Monday, November 2, 2009

Transforming Theology Blog Tour - The Holy and the Story - Particularity, Dialogue, and the Kingdom / Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith. Chs 2 and 3

AAR is coming up, and I hope you are looking forward to the Transforming Theology session at AAR this year. Stay tuned; I will be posting video from the session.

Thus far I've only worked through the first six chapters of The Future of Faith. But even only a third of the way into the text, I have a number of questions and reflections on Cox' project. I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book and to continue the conversation with me and with others on the blog tour.

After reading chs 1-2 of Future of Faith, I was ready to clear a slot on the bookshelf next to Tilich and Niebuhr and let the book begin gathering dust. Faith as a particularization of response to the Holy, to the Other, to Awe--as a response to the the mysterium tremendum et fasscinans--has always seemed a detoothing of the impulse to social action within the Christian tradition. Levinas (on Cox’ reading) seems to be the high point of this tradition, but even Cox admits,
Levinas’ thinking helps but up to a point. Interpersonal encounters do reveal a kind of knowing that is different from the objective, scientific kind. And he is right that permanent or completely satisfying harmony or reciprocity is not fully possible in human encounters. But Levinas was markedly unwilling to extend his thinking into the realm of society. . . . Our meeting with the “other” carries with it horror as well as promise. (34)
One might suggest Cox read Levinas in a more contextual manner (my in-house Levinas scholar asserts that Levinas’ refusal to deal in categories is a brazen, subversive political move in response to the atrocities of the Shoah. She also insists that this is a refusal of the primacy of ontology and prescriptive systems of ethics that invariably turn oppressive). But if Levinas (back to Cox’ reading) fails to move from Awe to social action, what are mer mortals like us to do?

In Cox’ concluding words to ch 2, I’m left “with a sense of uneasiness, incompleteness, and dissatisfaction” (35), so his turn to particularized, localized faith in ch 3 is quite exciting. But even after reading what follows, I remain vaguely uneasy, dissatisfied.

Cox begins by affirming that our faith traditions contain “elements of irreducible particularity.” He borrows Kierkegaard’s phrase and likens these diverse traditions to various ships, launched at different times, even going different places. And, in a brilliant stroke, admits that these vessels are essentially narrative in character.

Our faiths are made up most basically out of the stories we tell and retell and come to live within. Christian stories are different from Muslim stories are different from Buddhist stories are different from capitalist stories. I would add that different subcultures within each religious tradition tell unique sets of stories. Stories--the stories we tell and believe--provide the shape of the worlds we live in. They provide our hopes, determine what is hope-able, what is valuable, what is do-able. These stories carry us as we tell them. And we are all being carried by something. I enjoy Cox’ line: “The allegedly neutral observer is really operating from some basic posture, some faith stance, even if it is unacknowledged. In trying to understand religions, no space platforms or skyhooks are available” (39).

From here Cox sets about demarcating the ground the rest of his work is going to depend on. He narrates three stories--the “Hebrew Cycle, the Christmas cycle, and the Easter cycle” he calls them--that make up the body and works of the Christian “launched ship.” “These sagas,” he writes, “[have] become permanent features in the topography of our imaginations” (40).

Each cycle discloses a God who “favors the little guy,” a God who grounds hope and promises a utopian “commonwealth of shalom” (41). This story climaxes in Jesus’ proclamation of the “Reigning of God”--a reign Jesus shows to begin not at the end of the world but starts now. Cox explains Jesus as one who “in his life trajectory completely embodied the purpose and ‘project’ of God” (47). The post-Easter Jesus community invest themselves in Jesus’ project. Easter, for Cox, “says that who Jesus was, as the embodiment of a ‘different possible world,’ was not ultimately defeated by the crucifixion, but continues” (52).

The Spirit is central to Cox’ project--we’re entering an “Age of the Spirit” after all. The role of the Spirit in Cox’ presentation is noteworthy. The Spirit is grounds for a universalizing turn, a Vatican II-like move toward locating the Spirit both within and without the church. Cox cites the beginning of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, specifically his quotation of Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” Contra Cyprian’s dictum, Cox asserts that “the Spirit cannot be restricted by doctrinal or ecclesial boundaries” (53). It seems that the Spirit is at work among all those who follow Jesus, among “those who contribute to the realization of the ‘possible world’ that he demonstrated, whether they acknowledge him or not” (53).

I can nod along with most of ch 3 (though I do have some reservations). I can nod along at least until I try to square this with ch 2. Somewhere something has slipped. Faith as a particular response to generic awe has somehow become hope and personal commitment to Jesus’ project. And this transformation has taken place with all the fanfare of a few pages turning. Cox does, to be fair, remind the reader that
this biblical perspective is one way to perceive the mystery of the universe, not the only one. It is the view one gets from the deck of the ship I happen to be on. But there are other vessels in this flotilla and other narratives. (41)
However this same paragraph states a few sentences later that, in contradistinction to, say, a Buddhist perspective, “this [Christian] view of the world as a creative process . . . explains why hope is such an important component of the way of life it shapes” (42). Say what you want about varying perspectivalism, I want to look at the world from somewhere I can see hope!

Cox seems to be playing both sides. He lauds Christianity, particulary Jesus-shaped faith, as working toward and hoping in the utopian reign of God’s shalom, and yet undercuts it by insisting that this is just the way things happen to look from here. I doubt Jesus would have assumed the cross if he did not trust that God really was on the side of the downtrodden--if not, it’s better then to join Peter with his sword slicing off ears!

At root, I’m accusing Cox of failing to wrestle with the particularities of the narratives that are carrying us. It is these details--the fact that Jesus healed Malchus instead of summoning twelve legions of angels--that shape the rituals that comprise our way of life. Cox rightly rejects a rigid creedalism (faith has never been about propositions), but a turn from belief to faith does not entail a turn from the particular to the vague and generic. “A good cause” has never inspired a revolution, let alone submission to a crucifixion; whatever cause we choose to take up and to die for must have all the teeth of historical particularity. The unique character of the Jesus-community’s life can only be sustained by trust in a particular God (and to the degree this trust failed, so did the shape of the community’s life).

I suspect that Cox knows that it is not the devil but God himself that is in the details. I look forward to finishing the text and seeing how he spells this out in his interactions with global Pentecostalism and liberation theologies. But for the moment, I’m puzzled by the way ch 2--this genericness of God--fits in the program.

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