Review: The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox

March 9th, 2010

I know I’ve been on something of a religion streak on the blog of late, and this will be the last such post for awhile.

I first hear of Harvey Cox’s book The Future of Faith during an excellent hour-long interview with NPR’s Diane Rehm. It was intriguing enough that I bought the Kindle edition of the book and read it.

The title of the book is both very accurate and rather misleading. A lot of the book — and, to me, the most fascinating parts of it — focus on the history of faith. Cox’s repeated point is that we are only now regaining a notion of faith that the earliest Christians had, and it is a notion that happens to be compatible with modern science and incompatible with fundamentalism and intolerance in all its stripes.

Throughout this post, it should be understood that quotes or passages are from the book. Cox is so quotable that a good chunk of this review will be showing you some of his quotes, with a bit of discussion around them. I very much enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it.

Faith vs. Belief

It is true that for many people “faith” and “belief” are just two words for the same thing. But they are not the same … and it is important to clarify the difference. Faith is about deep-seated confidence. In everyday speech we usually apply it to people we trust or the values we treasure… a matter of what the Hebrews spoke of as the “heart.”

Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion. We often use the term to express a degree of uncertainty … We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live.

This is an important distinction, and if you stop and think about it, Cox is arguing with a common notion about faith almost from page 1. Faith isn’t about intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It’s about what we hold dear, what we think works for us in life.

Creeds

Creeds are clusters of beliefs. But Christianity is not a history of creeds. It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes cobbled together creeds out of beliefs. It is also the history of equally faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded those same creeds … But both the doctrinal canons and the architectural constructions are means to an end. Making either the defining element warps the underlying reality of faith.

Cox here reinforces the point that Christianity isn’t about believing certain statements, and it isn’t even about a literal (or not) reading of the Bible. It’s what C. S. Lewis talked about as the inward transformation in onesself. Creeds, such as the Nicene Creed, are rather irrelevant to him.

Cox separates the history of Christianity into three periods: the age of faith, stretching from the time of Jesus only a few centuries until Constantine; the age of belief, stretching from Constantine until the 20th century; and the age of the spirit, now dawning. During the age of faith, “their sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each other, and ‘faith’ meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated.” Cox makes the point that doctrinal questions just weren’t all that important back then, and though differences existed, they weren’t considered to be fundamental to the religion. “Confidence in Christ was their primary orientation, and hope for his [earthly] Kingdom their motivating drive.” Further, he argues that the age of the spirit is a return to this earlier age, albeit with modern twists.

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.'”

Cox describes a person that described himself as “a practicing Christian, not always a believing one.” He suggests that the belief/non-believer statement is a disservice to Christianity and to other religions. He then quoted a Catholic bishop as saying: “The line between belief and unbelief runs through the middle of each one of us, including myself, a bishop of the church.” In other words, “The experience of the divine is displacing theories about it.”

Faith and Belief in Bible reading

Creation myths such as … the first chapters of Genesis were not primarily composed to answer the “how” or “when” questions. They are not scientific accounts, even though their poetical language, when read literally (which is always a mistake), may sound that way. Rather, they grapple … with the linked mysteries of both why there is a universe and what our place in it is … They are more like lyrical cantatas, symphonies of symbols through which humans have tried to make sense of their place in the world…

This is where the distinction between faith and belief is vital. These stories are — literally — “not to be believed.” They are, rather, artifacts human beings have crafted to try to wring some meaning from the mystery. They are not themselves the mystery.

I liken this to Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park. If you were to read it 1000 years in the future, it might not have been conveniently shelved above the word “fiction.” Would a reader in the future know that it was not meant to be a literal description of facts? I think sometimes we make this mistake when we read the Bible. Note, though, that although we all understand that Jurassic Park wasn’t meant to be a literal description of facts, it seems to have been valued by quite a large part of society. And it didn’t even address big mysteries.

Cox argues against ridding ourselves of the creation myths, suggesting that they are an important reminder that we are similar to humans who grappled with the same big questions centuries ago as we do today.

The ill-advised transmuting of symbols into a curious kind of “facts” has created an immense obstacle to faith for many thoughtful people. Instead of helping them confront the great mystery, it has effectively prevented them from doing so … the objective knowledge science rightly insists on is not the only kind of knowledge human beings need … Faith, although it is evoked by the mystery that surrounds us, is not the mystery itself.

