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From the September, 2005
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Urban Bungle by Wilfred M. McClay

Urban Bungle

Wilfred M. McClay on Harvey Cox’s The Secular City

Not every anniversary is worth celebrating. But it seems a shame to let the fortieth year of Harvard theologian Harvey Cox’s most famous book, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (1965), pass without comment. For one thing, there was no more emblematic book of the 1960s, and like so much else from that era, it has insinuated itself into the culture thoroughly, even as the power of its arguments has been almost entirely exhausted. That being the case, there is a certain fascination in returning to the text itself, and attempting thereby to intuit the source of its electrifying influence during its day.

Travel back with me, then, back into those remote and bell-bottomed yesteryears, when the world was still green and new, and the sweet scent of revolution lingered in the air like the aroma of marijuana.

The Exciting City

Every page of The Secular City trembles with excitement over the possibilities of a fresh start, one that would throw overboard all the old baggage—even the word God itself—and unashamedly embrace the genuinely religious possibilities inherent in modern secular life. The book’s readers could be secure in the knowledge that, whatever it was that the Christian gospel was about, it was still happening, baby—and in fact was happening better under conditions of a secularizing culture.

But what about the idea that secularism was a Bad Thing, the enemy of religious faith? Well, that was so wrong. Equally unhelpful and old hat, too, were such characteristic Christian moral conceptions as original sin, repentance, justification, and atonement. And any fool could see that systematic theology was pretty much a crock, a form of mental solitaire for nerds and losers.

But the Bible was surprisingly okay, because it had these amazing stories in it, which could be interpreted in all sorts of interesting and empowering ways. (As Cox pointed out, you could even say that, because Adam named the animals, he helped God to create the world. Which would be very cool.) And the Bible, in Cox’s reading of it, affirms that “there are no powers anywhere which are not essentially tameable and ultimately humanizable.” Too bad that Job was not made aware of this.

And why is secularization such a good thing, contrary to received opinion? Because it frees us to be the autonomous and unconditioned selves that Jesus wants us to be. There is much talk in The Secular City about the goal of being “mature,” being “adult,” moving out of the “tutelage” of superstition and other-directedness. Secularization empowers us to remove all impediments to that aim.

Why should this stripping-away of cherished beliefs be the enemy of the gospel? What’s to be afraid of? Why the long faces? Isn’t it better to get rid of all phony and cheapening “God-talk,” stop pretending that we can put God in a box, and instead go on in our profane way, having cleared the field for fresher and more authentic epiphanies? By this standard, an atheist like Albert Camus turns out to be a far better Christian than any conventional religious leader, precisely because he had the guts to toss out “the God of traditional theism” and all the bourgeois claptrap that went with him, and live authentically, fearlessly, in solidarity with others—like Jesus.

One can imagine the lecture hall of young Harvard students erupting in cheers at such bold and irreverent professorial truth-telling. They could do exactly what they wanted to do, and reinterpret it as a quest for meaning, rather than a mere panty raid. Now that’s a hermeneutic a guy can actually use.

Exorcizing Kansas

Cox even goes so far as to call secularization a form of “exorcism,” an analogy that certainly must have appealed to Harvard kids of the mid-sixties with uncool and uptight parents. All the things that hold us back from following our bliss—our culture’s myths, our upbringing, our family’s peculiarities, our inherited belief systems and the wretched traditions that go with them, our psychological hang-ups, our worries about what the nosy neighbors think, our being stuck in the same old place hanging out with the same old people—all these can be shed as easily as a light windbreaker in springtime, as we ascend to the wonderful, golden place of promise.

Once there, we finally, finally, get to become ourselves. We’re not in Kansas anymore. No more tutelage. No more bondage to rules made for a simpler, less sophisticated time. We will not need to click our heels obediently. Instead, each of us will, like Mary Tyler Moore, inhabit our own clean and well-lit Minneapolis, where we can feel free to toss our caps far, far up into the air, with no one around to care, or even take notice, as we begin our lives over again. There’s no place like . . . the secular city.

What is surprising is that anyone in 1965, other than the undergraduates perhaps, thought this vision terribly original. Even if one restricted himself to American traditions that could readily be drawn on, Emerson and Whitman had already covered most of this liberatory territory over a hundred years before, and the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch (which gets nary a mention in the text of The Secular City) had anticipated, over half a century before, the idea that secular social science was merely a transposition of the gospel into a post-mythological key, the better to realize the kingdom of God in the modern industrial city.

In that sense, Cox’s book represented the culmination of something old, and the popularization of that old something, rather than the beginning of something new—a fact that seems much clearer now, as liberal Protestantism has crested and begun a sad slide into impotence and irrelevancy. What liberal Protestants failed to understand is that, by removing God from the “box” of orthodoxy in the name of affirming his infinitude and otherness, they only placed him in a far more confining box, a soundproof one out of which he cannot speak to us, let alone tell us anything about ourselves or our world we do not already know by other means.

By resolutely keeping God out of the picture, and erasing the distance between the profane and the sacred, Cox left the Church with nothing special to do in the world, nothing that cannot be done better by other organizations and agencies.

The Endangered City

But all that said, there also are some useful insights in The Secular City, and one would be remiss not to point out some of them. For one thing, Cox very intelligently distinguishes between secularization, a systemic social and economic process that he extols, and secularism, which he regards as merely another dogmatic religion.

The distinction makes some sense, and can help us sort out the difference between an open secularity (like that of the First Amendment, properly understood) that affirms and embraces religious expression in the public square, and a closed and exclusive secularity (like that of the ACLU) that forbids it. Whatever his shortcomings, Cox does not ever seem to have been a secularist in that latter sense, having rather a warm affection (in the style of William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience) for nearly all serious and peaceful expressions of religious faith, so long as they are held fairly lightly.

More importantly, though, Cox makes a case (convincingly, to my mind) that secularization arose out of the Judeo-Christian faiths and maintains strong lines of moral continuity with them. (This is part of the reason he does not feel threatened by it.) This is, or could be, an important source of insight into the essentially symbiotic relationship in the West between our religious and secular traditions, and into the biblical premises that even the most hard-core secularists rely upon, however implicitly or unconsciously.

The argument is too complex to summarize adequately here. But that part of the book makes a revisit to The Secular City more profitable than one might think it would be.

But the very logic of this insight surely also means that “the secular city” will find itself in grave danger when its lines of moral continuity to its religious past have been broken. Which is where much of Western Europe now finds itself, where we find ourselves moving, and where much of our official public culture wants to take us.

In that light, some of Cox’s blandly ecumenical statements sound far more foolish and self-destructive than they did forty years ago. It was one thing for Cox to call, in 1965, for the Christian faith to “forge a new spiritual fabric . . . which will be truly humanistic and urbane, but in which the Christian faith, instead of supplying the ruling ethos, will provide one of the living options in a genuinely pluralistic culture.”

This was, at bottom, a statement founded upon complacency. A liberal platitude. And that platitude sounds very different today, for a multitude of reasons—not the least of them being the appalling murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, secular men who lived in a “genuinely pluralistic” post-Christian Dutch culture, the very epitome of Cox’s ideals.

Cox is still right today about the need for cultural exorcism. But he is wrong about what needs to be exorcized.


Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and is the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (North Carolina) and A Student?s Guide to U.S. History (ISI Books). He is a member of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

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