It seems like Harvey Cox has been around forever. Now in his 81st year he is still going strong even though he is “officially retired” from his teaching post at Harvard Divinity School. It was in 1965 that his first major book, The Secular City, established Cox as one of the most important and fascinating voices of Christianity.
The radical notion of The Secular City was that God is just as present in the secular as in the religious, and that the church is not so much an institution as it is a dynamic gathering of faithful people active in the world. Forty-five years later, the message is still as relevant, and is stated in a new way in his 2009 book The Future of Faith (HarperCollins). In a time when faith is being questioned, religious institutions challenged and predictions of the demise of religion abound, Cox is suggesting that Christianity is on the cusp of a new and exciting era.
He describes the first 300 years of Christianity as the “Age of Faith” in which the primary objective of the faithful was to follow the teachings of Jesus. He draws an important distinction between faith and belief. Faith is about trust, and the early Christians placed their total trust in the way of Jesus, even in the face of persecution. Belief on the other hand, is about adherence to creeds, principles and doctrines.
Then everything changed with the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity, under what some would describe as dubious circumstances. Preparing to go into battle in 312, Constantine prayed to the Christian God (along with Roman deities) and after claiming victory, Christianity became the religion of the empire. Thus began what Cox calls the “Age of Belief” in which the emphasis was on correct beliefs and practices, and power – both political and religious – became centralized in the clerical hierarchy, especially in the European cathedral system.
But there has been a shift. Beginning roughly 50 years ago, about the time of Cox’s first book, a noticeable shift began. The “Age of the Spirit” is revealing a new kind of faithful; those that might describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (which is how 20 percent of Americans – about half of the unchurched – describe themselves). Cox writes that more and more Christians are beginning to step away from orthodoxy, creeds, doctrine and dogma, and are seeking spiritual common ground not only among Christians, but also among the faithful of other religious traditions and those who claim no tradition at all.
While this trend may be cause of concern, especially within religious institutions, Cox sees it in a more positive light; an opportunity for the church to be that dynamic gathering of the faithful that he envisioned half a century ago. It also bears a kernel of authentic spirituality; an acceptance of the reality that, as a Roman Catholic cardinal once told him, “the line between belief and unbelief runs through the middle of each one of us, including myself, a bishop of the church.”
Steve Hammer is the associate pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.