Harvey Cox’s Radicalism

Harvey Cox’s Radicalism

How the theologian and social critic reminds us of the radical possibilities and egalitarian hopes of a Christian left.


In a recent Harper’s Magazine article, Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs caused something of a stir: What had become, he asked, of America’s Christian public intellectuals? Once a prominent feature of public life, the Christian social critic seems to have faded from view. “Half a century ago,” Jacobs noted, “such figures existed in America: serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now.”

It’s impossible to dispute Jacobs’s central point: In the United States, we no longer have a Walter Rauschenbusch or a Reinhold Niebuhr, thinkers who critiqued American society from a Christian perspective. True, there are Christians who are also intellectuals—figures like Cornel West and Robert P. George—but their cultural cachet is hardly comparable to that of their 20th-century predecessors.

In part, this is the result of shifting currents in the American disposition. As a public, we don’t have the same taste for sermonic advice we once did, intellectual or otherwise. But, as Jacobs argues, the decline of Christian public voices is also a function of something internal to Christian thought: Over the past half-century, many strains of Christianity have seen a “privatization of religious experience and discourse.”

Ever since, Christians on the right have been attempting to reverse this process, whether by invoking a past in which some aspects of traditional Christian thought defined social norms, or by using many of the rights created by liberalism in order to protect the public expression of Christian values—for example, conservative Christians have claimed legal protection for abstaining from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, and for refusing to offer insurance coverage for medical practices they believe run counter to their faith.

Indeed, the right’s dominance over public expressions of Christianity has been so pronounced that it has created something of a crisis for liberal and left-wing Christians: How can one launch a Christian critique of poverty, inequality, racism, or the United States’ seemingly endless appetite for war when Christianity, at least as it has largely been understood by one’s comrades, is often associated with the fundamentalist right? How can one invoke the egalitarian and communitarian ideals of the faith when the right has so dominated the public landscape that the very notion of “left Christianity” is often now a puzzling idea?

Without a unified Christian left to contrast against a powerful and already unified Christian right, there is no obvious political program or donor base for an incipient generation of left-Christian activists and intellectuals. Young Christians committed to social and economic justice have to carve out their own lineage and propose their own goals and priorities; on the right, that work has already been done for them.

It’s in the face of these challenges for an emerging new generation of Christian liberals and leftists that Harvey Cox— a Baptist minister, Harvard divinity professor for more than 40 years, and Christian left-wing intellectual to the core—offers a beacon of light. Still writing well into his 80s, Cox has authored more than a dozen books, contributed chapters and papers far and wide, and played a profound role in shaping liberal Christianity in America. He has also served as a model for several generations of Christian activists and intellectuals, reminding both Christians and the left that their programs are not as distinct as they are often thought today.

Over the years, Cox’s books have ranged in subject from play and myth (The Feast of Fools) to liturgical time and interfaith dialogue (Common Prayers), but there has been a consistent commitment in all of them to reconciling the tensions between faith and public life, and in particular Christian faith and life as a left-wing intellectual and activist. In the end, Cox never found the perfect resolution to these tensions; he was perhaps too sensitive in his thinking and too practical in his activism. But the power of his insights, and the sheer force of his will, provides a new left with a deep well of ideas to draw from as we respond to the injustices of our times.

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Harvey Cox was born in 1929 in southeastern Pennsylvania. Descended from Quakers, he spent his childhood in the small town of Malvern, which has a population of 3,400 today and some 1,000 or so less when he grew up there. Malvern was the archetypal conservative small town from which countless aspiring intellectuals have gleaned their identity by escaping it, and this was true of Cox as well, who left Malvern in 1946 to join the Merchant Marines. After completing his service, Cox received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania and then another one in divinity from Yale in 1955. He then served as a minister and a chaplain for several years before earning his PhD from Harvard in the philosophy of religion.

Cox attained international fame with the 1965 publication of his book The Secular City, which welcomed some aspects of secularization and critiqued the constraints of organized religion, even urging the faithful to find holiness in the world outside the church. Technological development, Cox argued, would bring about a kind of maturation in human development that would leave behind the age of the tribe and town and usher in a bold new secular and multicultural era. Christianity would serve a crucial purpose in the face of this radical transformation of collective human life by providing moral and spiritual support in these fast-paced, modernizing times. But it would also, Cox insisted, need to be reevaluated and retrofitted to survive society’s increasingly secular, cosmopolitan sensibilities.

The Secular City was spectacularly successful, selling nearly a million copies. Even Cox was surprised by its success, and he has, over time, revisited some of its most ambitious claims with a more nuanced eye. No longer does he feel that history must pass through the phases of tribe, town, and technopolis, nor does he neglect the fact that, with fundamentalism on the rise in many quarters, secularism has yet to overtake traditional religion. But his observation that Christians must find a way to respond to the emergent forms of modern life remains as relevant as ever. It even serves as something of a call to arms: Liberal Christianity must find a way to engage with the world, not withdraw from it.

