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.

Spiritual autobiography

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.

Three Changes

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.

2 thoughts on “Future of Faith, Reflections, Part Two”

  1. response

    I haven’t read the book yet, though it sits pretty on top of my stack of unread and intend to read books.

    I’m a little surprised too, about the claim related to western christianity. I myself would probably have made the distinction more geographically or demographically between “1st world” and “3rd world” instead of “western” and whatever the other option would be. Especially if you consider that the church in latin america, africa, and asia is pretty much a byproduct of the missionary activity of western christianity…and if you don’t believe, consider how many churches in those cultures sing popular american praise songs and still love some of our crappiest hymns…(a philipino woman in my congregation goes on and on about how they used to sing “up from the grave he arose” on easter sunday in her church back in her homeland.)

    Maybe Cox’s point about the influence of Rome is too pressed, at least in his understanding of the early years, I don’t know but it sounds like you have a better grasp on that history…however don’t you think that there was within the church a slow accommodation to political power that the church is now far too accustomed too? (consider those today who love both God and country and can’t seem to draw a difference?) And wasn’t the monastic movement and the desert fathers/mothers a reaction to the church’s accommodation to the empire and to its power?


    1. Re: response

      I intend to write one more post on this now that I’ve finished the book. As I said, I didn’t feel the need to fight with it so much after he got past the history. But here’s some insight:

      He sees the rise of Christianity in “the Global South” (the new buzzword for what we once called “the third world” although this includes parts of Asia, so its kind of confusing) and the creation of Liberation Theology as something distinctly non-Western.

      The funny thing about all this is that he does acknowledge (in only a single paragraph, AFAICT) that Christianity has never been only “Western”. Fine. This only confirms (for me) that he is primarily talking about his own experience and not making broad pronouncements.

      His point about Rome is definitely too pressed. His appears to see hierarchy as unChristian, although he admits that it appeared even in the first century. He focuses way too much on who was called a heretic and why without acknowledging the number of monastics, priests and bishops that stood up to abuses in power. His brush is too broad and, for me, that makes reading him on these subjects difficult.

      Were there abuses of power? Most definitely.

      Were there times when the church didn’t defend the poor or stand up to political authorities? Absolutely.

      The best example I know of this in the Orthodox Church is exploitation of the serfs and the rise of Communism in Russia. Had the Church been more attuned to the needs of the people, perhaps there wouldn’t have been a need for a Communist Revolution. Perhaps Stalin wouldn’t have killed 20 million people — a large number of them faithful Orthodox priests and parishioners.

      I just checked out Armenian Golgatha (review that prompted this), so I’m sure I’ll read about more failures of the Orthodox.

      But the fact that power, hierarchy, or whatever, can be abused means that there is a proper way to use it.

      That’s my frustration. We decide this or that is the problem and we jettison it. But getting rid of hierarchy doesn’t solve the problem of abusive people. Focusing on the abuses of the ancient church means we tend to overlook or minimise any good that it did.

      Its like the contemporary movement after 9/11 to blame 9/11 on religion. Sam Harris, Dawkins, et al have made a killing saying “this is all religions fault, you’ll be better off without it.” Getting rid of religion doesn’t solve the problem of violent people.

      To his credit, Cox does talk about instances (e.g. St Francis) where people worked within the structure of the church to live rightly. He does talk about how hierarchy in the role of the Pope has potential to do some really great things and he specifically points out some great acts of reconciliation that John Paul II brought about.

      Ok, I’ve written enough now (I could write a lot more) so I’ll stop. 🙂

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