A Harvey Cox Reader

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Harvey Cox
Robert Ellsberg
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , May
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Theological students of the 1960s well remember Harvey Cox and his ground-breaking book, The Secular City (SC). I myself remember trembling with such a book in hand, depicting then current urban and global trends, and summarizing many thematic currents. With others, I felt Cox to be the theologian for our times and indeed, an inspiring source of my vocation of ministry, for life. Among many sources, he conveyed Bonhoeffer, Tillich, and Buber to his readers and rendered them accessible. Cox enumerated trends that attested to God in the city, from “how to speak of God in a secular fashion” to the biblical and sociological sources of secularization (and how to discern the spirit of liberty therein). In this Reader, Cox cites more recent mentors too, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Camilo Torres—with hints of Saul Alinsky, Myles Horton, and Thomas Merton, to name but a few. His writing focus has been chiefly American but with a geographical span that includes Central and Latin America, Europe, and parts of Asia.

For seminarians who stayed the course of theological studies (many did not) and forays into actual trial and error ministries (several dropped out), we were not disappointed. Cox followed up SC with further accessible writings such as Religion in the Secular City, On Not Leaving It to the Snake, essays on revisiting and revising SC in its 25th year in the journal Christianity and Crisis, and later, 50th year reflections on SC. And all the while, he wrote of festivity, joy, the gifts of the Pentecostal movement, the challenges and anguishes of liberation theology, and the importance of teaching, discussed with reference to his Harvard mentor Paul Tillich (all of these included in Cox’s Reader, with the Tillich reflection also serving as the introduction to third and 60th anniversary edition of Tillich’s The Courage to Be). The Reader also includes examples of Cox writing biography-as-theology (in the mode of the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr.), as well as touching on his own pilgrimages via marriages and travels, interreligious dialogues and gratitudes, and in this Reader, a series of concise but compelling “temptations.” The latter are marvelously depicted in a 2009 reflection, “Why I am Still a Christian,” chapter 19 in this Reader. I have photo-copied pages of this for several post- or non-Christian friends. The Reader concludes on a confessional note: “We are entering an age of unprecedented religious interaction and a global world torn… also a world bursting with fresh promise and new possibilities. I cannot conceive of another epoch in which I would prefer to have lived” (365). This is quintessential Cox!

All of the 24 sections, containing a total of 43 selections are ordered by publication date. The editor’s preface and Cox’s introduction briefly but helpfully situate the anthology’s selected pieces. One wonders if there could have been more context provided. One wonders what inspired Ellsberg, with his own commendable life witness (e.g., the Catholic Worker movement and his position as editor-in-chief with Orbis), to take on this valuable work. Ellsberg’s Harvard theological studies, likely with a Cox influence, is a clue. One could of course question an odd passing remark—such as Cox’s opening assertion that “all of us” (xi) stem from immigrants, as if First Nations or Aboriginals were not already present at the time of the colonization of the Americas. One yearns in the Reader for more of Cox on certain subjects and persons. For myself, I wished to hear more about Cox on the theology of hope genre, and Moltmann’s indebtedness to Bloch, a connection Cox enthusiastically attested in a New Theology # 5 issue “The Pull of the Future” (though, see 57-59), and spiritual explorers such as Thomas Merton, named once without elaboration.

It is exemplary that Cox has written, taught, and engaged ecumenically and in interfaith contexts as much as he has, with no signs of retiring (in the sense of abandoning the whole life-and-thought-and-witness pilgrimage). Thankfully, the Reader’s selection “The Market as God” proffers a glimpse into Cox’s future book’s working title, The Market God. Both prophetically intimate how consumer capitalism subtly but surely provides a “pseudo-religion” (xvii). Reading Religion readers are gifted with a compact and comprehensive volume conveying the meaning of solidarity on several creative levels, and, in a boldly humble manner. Not a soloist, Cox signs off his introduction thusly: “I am thankful to God for the life he has given me, for my health…and for the marvelous bevy of family and friends that surround me” (xviii).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Barry K. Morris is an independent scholar, long-time urban minister, and author of Hopeful Realism in Urban Ministry.

Date of Review: 
August 8, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Harvey Cox, an ordained minister in the American Baptist Church, retired in 2009 as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. His many books include Religion in the Secular City, Many Mansions, When Jesus Came to Harvard, The Future of Faith, and his most recent work, How to Read the Bible.

Robert Ellsberg is the editor in chief and publisher of Orbis Books. He is the author of Blessed Among Us: Day by Day with Saintly Witnesses (Liturgical Press).



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