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The Secular City -- Ten Years Later

by Harvey Cox

Dr. Cox is Victor S. Thomas professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of such books as The Secular City, The Feast of Fools, The Seduction of the Spirit and Turning East. This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 28, 1975, pp. 544-547. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Ten years ago this spring the Macmillan Company brought out a slim paperback volume titled The Secular City. The apprehensive publisher chanced a first printing of 10,000 only after being assured by the officers of the National Student Christian Federation, at whose request I had written the book, that at least half the copies could be sold as the preparatory study book for a Christmas conference. On the assumption that I was writing mainly for college sophomores, I had tried to avoid the customary "albeits" and "on-the-other-hands" of academic theology. But, though I wanted to keep the style simple, I wanted to make the content comprehensive. I strove to apply my recent experience in a Berlin evangelical academy and my appreciation of the theology of Paul Lehmann, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the decline of Christendom, the challenge of global urbanization, the racial crisis, the adolescent pomposity of Playboy and the debasement of women in the annual Miss America pageant.

Affirming the Worth of the Secular World

The range of issues, sounds ambitious now, but I was younger then. The Secular City was written during a hectic period of a few months in 1964 while I teaching at Andover Newton, working in a lively new black parish in Roxbury and serving a few days’ time in a southern jail. In the first part of the book I tried to affirm the worth of the secular world while saying some critical things about "secularism." In the last part I vigorously attacked the new "death of God" theology movement. I granted that the word "God" had become inflated by overuse and that we might learn from the ancient Hebrews to lay off repeating it for a while, but I insisted that in his own good time God would reveal to us a way to speak of him and to him, if we remained faithful. For this last affirmation I was called "just a simple believer at heart" by one critic and a "right-wing radical" by a death-of-God man. In other parts of the book I pummeled Tillich and excoriated existentialism. I concluded with a chapter in which I tried to come to terms with Bonhoeffer’s haunting question of how we are to speak "in a secular fashion of God." Now ten years, 900,000 copies, 14 translations and millions of words of criticism later, I do not recant as a mere youthful exuberance the ideas of The Secular City. Repeat: I do not recant.

To be sure, if I were to select a book for which to be remembered by posterity, it would not be this one. Without doubt, if I were to rewrite it today, especially for nonsophomores, I would say many things differently. Even St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, seems to have changed his mind over the years from Thessalonians to Colossians. I would qualify the material on anonymity and pragmatism and be a little more critical of the then recently martyred John F. Kennedy. I would try to be less chauvinistic in my pronouns.

But these are minor points. For me the main thesis of The Secular City is as valid today as it was then: the secular, "nonreligious" world is also the sphere of God’s judging and freeing action. Therefore Christians need not waste their energies defending the religious theories or church-society relations of this or that passing epoch. The gospel is not dependent on any of them. Secularization -- the process by which the world becomes world, not church -- need not be fought off as a peril or feared as an enemy, except as it is elevated into a closed world view. The subtitle of The Secular City is "A Celebration of Its Freedoms and an Invitation to Its Disciplines." I still believe that the movement of God in Christ is always toward this world, this seculum, and that the mission of the church and of the Christian is to move in the same direction. I still affirm this freedom and welcome this discipleship (discipline).

Defenders and Detractors

But it is hard to be a symbol. As the years have passed, I have become increasingly aware that what I said in The Secular City began to figure less and less in the discussion. More and more my little book became a kind of mythical standard around which angry raiding parties surged, now attacking, now defending. As I watched the tumult, I was frequently as put off by what my would-be defenders said as I was by what my detractors attacked. For years I tried to ignore this debate -- feeling some sympathy occasionally for the late Marilyn Monroe, who died wishing that people would either love her or hate her for what she was instead of what she stood for. But ignoring my image got harder and harder.

Once at a conference in Mexico I was picketed by a contingent of conservative Catholic students who carried placards calling me a death-of-God priest. When I asked one student what the phrase meant, he told me that he didn’t really know, that the sign had been made by a priest who got his information from the U.S. Embassy. A kind of nadir was reached a few months ago when Deane Ferm roasted me in the pages of The Christian Century as an exponent of secularism and a contributor to the God-is-dead movement. Consequently, after a decade I find myself wishing that people would read their old copies of the little red tome again. Then the newly revived argument could at least proceed along reasonably comprehensible lines. My main intention in this brief apologia is to demythologize me.

