Jonathan's Reviews > The Future of Faith

The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox
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Feb 19, 10

Read in February, 2010

"...the era of a thousand flowers blooming"

Harvey Cox, (retiring Harvard professor of divinity) succinctly described many concepts in this book that I have been trying to articulate and live out myself. In fact, there is much in here that touches on my own motivations for joining a Quaker meeting as a modern expression of Christian mysticism.

Harvey Cox frames up two thousand years of Christian history into three periods of time. First, he calls the first three centuries the "Age of Faith" represented by Jesus, his immediate disciples and subsequent followers who were united by a lifestyle of faithfully living in the Spirit and continuing the work of Jesus in a new era of freedom. Second came the "Age of Belief" period where starting around the time of Constantine (d. 387 CE) "...church leaders began formulating orientation programs for new recruits...instruction kits thickened into catechisms, replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him" (p. 5). This period of Christian history lasts for roughly fifteen hundred years dominated by creeds which Cox describes as "symptoms of a long psychological disorder" (p. 108). Cox suggests that currently we are in a time of transitioning into what he calls an "Age of the Spirit." He states, "Despite dire forecasts of its decline, Christianity is growing faster than it ever has before, but mainly outside the West and in movements that accent spiritual experience, discipleship, and hope; pay scant attention to creeds; and flourish without hierarchies. We are now witnessing the beginning of a 'post-Constantinian era'" (p. 8).

As a professor of comparative religion, Cox observes that major world religions are becoming less hierarchical, strengthening pragmatism over dogma. "Religious people today are more interested in ethical guidelines and spiritual disciplines than in doctrines. They are also becoming less patriarchal, as women assume leadership positions in religions that have barred them for centuries, sometimes for millennia" (p. 223).


My favorite excerpts of this book:

"The recent rapid growth of charismatic congregations and the appeal of Asian spiritual practices demonstrate that, as in the past once again today, large numbers of people are drawn more to the experiential than to the doctrinal elements of religion. Once again, this often worries religious leaders who have always fretted about mysticism" (p. 13).

"To focus the Christian life on belief rather than on faith is simply a mistake. We have been misled for many centuries by the theologians who taught that 'faith' consisted in dutifully believing the articles listed in one of the countless creeds they have spun out" (p. 18).

"In fact none of the other major religions has a 'creed'...In all these traditions, religion means something quite different from attaching credence to doctrines...Once I realized that Christianity is not a creed and that faith is more a matter of embodiment than of axioms, things changed. I began to look at people I met in a new way. Some of the ones I admired most were 'believers' in the conventional sense, but others were not. For example, the individuals with whom I marched and demonstrated and even went to jail, during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam protests, included both 'believers' and 'nonbelievers.' But we found ourselves looking out from the iron bars in the same jail cells. This suggested to me just how mistaken conventional belief-oriented Christianity is in the way it separates the sheep from the goats. But then according to the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) Jesus also rejects this predictable schema. What he said then no doubt shocked his listeners. He insisted that those who are welcomed into the Kingdom of God-- those who were clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and visiting the prisoners-- were not 'believers' and were not even aware that they had been practicing the faith he was teaching and exemplifying" (p. 19).

"First, there never was a single 'early Christianity'; there were many, and the idea of 'heresy' was unknown. Second, it was not the apostles themselves, but subsequent generations who invented 'apostolic authority,' and both creeds and hierarchies emerged much later than had been thought. Third, an essential key to comprehending the earliest Christians, including those who wrote the New Testament, is to see their movement as a self-conscious alternative to the empire that tyrannized them. And the best way to understand the succeeding generation of Christian leaders is to notice how they reversed course and gradually came to admire and emulate that empire" (p. 58).

