Faith and the Future 1 (RJS)

Today I begin a series of posts looking at Harvey Cox’s new book The Future of Faith. We’ll see how long it goes – at least a couple of weeks. Cox is the Hollis Professor of Divinity emeritus at Harvard and is best known for his 1965 book The Secular City.  I first became familiar with Cox and his work through his book When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today, a very thoughtful and thought provoking book.  The new book explores the trends that Cox sees in the history of the church and his thoughts on the future of faith, including Christian faith.

In the first chapter of his book Cox describes a history of the church divided into three ages, the age of faith, the age of belief, and the age of the spirit (we will look at these in greater detail below). He then talks about his personal faith journey from a rather fundamentalist Baptist to the current day. He talks about his experiences at Penn as an undergraduate where his belief – but not his faith – was shaken.  To understand this statement it is important to understand what Cox means by faith as he now uses the term.

As Cox describes it faith is the experience of the divine – not a set of theories about the divine, and Christianity is best understood as a way of life, not as a creed or set of proper beliefs. He notes that the confusion began to clear in his mind when an acquaintance described himself as “a practicing Christian, but not always a believing one”; when a bishop of the Catholic church welcomed an audience saying “The line between belief and unbelief … runs through the middle of each one of us, including myself, a bishop of the church”; and as he pondered the doubts experienced by Mother Teresa. (p. 16-17) 

Does Cox’s idea that faith is experience and way of life hit a resonance? Is it possible to be a practicing Christian, but not always a believing one?

Now a little more detail. In his book Cox divides church history into the following three eras:

The Age of Faith
comprising the first three centuries. In this age Cox suggests that the church was more concerned with following Jesus than with enforcing what to believe about Jesus. This is a summary that strikes me as rather broad brush as I do think that there was also concern about what to believe.

The Age of Belief
– the next 1500 or more years of the church.  A time when power and creed and hierarchy became the rule.  Faith about Jesus becomes more important than faith in Jesus. Cox notes:

The year 385 CE marked a particularly grim turning point. A synod of bishops condemned a man named Priscillan of Avila, and by the order of the emperor Maximus he and six of his followers were beheaded in Treves…. He was the first Christian to be executed by fellow Christians for his religious views. (6-7)

The church, in a fashion, moved from persecuted to persecutor. But Cox doesn’t do full justice to the history. This isn’t an abrupt change, and it is a change that began while the church was persecuted. With the power of state it became possible.  It would also be a mistake to think that the church was united in favor of the execution – it was not, although Cox fails to mention this in his summary. (See Priscillian on wikipedia – if someone has a better link – let me know)

The Age the Spirit
– A trend where Christians now are defining faith by action rather than creed, where spirituality is more important than dogma. What is spirituality as Cox uses the term?

It reflects a widespread discontent with the preshrinking of religion, Christianity in particular, into a package of theological propositions by religious corporations that box and distribute such packages. (13)

…it represents an attempt to voice awe and wonder before the intricacy of nature that many feel is essential to human life without stuffing them into ready-to-wear ecclesiastical patterns. (13-14)

…it recognizes the increasingly porous boundaries between different traditions and, like the early Christian movement, it looks more to the future than to the past. (14)

A change is underway and the church will never be the same. Cox sees this as the next big change in Christianity, an irreversible and unavoidable process … the age of the Spirit, the decline of hierarchy, the distancing from creedal belief, the importance of practice, the significance of faith as a way of life.

I must admit I find Cox’s summary a little too much of a broad brush.  While the trends ring true it seems to me that there is a thread in the faith throughout the centuries that is true to following Christ as a way of life and founded in central beliefs about Christ.  The essence of the creeds did not spring from thin air in the third century, nor did the practice of faith disappear for 15 centuries.

What do you think? Does this outline of church history make sense? Could we be entering an age of faith – but not belief, an age of the spirit?

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  • Rick

    “The Age of Faith – comprising the first three centuries. In this age Cox suggests that the church was more concerned with following Jesus than with enforcing what to believe about Jesus.”
    I am not sure what he means by “more concerned” or “enforcing”, but it does sound like he is indicating the church was not interesting in “what to believe”.
    Unfortunately for Cox, the early church was in fact concerned with “what to believe” (and, of course, with following Jesus). One needs only to read the early church fathers and the development of creeds to see this. If Cox builds his whole thesis off a disregard for that fact, it is downhill from here.
    At first glance, IMHO, he seems to have a real problem with the institutional church, and that is driving his views.

