Book Write-Up: Religion in the Secular City, by Harvey Cox

Harvey Cox.  Religion in the Secular City: Toward a Postmodern Theology.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

In Religion in the Secular City, theologian Harvey Cox critiques modernity and reflects on the future of religion.  He looks closely at religious trends that either depart from modernity or stand in opposition to it, such as fundamentalism and liberation theology.  Cox argues that the future of religion in a postmodern age will rest with those who are marginalized from modernity, such as the poor, and that it will include an emphasis on the physical (i.e., rituals).  Cox also explores such topics as pluralism and interfaith dialogue.

So what is modernity?  According to Harvey Cox and other thinkers, the Enlightenment is especially relevant to this question.  During the Enlightenment, the Christian religion was arguably becoming undermined and marginalized.  Immanuel Kant was coming up with a secular basis for morality, apart from religion.  Historical-criticism was depicting the Bible as the flawed product of human beings rather than the infallible word of God.  Science and technology were advancing, as was capitalism.  In the course of the modern age, Christian theologians of different persuasions sought to make Christianity look reasonable to the modern age, or at least to protect Christianity from modernity.  One path to this was to reduce religion to a personal experience of the divine.  Religion was put on the margins.  For Cox, it could not be thoroughly discarded, for capitalists and authorities liked how it kept the masses in line, plus there was something special about its beliefs and rituals in promoting morality, community, and social cohesion.  But religion was deemed to be irrelevant to the public square.  Whereas Christianity for a long time criticized usury, for example, now it was assumed that the invisible hand would take care of things and thus Christianity did not need to serve as a voice of conscience in the economy.  Christianity was also deemed to be irrelevant to the political sphere, as religion was confined to the private realm.  While there did emerge a social Gospel, which promoted compassion for the poor, Cox laments that it did not question existing societal structures but rather sought to persuade the authorities to be more compassionate.

Well, Cox narrates, modernity led to problems.  Commercialism and advancement were leaving people with feelings of emptiness.  The Holocaust came to be deemed by many as an outgrowth of modernity.  In the Third World, people’s land was being taken so that it could be used for cash-crops within global capitalism.  Cox is not totally opposed to modernity, for it did emphasize reason, and that is preferable to blindly accepting the cultural ideas of the Volk, as the Nazis did.  But, for Cox, modernity has resulted in problems.  And different people have been reacting against it.

First, there are the fundamentalist Christian “rednecks” (a term that Cox uses, not disparagingly, and that some fundamentalists even use for themselves).  They do not agree with how the Enlightenment cast questions on the infallibility of the Bible.  Some conservative Christians Cox profiles are not anti-science, per se, but they attempt to unite science with their religion, as is the case with creation science and defenses of the Shroud of Turin’s authenticity; in a sense, this focus on showing that Christianity can be backed up by evidence or rationality is rather modernist, yet it departs from modernism’s separation of religion and science into separate, distinct spheres.  Meanwhile, the Moral Majority was picking up steam in the 1980’s, uniting religion with politics, things that modernism had long kept separate.  Fundamentalists also did not care for the big city, an icon of modernity, for they considered it to be a haven for vice and immorality.

Second, there is liberation theology, which was particularly popular in Latin America.  Liberation theology differs from modernity in that, like the Moral Majority, it unites religion with politics.  Rather than appealing to existing authorities to show compassion for the poor, as the social Gospel did, it calls for dramatic social restructuring that it believes can benefit the poor.  While Moral Majoritarians and liberation theologians most likely did not care for each other—-the former were right-wing Republican defenders of President Reagan, whereas the latter were considered to be Communists or Communist sympathizers—-the two actually overlapped on cultural conservatism: the Sandinista Minister of Culture, after all, took extreme measures against pornography!  Unlike the fundamentalists who repudiate the historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible, liberation theology is not opposed to historical-criticism, but it does not emphasize it in its readings of Scripture, nor does it really attempt to demonstrate that Christianity can make sense to the modern mind.  Rather, its Scriptural exegesis is about the poor—-both the Bible’s championing of the poor, and also the ways that the poor read the Scriptures in light of their own situation.  Liberation theology is also about political action more than academic discussion, and it disturbs people in the upper economic classes who look to religion primarily for personal solace.  Cox also portrays liberation theology as grass-roots: the poor meet together and discuss Scripture.  As far as its political program is concerned, Cox acknowledges that there is a spectrum within liberation theology between support for revolution and a more peaceful approach.  Cox says at one point in the book that certain liberation theologians support violence as a last resort or in self-defense.  I was hoping that Cox would flesh out more what a peaceful political program of liberation theology would look like, and probably the best that I saw was his account of peasants uniting to defend their traditional land from capitalists who wanted it.

