Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"The Future of Faith" by Harvey Cox

This post is so overdue, and it's because I don't want to write it.

That's not because I didn't like this book. On the contrary, I found it fascinating, stimulating, and as much fun as I've ever had reading such a scholarly book. Cox has that rare and beautiful gift of being both a master of his subject and a graceful and engaging writer. I even once intentionally rode my bus past the stop where I normally get off because I couldn't bear to put the book down. I pretty much never, ever do that for any book, and *definitely* not for a book on the history of the church.

It's also not because I disagree with his central arguments or have an issue with how he argued them. I don't. I'm not qualified to make statements on the scholarship that he refers to, but I do feel that he supports his propositions well without getting deeply bogged down in minutae. However, I wanted more citations, more support, because I was sometimes troubled by what he was proposing... but I did not disagree with him. I wrote "aaargh" in the margins of this book more than once, but not at outrage over a poorly constructed argument or an outrageous claim. It was because what he was saying and describing hurt... it cut close to home more than once.

Here's one of the money quotes from the beginning of the book:

"Now 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. We are now witnessing the beginning of a 'post-Constaninian era.' Christians on five continents are shaking off the residues of [Christian history since Constantine], and negotiating a bumpy transition into a fresh era for which a name has not yet been coined. I would like to suggest we call it the 'Age of the Spirit.' "p. 8

This is more or less the book's thesis, and Cox spends the book arguing this point, picking up a lot of other related issues along the way. But he reframes the argument a couple of times, and this is where my heart gets broken. Two more money quotes and then I'll get on to my point:

"Recent discoveries about the first three centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus... help clarify how Christianity deteriorated from a movement generated by faith and hope into a religious empire demarcated by prescribed doctrines and ruled by a priestly elite. They trace how a loose network of local congregations, with varied forms of leadership, congealed into a rigid class structure with a privileged clerical caste at the top ruling over an increasingly disenfranchised laity on the bottom. They help explain why women, who played such a vital leadership role in the earliest days, were pushed to the underside and the edges. These discoveries sugggest that Christianity was not fated to develop as it did, that what happened was not simply a natural process like a tiny acorn growing into a mighty oak. A different historical trajectory was possible, and this has significant implications for the future. In short, Christianity now has a second chance." p. 55

"The parody of Christianity that took shape in the fourth century was not only a radical subversion of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, albeit carried out in their name. It also resulted in an equally radical subversion of the original meaning of the word 'faith.' Students of the history of language know that changing contexts alter the meaning of words, and this is what happened to the word 'faith'. Along with the 'imperialization' of the church and the glorification of the bishops, now 'faith' came to mean obeying the bishop and assenting to what he taught. Faith had been coarsened into belief, and this distortion has hobbled Christianity ever since." p. 98

So, here's what I have to say about that, and about this book in general.

I agree with Dr. Cox, and I have sought out churches and people who do not place their faith in the institutions of the church but in the living God and in Christ. I share the outrage at how the structures of the institutional church choked the life out of the faith in many ways (and still do), and particularly at how those structures subjugated women and minorities for centuries. I see how deadly some of these doctrines are, how little support they have from scripture, really. Speaking of scripture (Cox also addresses errors in how the scriptures are used by the church), I know first hand what it is to idolize the scriptures, to treat them as a sort of "paper pope", without wanting to know where they came from or what political machinations were involved in selecting what came to be considered canon and what was not. I still wrestle with this, even now.

But I am also an ex-Catholic, and I experienced such profound beauty while engaged in that expression of faith, the Spirit blooming brightly away from the power structures like a flower from a cracked sidewalk. The same is true of my practice of faith in childhood and adolescence, where the teachings of the Reformed tradition were something I both loved and hated, was blessed by and also resisted, for the overall betterment of my spiritual life as I was trained to critically think about scripture and to struggle with truth. I believe that for every congregation that seeks to bring the faith "forward", there are at least two others digging their heels in the ground and calling for a return to "tradition" (although they are generally being very selective about what they consider "tradition" and what they do not).

I am a proud member of the emergent church movement, and I love it dearly, but I see it as one movement among many... necessary to make sure that the Kingdom is brought into existence among the people involved with and touched by it and to bring attention to issues that other Christian denominations may choose to ignore... but not the answer to all of Christianity's woes. It is a basic feature of human social organization that we form ingroups and outgroups, that we exalt some and demonize others. I try to push against this in my own heart... it's a core belief of mine that to be a Christian is to try to pull it all together, to try to see everyone with as much compassion as you can muster while still defending the weak and helpless. But I don't expect that everyone will think the way I do. I know that for so very many people, their expression of Christianity is one side in a battle to the death. I don't agree with this or like it, but I don't expect it to change.

For someone who represents the way forward for the faith to say that the institutional church is a parody and a corruption of Christianity breaks my heart, because it draws that dividing line between "us" and "them" and has the effect of setting up a parallel set of rules and standards that a person must abide by in order to be respected as a person of faith. For many people, the insititutional church *is* their expression of faith. I want very much for them not to believe that, and I also fear that they do not truly have faith in or truly seek after God. But who am I to dismiss their striving? Who am I to say outright that their reliance on the structures of a vast institutional church or any of the rites and rituals they engage in are a parody of the faith Christ intended? Why can't I believe that there is a place for them, too, in the Kingdom of God, even if they will not extend me the same generosity?

I'm sure that Dr. Cox is committed to reconciliation and peacemaking... I think in some ways that he's indirectly advocating for practices of faith that have this at their center, and against those who do not. However, he does it in a way that would make reconciliation and peacemaking extremely difficult for many practioners of the Christian faith.

All of that being said, I would strongly urge you to read the book for yourself and have your own reaction. It may be that taking a side is what is required in order to move the Christian faith into God's intended future. I'm not really there yet. I still want us to find ways to connect among ourselves under our shared commitment to Christ.


David Hottinger said...

Delicious post, Amy. Harvey Cox was one of my teachers and I think that I am safe in saying that he would probably agree with most everything you wrote. As any good theologian, Harvey tends to use hyperbole to shock, provoke, and stir debate. The "established" Church is long from dead; I agree with you that seeds of new life are, in fact, being sown in the "old" Church by those who have left her "behind" in order to sojourn outside the wells. Thanks for writing this.

Anonymous said...

Amy, I'm just about done The Future of Faith and share your same sentiment. I love the overall vision, but take issue with some major points throughout. Great review.

By the way, can you add a comment option with just the name and web page? If not, no biggie. It's just that my site doesn't fit into any of the options below.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate your metaphor of faith being a flower growing up and out of cracks in the sidewalk. I think that works on a couple of interesting levels. Not only are the power structures of Christendom crumbling; but all of our expressions of faith are beautifully tenuous. At any moment that flower could be snuffed out of existence. However it is daringly out there growing and experiencing the world. Brokenly offering beautiful risky hope in a shattered world.

Moff said...

Thank you all for your beautiful comments and for reading the blog. I really agonized over this review and it's great to know that it's appreciated (and that it makes sense!).