The Secular City 25 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.

Cox wrote this essay for Macmillan’s republication of The Secular City. This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 7, 1990, pps. 1025-1029. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In the years that have passed since The Secular City was published much has happened to the cities of the world, including American cities, and most of it has not been good

I wrote The Secular City after having lived for a year in Berlin, where I taught in a church sponsored adult education program with branches on both sides of the barbed wire. The wall was constructed a few months before I arrived, so I had to commute back and forth through Checkpoint Charlie, whose familiar wooden shack and warning sign— "You are leaving the American sector"—have now been placed in a museum. Berlin had been the home of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many of his friends and co-workers were still there. So we talked a lot about Bonhoeffer that year, especially about the musings he set down during the last months of his life about the hiddenness of God and the coming of a "postreligious" age in human history. In the tense and tired Berlin of the early 1960s that made a lot of sense.

In retrospect, of course, it is easy to see that human religiosity is a much more persistent quality than Bonhoeffer thought it was. Nearly everywhere we look in the world today we witness an unanticipated resurgence of traditional religion. The renaissance of Islamic culture and politics, the rebirth of Shinto in Japan, the appearance of powerful Jewish, Hindu and Christian "fundamentalisms" in Israel, India and the U.S.—all these have raised important questions about the allegedly ineluctable process of secularization. But where does that leave us?

If anything, I believe these developments make the central thesis of The Secular City even more credible. 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?

I can understand the people who are encouraged by the worldwide revival of religion today. The victims of atheistic and antireligious regimes are just as dead as those of clericalist terror. But the people who welcome the re-emergence of the rites and values that give people a sense of dignity and continuity—a bar mitzvah in Warsaw, churches reopening in Smolensk, thousands of American college students thoughtfully exploring comparative religion—sometimes forget that a revival of religion is never an unmixed blessing. The same somber icons of St. Michael and Our Lady that sustained Russian believers through the winter of Stalinism and its aftermath also provide the anti-Semites of Pamyat with their most potent symbols. How do we weigh the promising new interest in Judaism among so many young people in America against the fumings of Rabbi Meyer Kahane? Shinto is another case in point. The spirit of respect for the past and reverence for the land that enables the Japanese to adopt modern technologies without destroying their environment also feeds an ominous sense of special destiny and a revived emperor cult that democratically inclined Japanese are watching with extreme misgivings.

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.

In rereading The Secular City after a quarter of a century I smiled occasionally at its audacity, the way a father might chuckle at the shenanigans of a rambunctious child. Its argument is nothing if not sweeping. By page 12 of the introduction the reader has been wafted through a dizzying tour of nothing less than the whole of human history, from tribe to technopolis, from Sophocles to Lewis Mumford, from the Stone Age to Max Weber. And all of this before chapter one. Then comes a theological portrait of the "coming" of the secular city in which Barth and Tillich and Camus and John F. Kennedy jostle each other in what might have seemed to all of them a somewhat unfamiliar proximity. The next part of the book is devoted to what I called "revolutionary theology," a phrase that, at least in those days, struck people as a world-class oxymoron. It is followed by an attack on Playboy magazine, which I called "antisexual," that drew me into a furious (at first) and later tedious debate with that magazine’s publisher. A lot of territory to cover in a 244-page book.

The final section is a polemic against the so-called "death of God" theologians who were au courant at the time. I portrayed them, correctly I think, as remaining obsessed—albeit negatively—with the classical god of metaphysical theism, while I was talking about Someone Else, the mysterious and elusive Other of the prophets and Jesus, who—like Jacques Brel—was very much alive although living in unexpected quarters. I have never been able to understand why, after having unleashed this guerre de plume against the death-of-godders, some critics persisted in including me among them.

In any case, the death-of-god theology had an unusually short half-life, whereas the issue I tried in my youthful enthusiasm to tackle—the significance of the ongoing battle between religion and secularization—rightly continues to stoke debate and analysis. To illustrate the dilemma from my own Christian tradition, how many Mother Teresas and Oscar Romeros does it take to balance a Jim and Tammy Bakker? And how do we measure Pope John II’s courageous vision of a "Europe without borders" against his worldwide crusade against contraception? So much good and so much mischief is done—as it always has been—in the name of God. Perhaps the suggestion I made at the end of The Secular City, which sounded radical to some readers then, is still a good one: we should learn something from the ancient Jewish tradition of not pronouncing the name of the Holy One, live through a period of reverent reticence in religious language, and wait for the spirit to make known a new vocabulary that is not so tarnished by trivialization and misuse.

