I agree with Cox (sort of)
Since finishing up Future of Faith I’ve answered a couple of comments here and on Facebook that left me with the realization that I need to spill my guts one more time on the topic here. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what I think Cox gets wrong so let me start this off with what I think Cox gets right. First, he’s right that Western Christianity has neglected “orthopraxis” and over-emphasized “orthodoxy”. That may seem like a strange statement coming from someone who has embraced Orthodox Christianity, so let me explain. Orthopraxis, of course, means “Right practice” and, at least in America, I’ve normally heard “orthodoxy” used to mean “right belief” or “right doctrine.” Cox (rightly) opposes this emphasis of belief over practice. And I tend to agree with him when he says that we are seeing a move to emphasize practice over belief. Now, I said this is a strange thing for an Orthodox Christian to say, but its important to see how the word “Orthodoxy” is understood differently in the East than in the West. A slight digression into etymology is necessary. “Orthodoxy” is the combination of two Greek root words: ortho (ὀρθός) meaning “straight” or “correct” and doxa (δόξα). The oldest meaning of doxa is “common belief” or “popular opinion”. However, when the Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew scripture in Greek in the 3rd and 2nd century BCE) was being translated, the Hebrew word for “glory” (כבוד, kavod) was translated as doxa (δόξα). This second sense of doxa is the one used in the New Testament. And it is this second sense of doxa that the word is used in Eastern Orthodox churches. In this way, when we talk about “Orthodoxy”, we’re talking about “correct glory” or “right worship” instead of “right belief”. This sense of “Orthodoxy” is closer in meaning to “orthopraxis” than the way we normally hear the word “orthodox” used in the West. For proof, you need go no farther than the “Orthodox” Presbyterian Church’s website where they have a Q&A on their use of the word “orthodoxy” in which the explicitly contrast it with the Eastern Orthodox usage of “right worship”. Now that I’ve finished my etymological digression — of which I might feel guilty had Cox not made some interesting etymological choices himself – let me return to Cox. My initial reading of Cox was frustrated by his focus on what he called the “corporate takeover of the Church”. He painted Constantine’s influence on Christianity as almost completely negative even to the point where he began to make what sounded to my ears as slanderous statements. At one point he says that the post-Constantinian church was falling over itself to claim that early Christians were loyal subjects of Cesar. Which sounds strange when you’re aware of the constant stream of martyrs who are celebrated as saints because they wouldn’t participate in the worship of Cesar as a god. This, and John Goerzen’s approach to the book as a “history of faith” made it very difficult for me to read the first half. I was arguing with Cox too much. It wasn’t until I got past the retrospective aspects of Future of Faith that I was able to see there was a lot of good in the book. Don’t get me wrong: I am well aware of the mistakes and abuses of power in the Church. However, focusing on only the failures of the early church while ignoring what it did well is the very definition of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” But this much I hope Cox is right about: that Christians will begin to emphasize right living and right worship over right belief. This doesn’t mean (as Cox supposes) that we have to become acreedal, but it does mean we give up formulating creeds. Nor does it mean (again, as Cox seems to) viewing hierarchy as a bad thing. Forming non-hierarchical churches hasn’t meant that people stopped abusing each other. In fact, an argument could be made that getting rid of hierarchy, instead of taking away the power to abuse, simply redistributes the power to abuse to everyone relatively equally. Cox’s “Future of Faith” has its failings. It’s a autobiography of Cox’s faith with some personal observations disguised as sweeping generalizations. But when he manages to get beyond his obsession with creeds and hierarchy he makes some really good points.