532: Conversation With a true prophet: Dr. Harvey Cox on “The Future of Faith”


Harvey Cox “The Future of Faith” now in Paperback

NEWS in late 2010: YOU CAN PURCHASE “The Future of Faith,” by Harvard’s Harvey Cox from Amazon in a more affordable new paperback edition now.

Remember that hot young skeptic who, five years ago, wrote a best-seller called “The End of Faith”? That was Sam Harris who was sure that all this nonsense about faith would die out, if people would only realized that religion was a bunch of dangerous superstition and … Well, you know the message Sam preached.

It is no coincidence that, as a true giant in the field of religious studies—Dr. Harvey Cox of Harvard—finally weighs in on the subject, his book is called “The Future of Faith.” This book is a deliberate 180-degree turn from the neo-athiests and skeptics out there hoping that people will flush out religion like a bad case of the flu.

But wait!!

Before you start cheering on behalf of organized religion—get a copy of Harvey’s book and read what he has to say in just a little over 200 pages! I guarantee you that this book will spark rousing discussions in your small group. You’ll discover that this major manifesto from a “true prophet” is not quite the reassurance that religious leaders are hoping to find!

In a nutshell, Harvey says that we should celebrate the millions of Americans who are seeking out their own mix-and-match spiritual solutions in life. That is the future of faith, whether we like it or not.

Does that sound crazy? Hardly. Check out our interview with the “Mutts” cartoonist who launched a major new book about our spiritual connections to pets with Eckhart Tolle. Check out our story about Mitch Albom’s new bestseller, “Have a Little Faith.” Or, check out the OurValues.org series about “Nones,” people without a specific religious affiliation.

All of these stories highlight examples of what Harvey describes in his book. Again, in a nutshell: He’s saying that the most exciting and vibrant movements in the realm of faith are happening outside the doors of organized religion. Here’s Harvey himself …


DAVID: I’m so glad to talk with you again, because when you write about American religious life, you’re writing as someone who has been at the heart of those movements for half a century.
I can remember seeing your “The Secular City” back in 1965 on the shelves in the office of my father, who is now a retired pastor. When Liberation Theology arose as a force in Latin America—that wasn’t just some distant movement you read about. You actually went down into Latin America and experienced it first hand.
And you knew the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. personally.
HARVEY: Yes, I met Martin Luther King years ago when we both happened to be in Tennessee and he was giving a talk. I went to hear him and we chatted later. Turns out we both were born in 1929, both were Baptist ministers, both of us were very interested in the theology of Paul Tillich and then—at his invitation—I got involved in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
DAVID: That’s why it’s so important that you’re still writing at age 80. You don’t have to research the 20th Century history of American religious life. You were directly a part of it. I’m sure a lot of our readers will want to know: How are you doing these days at age 80?
HARVEY: The 80 years went by very quickly! I was very active—and I still am active—at Harvard. I’ve taught here 44 years, working with highly motivated students.
Harvard is a great place because, over time, everyone wants to come here and speak and be heard. But, throughout my life, I’ve kept involved outside of Harvard, as well, first in the Civil Rights movement and then also in the anti-war movement. That’s been important in my life.
I’ve also been active and participated personally in church life. I’m not an exclusively academic theologian. I like to think that my work helps to inform people in the pews and the pulpits—and it connects with people in a way that a strictly academic approach might not have.
I’ve lived long enough to see some of the things take place that I was hoping for in the political world—and in the sphere of religion, too.
DAVID: For example …
HARVEY: It was hard to imagine, when we were struggling back in the 1960s Civil Rights movement that we might someday have an African-American president—but I’ve lived to see that. Many of the things I’m writing about in this new book were just beginning to grow in the early years of my work.

