn’t quite do it.  I would prefer personal, experiential. Emotion is part of that, but the experience of community and hope and of affirmation is part of it, too, but they are experiences. I think it’s already having its impact. Somebody has talked recently about the reverse missionary movement of Christians coming from South America, or especially Korea, into the United States and influencing American—or Africa, most recently, African religious movements coming in and influencing American Christianity. I think that’s really going to be a big development in the future.

Q: Influencing it in what ways?

A: Well, toward a more communal and more experiential direction, largely. There may be other influences as well, but I think that’s mainly the way it will influence.

Q: In your teaching and writing career, you’ve been well known as someone wit an uncanny ability to spot new developments in religious life. One of them, certainly, was liberation theology.

A: Liberation theology emerged in Latin America as a way of understanding Christianity, a new way of understanding it from the perspective of those who had been excluded and not part of the clerical elite or the theological elite. They talked about the preferential option for the poor—not just doing something for the poor, but helping the poor to understand the claims they can make on the basis of the gospel. I have a chapter in the book on that as illustrative, precisely of this movement away from the control of hierarchies and creeds, because the basic structure of liberation theology, or what they call the ecclesial base communities, small groups of people, tens of thousands of them, all over Latin America and in other places, getting together, sharing, reading, sharing food, singing, studying biblical texts and thinking about how that would apply in their own lives, and it made, and continues to make, a very significant impact not just on that continent and not just among Catholics. It’s going strong, especially among people who had their first experience within these base communities and are now in other kinds of institutions, especially political, and journalism and education and things like that. That’s where its impact is being felt at this point.

Q: We talked about Pentecostalism a little bit. What are the real implications of that for us?

A: The most important development in the world Pentecostal movement is a movement toward social ministries. They didn’t used to be interested in that in their early years. They were really very much fixed on “my own experience” and, really, getting to heaven. There’s a recent book on Pentecostalism in which the author has coined the term progressive Pentecostalism. They went around and studied congregations all over the world, especially in the nonwestern world, and found that the ones that were involved in community service, in clinics, in hospitals and schools and all of that mainly were Pentecostal and charismatic churches. And they said this is the major trend now. This is what’s happening. So this combination of social ministry and experiential worship is a dynamite combination, and I think that is really going to be influential on North American and, eventually, even European Christianity, which, we all know, needs kind of an injection of life at this point, and it could happen there as well.

Q: Why did the mainline Protestants suffer such a decline over the last 20, 30 years?

A: Well, I think one of the reasons is the mainline churches did allow themselves to drift toward a more hierarchical, less communitarian structure—away from where they were, let’s say, 50 years ago. People need to have a sense of belonging, and that wasn’t there. It was a little bit too audience-oriented: There’s the pulpit there, and here’s the congregation and a choir performing for—now the Pentecostals: everybody sings. Everybody testifies. Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody gets into the act,” and it’s richly participatory—if you want to be a participant.

Q: I’ve heard it argued that they became too intellectual and not enough spirit.

A: I think that’s another way of saying the same thing. The clergy—and I take some responsibility for this, having been involved in it for over 40 years—was trained in Christian thought, Christian philosophy, Christian theology, how you deal with the problem of the modern world and all of this, you know, and not enough in how to nurture the experience of God, the experience of the spirit and encounter with Christ, and so the churches which have brought that back in, I think, are finding that it appeals to people.

Q: And what about the place today of what we call the religious right?

A: By religious right I think of a particular political expression of conservative evangelical Christianity, and I think that movement, if it indeed ever was a movement, is now divided and declining in many ways. The agenda used to be driven by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and a couple other people. That whole generation is now either dead or really gone, in one way or another, and you have a whole variety of people now in the evangelical community, and they have a political agenda which is far more diverse. I mean, you think of the evangelicals for ecological causes, or the ones who got together to sign the petition against torture, and the opposition to the war in Iraq, where a lot of evangelicals became involved. I don’t consider that a religious right. I consider that religious involvement in the public sphere, which they ought to be doing. I mean, as Christians and as citizens, you ought to be involved.  But I think the last couple of presidential elections and by-elections have exposed the religious right as really kind of being, in part, a paper tiger. They just didn’t produce the votes. They were really kind of angry—the fact that they didn’t get a Republican nominee that suited their profile. And I think they’re in considerable disarray, and frankly I’m not mourning over that.

