Faith and the Future 2 (RJS)

Tuesday I began a series of posts looking at Harvey Cox’s new book The Future of Faith. Today I would like to look at Chapter 3 – Ships Already Launched. Cox begins this chapter by dismissing the idea that all religions are the same. We all live with mystery, but how we cope varies.

I frequently meet people who, when they discover that I teach religion, assure me that “underneath, all religions are really the same.” I used to respond that, during a lifetime of teaching religion it appeared to me that they are not. But since that usually ended the conversation on a disagreeable note, I have recently just let their opinions pass. It is true that we are all responding to the same mystery, the one that confronts us all not just as mortal beings, but as beings aware of our mortality. Still we sense it and cope with the mystery in quite disparate ways. (p. 38)

Cox then begins to describe, as he says, “the ship I found myself on” – the narrative of the Judeo-Christian tradition. And this leads me to the questions for today. 

Are all religions the same?

But a simple answer of no isn’t enough.  Most of us consider ourselves Christian (certainly I do) – some will claim that this is this simply the luck of the draw and a matter of birth.  But the Christian is not willing to rest here – the whole NT especially the book of Acts is about God’s mission and the proclamation and spread of the good news, inviting others to join The Way. 

Why is the gospel of Jesus Christ good news? What is there that is real, intrinsically worth proclaiming, to which we desire to invite others?

Why is Christianity not simply another way (one among many) of dealing with the mysteries of life, purpose, and mortality?

In this chapter Cox describes what he calls the three cycles of Christian tradition – contained in stories and ritual (even in low church protestants); the Hebrew cycle, the Christmas cycle, and the Easter cycle. These cycles are distinctively Christian and set Christianity apart from most other religions (although closely related, of course, to Judaism).

The Hebrew Cycle localizes our story within the context of the Old Testament – a story where God favors the little guy and a process of becoming.

The Old Testament cycle begins with creation and ends with a renovation of the world into a commonwealth of shalom, a place of justice and peace. This is a very large promise for which the promised land of Canaan is mere foreshadowing, a sort of down payment. … This means that one way to see the mystery of space-time is to view it as an unfinished epic, a work in progress. It can be seen as a process in which the new, the surprising, and the unexpected constantly emerge. It means we live in a world whose potential is yet to be fulfilled. (p. 41)

…This view of the world as a creative process, …, explains why hope is such an important component of the way of life it shapes. Hope is that virtue that sees the past and the present in light of a future horizon. (p. 42)

The Christmas Cycle brings the focus of this hope into the life purpose of one man. Jesus teaching was focused around

…God’s promise of a new day, an age of peace and goodwill, the “Reigning of God” which he said was already coming to pass in a preliminary way. (p. 42)

Cox notes that the new regime, the Kingdom of God – or more precisely the Reigning of God, (because it is a happening not a place) – is a regime change and thus possessed anti-imperial and anti-Rome undercurrents.   But it is much more than this.

The Biblical ideal of the Kingdom of God also includes an essential inward element. … It also includes that death, either of the planet or of an individual, is not their ultimate destiny, and it points to a cosmic fulfillment that transcends human history, encompassing the celestial bodies. This in no way undercuts the fact that the Kingdom of God, as envisioned by Jesus and the prophets, contains an undeniable utopian element, (p. 44)

According to Cox Jesus wrestled constantly with the tests of faith – not doubts, but the struggles and setbacks which seem to defeat the coming of the Kingdom.

The Easter Cycle considers the death – and more importantly the resurrection of Jesus.  In this Cox notes that the while the disciples fled with the crucifixion but then

something happened to convince them that Jesus and the coming peaceable kingdom he embodied had not been defeated by death. The disciples came to believe that, in some sense that is hard to define, he still lived.” (p. 51) 

Cox focuses on the resurrection as critical – but not, it seems, literal.

The truth of the Easter cycle is that the life work of Jesus was not annihilated by his execution. It continues, among both those who follow him explicitly and those who contribute to the realization of the “possible world” that he demonstrated, whether they acknowledge him or not. (p. 53)

And putting this in context of The Age of Faith (the first of Cox’s three ages)

The faith of the earliest Christians combined that of the Old Testament with the Christmas story, the other accounts of Jesus’s life, and the Passion and Easter stories. Their faith took the form of loyalty to Jesus rather than to Caesar and a hope that the new world of shalom Jesus personified would one day appear in its fullness. (p. 53)

These three cycles tell the story of the Christian faith according to Cox. This is the story that makes sense of the mystery of the world. There are elements with which I agree (much of his Hebrew and Christmas cycles) and some with which I do not (the significance of the Easter cycle). But rather than criticize the picture that Cox paints, I would rather focus our discussion in a different direction – and this brings us full cycle back to the questions I posed above, and phrase a bit differently here.

