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Saturday, September 12th, 2009
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The Future of Faith

by Harvey Cox

The Dawning of the Age of the Spirit

A review by Chris Faatz

In book after book, Harvard University's Harvey Cox has proven himself one of the most astute observers of contemporary religious life. From The Secular City to Fire from Heaven, from Feast of Fools to The Silencing of Leonardo Boff, Cox has persuasively demonstrated depth of knowledge, acquaintance with relevant texts and movements, and an overall inspiring level of both passion and compassion for the peoples of the world and their journeys through the landscape of belief. In his new book, The Future of Faith, Cox takes his wisdom and commitment one step further, painting an engaging and convincing portrait of a Christianity on the verge of something utterly new, completely transformative, and thoroughly grounded in the very best that 2,000 years of the religion has to offer.

Cox's thesis, in short, is that there have been three great ages in the history of Christianity. The first of these, which he calls the Age of Faith, roughly corresponds to the early days of the Christian movement, when followers were less concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy than with living out the great message of liberation and transformation of Jesus of Nazareth. This was a radical and exciting time in the history of the church, the time of martyrs and great theologians, and a period when people of very different ways of practicing Jesus' message coexisted in a broad and diffuse movement. In Cox's words, "as the Christian movement entered the second century, it continued to thrive, sometimes in the face of severe persecution, with a polyglot of theologies and numerous different styles of governance."

The second age, according to Cox, was the Age of Belief. This period was launched in the fourth century with the Church's cozying up to the Roman state in the form of the emperor Constantine, the revolutionary -- or reactionary -- impact of the Council of Nicaea which focused on doctrinal orthodoxy and the reining in of those on the fringes of what was considered theologically proper, and the first persecutions of "heretics" of whatever stripe. The Age of Belief lasted roughly through the middle of the 20th century, and was highlighted by its Eurocentric nature, its commitment to hierarchy and doctrinal correctness, and a commitment to uniform and universal beliefs as set forth in creedal form by the religious powers of the day.

In some ways, this Age of Belief was deeply schizophrenic. While inherently extremely conservative, it also contained such remarkable outpourings of a true and revolutionary faith as the movement launched by Saint Francis of Assisi.

Mystics always make prelates nervous, but it seems they are always with us. They have appeared and reappeared both within the Catholic Church and around its edges every century, sometimes to be banished, sometimes to be burned at the stake, and other times (after they are safely dead), to be canonized.
Overall, though, the Age of Belief was marked by caution and conservatism in the theological arena, a commitment to traditional hierarchies in the area of governance, and a fear of enthusiasm and upheaval in popular religious life. Both fundamentalism and conservative evangelical Christianity arose in the context of the Age of Belief.

But, according to Cox, all of that is set to bust wide open, as we enter the new Age of the Spirit.

The Age of the Spirit is delineated by a new discovery of the reality of the prophetic movement of God in people's lives. It's discernable by the explosive growth of the church in the global south, and by a new and profound commitment to social justice on the part of believers everywhere. Don't get me wrong: the hallmarks of the emerging Age of the Spirit are not universally the same. Rather, it's a kind of return to Cox's "polyglot" of the early church, a movement typified by the coexistence of such diverse trends as Liberation Theology and the massive growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches throughout the world. Change is coming fast.
[D]uring the past few decades the demography of Christianity has changed, shifting dramatically to the south and east. The population numbers tell the story. In 1900, fully 90 percent of Christians lived in Europe or the United States. Today 60 percent live in Asia, Africa, or Latin America, and that figure will probably rise to 67 percent by 2025. About 1975, Christianity ceased to be a "Western" religion.
Cox goes on to assert:
This is not just a geographical issue. It means that the new homelands of the faith of Jesus of Nazareth are not the inheritors of either Greek philosophy or Roman civilization. They have minimal interest in the metaphysical issues that obsessed such early Christian theologians as Origen and Athanasius. In Asia their cultures have been nurtured not by Homer and Plato, but by the Ramayana, the Sutras, and the Tao Te Ching. In Africa they have been maintained by a congeries of local rituals, customary healing rites, and the veneration of ancestors. Nor is this recent dislocation mainly cultural or religious. It also has to do with justice. Since the vast majority of people in this "new Christendom" are neither white nor well-off, their theological questions center less on the existence or nonexistence of God or the metaphysical nature of Christ than on why poverty and hunger still stalk God's world. It is little wonder that liberation theology, the most creative theological movement of the twentieth century, did not originate in Marburg or Yale, but in the tar-paper shacks of Brazil and the slums of South Korea.
One of the highlights of this book is just this, Cox's commitment to, and his elaboration of, the prophetic vision of social justice as a core element of this new movement of the spirit. We're tempted to think in boxes, and while it's easy and logical to recognize the commitment of such religious radicals as adherents of Liberation Theology to such a vision, we're unlikely to see such a perspective in movements of charismatic or Pentecostal Christians. This, however, has changed in the last several decades. Pentecostals in Africa and Latin America, thoroughly committed to the leadership of the Holy Spirit in all things, are also finding themselves thoroughly committed to the radical discipleship modeled by Jesus of Nazareth and his followers, challenging structures of power and oppression in a multitude of new and creative ways.

The Future of Faith is a slim book, but it's huge in scope. It ranges widely, and cogently argues a case for our entering a new Age of the Spirit where the reality of God's Kingdom of Shalom, his reign of peace and justice, is becoming more and more a central commitment for believers of all stripes. We are moved by and in the Spirit to transform our lives in the image of Jesus; we are moved by and in the Spirit to transform the world in the image of justice. This is a beautiful and deeply inspiring vision, one that excites believers internationally, and challenges them to rise above the dusty bounds of tradition. Early in the book, Cox proclaims:
The Old Testament cycle begins with creation and ends with the renovation of the world into a commonwealth of shalom, a place of justice and peace. This is a very large promise for which the promised land of Canaan is mere foreshadowing, a sort of down payment. This enlarged promise is not just to Jews, but to everyone. Also, according to some of the most lyrical passages in the Hebrew scriptures, it includes the whole creation, the plants and animals, the seas and stars. This means that one way to see the mystery of space-time is to view it as an unfinished narrative, a work in progress. It can be seen as a process in which the new, the surprising, and the unexpected constantly emerge. It means we live in a world whose potential is yet to be fulfilled.
And to this, a hearty Amen.

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