I actually said a little more than that, and the final paragraph of the book may be worth recalling because it prepared the way for the theological movement that was to pick up where The Secular City left off. On that last page I speculated on the significance of the puzzling fact that, according to the book of Exodus, when Moses asked for the name of the One who told him to lead the Israelite slaves from their Egyptian captivity, the Voice from the burning bush refused to give it. Moses was to get about the business of liberating his people. "Tell them ‘I will do what I will do’ has sent you," the Voice said. That, apparently, was enough. The name would come in God’s good time. Reflecting in 1965 on this astonishing episode, I wrote:

The Exodus marked for the Jews a turning point of such elemental power that a new divine name was needed to replace the titles that had grown out of their previous experience. Our transition today ... will be no less shaking. Rather than clinging stubbornly to antiquated appellations or anxiously synthesizing new ones, perhaps, like Moses, we must simply take up the work of liberating the captives, confident that we will be granted a new name by events of the future.

Although I was only dimly aware of it at the time, in this paragraph I was actually proposing an agenda for the next stage of theology, one which was taken up with a brilliance and daring far beyond my hopes, first by Latin American theologians and then by others throughout the world. For between these concluding lines, which crystallized the thrust of the entire book, can be detected what were to become the two basic premises of liberation theology.

The first premise is that for us, as for Moses, an act of engagement for justice in the world, not a pause for theological reflection, should be the first "moment" of an appropriate response to God. First hear the Voice, then get to work freeing the captives. The "name" will come later. Theology is important, but it comes after, not before, the commitment to doing, to what some still call "discipleship." This inverts the established Western assumption that right action must derive from previously clarified ideas. Liberation theology’s insistence that thought—including theological thought—is imbedded in the grittiness of real life is one of its most salutary contributions.

The second premise of liberation theology is that "accompanying" the poor and the captives in their pilgrimage is not only an ethical responsibility, but that it provides the most promising context for theological reflection. Not just "history" in general, but the effort of excluded and marginalized people to claim God’s promise is the preferred "locus theologicus." As the Catholic bishops of Latin America put it in their influential statement of 1968, one must think theologically from the perspective of a "preferential option for the poor." It is not hard to see now, although I was scarcely able to see it then, that the next logical step after The Secular City was liberation theology. But the link between the two was neither simple nor direct.

At first I was puzzled at how much attention the Spanish translation of my book, La Ciudad Secular, received from Latin American theologians. They criticized it vociferously, but they also built on it. They invited me to Peru and Mexico and Brazil to debate it. But as I listened to their criticisms I became convinced that they understood it better than anyone else, maybe even better than I did myself. Still, they made use of it in a way I had not anticipated. Gustavo Gutiérrez, whose controversial book The Theology of Liberation appeared a few years after mine, clarifies the connection best. In the economically developed capitalist countries, he explains, secularization tends to take a cultural form. It challenges the hegemony of traditional religious world views, calls human beings to assume their rightful role in shaping history, and opens the door to a pluralism of symbolic universes. In the poor countries, however, secularization assumes quite a different expression. It challenges the misuse of religion by ruling elites to sacralize their privileges, and it enlists the powerful symbols of faith into the conflict with despotism. In the Third World, as Gutiérrez puts it in one of his best-known formulations, the theologian’s conversation partner is not "the nonbeliever" but rather "the nonperson." This means that among the tarpaper shantytowns of Lima and São Paulo the interlocutor of theology is not some skeptical "modern man" who thinks religion stifles thought; rather, it is the faceless people whose lives as well as faith are threatened because tyrannies grounded in some religious or nonreligious mythology strangle them into an early death. The distinction Gutiérrez makes shows that he is applying the same praxis-oriented approach to theology I advocated in a different religious and political environment. Liberation theology is the legitimate, though unanticipated, heir of The Secular City.