Constantine and the Age of Belief

One of the most devastating blunders made by the church, especially as the Age of Belief began, was to insist that the Spirit is present only in believers.

Cox spends a lot of time covering the very interesting topic of how and why the church moved to the Age of Belief. His central thesis is that money, power, and prestige were primarily responsible, and that an unrighteous collusion between bishops and Constantine, each using Christianity for their own purposes, finally made it happen. This is very interesting stuff, but this post is too long already, so I will not spend a lot of time on it. I found the Council of Nicea to be particularly interesting, considering that the Nicean Creed came about partially by exile or execution of those Christians that disagreed with it. Cox also points out that “there never was a single ‘early Christianity'; there were many, and the idea of ‘heresy’ was unknown.”

The time is ripe to retrieve the term “Way” for Christianity and “followers of the Way” for Christians. It is at once more accurate, more original, and more contemporary than “believers.”

To the future

Cox describes attending a meeting of the church in Hong Kong in 2003, and uses it as a metaphor for the future of faith:

Their idea of interfaith dialogue was to work with their fellow Asians of whatever religion to advance the Kingdom that Jesus had inspired them, as Christians, to strive for, regardless of what the others called it. They were neither “fundamentalist” nor “modernist.” They seemed more attuned to the element of mystery at the core of Christianity and to its vision of justice. They were also clearly impatient with many of the disputes that preoccupy the different wings of the American churches.”

Conclusion

I found this book to be both enlightening and informative. I highly recommend it, even if you disagree with some of Cox’s conclusions. It is a fascinating view into how the world’s largest religion evolved over the years, and a candid look at the mistakes it has made in that time.

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  1. Sergey

    John,

    Thank you for review. It seems like the book is worth reading. I don’t think I will have time to read it in forseeable future, so thanks for writing this review down.

    I liked that distinction between faith and belief. The thing about “The time is ripe to retrieve the term “Way” for Christianity” gains my sympathy too. Now there are some questions:

    * What makes Cox think that the new period is dawning? Why since the 20th century? What did change? To tell the truth it remained pretty unclear what distinguishes this period from the previous one (distinction between pre- and post- Constantine is evident, it’s a distinction between an underground and a publicly accepted movements). Does he think this is global or is it specific only to some branches of Christianity?

    * “There never was a single ‘early Christianity’, there were many”, but wasn’t Saint Paul criticizing Corinthians for splits and divisions between them? So even if there were splits, Saint Paul viewed it as a problem. But isn’t Cox proposing something like “many branches of Christianity are equally true”, “diversity is OK” (I have such an impression from the review, unfortunately)

    * What’s the name of the bishop that Cox is citing?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    The first point I should clarify is that Cox’s “ages” are speaking in broad generalities. He acknowledges that there were already rumblings to elevate belief even in the age of faith, and that pockets of the original notion of faith persisted even in the age of belief.

    Cox sees the apex of the Age of Belief happening in the late 1800s, and declining somewhat more rapidly since the 1950s.

    Cox highlights the quite rapid growth of Christianity in the “global South” as part of the turning point. He points out that Christianity is growing there, while it is contracting elsewhere; also that where it grows, it tends to be following the “Age of the Spirit” model. He writes: “Instead of a ‘Western Christianity,’ we now witness a post-Christian West (in Europe) and a post-Western Christianity (in the global South). America is somewhere in between.”

    He sees elements of this change in many (though perhaps not all) branches of Christianity, from Catholicism to various Protestant denominations, and he also sees the growth of non-hierarchical churches as a part of the change.

    Cox tackles the Paul issue directly, writing: “It is important to remember that the first three decades of Christian history were no Garden of Eden. As the New Testament itself makes painfully clear, early Christianity was in no sense free of internal conflict. The letters of Paul to the congregations in Corinth and Galatia bristle with stern advice about coping with their arguments. Still, one congregation rarely intervened in what was going on in another. At first most of them simply accepted the diversity. But as my previous chapters have shown, eventually some parties within the nascent movement strove to impose their way of doing things on the others. One such faction, with a hefty assist from the Roman emperors, ultimately won this battle. Then, by purging its rivals, branding them as heretics, burning their books, banishing their leaders, and rewriting the history, the winners assumed the title of ‘catholic,’ or ‘official,’ Christianity.”

