Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Return to the Spirit

Two renowned authors remind us
what religion is really all about.

Theologian and author Harvey Cox (pictured at right) was recently in the Twin Cities speaking about his new book, The Future of Faith, in the lecture series known as the Westminster Town Hall Forum. Although I was unable to attend, my friends Paula, Bernie, and Eileen heard Cox speak, and spoke highly of the ideas and insights he shared.

In the October 20 issue of the Christian Century, Episcopal priest, religious history professor, and author Randall Balmer reviewed Cox’sThe Future of Faith. Here’s what Balmer says about the book’s overall thesis.


Cox ushers the reader on an excursion through church history, which he divides into three eras: the Age of Faith, the Age of Belief, and the Age of Spirit.

. . . Cox admires the early years of Christianity, which, he says, had “no standardized theology, no single pattern of governance, no uniform liturgy, and no commonly accepted scripture.” More important, the early church had no “clerical caste” during this Age of Faith, which lasted until early in the fourth century, when Constantine converted to Christianity.

The identification of religion with empire triggered the transition from faith to belief, as a clerical elite with dubious claims (Cox says) to apostolic authority sought to enforce uniformity of belief.

“This tendency to replicate the structure of empire,” writes Cox, “helps explain why so much of the Christian movement, which began as the persecuted victim of the Roman empire and provided an alternative to it, then became a sycophantic mimic of that empire and finally its obsequious acolyte.”

During the Age of Belief, which has prevailed (with some exceptions) to the present, Christianity “curdled into a top-heavy edifice defined by obligatory beliefs enforced by a hierarchy.” Cox understands belief as the adherence to propositional truth that forms the basis for fundamentalism: “Faith had been coarsened into belief, and Christianity has been hobbled by this distortion ever since.”

Whereas early Christians allowed for multiple understandings and expressions of the faith, Christianity in this Age of Belief demanded conformity. Christianity, “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.” Women, “who played such a vital leadership role in the earliest days, were pushed to the underside and the edges.”

But even amid the theological sludge of the Age of Belief, various adventurers pushed their way to the surface. Cox cites the mystics and the Pentecostals (though he neglects the Camisards). “Mystics always make prelates nervous, “Cox writes, “but they are always with us.”

Due in part to the vision and courage of these dissenters, Cox believes, Christianity now stands on the cusp of the Age of Spirit, which is characterized by a return to faith over belief, a renewed concern for the poor, and an openness to the Spirit.

Cox insists that the real catalyst is the shifting of the center of Christianity from the West to Africa, Latin America, and the Asia-Pacific region. “In those countries where the clerical leadership clings to the older model, the churches are empty,” he writes. “But in those areas of the world where creeds and hierarchies have been set aside to make way for the Spirit, like the stone rolled away from Christ’s grave in the Easter story, one senses life and energy.”


Two points: First, Cox’s framework reminds me somewhat of Karl Rahner’s three-epoch theory of Christian history, a theory succinctly summarized by theologian Terry Dosh in the April 2008 issue of The Progressive Catholic Voice.

Second, one doesn’t only have to look abroad for evidence of what Cox describes as an emerging “life and energy” within Catholicism. I’m fortunate to be part of the
Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community – a vibrant intentional Catholic community that was formed after a large number of parishioners were compelled to move out of the South Minneapolis parish of St. Stephen’s after the chancery ordered that the parish conform its various liturgies to the rubrics of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). These liturgies had, over the past 40 years, evolved in ways that made the chancery uncomfortable. They had, for example, evolved to in ways that saw the introduction of women altar servers, inclusive language, lay homilists, an understanding of the priesthood of the people, and the welcoming of LGBT people.

The Spirit of St. Stephen’s continues to thrive (a second weekend liturgy will soon be offered), which is more than can be said about the parish of St. Stephen’s. What I believe we’re witnessing in cases like the Spirit of St. Stephen’s and St. Mary’s in Brisbane, Australia, is a clear example of the “return to faith over belief” that Cox writes about.

I think much of the current tension within Roman Catholicism – and indeed wider Christianity – comes from the fact that we’re living through this transition from (to use Cox’s terminology) the Age of Belief to the Age of Spirit. My concern is that because Roman Catholicism still operates as a feudal caste system, those within the tradition open to being active participants in this transition will be simply shown the door, and Roman Catholicism will be reduced to, in the words of David Carlin, the status of a “minor and relatively insignificant sect.”

In reviewing Carlin’s book, The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Russell Shaw summarizes the grim scenario put forth by Carlin as follows: “[So-called] traditionalists will have won the internal Catholic power struggle, says Carlin, mainly because the progressives will have drifted away. But in the end, the small band of traditionalists will find themselves isolated in ‘a new Catholic quasi-ghetto,’ with about as much influence on the culture as the Amish and Hasidic Jews have now.”

