Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Age of the Spirit

Harvey Cox, in his most recent book The Future of Faith, divides Christianity into three eras: the Age of Faith, the Age of Belief, and the Age of the Spirit. He suggests that the young Christian Church lived its faith and by its faith. It was both an experimental time and an experiential time for these new followers of Jesus. They were called "Followers of the Way," not "Christians," a term not coined until they reached Antioch.

In Cox's view, the Age of Faith came to an end as the church began to "institutionalize" and create hierarchies of ordained leaders--bishops, cardinals, popes, etc. When Constantine made Christianity the "religion of the realm," the Age of Belief was fully realized. The issue became "right doctrine" or dogma, and creeds and confessions attempted to codify specific statements that one either "believed" or was relegated to the category of "unbeliever" or worse, "heretic." People died because of not believing the "right" things. Cox believes that the modern example of this view of Christianity is fundamentalism, with its tightly defined doctrines and literal view of Scripture. In this era, what you believe has a higher priority than how you live your faith.

Dr. Cox writes that we may now be entering the third era, the Age of the Spirit. All kinds of polls and studies from Barna to the Pew Foundation have shown that people in this current culture are very interested in spirituality. A great number of younger adults are fascinated by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. However, this spiritual curiosity is largely divorced from "organized" religion, and has little time for dogmas and doctrines, hierarchical clergy headship or denominational "labels." And it is a time of syncretism--persons picking and choosing from various forms of religious expression what they like and combining theologies and practices into a self-made, personal "faith." In some ways, it is a return to the early days of Christianity, before the "organization" took over.

If Cox is right, and I believe he is, this is a challenging time for the church. We have an opportunity to re-style our telling of the Christian Good News into a form that connects better with this new generation of seekers. We also are charged with down-sizing our hierarchies and encouraging grass-roots spirituality in our local assemblies, complete with "hands-on" ministries with poor and oppressed peoples. The day of gathering local funds and sending them up a denominational chain to a general church agency or mission board to be used as the hierarchy deems fit is probably coming to an end. Instead, efforts such as "Imagine No Malaria" will be the model for cooperative efforts in the future. "Imagine No Malaria" is a partnership between the United Methodist Church, the United Nations Global Fund, and others that has a goal of eliminating deaths from malaria in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa by the year 2015. Here we have a specific goal, with defined fund-raising parameters, a viable, cooperative leadership team, and an end date. No more open-ended "you put the money in the offering plate and we'll decide how to use it.

If you are reading this blog, and you are one of these spiritually curious "Age of the Spirit" folk Cox is talking about, please don't give up on the church. We need people like you to help us reform yet again. One reformation made quite a difference in the "choices" persons had to engage the Christian faith. Another one is needed, and I would say inevitable. Think about it, and thanks for listening. Shalom, friends!

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