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The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective Paperback – November, 1990
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book is about secularization and urbanization from a theological perspective.
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He wrote in the Introduction, “This is the age of the secular city. Through supersonic travel and instantaneous communications its ethos is spreading into every corner of the globe. The world looks less and less to religious rules and rituals for its morality or its meanings… For fewer and fewer does it provide an inclusive and commanding system of personal and cosmic values and explanations… The effort to force secular and political movements of our time to be ‘religious’ so that we can feel justified in clinging to OUR religion is, in the end, a losing battle. Secularization rolls on, and if we are to understand and communicate with our present age we must learn to love it in its unremitting secularity… It will do no good to cling to our religious and metaphysical versions of Christianity in the idle hope that one day religion or metaphysics will once again regain their centrality. They will become even more peripheral and that means that we can now let go and immerse ourselves in the new world of the secular city.” (Pg. 3)
He argues, “There are three pivotal elements in biblical faith which have each given rise to one aspect of secularization. Thus, the ‘disenchantment of nature’ begins with the Creation, the ‘desacralization of politics’ with the Exodus, and the ‘deconsecration of values’ with the Sinai Covenant… Far from being something Christians should be against, secularization represents an authentic consequence of biblical faith. Rather than oppose it, the task of Christians should be to support and nourish it.” (Pg. 15) Later, he adds, “Our task should be to nourish the secularization process, to prevent it from hardening into a rigid world view, and to clarify as often as necessary its roots in the Bible. Furthermore, we should be constantly on the lookout for movements which attempt to thwart and reverse the liberating irritant of secularization.” (Pg. 31)
He explains, “Two motifs in particular characterize the secular city. We call them pragmatism and profanity… By pragmatism’ we mean secular man’s concern with the question ‘Will it work?’ Secular man does not occupy himself much with mysteries… By ‘profanity’ we refer to secular man’s wholly terrestrial horizon, the disappearance of any supramundane reality defining his life… By calling him profane, we do not suggest that secular man is sacrilegious, but that he is unreligious.” (Pg. 52)
Of the Creation story, he notes, “Here is a truly exalted view of man. God does not simply insert man into a world filled with creatures … in relationships and meaning patterns already established by decree. Man must fashion them himself. He doesn’t simply discover meaning; he originates it.” (Pg. 64)
He suggests, “The secularists of America may be God’s way of warning us that the era of sacred societies is over. Christians have contributed to its demise… By separating pope from emperor and thus granting a certain provisional autonomy to the secular arm, Western Christianity introduced a process which has produced the modern open society and the ecclesiastically neutral or secular state.” (Pg. 87)
He states, “The idea of the secular city exemplifies maturation and responsibility. Secularization denotes the removal of juvenile dependence from every level of a society; urbanization designates the fashioning of new patterns of human reciprocity. Combined in the symbol of the secular city, they portray man’s continuing effort to find a basis for common life as archaic order and sacral ties disappear. The secular city emerges as tribes and towns vanish---and the process is never over.” (Pg. 95)
He asserts, “The main objections that might be put forward against the secular city as a viable concretization of the ancient symbol of the Kingdom of God do not… stand up to careful scrutiny. The problems of whether God or man brings the Kingdom, whether there is a need for repentance, and whether the Kingdom touches our PRESENT crisis can all be set aside by a thoughtful examination of the idea of the Kingdom in the Bible.” (Pg. 98) He observes, “the church’s task in the secular city is to be the ‘diakonos’ of the city, the servant who bends himself to struggle for its wholeness and health.” (Pg. 116) He adds, “Jesus Christ comes to his people not primarily through ecclesiastical traditions, but through social change… He is always ahead of the church, beckoning it to get up to date, never behind it waiting to be refurbished.” (Pg. 128)
He contends, “Our objective here… is not to decry what has happened to work in the technopolitan era but to indicate how in each instance secularization, despite the problems it brings, has opened up new possibilities not present before. In the world of work, as in every other sector of human life, secularization is not the Messiah. But neither is it the anti-Christ.” (Pg. 145)
He maintains, “Some Christians believe it is the task of the church to wage total war against this process of secularization. This is a mistake… secularization is a liberation and has its roots in the biblical faith itself… The world… is being divested of its sacral and religious character. Man is… losing the mythical meanings and cultic afterglow that marked him during the ‘religious’ stage of history, a stage now coming to its end. Man must now assume the responsibility for his world. He can no longer shove it off on some religious power.” (Pg. 190) He adds, “The task of the church… might be sketched under three headings: (1) restrained reconciliation; (2) candid criticism; (3) creative disaffiliation. They correspond respectively to the priestly, the prophetic, and the ascetic traditions of church history.” (Pg. 198)
He points out, “in secular society politics does what metaphysics once did. It brings unity and meaning to human life and thought… the church looks to the hints God has dropped in the past in order to make out what He is doing today. But clearly the focal point of such reflection, the issues upon which it must center, are none other than the life-and-death issues of the secular metropolis. It must be reflection on how to come to political terms with the emergent technical reality which engulfs us. These are POLITICAL ISSUES, and the mode of theology which must replace metaphysical theology is the POLITICAL mode.” (Pg. 222-223)
He suggests, “Perhaps in the secular city God calls man to meet Him first of all as a ‘you.’ This… suggests that man is not to become fascinated with God himself… man’s relationship to God derives from the work they do together… God wants man to be interested not in Him but in his fellow man… In Jesus of Nazareth the religious quest is ended and man is freed to serve and love his neighbor.” (Pg. 231-232)
Although “trendy” when it was first published, this book has actually held up rather well over the years. It is “must reading” for anyone seriously studying contemporary theology.
