Book Reviews

Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 245pp.Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 245pp.

           Harvey Cox (b. 1929) is the Hollis Professor of Divinity emeritus at Harvard, where he taught from 1965 until his retirement in 2009. This book was published in conjunction with his retirement. With more than fifty years of study, travel, and writing behind him, Cox turns to consider the future of faith. Religion in general is enjoying a resurgence all over the world, says Cox. He also believes that fundamentalism is dying (?!). But most important of all, he senses a "profound change in the elemental nature of religiousness."

           Today we witness a return to the immanent or "horizontal transcendence." Existential faith rather than dogmatic belief is a change for the good in his mind, and this is the theme of the entire book. Cox drives a very deep wedge between "faith in" and "faith about," between personal trust and institutional creeds. Sketching out a grand schematic, the kind that historians deplore, Cox says that Christianity has lived through three great ages. First was the original Age of Faith, vibrant and authentic, but also gone forever. Next came the Age of Belief, and Cox can't say enough bad about it. This was the age of forced creedal conformity, imperial power, clerical hierarchy, the "literalization of the symbolic," and the lust for empire. Creeds are toxic. They "could be thought of as symptoms of a long psychological disorder" (108, 141). Today we have entered the Age of the Spirit, says Cox, and returned to something more like the vibrancy of the golden apostolic age.

           I appreciated Cox's chapter on what happened under Constantine. And mere belief about God or the gospel is surely no substitute for existential trust in God. But it's impossible to separate the faith with which we believe (a verb) from the faith which we believe (a noun). What is the object or content of the act of faith, if not something expressed in creeds, doctrines, and propositions? Cox downplays the centrality of dogma and creed in other traditions, and romanticizes Christians in the global south who often are even more hierarchical and dogmatic than the rich, white north. Under girding his disdain for doctrine is the hint that it's impossible to be wrong in religion, and that the only thing that matters is sincere trust. I kept hoping Cox might embrace the medieval affirmation of propositional knowledge, intellectual assent, and personal trust, all three of which are necessary for full faith, but that is not what he forsees in the future of religion.