Q: Let me ask you to look around the country and size up what you see going on there. A lot of people think that there’s been a rise of selfishness that perhaps was of basic reason for what happened to Wall Street, what happened with sub-prime mortgages and in other parts of life. What do you see as the problems in this society right now? We’ll get to religion’s role. What’s wrong?

A: It’s the best of times and the worst of times, I think, and I’ll explain that in a minute. But there is no doubt that a rampant culture of market and consumer values really has a grip on many people in America, and therefore accumulating, getting things, getting ahead is for many kind of a principle life goal. I’m told we work harder in America than any country in the world. Productivity is up. But everybody seems to be driven by, especially, the lure of advertising, which says, “You ought to have this. You really need this. You owe it to yourself to have this and that,” and therefore mounting credit card debt, and these people who buy houses on mortgages that they’re not going to be able to afford. I think the role of religion at this point is to make very clear that this structure of values, of consumer values is not coherent with Christianity, with the gospel, with the life and example of Jesus. That’s not what he was talking about at all, so we in the religious community need to take a much more critical, even confrontational, role about this, I think, than we have in the past. There have been moments in the history of American Christianity in which there has been a more confrontational role between Christian values and the values of consumer society. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of my great teachers, was really a great spokesman for that, But that seems to have faded out as the churches have largely simply adjusted to this, even taken over some of those kinds of advertising techniques and consumerist values. But I think we have to get tougher about that and really remind people that this is not what we mean by a Christian way of living.

Q: There is what’s called a prosperity gospel, and lots of ministers preach that God will reward you with everything you want.

A: Yeah. Can you imagine that kind of sermon coming from the mouth of Jesus himself? No. I mean, it’s a rank contradiction, the prosperity gospel. When Jesus says blessed are those who serve and have compassion on the poor, beware of riches, it’s very hard to get into the kingdom of God—passage after passage. It’s right there. You don’t have to look very far for it. The contrast is quite stark, and yet you’re right. There are ministers and preachers who pick up on this prosperity gospel, promise this to people, and I think it’s really, let’s call it by its name, it’s a heresy and needs to be pointed out as such.

Q: You spoke about religious leaders needing to stand up to consumerism. What do you want the churches to do?

A: Well, I think it does start with the ministers and priests in the pulpit, with the congregations, and then I think churches have to speak publicly, and some of them have, about the dangers to the soul of consumerist values, the lethal danger that the accumulationist light poses for you spiritually. There has to be more of that, which is really quite the opposite of the prosperity gospel. I said this is the best of times and the worst of times. I notice increasingly among my students, both undergraduates and students in the divinity school, a deep suspicion of this life of accumulating, consuming, and a realization that a truly spiritual life is going to be more simple and more oriented toward building community rather than competition with the other guy to see who gets ahead. It’s a canard about all young people, that they’re all “me first,” “I first” oriented. I don’t think that’s true. There are many who are. But let me tell you that the urge to graduate from college, like this one, and immediately go down to a Wall Street investment firm is greatly shrunken this year from what it was last year. We’re learning something from this—that this is not only economically, but spiritually a dangerous way to think of your life. I think there’s real hope in a younger generation coming along with that viewpoint.

Q: You’ve been teaching here for 44 years, since ‘65. You’ve seen a lot, you’ve written a lot, you’ve studied a lot, you’ve taught a lot. What are the most important things you’ve learned?

