Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Yearning for the Sacred

Recently I shared thoughts on theologian Harvey Cox’s latest book, The Future of Faith.

Last month, Cox was interviewed by Daniel Burke of the Prairie Messenger. Burke prefaces this interview by noting that in The Future of Faith, Cox “argues that Christianity is moving from an Age of Belief dominated by creeds and church hierarchies to an Age of Spirit, in which spirituality is replacing formal religion.”

Following are excerpts from this interview (with thanks to my friend Terry Dosh who first brought it to my attention).


Daniel Burke: What’s the difference faith and belief?

Harvey Cox: I think of belief as having to do with subordination to ideas or doctrines, a kind of mental assent. Whereas faith is far more deeply rooted in life orientation. I think the confusion of faith as loyalty or adherence to ideas or propositions is a mistake.

Daniel Burke: Don’t some scholars say that religious movements with “high walls” or that require a lot from believers actually are growing quite fast?

Harvey Cox: I know that argument, and for me it’s not persuasive for this reason: look at the charismatic Pentecostal movement. What in the world is growing faster than that? In Africa, in Latin America, in China – those movements are indigenous, non-creedal, and non-hierarchical.

The distinction is not between groups with high walls or explicit rules. It has to do with a yearning people have for a taste of the sacred. I think about the students here at Harvard and what brings them into religious expression. It’s meditative practice, or prayer groups, or religiously motivated social action. It’s experimental and existential. People are growing suspicious of taking something on someone else’s authority, and I think that’s healthy.

Daniel Burke: Have the students changed much since you started teaching at Harvard in ’65?

Harvey Cox: Four decades ago, if you were a religious person, you kept that to yourself. There was no religious studies program at Harvard College, the divinity school was a shrunken little outfit, students were not notably active in churches or their religious institutions.

Now someone did a study that showed students are worshipping more than ever in Harvard’s history. We can’t organize courses in religion fast enough to meet the need. Part of the interest is intellectual curiosity no doubt, but a good deal of it is also a personal searching for something of meaning and value.

Daniel Burke: Your epigraph is a T.S. Eliot poem that says history can be either liberating or imprisoning. How can early Christian history be liberating?

Harvey Cox: The phenomenal discoveries in the last few decades of all these hidden documents and scrolls show that the first 300 years of Christianity were enormously more diverse than we had been given to believe. There was no central creed; it all centered on following Jesus.

It wasn’t until Constantine in the fourth century, who decided he needed ideology to sew together a fragmenting empire, that a whole new thinking was created about what made a Christian, with an emphasis on belief instead of experience.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Return to the Spirit
Keeping the Spark Alive: Conversing with “Modern Mystic” Chuck Lofy
In the Garden of Spirituality: Adrian Smith
In the Garden of Spirituality: Patrick Carroll
Revealing a Hidden History
Time for a Church for Grown-Ups
No Patriarchal Hierarchy, No Rigid Conformity
Robert McClory’s “Prophetic Work”
“More Lovely Than the Dawn”: God as Divine Lover

Image: Michael J. Bayly.

1 comment:

Liam said...

As I worship at a Harvard University territory church, as it were, I would like to offer another observation about the shift in students' religio-spiritual expression over the past generation, based on observations of chaplains I have discussed this with. In addition to things that Professor Cox describes, the spiraling culture of meritocracy also means entrepreneurialism is also part of the mix. What do I mean by that? Well, increasing numbers of students over the years have had that impulse to found something of their own, rather than receive something already founded or given. It looks better on the resume. It's not entirely bad, but it's not entirely good. For example, very simple low-tech traditional apostolates like St Vincent de Paul - which are very hands-on in terms of service to the poor - are not interesting to an increasing portion of these students, who have cultivated a habit of busy-ness in their lives that prefers to make things anew, over and over again, et cet.

It's a subtle point, but with real consequences.