  • Mike

    Full disclosure: I am a student at Harvard Divinity School, where Professor Cox is somewhat of a legend. That being said, while I would agree (and my suspicion is that Professor Cox would, too) that the history is “broad brushed” I wouldn’t write off “The Age of the Spirit” too quickly. More and more I see that people are quoting Augustine’s rule of love or verses such as “by their fruits you shall know them,” or “the fruits of the spirit are…” (and I haven’t heard, say, 2 Tim 3:16 quoted in a long time).
    Of course this is partly a product of going to a divinity school where just about every “faith tradition” one can think of is represented, but I also think that it is wider than that. There is a sense that when you are are constanly speaking about your “faith” in the presenence of people who do not share it, ethics/justice becomes the common ground and check point. But even the PC(USA) book of order it speaks of truth in order to goodness. Whether in LA (where I’m from) or in Cambridge, people are increasingly suspicious of power and we are constantly checking what we “believe” with what we “do.” And, for what it is worth, there is a strong Christian history backing this.
    We must be carful that we do not pick between creedal belief and “faith as a way of life” but I don’t see the tension as such a bad place…

  • T

    There is a resonance in me with his idea that our beliefs (our conclusions about God) can be shaken even while our trust in God (a person with whom we are trying to act) is not shaken or grows stronger. I’m thinking of Abraham and the command to sacrifice Isaac. Surely Abraham’s “beliefs” — what he thought he knew about God — had to be shaken by the command itself. But he acted in arguably greater trust of that God than he ever had before, even while he must have simultaneously had more question marks in his beliefs than ever before.
    Not that the author raises this issue (at least in this stage of the book) but I think this story illustrates how sometimes beliefs not only can, but must be shaken in order for faith to grow. Surely all the disciples, including Paul, have similar stories of having their beliefs broken as their trust of Christ and his way grows.
    Regarding the broad brush, obviously all three of these strands are at work in all times and in all people, so he’s talking about which is more dominant, which is really interesting. And in that vein, he may be right, generally speaking.

  • tscott

    It’s easy to lose posts( and faith) here.

  • I think you’re hunch about the church going into an age of faith and an age of the Spirit is a good one. I’d agree in the sense that our faith does need to be a simple faith driven by our passion to follow Christ and our passion to seek spiritual things, which is manifested in actions of the believer. I see this happening in our contemporary church that is in love with the Messiah.

  • dopderbeck

    Without reading the book, it’s hard to comment, but this sound suspiciously like Schleirmacher and liberal existentialist theology warmed over. Not that everything about Schleirmacher or liberal existentialist theology is entirely wrong — but it tends to run off the rails when existential experience is all there is, divorced from any confessional content.

  • RJS

    I think that Cox does err on the side of liberal existentialist theology – but on the other hand I also think that he does put his finger on some key points.
    Is Christianity the affirmation of beliefs or a life devoted to following Christ? Are these separable or two parts of the whole?
    Now I don’t think that Christianity is one story among many possible – I think that it is the story. But I also don’t think that we are saved by believing the right precise words – “substitution” “grace” “Church” etc.

  • Rick

    “But I also don’t think that we are saved by believing the right precise words – “substitution” “grace” “Church” etc.”
    What about words such as “God”, “Jesus Christ”, etc…?

  • shmatty

    I heard professor Cox give a lecture on his new book at UCLA a couple of weeks ago. Someone raised the objection that it seemed as if he was taking what he sees as a trend happening in Christianity, which I believe to be true (at least, at a popular level there is much more concern with orthopraxis now rather than orthodoxy), and applying it too generally to religions across the board.
    He didn’t give a very satisfying answer-“I assure I and others constantly study the movements of other religions”-but nor did time permit another lecture to answer the question.
    I was wondering: does anyone see this trend happening in other faith traditions? Or, maybe is it that it is less talked about because other religions are already less creedal (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism…)?

  • Rick

    “What about words such as “God”, “Jesus Christ”, etc…?”
    I need to clarify that I did not intend that to come across in an antagonistic tone.
    I just see Cox as emptying the need for any clarity in the object of our faith, and substituting it with orthopraxy, which in turn becomes the object of our faith.