    The bishop he quoted was Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in a 1995 talk in Milan.

    Reply

    Sergey Reply:

    John,

    Thank you for detailed reply. I see that Cox was mostly talking about liberal Protestant movements in the global south. I find it pitiful that sometimes these movements remain the only Christianity people know. I know a person from the South-Eastern Asia, and she was sure that Christianity was necessarily associated with uncontrollable ecstatic crying in the “church”. She didn’t like it (actually, she was afraid of it) until she moved to Italy, to discover that there is other Christianity. What’s troubling me more in such “Age of Spirit” movements, is that they expand their operation worldwide, even where traditional faith exists, and use their financial advantage to expand. Ultimately, they bring segmentation of the faith, and it is not a good thing.

    What about me, I don’t have much trust for the creedless faith. It lacks protection against transformations. Well, it’s like a dynamically typed language, you can never be sure what happens next. But I feel liberal in the Chesterton’s sense, with much trust to tradition: “It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history”.

    Reply

  2. Ben Finney

    > If you were to read [Crichton’s “Jurassic Park”] 1000 years in the future, it might not have been conveniently shelved above the word “fiction.” Would a reader in the future know that it was not meant to be a literal description of facts?

    If you were an inhabitant of that time, and the archivalists came to you with the problem “We need to determine whether this “Jurassic Park” book was intended by its authors as a work of fiction or a factual description of events”, what method of determining the intent of the authors would you advise?

    Reply

  3. Steve Parker

    Very interesting review, thank you (found via planet.debian.org – surprising where you can find theological discussion!)

    @Sergey – Yes, Paul did work against schism often and firmly. The Hong Kong example cited sounds rather like a “different sides of the same mountain” or “blind men describing an elephant” analogy, which do not fit well with Jesus’ statement that “no-one can come to the father except through me”.

    That makes me wonder, without knowing anything about Cox, how liberal/evangelical he might be

    Reply

  4. ketil

    (Just to point out that while the distinction between belief and faith is a good one, these words have more than one meaning, and especially belief is often used to mean faith)

    I think you’re just describing how religion seems to work over here (N. Europe). We rarely have any big debates over evolution, over geological time, or the existence of a global flooding event – Christians and non-christians alike seem to accept the scientific beliefs, without having it interfere with their faith. I think this is a logical conclusion of scientific discoveries disproving belief after belief about the physical world rooted in the bible or related dogma.

    I’ve occasionally tried to challenge people’s beliefs – but in general, they don’t seem to have them. I.e. they will have no clear opinion on whether there actually was a global flood, whether God literally appeared as a column of smoke, or what part of our cognitive self actually goes to heaven, and when. Most people tend to only have some vague and rather non-biblical notion of going to heaven when we die, and generally don’t seem to think a lot about these issues. Which to me is strange, since by faith this is substantially more important than anything else.

    -ketil (via planet Haskell :-)

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Very interesting perspective — thanks. It would be refreshing to get away from these interminable creation vs. evolution debates.

    Reply

  5. M. Grégoire

    Though it is not principally concerned with faith, I found A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson to be fascinating; perhaps you might enjoy it as well. It’s full of illuminating facts and portraits of influential Christians over the last two thousand years, as it describes Christianity’s role in the world. It’s a single volume too.

    Reply

  6. wren ng thornton

    I’m curious whether you’ve read Karen Armstrong’s _The Battle For God_? She gives a history of the three Abrahamic traditions and how political forces led to the development of fundamentalism (as a quintessentially modern phenomenon) in each of them. I’m curious how you would situate Harvey Cox’s history and analysis with respect to Armstrong’s?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I’m not familiar with Armstrong’s work, sorry.

    Reply

  7. nate

    From my personal perspective Christianity is not intended to be a ‘religion’, it is a ‘reality’. It’s a perspective on on how the universe works. Faith, religion, spirituality, are all related, but there are just some very serious fundamental facts that shape the very fabric of perception and reality that goes into being a christian.

    There is a reason why they call it be a ‘disciple’. It’s a disciplining of the mind, body, and spirit. Takes work and dedication.