What would you change – how would you paint the picture of the Christian story? If this was the age of faith – what was the central focus of the faith of the earliest Christians?

Why is Christianity not simply another way (one among many) of dealing with the mysteries of life, purpose, and mortality?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Diane

    Christianity has “a concept of God,” as my nontheist friends say. Christianity has a central belief that God is love and that love is the force that holds the world together. Jesus enacts a radical vision of forgiveness and giving of self. You can’t get around the cross. Buddha said, “if you meet me in the road, kill me.” Jesus enacted this, dying that others might understand the message he was trying to convey and have life. He was the radical other of every earthly king, who demanded that their subjects pledge to die for their king. He died for his followers. Christianity is the only religion I know of whose core tenets include “forgive without seeking retribution and forgive and forgive and forgive,” and “love your enemy as yourself” while resting, as the post points out, firmly in the hands of a God who is leading all to a good fulfillment. Christianity, rightly understood, is the only Way or Path by which a desperate, broken world can be turned upside down or right side up and reconnected with God. Other religions seem to me either more conformed to the world’s ways or more focused on resignation, loss of ego and self-emptying.
    As has been said, perhaps unfairly, Islam and Judaism have given up on changing the nature of man and thereby give him rules; Christianity writes itself on the hearts of people, changing us from within.
    The frustration is that Christians, as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, “is a good idea. Too bad nobody ever tried it.” I do get frustrated when, for example, the forgiveness of the Amish after the 2006 schoolhouse world is seen as awe-inspiring–by other Christians! Isn’t that the way we should be living?

  • Bob

    All religions at their base are the same. They all have the same values in their mystical elements. Peace, joy, and Love. The Incarnation is God’s demonstration that each one of us has God inside us. We have to live out who we already are. Structures of belief are for young children, they need a container for the mind. You leave doctrine and beliefs behind once you are in your 40s and beyond. Eckhart Tolle and Ken Wilber are models of mature spirituality.

  • Mark

    Bob, do you ever visit your parents, did you ever after forty.
    It seems you have a flipant attitude here. As if “I’ve grown up and no longer need them”. “I know better now”.
    Strange attitude really. I know you’re talking about God and not parents, yet the moral to the story is the same. I hope never to leave doctrine and belief behind me. If they change somewhat, let it be in a mature justified direction. Not based on my brains inability to contain the truth, which is not an issue with me. My God, Jesus has increasingly shown his face to me over my adult life. Containing him is the last thing I want to do or shunning him for that matter.

  • RJS

    Well, this isn’t off to a fast start … let me add another thought. The post here focuses on Cox’s view – and I think it really has a bearing on our conversation on Boyd’s book.
    It the Christian story revolution or religion – or is this dichotomy a false one? The gist of Cox’s argument is that it was revolution that became religion. How is this different from Boyd? Or is it?

  • DanJ

    The first question asked here is “Are all religions the same?” but I think a prior question needs to be asked. What do we mean by religion. In the context of Boyd I think that definition of religion would be a human system the regulates or controls access to God or the deity. From this perspective all religions are equal. Jesus came to eliminate human intermediary between a person and God/deity. This is a revolution, not reform, not religion. Yet over time this revolution once again became a system of control and access.

  • Rick

    Your questions could be answered in describing the meta-narrative of Genesis-Revelation (Creation-Restoration).
    However, the crux of it (no pun intended) is that our loving God came (into actual time and space), revealed Himself, became the ultimate Servant, provided access through actual resurrection for relationship with Himself/Trinity, and a healthier relationship with all creation- for now and eternity. We couldn’t do enough to reach Him; He reached us.
    You can’t find that in other religions.

  • Your Name

    christianity is the only religion with a personal God still daily involved in his creation.

  • RJS

    DanJ and Rick,
    It seems to me that you both come at an angle that is common in the evangelical church. But not quite right.
    I don’t think Jesus came to eliminate human intermediary – actually I think that this is baloney. I grew up with this teaching as well – and it has never made sense to me. He came for a much deeper and more profound reason. And what he did was more profound.
    I also don’t think that the point is that we couldn’t do enough to reach him (although we couldn’t) – there is a mission and a purpose. The purpose involves revolution and restoration – not salvation.
    Does the kingdom of God – the reigning of God actually play an important role in our thinking about the mission of Jesus and the Christian story?

