Faith and the Future 4 (RJS)

Faith and the Future 4 (RJS) November 12, 2009

Today’s post wraps up our brief series on Harvey Cox’s new book The Future of Faith. The last several chapters of the book, and in fact various passages throughout the book,  present some of Cox’s thoughts on the future of faith – and more specifically his hopes for the future of the Christian faith. Today I would like to focus our discussion on the future.

Cox notes – as have many others – that the future of the church is moving out of the western world, into Latin America, Africa, and the East.  While churches stand empty in Europe, the faith is flourishing and growing elsewhere. Notably charismatic forms of the faith are growing fastest.

The bottom line seems to be that faith is relevant for life in many parts of the world and that the Christian faith in particular meets a very real need.  Faith simply is not relevant in much of the secular west. But in the global South … liberation theology and the power of people in small house church groups play an enormous role.  Faith flourishes when it is not micromanaged from the top, but grows from the bottom through the power of the Spirit.

Lets look at a bit of what Cox has to say:

First, for centuries Christians have claimed that the Holy Spirit is just as divine as the other members of the Trinity. But in reality, the Spirit has most often been ignored or else feared as too unpredictable. It “blows where it will,” as the Gospel of John (3:8) says, and is therefore too mercurial to contain. But some of the liveliest Christian movements in the world today are precisely the ones that celebrate this volatile expression of the divine. … By far the fastest growth in Christianity, especially among the deprived and destitute, is occurring among people like the Pentecostals, who stress a direct experience of the Spirit. It is almost as though the Spirit, muted and muffled for centuries, is breaking its silence and staging a delayed “return of the repressed.” (p. 9-10)

Are we entering an Age of the Spirit? And if so, is this a good thing?

Cox is ambivalent about the growth of Christianity in the global South – even in the rapidly growing Pentecostal churches. Frankly, it is too conservative for his taste. For the most part Pentecostals actually insist on belief in God and in Scripture, and they don’t find all faiths valid. Some more of Cox’s observations and thoughts:

Fundamentalists are text-oriented literalists who insist that the inerrant Bible is the sole authority. Pentecostals, on the other hand, although they accept biblical authority, rely more on a direct experience of the Holy Spirit. Fundamentalists consider themselves sober and rational. Pentecostals welcome demonstrative worship and ecstatic praise, which they call “speaking in tongues” and which they regard as the Spirit praying within them. … Fundamentalists insist on a hard core of nonnegotiable doctrines one must hold to unquestioningly. Pentecostals generally dislike doctrinal tests and reject what they call “man-made creeds and lifeless rituals.” (p. 200-201)

Are Pentecostals contributing to the shift from belief to faith, or are they among those holding out for a belief-defined Christianity? Are they heralds of the Age of the Spirit? The answer is that there are, after all, 500 million of them, and they vary widely in their theologies and practices. Some Pentecostals, especially white North Americans, have been heavily influenced by fundamentalism. But in the global South, they are more informed by an ethic of following Jesus, and a vision of the Kingdom of God. They have recently become increasingly active in social ministries, but the hostility they sometimes show toward other faiths limits their ability to cooperate. (p. 202)

The Age of the Spirit – and the Spirit of God. If we are entering an Age of the Spirit, and  I rather hope that we are, it will be the work of The Spirit. It will not be a laissez faire, anything goes spirituality favored by western liberals.  It seems to me that while Cox recognizes shortcomings of a hierarchical authoritarian faith (the RC church) and the intellectual legalistic rationalism at work in conservative American Christianity, he can’t actually see past the secular materialism and humanist rationalism  at work in liberal western Christianity. Perhaps all three of these vest too much authority in the wrong thing – be it institution, text, or brain – and don’t trust enough in the Spirit. So lets ponder it a bit.

Do we take the Spirit seriously? The Spirit spoke to Peter and Paul – and guided their mission. Does the Spirit provide guidance today? If so, how?

Where do you see the future of the faith?

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

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