Yet, as I’ve noted previously, I’m not in the least bit interested in circling the wagons and living in any type of ghetto. Neither are the Catholics I know. Yet a ghetto is exactly what the current clerical leadership seems intent on creating for us. I’m drawn instead to a Church open to the Spirit, a Church that recognizes and celebrates itself as the Risen Body of Christ, alive and afoot in the world; a Church unafraid of journeying and engagement, of growth and change.

Interestingly, though not really surprisingly given that we are indeed in the midst of a transition or paradigm shift in religious consciousness, Harvey Cox isn’t the only person speaking about moving beyond an understanding and expression of religion that’s all about the need to define, defend, and divide.

In her latest book, The Case for God, Karen Armstrong (pictured at left) contends that religion is more about practice than belief; more about orthopraxy than orthodoxy.

Writes Armstrong:

Religion as defined by the great sages of India, China, and the Middle East was not a notional activity but a practical one; it did not require belief in a set of doctrines but rather hard, disciplined work, without which any religious teaching remained opaque and incredible.

True. But is it always that easy to separate belief from practice? Don’t our beliefs in large part shape what we do? Yes, but then perhaps Armstrong would argue that our beliefs should likewise be always open to being shaped by our ongoing practices within the context of an ever-changing world.

Elsewhere in her book, Armstrong observes:

A deliberate and principled reticence about God . . . was a constant theme not only in Christianity but in the other major faith traditions until the rise of modernity in the West. People believed that God exceeded our thoughts and concepts and could be known only by dedicated practice. We have lost sight of this important insight, and this, I believe, is one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so difficult today.

In discussing Armstrong’s latest work, Brian McGrath Davis notes:

For most of Western history “belief” has meant nothing like what it means today. Today, when someone asks me if I believe in God, for example, they are asking if I assent to the proposed verity or the factual existence of God — and usually it is in reference to a very specific understanding of that God. Similarly, if I'm asked if I have “faith in Christ”, the question is whether I agree with the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth was divine, died on a cross, and was raised from the dead, or some form of that story. In both cases, questions of “belief” and questions of “faith” require answers of thought. Yet, as surprising as it may seem, these understandings are relatively recent. “Faith” has its etymological roots in the Greek pistis, “trust; commitment; loyalty; engagement.” Jerome translated pistis into the Latin fides (“loyalty”) and credo (which was from cor do, “I give my heart”). The translators of the first King James Bible translated credo into the English “belief,” which came from the Middle English bileven (“to prize; to value; to hold dear”). Faith in God, therefore, was a trust in and loyal commitment to God. Belief in Christ was an engaged commitment to the call and ministry of Jesus; it was a commitment to do the gospel, to be a follower of Christ. In neither case were “belief” or “faith” a matter of intellectual assent.

This, of course, correlates with Harvey Cox’s contention that during much of Christian history, “faith had been coarsened into belief, and Christianity has been hobbled by this distortion ever since.”

In conclusion, I share the following excerpt from Christopher Hart’s July 5, 2009, London Times review of Armstrong’s The Case for God. Enjoy!


Both Bible-bashing fundamentalists and dogmatic atheists have a similar idea of what “God” means, [Armstrong] points out, and it is an absurdly crude one. They seem to think the word denotes a large, powerful man we can’t see. Such a theology is, she says, “somewhat infantile.” The only difference between the fundamentalists and the atheists is that the former affirm this God’s existence, the latter deny it and try to demolish it.

The new atheists, Armstrong says with impeccable restraint, “are not theologically literate”, and “their polemic…lacks intellectual depth”. In contrast, she usefully reminds us, both Galileo and Darwin, supposed icons of modern atheism, were adamant that their discoveries had no impact on religious faith. Equally humble in a different way, Socrates pushed rationality and intellect to the point where they fail: you reach his famous aporia, and realise you really know nothing at all. The new atheists do the opposite. Their rationality and intellect bring them to a place of absolute knowledge, a height from where they survey all history, and pronounce with finality on pretty much everything. Never trust anyone who knows this much.

Yet for centuries, ideas of God and the Bible were far more subtle and profound than today’s atheism or fundamentalism can conceive. “We have lost the ‘knack’ for religion,” says Armstrong. It is as if the success of science in the material world has rewired our brains, made us tone-deaf to myth. “Is it true?” we keep asking, meaning, “Did it really happen? Is it literally true? If not, we’re not interested.”

She draws on 2,000 years of Christian theology and mysticism to demonstrate rich alternative ideas of the divine. Back in the 4th century AD, long before Wittgenstein and Derrida, Bishop Basil of Caesarea understood all about the limits of language, and stated them rather more clearly, too. “Thought cannot travel outside was, nor imagination beyond beginning.” God is, by definition, infinitely beyond human language. Earlier still, the Christian scholar Origen (185-254) discussed the “incongruities and impossibilities” in scripture. The fact that Dawkins et al think that pointing out the Bible’s imperfections undermine Jewish or Christian belief only demonstrates their ignorance of the traditions they presume to undermine. Of course it’s not meant to be understood literally, the early Christians seem to sigh across the centuries.