In his own life, Cox practiced what he preached: He embraced a life of activism and argument, including marching for civil rights in the mid-1960s. A strong advocate of ecumenicism—the idea that different religions and different Christian denominations ought to seek peaceful cooperation and mutual respect—Cox won praise, and often friendship, from Christian writers throughout the political spectrum, including conservatives like Michael Novak.

Cox also established himself as one of America’s great public interpreters of Christianity. His many admirers, on both the right and the left, were as much the product of his vast body of scholarship as they were of his genial spirit. The Secular City may have been a call to arms for concerned Christians facing an increasingly unjust and uncertain future, but Cox also continued to produce books on topics ranging from charismatic religious movements to “postmodernism” to prayer.

* * *

This year has seen the publication of two more. The first is A Harvey Cox Reader, a 23-chapter anthology of some of his most influential essays; the second is The Market as God, a book-length expansion of the 1999 essay by the same name that he wrote for The Atlantic.

The timing of this dual release is fortuitous. We are living in a politically unstable and religiously tense moment, and these two books offer us a condensed version of Cox’s outlook on religion, society, and politics. They even offer us a reminder of the powerful and productive affinities that exist between Christian and left-wing commitments. While some critics have faulted Cox for being too willing to apply theological analysis to the issues of the day, it is precisely this sensitivity to the world he’s living in that gives both Cox’s older essays and his new book their salience and power.

The Reader proceeds mostly chronologically, producing the same effect for the 20th-century American Christian left as a slab of exposed canyon wall does for the geologic record. In the 1960s and ’70s, Cox meditates on Weberian theories of rationalization and disenchantment and on the alienating social shifts that produced the counterculture. In one charmingly dated passage, he ponders “how much drug trips have begun to take the place of our culture’s forgotten or abandoned puberty rites…. You expose yourself to danger and death. You make a break from the world of childhood. You see visions. You may suffer pain. You come back, usually, and are received into a new phase of life by those who have undergone the ordeal before you. You may even feel you’ve seen God.” But even if the counterculture crept into his writing at the time, one can already hear an important new public voice congealing, a witness and activist writing from the edge and aftermath of momentous social upheaval.

By the 1980s, Cox, like so many of his peers, casts a more nervous eye on domestic matters. In particular, in these years, Cox is troubled by the ascendancy of a newly emboldened Christian right. In 1984, after a trip to Jerry Falwell’s Virginia-based congregation and university, Cox writes: “I left Lynchburg with the impression that I had met a man who personifies the most conservative side of the return of religion—both religiously and politically—one was likely to find anywhere in the world today.”

These were dark and confusing years to be a committed Christian on the left and ones in which it was becoming increasingly difficult to imagine the natural allegiances between faith and egalitarian politics. “Why has the ‘wider ecumenicism,’ which had offered hope of crossing not only denominational but faith lines as well, begun to sputter and stammer and, in many instances, simply to stop?” Cox noted in 1988. But even in the face of such uncertainty, he never gave up hope.

“What can we do?” he asked the readers of Many Mansions, his 1988 book on the possibilities of building interfaith connections between Christianity and other religions. “We cannot merely speculate on whether rites and myths will someday cease to divide and stupefy people; we must so shape and reconceive them that they unite and enlarge us.”

* * *

It’s easy to track changes in Christian theology through the trajectory of Cox’s work; over his long career, he began to shift away from a focus on generalities to paying special attention to different theologies arising from different types of knowledge. Like much of the human sciences at the time, Cox’s theology became much more focused on the sociology and localities of religious expression.

But even as he absorbed new ideas about how to interpret culture and religion, the consistencies remained. In fact, one might argue that despite these surface changes, Cox continued to return to the same themes of oppression and alienation that have come to define almost all of his work. In each period of Cox’s life as a thinker, there is a remarkable optimism about the prospects of religion, even as he concedes that secularization is rising and proving to be more troubling than he had first anticipated in The Secular City. Though Cox expects challenges for religion, he always seems certain that religion can evolve.

Tellingly, Cox never put forth a program or set of priorities for the progressive Christian, and even in his new book The Market as God, in which he outlines the reasons that the market has taken on a quasi-­religious authority, he doesn’t suggest any programmatic solutions. In part, this is because he’s too committed to building a practical, enduring, and contemporary Christianity to see it lose its relevance over the long haul by shackling to a particular set of policies.