Secularization and Secularism

Some genuine issues remain. One key question is whether one can separate secularization as a historical process from secularism as an ideology or world view. Richard Neuhaus, writing in these pages recently, said that we cannot, although he himself manages to distinguish between revolution and revolutionism. I believe that one can and must make the distinction. Secularization means a decline in the public power of religious institutions and a corresponding change in a culture’s self-definition. To oppose all secularization wherever it appears -- in Spain, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Colombia -- because it is seen as inevitably leading to secularism is historically shortsighted and strategically mistaken. Sometimes when churches are shorn of political power and people are shaken out of age-old religious world views, both benefit. The church is freed to become truly the church, and to exercise its prophetic critique of all closed systems, including churchly ones. And the people begin to see that the gods do not decree their misery.

Secularization is not the only challenge confronting the churches in the world today. We also face renascent religions and fanatic ideologies. But secularization is also not merely a passing fancy thought up by a few relevancy-mongers in the mid-’60s. We need to talk about it more, we need to argue from clear premises and with cogent evidence, and as we do so, we must look beyond the American scene.

The Centrality of Christology

Critics of The Secular City who complained that I wanted to bar God completely from the world often found themselves at odds with those who insisted that I wanted to enlist him too quickly in the cause of liberation politics. Again, the issue is still an important one. The paradox seems less baffling, however, when one remembers that the theology of The Secular City is not conventional theism, for which I hold no brief whatever.

Rather it is, or I hope it is, biblical and christological. I believe that Christian theology begins with Jesus Christ -- that point in history where, as Bonhoeffer put it, God allows himself to be edged out of history and onto a cross. The risen Christ remains the crucified one, recognized, not by his heroic powers but by the nail- and spear-marks. I also believe that since our ideas about who God is and what God does must be defined and corrected (not just supplemented) by Christ, the fact that he lived as an outcast and died a death reserved for anti-Roman rebels is not merely a fact of passing historical curiosity. It defines the manner of Christ’s, and thus of God’s, living presence in the world today.

It is Christ who defines the mission of the church too. In The Secular City I contended that the task of the church is to announce and demonstrate and participate in the christologically defined ongoing action of God (missio dei) in the world. I do not recant that either. In fact were I in a polemical mood, I might want to argue that the real "death of God" theologians are those who continue to proclaim something that happened once long ago. A God who is no longer living among the poor and absorbing the scoffs and insults of the keepers of law and custom, who is no longer judging and healing and jarring people as he did then, might just as well be dead: the "deity" of deism, not the Living One. The meaning of the Easter faith is that God is still at it.

If we keep Christology central, the vexed issue of "transcendence," which has been raised in such a confusing way recently, would not be so bewildering. Calvary’s cross means that God dwells for good and forever with those who are hurt and mocked and broken by the powers that be. All theories of God’s transcendence and immanence must be constantly corrected by this brutal fact. Therefore a church which ignores "the least of these" or which tries to effect some kind of neutrality vis-à-vis rich and poor, sated and hungry, has departed dangerously from its christological basis. A politically "neutral" church in our society -- maybe in any society -- is willy-nilly an ally of the powers that be.

Admittedly The Secular City was politically one-sided. So, I believe, is the gospel. The nearer one gets to the cross, the harder it is to uphold a concept of "transcendence" that presupposes political neutrality. We should not be confused by the rhetoric of left or right or center. Though it is not always clear in any given instance who are the hurt and who the hurters, who the wielders of might and who "the least of these," it is clear sometimes; and it is always clear whose side Christians in principle ought to be on. In any case, we should not stand on the sidelines, especially in a world where there are no sidelines left to stand on.

The Tension Between the Gospel and Theism

A few paragraphs back I mentioned the critique of the God-is-dead theologians which I included in the final chapter of The Secular City. But since it is very fashionable to excoriate them today, I now want to say a word in their defense. I believe that they have been badly misunderstood and wrongly blamed for the blatant sensationalizing of their ideas by the popular media. To their great credit, they raised, if sometimes in a confused way, the tension which must always exist between the Christian gospel and all forms of traditional theism. Does God die? As Jürgen Moltmann recently reminded us in The Crucified God, the question of how and to what extent God the Father actually experiences the death of Christ is in no sense settled once and for all. A real theologia crucis, when pursued in a consistent trinitarian manner, suggests that even death does not lie wholly outside God’s own essential being. The phrase "God is dead" was not invented by Vahanian, Nietzsche or Time, but first appears in an old Lutheran Good Friday hymn.