  • I wonder if boiling down Christianity to praxis doesn’t undercut itself. I think Michael Wittmer defends that well in his book ‘Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus isn’t Enough.’ I personally find strongest my motivation to live as a Christian from my theological understanding of the atonement.

  • RJS

    Well, what do you mean by words “God” and “Jesus Christ”? On one level we can get into the conversation once again – what about those who have never had the opportunity to hear about and thus profess faith in Jesus Christ?
    But certainly beliefs do matter — I guess that I would ask what beliefs and to what level?

  • We often see these types of tensions introduced. A similar tension was being discussed yesterday in the Religion or Revolution thread re: Greg Boyd. Andrew Jones, yesterday, said that emerging church energies, in the coming decade, will be re-directed from creative worship arts to creative social enterprises. Tim King, yesterday, wrote about the difference between knowing that and knowing how.
    Is the life of faith knowing THAT or knowing HOW? Is it propositional or participatory? Is it practices or conclusions? Is it about institution or revolution? Is it about orthopraxy or orthodoxy or orthopathy or orthocommunio? Should religious apologetics be evidential, presuppositional, rational or existential? Is religion about creed (dogma), cult (ritual), code (law) or community? Is it about truth, beauty, goodness or unity?
    I don’t think we are dealing with dichotomies in such distinctions. Rather, I see these distinct approaches as integrally related. I do think we are often dealing with various over- and under-emphases. Still, I do not think the correction of these undue emphases is a simple matter of giving each aspect equal attention or equal time. In other words, I think we can honestly say that the life of faith includes THIS, to be sure, but it has a whole lot more to do with THAT!
    In other words, we might concede a certain PRIMACY to one or another aspect of the life of faith even if we maintain, at the same time, that no particular aspect is otherwise autonomous from the others. (This is a normative question regarding what the life of faith should be about, which is different from the historical descriptive question, which asks what religion has been about.) I think it is proper, then, to ask what the life of faith should mostly be about and how we might best get on with it. Is this the right question? If so, how would you answer it?

  • EricG

    I’ve been struggling with this set of issues lately. In particular, I have a significant amount of doubt right now about various core Christian beliefs. I still, however, have hope that they are true. I fear that I couldn’t sign on to the various creeds with certainty. But I live my life as if they are true, because I still have hope.
    In that sense, Christianity for me right now is more of a way of life based on a glimmer of hope than it is a set of firm convictions.
    I think that is different from buying into, say, John Shelby Spong and other fundmantalist liberal views. Some of the more conservative types may hear them as the same thing, but from where I set there is a difference. Sounds like Cox may be more along the lines of what I am suggesting than typical outright liberal theology, although I don’t know for sure.

  • tscott

    Just so condescending, where is this research gathered?
    “The days of the pure church type within our present civilization are numbered, more and more the central lifr of the church-type is being permeated with the vital energies of the sect and of mysticism.” Ernst Troeltsch, 1911.

  • I work for an organization that partners almost exclusively with churches, and I would definitely agree that the church is trending towards: “The Age the Spirit – A trend where Christians now are defining faith by action rather than creed.”
    Part of that action is that many are now using their faith to inform their wallets, and not the other way around.
    Here’s a video that details how churches are using their spending to bring restoration and redemption into some of the darkest corners of the world.

  • Your Name

    “We will pipe you(said the prevailing philosophy) the water you need; we will arrange for ‘religion’ to become a small subdepartment of ordinary life; ……Now at last it has happened: the hidden springs have erupted, the concrete foundation has burst open, and life can never be the same again. The official guardians of the old water system(…some of whom work naturally in the churches) are of course horrified to see the volcano of ‘spirituality’ that has erupted in recent years.” N.T.Wright, 2006.
    We have experimented many times with with what this prof sees as the age of the Spirit. Starting with the promises and visions of scripture, dreaming of the springtime of the church, visionaries in all ages have gone this way. The presence and activity of the Spirit, to which they abandon individually and collectively, it is an attempt to quicken souls and regenerate Christianity.
    But this should be recognized by any historical observer of the Church. Sure the trends ring true. He can read the signs of the times, but his church history, come on. He sees this as the next big change in Christianity, an irreversible and unavoidable process. Please. Do you want me to list the names of those who have gone down this path in the churches history?