A: I have learned how to think about Christianity as one of the possible symbolic ways to approach reality, among others. I used to think of other world religions as kind of exotic, and they’re out there, and they’re kind of curiosities. Now I have made a big adjustment, I think, in my life, and many people are, to say this is the way we see it. Other people see it other ways. This doesn’t invalidate, at all, our way of understanding reality. Rather, we have to look for the common threads, common values, and with these other folks, with Hindus or Buddhists or Muslims, even secular people. That is how to live with radical pluralism. The other big change that I’ve seen is the enormous growth in the hunger and interest in religion and spirituality among students at this university. It’s phenomenal. When I first came here, we didn’t even have a religious studies program at Harvard College. Didn’t exist. We had a very small divinity school. Since then, we have a religious studies program. We can’t add enough courses to respond to all the interest. Furthermore, if you clocked how many students here, on any given weekend, are worshipping, one way or another either at a church or a synagogue or a mosque or Memorial Church, there are more now than probably in the history of the college—a vast variety of ways of worshipping, and being spiritual, religious. It’s not singular. But—there it is. And I think they’re very interested. It’s intellectual curiosity. It’s also personal quest. And we have a responsibility, I think, to help them with that. I’m talking about the students now. But I think it’s also true in the public at large, maybe especially in the younger cohorts of the public at large.

Q: On this question of being open to the wisdom in lots of other religious traditions: If a Christian says, well, I’m a Christian, but of course that’s just one way among many others, what does that do to that person’s confidence and passion about his own faith?

A: Well, it requires a transitioning. It requires a maturation. I think we all grow up with serving ourselves, the center of the world. Then we learn that there are other centers gradually. Not only do I not think it diminishes the validity or power of the faith, in some ways I think it enriches it. I wrote a book about this some years ago called Many Mansions. You know, Jesus says at one point, “In my father’s house there are many mansions.” I would even argue that the plurality of religions in the world is a check on any one of them, including ours, not to get too pretentious and think that we have the whole truth. One of the most dangerous things in any religion is to identify my understanding of the truth, my take on it, with the truth itself. The truth itself is something out there, it’s absolute, but my take on it is relative. Otherwise, I’m guilty of the sin of pride. I mean, I identify my view with God’s view. God is larger than this. God is much larger than any particular understanding of God.

Q: So I can be just as faithful, I can be just as active.  I can be just as convinced of the importance of what I’m doing with my life if I say mine is just one tradition among many others?

A: Some of the most faithful and zealous Christians I’ve run into in the last 20 years traveling around the world are precisely those Christians who are living in India, Korea, China, Indonesia, Africa where they are surrounded by people of other religions. It has not in any way diminished how they feel, or their faith. They believe that they have unique contribution to make. It’s different from these other. But it hasn’t diminished it at all. In fact, in many ways it’s enhanced it. And I have a feeling that’s the way it’s going to go.

Q: You are an American Baptist married to a Jewish woman. You have one son by that marriage, and I think a lot of people would be interested in how you accomplish the religious education of your son when the mother is Jewish and you are Protestant?

A: Well, as you can imagine, my wife, Nina, and I talked about this a lot before we were married. We did not want our marriage to be one of these religion-free zones. She’s a serious, practicing Jewish woman. I’m a serious Christian. And we decided that what we would do was to try to learn about and participate in each other’s traditions to the extent that conscience permits. And so that’s what we’ve done. And we also decided before that I would respect the Jewish custom, and indeed Jewish law, that the child of a Jewish woman is Jewish and should be raised with that understanding of himself or herself.  And I said, “Look, I agree with this. I endorse it—on one condition: that I also, maybe mainly me, will be responsible for his religious education and formation.” And I was. When he had his bar mitzvah, she’s the one who sent out the invitations and prepared the reception. I was the one who prepared him in studying his Torah passage, and he gave a wonderful exposition of his Torah passage at the bar mitzvah. Now I have to say that, of course, as the son of a Protestant Christian theologian, he got very interested in Christianity and is, I would say, very sympathetic to it and has studied, at Princeton, early Christianity and some recent thought. He’s interested in the phenomenon of religion at large. But he considers himself Jewish, with this interest in religion in general and Christianity, of course, as his father’s particular way of life. So we think it worked out very satisfactorily. Both of us are quite pleased with the way it’s gone. And when I am asked by people about this, “What would you have done if you were Jewish and you’re marrying a non-Jewish woman?” I don’t know. That’s a theoretical question, because the child would not then, by Jewish custom and law, have been Jewish. That would have to be negotiated otherwise. But that’s the way we did it and are continuing to do it. We mark the Sabbath every week, with the lighting of candles and prayers. I go to the Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur. She comes with me to various Christian festivals, as does Nicholas. We have successfully shared in each other’s spiritual traditions, I think, and it can be done, and it’s also very enriching. I mean, I really believe that I understand Christianity better for having participated in Jewish life—and remember, Jesus was a rabbi—than I would have if I hadn’t done that.