Armstrong further shows how even the words “I believe” have changed, and become scientised, to mean “I assert these propositions to be empirically correct.” Yet the original Greek pisteuo means something much more like “I give my heart and my loyalty.” In the gospels, she says, quoting the great German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus himself sees God not as “an object of thought or speculation, but as an existential demand.”

Yet thanks to the misapplication of science to religious faith, we remain literal-minded and spiritually immature, frightened of the silence and solitude in which the Ancient of Days, the Unnameable, might be experienced, though never understood. We need to think of God not as a being, but as Being. Armstrong points us towards a vast tradition in all religions in which, in essence, you can ultimately say nothing about God, since God is no thing. In Islam, all speaking or theorising about the nature of Allah is mere zannah, fanciful - guesswork. Instead, try “silence, reverence and awe,” she says; or music, ritual, the steady habit of compassion, and a graceful acceptance of mystery and “unknowing.”

As a haunting example, she recounts this unforgettable story. Among the many Jews who lost their faith in Auschwitz, there was one group who decided to put God on trial. How could an omnipotent and benevolent deity allow this horror? Either he didn’t exist, or he wasn’t worthy of their love anyway. “They condemned God to death. The presiding rabbi pronounced the verdict, then went on calmly to announce that it was time for the evening prayer.” God is dead — but, Armstrong suggests, all we have lost is a mistaken and limited notion of God anyway: a big, powerful, invisible man who does stuff. Instead, we need to recapture the spiritual imagination, sensitivity and meditative humility of the pre-moderns, who she so admires.

The Case for God simmers with a quiet spiritual optimism. It is dense and brilliant, chastening and consoling. Whether or not it sells as well as the latest Hitchens or Dawkins will be a measure of us, not the book.

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
In the Garden of Spirituality - Paul Collins
In the Garden of Spirituality - Jesse Lava
In the Garden of Spirituality - Adrian Smith
In the Garden of Spirituality - Patrick Carroll
In the Garden of Spirituality - Joan Timmerman
Conversing and Arguing with the Theology of Philip Pullman
Darwin’s Darkest Hour
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
Time for a Church for Grown-Ups
Dialogue is Key in Moving Beyond Theological Impasses
Is Dialogue Always Possible?
Keeping the Spark Alive: Conversing with “Modern Mystic” Chuck Lofy
The Holarchical Church: Not a Pyramid But a Web of Relationships
Bishop Gumbleton: “It Isn’t the Church You’re Being Asked to Say Yes To - It’s Jesus”

Opening image: Michael J. Bayly.


Phillip Clark said...

Armstrong's and Cox's books are two more books I have to add to my must-read list!

I do agree that in Christianity there has been a prevailing sense of legalism that has distorted the original intention of the Gospel that Jesus Christ proclaimed. It has infiltrated the Church, infecting most of its leaders in failing to employ compassion and reason to understand the intricacies and variations of human sexuality in a spiritually attuned yet enlightened manner. So, we must stop seeing the Faith as rules that we have to follow and rather see it as a path of trust towards following the Lord, Jesus Christ.

However, I do think it's dangerous when we start chipping away at certain beliefs of Christianity. These are the aspects of Fr. Hans Kung's and other progressive Catholic thinkers that I don't usually agree with. Yes, some doctrines have gotten in the way of truly engaging humanity in a comprehensive and compassionate way. But I don't think this can call for a discrediting of all the beliefs that the Church holds as true and divinely inspired.

For me, what we profess in the Nicene Creed is still the core of the Christian Faith. That Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, was born, suffered, died upon the Wood of the Cross, and rose from the dead for the sake of our salvation. To me, that is the essence of Christianity, that God loved us so much that He came to dwell among us in the form of Jesus Christ and so achieve our redemption upon the Cross in the ultimate testament of unconditional love (not by atoning to an angry God, but by loving all of humanity unto the very end).

To me, the divinity of Christ, and the centrality of the Paschal Mystery are undeniably fundamental to the foundations of Christian understanding. Everything else falls away if we identify Jesus as just a "prophet" or an enlightened "man of God."

He was the definitive and ultimate revelation of God because God chose to assume our own likeness. Not subjecting or trivializing other religions as expressions of faith. I just believe that Chrisitanity, particularly Catholicism with its understanding of the Eucharist and the Church, is the fullness of religious expression. So, perhaps I'd fit into Karl Rahner's train of thought then.

Still, your post brings out numerous good points and revelations, many that are extremely pertinent for today! However, I just don't know if trivialing or watering down the Faith is a way to go about counteracting fundamentalism within Christianity. Again, Jesus said He came not to do away with the Law (the Ten Commandments) but to fulfill and perfect it.

Michael J. Bayly said...

You raise many excellent points, Philip. Thanks for that. I too am looking forward to reading both books.