Religion in the Secular City, by Harvey Cox
Entering the Kingdom
Religion in the Secular City: Toward a Post-Modern Theology.
by Harvey Cox.
Simon & Schuster. 304 pp. $16.95.
It is nearly twenty years since Harvey Cox, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, became a sensation among liberal theologians with the publication of The Secular City. In that book, he celebrated the advent of secular urban civilization and the retreat of traditional Christianity. Secularization, “an authentic consequence of biblical faith,” would liberate men from the religious superstitions of the past and turn their attention, as the God of Genesis intended, to fashioning the world around them. As Cox himself pointed out, there was nothing new in this acclaim for the secular epoch. The ground had been prepared years before by German theologians, particularly Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But Harvey Cox succeeded as no one else in translating their message into the American vernacular; and in so doing, he fulfilled the longings of a new generation of American clergy and laity.
Yet even in the heyday of The Secular City, a specter was stalking liberal theologians, and Harvey Cox knew it. Having declared that the kingdom was of this world, they could now choose among the various movements that were claiming to usher it in; but on what grounds? As Cox himself said in his book: “We are trying to live in a period of revolution without a theology of revolution. The development of such a theology should be the first item on the theological agenda today.”
This concern lies at the heart of Religion in the Secular City, in which Cox again proclaims the demise of one era and the coming of another. The modern secular age, it seems, is now ending, and the theology that sought to explain it has been rendered obsolete. The worldwide return of religion as a potent social force suggests that we are entering a “post-modern” era of “religious revival and the return of the sacral.” Liberal theology, which devoted itself to explaining the role of religion in the secular era, must give way to a theology better suited to the new age. According to Cox, the beginnings of this post-modern theology have already appeared, “borne by vigorous anti-modernist religious movements.” To ascertain what these movements can contribute to the coming theology, Cox singles out two for extended analysis: American fundamentalism and Latin American liberation theology.
Cox notes at the outset that fundamentalism will contribute little to post-modern theology, and spends the first third of his book explaining why. While fundamentalists are “highly critical of the modern world and its theology and also strenuously engaged with it,” the movement is limited theologically by its attachment to secular means and goals. Despite its reactionary origins, fundamentalism has cast its lot with the modern world, particularly technology; there is, Cox warns, an “unavoidable contradiction” between the fundamentalists’ anti-modern message and their reliance on mass media. Moreover, the movement is too ideological, too closely identified with the support of capitalism and American foreign policy. By allying themselves with these narrow political goals, the fundamentalists have excluded themselves from a post-modern theology which must address the hitherto dispossessed people of the world: namely, women, minorities, and the poor.
Cox then turns to liberation theology, and it is here that his hopes for a post-modern theology come to rest. “Liberation theology,” whose origins may be traced to the mid-1960′s, became widely recognized in the early 1970′s when Gustavo Gutiérrez, the so-called “father” of the liberationists, published A Theology of Liberation. The movement is largely, though not exclusively, Catholic, and its leading representatives are Latin American theologians heavily influenced by modern European thought and Marxism. Liberation theology claims to speak for the poor and oppressed; its central tenet, in Gutierrez’s words, is that to be Christian is “to be united with the poor and exploited of this world from within the very heart of the social confrontations and ‘popular’ struggles for liberation.”
For Cox, liberation theology is a vigorous movement which rejects the liberal theological consensus; but unlike fundamentalism, it is truly a “people’s” affair, one tolerant of and addressed to the oppressed throughout the world. The liberationists “are trying to make Jesus’ life purpose their own”; they represent “the lowest castes, the outsiders, the poor and ritually impure.” This sacralization of oppression leads liberation theology to embrace religious pluralism; in a world torn between oppressors and oppressed, the doctrinal differences among religions become insignificant.
In Cox’s scheme, such toleration is an essential component of postmodern theology. The age of the nation-state is passing away, and a world community is emerging in its place. National sovereignty, privatized religion, faith in technology and rational planning—these and other features of the modern age are disappearing, and the only remaining question is whether the coming world community will “develop quickly enough to prevent the dying nation states from trampling everyone to death in their final throes and twitches.” For Harvey Cox, it is clear, only the liberationists can provide theological order in this chaos. And as surely as Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, liberation theology will bring the kingdom to earth.
