Wisdom from a great old man

29 Mar

I’ve been reading two books by Harvey Cox, a wise old man who taught theology at Harvard. These books reveal the great man as well as much else of value.

In 1996 Cox published Fire from heaven: The rise of pentecostal spirituality and the reshaping of religion in the 21st century. This book is a personal as well as scholarly investigation into the pentecostal movement. Much of what Cox has to say about the changing character of religion is then developed in his latest (and I think fabulous) book, The future of faith.
Here I want simply to share a couple of quotes from the first book, though in fact these are also reflected in the second. The introduction to Fire from heaven recounts aspects of Cox’s own formation as a Christian. From a Quaker heritage, he nonetheless was nurtured in a Baptist church, in the small town of Malvern, near Philadelphia.
In that town, there was also a small pentecostal church, which was known simply as ‘the little church’. It was on the edge of the town, both physically and socially.
But Cox attended this church, as well, for some of his youth.
The opening chapter reflects of some of the characteristics of the religion of his upbringing and the insights which have shaped his long career as a scholar of religion, and which have also (he now recognizes) made him at least substantially positive about the contribution of the ‘charismatic movement’.
I share many of these experiences as well, and record some of his insights and contributions with a warm sense of personal affirmation.

One striking feature of the congregation itself and the services in ‘the little church’ was the sheer physicality of it all: people hugged, and perspired, and moved around. Cox, who was there in part because of his attraction to a young lady, notes that there is a closer association of eros and agape in spiritual life than most theologians are inclined to recognize (p.10).He goes on to comment at length about this importance of this physicality—what I would call embodiment, in our religion.

I learned that the imagery, mood, and tempo of a religious service are not just add-ons. They are not superfluous. Human beings are physical as well as mental creatures, and therefore these more tactile elements are part of the substance of worship.And since life itself is so full of conflict and craving, of wild hopes and dashed expectations, any religion that does not resonate with the full range of these feelings, and provide ways of wrestling with them is not worth much. (p.11)

Thus Cox moves on to a significant theme in both of these books: that a vital religion today must be about faith, rather than belief. By this he means that the heart of living faith is not doctrinal content, but lived and living experience, encounter with God. This he learned first of all from his youthful formation in a Baptist church. When, as a rite of passage, more or less, he applied to be baptized, he met with the church ‘elders’ to be examined for this purpose. He has expected to be quizzed on matters of doctrine, but instead he was deeply moved that these older men were interested in him, as a person. They asked only a couple of questions about his beliefs because ‘Mainly they wanted to know whether I had experienced the love of God and the grace of Christ in my life.’ (p.12)
Later, Cox reflects further on the significance of experience in faith. He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in 1838 had spoken at Harvard Divinity School against ‘the dangers of a steady diet of other people’s religion’, which can ‘dry up one’s own resources’. Studying about religion means a focus on ideas, taking the place of experience and a personal engagement with faith. (p.14).
Then Cox makes a statement which really excited me when I first read it, because I agree with it so strongly. (It’s always exciting when a great scholar publishes something which you have said or taught also!!) For some years I have been saying to students that a valuable way into any text, but maybe especially the ‘difficult’ texts, which then provides a basis on which to construct a sermon which connects people today and that text, is to pose the question: ‘What experience of God, life, faith, led people to write like this?’
Cox says it much the same:’I find myself constantly asking what experience, what encounter with the numinous, lies behind and beneath this or that theology?’ (p.14). In other words, we must engage not just with people’s ideas, but with their experiences.
I was greatly challenged, many years ago, when I was teaching philosophy and a Chinese student told me that unless I could tell him about Bertrand Russell’s life he (the student) could not understand his ideas. How could one possibly separate the ideas of a person from the life in which they grew and lived?

So, then, Cox goes on to see that many aspects of his own formation and his own insight into the developing character of faith, rather than ‘belief’, have pre-disposed him to be at least sympathetic towards the pentecostal forms of religion. He hastens to add a number of critical concerns. But that study as such is not my specific interest here. I value Cox’s insightful reflections on his own journey, and the way that has shaped his approach as a theologian, scholar and pastor.
Furthermore, I value his insight that this is very much an age of faith, not of belief. A focus on lived experience is what is wanted and needed, not arguments about doctrine. There is of course a place for doctrine, but as the expression and servant of lived experience, in encounter with God.
There will be more of this as I work further on my project on ‘beyond religion’.

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