The following book review is based on a class I took with Professor Cox in Fall 2012. In our seminar, Professor Cox allowed the class to choose the reading for the last class meeting, and much to his chagrin, we decided on his book.
In 2009, theologian Harvey Cox retired from the faculty of the Harvard Divinity School, having held the position of the Hollis Professor of Divinity, the oldest endowed professorship in the nation’s oldest University. So it was no slight irony when at his retirement he was signing copies of his new book, the The Future of Faith. Yet there is a good bit of history in the book, whose main thesis is that Christian history has been characterized by three epochs: the Age of Faith, the Age of Belief, and the Age of Spirit. Cox believes we are right now on the cusp of the latter two, and makes it his point to argue that the coming Age of Spirit will define the future of faith.
For Cox, a fundamental distinction between faith and belief needs to be made, since it maps out the topography on which his thesis moves. Although for many there is no difference between faith and belief, for Cox, faith is existential, a deep-seated confidence, whereas belief is “more like opinion,” a sort of intellectual assent (3). The Age of Faith, then, is the period of a few short decades in which Jesus and his immediate disciples begin a movement propelled by a buoyant faith. This short-lived but spiritually fluid age was all but congealed in the Age of Belief in which “primitive instruction kits thickened into catechisms, replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him” (5).
How did Christianity coagulate from a radical faith-movement into an ossified edifice of hierarchies, doctrines, and fabricated creeds? For Cox, part of the explanation is to be found in the cultural dispersion Christianity had to make itself intelligible to. And some of it had to do with conservative early church fathers, like Tertullian (ca. 160-225) who falsely claimed that certain beliefs he wasn’t quite fond of were heretical on the grounds that they were not there from the beginning. Turns out they were. The Gospel of Thomas, chronologically as “original” as Mark’s gospel, is an example of this. Scholarship has thus adduced evidence for a radical new claim: the early church fathers were human (imagine that!). They too salivated for power, and the resulting theological justifications were sometimes predictable–E.g. “Ignatius, himself a bishop, emphasized the sovereignty of the bishop’s office”–sometimes less so. Irenaeus, lending his opinion to the trendy debate about how many of the dozens of gospels then circulating should be canonized, advanced a creative line of reasoning. There must be four, he concluded, since there had been four faces in the vision of Ezekiel: a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle (1:10). Although his logic may appear a little out of the ordinary today, he won his case. (92)
Origen, who held a “somewhat spiritualized view of the Resurrection, which prevents him from being what American fundamentalists consider a ‘real Christian,’” instructed Christians to obey even unjust bishops (96). But for Cox, this obscene parody, in which faith came to mean “obeying the bishops and assenting to what he taught” (98)–this obscene parody aside, most of the historical petrification has to do with Constantine.
One figure looms large over the Age of Belief; not Christ, but His Holiness Constantine the Great (d. 387 CE), emperor of the Roman Empire, and part-time chief administrator of the Christian church. According to Cox, Constantine “imposed a muscular leadership over the churches, appointing and dismissing bishops, paying salaries, funding buildings, and distributing largesse. He and not the pope was the real head of the church.” It was here in this titanic corporate merger, Cox writes, that the “empire became ‘Christian,’ and Christianity became imperial” (6) so that the Roman guards, who had once arrested Jesus for crucifixion on the dictates of the Roman Empire, were now marching across Europe with crosses emblazoned on their shields–without the slightest sense of irony.
After what seemed a minor theological squabble regarding the nature of Jesus and God the Father, Constantine, unable to attenuate the quibble and wary of the possibility of its disintegrating the necessary ideological unity empire requires, summoned the first church council in history and gathered the bishops at his palace at Nicaea. Some pious church historians are inclined to believe–as they do–that the Holy Spirit guided such a momentous event in church history. Cox is somewhat more skeptical: “I have no idea whether the Holy Spirit hovered over the royal palace in Nicaea, but there was little doubt that Constantine hovered there,” he writes (105). One of the bishops present at Nicaea, Hilary of Poitiers, was rather frank about the theology which proceeded from the Imperial theologians: “we make creeds arbitrarily … every moon we make a new creed and describe invisible mysteries” (107). Some would argue that not much has changed in the intervening 17-or-so centuries.
In the book, Cox recounts a discussion he had at the old Holy Office of the Inquisition, what is now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. While it seems much of Cox’s point in this book to argue that the Holy Spirit is has changed and is changing the world rapidly, this chapter suggests the Holy Spirit perhaps missed a few spots. Suspicious of liberation theologians (he silenced Leonardo Boff and Hans Kung) and foreign philosophies, the Emeritus Pontifex Maximus is a big fan of Greek philosophy, which he believes provides “the most dependable intellectual vehicle for Christianity in today’s world” (118). But, as some scholars have keenly observed, today’s world is not ancient Greece: indeed, it is neither ancient nor Greek.
