Future of Faith, reflections part 1

I’m not planning on doing a posting for each chapter, but there was so much in the first part that I felt this was necessary. I wrote most of this up last week and discussed the first chapter with my peace-activist, Mennonite neighbor. When we met, he was preparing to protest the super-Zionist Johan Hagee’s appearance here in Lancaster. Signs were laid out on his dining room table asking “What about the Christians in Palestine?” His point of view was invaluble in helping think about my reaction to Cox’s book.


First, let me preface my comments by saying that I continue to be frustrated by Harvey Cox’s apparent ignorance of Orthodox Christianity. I suspect that if I were to ask him, he would know more than this book reveals, but, so far, he seems to studiously ignore Orthodoxy if he knows of it. That, or he reflexivly lumps it with Roman Catholicism. Orthodoxy is distinct in many ways from Catholicism. In fact, there are some areas (which I’ll talk more about as we go along) where Catholicism and Protestants have more in common with each other than they do with Orthodoxy.

Fundamentalism is Dying?

One of the first assertions that Cox made that seems premature to me is that fundamentalism is dying. The specific Chrstian Fundamenalist movement of the 20th century might be dying out. The word “Fundamentalism” has outgrown that particular usage, though, and grown to encompass any religious movement that has little room to acknowledge any truth outside itself. Fundamentalism in this sense is not dying out. The most extreme examples of religious Fundamentalism can be still seen when Christians bomb abortion clinics, when a Muslim blows himself up, or when Orthodox Jewish “modesty patrols” burn down stores they don’t like. And, less we restrict fundamentalism to “people of the book”, this same sort of fundamentalism can be seen in Hindu violence against Muslims or as Buddhists in Sri Lanka attack Muslims. While most of us would find this violent sort of fundamentalism foreign, there is a “soft” fundamentalism — a doorway fundamentalism — with completely understandable roots that appeals to a large number of people. These are people of faith living in community. They bond together because they have a common understanding of their faith. This fundamentalism, like the movement that began in the early 20th century, is a reaction to those who, in the eyes of the fundamentlists, want to diminish the “truth” their story, and replace it with a morality tale. This soft fundamentalism, reactionary in nature, is a opposed to the pragmatism of modern approaches to religion — as a moralistic, humanistic way of living. And, since one of our first instincts (as Cox notes in his second chapter) is to objectify people we do not identify with — especially those we see as dangerous, this soft fundamentlism can lead to violence. Once you’ve objectified someone, it isn’t hard to accept violence towards that person. Just as Cox notes that people were premature in predicting the death of God and religion, predicting the death of fundamentalism is premature. As long as people continue to take their scriptures seriously, there will be religious fundamentalists. And, as long as Christians use a “Just War” theory, there will be violent Christian fundamentalists.

Morality vs Ethereal

Which brings us to what Cox thinks is the reason people remain religious now. From page 2: “People turn to religion more for support in their efforts to live in this world and make it better, and less to prepare for the next.” Here Cox provides two different points of view as to the purpose of religion. These are his answers to why people are religious: essentially, Morality or fear of death But both of these are completely man- and self-centered. As the narrator of “The Gurus” (another book I’m currently reading) notes, these approaches leave people who are searching for deep spirituality wandering. Some are drawn to the more morally ambiguous Hinduism (as in “The Gurus”, for example) because they are looking for an experience with the divine now rather than the promise of the divine later or guidance on how to live now. It is these people, the ones who are not simply satisfied with morality, who aren’t cowed by fear of death, and who posess enough spiritual curiousity to look outside their culture, who Cox doesn’t even seem to see. People looking for morality don’t need religion. While Christianity certainly provides a unique paradigm for building a moral life, that is not the purpose of Christianity. Even escape from an unprovable, but horrific, after-death torment in Hell is not the “why” of Christianity (though you wouldn’t know it from a pass through the Hell House). Jesus himself said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” In quoting the Psalms (“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”), Jesus was reminding his listeners that following a code of conduct wasn’t what was important. Framing Christianity’s purpose as a, or sometimes, the only means of conveying morality is just another reason to dismiss it. Being moral, following the Golden Rule, etc, doesn’t require faith, belief or even religion.

Faith vs Belief

Cox defines “Faith” is an individual experience while “Belief” is (generally speaking) the corporate expression. He sees us turning to an “Age of Spirit” that is more similar to the first 300 years of Christianity (the “Age of Faith”) than the “Age of Belief” that we’re just now leaving. While I’ll agree that the first 300 or so years of Christianity was unique, I think categorizing the past 50 years as an era just as distinctive as that initial period is just silly. But I also think he makes too much of this difference between “faith” and “belief”. Another way to explain how Cox differentiates these two concepts is to think of faith is as a person’s experience of awe, of wonder, and a “sense that behind anything that can be experienced this is something that our minds cannot grasp” (to quote Einstein, as Cox does). Belief, on the other hand, Cox defines as dogma that has its origin in religious institutions. Most emblematic of what Christianity has to offer as belief, in this sense, would be the Nicene Creed. Cox, in quoting Rober Wuthrow, says we’re “replacing explicit creeds and doctrines with implicit norms devised by the group.” (Emphasis his.) For non-, or should I say, anti-creedal Christians, the problem of the Creed is that doesn’t address what Jesus told us to do or what he did. This is absolutely true. So the Creed has been replaced in some Christian circles with the ambiguous, subjective question: What Would Jesus Do? Let me be clear that this is not a bad question. But it should not be used as a criteria for who is “in” or “out”. And this is what is happening whether we use the Creed or social norms (e.g. “Christians don’t smoke”, “Christians don’t dance”, “Christians aren’t gay”). We’re defining an identity. The Creed does not demand any standard of behavior from people, but simply says you’re “in” or “out” by what you claim to believe. Its an explicit standard with little to no room for subjectivity. As an added bonus it has remained the same, worldwide, for almost 1700 years. Implicit norms, however, change with culture. They vary from place to place and time to time. A tee-totalling Baptist from America, for example, might have trouble recognising an imbibing German Baptist as Christian because of his implicit understanding of how a Christian acts. A Creed is a means of identification. It is how a group defines itself. Profess the creed, and it doesn’t matter if your a smoker or gay.


