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Who Holds Tomorrow? “The Future of Faith” and of Adventism

Harvard theologian Harvey Cox’s The Future of Faith will be shocking to most lay observers of religion, Christians and non-Christians alike. Despite possible blind spots in Cox’s assertions, Cox’s predictions for the future of religion speak to possible roads for Adventists. His analysis of the past — Christianity’s derailing by Constantine — will resonate with most people steeped in Ellen White. His view of the present and future will be less congenial.

Cox has a few insights that should be unsurprising to observers of Christianity: Christianity is becoming more colorful ethnically, more open to historically non-Christian practices, and Christianity is moving into opposition against prevailing “empire” ideologies like sexism, racism, and classism. His real argument centers on three assertions: religion will increase, religious fundamentalism will decline, and religious behavior will move toward vocational practice and away from creedal assent. He calls the coming period where this will happen the “Age of the Spirit,” as opposed to the current “Age of Belief” (which focused on conflicts between creeds following Constantine) and the early church’s “Age of Faith.” He draws parallels between the early Church and our age — Christians relating to a world empire (Rome then, America now), the growth of importance of creeds then and their decline now, the emphasis on Spirit and action in both.

Cox’s distinguishing between faith and belief is in itself initially confusing, as English speakers can use the words interchangeably. He clears the air, however. “Belief” is about assent to propositions — do you believe Jesus was of the same substance as the Father, or that God created the universe in 144 hours? He asserts faith is “about deep-seated confidence…people we trust or values we treasure” — Do you have faith that God is in control without believing He is the Prime Mover. One believes in a substitutionary atonement at the Crucifixion. One has faith that Jesus, through his own suffering and glorification, is with those that call him. The two can be together or separate. We may assent to beliefs without any faith, and we may have faith without assenting to creeds. This distinction is critical for Cox, as the division here is the same division he draws in the life of the body of Christ.

Cox’s paradigm doesn’t throw out belief, but claims it’s an intellectual handmaiden to faith in God and God’s power — a handmaiden that has been too powerful with disastrous consequences and that is yielding again to faith. While the Reformation may have offered new doctrines, this new Age of Spirit attempts to transcend doctrine in a following of what God does, rather than debates about what God is.

He, like many scholars recently and Adventists historically, draws the critical line in Christian history at Constantine, where faith in Jesus’ correctness about God coalesced into the Nicene affirmations about his nature. Cox replaces the narrative of a unified early church beset by heresies with an image of ekklesiai flung around the Mediterranean, different in emphasis, perceptions of God, Jesus, and salvation, but unified in their acknowledgement of Jesus’ lordship in their lives, over and in opposition to Caesar. This lively, sometimes confrontational counterculture gets co-opted by Constantine and granted favor by Theodosius so that the Caesars maintain order — violent, hierarchical, oppressive, Roman order. This leads to violence by Christians against Christians, and Cox eulogizes Priscillian of Avila (killed for heterodoxy) as the first victim of religious fundamentalism.

After a quick overview of Rome’s rise to primacy in the West and doctrinal splits in Christendom over the centuries, Cox turns to fundamentalism. He dusts off the history of the word in a Christian setting, reminding readers that the term originally identifies elements in American Protestantism demanding assent to fundamentals — the Virgin Birth, Biblical inerrancy, the atonement and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, while he applies the term to other faiths, he emphasizes that many “Islamic fundamentalists” reject the term as a Western-derived category — which it is. He calls out fundamentalism for its trivializing and crystallizing tendency to “collapse faith into belief” and then pronounces a death sentence over its factionalism, fractiousness, and its permanent war footing: “You must constantly fight not only the skepticism of those around you, but the doubts that arise within yourself.” Sound familiar?

This is not to say, however, that he asks Christians to take sin, injustice, violence, or the brokenness of the world lying down. His third prediction — that religion will move into behavioral directions — carries both a promise and a threat to Adventism. He gives two examples — Catholic liberation theologians and their radical cousins (like minjung theologians in South Korea) on the one hand, and charismatics and Pentecostals on the other.

Pentecostals and charismatics, Cox claims, tap into the Spirit’s power outside of the stifling belief constrictions of extant churches. He addresses the rapid growth of Pentecostals in non-Western Christianity and charismatics within existing churches, attributing it to the power of direct experience and a growing concern with present needs. Pentecostals and charismatics are answering spiritual and physical needs with everything from the prosperity gospel to door-knocking campaigns voting blocs. He worries about currents of triumphalism, dynastic leadership, political clientelism (one thinks of the Iglesia ni Cristo in the Philippines) and external pressure from powers and principalities.

Meanwhile, liberation theologians wed creedal theology to a vision of divinity as old as Moses and as central as Christ: God as liberator, patron of widows and orphans, that God that chastised Saul and David through Samuel and Nathan rather than idols justifying Pharaoh or Belshazzar’s power — Amos’s God, not Gregory’s. In both instances, Cox emphasizes behavior rather than doctrine — some will cringe at the thought of works salvation, but recall James’s injunction — “faith without works is dead!” By those criteria, faith is alive and kicking the biggest rears in our fallen world — institutionalized violence, poverty, and oppression. Adventists, while dealing with this sea change in their own house, remain suspicious of Catholics and Pentecostals. Rene Noorbergen’s Charisma of the Spirit suggests that speaking in tongues may link Catholicism and Protestantism to spiritualism, a cog in the wheel of the last days.

Cox is not the first observer to comment on Christianity’s move from the West to the global South, nor is he the first to observe Christians doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly while viewing Christendom with polite distance or outright hostility. His novelty is his audacity in claiming this direction as Christianity’s future.

He may be right. Regardless, he’s sketched the contours of a Christianity that Adventists must contend with and live in — one overwhelmingly black, brown and yellow (but we saw that coming) syncretistic, behavioral, and “spiritual, not religious” to use the hackneyed phrase. Adventists identify as a “peculiar people.” We carry two narratives in our history — the peculiarity of our beliefs and the peculiarity of our actions — and we must acknowledge and do justice to both while witnessing for God in a changing Christendom and a changing world. Do Adventists fit into the future of faith, even if just Christian faith? If so, how? Is this paradigm at all accurate? Where do we go?

Samuel Sukaton is a third-year history student at UCLA. He also writes for and worships at Azure Hills SDA Church in Grand

Terrace, California and Santa Monica SDA Church in Santa Monica.

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