Monday, October 12, 2009

The Future of Faith—in Review

I just finished reading The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox. Clearly this is essential reading for a blogger who writes about growing in faith, but I would highly recommend this to you all. While I can't resist saying that this is vintage Harvey Cox, given that the book is published this year as he celebrates his 80th birthday, this book is a really broad brush of the history of Christian faith. His definition of faith ends chapter 2 as follows:
The three ways we encounter the great mystery—the universe, the self, the other—all leave us with a sense of uneasiness, incompleteness, and dissatisfaction. … Faith, although it is evoked by the mystery that surrounds us, is not the mystery itself. It is a basic posture toward the mystery, and it comes in an infinite variety of forms. (p. 35)
Cox calls the era from the time of Jesus to the time of Constantine the Age of Faith, where people believed and acted upon Jesus' teaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand, or what Cox teaches as the "Reigning," rather than the Kingdom, of God.
Clearly the object of Jesus' own hope and confidence—his faith—was the Kingdom of God. (p. 45)
By the third and fourth centuries CE things were much different in the Christian churches than the work toward the "Reigning of God" that Jesus had lived and taught. Central in the book are several strong chapters summarizing "the devolution from faith to belief," (the subtitle to chapter five) as followers of Jesus lost their way as People of the Way: 1) by developing creeds, 2) by agreeing to or allowing apostolic succession, and 3) by merging with empire under Constantine. [I recognize and readily admit my own, and perhaps Harvey Cox's, Baptist biases in decrying this devolution, being non-creedal, non-hierarchical, and an advocate of the separation of church and state, and as a matter of full disclosure, I note that Harvey Cox and I are members of the same Baptist church.] The next era is the Age of Belief, where
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)
These chapters are insightful summaries of the politics, theology and history that shaped Christianity over the next fifteen hundred years.

The primary thesis of this book, however, is that the Age of Belief is drawing to a close, and a new age is dawning—the Age of the Spirit. As a part of that new age, Cox asserts "fundamentalism, the bane of the twentieth century, is dying." (p. 1) It is an assertion not yet proven. In his final chapter, Cox compares the changes in the "nature of religiousness" in Christianity to similar changes in Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism.
The change assumes different shapes, but some of them overlap. With globalization, religions are becoming less regional. Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus now live on every continent. Religions are also becoming less hierarchical. Lay leadership and initiative flourish in all of them… In addition many are becoming less dogmatic and more practical. Religious people today are more interested in ethical guidelines and spiritual disciplines than in doctrines. They are also becoming less patriarchal, as women assume leadership positions in religions that have barred them for centuries, sometimes for millennia. … [But] as these changes gain momentum, they evoke an almost point-for-point fundamentalist reaction. (p. 223)
Optimistically, and perhaps prophetically, Cox then concludes his summary of the fundamentalist reactions across the world's religions by saying,
All these, however, are in the true sense of the word "reactionary" efforts. They are attempting to stem an inexorable movement of the human spirit whose hour has come. (p. 223)
I can hope that the Age of the Spirit is dawning. If it is, and we embrace some of the harbingers of that age: local congregations acting as followers of the Way—acting on the teachings of Jesus; reaching out to the poor and needy, theologically summarized in liberation theology as a preferential option for the poor; and applications of two core beliefs of Spirit-filled Pentecostalism,
that promote change and act against materialism:
conversion ("you must be born again") and holiness ("be not conformed to this world"). In political and cultural terms conversion means that people can change and that therefore fatalism—either personal or societal—is not acceptable. Holiness means that you need not buy into the latest mind-numbing fads of the commodity lifestyle. You can be "in but not of this world." (p. 211-2)
In these movements that are part of the Age of the Spirit, there is great joy and vitality. The church, at least as a global whole, is not dying, but is being born anew. People are engaging with one another, with the mystery, and with the stories that hold the tradition.

As a side note, making a connection to the power of story telling that I recently recounted, and as an ah-ha moment about my own and other fellow Baptists' secret love of ritual (a Baptist friend recently ascribed her love of the communion ritual to being a "closet Episcopalian"), Cox writes:
Most people describe the Baptist denomination, in which I grew up, as not having any rituals. Even Baptists often make this claim. But it is not true. Rituals are enactments—in song, story, visual representation, and gesture—of the narratives that inform a people's identity. (p. 39)
Certainly Baptist sermons, hymns, and Sunday school posters were and are full of song, story and visual representations.
By the time we were ready to leave Sunday school, these sagas had become permanent features in the topography of our imaginations. They did exactly what rituals are supposed to do. (p. 40)
Read The Future of Faith. Harvey Cox tells the story of Christianity and of some of his own encounters with the key movers and shapers of faith of the last fifty years, Gustavo Gutierrez and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, among others, and engages our imaginations in the possibilities for the Age of the Spirit to come.

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