DAVID: The most powerful message you’ve got in this book, I think, is telling people: Hey, all these changes you’re seeing are not cause for alarm that faith is somehow disappearing! They’re evidence that faith is alive and well and thriving—in many different forms that people are selecting for themselves.
You’re drawing the same conclusion that a historian like Mitch Horowitz is drawing in his new book, “Occult America,” which we just featured in ReadTheSpirit a few weeks ago. (NOTE to readers: Here’s a story about Mitch Horowitz and “Occult America.”)
Or, here’s another example: Everybody’s buzzing today about the “Nones,” the 30 to 40 million Americans who answer “None,” when asked by pollsters to give their religious affiliation. Your conclusion is: That’s a healthy sign of the times. Organized religion may be in trouble, but faith and spirit are doing just fine!

HARVEY: Yes, I read the data pretty much the same as you’re reading it.
People do want to be in touch with the sacred, but they’re suspicious of doctrines and creeds and labels and hierarchies. They don’t want to buy that whole package that people have tried to force upon them and I think that’s a positive move. I think it’s a signal to the elites who have been in charge of the religious establishment that there are a growing number of people out there who are no longer merely going to accept things based on their authority. People aren’t simply going to believe what someone tells them they ought to believe. That’s a healthy move.
I see lots of students here at Harvard who are in this category but they’re certainly not atheists or skeptics even. They’re in a search mode. That’s healthy.

DAVID: As I read your book, you’re also arguing that this isn’t something that has suddenly exploded in the age of the Internet. Like Mitch Horowitz, you’re talking about something that’s a long-term movement of people and faith. Is that a fair way to put it?
HARVEY: Yes, you’re right about that. This is something that’s not sudden and that’s not going to go away suddenly. Fifty years ago, there were a lot of people who were predicting the demise—or at least the marginalization—of religion. They were saying it wouldn’t have anymore influence on the public sphere or the culture. Now, of course, we realize that conclusion was completely wrong.
We are experiencing a really long-range trend, not a short-term change. It’s another phase in the ongoing history of Christianity, which I rather simplify in my book into three periods of time. I call this the Age of Spirit.
DAVID: You write, “We stand on the threshold of a new chapter in the Christian story. 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.”
So, you call this new era a time when people react against the old creeds and codes of belief and structures of authority. You call this the Age of Spirit.
HARVEY: A number of things are going on in the choice of that word “Spirit.” It cuts across categories. Think of women theologians who prefer words like Spirit to other words for God like Father. Or, think of the rapid growth of Pentecostalism in these Spirit-filled churches all around the world. Or, think of all the people today who say they’re spiritual but not religious.
When you decode all of that, people are showing us that they really do want to pursue the sacred, but not in the ways that people in traditional religious leadership want to require them to move and act.
One of the marks of the Spirit is that it’s not easily containable. The Spirit blows where it will and that’s one reason clerical elites have always been suspicious of mystical or spiritual movements. They can’t control them very well. Now, those movements are too widespread for anyone to control.
DAVID: These movements vary around the world, and I’ve seen them in many distant lands. I was in Singapore a year or so ago, where many houses of worship are air conditioned to make it comfortable for people to worship, especially the Christian churches. But there’s a Catholic shrine there that draws huge numbers of young people, even though it’s not air conditioned and it’s a bit of a challenge to reach the place, compared with other churches. When I was in Singapore, local journalists there were asking me what I thought of this trend. My answer was: This is part of a global movement.

HARVEY: Yes. But, sometimes all the influences and activity are not freely admitted.
In Seoul, Korea, the biggest single Christian congregation is the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which is technically Pentecostal but it’s perfectly evident if you spend time there that the Shamanic tradition of folk religion in Asia is alive and well under Pentecostal rubrics there. The Yoido church (see photo at right) doesn’t advertise itself that way, but that’s what it is. They claim to have 800,000 members in a single congregation and they had seven services a day when I was there. It’s an astonishing thing to see.

    DAVID: I would say that you’re talking about what’s often called “bricolage”—toggling together something new with the materials at hand in a particular time and place. It’s a way of describing how people pull together all kinds of cultural elements to create meaning in their lives, right?

