Tuesday I began a series of posts looking at Harvey Cox’s new book The Future of Faith. Today I would like to look at Chapter 3 – Ships Already Launched. Cox begins this chapter by dismissing the idea that all religions are the same. We all live with mystery, but how we cope varies.

I frequently meet people who, when they discover that I teach religion, assure me that “underneath, all religions are really the same.” I used to respond that, during a lifetime of teaching religion it appeared to me that they are not. But since that usually ended the conversation on a disagreeable note, I have recently just let their opinions pass. It is true that we are all responding to the same mystery, the one that confronts us all not just as mortal beings, but as beings aware of our mortality. Still we sense it and cope with the mystery in quite disparate ways. (p. 38)

Cox then begins to describe, as he says, “the ship I found myself on” – the narrative of the Judeo-Christian tradition. And this leads me to the questions for today. 

Are all religions the same?

But a simple answer of no isn’t enough.  Most of us consider ourselves Christian (certainly I do) – some will claim that this is this simply the luck of the draw and a matter of birth.  But the Christian is not willing to rest here – the whole NT especially the book of Acts is about God’s mission and the proclamation and spread of the good news, inviting others to join The Way. 

Why is the gospel of Jesus Christ good news? What is there that is real, intrinsically worth proclaiming, to which we desire to invite others?

Why is Christianity not simply another way (one among many) of dealing with the mysteries of life, purpose, and mortality?

In this chapter Cox describes what he calls the three cycles of Christian tradition – contained in stories and ritual (even in low church protestants); the Hebrew cycle, the Christmas cycle, and the Easter cycle. These cycles are distinctively Christian and set Christianity apart from most other religions (although closely related, of course, to Judaism).

The Hebrew Cycle localizes our story within the context of the Old Testament – a story where God favors the little guy and a process of becoming.

The Old Testament cycle begins with creation and ends with a renovation of the world into a commonwealth of shalom, a place of justice and peace. This is a very large promise for which the promised land of Canaan is mere foreshadowing, a sort of down payment. … This means that one way to see the mystery of space-time is to view it as an unfinished epic, a work in progress. It can be seen as a process in which the new, the surprising, and the unexpected constantly emerge. It means we live in a world whose potential is yet to be fulfilled. (p. 41)

…This view of the world as a creative process, …, explains why hope is such an important component of the way of life it shapes. Hope is that virtue that sees the past and the present in light of a future horizon. (p. 42)

The Christmas Cycle brings the focus of this hope into the life purpose of one man. Jesus teaching was focused around

…God’s promise of a new day, an age of peace and goodwill, the “Reigning of God” which he said was already coming to pass in a preliminary way. (p. 42)

Cox notes that the new regime, the Kingdom of God – or more precisely the Reigning of God, (because it is a happening not a place) – is a regime change and thus possessed anti-imperial and anti-Rome undercurrents.   But it is much more than this.

The Biblical ideal of the Kingdom of God also includes an essential inward element. … It also includes that death, either of the planet or of an individual, is not their ultimate destiny, and it points to a cosmic fulfillment that transcends human history, encompassing the celestial bodies. This in no way undercuts the fact that the Kingdom of God, as envisioned by Jesus and the prophets, contains an undeniable utopian element, (p. 44)

According to Cox Jesus wrestled constantly with the tests of faith – not doubts, but the struggles and setbacks which seem to defeat the coming of the Kingdom.

The Easter Cycle considers the death – and more importantly the resurrection of Jesus.  In this Cox notes that the while the disciples fled with the crucifixion but then

something happened to convince them that Jesus and the coming peaceable kingdom he embodied had not been defeated by death. The disciples came to believe that, in some sense that is hard to define, he still lived.” (p. 51) 

Cox focuses on the resurrection as critical – but not, it seems, literal.

The truth of the Easter cycle is that the life work of Jesus was not annihilated by his execution. It continues, among both those who follow him explicitly and those who contribute to the realization of the “possible world” that he demonstrated, whether they acknowledge him or not. (p. 53)

And putting this in context of The Age of Faith (the first of Cox’s three ages)

The faith of the earliest Christians combined that of the Old Testament with the Christmas story, the other accounts of Jesus’s life, and the Passion and Easter stories. Their faith took the form of loyalty to Jesus rather than to Caesar and a hope that the new world of shalom Jesus personified would one day appear in its fullness. (p. 53)

These three cycles tell the story of the Christian faith according to Cox. This is the story that makes sense of the mystery of the world. There are elements with which I agree (much of his Hebrew and Christmas cycles) and some with which I do not (the significance of the Easter cycle). But rather than criticize the picture that Cox paints, I would rather focus our discussion in a different direction – and this brings us full cycle back to the questions I posed above, and phrase a bit differently here.

What would you change – how would you paint the picture of the Christian story? If this was the age of faith – what was the central focus of the faith of the earliest Christians?

Why is Christianity not simply another way (one among many) of dealing with the mysteries of life, purpose, and mortality?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

More from Beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad