Krista's Journal: Unfolding a New Conversation

October 18, 2007

Twenty-five years after The Secular City, Harvey Cox wrote some lines that help me frame what I hope to accomplish with this program, and how I want to weigh in on the round of atheism-religion debates that have flourished in the wake of recent anti-religious bestsellers. He was describing how the legacies of Athens and Jerusalem — emblems of rationalism and religion — produce an ongoing creative tension in the modern West:

"Athens and Jerusalem have created a whole history through their interaction with each other, and so have religion and secularization. In both cases, as soon as one achieves a kind of dominance, the other swoops back from exile to challenge it. When reason and intellect begin to ride high, they inevitably make unrealistic claims, and faith and intuition awaken to question their hegemony. Then, just as the sacral begins to feel its oats and reach out for civilizational supremacy, reason and cognition question its pretentiousness."

The religious history of the last half century in the United States is captured here precisely. Harvey Cox himself was part of our last round of best-selling voices on the decline of religion 40 years ago. Cox, in fact, never meant to advocate secularism. He held a passionate conviction that God would survive the marginalization of institutional religion — that Christian and other deep spiritual principles might be liberated and thrive in a secularized world. Nevertheless, The Secular City met other ideas of the time and catalyzed a national debate. In 1966, Time Magazine asked on its cover, "Is God Dead?" Religion did not die, as we all now know. But it did, in U.S. culture, get very quiet. In the words of Peter Berger, another guest of mine and another former secularization theorist, religion "became something done in private between consenting adults." We compartmentalized the spiritual aspect of life, segregated it out of our spheres of work and action in the world. This led eventually to the ironic and fascinating moment in Harvey Cox's career in the 1980s, when Harvard College asked him to offer a course on Jesus as part of a new graduation requirement to take at least one course on "moral reasoning." As Cox described it in his book When Jesus Came to Harvard, a moment of academic self-appraisal preceded this decision: "Why were we hearing so much about insider trading, sleazy legal practices, doctors more interested in profits than patients and scientists who fudged the data? Worse still, why were some of the culprits our own graduates? ... They were …experts on facts but novices on values." At this same moment in American public life, of course — and for some of the same reasons — Evangelical Christian leaders were reversing their twentieth-century withdrawal from social and political affairs. And as sociologists, political scientists and citizens gradually realized, most people in the world had never privatized religion along American lines at all. Unfortunately and perhaps tragically, when religion burst back onto the scene, the shrillest voices got there first. They were given a prominent platform in a media culture that favors the loud and the strident. The spectre of Islamism emerged globally. Terrible violence was done in the name of religion as it has been done in the past. And now we have a generation of strident anti-religious voices who, as Harvey Cox points out, rightly proclaim the potential evils of religion as witnessed in the past decade and before. But they seem to ignore the fact that we just emerged from a century whose despots — Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler — had no need of God to enact genocide. So the pendulum between Athens and Jerusalem swings on, cyclically, predictably. And yet, and yet. One of my most intriguing discoveries these past few years has been that, in our twenty-first century world that brims with both secular and religious energies, there is a newly creative, enlivening, enriching conversation across that old/new divide. Harvey Cox experiences this too. As he puts it, from the vantage point of Harvard, there are questions being raised in every discipline that exceed the faculties of that discipline. Medicine, science, education and economics meet human and spiritual conundrums and create moral choices that facts alone cannot address. Cutting-edge practitioners are reaching for the insights of ethics, moral reasoning, and philosophy, disciplines not restricted to but richly expressed and embedded in the world's religious traditions and practices. And religious thinkers and practitioners also are increasingly incorporating and working with the insights of science, the method of inquiry of educators, the tools of economics. The archives of Speaking of Faith — with religious as well as non-religious voices, with scientists as well as theologians, doctors as well as spiritual teachers — are one record of this unfolding conversation. I realize now that this is the answer I might have been giving all along as people have asked me when I would interview Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. I simply refuse to extend or deepen the "debates" that will happen in other places. I'm committed to the conversation taking place between the poles of seemingly irreconcilable difference. Across the line of belief and unbelief — a line which, if we are honest, runs through each of us in the course of our lives — we want to navigate the vast, excruciating, thrilling questions of the twenty-first century together. Tell me what you think, and if you see a new conversation unfolding, in your own life or in the world around you.

Recommended Reading

Image of When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today
Author: Harvey Cox
Publisher: Mariner Books (2006)
Binding: Paperback, 338 pages

Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism is Paul Collins' delightfully written, moving, and deeply informative memoir of one family's contemporary experience as well as a tour through autism in historical, literary, social, and medical perspective.

Voices on the Radio

is Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and author of many books, including When Jesus Came to Harvard.

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