Heirs, of course, go their own way, and there is one part in my book that I wish had played a larger role in the subsequent development of Third World liberation theologies. In one section I argued that in the Soviet-dominated countries of Eastern Europe it was not religion but communism that needed "secularizing." Here I wrote from direct observation. I had personally seen the bizarre attempts of communist regimes to set up ersatz confirmation, wedding and burial services. I had noticed that in Poland, smothered under an imposed Sovietized culture, it was the Catholic intellectuals who were the most outspoken advocates of "cultural pluralism." I can still remember the young Czech pastor who told me in 1964, four years before the Prague Spring, that he opposed communism "not because it is rationalist but because it is not rational enough ... too metaphysical." By entering into an honest dialogue with the Marxists who ran their countries at the time, Christians, he said, were trying to force the communists "to be what they said they were, socialist and scientific, and to get them to stop trying to create a new holy orthodoxy."

It was these courageous Christians, I believe, who eventually saw the fruit of their patience blossom in 1989. Unlike some other believers, they refused either to flee to the West or to knuckle under to the regimes or to retreat into "inner immigration." They opted to stay, to participate, to criticize, and to be ready when dialogue became possible. They were also practicing a form of liberation theology, staying in a difficult situation and accompanying an oppressed people in the long quest for freedom. When an interviewer asked the pastor of one of the churches in Leipzig that had provided the space, the inspiration and the preparation for the East German revolution of November 1989 what the theological basis for his contribution was, he answered that it was "Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Latin American liberation theology."

There is much continuity. But there are also many important contemporary theological currents for which I can find little foreshadowing in The Secular City. For starters, in reading the book again in 1990 1 winced every time I saw the word "man" blatantly wielded to refer to any body and everybody. The first page of the introduction: "The world has become man’s task and man’s responsibility. Contemporary man has become the cosmopolitan." And so on. I would feel better if I could claim that it was, after all, only a matter of blunderbuss pronouns, that today my language would be gender inclusive. But I know it cuts deeper than that. The truth is that The Secular City was written without the benefit of the two decades of feminist theological scholarship that was to begin shortly after it was published. What difference would it have made?

A lot. In fact, knowing what I know now, I would have had to recast virtually every chapter. How could I rely so heavily on the themes of disenchantment and desacralization, as I did in the opening section, without coping with the obvious fact that these historical processes—which I saw in a positive light—suggest a certain patriarchal domination of the natural world with which women have been so closely identified in Hebrew and Christian religious symbolization? More basically, I have learned since 1965, often from my own students, that we can no longer read the Bible without recognizing that it comes to us already severely tampered with, expurgated, and perhaps even edited with an eye to perpetuating the authority of men. I have learned that many of the classical sources I was taught to rely on so heavily, from Augustine to Tillich, sound very different when they are read with women’s questions in mind. And my last chapter, "To Speak in a Secular Fashion of God," would have had to take into consideration that employing exclusively male language for the deity has contributed to the marginalization of half the people of the world. .

But even on the issues later raised by feminist theologians, The Secular City contains some hints and anticipations. The chapter that, to my amazement, became the most widely discussed and quoted is titled "Sex and Secularization." It contains the aforementioned onslaught against Playboy which exposes the pseudo-sex of the airbrushed centerfold, the ideal woman pimply adolescent boys prefer because she makes no demands whatever. They can safely fold her up whenever they want to, which is not possible with the genuine article. It also lampoons the Miss America festival as a repristination of the old fertility goddess cults, reworked in the interests of male fantasies and commodity marketing. Was I at least a proto-feminist? Not on a par with current feminist cultural criticism, but not too bad for 25 years ago, and for a man.

There is another important theological current that at first seems strangely missing from The Secular City but whose absence, in retrospect, one can understand if not forgive. The American city is the principal locus of African-American theology. It was not until a few years after the publication of my book, however, that black theologians began making that fact evident to the wider theological community. It is all the more surprising that I overlooked African-American religion in 1965 since I was personally caught up in the civil rights movement. I had first met Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1956, during the summer of the Montgomery bus boycott. At the time I was chaplain at Oberlin College in Ohio and I invited him to come speak. He flew in a few months later and we started a friendship that was to last until his death in 1968. As a member of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference I marched and demonstrated in both the North and the South. I responded to the call to come to Selma, was arrested and jailed briefly in Williamstown, North Carolina, and took some of the responsibility in organizing the SCLC’s effort to desegregate St. Augustine, Florida. All through these years my family and I lived in Roxbury, the predominantly African-American section of Boston.

