The Future of Faith
By Harvey Cox
Review by John E. Wade II
I encourage you to read this far-reaching history, current state and future of faith—primarily Christian insights, but also important reflections on religions in general.
It seemed religion was fading and not to shape politics or culture. But that is not the case, as it is showing new vitality all over the world.
Some confuse this new resurgence with fundamentalism; but, fundamentalism is dying. “Fundamentalisms, with their insistence on obligatory belief systems, their nostalgia for a mythical uncorrupted past, their claims to an exclusive grasp on truth, and—sometimes—their propensity for violence, are turning out to be rearguard attempts to stem a more sweeping tidal change.”
People are in awe of our own world and concerned with a faith that affects us here and now rather than the hereafter.
A key statement is, “We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live.” I have faith in Almighty God and that little piece of God in each of us and all of us. Thus, I feel I owe kindness to all and invite others to develop the same faith.
Cox makes a wonderful point, “But faith, which is more closely related to awe, love, and wonder, arose long before Plato, among our most primitive homo sapiens forebears. Plato engaged in disputes about beliefs, not about faith.”
The first three centuries after Christ is what the author calls the Age of Faith. Then came Emperor Constantine the Great (d.387 CE), the second most important person in Christianity after Christ. He ushered in the Age of Belief that, quite unfortunately, lasted for fifteen hundred years.
The author explains its demise quite adroitly, “. . . ebbing in fits and starts with the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the secularization of Europe, and the anticolonial upheavals of the twentieth century. It was already comatose when the European Union chiseled the epitaph on its tombstone in 2005 by declining to mention the word ‘Christian’ in its constitution.”
Despite many who expected Christianity to diminish, instead, it has taken on new life, mostly outside the West in the “Global South.” Women are coming into prominence as they did during the first three centuries after Christ—before Constantine. In the Global South the Pentecostals are by far the fastest growing Christian group.
Cox states that many people call themselves spiritual, but not religious—differentiating themselves from doctrines, dogma and creeds. After a long spiritual journey, I characterize myself as spiritual and respectful of all loving religions and loving faiths . Cox puts spirituality well, “. . . a way of life rather than a doctrine structure.” Kindness for all and from all, including oneself is the way of life I try to pursue. A researcher named Seth Wax gathered 105 interviews with people who said they were “spiritual” and concluded that this quality “. . . increased their sense of responsibility in their work and society due to having a larger goal.”
There are now more than four hundred mega churches and they are not fundamentalist. One estimate is that 40 percent of all adult Americans belong to some of the many small groups that are part of these churches.
Cox makes a perceptive statement concerning the world today, as far as spirituality: “The atmosphere today is more like that of early Christianity than like that obtained during the intervening millennium and a half of the Christian empire.”
Beliefs and faiths can be tested and vary in the best of us. “Mother Teresa (1910-1997) confessed that for years she had harbored troubling doubts about the existence of God, even as she worked ceaselessly to relieve the anguish of the sick and dying in Calcutta.” Many criticized her for her doubts. But a student wrote, “Mother Teresa’s life exemplifies the living aspect of faith, something sorely needed in a society where Christian identity is most often defined in terms of what a person believes rather than how he or she lives. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” I think so, quite fervently.
Cox states directly that, “We have been misled for many centuries by theologians who taught that ‘faith’ consisted in dutifully believing the articles listed in one of the countless creeds that have spun out.” He explains that Buddhists and Hindus don’t use “beliefs.” Even Islam only expects the affirmation, “There is no god but God, and Mohamed is his messenger.”
The earliest manner in which the New Testament was described was living “The Way,” pursuing faith rather than beliefs and creeds. Cox writes, “The experience of the divine is displacing theoriesabout it.”
Albert Einstein considered himself to be a “devoutly religious man.” But his was a faith built on wonder and awe of the universe, not any creed or religion as such. The author thinks Einstein would probably call himself “spiritual, but not religious” if he were living now. I have a customized license plate on my car which says WONDER. I firmly am in awe and wonder of Almighty God’s handiwork in everyone and everything.
The author states, “The awareness of one’s own mortality raises the question of the meaning of life, and this eventually spawned philosophy, religion and culture.” For me, I find the greatest meaning in life is in serving, using my mind, body and little piece of God in my calling. I find my calling is calling right now as I write these words. Of course, we all have our calling(s) and they vary as we progress through our lives.
The author goes on to say. “Faith does not mean ‘belief in’ this or that myth of creation.” Cox writes, “Some well-meaning theologians think Christians are indeed asked to believe too many things.” I certainly think that’s true, very true.
