Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Phoenixville, Chester County
Harvard professor Harvey Cox is best known for his book The Secular City.
Harvey Cox, Jr. was born in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania on May 29, 1929. In 1981, Cox was asked by members of the Harvard Divinity School to teach a class on morality. After reluctantly accepting the position, he formed a curriculum that would mainly focus around the moral teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. This class, that Cox originally did not want to teach, ended up being one of the most popular courses ever taught at Harvard.
Harvey Gallagher Cox, Jr. was born in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania on May 29, 1929, and spent his formative years in Malvern, Pennsylvania. He is the son of Harvey Gallagher, a painter, decorator, and transport manager, and Dorothea Cox. Following high school, Cox attended the University of Pennsylvania where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree with honors in History in 1951. He would spend the next decade combing his passion for furthering his religious education with real life experience in the classroom or campus ministry.
From 1953 to 1954, Cox served as a Protestant chaplain at Temple University. After that experience, he decided to take his education one step further by receiving his B. D. from Yale Divinity School in 1955. In that same year, he married his first wife, Nancy Neiburger. They had three children: Rachel in 1959, Martin in 1961, and Sarah in 1964. In 1967, he was ordained as an American Baptist Minister and earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University with a focus on History and Philosophy of Religion. While still earning his doctorate, Cox accepted a position as an assistant professor of Theology and Culture at Andover Newton Theological School in Centre, Massachusetts, where he worked from 1963 to 1965. In 1965, he became the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity at Harvard University where he is currently serving as the Hollis Professor of Divinity. After divorcing his first wife years before, Cox married Nina Tumarkin, who is a History Professor at the Wellesley University and a Fellowship Professor at the Harvard University Russian Research Center. They have one child, Nicholas, who was born in 1986.
Harvey Cox's faith journey is not as typical as most modern theologians. Unlike many youth who found their way once entering seminary school or knowing from a young age that the religious life was their calling, Cox spent many of his formative years traveling the world and giving aid to various causes. In 1946, he volunteered his time to aid the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which was created to aid victims in the aftermath of WWII. They also helped ship cattle to Europe to replace the herds that had been devastated by the way. In his biography Just as I Am, Cox describes his initial reasons for wanting to enlist: "I watched older friends and cousins disappear from town and return after basic training in blue and khaki uniforms...Despite my Quaker roots, along with everyone else in Malvern, I was caught up in the "Win-the-war-against-the-Germans-and-the-Japs" enthusiasm...Still inebriated with adolescent wanderlust and the residue of the going-into-the-service-??lan, I decided to sign up."
Harvey Cox Jr.'s mission was to take on the Promethean task of bringing the word of God from the sacred and ancient status into a more accessible meaning for an audience living in the twentieth century, which was slowly but surely coming to fruition. Shortly after attaining his assistant professor position at the Andover Theological Seminary, he published on of his most well-known works to date, The Secular City (1965). Cox discusses the history of how the Judeo/Christian definition of God and the Platonian version of the sacred over time became intermixed. The text's most salient argument discusses the emergence of technology and the end of small town values in a more multicultural technology-based society. He asserts a need to collect and re-evaluate what the current society's norms are and set to create a more globalized all inclusive system of social values and norms. Cox argues that secularization and urbanization are inevitable events in growing societies and that for Christianity to survive it needs to be re-interpreted so that it does not fall to the way side like many other relics. Even though the underlying message is very dreary, his tone is very optimistic.
Many theologians were divided about Cox's message. For the most part, reviews of the book were positive, some saying it is "original" and "important." But social scientist Gerald M. Shattuck, while not completely against Cox's argument, argued that the world that Cox created was too incredible, stating that "It is an axiom of social science that massive cultural change is a painful sort of affair. Thus, it is inaccurate to rescind from the tragedies and dilemmas and of urban life in favor of a blithely mobile and anonymous twentieth century superman who is insensitive to crime, alienation, slums, structural incapacities and diversity."