Still, it was only later, with the advent of the Black Power movement and the coming of black theology, that I began to take seriously what the modern American city meant to African-Americans. Again, if I had thought about this very carefully at the time I could have foreseen some of the reservations black theologians voiced about The Secular City. Its controlling metaphors of "the man at the giant switchboard" and "the man in the cloverleaf," which were meant to symbolize the communication grid and the mobility network of the modern metropolis, seemed implausible to people who had been denied both mobility and communication, and for whom the city was often not a place of expanded freedom but the site of more sophisticated humiliations. It became clear to me only as the years passed that The Secular City reflects the perspective of a relatively privileged urbanite. The city, secular or otherwise, feels quite different to those for whom its promise turns out to be a cruel deception.

In the years that have passed since The Secular City was published much has happened to the cities of the world, including American cities, and most of it has not been good. Instead of contributing to the liberative process, many cities have become sprawling concentrations of human misery, wracked with racial, religious and class animosity. The names Beirut, Calcutta, South Bronx and Belfast conjure images of violence, neglect and death. Ironically, the cities of the world have often become the victims of their own self-promotion and the failure of the rural environs to sustain life. Millions of people, both hopeful and desperate, stream into them to escape the unbearable existence they must endure in the devastated countryside, but what do they find?

If Mexico City spells the future of the city, then the future looks grim. Lewis Mumford, who began his life as a celebrant of the possibility of truly urbane life, became disillusioned before his death in 1990. He once wrote that when the city becomes the whole world the city no longer exists. That prediction now seems increasingly possible. By the year 2000 Mexico City will have nearly 32 million residents, of whom 15 million will eke out a marginal existence in its smoggy slums. Calcutta, Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta, Manila and Lima will not be far behind, all with populations between 10 and 20 million, with half the people in each city locked into ghettos of poverty. Indeed, in some African cities such as Addis Ababa and Ibadan, somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of the population will live in shantytown squalor.

In the cities of the U.S. we have not fared much better. Real estate values gyrate, making millions for a select few, while homeless people, now including increased numbers of women with children, crowd into church basements and temporary shelters. The already marvelous cultural mix of our cities, spiced by the recent arrival of increasing numbers of Asians and Latin Americans, could enable us to prove to the world that ethnic diversity is a plus. Instead, in some cities at least, we hover on the edge of a technicolor war of all against all: white against black against yellow against brown. And the whole picture is worsened by the diminution of the middle class and the increasing chasm between those with too much and those with too little. One is sometimes tempted simply to give up on the city.

We should not. 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.

I have no intention of rewriting The Secular City with benefit of nearly three decades of hindsight. I cannot. Even if I could, it would be pointless. After it was published I experienced what literary critics often point out, that any work of art—a poem, a painting, even a book of theology—quickly escapes its creator’s hand and takes on a life of its own. Within a few months of its modest first printing (10,000 copies), and even though it was scarcely noticed by reviewers, the book began to sell so briskly the publisher moved to multiple reprintings. Soon it appeared on the bestseller lists—unheard of at the time for a book on theology. Sales moved into hundreds of thousands. The publisher was astonished, as was 1.

I cannot pretend not to have enjoyed those initial years of unsought notoriety. I was attacked, feted, commended, analyzed, refuted. A publishing house that had brusquely refused the manuscript when I first submitted it thoughtfully telephoned to ask if I was planning to write a sequel. The book seems to have become a special favorite with Roman Catholics, perhaps since it came out just as the Second Vatican Council was ending, and they were eager to test the new atmosphere of free inquiry. Even Pope Paul VI read it and, in an audience I had with him later, told me that although he did not agree with what I wrote, he had read it "with great interest." Professors began requiring it in classes. Church study groups took it up. Within a couple of years the book’s sales, in all editions and translations, were approaching a million.

