Theologian rethinks future of religion

October 19, 1994|By Maude McDaniel | Maude McDaniel,Special to The Sun

As Swinburne said when the slovenly G.K. Chesterton once put on his hat at the proper angle, "Not twice on earth do the gods do this." The odds may be about the same for an author eating crow in public, especially when the meal consists of words that made his reputation decades ago.

Nevertheless, Harvey Cox does it here, admitting he got it all wrong 30 years ago when he wrote the watershed bestseller "The Secular City." In that book, he "tried to work out a theology for the 'postreligious' age that many sociologists had confidently assured us was coming." Without belaboring the point, "Fire From Heaven" gracefully withdraws that thesis and, in an eye-opening analysis of the rise of Pentecostalism, chronicles a religious change in the world view that may well be termed millennial, both in its dateline and in its effect.

Assuming, of course, that Cox is right this time.

Pentecostals are named for the Jewish festival of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit entered, by New Testament account, into the followers of the ascended Christ. After this heady start, speaking in tongues and other ecstatic behaviors recurred from time to time without much further notice. However, in 1906, in a former livery stable on Azusa Steet in Los Angeles, a black, half-blind preacher named William Joseph Seymour ignited a revival that "raged on, day after day . . . for three months." It spread throughout the country, and eventually around the world.

In the light of the membership decline in mainline churches (duly upholding "The Secular City's" premise) and the worldwide surge of Pentecostalism, Cox, who is professor of religion at Harvard and has a commanding reputation as an authority on matters of faith, believes that the movement is "another Great Awakening," the "shape religion will take in the coming century."

Putting in escrow, so to speak, the work of the Holy Spirit, he ascribes some of the spectacular success of Pentecostalism, surprisingly enough, to his earlier bellwether, urbanization. "The great dislocation and uprooting that this seismic shift entails . . . cut the nerve of traditional religion" just as he had predicted. More surprising, the rootless reality of "actually having to live in elephantine cities amid urban throngs has taken most of the glamour out of modernity" and "the bright promises of science and progress," religion's historic rivals.

This "double-barrelled disillusionment" led to a third option. Combining both the premodern and postmodern mindsets, Pentecostalism has "returned to the raw inner core of human spirituality," rejecting creeds, hierarchies and scientism alike. On the other hand, it has retained the mystery, ecstasy and primal dimensions of traditional religion. In separate chapters on speech, piety and hope, Cox explains how these speak to the malnourished "home religious" within all of us, as we take our place in the ongoing "larger and longer history of human religiousness."

He also credits Pentecostalism's focus on the role of women and on improvisational music for the movement's global spread, which he details in absorbing chapter on Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. Perhaps most important of all is its ability to "swallow and metabolize seemingly indigestible elements in the local folk religion."

And here, after 260-some pages of generally favorable, often enthusiastic reportage, Cox registers some misgivings about the movement, beyond Jim and Tammy Bakker. He finds troublesome more recent developments like the equating of the Kingdom of Heaven with health and wealth, dominion theology, fascination with demonology, the emphasis on membership and growth, and worship as entertainment, especially in the age of television. These join older concerns like the split between blacks and whites (a total negation of the ideals of early Pentecostalism) and, always, that troublesome tendency to assimilate non-Christian practices imperfectly.

Cox repeats himself at times and I wish he had addressed more fully the neglect of the head in favor of the heart. Also, in terms of the future, the inevitability of belief systems must be dealt with; no religion can retain a coherent identity without some form of theology to hold it together, and indeed, many of the problems Cox points out already reflect this difficulty . . .

Cox believes the world of the future in every religion is up for grabs between experientialism, as in Pentecostalism, and fundamentalism. (He makes clear that the two are not the same.) hope there will be more choices than that, but meanwhile he has given form to the dizzying dance of religious debate in this epochal book, alerting believers and non-believers alike to the changes in store for us. For better or worse.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Fire From Heaven: Pentecostalism, Spirituality, and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century"

Author: Harvey Cox

Publisher: Addison-Wesley

Length, price: 352 pages, $23

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