  • In my view, all of the great traditions and even indigenous religions are Spirit-animated human attempts to articulate truth in creed, celebrate beauty in cult or ritual, preserve goodness in code or law, and celebrate fellowship in community. They engage us, participatively, in myth, story-telling, song and symbol, addressing our most insistent longings and ultimate concerns. They all suffer tendencies for dogma to decay into dogmatism, ritual into ritualism, law into legalism and community into institutionalism, but all have also gifted humankind with authentically transformed individuals.
    I buy into the notion that orthopraxy authenticates orthodoxy such that the efficacies of a religious approach would be reflected in how well it institutionalizes Lonergan’s conversions (as expanded by Gelpi): intellectual, affective, moral, social-political and religious. At the same time, I don’t suggest that we can very easily gather and interpret such sociologic data in order to adjudicate which path(s) work best. I also think we should avoid any facile syncretism, insidious indifferentism or false irenicism between traditions.
    This is all to say that I do not think it is unreasonable or uncharitable or that one is necessarily “stuck” in mythic membership consciousness, so to speak, when suggesting such distinctions as
    1) Christianity has a robustly self-critical, self-correcting prophetic tradition
    2) Christianity has elements of a true myth
    3) Even if other traditions or denominations enjoy a salvific efficacy via our own belief in a pneumatological inclusivity and even if one could live a life of abundance via an implicit faith, we might legitimately aspire, nonetheless, to a life of superabundance, to the most nearly perfect articulation, celebration, preservation & enjoyment of truth, beauty, goodness and unity available even if it is terribly problematic figuring out what that might be.
    4) Being on one path vs another might result in our moving more swiftly and with less hindrance on our ongoing journeys of conversion and transformation and we want to get this right out of genuine compassion for all.
    5) There may well be a dynamic in play of what is or is not developmentally-appropriate for one individual or another, even one culture or another, or even for humankind as a whole, different pages for different stages, so to speak.
    6) Christianity reveals a God inviting us into an ever more intimate and personal relationship.
    7) Jesus did not answer the philosophical and metaphysical questions of old or provide a well-worked out theodicy in response to Job and the psalmists or fully address our propositional concerns but responded to our deepest needs with Presence, both modeling and warranting a trust relationship with the Father and encouraging, even now, the same thru a Helper, the Spirit.
    8) the Resurrection Event may be hard to describe in historical detail or a metaphysical account of HOW but has an overwhelming impetus and significance for us insofar as we can be confidently assured THAT something happened and it is responsible for our being here together, now, in love.

  • I want to address the notion of “piping in God” or mediated God-experiences. In an incarnational view, we might see God coming to us and at us from many different angles and perspectives, using His creatures, indirectly, sometimes overwhelming us with Her Beauty more directly. It seems that we can recognize and affirm a sacramental economy that mediates presence, thanksgiving, reconciliation, healing and other gifts of God, while at the same time acknowledging that these very same gifts are available, variously directly and indirectly, sometimes more versus less mediated. As co-creators in a participatory unfolding, we are witnesses to a Divine Largesse that bowls us over from every angle.

  • Rick

    “The purpose involves revolution and restoration – not salvation.”
    I was attempting to not limit it to just salvation (although I do think that is included); it sounds I did not communicate that well enough. So let me clarify:
    I did mention restoration in my 1st sentence as part of the meta-narrative. My mentioning of creation later on was short-hand for Kingdom, beyond just a salvation concept.
    In regards to God reaching us, I did not mean to indicate that it is the main point, but rather to show how that runs counter to other religions.
    Good point about mission. It is key and I should have included that.

  • Jason

    Something missing here. Oh, I know the Gospel! The Gospel is missing! First Corinthians 15 anyone? The Gospel (Christ crucified for our sins and raised for our justification) is why Christianity is fundamentally and intrinsically different from every other religion. This is the only path by the way.

  • Brian in NZ

    If all religions are a result of us being created “in the image of God” and us having a “God shaped vacuum inside us”, then I would say yes, all religions spring from the same desire to know or relate to a Higher Being – whatever it ends up being called in the various religions.
    I see the big difference between Christianity and other religions being that the Christian God does not require physical ritual, regular practices, forms of worship etc to please him. Grace has been extended to us in a way that I can’t recall in any other religion.

  • Rick

    Brian #13-
    Good thoughts.
    Let me try another short version:
    God’s creation is good. It became less that it was intended to be. God came to restore what only He could restore (creation, community, relationships). He graciously invites us to join Him in His mission.

  • Joey

    I once organized a public forum in which representatives from four well represented religions answered a series of six questions from their perspective. We had an Imam, an Anglican Priest, a Buddhist monk (Theravada), and a Ba’hai representative. It was a neat experience and at each forum the answers improved (we did it in six locations: schools, town hall, etc.). The only one not willing to claim that all religions were the same was the Anglican – of course they all believed theirs to be the most true expression, but admitted that every religion was a valid yet lesser form of their own.
    I think what stands out about the early church to me is that their focus was not a religious one but a communal one. We’ve well institutionalized Christianity but I consider that to our chagrin. Christianity isn’t a question of which is the “best way” it is the answer of “the Way”. Follower of Jesus stopped being religious and started living in a new way – a Kingdom way. As soon as we start getting religious (and I love liturgy and work in a religious institution) as our primary expression of faith we’ve lost our “way” for something easier and less ambiguous.

