Harvey Cox’s most recent book, “The Future of Faith” was an excellent summary of the history of Christianity with a look to where he thinks the movement is going. In many ways he covers the same ground as Karen Armstrong did her in book, “The Case for God.” I enjoyed Dr. Cox’s work much more than Karen Armstrong. I found that his different perspective was refreshing and I find that Karen Armstrong tends to gloss over and minimize the differences in different religions and I think she may be missing important elements.
Harvey Cox divides Christianity into three main periods. There was a freewheeling, dynamic Christianity during the first few hundred years. He calls this period the age of Faith. We have only recently discovered just how dynamic this early period was. This was before many of the “traditional” Christian ideas had been fully developed. There was a wide variety of view points on the trinity, nature of Christ, and the reasons for his death and resurrection as well as what happened after death. This age ended during the reign of Constantine.
In his book he is quite clearly not in favor of what Constantine accomplished as well as his successors. It was during this time that the Christian church started to teach that there were certain beliefs that were critical for Christian faith. During this period heresies were identified and quashed as much as possible. This period he calls the age of belief and it lasted clear into the twentieth century (and even today.) If you want an example, you can google Brian McLaren and check out all the critical reviewers online. Many of these people are eager to define Brian as a heretic because of his thoughts on Substitutionary Atonement and the afterlife.
The last period is the Age of the Spirit. His claim is that we are currently entering this age of the spirit. As examples he lists off some of the trends in Liberation theology, Pentecostalism (now the largest subset of Christianity), and the emergent church. He is of the opinion that the non-Western world will now be the leaders and innovators in the coming years. He is also of the opinion that believers in Africa, Asia, and South America have not been as tainted by Constantinian thought (or Hellenistic/Western Thought) and so they are practicing a Christianity that is much closer to the original form. It will be interesting to see if he is right. I am skeptical about his claim that Fundamentalism is in decline, but much of what he says sounds about right.
My favorite part about the book is he seems to take a position that thoroughly rejects fundamentalism (especially the literal reading of scripture) but he is also skeptical of the atheist position. He presents a compelling third way, which I have found almost impossible to maintain. Anyway, this is a book that I would recommend. He documents the changes in Christianity and religion but without the triumphalism that was present in Phyllis Tickles book, “The Great Emergence” and without the generalizing that is in Karen Armstrong’s works.