His critique of the Church, in the broader sense of the word, is one concerning adaptation to the times. It was more timely, or at least urgent, when it first came out (which is when I first read it) than today. It will sound hackneyed to someone who sees everything in the light of theopolitics since 1981; but Cox wrote this long before the words "moral majority" were used to misname a movement.
In essence, he says to the liberal, educated urbanite, "You're right: mankind has outgrown religion. But only as it has been cast in the past. In reality - i.e., in the way I cast it - that is the heart of true religion (read: Christianity). God is trying to get humans to abandon their unhealthy reliance on him and become 'true' humans." In it, "the Gospel" becomes a euphemism for Christianity
To begin with, Cox recognizes that his audience is probably well educated, and even biblically literate. To that end, he must answer one question that plagues contemporary Christianity: how is it that the God we see in both the Old and New Testaments is so radically and concretely involved in human life compared to what we see today? In the Bible we have God parting the Red Sea and raising Jesus from the dead (which of course means nothing other than God raising himself from the dead, according to traditional theology); destroying complete cities with fire and brimstone from heaven and enabling people to walk on water. And yet he is curiously absent in our present reality. No donkeys are talking to anyone; no whales swallowing stubborn televangelists. There are no pillars of fire, no booming voices. What happened to God? Well, the problem, according to Cox, lies in the question itself. God is hidden, and "He cannot be expected to appear when we designate the place and time" (261). Very clever. The problem is that we're basically daring God to exist rather than looking "to the hints God has dropped in the past in order to make out what He is doing today" (254). The Bible, then, is just a collection of "hints" (not divinely inspired as such, and not infallible - a great relief to educated urbanites). In fact, God "does not 'appear' in Jesus; He hides himself in the stable of human history" (258). We just need to figure out where God is working and join him. This includes "standing in a picket line" (256) or, as implied on the back-cover biography of Cox, spending time in jail because for the cause of civil rights. In other words, he's saying, "Rest easy, liberal, educated urbanites. I'm not out to change your ultimate concern. I'm just trying to get you to frame it in a different way."
In other words, he's saying, "We're not trying to convert the world to Christianity, so if that's one of your main obstacles to Christianity, you can go ahead and convert because it's not a legitimate concern." It's liberal Christian apology, and nothing else. "Being Christian is basically being nice to others and helping them occasionally," he seems to be saying. A comfortable, educated middle class liberal perspective. Get involved, but not too involved. You don't need to risk everything to be a Christian, because that removes responsibility from others.
But what about the exclusivist claims of Christianity? No problem, for if "we need the nontheists" then certainly we need others of other religious faiths. It's like trying to convert people without admitting that you want to convert everyone.
In the end, it's a theological version of having your cake and eating it too. The liberal, social activism and the comfort of Christian belief. "They're one and the same!" says Cox. It's sort of like suburban liberation theology.
By necessity, it's squishy theology - long on abstract notions, short on concrete specifics:
We speak of God to secular man by speaking about man, by talking about man as he is seen in the biblical perspective. Secular talk about God occurs only when we are away from the ghetto and out of costume, when we are participants in that political action by which He restores men to each other in mutual concern and responsibility (256).
Now we get a hint as to what this might mean from his picket line comment, but he's careful not to give too many specifics, lest he face the accusation of merely being a "liberal in Christian clothes."
There are some good portions of the book. I was particularly pleased with the section dealing with Playboy magazine as a method of subversively dealing with (and consequently perpetuating) the male fear of sex that has arisen in our culture.
Other than that, silly nonsense.