Future of Faith, Reflections, Part Two
John Gorezen had some great questions on the last reflections post that I did and I finally posted some answers. Hopefully this post will provide for further discussion.
The more I read of Cox’s book, the more I have to conclude that this book is more a picture of Cox’s own spiritual development rather than any grand vision of what the “Future of Faith” holds. Nothing convinces me more of this (so far) than chapter titled “The Road Runner and the Gospel of Thomas”. The first hint comes when he says, at the top of page 56, that “Christianity is no longer a ‘Western’ religion. … Its vital centers now lie in Asia, Africa and Latin America.” (emphasis mine) First, this ignores that Latin America is called “Latin” because it was Christianized by Europeans and the people living there now — the Christians living there now — are the descendants of Europeans and Native Americans. I suppose he gets past this problem with the insertion of “vital” but, there, too, he ignores the vital centers of Eastern Christianity: Constantinople (Asia minor) and then Moscow (Asia) were the “Romes” of the East until the 20th century. For a historical background of the church in the East, I recommend Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers series of lectures in podcast form. The Ethiopian and Egyptian churches continue to be vital centers of Christianity in Africa. I could even argue that, since the people of the Egyptian church are not the majority religion in that country that they have more in common with the early Church. For more on the spirituality of these churches, I can recommend Speaking of Faith’s Preserving Words and Worlds program. It provides some insight into native African Christianity’s long and lively tradition (as well as that of the Turkish Christian minority). Again, it looks like Cox seems oblivious to any Christianity that doesn’t have deep roots in the West or that was born of the West’s missionary movements. But if we see this book as Cox’s spiritual autobiography rather then as his view of the “Future of Faith”, we can certainly forgive him.
Cox outlines three changes that happened since he was in seminary. I was born and have lived entirely after all of these changes, so I see their impact in a completely different way than Cox. The changes he sees are 1) The understanding that Christianity was not as intellectually unified as he was first taught, 2) “Apostolic Succession” didn’t come directly from the twelve apostles and 3) the influence of the Roman Empire on the early Christians was enormous. The third item, the influence of the empire, is the least surprising to me. Cox claims that the church “softened [its] attitude toward the Roman Empire from passive resistance to docile subservience; then they tried to suggest that the Christian movement had been made up of loyal subjects of the divine emperor from the beginning.” I find this sort of slander against the post-Constantinian church revolting. One needs to look no further than early post-Constantinian bishops like St. Nicolas (yes, that St. Nick) and St. Chrysostom. In fact, if we look at Chrysostom’s “Two Homilies on Eutropius” we can quickly see that as the Archbishop of Constantinople (Rome of the East) he was no toady of the government or its emperor despite being appointed by the Emperor. And, as to the influence of the Roman empire on the early church, I have always understood that the early church saw itself as directly opposed to the empire. Certainly the Diocletianic Persecution has always been known to the church and to say that anyone ever suggested those Christians were “loyal subjects of the divine emperor” flies in the face of a very ancient understanding of history. The first and second points (intellectual unity of the early church and apostolic succession) don’t seem that important to me. Whether or not Paul and the other Apostles thought that there was such a thing as apostolic succession seems less important to me than the continuity of the church. And a lack of intellectual unity among the early Christians isn’t that surprising: they were persecuted and communication was difficult. If they weren’t able to hold big councils for a couple hundred years to hash out there differences, then I’m not surprised they had some.
Historical Jesus and Mystical Christ
The last bit I want to comment on is the way Cox divides Jesus Christ into the “Historical Jesus” and “Mystical Christ” as a way to avoid believing in the Resurrection while still remaining Christian. Once you’ve rejected the Creed and declared that “Modern” Christians just won’t be able to accept some things that are in the Creed, I suppose the separation of the Historical Jesus from the Mystical Christ isn’t a surprise. But first, let’s be clear about something. Early Christians who were not eyewitnesses to Jesus ministry were no more likely to believe in Jesus’ resurrection than modern Christians are. The gospel of John tells us as much when Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” That we’ve managed to convince ourselves that we’re just more sophisticated than early Christians simply because they accepted this idea of the resurrection where we do not is silly. It was a different time and, in many ways not something we can easily comprehend. But we can easily see in their writing and sermons, if we take a few minutes to look, that they struggled with the same things we struggle with. Again, I come back to the Creed. If everyone easily accepted what they were told, there would be little need to communally recite the “I believe” of the Creed. It could be relegated to some esoteric bit of knowledge the priests just tell their congregants “Here is what you have to think.” To put this, loosely, in terms of Freudian psychology, we recite “I believe” to remind ourselves of where we’re headed, not as a reflection of what is going on in our id or ego at this moment, but of where our super-ego is trying to direct us. (I’m not sure that analogy is completely appropriate, but it feels close enough for now.) After dismissing almost every mystical (i.e. any part that cannot be rationalized) aspect of the Creed — the Trinity, the Virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ — I’m left wondering why Cox even bothered writing this book. It isn’t as if these ideas about Christianity are new or that they compromise the “Future of Faith”. They’ve been around at least since the Enlightenment and before. I’ve written enough for now. I hope to finish this book up in the next couple of weeks and post my final take then. In the meantime, I welcome your comments. And I’ll try to respond more quickly.