Harvey Cox's Secular City

In the next few days (March 19), Harvard theologian Harvey Cox will be celebrating his 70+ birthday (I leave it to him to say just which birthday it is). Since I'm pressing right behind him, this seemed like a good time to express my gratitude for many kindnesses of his so many years ago – for so many stimulating conversations and exchanges. Such wonderful discussions were my first with a Baptist theologian, a man bursting like fireworks with energy and ideas. So, let me go back in memory just a little. 1965 seems like so many years ago, and yet I can remember many events from that time as though they were still before my eyes. (I admit, though, that my memory does play little tricks from time to time, more so these days.) It was in 1965, in December, that the Second Vatican Council came to its grand conclusion, and on the very next day that Karen's and my first son was born. It was a little earlier that year, in late August, that we had moved to Stanford for my first full-time teaching job, alongside the great Robert McAfee Brown (who had already been on the cover of Newsweek magazine). A cold fear struck me when at my very first seminar, no one showed up. The question rose in my mind, “Will the administration fire me? Dock my pay?” Then some nine students straggled in late. That blessed first nine!

The spring before, I had been teaching at Harvard as a graduate student, studying for doctoral exams, and taking part in wonderful evening ecumenical discussions with such members (over the years) as Harvey Cox, Daniel Callahan, Ann Orlov of Harvard University Press, and others. Harvey Cox and I shared the same editor at Macmillan Press in New York City, and as I was visiting her about the upcoming publication of Belief and Unbelief (as close as I would get to a Ph.D. thesis, but a bit more personally felt than theses usually are), she told me how pleased she was to have signed up a brilliant young Harvard writer, Harvey Cox, and she gave me a copy of a new paperback collection of his occasional essays, The Secular City. Neither she nor Harvey, I was to learn later, expected anything unusual from this modest collection, but suddenly the demand was far too overwhelming for the first printing, the second, and many another. Before long, hundreds of thousands were in print. Across the religious world, the word “secular,” now used in a positive, not pejorative, sense and the word “city,” now used as if far more promising than anything rural, agrarian, or traditional, rang out on everybody's lips.

I had arrived at Harvard on a fellowship in philosophy in 1960, just before John F. Kennedy's election, and I have to admit I was about as green and innocent as a lad of twenty-six can be, having spent the prior twelve years in the seminaries of the Holy Cross Fathers. So far as I can recall, until I got to Harvard, I had never heard the term “Wasp.” I learned quickly at the Divinity School that full respect was reserved chiefly for the mainline Protestant Churches of the old New England kind, including Congregationalists, Anglicans, Unitarians, and Presbyterians, with considerable respect also for the mainstream Lutherans (less so for the Missouri Synod) and some Methodists, but very little for the Baptists and those others from “the left wing of the Reformation.” All such fine points of differentiation were quite new to me, and I was totally unprepared for the thin veneer of tolerance and the highly visible condescension shown to Billy Graham when he preached (to a full house) at the Divinity School.

Well, Harvey Cox was the village Baptist and very proud of it, bright as anybody around, original, questioning, challenging, proposing, dreaming; he was a dazzler, serious and probing and ready to act as well as to talk. He loved pastoral work and activism fully as much as writing and studying. He was the model of an engaged intellectual, of the sort Albert Camus had taught our generation to admire. His personal hero was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the super-sober and serious young German pastor who had ended up with his throat garroted for suspicion about his role in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Baptists may have been in relatively low repute at Harvard in those days (cousins, so to speak, in the condescension shown Jerry Falwell today), but no one dared hold Harvey in that repute. Their problem was to live up to his level of intensity in mind and action.

Those of us who were Catholic in the Divinity School around that time, that meant Daniel Callahan and me, really took to Harvey. For one thing, his attention to the city seemed like a Catholic thing; in Europe, “pagan” had meant country folk, and Christianity for a long time thrived most in cities. For another thing, his attention to the “secular” was in some ways (not in others) analogous to our habitual attention to the “natural” order, the philosophical, the non-theological, the ‘what-we-know-if-we-abstract-from-the-Bible.’ Of course, as a Baptist, Harvey came to this secular or natural point by showing how the Bible directed our attention to it. In his view, it is Revelation that tells us to evaluate the real for what it is, to look at it (as it were) without the gloss of religion overlaid on it. To put it briefly, Harvey shook up everybody’s categories, those of evangelicals, the mainline, Catholics, and maybe even Jews, and forced us all to look at basic things again, and think them through anew.

