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.
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 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.”
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.