  • I haven’t read the book, but your description makes it seem more like mythology than history. His myth situates us on the verge of a great advance. I wonder if we need such a myth.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#7) — I see these tensions as historic ones that go back to the scriptures themselves. I’m not sure I buy the idea that they represent a new or distinct direction of the Tradition. There have always been scholastic and mystical poles of the Tradition. Compare, say, the apophatic desert fathers with the Latin fathers, and so on. In the 15th C. you have Thomas A’ Kempis saying in “The Imitation of Christ,” in response to the scholastics:

    What good is much discussion of involved and obscure matters when our ignorance of them will not be held against us on Judgment Day? Neglect of things which are profitable and necessary and undue concern with those which are irrelevant and harmful, are great folly.
    We have eyes and do not see.
    What, therefore, have we to do with questions of philosophy? He to whom the Eternal Word speaks is free from theorizing. For from this Word are all things and of Him all things speak — the Beginning Who also speaks to us. Without this Word no man understands or judges aright. He to whom it becomes everything, who traces all things to it and who sees all things in it, may ease his heart and remain at peace with God.
    O God, You Who are the truth, make me one with You in love everlasting. I am often wearied by the many things I hear and read, but in You is all that I long for. Let the learned be still, let all creatures be silent before You; You alone speak to me.

    I tend to think where one falls on the pole between scholastic and mystic has more to do with individual temperament than with any period in history.

  • Your Name

    Novatians, Donatists, Cathari, Priscillianists, Joachim di Fiore, Fraticelli, Homines Intelligentiae, Flagellants, Vaudois, Herrnhunters, Swedenborgians, Irvingites. From Montanus to James Naylor, from Muggleton to Evan Roberts. How about the international gathering of apostles and prophets in Santa Rosa, Florida on Jan, 11 2010. The issues they raise are not dead, but this evolution of an age of the Spirit has occured too many times for us to think this is the path we should take.

  • tscott

    This guy is from Harvard, so we should believe this is the cutting edge. This is weak. He never researched the spiritual(pentecostal, charismatic) principle throughout church history. And, of course, since it has never been taught in the churches, many take what he says as something new. It’s as old as Montanism, just recycled.

  • RJS

    tscott (and your name 17, 20 – same person I think),
    No one said that we should agree with Cox – but we should wrestle with the ideas rather than just pooh pooh them with a touch of ridicule and some names.
    I also think it is worth some serious conversation because many of the same ideas have come up in other guises on this blog and it is not clear that orthodoxy has a unique answer.

  • Your Name

    RJS, Another good post. You have really been getting into “what is the core of Christianity?” and those types of questions.
    I think seeing Christianity as a “way of living” is fine, depending on what that means. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if it is defined further but sometimes we can be speaking the same language, using the same words but meaning very different things.
    Christianity as an action based way of living can end up being another form of legalism. Where our trust in our actions, our moral record, and living out biblical principles is our foundation.
    “But certainly beliefs do matter — I guess that I would ask what beliefs and to what level?”
    In past posts you have offered praxis as the common ground between traditions, it seems like you are adding to it? What would be your view of the beliefs that matter?

  • The Age of Faith – … the church was more concerned with following Jesus than with enforcing what to believe about Jesus.
    Uh, no. Demonstrably false.
    “The Age of Belief – Faith about Jesus becomes more important than faith in Jesus.”
    Too broad a brush.
    “The Age the Spirit – A trend where Christians now are defining faith by action rather than creed, where spirituality is more important than dogma.”
    And so now we have “Muslim” Christians and all kinds of other oddities. True for emergents, but not really anyone else.
    Thanks for playing.

  • Though I agree that faith is our experience of God, it is at the same time also a set of beliefs about God. It is a question of how do we experience God that with time is expressed in the canon. Because believers through centuries of use of these scriptures together with their own experiences affirm these scriptures as true to their experience of God these become beliefs about God. Evaluated experience. Paul says somewhere to the Thessalonians that they(he) know the gospel is true because of the effect that is visible in their lives. It is a place where rationality and experience meet. All knowledge is at the end of the day some form of evaluated experience, or at least has its origins in evaluated experience.

  • dopderbeck (#19) wrote: >>>I tend to think where one falls on the pole between scholastic and mystic has more to do with individual temperament than with any period in history.