Cox makes a very good point about values. He writes, “What should I do? Is always linked to Who am I?” He further writes, “The self is not a static entity.” He makes the comment, “The ‘universe within’ is just as mysterious as the universe out there.”
Cox makes a wise statement: “The three ways we encounter the great mystery—the universe, the self, the other—all leave us with a sense of uneasiness, incompleteness, and dissatisfaction.” His solution is faith. “Faith, although it is evoked by the mystery that surrounds us, is not the mystery itself. It is a basic posture toward the mystery, and it comes in an infinite variety of forms.”
I think our minds and spirit can only comprehend a finite part of these highly complex and vast mysteries. Yet, God has a plan and knows about the universe—right down to every single person—on a moment by moment basis for all of eternity.
Cox writes, “Faith begins with awe in the face of mystery.” Later he describes life as an “unfinished epic” as we live our lives “. . . in a world whose potential is yet to be fulfilled.” I believe humankind is proceeding forward toward a Heaven on Earth. I seek to become a pathfinder for that ultimate journey.
Cox explains, “The Hebrew prophets, Jesus Himself, and the last pages of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, all teach that the Kingdom of God is something that happens in and to this world.” My wording is “ Heaven on Earth.”
Cox writes, “Moving the focus from Jesus as an individual to His life purpose greatly widens His relevance in a religiously pluralistic world.” Jesus’ “. . . hope and confidence –His faith—was constantly focused on the new world God had promised ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’”
Cox explains, “One of the most devastating blunders made by the church, especially as the Age of Belief began, was to insist that the Spirit is present only in believers.” I deeply believe that there is a little piece of God within each of us and all of us since the dawn of humankind.
New discoveries, according to Cox, give Christianity a second chance. These new findings help explain why women who were so important in the earliest days “. . . were pushed to the underside and the edges.” Visiting early Christianity shows diversity, no “apostolic authority” and the view that the Kingdom of God was seen as an alternative toward the Roman Empire that “tyrannized them.”
Paul “. . . underscored time and time again the greatest of these [Christian] gifts was love.” I agree that love, kindness, and compassion are the foremost gifts of all the great religions. I believe that radical Islam, which breeds hate, does not come from God. It is a perversion of a peaceful Muslim religion. Unfortunately, there are extremists who do evil deeds in the name of other religions as well—and none of these actions come from God.
Cox wrote, “Jesus had taught that God’s Kingdom would come on earth.” In other words, Christ pointed toward Heaven on Earth. Cox explains, “Actually, however, Jesus’ enemies understood Him all too well. He was, in truth, a real threat to the empire . . . Religion was political, and politics were religious.” When Christ taught the prayer, “. . . on earth as it was in heaven”. . . it was all too clear then whose Kingdom would have to go.
It was much later in the late eighteenth century, when the separation of religion and state emerged, that Christ was separated from Roman politics, although Constantine had a part, too. Cox wrote, “for nearly three centuries the Age of Faith thrived.” Cox presents different viewpoints as to why the age ended, but there is no question that creeds and dogma took over and became “. . . obstacles to faith.” Rick Warren, of Saddlebrook Church in Orange County, California, is quoted as saying, “. . . what the church needs now is a ‘second Reformation,’ one based on ‘deeds, not creeds.’” I agree. It’s what we say and do that counts, and I believe that this is what our loving God wants.
Constantine “. . . was undoubtedly responsible for the murder of both his son and his mother.” Yet, he made Christianity the state religion and organized and served as “. . . patron-in-chief” of the church. He organized, funded and hosted the counsel of Nicaea. Even though he had little knowledge or interest in theology, he in effect dictated the fundamentals of the Age of Beliefs, lasting for 1500 years. Odd things followed. “In 1431 Joan of Arc was burned as a heretic. In the twentieth century she became a saint.”
In the twenty-first century all the great religions are mostly everywhere. Cox states, “Due not only to tides of immigration, but also to jet travel, the internet, and films; the dispersion of religions all over the globe now makes us all each other’s neighbors, whether we like it or not.”
Religion can be hazardous. Cox writes, “It was not a Muslim who killed Gandhi, but a fellow Hindu. Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto was murdered by a fellow Muslim.” Cox concludes that we not only need interfaith dialogue, but also intrafaith discourse.