But it’s also because Cox is after something a bit different. He wants to help parse the contours of an egalitarian way of approaching religious life that he believes hews closely to Jesus’s simple but all-encompassing directive: Care for those most in need. For an incipient Christian left, this simple imperative—and Cox’s own example of a life lived in service to it—is as important as any particular political program, and as lasting as any general doctrine of theology or religious practice.

* * *

Over the years, Cox has become known not only for his liberal view of Christianity, but also for his nuanced work on liberation theology, which started to take shape in Latin America in the 1950s and ’60s. Paralleling the liberal-Christian faith in social progress, liberation theology insisted that Christians must also fight to free themselves from earthly forms of oppression. Having become intimately involved with its early formulations while teaching in Latin America, Cox became one of liberation theology’s great English-language popularizers, even arguing that it was “the legitimate, though unanticipated, heir of The Secular City.”

The Vatican would eventually all but disown liberation theology for its apparent tendency to secularize the sacred (an impulse that Cox is far friendlier to than the church’s ideological enforcers at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) more than for accomplishing its goal of sacralizing the secular—and Cox would go on to qualify his earlier embrace of it. But its fierce, revolutionary spirit became a key in his later years. Liberation theology was capable of coping with problems that liberal Christianity missed; it pushed the Christian critique of capitalism and imperialism to its fullest and called on members of society to act against them. “In the two decades since The Secular City was published, I have gained a reputation in some circles of being a ‘liberal’ theologian,” Cox wrote in 1984. “I have never been satisfied with the label.” Instead, “we North American Christians will have to develop our own liberation theology and our own base communities.” For Cox, liberation theologians provide a model for Christian participation in public life that transcends the old liberal firewall between religion and governance: They insisted that Christians use their faith to create a better world not only in the spiritual sphere, but also in the social, political, and economic ones.

The Market as God attempts to begin this work, challenging how political liberalism constrains moral and religious critiques from entering the public sphere, and how economic liberalism—by insisting the market holds primacy above all—constrains us from building a more just and equal society. In it, Cox argues that over the past several decades, the market has usurped God’s throne and ensconced itself, godlike, as its own source of insight. Economists have become our new priests and theologians, interpreting and disseminating the market’s signs, while historians elevate its narratives through a process of devotional mythmaking. The market has its liturgical year in banking holidays and the cycles of economic boom and bust, and its eschatology in promises of ever greater wealth, freedom, and progress. Where people used to turn to religion to anchor their lives and order their priorities, they now turn to an increasingly vast and voracious market, against which dissent is often a futile heresy.

Cox explored many of these arguments in his earlier works, including The Secular City, in which he argued that the rise of capitalism bred its own form of viral secularism. For Cox, it is capitalism itself that has parted Christians from some of their oldest convictions, with its culture, its economic and political norms, displacing religion as an organizing principle in the societies it governs. Whereas Weber saw capitalism as born out of the same worldly and disciplined tendencies of Protestant thought, Cox believed that capitalism ultimately marks a break from the communitarian and egalitarian impulses of Christianity.

In The Market as God, there is less of the optimism that gave Cox’s early work its buoyant expectations for the future. Perhaps what contemporary Christians need, Cox concludes, is less retrofitting and more recovery of early Christian values. “God is the original creator of all,” he argues, and “God’s purpose in putting people in charge of his wealth…is to meet the needs of all human beings.” This simple, ancient Christian notion has all the makings of the kind of liberation theology that could overcome the Vatican’s critique: It is both thoroughly orthodox and yet also entirely radical, and it brings the liberatory possibilities of the Gospel into our own communities. “We as human beings constructed [the market],” Cox writes, “and we can renovate, dismantle, or transform it if we want to.”

* * *

Recent history—for example, the surprising success of Bernie Sanders—confirms Cox’s intuition that many young Americans want to resist the enthronement of the market and find ways to once again put it in its place. But Trump’s election, and his proposed cabinet of financial elites, should give us caution in thinking that we can win democratic control over the economy any time in the near future.

Perhaps for this reason Cox is hesitant to recommend a more orthodox Christianity as a way to reverse the advances of liberal capitalism. In fact, he warns that a more militant Christianity, no matter how egalitarian in its impulses, might prove to have a “proclivity for [the] same titanism” of the market, transforming all spheres into a religious one just like the market transformed them into economic ones. “I have found something vital in Christianity that I do not believe I could have found anywhere else,” Cox says, but that, he submits, is merely his “testimony.”

But even if Cox does not leave us with an obvious intellectual program or organizational strategy that can directly instruct us for the future, by highlighting the limits of our economic and religious lives, and by reminding us of our powers to renovate our current world, Cox clears the space for a new generation of Christians to begin to develop a more public and egalitarian politics. And that alone is more than enough to be grateful for.

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