So often, those who wandered into our progressive pews were agnostics at best — suspicious of anything that smacked of doctrine. To “believe” in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior was often a deal breaker for these intellectual realists. It was only when I distinguished between “trust” in Jesus as Lord and “belief” in Jesus as Lord that their spiritual anxiety seemed to diminish. I wish I had been able to give these spiritual seekers a copy of Harvey Cox’s new book, The Future of Faith, which underscores on every page the centrality of trust — and not belief — in a life of faith.
In keeping with other contemporary theological explorations (Tickle’s The Great Emergence, and Marcus Borg’s various volumes), Cox paints a broad sweep of Christian history — breaking up the journey into specific ages. For him, the primordial Age of Faith (300 years) was followed by a crippling Age of Belief ( 1,500 years) currently transforming into a vibrant Age of Spirit, a hopeful era of history that is recalling the passion and imagination of the Gospel Jesus both imagined and lived.
In sharp contrast, Cox pits a life of faith (the embodiment of the “reigning of God,” rooted in awe, trust, experience and mystery, emerging from the bottom up) with a life of belief (a mandated codified set of dogmas intended to control lives from the top down — a de-energizing of faith through Constantinian creedalism and clericalism). Cox celebrates his sense that faith in Jesus is once more transforming a static faith about Jesus.
Reading this book was a bit like riding a roller coaster — the slow arduous pull up mountains of history followed by sweeping, exhilarating rides into the valleys of Cox’s own narrative. The sheer scope of this book is breath-taking, a worthwhile crash course in our 2,000-year Christian story. And Cox’s experience of teaching in the intellectual cauldron at Harvard, as well as his broad research into the contemporary world of global Pentacostalism, gives particular depth to these pages.
I have two mild critiques of the book. Cox’s passionate screed against creeds is a bit over-stated, offering a somewhat shallow recognition of the historical importance of creeds in shaping the theological story of the church. And his optimistic hope about the decline of fundamentalism as a global cultural force does not match my experience of growing Presbyterian fundamentalism in Africa, or the frightening rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a threat to world peace.
Cox’s The Future of Faith was released for publication on September 10, the same day Cox retired after 44 years serving as the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard University. The Hollis Chair is the oldest endowed professorship in American higher education (1721). In keeping with the tradition of the earliest holders of the chair, Cox was allowed to graze his cow on the verdant stretches of Harvard Yard. I believe that this celebration of the rich past through a contemporary return to primordial roots is also the point of Cox’s book. The best is yet to come, by recapturing the Spirit of an early Jesus movement that continues to change the world.
SUSAN R. ANDREWS is the general presbyter of the Presbytery of Hudson River and served as Moderator of the 215th General Assembly.Book in review: The Future of Faith