With the first release of The Secular City in 1965 being such a success, a revised version was released a year later. The book eventually sold over 4 million copies worldwide and has been translated into over fourteen languages. The most significant events surrounding the book was not just the book's message, but the debates that emerged after its release, the most cataclysmic (at least in the eyes of the Catholic church) was its influence in Latin American churches, where a Spanish translation of the book was used as a base for the Liberation Theology Movement. Liberation Theology states that believers should no longer rely on the church or the hierarchy, but should just look at the examples that Jesus gave, most especially his message on social justice as related to the poor and sick. It not only draws from several sources from the bible, but also from theologians like Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tillich. The Secular City also drew references from outside of the religious spectrum including views from Nietzsche, Marx, anthropology, and sociology. It was considered too radical and disruptive by the Roman Catholic Church, which led Pope John Paul II to excoriate all followers of Liberation Theology.
With the success of The Secular City came a sort of backlash within the American academic community. Books written by teachers, let alone a Harvard professor are not "supposed" to be best sellers. They are only written for other professors to read and comment on in other books that they had written themselves. He was accused of being a "populist" and a "popularizer who swings with the trends," says one of his colleagues at Harvard University. Ralph Potter, a professor of Social Ethics at Harvard Divinity School, and Cox's friend, says that "There was resentment of the fanfare, fame and income. We thought he was appropriating our common ground, that any one of us could have done it. But the fact is Harvey got there first with the mostest and he had the style and the guts to do it."
In his second major work, The Feast of Fools, in 1969, Harvey Cox Jr. continued the theme of evolving Christianity for the twenty-first century by the time cleansing the band connotations that history left behind on certain Christian rituals and giving them back their proper uses in the Christian faith. He delved into the varied topics surrounding festivity and fantasy, his charismatic and well-arranged argument being that the world needs not only "world changers," but "world celebrators." As with his previous book, most reviews were positive, but still critical of his style of argument. Mary Douglas states of Man: "What is the justification for reviewing an essay on pop theology in Man? Undoubtedly because of the extremely valuable bibliography covering play, dance joking, clowning, absurdity, from various points of view, but mainly philosophical."
Throughout the 1990's, Dr. Cox Jr. taught one of the most successful undergraduate elective courses at Harvard University, "Jesus and the Mortal Life," with student enrollment getting as large as one thousand. Jesus Came to Harvard was published in 2005, which discussed how religion, politics, and old and new values have shaped a new generation of students with various backgrounds. In an interview with Bob Abernathy from Religion and Ethics News Weekly, Cox spoke about his students and their reactions to his new take on religion in general, stating that "The change that I've seen is the enormous growth in the hunger and interest in religion and spirituality among students at this University. It's phenomenal. When I first came here we didn't even have a religious studies program at Harvard College. I notice increasingly among my students, both undergraduates and students in the divinity school, a deep suspicion of this life of accumulating, consuming, to the soul, the dangers to the soul of consumerist values."
For the better part of the first decade of the new millennium, Cox has been teaching courses on the intersection between Christianity and Islam and the rise of fundamentalism in both religions. In his most recent book, The Future of Faith, he discusses the rise and eventual fall of fundamentalism in the ever-changing world. He breaks his argument into three main theses on Christianity and the history of the influence of the Church on European and later on American society and politics.
Dr. Cox announced his retirement as the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity in September, 2009. He has served under this title for forty-two years. "Harvey Cox is the most important liberal theologian of the last half-century because he could see around corners," wrote E. J. Dionne, Jr., a former student, now a writer for the Washington Post.
The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1969.
The Seduction of the Spirit: The Use and Misuse of People's Religion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973.
Turning East: The Promise and Peril of Orientalism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977.
Just as I Am. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1983.
Religion in the Secular City: Toward a Postmodern Theology. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Many Mansions: A Christian's Encounter with Other Faiths. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.
The Silencing of Leonardo Boff: the Vatican and the Future of World Christianity. Oak Park, IL: Meyer-Stone Books, 1988.
Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995.
Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian's Journey through the Jewish New Year. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Callahan, Daniel J. The Secular City Debate. New York: Macmillan, 1966.
Campbell, Colleen Carroll. "Jesus Christ Superfluous," rev. of When Jesus Came to Harvard by Harvey Cox. First Things April, 2005, 45.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 1998.