Thursday, February 18, 2010

Harvey Cox and the Age of the Spirit

I ran into an article on the Guardian UK by Mark Vernon talking about Harvey Cox’s latest book The Future of Faith. I had to step back for a moment and say to myself, is Harvey Cox still alive? It has been over forty years since my sophomore religion teacher read and quoted Cox out of The Secular City back in those heady, positive, hopeful post Vatican II days of true, attempted by many in the RC church, Ecumenical Spirit.
Harvey Cox
Cox became widely known with the publication of The Secular City in 1965. It became immensely popular and influential for a book on theology, selling over one million copies. Cox developed the thesis that the church is primarily a people of faith and action, rather than an institution. He argued that "God is just as present in the secular as the religious realms of life". Far from being a protective religious community, the church should be in the forefront of change in society, celebrating the new ways religiosity is finding expression in the world. Phrases such as "intrinsic conservatism prevents the denominational churches from leaving their palaces behind and stepping into God's permanent revolution in history" (p. 206) can be viewed as threatening to the status quo, and for some an embrace of the social revolution of the 1960s.
I guess I must have been listening to Father Calvert. My own secular cultural Christian outlook seems similar with the excerpt quoted above.

I have not read any other religious works of Cox. I am not a theologian. I have spent much of my life within the context of a secular world where the religion of my youth no longer seems to function in a reality, to me, setting. To quote the sixties – “if it feels good, do it” – and if it does not feel right, ignore it or get rid of it.

No doubt Mr. Cox, retired now from Harvard Divinity School, has been doing a lot of thinking and filling in the gaps for us in the interim, still serving his gift of words in the pursuit of a meaningful understanding and relationship with the Creator.

Harvey Cox’s book The Future of Faith seems to be on the mark to dissect minimally and refresh the religious conversation so long dead in this country at least. I cannot speak for other countries.

Cox divides Christianity in three Ages.

The first is the Age of Faith which is the early Christians in direct and intimate contact with Jesus. The writings of Paul are there not for everyone but custom tailored to each geographic setting of many individual churches and centers of Christian faith.

The second Age is the Age of Belief whereby Constantine and his regimes that followed standardized what you had to believe in order to be a conforming good Christian.

The third and current Age since the Reformation is the Age of the Spirit. Indeed, today.

Anarchy in the age of the spirit
But his snapshot of the contemporary religious scene is unapologetically taken from the mountaintop, and it is also unapologetically optimistic. Cox recognises the risks associated with some of the features of the age of the spirit – its fundamentalism, say, or the prosperity gospel. But he argues they can't last. They are essentially reactions against modern biblical scholarship, which means "a religion based on subscribing to mandatory beliefs is no longer viable". Hence the emphasis on the spirit. Neither does he worry that Christianity today so often feels like a Jesus-centered personality cult. Rather, Pentecostalism is a positive force, part of "an inexorable movement of the human spirit whose hour has come".
I am not too certain about the Pentacostal thing – but it does represent energy – which is the future. Perhaps if a hardcore hold on the book, which is the foundation of the Age of Belief overlapping into the Age of Spirit, becomes secondary to the Spirit as it was in the beginnings of Christianity, the future of Christianity could be quite interesting and exciting.

Perhaps if in this Age of the Spirit, we could all have more user friendly religious situations. Perhaps the old fashioned Town Square will once again appear in America out of a patchwork of city blocks and neighborhoods bonded, cohesive, caring, loving - a home for groupings of individuals and more. The world would then be truly a more wonderful place in which to live.

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