Harvey Cox

Cox examining a Honeywell fragmentation device (1973)

Harvey Gallagher Cox, Jr. (born May 19, 1929 in Malvern, Pennsylvania) is an American theologian who served as the Hollis Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School, until his retirement in October 2009. Cox's research and teaching focus on theological developments in world Christianity, including liberation theology and the role of Christianity in Latin America.


After a stint in the U.S. Merchant Marine, Cox attended the University of Pennsylvania and graduated in 1951 with a B.A. degree with honors in history. He went on to earn a B.D. degree from the Yale Divinity School in 1955, and a Ph.D. degree in the history and philosophy of religion from Harvard University in 1963.

Cox was ordained as an American Baptist minister in 1957, and started teaching as an assistant professor at the Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts. He then began teaching at the Harvard Divinity School in 1965 and in 1969 became a full professor. He was to become "the single most heeded professor in religion at Harvard." (George Hunston Williams, Divinings: Religion At Harvard, Vol. 2, 2014, p. 521.)

Cox became widely known with the publication of The Secular City in 1965. It became immensely popular and influential for a book on theology, selling over one million copies. Cox developed the thesis that the church is primarily a people of faith and action, rather than an institution. He argued that "God is just as present in the secular as the religious realms of life". Thus, the original title was God and the Secular City, which "he still believes...would have more accurately described the book's theme." (Ibid.,Williams, 594) Far from being a protective religious community, the church should be in the forefront of change in society, celebrating the new ways religiosity is finding expression in the world. Phrases such as "intrinsic conservatism prevents the denominational churches from leaving their palaces behind and stepping into God's permanent revolution in history" (p. 206) were viewed as threatening to the status quo by some, or seen as an embrace of the social revolution of the 1960s. Cox revisited his topic in Religion in the Secular City: Toward a Post-Modern Theology in 1984. In 1990, a twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Secular City was published.

After his international best seller, Cox thought he may have "peaked" too soon at age 34, as he experienced a "second book crisis," but he then wrote The Feast of Fools (1969), which he once said "still remains my own favorite...the 'one book' I recommend to people who ask me at parties which 'one' of my books they should crack." (Harvey Cox, Just As I Am, 1983, pp. 155-156) Originally Cox presented it as the William Belden Noble Lecture at Harvard in 1968, which included music, dance, film, and balloons; and Cox himself was known to play the tenor saxophone in a jazz ensemble called "The Embraceables." (Op.cit., Williams, p. 595) Celebrating his new book as Dionysian in playful dynamic with The Secular City as Appollian, he said "there is an unnecessary gap in today's world between the world changers and the life-celebrators," thus promoting a "proleptic liberation as a festive radical." (Ibid., Williams, pp. 594-595)

In 1973, Cox wrote The Seduction of the Spirit, which he once said "has the best first chapter of anything I have ever written (about my boyhood in Malvern, Pennsylvania, the churches there and my baptism)," but he added it went "downhill" from there. (Op.cit., Harvey Cox, 1983, p. 156)

In "Turning East" (1977), Cox describes his teaching at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where his mind and soul were challenged by the Buddhist 'dharma,' and he enjoyed doing research in Asian religious movements. (Ibid., Cox, pp. 156-157)

At times Cox has been criticized as "faddish," responding to the current "hot topics," against which he has asserted he is responding to the pastoral issues of the church confronting the world; and he sees himself as a "church theologian," influenced by Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics; for in fact Cox entered HDS as a faculty member in the Department of the Church and later served as the Chair of the Department of Applied Theology. (Op.cit., Williams, pp. 594ff.) Throughout his years as a church theologian, Cox was "visible, indeed as no other on the Divinity faculty." (Ibid., Williams, p. 600)

Cox became the first to introduce liberation theology at HDS, with its understanding of Jesus the Liberator and God's preference for the poor, drawing on his first-hand experience in a training center in Venezuela. (Ibid., Williams, pp. 595ff.) Later he would defend Father Leonardo Boff, a Latin American theologian, in his book The Silencing of Leonardo Boff: The Vatican and Future Christianity (1988).

Cox was notably concerned with the encounter of Christianity with religious pluralism, especially as The Center for the Study of World Religions at HDS offered opportunities for engagement with scholars of different faiths, which he wrote about in Many Mansions: A Christian's Encounter with Other Faiths (1988), his book that advocated speaking in interfaith dialogue from your own Christian identity as part of the discussion. (Ibid., Williams, pp. 598ff.)

In keeping with his alertness to global Christianity, Cox was drawn to the ecumenical nature of Pentecostalism in Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy, that he wrote about in his book Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (1995), which might be useful for academic Christianity as well as the church and its leaders as they encounter the challenge of Pentecostalism. (Ibid., Williams, pp. 599ff.) Thus, Cox has maintained that HDS is an ecumenical seminary, not a nondenominational seminary, where students from different faiths engage in dialogue, not seeking a generic form of religion or Christianity. (Ibid., Williams, pp. 599ff.)

An outgrowth of Cox's second marriage to Nina Tumarkin, a devout Jewess and a professor of Russian history at Wellesley College, was his book "Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian's Journey Through the Jewish Year" (2002), which is a look at the Jewish year through its major holidays, as seen by him an outsider who is an equally devout Christian.

Thus, it is difficult to adequately present Cox's life and career in a short biography, for he "already is, like (Paul) Tillich and several others on the same Divinity faculty, subject to extensive treatment, on all continents, and in the case of Cox, notably in Central and South America." (Ibid., Williams, p. 601)

In Taylor Branch's history, Parting the Waters, Branch notes that Cox hosted a dinner at which Martin Luther King, Jr. was introduced to people who would become some of his closest colleagues and advisors as a civil rights activist.

Cox retired in September 2009 in a well publicized ceremony and celebration. His new book, The Future of Faith was released to coincide with his retirement. The Future of Faith explores three important trends in Christianity’s 2,000 years. He views the religion’s first three centuries as the Age of Faith, when followers simply embraced the teachings of Jesus. Then came the Age of Belief, in which church leaders increasingly took control and set acceptable limits on doctrine and orthodoxy. But the last 50 years, Cox contends, welcome in the Age of the Spirit, in which Christians have begun to ignore dogma and embrace spirituality, while finding common threads with other religions.

In "How to Read the Bible" (2015), Cox shows how three different ways of approaching the Bible, the narrative (the stories), the historical (the academic), and the spiritual (personal and social) can be reconciled as a contemporary source of enrichment for all.

In 2016, Cox's book "The Market As God" was published about business theology, the focus of which is the deification of the market, as for example "the invisible hand," God-like, and the Creator of persons (corporations), God-like.


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