Now, where does doubt come into play here? Cox rightly identifies the existance of doubt as an area that has been dealt with poorly in the past. Fundamentalist Christians, especially, make it seem as if doubt is a sign that something is wrong with your Christianity. However, Cox seems to blame this problem on the nature of belief itself. He opposes doubt and belief:

Eliminating the spurious use of ‘belief’ to define Christianity has another advantage. It recognizes that often people who call themselves ‘unbelievers’ have episodic doubts about their unbelief. ‘Believers’ go through similar swings.”

He even uses Mother Theresa’s letters as evidence of this. And this is where he shows that he doesn’t understand another facet of the usefulness of the Creed. During every mass that Mother Teresa attended, the Creed was recited. And, yes, she had her doubts. This was not a reason, however, not to recite the creed. One can recite the creed while struggling with doubt. Perhaps the best expression of doubt and belief is found in Mark 9:24: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Cox’s overly specialized re-definition of belief versus faith would require us to re-translate this. In the same way, the use of creeds, the recitation of “I believe”, was never incompatible with doubt. By reciting the creed you’re identifying yourself with fellow strugglers. “We’re in this together, whether we’re drinkers or tee-totallers; whether or not were Democrats or Republicans; liberals or conservatives; peaceniks or warmongers; gay or straight. We hold this in common and, in humility, admit our need for mercy and our hope for healing.”

“Age of the Spirit”

Finally Cox’s claim about the Age of the Spirit and its opposition to the Age of Belief, really shows his lack of understanding of Orthodox Church and, perhaps, the Roman Catholic church.

[F]or centuries Christians have claimed that the Holy Spirit is just as divine as the other members of the Trinity. But, in reality, the Spirit has most often been ignored or else feared as too unpredictable. — page 9

I can only point out that from what I’ve read about Monastic life and the Orthodox celebration of “Fools for Christ” there has always been a place in Orthodox life for the free expression of the Spirit. Just as “Aslan is not a tame lion”, God, through the Holy Spirit, isn’t tame or predictable and never has been. Monastics live in self-supporting communities apart from the hustle and bustle of “normal” life to allow more time to commune with the Spirit. Fools, in the meantime, bring the Spirit directly into the hustle and bustle of “normal” life. They’ve suffered greatly as a result, but they’re also respected by many as having distinctly spiritual insight. Both of these approaches feel threatening to us, even in this modern “Age of the Spirit” that Cox claims we’re in. Finally, his claim that the Age of the Spirit looks to the future instead of the past seems disingenuous. For example, he makes several nostaligic comparisons to the Age of Faith when defining the Age of the Spirit. I would argue that looking towards the future is no better than looking towards the past. Neither is correct. We need to live now and focus on the present.

One thought on “Future of Faith, reflections part 1”

  1. (Following is from John Goerzen who had trouble posting this.)

    Lots to read here — an interesting post. Thinking about it from the top down:

    I agree with you that fundamentalism isn’t going to be completely extinguished. I read Cox as saying that it will be greatly reduced in prominence, rather than completely disappearing.

    Regarding the “Morality vs. Ethereal” discussion, I think you are reading more into the text than intended. That quote is in the context of a discussion of why people turn to religion — which incidentally, is a different question than the purpose of religion. He describes the change as a “rediscovery of the sacred in the immanent, the spiritual within the secular… the pragmatic and experiential elements of faith as a way of life are displacing the previous emphasis on institutions and beliefs.”

    I don’t read that as excluding other explanations. I read it as an attempt to explain some trends in how people think. I really don’t see any disagreement with Cox in the last two paragraphs in that section. I also wouldn’t diminish “support in their efforts to live in this world” as somehow denying deep spirituality. I also wouldn’t expect that the reasons a person decides to investigate religion would necessarily be all that informed before that religion has been investigated.

    Regarding Faith vs. Belief: I like Cox’s explanation that, for early Christians, “‘faith’ meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated.”

    This faith vs. belief distinction is one of critical importance to me personally, and one that I think Marcus Borg illuminates far better than Cox did. Belief, in fact, used to be more synomyous with faith, and meant a sense of loving God, of trusting God, rather than holding a set of intellectual assertions to be true. The notion of “faith” as “believing a set of assertions to be true” is, to me, misguided and unworkable.

    I dislike this creedal discussion about whether you’re “in” or “out”. I don’t think that question matters, and that going to great lengths to answer it results in more harm than good.

    I am having a bit of trouble also with your paragraph on creeds, saying that recitation of “I believe” was never incompatible with doubt. How can a person that honestly isn’t sure about the existance of God, or the precise nature of Jesus’s relationship with God, honestly recite the creed? (I know some, such as Marcus Borg, have interesting answers, but I’d like to know yours.)

    Finally, regarding the “Age of the Spirit” discussion: Cox, at other points in the book, mentions that there have been pockets of spirit alive all throughout the centuries. I think you are misinterpreting his intent here (and elsewhere): he is describing trends. There are, of course, exceptions to generalizations; what he’s describing is changes in the relative popularity of various ideas in various places over time. That doesn’t mean that there was no spiritual Christian between 200 and 1950.

    OK, wow, that sounds very negative, but I didn’t mean it that way, really. The fact that I wrote all this in response means that I like your post and am taking it seriously. I promise 😉

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