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

Was Washington Really a Deist?

As we approach George Washington’s birthday—so often lost these days in the good shopping bargains of a long holiday weekend—it seems fitting to celebrate the whole man Washington was in light of the hottest issue in the world just now, religion. Most historians of the last hundred years have said the Father of Our Nation was a deist (in his excellent recent biography, Joseph Ellis called Washington a “lukewarm Episcopalian and quasi-Deist”) and suggest, along the way, that his virtues were Stoic rather than Christian, and his appeals to Providence rather more Greek and Roman than biblical. Since Washington speaks seldom of Jesus Christ, and almost never invokes the Savior or Redeemer or Trinity but prefers to use philosophical names for God (”Beneficent Author of all good,” “Divine Providence,” “Almighty Ruler of the Universe”), it is easy to think he was a deist.

A more sustained investigation into Washington’s God, however, makes all claims that he was a deist highly problematic and finally untenable.

Deism is not exactly a creed with clear tenets; it is more like a tendency of the mind; a movement like rationalism or romanticism; and, in the view of some historians of ideas, a half-way marker slowly moving from Jewish or Christian orthodoxy toward early modern science. The general drift of deism is that the originating and governing force of the universe is the god of modern rationalists (Newton, Spinoza, et al.), not at all like the Great God Jehovah of the Hebrew Bible. Deists prefer the god of reason to the God of revelation.

The latter has a special love and care for particular peoples and persons, unlike the deist god, who is impersonal and indifferent to the world he sets in motion. The God of revelation intervenes and interposes in historical events and personal lives, and hears and answers prayers; the god of reason does no such things. At the same time, from various motives some Christians, even bishops and clergymen, described themselves as deists as well as Christians.

Still, in one sense “deist” is intended as the opposite of “Christian” or “Jewish,” and incompatible with them. To say that Washington is a deist is in this sense to derogate from his being Christian. The evidence on this point comes down to this: When Washington prays and urges the nation (or his army) to pray, does he expect God to care about the fate of the American cause, as distinct from the British cause, since they also pray to the same God? Does he imagine God actually interposing himself in the events of history? Or inspiring a human mind with ideas, or forgiving sins?

The most important answer to these questions is found in the prayers that, as general and as president, Washington publicly urged upon the army and the nation. The Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789 declared it “the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor . . . and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”

In a letter announcing his retirement from the army at the close of the War, he wrote: “I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”

Clearly these samples, only a small part of what might be adduced, are not the prayers of a deist to an impersonal, nonintervening god. These are the words of someone who expects God to be deeply involved in our nation’s welfare. Why? Because he made the world for liberty, and our nation was, under God, a pioneer in political, civil, and religious liberties.

These are the prayers, the non-deistic prayers, which gave General Washington fortitude and hope in the very dark days of more than 230 years ago, in 1776. Now again, we are a nation in great need, under the powerful threat of a murderous worldwide terrorism. So it does not seem wrong for us, either, to “beseech the kind Author of these blessings ... to dispose us to merit the continuance of His favors.”

Published in First Things February 21, 2007

Married Women and the New York Times

As a general rule, the New York Times tries so hard to discredit Jewish and Christian morality that it is foolish to trust any of its articles purporting to describe Census Bureau statistics, especially when the latter involve marriage and family. It is best to treat analyses appearing in the Times as provocations reminding you to check into matters for yourself. A prime example is a January 17 Times article entitled “51% of Women Are Now Living Without a Spouse” (online by subscription only). There is a second rule I adopted for myself years ago. While paying respectful attention to numbers that include the entire U.S. population, I disaggregate those numbers and single out the numbers for white non-Hispanic persons, who form the large majority. The point of this rule is to test common impressions.

There are two reasons why this second rule is useful. First, it provides a clear look at the single largest ethnic profile. Second, many behavioral patterns differ significantly among ethnic groups. Blending them together changes the general picture rather drastically. For example, two-thirds of Asian women twenty years old or older live with husbands present, as compared with one-third of black women.