We are now entering, Cox contends, the “Age of Spirit.” The old religious hierarchies are being shaken off, along with their potpourri of theologies and creeds. There is an emerging number of people who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” anti-dogmatic anti-institutional, but open to mystery larger than themselves. Some orthodox elements in the church are not amused. Hierarchies do not “look with favor on the prospect of a church without hierarchies,” (9) writes Cox, who is rather more enthusiastic about the change. “To focus the Christian life on belief rather than on faith is simply a mistake,” he writes (18). Jesus himself, Cox notices, insisted that those who inherit the Kingdom of God are not “believers” and “not even aware that they had been practicing the faith he was teaching and exemplifying” (19).
Wondering what is bringing about this new age, Cox suspects it has something to do with the blasting of old assumptions in recent biblical scholarship: (1) that there was a single ‘early Christianity,’ (2) that the apostles themselves established apostolic authority, and (3) that empire had little to do with early theology. Recent scholarship is showing how diverse early Christianity was, with no unified theology, scripture, or governance. The “official Christianity” that emerged, Cox writes, “was only one among a range of ‘Christianities’ that thrived during the earliest years” (60). As for the second assumption, Cox is straightforward: “‘apostolic authority’ is a fiction invented considerably later.” It was St. Paul no less, who enjoined the early churches against granting this kind of authority to apostles. Apostolic authority was not early, but was “read back into earlier history,” Cox writes, “It was read back by those who, after the original apostles were dead, wanted to claim authority for themselves” (61).
As for empire, it has become clear in recent scholarship that empire was never really mere “background” to the emerging Christian movement, but preoccupied it. “The earliest Christians,” Cox writes, “understood themselves as an essentially anti-imperial movement” (62). And it was this empire to which the existence of one rather radical rabbi had posed a political threat. But his movement was to be deformed “almost beyond recognition” (63) when it was grafted onto the empire it challenged. Despite these assumptions having been thoroughly undermined by recent scholarship, hierarchical churches continue to rest their authority on them, an historical irony which does not escape Cox: “Like Wile E. Coyote in the ‘Road Runner’ cartoons, who continues to walk out onto the air after he has come to the edge of a cliff, rulers in many realms, not just the religious one, continue to wield their scepters long after the myths supporting their authority have been cut away.”
In contrast to these floating rulers, Cox sees someone like Oscar Romero, the assassinated former archbishop of San Salvador and inspiration to many a liberation theologian, as a sign of the new age. Liberation theology is not merely a new theological idea, but a new way of doing theology, by rethinking theology, rather than from the aerial perspectives of bishops and emperors, from the vantage point of the poor and outcast. Something like what Jesus did, though Jesus didn’t seem all that insistent on the whole theology thing. Cox, incidentally, practices what he preaches: he was one of the first to begin teaching liberation theology in North America.
We shouldn’t, however, assume Cox is blindly optimistic about this. It seems that each of the major changes occurring in Christendom is met by a fundamentalist reaction. Pentecostalism, spreading rapidly worldwide, holds both the prophetic potential of liberation theology as well as the sad insularity of fundamentalism. But fundamentalism, Cox says, is dying out. He is cautiously optimistic. Like the early Christian communities, the church has extended into completely new cultures; the long winter of doctrinalism is quickly thawing, and a new energy is being concentrated in religions we were all assured would be dead by the 21st century.
I am perhaps more cautious than Cox. If history is any example, the spirited early Christian movement quickly congealed into nightmarish bureaucratic hierarchies and within no time it was official dogma. Fundamentalism breeds on popular anxieties, and with global warming, economic crisis, and cowboy capitalism run amuck, these don’t seem to be retiring any time soon. But there is little doubt we are on the cusp of something big and new. What shape this world will take lies fully within our own hands. This new Age of Spirit Cox senses will be an age of gigantic possibilities, but also gigantic risk. Will the world resurrect into an age of more peaceful and creative (though imperfect) life? Or will it, in its sleepwalking, let this moment pass? Which path it takes seems to depend on whether it will take the proverbial red pill or blue pill. Whether or not we will choose to take responsibility for our world and our future, I cannot say. The Spirit blows where it listeth.
In a class I took with him, Professor Cox warned us that the future of religion is a notoriously difficult thing to predict, so we should proceed with humility in any attempt to predict the ‘future of faith.’ Yet if anyone is qualified to do it, Cox is he. His is a voice that needs to be listened to; it may be the voice of one crying in the wilderness. As St. Matthew’s Gospel records, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matthew 1:3) If Cox isn’t a prophet, he is a skilled guide in navigating us through the complexities of religion in the world today. The Future of Faith is shot through with wit, warmth, wisdom, and that trait too often wanting in theologians, humor. Moreover, his prose is, among theological texts, refreshingly lucid. And even if he is wrong, he is interesting. I recommend it with enthusiasm.