Some of us thought Harvey avoided going deep enough, abhorred metaphysical reflection (in which he was untrained), and became uncomfortable in the presence of ritual and liturgy. A few years later, he admitted as much, and revised his views, at least about ritual, liturgy and popular religion. Because he did not have reference to the deeper streams of metaphysics, his thought sometimes seemed to veer from one side to the other. Yet the heart of men of good will is also a compass, and Harvey seemed to find a way to correct one hitch to the left as he climbed the mountain by another in the opposite direction, and back again, as he pressed ahead in a fairly direct way.

The Secular City caused such a sensation that by 1966 both Christianity and Crisis and Commonweal had published symposia on the book, in each of which Cox replied to his critics. These symposia plus a set of the outstanding critical reviews that had already appeared, and a set of essays newly commissioned for the occasion, appeared in a very useful volume, The Secular City Debate, edited by Daniel Callahan. To this volume, too, Cox added “a vigorous rejoinder.” In addition, Cox issued a new and revised edition of The Secular City in 1966, “to correct some of the more egregious overstatements, tone down an occasional vivid passage, and respond at points to helpful criticisms the book has elicited.” In particular, he now welcomed metaphysical questions, while continuing to doubt the utility these days of metaphysical systems. He also modified some of his earlier assertions about the “end of religion,” in recognition of the different role religion plays in the United States compared to its role in Bonhoeffer’s Germany.

In retrospect, I can think of few books in the last forty years that so thoroughly broke down so many walls between and among the sects, denominations, and churches that mark the religiously tangled American scene. For one of the few times ever, virtually all theologians of virtually all traditions began arguing about the American city, in confrontation with the same set of problematics, and in the same idiom. It helped that Cox chose the newly martyred John F. Kennedy as the model of his new pragmatic, secular mind, for JFK had audaciously attacked old questions of civil rights, poverty, crime (quaintly called at that time “juvenile delinquency”), and welfare with a new vigor, and stirring a whole new generation to new thoughts. Christian ministers and Jewish rabbis were made to feel “relevant” to national issues as they had not felt for some time. Cox threw considerable light on how that was coming to pass, and he mightily encouraged social activism in many spheres.

For all this, some sober scholars scoffed at Harvey Cox, and cultivated a certain disdain for “relevance” and “being with it,” and indeed for religion masquerading as sociology, and piety that was now squeezed into a new mold of merely social change, not change of soul. Even as they complained about his leadership, Cox was off into new territories, raising respectful questions about the necessary role of play, ritual, and imagination, questions about the undeniable strength of the popular devotions of stubborn peasants--in Latin America under the traditional power of the landlords, and among the shipbuilders and electricians of Poland, who had the foot of Communism on their necks. And always further questions. There was one exception to that. For reasons never made clear, he became a little too predictably leftist in his tendencies, at least in my vision of reality. But even there he has always been pushing onwards.

Thus, I have often disagreed with Cox, and found myself moving right just where he was moving left, and sometimes the reverse, but I have always been grateful for the stimulus of his active mind and very good heart. The metaphysical “system” that (despite his strictures) I internalized as a very young man, that is, in my way of asking questions, has served me in very good stead down the years. Sometimes my internal list of unanswered questions allowed me to sympathize when Harvey took a new turn, and to be grateful to him for opening up my eyes, wherever it was he got into. Granted, my own way is a lot more plodding and slow than his. Besides, I am sure that my disavowal of the political left, after watching so many of its programs and underlying theories fail, caused him considerable pain (if he thought about it much at all).

And yet for all that Harvey was, at the beginning – I don't think we’ve actually seen each other for decades now – a warm, welcoming, and marvelous intellectual companion. Becoming aware of the Protestant world through his eyes (and those of other colleagues) was a great place for a young Catholic to begin.

Quite unexpectedly, Harvey and I have both shot past age seventy. Time for me to say a word of thanks, Harvey! Can't be too much time left for either one of us.

See you later.

Published in First Things March 5, 2007