Not too long ago, with the rise of science and humanism, some scholars expected Christianity to vanish or at least wane considerably. Yet Christianity is currently enjoying an unprecedented revival, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. With Christianity flourishing in the global South and waning in Europe, the faith, contrary to Hilaire Belloc’s statement, is no longer Europe, and Europe is no longer the faith.
The changes in Christianity because of its recent resurgence in the world’s poorest areas are the subject of Harvey Cox’s latest book, The Future of Faith. In 15 chapters, he takes us on a surprisingly entertaining historical tour through the history of Christianity, which he divides into three periods.
The first he calls the “Age of Faith,” which “began with Jesus and his immediate disciples when a buoyant faith propelled the movement he initiated.” This movement, called “The Way,” consisted of marginalized individuals who were brutally persecuted by the Roman Empire. In spite of this, they worked to initiate God’s kingdom of peace by trusting in Jesus’ message of love, compassion, and healing. “To be a Christian,” Cox tells us, “meant to live in [Jesus’] Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work that he had begun.” Though several views about Jesus existed, doctrines about him had not yet coalesced. This era soon ended, giving way to a less “spiritual” age that would transform the hunted into the hunters, the persecuted into the persecutors.
A few decades after Jesus’ death at the empire’s hands, his elite followers were already formulating instructional kits to tell new initiates what to believe. The “Age of Belief,” according to Cox, displaced “faith in Jesus with tenets about him.” Nevertheless, different Christianities flourished during this age’s early stages. This changed in the fourth century, when Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. and later declared Christianity the official state religion. Constantine and his successor Theodosius hoped that they, through a new state religion, could unify the empire to then more efficiently control its populace.
Creeds, doctrines, and dogmas dominated Christianity. Power-hungry bishops could now excommunicate or kill anyone who refused to believe any of the “orthodox” theological points. Correct belief replaced moral and just actions. Hatred and scorn for “heretics” displaced love for all. And an all-rich and powerful European male clerical hierarchy rose to dominance. The fourth century marriage of Christianity and empire has endured to the present, when a fortuitous upheaval is shaking Christianity’s foundations.
Christianity is now transitioning from the “Age of Belief” to the “Age of the Spirit.” In Cox’s words, “The pragmatic and experiential elements of faith as a way of life are displacing the previous emphasis on institutions and beliefs.” Cox states that many Christians today—particularly in the global South—experience their religion and the divine not through assent to doctrines and dogmas, but through the love they receive and give to their neighbors, as well as the awe and wonder of living in such a splendid and complex universe. Like the members of “The Way,” today’s Christians are confident in the prophetic and transformative power of Jesus’ message of love and compassion for society’s most vulnerable. These Christians, in other words, experience religion with their hearts, and, like the Spirit who blows uncontrollably (John 3:8), hierarchies, doctrines, and dogmas cannot contain them.
As with any transition, however, this one is fraught with struggles and challenges. Cox sees fundamentalists, who still perceive doctrines and dogmas as foundational to religious experience, as the principal threat to the “Age of the Spirit.” Some will forcefully attempt to stem the changes in the nature of Christianity by verbally and physically attacking those who do not subscribe to their doctrines and dogmas. But Cox believes that their “‘reactionary’ efforts” will be in vain, since the “hour has come” for the Spirit to liberate itself from the fetters of imperial Christianity.
The Future of Faith ultimately offers us hope for a more prophetic and diverse global Christianity in these times of social turmoil. If Cox is right and “the wind of the Spirit is blowing,” our brothers and sisters in the global South will indeed help Christianity reclaim its soul.
César J. Baldelomar (www.cesarjb.org ) is a writer and graduate student at Harvard Divinity School.