The Secular City
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Hervey Cox’s seminal work, “The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective” (1965).
“Since its initial publication in 1965, “The Secular City” has been hailed as a classic for its nuanced exploration of the relationships among the rise of urban civilization, the decline of hierarchical, institutional religion, and the place of the secular within society. Now, half a century later, this international best seller remains as relevant as when it first appeared. The book’s arguments–that secularity has a positive effect on institutions, that the city can be a space where people of all faiths fulfill their potential, and that God is present in both the secular and formal religious realms–still resonate with readers of all backgrounds.”
On the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication, Cox wrote the following comments:
“I argued then that secularization—if it is not permitted to calcify into an ideology (which I called “secular- ism”)—is not everywhere and always an evil. It prevents powerful religions from acting on their theocratic pretensions. It allows people to choose among a wider range of worldviews. Today, in parallel fashion, it seems obvious that the resurgence of religion in the world is not everywhere and always a good thing. Do the long-suffering people of Iran believe that after the removal of their ruthless shah, the installation of a quasi-theocratic Islamic republic has turned out to be a wholly positive move? Do those Israelis and Palestinians who yearn for a peaceful settlement of the West Bank bloodletting believe that either the Jewish or the Muslim religious parties are helping? How do the citizens of Beirut and Belfast feel about the continuing vitality of religion?
The truth is that both religious revival and secularization are morally ambiguous processes. Both heal and destroy. We still desperately need a way of welcoming diversity that does not deteriorate into nihilism, and a sober recognition that neither religious nor secular movements are good or bad as such. Both can become either the bearers of emancipation or the avatars of misery, or some of each. Wouldn’t a modest sprinkling of secularization, a de-religionizing of the issues, come as a welcome relief in Ulster, and help resolve the murderous tensions in Kashmir and the Gaza strip?…
One of my main purposes in writing “The Secular City” was to challenge the antiurban bias that infects American religion (at least white church life). How many times did I hear, as a child, that “God made the country, but man made the city”? This is a gravely deficient doctrine of God. We need a spirituality that can discern the presence of God not just “In the Garden” as the old Protestant hymn puts it, but also, as a better hymn says, “Where cross the crowded ways of life, / Where sound the cries of race and clan. . .”
The Bible portrays a God who is present in the jagged reality of conflict and dislocation, calling the faithful into the crowded ways, not away from them. Nothing is further removed from this biblical God than the inward-oriented serenity cults and get-rich-now salvation schemes that inundate the airwaves and pollute the religious atmosphere. Here Bonhoeffer had it exactly right. From behind bars he wrote that we are summoned as human beings to “share the suffering of God in the world.” If the divine mystery is present in a special way among the poorest and most misused of his or her children, as the biblical images and stories—from the slaves in Egypt to the official lynching of Jesus—constantly remind us, then allegedly religious people who insulate themselves from the city are putting themselves at considerable risk. By removing ourselves from the despised and the outcast we are at the same time insulating ourselves from God, and it is in the cities that these, “the least of them,” are to be found….
The thesis of “The Secular City” was that God is first the Lord of history and only then the Head of the Church. This means that God can be just as present in the secular as in the religious realms of life, and we unduly cramp the divine presence by confining it to some specially delineated spiritual or ecclesial sector. This idea has two implications. First, it suggests that people of faith need not flee from the allegedly godless contemporary world. God came into this world, and that is where we belong as well. But second, it also means that not all that is “spiritual” is good for the spirit. These ideas were not particularly new. Indeed, the presence of the holy within the profane is suggested by the doctrine of the incarnation—not a recent innovation. As for suspicion toward religion, both Jesus and the Hebrew prophets lashed out at much of the religion they saw around them. But some simple truths need restating time and again. And today is surely no exception….
We already live in the world-city and there is no return. God has placed us in this urban exile, and is teaching us a more mature faith, for it is a quality of unfaith to have to flee from complexity and disruption, or to scurry around trying to relate every segment of experience to some comforting inclusive whole, as though the universe might implode unless we hold it together with our own conceptualizations. God is teaching us to approach life in the illegible city without feeling the need for a Big Key.”
From Harvey Cox “The Secular City 25 Years Later”. Full text available on-line at:
“Harvey Gallagher Cox, Jr. (born May 19, 1929 in Malvern, Pennsylvania) is one of the preeminent theologians in the United States and served as Hollis Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School, until his retirement in October 2009. Cox’s research and teaching focus on theological developments in world Christianity, including liberation theology and the role of Christianity in Latin America.”