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
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.