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The Future of Faith

New book tolls the death knell for Christianity, without lamenting

By Trisha Elliott

The Future of Faith
By Harvey Cox
(HarperOne) $17.99

In his latest work, Harvey Cox tolls the death knell for dogma — but he isn’t lamenting. Retired from the Harvard Divinity School, the well-known professor and author is optimistic. “Christianity understood as a system of beliefs guarded and transmitted through a privileged religious institution by a clerical class is dying. Instead, today Christianity as a way of life, shared in a vast variety of ways by a global network of fellowships is arising.”

Although the book is titled The Future of Faith, much of it is spent plodding — albeit ambitiously — through church history. Cox surveys two millennia of Christian history, summarizing it  into three ages. The first three centuries, he says, represent the Age of Faith, in which diverse groups of Christians focused on community rather than creeds and assumed a strongly anti-imperial stance.

When Christianity became a state religion under Constantine, the tables turned. Christendom merged with the Roman Empire, and dogmatic religion marked by creeds and clerical hierarchy was born. “From an energetic movement of faith,” he writes, “[Christianity] coagulated into a phalanx of required beliefs, thereby laying the foundation for every succeeding Christian fundamentalism for centuries to come.” According to Cox, Christians have cradled the belief brand of Christianity for about 1,500 years.

But the world isn’t buying it anymore. In the West, the “spiritual but not religious” set are thumbing their noses at belief-oriented Christianity. In the East, new forms of charismatic Christianity unencumbered with “right belief” are flourishing. We are entering what Cox calls an “Age of the Spirit.”

“The recent rapid growth of charismatic congregations and the appeal of Asian spiritual practices demonstrate that, as in the past once again today, large numbers of people are drawn more to the experiential than to the doctrinal elements of religion. Once again, this often worries religious leaders who have always fretted about mysticism,” Cox writes. In the end, he calls the future of faith “open, expansive and hopeful.”

While Cox’s picture of the early church seems too romantic at times, and his view of creeds and beliefs too cynical, the framework he provides offers a fresh place to launch into conversation about where Christianity has been and where it’s going. The gift of The Future of Faith is that it gives us something challenging to talk about.

Rev. Trisha Elliott lives in Orleans, Ont.

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