  • Lourens Grobbelaar: “All knowledge is at the end of the day some form of evaluated experience, or at least has its origins in evaluated experience.”
    The normative mediates between the descriptive and interpretive to effect the evaluative. (My succinct maxim based on a reading of Charles S. Peirce combined with Robert C. Neville.)

  • Cam R.

    #23 was my post.

  • rebeccat

    It seems to me that the labeling at this point in time probably isn’t very useful. There has been too much broad brush painting of whole millenia, movements, etc going on over the last decades and many have learned to be very suspicious of these generalizations. Generalizations can be useful to a certain extent, but coming out of our era of scientific rationalism and materialism, there is a tendency to want to make generalizations into hard rules. And reality is, of course, that life and people are far too varied and exceptional to fit whole cloth into hard rules.
    But I do think that there are interesting questions raised by material such as this. I think that the changes the author is observing are the struggle that many people face as we try to understand what our faith looks like once a scientific rationalist/materialist mindset is no longer tenable. For much of the 20th century, much of Christiandom was focused on creating scientific rationalist explanations for the faith which could go toe to toe with modern scientific and humanist views of the world. However, the presumption that being able to define everything down to the nth degree and that salvation could be found in proper belief didn’t work back when the arguments were how many angels could fit on the head of a pin and inquisitions and don’t work much better when the arguments are over creationism and immersion vs sprinkling. (There must be something about human nature which wants to eschew faith and mystery in favor of that which can be defined and enforced. Because we seem to keep trying it, just in different flavors as the times change.) At any rate, after a century or more of having faith presented to us as if it were meant to and could fend off competing modernist theories of the world, I think the argument has played itself out to the point that people are looking for a new way to move forward. (modernist giving way to post-modernist, anyone?) Of course, not having come this way before, no one really has a good road map and we find ourselves digging through old trunks to see if maybe great-great-great grandad left gems behind in the old trunk in the attic that we can use now. What seems clear to many of us is that we need a new relationship with belief than the one which we were brought up with. No longer should it be possible for someone to lose their entire relationship with God because of scientific discoveries about the origins of man. Yet we’ve also seen the mess that happens when there is nothing solid to hang onto and anything is negotiable.
    At the end of the day, I think perhaps we need to embrace the idea that we are dependent on God to show the way forward. As messy and risky as it is, perhaps we need to accept that God does not need us to defend Him. That if we encourage people to develop their spiritual lives, this will empower their kingdom walks and provide as much protection as is reasonable for us to ask for against beliefs which really are damaging to the faith. Not that we never draw lines in the sand but just that we are much more considered and gentler about where and when we must do that. Not everything is a slippery slope. Perhaps the time has come to turn our focus to continually turning people to God, teaching believers how to pray, how to meditate on scriptures, how to co-operate with the work of God in our lives so that He is made more manifest in our lives. Let God protect Himself and His faith and trust that He is up to the task. Again, certainly the bible does talk of times when the borders need to be enforced, but perhaps we also need to be humble enough to admit that we’ve made a hash of that job and need to back off it when ever possible for the time being.
    Going along with this, I think, needs to be the ability to let go of our very individualistic views of the faith. More often than not, God works through groups and over time to grow humanity. This story will not be resolved in our generation, and certainly not in our individual lives. We are not that important in the big scheme. And not all of this is going to be ours to solve. Which isn’t to say that we ignore it, but just that we learn not to hold much more than God very tightly at all.

  • RJS

    CamR #23 – Beliefs that matter? At the risk of over simplifying…
    What Tertullian ca. 200 AD (within Cox’s “Age of Faith” before his “Age of Belief” and arguably in an “Age of the Spirit”) noted when he wrote “That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel, even before any of the older heretics” (Against Praxeas)
    Belief in the one God; belief in the Son, His Word – being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, suffered, died, buried, risen, ascended, and coming again; belief in the Holy Spirit – the comforter and sanctifier of our faith.
    I think that this is the foundation of our faith. The idea that beliefs didn’t matter before Constantine simply doesn’t hold – unless you accept that everything to the contrary was destroyed post Constantine. I just don’t think that it is that simple.
    But affirmation alone isn’t belief – belief will impact life, all of life. Belief in Jesus also entails the desire to follow his teaching which is powerful stuff.