  • RJS

    OK – so 1 Cor. 15:3-4 is For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures
    Core – no doubt about it. And resurrection – real physical resurrection – is an essential part of the story.
    But what does “died for our sins” mean?

  • I don’t think Christianity is a way of dealing with the mysteries of life, purpose, and mortality. This makes Christianity little more than a coping strategy. I too was thinking of the Boyd posts as I read this one. Christianity is what God has done in Christ. I also doubt (though I don’t know) if other religions would be satisfied with this description. Would an animist describe animism as a way of dealing with the mysteries of life, purpose, and mortality? An animist may have little interest in such things.

  • Rodney

    This conversation reminds me of what Lewis said in response to the same question. I think the story goes something like this: Oxford profs were debating what made Christianity unique, was it the virgin birth (no), was it promise of everlasting life (obviously not). Then, Lewis walked in the room and asked, “What’s all the fuss about?” They responded, “we’re discussing what’s unique about Christianity.” He said, “that’s easy. It’s grace.”

  • Jjoe

    Show me another religion where all that is required for salvation is a prayer and getting wet. I’m being a little sarcastic here, but not much. I am not too much of a scholar, but from what I have learned, Christianity is about the easiest path to God there could possibly be.

  • Huol

    Rodney is 110% correct! GRACE, GRACE, GRACE! Really, no other religion has a concept of it like Christianity does.
    If one really understand the Christian concept of GRACE, then one would know that nothing else IN THE UNIVERSE can really compare to it.
    As far as I know, Islam abhors it and despite all the recent scholarship of the “New Perspectives”, even in Judaism, nothing is similar to the Christian concept of Grace…

  • RJS

    Rodney and Huol,
    Grace yes – cannot be omitted from the equation – but isn’t there more to the story we find ourselves in than “just” grace? Grace isn’t purpose or hope – it is an essential part of getting us to fulfilled purpose and hope.

  • RJS

    To add to the last comment – is Grace really the only thing that is unique?

  • Patrick

    RJS, is grace the only thing that is unique? No. I’d want to go towards the unparalleled triune nature of God from which all Christian theology flows. Father. Christology, Jesus fully man, fully God. The Spirit as the empowering presence of the one triune God.

  • RJS

    When I read Cox’s description it seems to me that he is missing two things – God and Grace.
    There is no need of a personal God involved in relationship with his creation, there is no need for the Son as God incarnate. The mission of Jesus was kingdom and nothing more – no grace and no power.
    Cox is big on kingdom and hope. But Kingdom without God and Grace is not Gospel. Nothing worth dying for.
    Now I wonder though – is God and Grace without Kingdom Gospel?

  • Kidden

    Well God and Grace w/out Kingdom leads to a narrow individualistic, almost selfish, concept of the gospel, something plaguing modern Evangelicalism. Didn’t Dr. McKnight run a whole series on how there’s a dearth of “Kingdom” preaching within American Evangelicalism?
    At the same time, I think many Christians have a poor understanding of Grace. Real Grace, the actual stuff, ought to shock everybody! Every believer should say, “it just sounds to d@*# good to be true!” I think Huol and Rodney make a good point, God’s Grace cannot be overemphasized. After all…Jesus, the focus and center of Christianity, mainly came to reveal this very thing.
    John 1:17
    For the law was given through Moses; GRACE and truth came through Jesus Christ.

  • RJS

    Kidden —
    I think Scot has been beating this drum for quite awhile now, but I’m just starting to get it. Not the kingdom part – but the Grace part and what it really means. But I don’t think that we actually understand Grace if community and kingdom are not front and center in the picture.

  • RJS

    Kidden —
    I think Dr. McKnight has been beating this drum for quite awhile now, but I’m just starting to get it. Not the kingdom part – but the Grace part and what it really means. But I don’t think that we actually understand Grace if community and kingdom are not front and center in the picture.

  • In fairness, if we’re going to talk about how easy Christianity makes the process of approaching/reconnecting with God, we should also be clear about discussing the consequences if one were to not make that reconnection. In other words, the question is not just how hard/easy is it to reach God, but what happens to you – if you don’t? And, on that issue, with the more fundamentalist conceptions of Christian faith anyway, the news is actually “harder”, not “easier” than many other religious/spiritualist traditions.

  • joanne

    i think the resurrection is real and the significance is complex. Christ is present among us, in the community, in us… doing the work he did while on earth as a physical person. God is still present, with us and at work to free and liberate and give life. Without the resurrection, all we have is an ideology or life philosophy. Without the resurrection we have no power to face the evil, the oppression. That Christ is present by the Spirit, is what keeps me going… believing in the impossible.