Cox writes, “Fundamentalists collapse faith and belief. He rightly writes that “. . . many fundamentalists are also people of genuine faith who trust God as they understand Him and try to love their neighbors.” However, as Cox and I agree, “. . . the fundamentalist obsession with correct beliefs often makes faith, in its biblical sense, more elusive.” Cox explains a key observation. “Contrary to the image they have had, fundamentalists were not mostly rural, nor were they an uneducated or semiliterate gaggle.” He concludes that being a fundamentalist is hard because you not only have to contend with the skepticism around you, but your own doubts as well. Living your own faith is, in my opinion, a fulfilling, meaningful and fruitful way to journey toward Heaven on Earth.
Cox notes that there are many bibles—ones for Jews, Catholics and Protestants. He makes an interesting point, “What if they were Bible-believing Christians in the second century CE? At that time the only Bible Christians had was the Old Testament. The New Testament had yet to be compiled.”
Cox puts it quite frankly and I certainly think he’s right. ”The idea that ‘The Bible’ has always been the same book year in and year out and you either believed it or you did not may be comforting, but it has no basis in reality.” There are multiple translations, some of which still puzzle the scholars to this day, such as the ending to the Book of Job. To point out the difficulty in saying there is “The Bible” Cox points out that a publishing house listed, “. . . twenty different versions of the Bible in print and selling well.” Also, there is no original Bible. All are copies.
Cox thinks of the Bible somewhat the way I do, that we should, “. . .take the Bible back from the fundamentalist hijacking and make it once again a genuine support of faith, instead of an obstacle.”
In 1900 Cox writes that fully ninety percent of Christians were located in Europe or the United States. Now, sixty percent of all Christians live in Asia, Africa or Latin America. He writes that this sixty percent is expected to swell to sixty-seven percent by 2025. Most Christians now live in the Global South. Christianity is no longer a Western religion, and the practices in the Southern Hemisphere are different. They are also mostly not white, but black, brown or yellow.
Cox relates an interesting story. A hero priest stood up in San Salvador after a fellow priest was killed by a death squad. Father Romero started announcing the names of the victims and disappearing persons from the pulpit. He knew he was a dire risk for his actions, but his faith led him to do the right thing. He said, “If they kill me, I will live on in the life of the people.” The death squad did murder him.
But, this brave priest lives on. Cox writes, “Romero’s violent death also made him the saint and martyr of liberation theology, the most innovative and influential theological movement of the twentieth century; and also probably the most misunderstood.” Cox goes on to explain, “Liberation theology is not, as its critics charge, a political movement that deploys religious language. Rather, it is a profoundly religious movement with important political implications.”
Christianity is alive and well as a way of life. But, Cox writes, “In those countries where the clerical leadership clings to the older model, the churches are empty.” I believe we are in The Innovation Age—in technology, faith, government, education, life itself—and we will move forward in love into the Spiritual Age. This will encompass the whole world, each of us and all of us.
Cox explains it is not fundamentalists who have grown so much, but that ninety percent of the amazing increases have been Pentecostals, who are quite spiritual, not literal. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, they are following the way of Christ with “. . . outreach efforts to drug addicts in Hong Kong, sex workers in Bangkok and Calcutta, babies with AIDS in Africa, and dozens of other programs.” Another key item that Cox reveals about Pentecostals, “They school people in the indispensable skills needed to make democracy work.”
Cox writes, “Pentecostals are known everywhere in Latin America for their straight-forwardness and honesty. They are sought out for middle-level jobs because employers know they will stay sober, arrive for work on time, and not steal the petty cash.” These statements speak highly of these people. Cox also states that because of their advocacy for changes that some “. . . believe that Pentecostals could become the core of fundamental non-violent transformation.” Thus, in my words, they may become pathfinders toward Heaven on Earth.
The final chapter of this interesting, informative and captivating book has the same title as the book itself, “The Future of Faith.” Cox writes quite clearly, “Faith is resurgent, while dogma is dying.” That’s exactly what happened to me personally. I was brought up a Presbyterian, with the Apostle’s Creed and other dogma. I have put much of that behind me, though my faith in Almighty God and that little piece of God in me is stronger than ever. I try to live my faith.
Cox thinks that this change from dogma to faith “. . . is taking place along with similar reformations in the other world religions.” Cox states categorically, “A religion based on subscribing to mandatory beliefs is no longer viable.” That’s certainly true with me personally.
Religions are more and more global, less dogmatic, and women are playing a greater role. Cox writes, “Women are publishing commentaries on the Qur’an, leading synagogues, and directing Buddhist retreat centers. There are now women pastors, priests, and bishops in Christian denominations.”
Cox concludes the whole book with the following comment, “All the signs suggest we are poised to enter a new Age of the Spirit and that the future will be a future of faith.” I heartedly concur. But first, we must navigate The Innovation Age, which is present right now.