In September, Harvey Cox retired after 44 years of teaching at Harvard Divinity School. Retirement, however, has not slowed him down. Last month saw the release of his latest book The Future of Faith, which, in the spiritof his 1965 classic The Secular City, dares to declare that a drastically different role for religion in society is close at hand.
This interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC’s project on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life.—ed.
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NS: There was quite a stir about your recent retirement party, which involved parading a cow across Harvard Yard. Was that your cow?
HC: I am the Hollis Professor in Divinity, which is the oldest professorship at Harvard, going back to 1721. There’s a tradition that the Hollis Professor has the privilege of grazing his cow on Harvard Yard. I began thinking, hey, that would be a good idea. First, it would reclaim an old and valuable tradition, but it would also indicate to people that it shouldn’t be so odd to see animals on the Yard. That’s why it’s called a yard—in the early days of Harvard that is what it was for. Second, it would remind us that we should be closer to the sources of our food. The cow isn’t mine; I borrowed it from a place called The Farm School, in central Massachusetts. Their philosophy is that we should be more appreciative of where food comes from and how it is produced, so they were delighted to help. The celebration marked my retirement, but it also made a symbolic statement that we could go back to this closeness, at least in some measure.
NS: It reminds me of the themes of festivity that you were dealing with in the late 1960s, in The Feast of Fools, for instance. Is that still a live issue for you?
HC: Oh, absolutely. I wanted to make it a festive event. We had a septet of tubas, led by the first tuba of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. You can imagine how many people showed up to this, because there hasn’t been a cow in the Yard for 200 years. Then we all processed the quarter of a mile from there over to the Divinity School. That tied together the venues where I’ve been teaching for the past 45 years at Harvard. The cow grazed over there for a while, and then we had refreshments and music by the big band that I play with as my main hobby. It was very festive, which has always been an important theme in my work.
NS: Another theme that comes to mind is optimism. In The Secular City, for instance, you call for us to “learn to love” secularization. Now, in The Future of Faith, you call for an embrace of a coming Age of Spirit. Where is that optimism coming from?
HC: I may be a basically hopeful person. But hope is not the same as optimism. According to Thomas Aquinas, hope is a theological virtue. It has a more solid grounding in faith; hope and faith go together. It probably helps, of course, that I come from the vantage point of living my life among relatively young people: Harvard undergraduates, in particular, but other young people as well. They help me to be hopeful. Young people are planning to get married, they’re looking for jobs, and they’re still wanting to go out and make the world a better place. You can’t get down in the mouth too much when you’re around them. At the same time, my work has always been empirical. I try to keep closely in touch with what is actually happening in religious communities and in the society that they’re a part of.
NS: How does this sense of hope play out in the new book?
HC: What I see, and what a lot of others see too, is that people frequently want to refer to themselves now as not really “religious,” but “spiritual.” I used to be very suspicious of that. But I began asking questions and finding out what the dimensions of that term are. I looked into its history. In Christianity it goes back, of course, to the life of the Spirit and the gift of the Spirit in the New Testament. The term was used in the religious orders of the medieval and post-medieval church to refer to the personal or subjective side of the religious life, as opposed to the doctrinal side. Today, it seems suspect to a lot of clerical or institutionally-oriented people because they see it as a slippery, even vacuous term, and understandably so. But what I think it really means is that people want to have access to the sacred without going through institutional and doctrinal scaffolding. They want a more direct experience of God and Spirit. And I don’t think it’s really going to go away. This is an increasing tendency across the board. The last chapter in my book shows how this is happening in other religious as well as Christianity.
NS: Some have criticized these spiritual tendencies as overly individualistic and even anti-political—Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, for instance. How does your Age of Spirit deal with what Bellah and his co-authors were concerned about: a retreat from the political and social sphere?
HC: I don’t think that spirituality is necessarily a retreat from social life. It can be. Of course, orthodox religiosity can be as well, and it is for a lot of people. I don’t think there’s much to be lost or gained there. The question now is how spirituality is going to be institutionalized to make it more socially and politically effective. It’s at a formative stage now, and you can see it developing. I have a section in the book on the Sant’Egidio community, which is one of my favorite examples. I was over there in Rome this summer visiting those people. It was fantastic. They are all laypeople; they have no priestly leadership, though they’re approved by the Catholic Church as a lay association. They meet for prayer, for Bible study, and to share a meal. Part of their discipline is making friends with poor and lonely people in Rome. Then they spread out all over the world and help to negotiate major conflicts. I think they’re a model, and they’re not the only one.
NS: Perhaps spirituality is growing up, graduating from a potential threat to society into an integral part of it. Or maybe scholars are only now beginning to realize what has been going on all along.