    A ‘religion’ tends more to be a human construct.. most ‘religion’ tends to be pretty worthless and can actually be quite misleading. Fundamentalism usually is about dogma and human rules and such.. and is usually something that you should ignore.

    ———————-

    As far as the Bible goes… I figure a person can take it a hell of a lot more literally then most christians beleive they can… I don’t see any sort of incompatibility with science or anything else.

    In fact if your a christian your beleif shoudl dictate that science is freaking terrific. It’s a glimpse into the workings of the hand of God in this universe and can be a serious aid in the understanding and quality of the relationship between you and God.

    The thing is that you have to read it yourself and gain your own personal understanding and DO NOT believe what other people tell you is in in there.

    For example… Adam and Eve did NOT eat a Apple. The book of Genesis does NOT say that Adam and Eve were the first humans that ever existed. Hell; Even taking a completely literal reading of the book would make zero sense if you tried to inject those two ‘facts’ into a reading of it.

    You will never find any of that anywere in the Bible. Yet these two ‘facts’ are so ingrained into popular culture that I expect that most self-described serious theologians would have no idea what I am talking about.

    There is misconceptions like that all over the place and it stems from a lack of understanding and study of what the Bible is, what the purpose of it is, and what it is trying to tell you.

    Even really basic probing questions about the Bible most Christians would be at a loss to answer.

    A example I see all the time is stuff like this:

    Student/Doubter (healthy state of mind, btw) asks: ‘The old testiment has all sorts of requirements for sacrificing animals and ‘thou shalt not suffer’ various types of people and so on and so forth… why do Christians not practice that to this day if the Bible is the core of your religion?”

    A typical answer I may see is something like: ‘Oh those are just stories, don’t take them literally. They are ment to be lessons and good stories to help you be a better person’. A more accurate answer would be: ‘Jesus died for our sins on the cross. The blood sacrifice of the human embodiment of God on earth is all we ever need for the atonement of our sins. In fact, carrying out sacrifices like described in the old testiment would be blasphemous since it would be effectively saying that Jesus is not good enough for our sins. Remember that when you ask for forgiveness that Jesus made the sacrifice for us and our salvation.”

    Something like that. It’s all about a personal relationship between the individual and God. Everybody is given their own way, their own path, and their own unique understanding. However the Bible, being the letter of god to us, is intended to be a guide through this reality, through this universe.

    it’s up to us individually to figure this out.

    Reply

  8. Russell Coker

    Please write more about theology. It’s good to see a sane and intelligent Christian writing about their religion for a change. In particular please write about how your opinions on social issues (EG drugs and gay marriage) are influenced by your faith – I’m assuming that you won’t be agreeing with the fundamentalists about such things.

    Reply

    Ben Finney Reply:

    On those areas where John’s views differ from fundamentalists, I’d like to see what basis he has for denying the faith-based claims of the fundamentalists.

    Reply

    Kirklin Reply:

    Well, let me venture a guess-for starters: The Early Christian folks were all about there being a congruency between how one lived their life and their faith/belief. Too many of today’s “faith-based claims of the fundamentalists” are simply about talking the talk-the end. The bottom-line question is, “If your faith does not make you a higher moral agent what good is it?” Does it really qualify as a faith? Our Anabaptist theology instructs us that one cannot have one without the other…for which I have a great appreciation.

    Reply

  9. Diantha

    Faith is a process.
    Our minds grow, our ways of seeing change, and if our culture does not impede us, we progress through “stages” of faith and will understand our faith in different and maturing ways as we age.
    James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith” book explains this process very well. Harvey Cox offers another insight into part of the entire process. Process theology explores it in depth.

    Reply

  10. My Reading List for 2010 | The Changelog

    […] Future of Faith by Harvey Cox, 2009, 256 pages. [done 3/2010] Per Goodreads, “Cox explains why Christian beliefs and dogma are giving way to new […]

  11. I agree with Cox (sort of) - Entries in Life

    […] and John Goerzen’s approach to the book as a “history of faith” made it very difficult for me to read the first […]

  12. Jit

    Hi
    I find your summary of the various points of the book helpful in my understanding of Cox sometimes laborious history of beliefs
    Thanks and blessings
    Jit

    Reply

  13. yacine houhoud

    The Future of Faith
    by Harvey Cox

    BOOK REVIEW by Yacine Houhoud Tamsamani

    In his most recent book, The Future of Faith, Cox begins with a question: “What does the future hold for religion, and for Christianity in particular?” to analyze this question he guides readers through proposing a different relationship between ‘‘faith’’ and ‘‘belief, and understanding phases of the evolution of Christianity, among other religions, and the current movement of religion back into the dimensions of faith that closely resemble the period directly following the time of Jesus.