Q: How do you pray? What are your practices? How do you attend to these things through the day?

A: I start the day with a prayer, just turning the day over to God, thanking God for this day. We have prayers at all of our meals, a mixture of Jewish prayers and Christian prayers, depending on how we feel. We mark the Sabbath. I have told my friends I’m in search of the perfect congregation. I haven’t found it yet. So I’m one of those people who bounces from one congregation to—I’m somewhere every week, but I go back and forth between the Baptist church which I belong to here, and an Episcopal church in our neighborhood, a black Pentecostal church, and sometimes Memorial Church, the university church here, and I get something from all of them. I feel a little guilty that I’m not sort of committing completely to one of them. But that’s how I do it.

Q: You have the reputation of being a pretty staunch liberal theologically and in every way.  Is that fair, or has it changed at all over the years?

A: I’m a chastened liberal, as they say, both theologically and politically. I have been greatly enriched in my fairly liberal understanding of Christianity by my evangelical boyhood, by very significant experiences among Catholics, especially liberation theologians, and others, by my experience with Pentecostals. So I’m an unusual kind of liberal in that—maybe that’s what a liberal should be, one who can affirm and learn from a lot of different sources. But I suppose the label is still a useful one, yeah, and not one to be shied away from.

Q: Have you become more committed to that position as the years have gone by?

A: More committed to the position of being open to learning from various sources? Yes, yes, I have. I started early with that, and it’s really kind of a hallmark of who I am. I think you have to be anchored, though, and I’m really pretty anchored in a form of Protestant Free Church Christianity. That’s pretty secure. That allows me, then, to be open to think other things that I can participate in without feeling that I’m floating away. I have something secure as an anchor.

Following are some of the thoughtful and interesting responses to his writing:

  • Oliver Lea says:

I contend in this book that for roughly the first 300 years, early Christianity was a faith movement. They didn’t have creeds until the early fourth century, until Constantine. They didn’t have hierarchies.”

But Creedal statements and doxologies are found even in the Bible.  Creeds were developed, not in response to Constantine’s overtures, but towards heresy.  Orthodoxy emerges in tandem with heresy – the Church formed a more concrete idea of what is WAS by discovering more and more about what it WASN’T.

Didn’t have hierarchies?  Clement of Rome (96ad) speaks of a church hierarchy, even saying that “the laymen is bound by the rules set out for laymen”.  Ignatius of Antioch (110ad) goes even further, saying that the Christian must submit to the Bishop as a type of the Father, the Presbyter as to Christ, and the Deacons as to the college of apostles, and that “A Eucharist is only valid if it is celebrated by the bishop, or by someone he has entrusted the job to.”

I think the evidence is now in that the whole idea of apostolic authority, apostolic succession, came in much later, let’s say in the 200s and 300s”

Buh?  Clement of Rome again speak of apostolic succession.  Irenaeus in 96 AD speaks against the Gnostics, saying “The true knowledge [Gk:gnosis] is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which succession the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere.”

Apostolic succession does indeed go right back to the beginning.

It astounds me how liberal historials can flagrantly ignore the evidence which has been around for so long.

