Harvard Professor and author, Harvey Cox possesses some of the most penetrating cultural and urban insight I have found. His most recent book, When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Decisions Today, contains some great insight on finding common moral ground among religions. However, it lacks a gospel-centered approach. Harvey’s Secular City, published in 1965, became an international bestseller and was selected by the University of Marburg as one of the most influential books of Protestant theology in the twentieth century. This book challenged me to think deeply about urban life, social norms, and the complexity of urban renewal.
In the Secular City, Cox works out the insight that Christianity uniquely facilitates the emergence of cities. He notes that the “universality and radical openness of Christianity” detribalizes people; it enables them to bond on something universal as opposed to local. Athens, he argures, never became a true city, in part, because it was so tribalized; the gods were all localized, unopen to outsiders. He writes: “Only after the beginning of the Christian era was the ideal of an inclusive metropolis conveivable, and even then it took nearly two millennia to relize it.” To a significant degree, Christianity is inclusive; it rules no one out on ethnic or cultural grounds. In fact, if you believe that Christians will ultimately be represented from “every tribe, tongue, and nation,” then Christianity reaches the height of inclusive without the theological vacuum of universalism. Not only does it include people; it reconciles them through Christ. Christians should not be useless citizens or angry neighbors. The gospel, then, should compell us to engage the peoples and the cultures of the city and the world in a way that renews, not ignores or exploits, urban life. I go back to it again and again and have not come close to exhausting Cox’s insight for church planting and urban ministry.
Today I picked up his The Seduction of the Spirit: The Use and Misuse of People’s Religion, published in 1985 and look forward to gleaning from his understanding of religion, it’s blessing and curse. So, I thought I would recommend Cox. Note: He is not bedtime reading. His mental rigor and inter-disciplinary thought is both inspiring and challenging, but its worth the struggle.