HARVEY: Yes, people select elements the way you might select tools from a tool chest and they put something together for themselves. Generally, they have a background in which they do this. They’re Jewish or Buddhist or Christian—or something else in their background—but they freely put into this background other elements that make sense to them. And it’s never a complete, finished work. Nobody ever says: It’s done. It’s always a work in progress.
We need to recognize the porousness of the boundaries between the various traditions.
    Some weeks ago, I met a woman who’s a good example. She told me she’s an Episcopalian who goes to morning prayers, then in the evening she goes to her yoga class in the Methodist church basement. Then, she comes home and reads her bedside book that’s by the Dalai Lama. She’s a living example of what we’re talking about here.

DAVID: You see this as an especially strong movement among the young.
HARVEY: Do you know who the most popular poet is among all college undergraduates and students today?
DAVID: I’m not sure how to answer. Bono of U2, perhaps?

HARVEY: It’s Rumi, the Persian-Muslim poet. That’s from the last survey I saw of poetry books selling in college bookstores—and Rumi was No. 1. I don’t know where Bono comes in. That’s a good point. He’s probably not on the bookstore poetry list.
Rumi is your classic bricolage poet. He’s Persian-Muslim. He pulls from Jewish tradition. He has very favorable things to say about Jesus. He’s also a poet of love.
DAVID: You say some very strong things in your book, warning against trying to bail out the religious ship by trying to draw tougher and tougher rules about doctrine—or trying to enforce traditional creeds in a heavy-handed way.
HARVEY: I make a very strong case about this and I know some people are going to be critical of what I’m saying. The bad turn that Christianity took under Emperor Constantine was a much worse turn than most of us have realized. He didn’t just legalize Christianity. He really wanted Christianity to become the ideology of a crumbling empire to try to hold it together.
Until Constantine and the Council of Nicea held in the year 325 at his summer palace—presided over by Constantine—there was no Christian creed. Without hierarchies, without a single standard liturgy, with a wide variety of different congregations, Christianity had grown.
The canonical text of the Bible was emerging at the time but it very much in flux and process. Then here came the Nicene Creed—a boundary line outside of which you weren’t supposed to step. There were a handful of bishops who declined to agree and they were sent into the outer darkness. Their books were to be burned.
That was the beginning of what I roughly call the Age of Belief—when being a Christian was identified with propositions to which you had to subscribe. And after Nicea came creed after creed after creed—none of which really reached the goal that people hoped to achieve with creeds.
I think we’re in the midst of liberating movements and liberating discoveries, today. But, this news hasn’t gotten down into the pews yet. What we need to finally acknowledge is that there was a much wider perspective on Jesus and on Christianity—from the very beginning—than what we have inherited today in our creeds and in organized religion.
I think the elites are fighting a lost battle if they try to defend all these old creeds.
DAVID: You call it a kind of dysfunctional “compulsive creed making” in your book. You say it’s grasping at straws in an era when the sacred and the spiritual are alive and well and are a vital part of people’s lives all around the world. Shoring up the old creeds is a losing proposition, you argue.
So, in the end, how do you describe yourself at the moment—at age 80 and with a new book mapping out “The Future of Faith” spreading around the world.
Are you “optimistic”? “Hopeful”? Or “worried”?
HARVEY: I’m not optimistic. But I am hopeful—hopefulness is a theological virtue.
One thing that keeps me hopeful is that I spend day after day and month after month among Harvard undergraduates and divinity school students. I spend a lot of time with them and it refreshes my sense of the possible.
This is not a cynical generation rising up around us. It’s sometimes wrongly accused as such. They’re looking to the future. They’re getting married and preparing for work. Somebody wrote an essay a few years back, called “A Generation Without A Future”—but that’s just not true.
This generation is skeptical—quite skeptical about whether simply accumulating capital and things and income is going to be very fulfilling in their lives. They are much more open to—let’s call it the spiritual dimension of meaning and value. They’re certainly willing to look and search and take all of this quite seriously.
I just don’t fall back into pessimism. Certainly there are plenty of ominous signs on every side of the horizon—and any of us could write that list of worries. But I remain hopeful.
Hopeful. That’s a gift of grace.

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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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