Now of all the ages, eras, and epochs that Harvey Cox has ever laid to rest, it is surely the age of reason whose interment pleased him most. In his first book, he danced on the grave; in this one, he desecrates it. The damage begins with his purportedly fair treatment of the “anti-modernist” theologies.
His investigation of fundamentalism today (alias “the revival of redneck religion”) begins with an account of a Sunday service at Jerry Falwell’s Baptist church. The sermon, Cox notes, “certainly left some room for scholarly discomfort,” and no doubt that discomfort accounts for the other smug comments scattered throughout the book, including these: fundamentalists “favor conspiracy theories,” seek to “retrieve the cities from the infidels,” and “may have struck a deal with Lucifer himself.” Fundamentalism itself is variously described as a “pious bulwark,” “a Billy Sunday punching the devil in the nose,” and “a perverted form of Kierkegaard’s existential inwardness.” Long before he exposes the “contradiction” of television evangelism, it is obvious that Harvey Cox knows whose side the angels (in whom he may not believe) are on.
The problem of one-sided exposition has only begun; when it comes to the side he favors, Cox is a formidable euphemist. In his book, civil war is “conflict,” hijackers are “people desperate enough to enter a flight deck, weapon in hand,” and terrorists are “ordinary people [who] try everything they can to achieve their rights as human beings—and then turn reluctantly to metallic objects.” He writes that Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan priest turned guerrilla (now Minister of Cultural Affairs), “represents the mystical and monastic stream of Christian history.” Indeed, Cox’s effusiveness over Cardenal and revolutionary Nicaragua at large knows no bounds. He freely admits that “it would be hard to think of a better exemplar” of liberation theology than the saintly Cardenal and notes with considerable wistfulness that “As a Nicaraguan [Cardenal] lives his life at the very center of the history he incarnates.”
It seems never to have entered Cox’s head that liberation theology invites unsavory bedfellows. In defending liberationist policies, he reminds us that “Jesus’ career was marked by conflict.” It is a familiar excuse; Fidel Castro remarked in Jamaica in 1977 that “Christ was a great revolutionary.” Still, while Cox’s justifications are old, they surely are not plagiarized; there are no Castros in his book, no Sandinistas, and no Communists. In fact, the very words “Marx” and “Marxism” appear a total of five times in Religion in the Secular City. The omission is startling, for the methodology of these thinkers is “avowedly Marxist,” as the prominent liberationist José Miguez-Bonino has pointed out. If Harvey Cox can explain liberation theology without Marx, he is a subtle theologian indeed—it is like writing Martin Luther out of the Reformation.
Cox’s study of history is so offhand that he can include Pius IX in a list of thinkers who “often sound modern despite themselves.” This Pope was in fact among the most virulent reactionaries ever produced by the Catholic Church. His infamous Syllabus of Errors, issued in 1864, not only condemned socialism, Communism, and “clerico-liberal societies,” it also forbade the teaching that the Pontiff should reconcile himself to “progress, liberalism, and recent civilization.” But when Cox writes that Pius IX “sounds modern,” he betrays the flaw at the heart of this book: namely, its theological-historical nomenclature.
There is nothing “anti-modern” about liberation theology, just as there is nothing “modern” about Pius IX. On Cox’s own definition, modernism is “the attempt to come to terms with the modern world,” a world characterized by sovereign states, technology, bureaucracy, profit, and “the trivialization of religion.” If Nicaragua is any example, the liberationists are extraordinarily adept, not to mention ruthless, at achieving these very things. Liberation theology is as “modern” a movement as any that incurred the wrath of Pius IX.
As for Cox’s other speculations, particularly about the emerging world order, one can only say that medieval theology appears commonsensical by comparison. Harvey Cox has done it again: he has turned the tradition of speculative metaphysics into one of free association. Religion in the Secular City has all the earmarks of Cox’s first best-seller, and its politically fashionable millenarianism will no doubt appeal to the substantial minority of increasingly politicized Christians.
Still, there is one Coxian fancy which provokes unexpected sympathy. In the tension between traditional Christians and liberationists, he detects the beginnings of a new Reformation, and this is surely a hope to be shared. If the Roman Church ever rids itself of the liberationists and their allies, it will have redeemed much of recent Catholic history. However unintended, there is consolation in Harvey Cox’s philosophy.