What Cox says in a nutshell is this. During "The Age of Faith" (first 3 centuries of Christianity) Christians were mostly concerned with following the teachings of Jesus than what to believe about him. "The Age of Belief" (4th - 20th centuries) is also known as "Constantinian" era Christianity, after the Roman Emperor Constantine who called the Council of Nicea (325) and insisted on religious uniformity codified in creeds, largely motivated by his desire for political uniformity in his empire. During this age, Christianity, now connected (disastrously, says Cox) to worldly culture, wealth and power, focused on orthodoxy (right doctrine), rooting out heresy, and became increasingly institutional, hierarchical, patriarchal, and regional.
About 50 years ago (coinciding with larger social developments of the era) "The Age of the Spirit" began and is "increasingly directing the church of tomorrow". This shift from religion as "belief" (where we can hold something to be true, but behave more or less like "non-believers" in our culture) to religion as "faith" (which actually shapes the way we live) is resulting in a downplay on dogma and the differences between religions, and instead is stressing experience with God, community, and practical ethics for eliminating social evils.
A few other factors to keep in mind. One, this resurgence of religion blows away past predictions -- including by Harvey Cox himself (The Secular City, 1965) -- that it was dying. Two, what is dying (believe it or not, Americans) is religious 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". Three, this shift to religion as faith (spiritual, communal, and justice-seeking) is occurring not just in Christianity but in other world religions, including (believe it or not, Americans) Islam.
Harvey Cox is a fine scholar. He has been tracking developments in Christianity and other religions for decades. But as I alluded to above, his thesis is no surprise to me. But then again, I have the advantage of having had Cox for the very first course he held at Harvard Divinity School back in the early 1990s on Pentecostalism and Liberation Theology, arguably the two most significant Christian developments of the 20th century.
Back then people like Cox, Eldin Villafañe (who co-taught the course with Cox) and others where trying to reconcile the differences between Pentecostalism (which progressives saw as so heavenly minded it was no earthly good) and the Latin American theology of liberation (which conservatives saw as so socially minded -- read "socialist" -- it was no heavenly good -- read "heretical" and politically threatening).
I felt at home in this class because I was always baffled why one side insisted that Christianity was about solving individual sin and stressing a personal relationship with God, and the other side insisted Christianity was about solving social or institutional sins and stressing communal relationships. And what? Never the twain shall meet? I thought they did meet in Jesus. The real issue is what are we doing separating them?
For many years, and in my classrooms I have summarized these two polarizing views as vertical reconciliation and horizontal reconciliation, respectively, and argued that both are vital. One cannot claim to be reconciled to God and not work ceaselessly to be reconciled to other people. In biblical language: you cannot claim to love God whom you have never seen and not love your neighbor whom you can see. This, to me, is the essence of the faith shift that Cox talks about.
At least I hope it is. If what I call vertical reconciliation results in horizontal reconciliation, this is very good. Horizontal reconciliation will be the ultimate test of the goodness of the trend Cox elaborates in his book.
My fear, however, specifically in North America, is that this trend could develop into a sort of "every person" religion that is very "American" and very uninformed, which I'm afraid is but two ways of saying the same thing (Stephen Prothero, American Jesus; Religious Literacy). Cox would of course say that this is precisely the result of "belief" over "faith".
Let me be clear. If a rise in religious faith reaches a critical mass in the United States, along side a decline in religious fundamentalisms, you would find few in America who would dance a jig with more enthusiasm than me. But for this to happen faith will have to become more transcendent than America itself and indeed must stand against certain things American.
For example, today, the richest 1% of Americans control more wealth than 90% of the population. This trend is not an accident or a natural result of the "invisible hand" of capitalism. It is deliberate, it is a scandal, and it is destroying the middle class, to say nothing of the poor. And yet, I can count on one hand the number of conservative evangelicals who know about, much less reject the current plutonomy.(1)
Historically, it has never taken long for a reforming impulse to be absorbed and changed (not for the better) by cultural "pulls" and "pushes". In the face of the enormous material wealth and secular power of the papacy, the Franciscan order began as a return to the holy poverty and sacrificial service of Christ. Soon the Franciscans acquired much land, wealth, and prestige -- a far cry from the original order of begging "friars minor" -- and itself needed reforming.
Therefore, a religious paradigm shift may indeed be occurring, but Cox and others may be underestimating the degree to which it can be co-opted by American cultural values and trends that are antithetical to the "kingdom" teachings of Jesus, or even something so fundamental as the "golden rule." This would be bad.
The other factor that needs more serious consideration is the growing population of "Nones" in America. Since 1990, the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) has been tracking trends in America, and guess what? The fastest growing population are those with "no stated religious preference, atheist, agnostic" (or "Nones", for the box they check). In 1990, 86% of American adults said they were Christian. In 2008 it was 76%. At the same time, those who identified themselves as "nones" went from 8.2% to 15%.
Moreover, what ARIS does not account for are those who identify as Christian but effectively are not. That is, ARIS does not explicitly distinguish between mere "believers" and people of "faith", to use Cox's terms.
Another serious thing to consider. If it was not for the growth of Christianity (especially by Pentecostals and Catholics) among the Latino population, a large part coming from -- wait for it -- undocumented immigrants, the picture of the growth trends of Christianity in America would be more bleak than many already think it is. Ironically, therefore, all the current vituperation and laws against "illegal" Latino immigrants is obscuring and undermining the ministerial and partnership possibilities with one of the truly growing, vital sectors of the faith that is shaping the future of Christianity in America and beyond (M. D. Carroll, Christians at the Border; M. Soerens & J. Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger). But this is a topic for another discussion.
Leaving the immigrant factor aside for the present, ARIS (2008) summarizes the previously mentioned trend of nones:
The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.This would of course seem to support Cox's thesis. But the following does not.
The U.S. population continues to show signs of becoming less religious, with one out of every five Americans failing to indicate a religious identity in 2008 [although this trend is not progressing as fast today as in the 1990s].(2)15% Nones. That's a lot of people with religious nothing. That has to impact the cultural landscape.
So what will the future be? Are our choices merely between doctrinelessness or godlessness? I hope not. I'm not convinced that doctrines and institutions are all bad. They are bad when they become more important than love for others. When the religious think they glorify God by burning a heretic (Balthasar Hübmaier, 16th c.). When they champion the unborn and ignore the living. (Would an anti-abortion champion care if an illegal Mexican immigrant had an abortion? Or, would they try to save babies from abortion in Mexico and later try kick them out of America if in desperation they came here illegally?)
If the trend Cox talks about becomes merely a religious version of the hippie movement -- in time just an excuse to cut loose from constraints and accountability, and eventually becoming members of a new status quo -- then this would be bad.
If nothing grows, religious vacuum, I shudder to think what will fill it. For vacuum makes one ripe for invasion ("who stands for nothing falls for anything" comes to mind).
But if faith is indeed becoming informed, vital, communal and socially just, then I welcome it with open arms.