The point is that the One who is supremely revealed as a forsaken, impotent and abandoned lynch-law victim simply cannot be reconciled with the catalogue of divine attributes listed in most forms of theism. The question is whether we must begin with theistic premises and somehow fit Christ in, or begin with Christ and see what happens. I take the latter course, and agree with Moltmann that the gospel must oppose theism as such as atheism. We may be right or wrong, but again the issue is a genuine one. It cannot be resolved by pretending that the death-of-God movement was merely a seasonal fad or by avoiding the painful contradictions between a crucified God and the omnipotent Absolute of theism. The so-called death-of-God theologians may well have been wrong in the way they raised the question. I believe they were mistaken in the answers they proffered. But they were men of passionate honesty and deep concern. They deserve better than the scorn and belittlement they are now receiving.

Living in the City

I have not discussed here the "city" part of The Secular City, although I still believe it holds true. So I cannot agree with Jacques Ellul, who by a strangely selective reading of the Bible argues that God has placed a special curse on cities. If America’s ghettos and gray areas are poorer and more wretched and neglected than they were ten years ago, that is no reason to join the carrot-patch communes or affluent exurbanites who align with Ellul in denouncing cities. It is an even more important reason to love and care for them and -- most important -- to live in them, which I do. To support an urban style of Christian life against the rural romantic piety of most American Protestantism is not to defend the crime-ridden, auto-infested ruins we have heaped up where cities once stood. I will say no more about this point here since even my most vociferous critics have rarely charged that my plea to the churches to love and care for cities was silly or merely faddist.

I have written a few other books since 1965, but they are not the focus of discussion here. They represent an extension of themes found in The Secular City. The Feast of Fools was an attempt to explore the possibilities of a fertile view of human nature advanced by such thinkers as Huizinga, Piper and Hugo Rahner. The Seduction of the Spirit was an effort to recount, with as much candor as I could muster, what actual life circumstances influenced my theology. In it I admitted changes of direction, wrong turns, disappointed explorations, frustrating detours. I do not regret that book either.

Our whole theological scene might be more open and humane if we all made such admissions more often. In any case, as one who has sometimes been accused, perhaps rightly, of moving too quickly with theological trends, the present article should indicate that, this time at least, such is not the case. If the theology of the Hartford Appeal -- with its conventional theism, careful political neutrality and total lack of christological content -- represents the trend of the ‘70s, then I’ll be glad to swim against the tide for a while.

‘A Peculiar Thorn’

April 9 marked the 30th anniversary of the hanging of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Flossenburg. Bonhoeffer’s theology still presents us with what Barth called "a peculiar thorn." His words are frequently cited by all sides nowadays; it was he, however, who said we must learn now to live etsi deus non daretur, to live before God as though God were not. It was he who insisted that we cannot identify Christianity with theism, who spoke of the Jesus who cannot help as the only one who can help. It was he who asked the question I did not answer in The Secular City: how can we speak in a secular fashion of God?

These questions remain unanswered. I cannot accept the answer of the atheists who say that there is no God to speak about. Nor can I accept the answer of the religionists who claim that we can and should simply continue to speak "religiously." Bonhoeffer rejected both these answers. He had no answer himself -- nor do I. I do insist, however, that despite the present flurry of mysticism and spirituality, Bonhoeffer’s question remains valid and urgent. It is no fad.

I would be less than honest if I did not admit that it pleases me that, after ten years, the issues raised by The Secular City still elicit avid response and spirited disagreement. But as we argue, let us seek to be collegial. Let us not lose our sense of humor. My concern in the current theological atmosphere is not with the debate, which I find refreshing, but with a certain rancorous, ad hominem and sometimes uncharitable tone. We can do without that. There have been times in the past decade when, in the heat of polemics, I too have sometimes fallen into name-calling and motivation-questioning. For those lapses I am sorry.

In the coming second decade after The Secular City I will continue to think and write, and I will expect to be sternly criticized and roundly corrected. My hope, however, is that my critics will direct their attacks neither at me nor at what they think I stand for but at what I actually say. If that happens, then the second decade may be as interesting as the first. That having been said, now, as Socrates advised: let us follow the argument wherever it may lead.


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