    To begin with, Cox started arguing against the idea that the growth of modernity would make religion insignificant in human life. Instead, he states that the world’s religions have had a flowering and there has been the resurgence of religion in various places in the world.

    The key idea of the book is the distinction between ‘‘faith’’ and ‘‘belief,’’ which many people erroneously assume are two words for the same thing. Cox explains that Faith is about deep-seated confidence – vital for the way we live – it is primordial – hope and assurance that translates into the way we live our lives — each and every day (pp.3-5) different to the “opinion” found in belief.

    “We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us. In other words, religion is about more than beliefs. Religion is primarily about faith” (pp.3-5).
    Hence, Cox divides the history of Christianity into three major periods:
    1. The age of faith, which lasted from the time of Jesus until Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion (the first 300 years of Christianity). This Age was more concerned with following Jesus teachings (which is good) Instead of a specific creed or set of beliefs (which is bad).
    Cox sees in this time a great tolerance for diversity in worship, in leadership structures and in theology.
    2. The Age of Belief, stretching from Constantine until the late twentieth century, when the church replaced faith in Jesus with dogma about him (which is bad) (p46).
    3. The Age of the Spirit, which began in the 1960s, is shaping not just Christianity but other religious traditions today; this age is ignoring dogma and breaking down barriers between different religions.
    According to Cox, “pragmatic and experiential elements of faith as a way of life are displacing the previous emphasis on institutions and beliefs.”
    This new Age of the Spirit, Cox argues, has much more in common with “the age of faith” than with “the age of belief” and amid an unexpected resurgence of religion, fundamentalism is dying out (which is good).
    One can see that he separates the history of the Christianity in this way in order to highlight the driving force behind the church and the faith in each period. Interestingly, is that the three stages also reflect the changes in Christianity in relationship to the power.
    Cox leads readers to think that the world’s religions are all undergoing reforms and in the last chapter of this book (213-124), the author charts a few of them in Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism moving from hierarchy to egalitarianism, ecumenical and to commitment to human rights and peacemaking. In general, religious people are becoming “less dogmatic and more practical. . . more interested in ethical guidelines and spiritual disciplines than in doctrine”.
    He writes: “The spiritual, communal, and justice-seeking dimensions of Christianity are now its leading edge as the twenty-first century hurtles forward, and this change is taking place along with similar reformations in the other world religions. Recent developments in Islam and Buddhism provide good examples . . .” (p213).
    Religions are more and more global, less dogmatic, and women are playing a greater role. Cox writes, “Women are publishing commentaries on the Qur’an, leading synagogues, and directing Buddhist retreat centers. There are now women pastors, priests, and bishops in Christian denominations” (p223).
    Cox thinks that the age of the spirit will be a very good development for interreligious dialogue. He calls for an exposition of fundamental reasons for tolerance and peaceful coexistence between the world’s religions. He explains that “Adherents of the different world religions can no longer avoid each other, so understanding each is no longer merely an option, but a necessity”. “Due not only to tides of immigration, but also to jet travel, the internet and films, the dispersion of religions all over the globe now makes us all each other’s neighbors, whether we like it or not” despite the fact that there are some “fundamentalist” movements who puts the interfaith conversation in a difficult bind. Therefore, all religious people have the responsibility to stand up against fundamentalists and place greater emphasis on educating moral principles of peace, harmony, compassionate and tolerance that have been developed and practiced in early years.
    All these, according to Cox, are positive signs that the future of faith is open, expansive, and hopeful and The Age of the Spirit will be a Future of Faith!
    Despite my reservations and disagreements with Cox’s important thesis, his spirited approach of world’s religions challenges us to think in a new ways about faith. The Future of Faith is accessible, readable and highly recommended for all interested readers.

    Reply

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