In 1965, Harvard professor, Harvey Cox, wrote The Secular City, and changed the way religion was taught in the US context and beyond.  In it, Cox argues that the sacred can be seen in the secular, and that secular life provides important countervailing forces to the more negative or damaging expressions of faith, seen on some ends of the religious continuum.

In 2009, on the occasion of his retirement, Cox has written The Future of Faith.  Heralded by some for his role as a ‘trend spotter’ in American religion, Cox’s work is powerful and worth a closer look.  The Future of Faith focuses on Christianity, but Cox draws support for his thesis from phenomenon in other religions, and some of his conclusions are generalizable across faiths.

At the risk of reducing this brilliant work to bare essentials, here is an attempt to draw out the future forecasts embedded in this masterful work:

Drivers of Change:

  • Social movements: decline of hierarchy & patriarchy, rise of liberation theology in Christianity in particular and democratizing forces across religions
  • Demographic trends: globalization of religions means religions are less regional
  • New knowledge: in science, archaeology, and history, much of which calls the literalistic interpretation of sacred scriptures into question
  • Power shifts: especially seen in rise of new “centers of gravity” in religion, especially in the so-called “Global South.”  Cox refers to this as Post-Western Christianity
  • Decline of Fundamentalism: especially within Christianity, but also as a “wing” of many of the world’s religions

Trends

  • Grassroots Religion: emphasis on spiritual, communal & justice-seeking elements of faith.  This, in contrast with more institutional elements of faith.   Along with this, there is a proliferation of lay religious expression and leadership.
  • Emerging Church Movement: characterized by postmodern lens.  Often non-denominational, decentralized, less institutional & dogma-oriented, driven by conversation rather than conversion, prone to spiritual & mystical creativity
  • Growth of Pentecostalism: (Cox attributes 90% of growth in Christianity to Pentecostal communities p.199) especially where Pentecostalism is correlated with collective living practices and cooperative organizing.  Cox takes pains to distinguish Pentecostalism from Fundamentalism.*

In my opinion, this work is a masterful recapitulation of Christian history through the eyes of a brilliant thinker, with links to other world religions that are essential to his thesis.

It is always important to look back in order to look forward, and Cox does this in an engaging and lively way–peppered with poignant autobiographical stories, and grounded in his own robust theological lens.

Ultimately, the title The Future of Faith is even a bit misleading–if Diana Butler Bass hadn’t already penned A People’s History of Christianity à la the dearly departed Zinn, it would perhaps have been a more appropriate title.

However, Cox does present a forecast of sorts about where faith is going in the   21st century.  For Cox, Christian history can be divided into three epochs, each with a distinctive zeitgeist:

  1. Age of Faith: time of Jesus and his earliest followers, when Christianity was a way of life, emerging from Jewish traditions.  In this time religion was a primary life orientation for the earliest Christians.**
  2. Age of Belief: era of earliest creeds and doctrines formulated to share about Jesus with those whose lifetimes never overlapped with his.  This lasted through imperial Christianity all the way through the 20th century.
  3. Age of the Spirit: advent of new spirituality in the 21st century, particularly through a change in the nature of religiosity–in Christianity in particular, but also other world religions–in which the spiritual is experienced increasingly within the secular.

Review of The Future of Faith

Ultimately, this framework may prove to be more hopeful and optimistic about the future of faith than it is predictive (Cox himself warns against prediction here), but it is nonetheless an insightful articulation of one way forward into religious expression in the 21st century.  Especially helpful, is the way in which Cox construes religion more as a system of meaning-making moving forward than as an institutional structure in terms of the way it functions in the lives of ordinary people in the next decades.

His analysis of drivers of change and the trends that result is provocative and plausible, with one exception.  Repeatedly, Cox asserts that fundamentalism is on decline, but without substantial evidence of that being the case.  Unfortunately, fundamentalism and extremism across religions is strong–if not in numbers then at least in impact–and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Likewise, he contends that the Age of the Spirit will replace the Age of Belief, whereas I believe that the structures of power that so often wield creeds and doctrines as weapons will take far longer to dismantle; in fact, the Age of Belief zeitgeist will likely always co-exist with that of the Age of the Spirit that is to come.

Why Read The Future of Faith?

The Future of Faith should be read by anyone who is personally invested in shaping how faith gets expressed in the next decade.  You will likely appreciate his consciousness of the interrelationship between religion, conflict, power, economic justice, and politics.  Still not convinced to pick up a copy and join the conversation on the future of faith?  Consider these highlights of the book, just for fun:

Key Distinctions

*Cox on Fundamentalists vs. Pentecostalists: “Fundamentalists are text-oriented literalists who insist that the inerrant Bible is the sole authority.  Pentecostals, on the other hand, though they accept biblical authority, rely more on a direct experience of the Holy Spirit.  Fundamentalists consider themselves sober and rational.  Pentecostals welcome demonstrative worship and ecstatic praise, which they call ‘speaking in tongues’ and which they regard as the Spirit praying with them…Fundamentalists insist on a hard core of nonnegotiable doctrines one must hold to unquestioningly.  Pentecostals generally dislike doctrinal tests and reject what they call ‘manmade creeds and lifeless rituals.’ ” –The Future of Faith, p.200-201

**Cox on faith vs. belief: “Faith is about deep-seated confidence.  In everyday speech, we apply it to people we trust or the values we treasure.  It is what theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) called ‘ultimate concern,’ a matter of what the Hebrews spoke of as the ‘heart.’  Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion…Beliefs can be held lightly or with emotional intensity, but they are more propositional than existential.  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.” –The Future of Faith, p.3

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