  • David Dunaway says:

    Whatever the case may be with apostolic succession, I find this interview with Dr. Cox inspiring.  I struggle to remember that the world I encounter on a day by day basis – that is to say, the world within about 20 miles of my house – does not adequately represent the larger world of Christianity.  In my corner of the woods, the main questions are whether the Bible may be read literally and why nobody wants to go to a mainline church any more.  These are tiresome and depressing conversations.  Intereligious dialogue is waaaay out there.  You can’t find a COEXIST bumper sticker on a car that doesn’t have twenty more counterculture stickers surrounding it.  Our fastest growing religion is soccer.

    What I admire most about Dr. Cox is his openness to all of the ways that God comes to us and his courage to act upon his religious beliefs.

  • cyberdisciple says:

    Commenters should make sure that they have read Cox’s new book before they critique his statements in this interview.

    Cox handles the works of Clement, Ignatius, and Irenaeus in his book. Are these works evidence for a widespread hierarchy at an early date? Or do they show that their authors are interested in establishing a widespread hierarchy?

    Our knowledge of early Christianity has changed greatly in recent years. We now know that it was a much more diverse movement than has been usually portrayed. The Pre-Constantinian authors that insisted on apostolic succession and a widespread hierarchy are just one part of it. They foreshadow the interests of the Constantinian-era bishops and so their works were accepted and transmitted by the official church. Other works were not.

    Cox draws on the research that has contributed to the changed picture of early Christianity.

  • Grant says:

    This guy has absolutely no idea what really happens in Pentecostal churches. They are incredibly hierarchical and the way to get ahead in the pecking order is to babble louder than anyone else, out do others with fantastic imaginary visions and claim that God spoke to you about extraordinary things having to do with money and health in other people’s lives so that they will want to hear more from you. Been there, done that, bought the tee shirt, not interested any more. Give me no more vain and manipulative fads. Just give me Christ.

  • Diantha says:

    All churches have some sort of hierarchy, it’s human nature to have this in any organization. Cox seems to refute the idea of having hierarchy “rule” his own spiritual life, thus he is unwilling to commit to any one congregation. I agree with this approach. There is some participation at various levels and with a wider diversity of people. Various spiritual groups offer him a wonderful learning experience. The commitments of his life are fulfilled with his wife and son, and his association with University. Faith is a process of discovery, and beliefs or dogmas are part of that process. James Fowler wrote an excellent book, “Stages of Faith,” in which he described six stages of process in how we handle our faith. If culture does not impede us, our moving on to and through the next stages to more mature mind processes of thoughts about our faith will happen. Beliefs and dogmas are strongest in the earlier stages of faith, and this mirrors human cultural and mental cognition historically. As we mature, we go toward “universalizing” faith. Harvey Cox’s book offers us some insight into such a process theology.

  • Steward Smith says:

    I first read Harvey Cox at seminary in 1971. I have been a school teacher and a pastor and finally settled in as an Air Force Chaplain for 24 years.  I loved my time in the pastorate but it was not without challenges.  I simply felt a stronger sense of community in multi denominational settings.  The pleurality of ministry in the AF as a chaplain has deeply enriched my faith.  Military Chaplaincy in the AF has been referred to as “an experiment that should not work.”  Well, it does and it is one part of the Church that stands as an example to the rest of the world that we can not only coexist in ministry but also learn from all the other faith groups.  The  most challenging faith groups (Chaplains) to minister with are those from hierarchial traditions on one end of the spectrum and fundamentalists on the other end.  It’s challenging but do-able.  The AF Chaplaincy has moved toward more of a “servant mentality” as Chaplains and chapel congregations try to minister to young Airmen and their families where they are because most aren’t attending chapel services on Sunday.  My experience as a Chaplain in the AF exemplifies what Cox refers to as a “move away from the hiearchial beliefs and doctrine toward experiential and practical” ways to cultivate spirituality. People really do want a faith experience that answers the real questions of life, ” How can I get through the day and my life? What are my spiritual resources?” The future of faith as Cox so ably describes in this book gives me renewed hope for my life, the rest of society and the critical part the Church at large can play in getting beyond hierarchies and arguments about, ” who is right vs who is wrong.’ and ministering to people who need  spiritual, Christian resources to live their lives with meaning and purpose.  Thank-you Harvey!