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Exclusive Interview with Harvey Cox

 
 


 

 

Interreligious dialogue is an amazing development, says Harvey Cox

Harvey Gallagher Cox, Jr. (born May 19, 1929 in Malvern, Pennsylvania) is one of the preeminent theologians in the United States and served as Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School, until his retirement in October 2009. Cox's research and teaching focus on theological developments in world Christianity, including liberation theology and the role of Christianity in Latin America.

After his retirement in September 2009, Cox released his new book, "The Future of Faith" which explores three important trends in Christianity's 2000 years.

During his visit to Istanbul, Cox answered the questions of Lastprophet.info for Lastprophet.info readers.

Your book is titled "The Future of Faith", so do you define faith as a particular religious tradition, when you say faith you didn't phrase it as the future of the Christian faith, you just phrased it as faith?

Harvey Cox: No, this is a book both about faith in general, the larger religious picture around the world, and also about Christianity in particular since that is my own tradition, and own specialty. But I try to deal with the larger picture and the more particular one.

In your book, you talk about the different stages Christianity has gone through, and you talk about people becoming more spiritual in the last fifty years and leaving dogma, so what is religion without dogma actually?

H.C: Well, religion without dogma is more like a way of life, more like a way of living, a spiritual discipline a community that one belongs to. There are of course beliefs that are associated with any religion, but I think of beliefs as more secondary, and faith as something far more basic. Faith has an orientation to God, fidelity to God, ‘Fides' is the Latin word for faith, and beliefs are a part of it, beliefs are not as basic as the faith. And I think what we have seen in the last fifty years is a movement towards understanding the existential, the experiential spiritual dimension of religion, especially in Christianity, and less of an emphasis on beliefs. The reason why I say that is that I think historically, beliefs have changed over the years, just as they change in one's own lifetime. I know that as a Christian, my beliefs are not exactly the same as they were when I was ten years old, or twenty five years old, or fifty years old. The core of my faith is still there and continues, but the beliefs change to some extent. As I grow older, as I mature, and I read, as I encounter other people, I also encounter other faiths and other religions, but the basic fundamental orientation towards God, is what I consider to be faith and that continues, and I think that's growing, and not disappearing. Let me just add, there was a time when I first started teaching, forty or fifty years ago that people were predicting the disappearance of religion because of the growth of modernity, wide spread predictions of that nature. That did not happen as we all know, instead what happened in the last fifty years is, that for a number of complex reasons, religions have had a flowering in various places in the world, and I try to explain that to some extent in this book.

So we talked about religions without dogma, but will this spirituality without the creed and dogma lead to individual religions, individual beliefs rather than religions in the sense we understand today like Christianity, Islam, Judaism? Because when you don't have dogma, then where do you stand?

H.C: Well, without dogma, doesn't mean without beliefs. As I just said, it means that the doctrines and beliefs are secondary to the basic faith orientation, and to the community. It doesn't mean individualism; it means belonging to a community which shares a history, which shares a hope especially a vision of the future in which you can have confidence in because God is after all, the author, the creator of the past and the future, so you can have confidence in the future. I don't want to talk about over faiths or religions in this regard, but I think Christianity has been burdened by too many beliefs. And here I am sitting in a city which was founded by Constantine, but in my view historically, which I talk about in this book, Constantine did a lot of damage to Christianity in the fourth century, the same century that he founded Constantinople. He did that by insisting that all Christians everywhere in the world, should have exactly the same doctrinal, creedal structure. Before that, for the first three hundred years, there was a considerable variety of different ways. Jesus was completely central, God was central, and living a life of faithfulness to the teachings and examples of Jesus was central, but other things were quite varied. The philosophical definitions, the theological definitions were quite varied. Then Constantine insisted on a single creed, not for religious purposes, but for imperial purposes. He wanted to have a uniting, religious imperial ideology. That was his objective, so he forced everyone into this particular creed, the ‘Nicene Creed' which you know about, and I think that was very damaging. And now we are discovering, all these years later the variety that was flourishing at the ning of Christianity, and now we have a period in Christian history in which these different varieties are flourishing in other places of the world. The basic areas in which Christianity is growing now, are no longer Europe and the United States. They are Asia, South America, China, the Asian rim, and the Global South. This is the future of Christianity, in my view it lies more there than in the old area of Christendom. And in those other places of the world, we see quite a variety of different expressions, of Christianity united by a sense of fidelity to the message of the Gospel of Jesus, his life, his message and being a part of that long history and a part of that hope for the future of what we call the kingdom of God, coming to earth, peace and justice, and equality is the future that God has for everybody.

You mentioned that as one of the elements of faith without dogma, is the community that the person belongs to. If the community is one of the elements that founds the background of faith without dogma, then isn't individualism a risk for faith or religion in this sense, isn't there a contradiction here?

