While I was reading this book, my sweet beau Shannon became curious about the author’s picture on the book-jacket. She asked, “What is he, like the Leonard Maltin of religion?”
Maybe it was just the glasses and beard, or the approachable smile, but I thought the comparison was so good I had to run with it.
Harvey Cox has had a long career with the divine and with academics. He was born into a Baptist family and has served as a minister, protestant chaplain and professor. And like Maltin, he is a historian and a critic.
The title of this book is in a sense a response to the Sam Harris title, The End of Faith, even if the scope of the book is a little more narrow.
This 220-page book is a surprisingly smooth read considering Cox covers 2000 years of (mostly) Christian history. He finds a good balance between the key events that shaped the Christian religion, the underlying influences and intrigues around those events, modern illustrations that show the effects of the key events, and even some personal tales of his own experiences in the faith.
While reading the book I did get a feeling that this book was rushed out for publication. The language is still professional and the research is thorough, I believe. However, too often there were sentences like “I will discuss this more in a later chapter”. As well, Cox only gets to other world religions in the final chapter. With some more time I’m sure Cox could have developed his ideas into a more international scope. Instead, this is a Christian book for Christians that are curious about the direction and future of their religion.
That being said, Cox is quite creative with his chapter titles and subtitles. Here are some of my favourites:
Einstein’s Snuffed-Out Candles
What Happens When it Really Wasn’t That Way?
Constantine’s Last Supper: The Invention of Heresy
Which Bible Do the Bible Believers Believe?
The Last Vomit of Satan and the Persistent List Makers
Harvey Cox dissects the history of Christianity into three periods:
The Age of Faith – the first three centuries of Christianity, concerned with community-building and following the teachings of Jesus more than beliefs about Jesus.
The Age of Belief - the long period between the fourth century and the twentieth century, when correct doctrine was the focus, and authoritative power was institutionalized.
The Age of the Spirit – the current religious age which began in this century, where dogma is being put aside for service and fellowship so that even barriers between religions are being opened.
He separates the historical time-line this way in order to highlight the driving force behind the church and the faith in each period. What is most telling, for me at least, is that this time-line also reflects the changes in Christianity in relationship to power.
Cox draws from some interesting little sources of history. For example, a document from the early church called the First Epistle of Clement addresses what appeared to be a youth rebellion in the Christian community of Corinth. The document, according to Cox, says very little about heresy or immorality, but instead urges the community to reinstall the deposed leaders. Only the successors of the apostles had a right to rule. It then even uses the Roman army as an example of how successful organizations should be run. Cox is subtle in suggesting the irony in using the Roman army as an example, not even a century after the trial and death of Jesus. But maybe there are several reasons this document was left out of the official Holy Bible.
Cox also explains the conversion and influence of Constantine in a clear and revealing way. He discusses how and possibly why Constantine did not just become a Christian but appointed himself head patriarch of the religion. Also, Cox sheds some light on the Council of Nicaea and how Constantine’s main theological adviser may have shaped the religion more than the emperor himself.
The history of creeds in the Christian church is an important influence for Cox in his second period, the Age of Belief. The use of creeds is almost exclusive to Christianity in terms of world religions. Cox examines how creeds are as much reactionary effects to opposition or conflict as much as declarations of vision. Creeds have done as much to exclude other people of faith as they have to define communities or denominations of faith. As people start taking their creeds less dogmatically, they are more interested in what Cox describes as their long-lost brethren.
Liberation Theology is for Cox a dynamic example of where Christianity is heading in the third period, or Age of the Spirit. More and more Christians are realizing that their religion is moving. During our lifetimes we may see a Catholic Pope, for example, not from Europe or even North America. Central and South America, Africa, and Asia are the new sources for defining the religion. Christians of these areas of the world feel a close kinship with the original church founders. Cox explains at some length the misunderstandings around the phrases “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth”. These new Christians are finding a sense of purpose in the social justice aspect of the story of Jesus and are little concerned with pinning down an authoritative understanding of the nature of Jesus or God.
One problem Cox points out is the difference between interfaith dialogue and intrafaith dialogue. What open, liberal or progressive person of religion “would not rather spend an afternoon with the Dalai Lama than with Pat Robertson?”, as Cox puts it. Cox describes organizing an event to bring Jerry Falwell to speak at his university in the early 1980s. There was strenuous opposition, picketing from gay and lesbian students and many insults shouted out while Falwell spoke. It was tense and trying, but according to Cox the event showed that dialogue is not only possible but necessary.
The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox feels more descriptive than prescriptive. It is a book about what Christianity has done, what it is doing and where it might be heading. But all the same, I got a sense that the Baptist boy still in Harvey Cox is happy to see the power of creeds diminishing and the Holy Spirit of his religion moving in the direction of change. In Cox’s opinion, Christianity is fluid enough to correct its direction and not suffer from being left behind.
I will continue with The Future of Faith later this week with some quotations and a final wrap-up.