HC: I refer in the book to a very interesting study done by a graduate student here at Harvard named Seth Wax. He interviewed a large sample of people who describe themselves as spiritual, and he found that they were anything but uninvolved. Their spirituality was a genuine discipline for them in life, giving them the grounding to go out and take part in all kinds of social and political activities.
NS: The book describes Christian history in terms of an “Age of Faith,” an “Age of Belief,” and, now, an “Age of Spirit.” How neatly do these categories fit?
HC: Joachim of Fiore used that term “Age of Spirit” back in the 12th century. It is a term that is not without troublesome qualities. Joachim used it in a very immanentist, eschatological way: this would be the culminating age, and we wouldn’t need any priests, any hierarchies, or any doctrines; no mediation would be necessary, and all the pagans and heretics would unite with the Christians. He had a creative interpretation of the Trinity: that the Old Testament was the age of the Father, and then came the age of the Son, and then came the age of the Spirit. Some of his followers even started setting dates for the end of the world, and he was eventually declared a heretic after his death. Still, he was on to something. He recognized that society goes through transitional periods. Human beings need labels, but you have to be aware that the labels are always just that. You can stick them on, but you can peel them off as well. They help to organize thinking, which is why, after some hesitation, I chose to use that periodization, realizing that it would be problematic.
NS: When you talk about these trends—as a theologian on the one hand and a scholar of world religions on the other—how much are you being descriptive and how much prescriptive?
HC: This is a question often raised about my books over the years. Is this theology or is it phenomenology of religion? I’ve tried in my career to bring those two closer together, as I really think they ought to be. What is happening in religious communities ought to play an important role in constructive theological work. If congregations flounder along without much theological input or critique, that won’t be good; and if theology doesn’t have a connection back to congregations, it is going to get pretty airy. It can’t rely only on what past theologians have written. It has to be attentive, as I would say theologically, to what the Spirit is doing in the Church—or, more broadly, among other religions. I don’t see this as a contradiction at all. All of my books are like that, and this one is too.
NS: Has anything changed about your theological method since The Secular City?
HC: No, I don’t think the method has changed very much, actually. I started out this way. When I was a doctoral student at Harvard, I was one of the few here who were taking both theological courses and courses under Robert Bellah and Talcott Parsons in the sociology of religion. I was trying to bring them together. Sometimes my advisors would say, “What are you going to do with this?” I would say, “I’ll think of something.” NS: The passing of John Elson in September has brought back into the news the “death of God” movement of the 1960s, which he made famous with an article in what would be one of Time magazine’s bestselling issues. His article discussed your ideas as being linked to that phenomenon.
I was never part of the death of God movement. In fact, I tangled with those guys quite a bit. Bill Hamilton and Tom Altizer were friends of mine, but we clearly disagreed with each other. The original title of The Secular City, actually, was “God in the Secular City.” Nobody knows that because the publisher said to me, “No, let’s just call it ‘The Secular City,'” which is what we did. Some people have misread that. They look at the title and they think they know what the book is about. But I was arguing, from a biblical, theological perspective, that God is present in a range of institutions—in family, culture, and politics, as well as in nature—and not just in the religious sector. The relative decline of the institutional power of religion that we were seeing fifty years ago didn’t have to be a cause for panic, because God is present in the secular as well. That isn’t an idea that started with me. It is embedded in the Bible’s God of history, a God to be discerned and responded to in the world.
NS: At one point in The Feast of Fools, you wrote about the death of God as “an epochal crisis of Western consciousness” and “not just a passing fad.” Then, recently, in a comment at The Immanent Frame, you call it a “fad.” What do you really think about it now?
HC: Oops! Well, the change in Western civilization that I was talking about is not a fad. Certainly not. Labeling it as the death of God was, however, a passing fancy. What they were calling dead was the rather typical God of Christendom, the Euro-American understanding of the nature of God. It is changing very rapidly now, largely because of the effervescent input of theologies from outside the West, including Korean, Indian, African, and Latin American ones.
NS: With a cosmopolitan perspective, your book engages quite directly with Pope Benedict XVI. You’re posing a challenge to institutional authorities like him to change how they operate.
HC: Yes, I would like to. I even have a chapter called “How to Fix the Papacy,” which is a little overstated. I don’t think these institutions have to be thrown out. There are real possibilities within them for renewal and taking the next step forward. I describe, for instance, a fabulous conference that I attended under Paul VI, which was about secularization. The ability of the pope to assemble people from across a wide range of perspectives could be used a lot more. And, in the future, it very well may be.