“Future of Faith”? — First Impressions from a Convert to Orthodoxy

Over the next couple of weeks, I plan on reading Harvey Cox’s “Future of Faith.” Keep in mind I have to actually obtain a copy first: Hopefully through Inter-Library Loan or from a friend. That said, I read (and responded to) John Goerzen’s overview of the book, and I skimmed the book when I was at Barnes & Noble yesterday. (You can see much of the same material on Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature if you don’t have a copy and don’t want to trek to B&N for a look-see.) After reading John’s blog post, though, the first thing I did was read the Wikipedia entry on Harvey Cox. It was there that I learned Mr. Cox wrote “The Future of Faith” when he retired last year at the age of 80. Now, I don’t know about you, but I associate the hubris of predictions about the future of, well, almost anything, with the naivety of (relative) youth. Sam Harris wrote “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” (which seems to have inspired the title of Harvey Cox’s book) in his late 30s. Predictions just don’t work that well — we tend to overstate near-term changes (It’s 2010, where’s my hover car?) and under-state or misunderstand longer-term changes. So, when the front flap of “The Future of Faith” claims that a trend Mr. Cox calls The Age of the Spirit began 50 years ago — within Mr. Cox’s lifetime – I can’t help but at least raise an eyebrow. Especially when he puts this change on par with what he calls the end of “The Age of Faith”: when Constantine legitimized Christianity in the fourth century. Oh, really? During that period, Christians went from being a severely persecuted minority (read up on how Constantine’s predecessor, Diocletian, treated Christians) to being socially acceptable. Today, Christianity is the world’s largest religion. What change has happened in the past 50 years that is anything like the end of systematic persecution of Christians? Obviously, Cox is talking about something other than the obvious. Let’s go back to what the front flap of the book says.

The Age of the Spirit: a trend that began fifty years ago and is increasingly directing the church of tomorrow whereby Christians are ignoring dogma and breaking down barriers between different religions — spirituality is replacing formal religion. 

Hmm… Still not buying it. Thomas Jefferson’s Bible or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth is an edited copy of the Gospels that eliminates any indication of Christ’s divinity to reveal “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Or, look at the Unitarians who also focus on the “spiritual” teachings of Jesus (and others) while rejecting any ideas more orthodox Christianity has about his divinity. To put it bluntly, what Cox is describing as the “Age of the Spirit” seems to be something that has been around much longer than 50 years. Within Christianity, the changes since the fourth century parallel the changes in our systems of government. As we rejected ideas like Divine right of kings and moved to more democratic systems of Government, people’s lives in the church changed as they rejected the supreme spiritual authority of the Pope. Is it any coincidence that many of the Founding Fathers of the American system of government were not Christians? After reading John Goerzen’s post and looking over the table of contents of the book, I also get the impression that Cox, like many Protestants, has an interpretation of history that sees the Constantine’s legitimization of Christianity as, somehow, harmful to the Christian ethic. That, in itself, isn’t an unusual point of view. Even Christians contemporary to Constantine saw the “mainstreaming” of Christianity as harmful to the Christian ethic. As a result, many escaped into the desert and, as a result, birthed the monastic movement that continues today. The Anabaptist movement inherited this monastic zeal which (rightly) sees Christ’s teachings as the focus of Christian life. The Anabaptist movement, though, like many movements and reformations that ended up in that mish-mash we today call “Protestant Christianity” seems, to me, to have developed into a culture of Christianity that chooses protest as its point of identity rather than a focus on Christian life. And the protest is against anything that feels too “Catholic” or, in the case of Cox, too authoritarian. I could go on here, but I really want to make sure I read the book before offering too many more of my own opinions. I imagine I’ll have reactions along the way, and I’ll post them here. Finally, why am I interested in reading this book? Well, John seems to have liked it and I respect John. He’s built one of the tools I use on a daily basis, OfflineIMAP. He’s a thoughtful Christian and I’d like to be able to have a more informed conversation with him (and those like him) about why things like the Creed matter. To do that, I have to understand a little more where they’re coming from instead of just dismissing what they say as hubristic ranting.

4 thoughts on ““Future of Faith”? — First Impressions from a Convert to Orthodoxy”

  1. Response after reading the book

    Hi Mark,

    I just finished reading the book on Saturday, and I think my overall comment would be: don’t judge a book by its flap. Despite the title, the book is more a history of faith.

    I think Cox is spot-on with the end of the Age of Faith happening with the rise of Christianity under Constantine. You are mis-interpreting what he means. He is not saying that *Christianity* declined; rather that a particular *kind* of Christianity declined (NOT disappeared, mind) — the kind that didn’t have schisms over intellectual beliefs and didn’t worry about creeds. I’d say he builds a solid argument for that perspective.

    Secondly, to your critique about the Age of the Spirit. He never claimed that there were no such pockets of Christianity out there over history, and in fact has identified some (I believe he even referenced Thomas Jefferson himself.) What he’s talking about is a change in the overall picture of Christianity as a whole — is something that was formerly niche becoming mainstream now? Cox, by the way, is hardly alone with this sort of thing. Marcus Borg talks about the “earlier paradigm” and the “emerging paradigm”, which are analogous to Cox’s “age of belief” and “age of the spirit.” Both see something of a return to the earliest patterns of Christianity gaining strength right now. Though never dead, for millennia they had been buried — sometimes actively repressed — in much of the Christian world.

    I think you also are misunderstanding what Cox is saying about Constantine. His problem is not that Christianity became “mainstream” or “socially acceptable.” It’s that the process Constantine used to do so modified it in problematic ways — de-emphasized the “Way of life” aspect, emphasized “correct beliefs”, and in general exercised government and clerical control when formerly there had been little of either — and not to the benefit of anyone. When you have people dictating theology on threat of exile or execution, burning or banning gospels they disagree with, etc. — well, that’s not really helpful to the religion in my book.

    I can’t speak for all protestants, which is an incredibly diverse group — and I would encourage you to not paint them all with a single brush either. In the little corner I’ve been concerned with, I can certainly see times in its history 100+ years ago when what you’re saying has been correct (the Anabaptists could have schisms with the best of ’em back in the 1700s), but I just don’t see that being true overall in modern times. The Way is the focus, and when it meshes with other things, great. When it doesn’t (say, with warmongering), then we protest what governments are doing and try our best to make this planet a better place.

    Anyhow, I do hope you read it. I have no illusions that you will agree with it all after doing so, but I think the conversation will be more interesting after you have.

    1. Re: Response after reading the book

      Anyhow, forgot to add — thanks for the comments, and I’d call you a thoughtful Christian I enjoy discussing these things with, too.

    2. Re: Response after reading the book

      Nice response, and, while I’m tempted to write more, I’ll hold off till I actually do read the book.

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