"During the first two and a half centuries of [the Christian movement's:] life...what we now call doctrines of dogmas, let alone creeds, were yet to appear. Historians of that period agree that what bound Christians together in their local congregations was their common participation in the life of the Spirit and a way of living that included the sharing of prayer, bread, and wine; a lively hope for the coming of God's shalom on earth; and putting the example of Jesus into concrete practice, especially his concern for outcasts. In other words, in this most vibrant period in Christian history, it was following Jesus that counted; there were no dogmas to which one had to adhere, and a rich variety of theological views thrived. It was the era of a thousand flowers blooming, and the idea of 'heresy' had not yet stepped onstage" (p. 77-78).

"At its outset 'faith' meant a dynamic lifestyle sustained by fellowships that were guided by both men and women and that reflected hope for the coming of the Reign of God. But when Christianity became swollen into an elaborate code of prescribed beliefs and ritual obligations policed by a hierarchy, the meaning of 'faith' was warped almost beyond recognition. Initially faith had meant a primary life orientation, but the evolving clerical class now equated 'faith' with 'belief in' certain specified doctrines and patterns of authority, which, in any case, themselves changed periodically depending on who held the ecclesial scepter. The result was a disaster for dissent and open discussion. Yesterday's heretic may be tomorrow's saint, but the heretic is still dead" (p. 179).

"[T:]he fundamentalist obsession with correct beliefs often makes faith, in its biblical sense, more elusive. It replaces faith as a primary life orientation with a stalwart insistence on holding to certain prescribed doctrinal ideas, and this in turn often promotes a kind of taut defensiveness and spiritual pride that are not in keeping with the love ethic of Jesus" (p. 141).

"The truth is we do not have the original manuscript of one single word of the Bible. All the Bibles we now have are copies, which are therefore prone to errors and insertions, or translations, which by their nature are also always interpretations that always bear the telltale marks of the eras in which they were done and the theological biases of those who did them. But I think this is vastly better than having, perhaps preserved under glass somewhere in a temperature-controlled room, the Bible. If we had such a document it might mislead people into thinking that believing it is what 'faith' is all about. This is, of course, exactly the view fundamentalists hold of 'the Bible.' Now, however, since what we have is not the Bible, but interpretations, and interpretations of interpretations, we are forced to look beyond and through the texts to the people who wrote them and to the mystery they are pointing to. It should help us not to bite into the package instead of into what the package contains" (p. 166).

"The Bible is more like Shakespeare than an ancient history textbook. Don't look for history in our modern sense, or for geology, or even quick answers to ethical problems" (p. 168).

"Today there is no basis for any 'warfare' between science and religion. The two have quite different but complimentary missions, the first concerning itself with empirical description, the second with meaning and values. Unfortunately, however, although the war is over, sporadic skirmishes between die-hards on both sides continue. Biblical literalists, who totally misunderstand the poetry of the book of Genesis, try to reduce it to a treatise in geology and zoology. The mirror image is found among the atheists and agnostics who mount spurious pseudoscientific arguments to demonstrate that the universe has no meaning or that God does not exist. Both parties are fundamentalists of a sort, deficient in their capacity for metaphor, analogy, and the place of symbol and myth in human life" (p. 183).

"Christianity understood as a system of beliefs guarded and transmitted through a privileged religious institution by a clerical class is dying. Instead, today Christianity as a way of life shared in a vast variety of ways by a diverse global network of fellowships is arising. The initial fruits of this resurrection are already obvious. In those countries where the clerical leadership clings to the older model, the churches are empty. Any visitor to Europe can witness these vacant pews at first hand. But in those areas of the world where creeds and hierarchies have been set aside to make way for the Spirit, like the stone rolled away from Christs grave in the Easter story, one senses life and energy. There is no question that some of this spills into directions that might once have been called heresy or schism (and still are by some quibblers). Still the fact that the most fruitful and exciting movements in Christianity today are taking place on the margins of existing ecclesial structures should not surprise anyone. Historically speaking, 'schism' and 'heresy' have often heralded the deepening and extension of the faith. Pioneers always step outside of established boundaries. Sometimes they are condemned, sometimes honored, and sometimes both, starting with the first and only later ending up with the second" (p. 197).

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