Cox acknowledges that both fundamentalism and liberation theology have valid critiques of modernity, but he believes that liberation theology is a more constructive option than fundamentalism for the postmodern age.  Fundamentalists can be rather divisive, plus fundamentalist right-wingers tend to embrace a part of modernity that Cox believes is part of the problem—-capitalism—-so Cox hopes that liberation theology will be the wave of the future.  Cox navigates his way through more left-wing criticisms of liberation theology—-that its Christian and Latin American focus makes it insensitive to issues surrounding religious pluralism, that it does not take feminism seriously enough, etc.  My impression is that Cox promotes a pursuit of common ground between liberation theologians and their more left-wing critics.  Religion, one thinker Cox discusses maintains, should be about everyone feeling at home in the universe.

Is Cox in Religion in the Secular City consistent with what he wrote in his classic from the 1960’s, The Secular City?  In areas, he is.  In The Secular City, Cox championed the city as a place where people can be anonymous and freely associate with people who share their values.  I detected a similar tone in Religion in the Secular City.  At the same time, my impression (which is open to correction) is that Cox in The Secular City was more open to secularization, the loss of power and influence by religious authorities.  He noted that the Bible itself was critical of religious authorities, and that there are movements towards secularism even within the Bible (i.e., monotheism desacralized nature).  (I should also note that, in Many Mansions, Cox argues that secularism is consistent with biblical prophetic passages in which people know the Lord within speaking about him, or lose the need for rituals like the Ark of the Covenant.)  Cox’s Christian concern for the poor is a constant throughout his works, but he strikes me as rather inconsistent on whether secularism was positive or negative (and yet, I must admit that it has been years since I have read The Secular City).  Perhaps Cox tries to see something positive or redemptive in all sorts of developments, or he is seeking to show how different developments can be taken into a positive or redemptive direction.  (UPDATE: In this 2009 interview, Cox states that the thesis of The Secular City was that “the decline of institutional religion should not be viewed as a catastrophe, because God is not just present in religious institutions. God is present in all of creation, in other kinds of movements and institutions and to be discerned, presence of God to be discerned there and responded to…I wouldn’t swear by every sentence in that book. Nonetheless, the central thesis of the presence of God in all of creation and historical institutions, culture, and politics and family I would certainly hold to enthusiastically and say that what I say in this book is the decline of creedal Christianity and hierarchical Christianity is also not a catastrophe.”)

My impression of liberation theology was a bit different from that of Cox.  Whereas Cox depicts liberation theology as not particularly academic, Gustavo Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation looked very academic to me (see my review of that here).  Cox does point out ways, however, in which liberation theology departed from customary Catholic academic approaches.  Liberation theology focuses on Scripture, and its writings usually do not refer to Catholic encyclicals.

I guess that my overall question is where I fit in, in terms of what Cox discusses in Religion in the Secular City.  There are areas in which I am on society’s margins, and areas in which I am not.  Either way, my situation is not even remotely like that of a Latin American peasant!  Are the poor the only people who can contribute valid religious opinions?  I do not think so, but I do believe that their voices and their stories should be heard, and that concern for the poor should be a significant part of all Christians’ beliefs.  Religion, for me, is a matter of personal solace, but it should not be just that.  Moreover, I am in favor of private charity and for encouraging the powers that be to be compassionate towards the poor, but I also believe in seeking to correct the social structures that create and maintain poverty.  All of this is important.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to Book Write-Up: Religion in the Secular City, by Harvey Cox

  1. Excellent review; you explained Cox’s book so very well; I feel as if I read the book 🙂


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I just remembered a couple of things from it that I was going to mention but forgot about when writing the post. Maybe I’ll mention them in a post later this week!


  3. Good idea 🙂


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