Thus, the profile of white non-Hispanic women in the most recent data (2005) shows seventy-six million age twenty and over.

Some 12 percent of all these women were divorced (some more than once). Fewer than 2 percent were separated. Only about 15 percent of those over twenty had never yet married.

An impressive 58 percent of white non-Hispanic women were married with husbands present.

Looking at these numbers another way, add to the 58 percent of white non-Hispanic women with husbands present, the 12 percent that had been divorced as of 2005, and the fewer than 2 percent separated, plus the 1 percent married but with husbands absent. Also add another 11 percent who were, not by choice, living as widows. Therefore, the total of white non-Hispanic women over twenty who were or had been married was 85 percent. It is obvious that, in that year, marriage was the overwhelmingly preferred choice of American white women over the age of twenty. In addition, a significant proportion of the not-yet-married women over twenty will also enter into marriage in the future. The proportion choosing marriage, then, easily exceeds 90 percent.

Because these numbers do not include black, Hispanic, and Asian women, they do not give an accurate picture of the whole U.S. female population. But they do give a clear picture of the largest culture, as a point of comparison.

Finally, unlike the Times, these numbers report only those white non-Hispanic women ages twenty and over. I am excluding those age 15-19, because only relatively few teenagers (93,000 out of some 6.3 million) have experienced marriage.

The moral of this story, then, is to do your own research; do not always trust what you read in the newspapers. As though you needed to be told that. Published in First Things February 7, 2007

Beginning Again in Poland

As an American, far away, with a deep love for Poland, my deepest sorrow is felt for all the citizens of Poland, for the Polish church, and even for the now-resigned archbishop and his family. There were so many heroic acts by so many people in Poland and its neighboring countries during the Soviet nightmare. The solicitations to help the secret police were constant, seductive, and insistent. Some of these solicitations seemed almost harmless—but, of course, once responded to, they were subject to blackmail, to oblige the weak ones to take further steps in assisting the secret police.

In those days, it was extremely difficult to be on guard in resisting every blandishment. Yet many millions of brave and faithful souls did so, in one of the most beautiful displays of spiritual resistance in human history. The Polish nation and the Polish church were conspicuous in steady, daily, humble but heroic acts of fidelity to the truth.

That is why the recent admission of the Archbishop hurt so much. It was public—it had to be—and it hurt the reputation of the country and the church. Of course, we do not yet know the full truth about what happened. Yet even a small surrender leaves the one who signs a document vulnerable forever to blackmail. This case is such a personal tragedy, and so sad.

But this case can also be a new beginning for a new Poland, with a new openness and a new honesty, and a real accounting for the unpleasant past which all would be happy to forget.

Years ago, during the Second Vatican Council (where I first learned the name of Karol Wojtyla), I wrote a history of the second session of the council in 1963, which was entitled The Open Church. The church should be transparent, like a pane of glass, so that the light of God’s grace may shine into it and out of it.

The great political philosopher Karl Popper made a similar argument about the free society in The Open Society and Its Enemies—except not that grace should shine in and out, but at least honesty and reasonableness.

The two goals—the open society and the open church—are always goals worth striving for. We need constantly to begin anew and to do better than in the past. Often we do this by humble means, such as a well-chosen commission of inquiry, fully trustworthy, that would periodically issue public reports on its findings.

Such a process needs also to be tempered with mercy and forgiveness, for the light of justice is sometimes so overpowering that it is more than humans can bear. This imperative of mercy was the subject of one of John Paul II’s early encyclicals.

As many societies around the world have found out in practice, from Chile to South Africa, the best social cure is at least public honesty and public repentance. Even if nations do not get into the impossible job of meting out exact punishment, if they want social healing they must demand, at least, honesty, truth, openness—and public repentance for wrongs done.

There were so many people in Poland who performed heroically, and not least in the church—both in its ordinary people and in its leadership—that I am sure Poland will exit soon from the present turmoil and heated passions into a new, determined era of beginning again.

Beginning again is the human condition.

Published in First Things January 16, 2007