Faith and the Future 1 (RJS)

Faith and the Future 1 (RJS) November 3, 2009

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?

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

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