H.C: No I don't think so, I think a shared community that you feel a part of, where you are accepted, where you are loved and supported by other people within that community allows for a flourishing of the community, even if there are some differences in opinion, I believe that very strongly. Furthermore, I do not think that a heavy insistence on dogma necessarily prevents individualism. I think individualism can happen there too. A community can be a community of people who share this basic faith, this basic life orientation, but who can think about it in different ways, who can shade it and nuance it in different ways without imposing it on everybody else.

Now there is a rise in new atheism, and it seems that it is mostly directed towards Christianity when we listen to their arguments. What do you think about that? Why is it so militant, and why is it getting so popular?

H.C: Well, I think it goes back to your previous question, I think it is directed towards Christianity because Christianity, among the various religions, is the one that has put such a hefty emphasis on beliefs, on dogmas. I won't comment on Islam obviously, but my impression is that in other religious traditions, the weight of that emphasis on beliefs is not as heavy. And also, historically, Christianity has often made claims in the name of belief, about things that really fall within the realm of science and investigation and so on, and especially the more fundamentalist versions of Christianity have done that. So in my mind, the so called ‘new atheists' are not particularly new, they are rehearsing arguments that have been there before. Religion and science for example, religion which, in my mind is an old argument, and I don't think is it persuasive on either side, and I think mature scientist, and mature people of faith, Christians, Muslims and others get along very well together. You notice coming in here the picture of Einstein, and Einstein is one of my favorite figures, one of the great scientist of the twentieth century who considered himself a religious man, and said that very publicly. So I don't think the new atheists are very persuasive, the function of atheism, the positive function of atheism is to be critical of religion when religion becomes pretentious, when religion overreaches its particular field and vocations, its particular function in society, when it becomes too powerful perhaps we need criticisms, we need thoughtful criticisms, and well informed criticisms. And my criticism of the current atheism, is not very well informed it's based on an almost distorted character of Christianity, or Islam or one of the others, it's not really very well informed at all, and therefore not very helpful.

You also mentioned about the increasing religiousness, so in this sense is the so called new atheism a phobia? Takings these trends into consideration, can we say that increasing trends also their own adversaries, or why do you think these fearful movements arise in parallel?

H.C: Yes, that's a complex question, here is what I think the answer is; let me talk about Christianity in particular, as I know it better. As Christianity becomes more open to dialogue and conversation with other religions, as it comes to terms with the scientific world view and the religious world view, there are people within Christianity who resist those changes, who resist those developments. We call them fundamentalists in the Christian tradition. They would be against this conversation, why should a Christian be speaking with Muslims? They reject that whole idea. Now those people are the ones who in turn, evoke the new atheism. New atheism is not directed towards the more thoughtful and the self critical elements of Christianity, it's directed towards this retrogressive version of Christianity, and I think also against other elements in Buddhism, and Islam too. But I think the most hopeful tendency to me, is that in the forty or fifty years that I started teaching, at my university, Harvard University, the interest in religion and spirituality among younger students and others is increasing, it's not decreasing, it is increasing more and more, they want to take courses in religion, in various religions, and compare these religions. And this is not just an intellectual quest, it's a personal quest. It's a search for meaning, for values, for the community for something to live for, something to give their lives some significance. And this is why, I think, we can talk about the future of faith, by looking at the younger generation, which is not by large very impressed with the new atheists, just a few people are, but most of them are not.

How do you think this change in Christianity will affect the interreligious dialogue? Because it seems the world is becoming even smaller every year. So how do you think this will affect the dialogue?

H.C: I think this will be a very good development for interreligious dialogue. I have noticed this, even in the last ten-fifteen years that the interest among Christians in dialogue with other religions has enormously increased, five-tenfold, it's just amazing for me to see that. There was a time, maybe twenty five years ago when there would be a rare meeting of Christians and Muslims, or Christians, Muslims and Jews, or Christians and Buddhists. Now they happen all the time, and it is only for the good, I think it is a very good development. I have been working for the last three years in a program called ‘The Common Word', do you know about the common word program which is mainly Christians and Muslims? There was nothing like that twenty or thirty years ago. Now that program was initiated by Muslim intellectuals and scholars, but there was a very rapid and positive response Christians, and I was one of the people responding to that. I have been to some of the meetings already, and I think they are very productive. We have a large number of students at Harvard University who are Christian students, and studying other religions very carefully, learning Arabic, studying the Qur'an, learning the languages of the Buddhists, the scriptures for example, and patiently working very hard at this so that they can be a part of this conversation as Christians in this wider conversation. I think it is not only important, I think it is absolutely essential, we cannot be divided along religious lines with nuclear weapons in the world, with climate change, with hunger, and there is still some racism in the world. We have to be together when we deal with those issues. So I welcome this change, and I think that the developments that I see happening in Christianity will certainly make it easier to do that.

You said that twenty five years ago there was nothing like this, and during this process of transition towards a more interfaith, and interreligious period. During this process, what were the things that influenced you most in terms of encountering different religions?