What did I learn from all this? For one thing, that most theologians and most publishers had severely underestimated the number of people who were willing to spend good money on serious books about religion. The Secular City may well have marked the end of the unchallenged reign of clerical and academic elitism in theology. Laypeople were obviously ready to get into the discussion. In fact, they were demanding to be part of it and were unwilling to allow theologians to continue to write books just for each other. Whatever one may think about the ideas in The Secular City, they are neither simple nor obvious. The book cannot be read with the television on. I do not take credit for having called forth the vociferous and critical laity we now seem to have in every church, and perhaps especially the Catholic Church, who make so much marvelous trouble for ecclesiastical leaders. But I like to think that The Secular City helped create the climate that forced church leaders and theologians to come down from their balconies and out of their studies and talk seriously with the ordinary people who constitute 99 percent of the churches of the world.

0f course, there are things I would do differently today, not only in how I would write The Secular City, but in virtually every other area of my life. "We get too soon old," as the Pennsylvania Dutch aphorism puts it, "and too late smart." Knowing what I do now about the Jewish religious tradition, I would not counterpose law and gospel as captivity to the past versus openness to the future, as Rudolf Bultmann and a whole tradition of German theologians taught me to do. The law too, I have come to see, is a gift of grace. I would also try not to base my theological reading of current world history so narrowly in my own Christian tradition, but would try to draw on the insights of other traditions, as we must all increasingly do at a time when the world religions elbow each other in unprecedented closeness. After all, Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus had already created cosmopolitan world cities when Western Christendom still consisted of backwater villages. We may have something to learn from them about transforming our urban battlefields into communities that nurture life instead of throttling it. We need all the help we can get if Mumford’s dystopian nightmare—a planet transformed into a vast urban non-city—is to be avoided.

Was The Secular City a harbinger of postmodernism, as one writer recently suggested? The word itself did not exist then, and I am not sure I know what it means today. But if it suggests a willingness to live with a certain pragmatism and provisionality, a suspicion of all-encompassing schemes, a readiness to risk a little more disorder instead of a little too much Ordnung, then I think the book qualifies. Nearly ten years after The Secular City Jonathan Raban published a book titled Soft City: The Art of Cosmopolitan Living. It is sometimes cited as the first clearly postmodernist text. If it is, it may be significant that when I read it, a few years after its publication, I immediately felt I had found a compatriot. Raban says:

. . . the city and the book are opposed forms: to force the city’s spread, contingency, and aimless motion into the tight progression of a narrative is to risk a total falsehood. There is no single point of view from which we can grasp the city as a whole. That indeed is the distinction between the city and the small town.... A good working definition of metropolitan life would center on its intrinsic illegibility.

This "illegibility" is part of what I was getting at. It is one of the principal features of the new secular world-city we are called to live in today, bereft of the inclusive images and all-embracing world-pictures that sustained our ancestors, We will always need those orienting and value-sustaining symbols. But today we must learn to appreciate them in a new way because we know in our bones that no one of them, and not even all of them together, can provide a point of view by which the totality can be grasped. In short, living in the city should be the school of living in the postmodern, "illegible" world. It should be a continuous lesson in "citizenship," in how to live in the world-city. But we still have not learned. As Raban says,

We live in cities badly; we have built them up in culpable innocence and now fret helplessly in a synthetic wilderness of our own construction. We need ... to make a serious, imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and the city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and its freedom.

It’s true: "we live in cities badly." But we must learn to live in cities or we will not survive. We are missing our big chance, an opportunity that God or destiny has provided us and which, if we muff it, may never come up again.

Tucked away on page 177 of The Secular City comes a little-noticed paragraph that perhaps I should have used as an epigraph for this essay, or maybe it should be put in italics. Secularization, I wrote, "is not the Messiah. But neither is it anti-Christ. It is rather a dangerous liberation." It "raises the stakes," vastly increasing the range both of human freedom and of human responsibility. It poses risks "of a larger order than those it displaces. But the promise exceeds the peril, or at least makes it worth taking the risk."

All I could add today is that we really have no choice about whether we take the risk. 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.

This does not mean we have to become nihilists. Far from it. Several years ago a friend told me he thought the implicit concept underlying The Secular City is the good old Calvinist doctrine of providence. At first I balked, but I have come to believe he is right. We live today without the maps or timetables in which our ancestors invested such confidence. To live well instead of badly we need a certain strange confidence that, despite our fragmented and discontinuous experience, somehow it all eventually makes sense. But we don’t need to know the how. There is Someone Else, even in The Secular City, who sees to that.