Book Review: The Secular City

secular cityHow should Christians view the city? It’s been a much discussed question in recent years, particularly with the rise of the metro-evangelicals and a fresh focus on reaching the cities of the world. Leading figures such as Tim Keller have given a great deal of thought to the gospel and the city.

Yet long before the reformed crowd spoke of cities, contextualisation and the urban context of the gospel, there was The Secular City  by Harvard professor, Harvey Cox. First published in 1965 it has become something of a classic and yet I’ve encountered very little recent work that has engaged (or even referenced, I think) Cox’s work. This is a shame because although there is much which has changed since the sixties and there is a significantly different theological view at work, there are so many intriguing ideas that could prove to be very helpful.

Cox’s basic thesis is that the city and more specifically, contemporary secular cities, are not places to avoid but places to celebrate, not places for the church to run away from but the very places the church ought to be. So far, so good. In the big picture there is much to agree with. As usual the devil is in the detail.

Cox outlines three stages in human development, the age of the tribe, the age of the town and the age of the technopolis. We live in the age of the secular city.

In our day the secular metropolis stands as both the pattern of our life together and the symbol of our view of the world. (p1)

He was right in the sixties and he’s still right 50 years later. Cities dominate the landscape with ever-increasing power and magnetic force.

Cox also argues that the contemporary city is a secular space and so some attention should be given to what Cox means by secularisation (which Cox supports) and secularism (which Cox is against).

Secularisation is, in Cox’s view, a simple pragmatic focus on present issues not dominated by theological questions or shaped by the thought of worlds beyond. It is man finally growing up and essentially not making policy decisions based on supernatural beliefs.

The forces of secularization have no serious interest in persecuting religion. Secularization simply bypasses and undercuts religion and goes on to other things. It has relativized religious world-views and thus rendered them innocuous. Religion has been privatized.

This is a fascinating insight and one I think that aptly describes my adopted society of Sweden, one of the most secular of all. The church is mostly ignored and is mostly innocuous. Religion is a very private matter.

Cox goes on,

The age of the secular city, the epoch whose ethos is quickly spreading into every corner of the globe, is an age of ‘no religion at all.’ It no longer looks to religious rules and rituals for its morality or its meanings.

At this point, where evangelicals and Cox are most likely to part ways because Cox sees this as a good thing, a sign of the maturing of humanity in becoming what God intended. Evangelicals have tended to be deeply suspicious of all things secular.

What’s needed is some slightly deeper reflection. There are few Christians who would argue that nations like Iran or Saudi Arabia becoming more secular would be a bad thing. It would be naive to think that their problems simply stem from the fact that they have the wrong religion. History offers plenty of examples of Christian theocracies doing no better than Muslim ones of governing well. A more secular approach in all of those nations would mean more freedoms and therefore more opportunities for other religions and for the church.

Secularization, a historical process that Cox regards as inevitable and irreversible, though is not the same as secularism.

The era of the secular city is not one of anti-clericalism or feverish antireligious fanaticism. The anti-Christian zealot is something of an anachronism today… (p2)

Which given the profile of the new-atheists might seem to be just plain wrong but again we need to stop and think. I would argue that the prevailing attitude would be to view Dawkins et al in exactly the same way as evangelicals. With deep suspicion. It’s not that people might think that the atheists are wrong but their stridency to put down their opponents just isn’t on, why can’t we just ignore each other and carry on shopping? I think Cox is right because,

Secularism, on the other hand, is the name for an ideology, a new closed world-view which functions very much like a new religion. (p21)

It’s the difference between Richard Dawkins and Alain de Botton.

Cox then gives useful descriptions of life in a city, the need for anonymity, the necessity of mobility and looks as at a few cities he has visited as examples of the rise of the secular city.

Basically wherever Cox talks sociology I agree with him, wherever he talks theology I almost always disagree. Notwithstanding that, I thought there were two major ideas that were hugely intriguing even though they were developed in a direction I wouldn’t walk in.

The first is the church as God’s avant-garde and the second is the church as cultural exorcist. Both terms rich in possibility. At this point Cox, does what the metro-evangelicals swear by, contextualization noting that the church is likely to look different in different cities. Cox then interprets the work of the church is largely social gospel terms, not wrong but incomplete, all change at a society level without ever calling a person to repent.

The idea of the church as God’s avant-garde though has much creative power to it, we are heralds of a coming age, we live in the now but we’re from the not-yet. Art, song, culture, communal life should all have a different quality to it – a community pregnant with heavenly life.

For Cox, the church as cultural exorcist doesn’t actually mean the casting out of demons from people (because, they aren’t actually real, we’ve grown up from such childish beliefs) but the casting out of modern principalities and powers. For Cox in 60s America racism was firmly in view. A power to be overthrown and exorcised. This isn’t wrong, but I just see no need to sacrifice the reality of a personal demon for that of the societal ones.

Time and time again in reading The Secular City I came across insightful analysis and analytical insight. Sharp prods in the ribs of a docile church, the consumer society and an eager desire to strip away the last vestiges of Christendom. There are interesting thoughts on the future shape of the church (I’ll save that for a future post) and a positive call to embrace not recoil from the secular city.

Yet time and time again, I found Cox’s liberal theology devoid of power, devoid of a transforming Jesus that changes lives, devoid of a gospel that genuinely offers a more compelling vision of life – in the here and now.

I haven’t read the new and revised editions (and I’d be interested in doing so to see how Cox responds to the many changes in the world since 1965) but this is a book that deserves a fresh audience. I’d recommend it to all urban church planting pioneers not necessarily because they’ll agree with all the conclusions but that through engaging with this work they will find ideas and projects to shape the church in the city.

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