H.C: I am fortunate enough, and blessed enough to be able to travel to various places in the world, and I meet people other religions, we have conversations, we agree on some things, and disagree on other things. But this deepens, and enriches me and helps me have a broader view. But now of course, the immigration patterns are very important, especially in the United States. We have an increasing diversity of religions in the United States now, every year more diversity, more Muslims coming to live in America, more Buddhists, and more Hindus. Now when I was a small boy, I didn't know anything about such religions even existing, you would hardly ever hear about them. But now you don't have to go to Turkey to find a mosque. If you go ten blocks in your city, there's a mosque, and if you go another ten blocks there's a Buddhist pagoda, and you go to school, and the children you are in school with, or the university students are these other traditions. So it is part of normal life now to meet people these other religious traditions. And the conversation of course takes place. I always insist that the interfaith conversations do not just take place when Harvey Cox, or Prof. Nasr have conversations, or scholars here and there, no they take place at snack bars, they take place in classes, in schools, all along people are talking with each other, and learning each other, it's a different world. And besides that of course we now have television, we have the internet, we have Facebook, and we have ways of meeting people and learning about people that were simply not available. It's a different world, and I think that the religions are running to catch up, to provide the basic orientation for people to understand this variety. But it is inevitable, it's got to happen.

What is your take on perennial philosophy, do you think Christianity is a part of primordial tradition?.

H.C: Well, let me answer that yes, and no. I think there is a perennial, and even primordial philosophy, and maybe even a primordial faith. But each of these religions has its own version of that primordial faith, and they differ a little, and within the religions, within Christianity in particular there are different sub-versions, or different nuances of it. So sometimes what is important is the fact that we share recognition of the basic reality of God for example. We live in the world which is d, which is a gift for us, which has a certain destiny, it isn't just meaningless. It is swirling around, and it has all of that. But nonetheless, we should not overlook the fact that our takes on this primordial faith do differ, and should not simply be, I think discarded or reduced, or thought as trivial or irrelevant, I think they are important. And we need to pay attention to them too.

Is there another book coming?

H.C: There is always another book coming. I think the next book I would like to write, ‘Insh'Allah', will be a book on the Bible. I think many people within Christianity and other religions misunderstand what the Bible is, and it's role in Christianity. And it is very essential, just like the Qur'an is very essential in Islam, the Bible is very important to us, but it is a very complicated text. The Qur'an is a single voice, but the Bible is made up of sixty six different voices, it's like a choir, it's not a soloist, it's a choir, and listening to an orchestra with all the different instruments can be confusing to many people. So how do you understand that, how do you listen to an orchestra and not hear only the violins, or not only the clarinets? How do you see the unity which comes out of it? I think this is a large task, but I have been asked by a publishing house to write this book, so I am thinking about it now, and I think I will try to write it. Maybe next time I come here we can have a review Insha'Allah.

During the cartoon crisis etc. in terms of Islam, what the cartoonists and their advocates argued was that, what is wrong with us drawing the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) or the Qur'an, we are drawing Jesus and the Bible, and making fun out of that too. So as a Christian, what do you think about it? Do you think there should be a space for the sacred to be kept untouched, or doesn't it matter?

H.C: That particular controversy, I think is one which shows that the sensitivities of people in other religions should be respected. And whether or not it is legal or illegal, and the freedom of speech and all of that is important, but the most important thing is to show some respect for the sensitivities, the reverences of people in other faiths, in this case Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Yale University Press published a book, you may know about that book about the whole controversy, the cartoons controversy, how it started the newspaper that published it, and what it caused around the world. They had to face the choice, do we show in the book these cartoons? which were so offensive, and they decided ‘no' we will not show them, we could...we could show them because it is freedom of speech, but it would be wrong, morally wrong and religiously wrong to do that because it would be so offensive. That's why it was an issue, I don't think we should do something like that. But in order to respect the sensitivities, the religious sensitivities of other people, you have to know what those sensitivities are, and why they are so important to some other people. It's not self-evident why that should be done, so you have to be educated in this regard. Now this leads me to make a remark about teaching young children about different religions. We have a program at Harvard now to prepare public school teachers, to teach children in the high school level that is the ages of say, fourteen to seventeen, to teach them world religions. Not catechism, not anything like that, but to make them familiar with the different religions with which we live in the world, and which we live with, in our own cities and neighborhoods, even more important perhaps. Because they need to know that, and if they are not taught this by people who are well prepared to do this teaching, they will hear all kinds of rumors, and nasty, ugly stories about other religions that are not true, but they are circulating as you know. So we are very strongly in favor of increasing the amount of teaching about religion in public schools, high school level. And there is no law in America against that, in fact the Supreme Court has ruled that you are permitted, and even encouraged to teach this as long as you don't teach one point of view better than another point of view, you have to show what the various religions are, and what they teach. So when we have more of that, and I hope we will have more as it develops, I think peoples understanding of the sensitivities which are present in other religions, and not just in Islam but in other religions, should be respected as a matter of neighborly good will, of common decency, and even of religious respect.


 

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