The Secular City:Secularisation and Urbanization in Theological Perspective, by Harvey Cox

SCM Press 1965

Review by Laurie Chisholm

This book is another classic, like Honest to God, that was very popular in the 60s, selling nearly one million copies (a big number for a theological book!) and being translated into 17 languages. While churchmen were lamenting the decline of religion in big cities and presenting the church community as a refuge from the loneliness and anonymity of the city, Cox provided an articulate counterblast. He praised the city and the freedom and enhanced choice it offers, arguing that with so many contacts, it was impossible to have personal and meaningful relationships with all of them.  City-dwellers get to choose their friends from a much bigger pool.
The book began by arguing that core biblical themes had a pro-secular side to them. The creation story deprived sun and moon of divinity, the Exodus deprived the Pharaoh of divine authority and the Sinai covenant, in forbidding graven images, relativises any human point of view.
Having softened up any religious opposition to secularisation, Cox proceeded to take a sociological approach, dividing history into three epochs; the tribe, the village, and the city.  The city is not just a larger village; it is qualitatively different. The city he has in mind is also not just an empirical entity but something like an ideal future, something that might jar with today's readers given the multiple problems cities are facing.
It's interesting to re-read a book that is 55 years old; some things that were unquestioned assumptions are now no longer obvious.  Cox is critical of Paul Tillich, Martin Buber and existentialism, seeing them as stuck in the era of the town. Cox seems to be most influenced by Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. So we are proceeding towards a time of no religion at all, but Cox continues to ask about the role of the church, to explore how to speak in a secular fashion about God and to assume that the Gospel or the Word has certain effects on us. But doesn't 'secular' mean that God-talk cuts no ice, that 'gospel' is empty of meaning, that 'church' is a doomed institution, and that the Word is inextricably linked to the sermon, a superseded mode of communication? Cox seems to be dependent on a dualism of radical criticism based on the secular, in the tradition of Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity," as if we could separate out Christianity from religion in general, or bury religion in the name of secularity and then resurrect it by a preacher's exhortation to call us to faith.
You can definitely say one thing about Cox’s writing: it is not boring. Some are critical, calling it ‘religious journalism’ or some such, but Cox is determined to go ‘where the action is’ and explore issues that are contemporary. And so, he wrote later on celebration and festivity, on the interest in Eastern religions, on Pentecostal spirituality and on the market as God, with some success but not as much as ‘The Secular City.’

My City

The young John Ylvisaker, an American Lutheran musician and composer, was much influenced by Cox’s Secular City. The following song bears witness to this. It is lyrical praise of the current and future big city, which Cox called Technopolis.
Ylvisaker also composed “Mass for the Secular City” which was performed at Carnegie Hall, one of the most prestigious venues for music of any sort. This work wove the story of a young man coming to the city, experiencing loneliness, but eventually finding a worshipping community not in a church but in a coffee bar. The story was ingeniously interwoven with the standard pieces from a liturgical mass. You can listen to both on Spotify. Just search for John Ylvisaker.

    1. O city O city of night
Arrayed in your neon diamonds of light
I have walked in your tall alleys of desolation
And seen the raindrops swirl on the high roofs
And I am called forth.
I am freed in the sunburst of your neon nights
And the voice of love speaks in my red veins
O child of a new day.
Go into the streets and speak of my city
Swept of old news and built like a garden
Where women can walk at night unafraid
And children sing in the wide winds of the day.
[Chorus] My city stands in the four free winds
Her people burdened and slow to cry
And in the night when the winds go down
Her glow is a heartbeat against the sky.

    2. O city o city of light
Terraced and flown tier on tier
Tall in the jet streams of the afternoon sky
Your traffic hunched in a blue blazing of sound
You are called forth.
I have seen your festivals like bright waterfalls
Tumble and burst in the sentries of my mind
Jerusalem, Athens, London, New York.
Sweep your alleys clean of desolate ways
Redeem your slums your political bosses
Go worship at candles in the heart of a child
And build his loving soon into new life.
My city stands in the four free winds
Her airways leap where the jets fly high
And in the night when the winds go down
Her glow is a heartbeat against the sky.

    3 O city O city of hearts
Where the word of love burns in desire
Where rivers run to the thunder of mighty seas
I have known you and found out your ways.
O possible city.
Your avenues crave for fountains and green lives
Your people cry for a crimson advent of love
O city of park light
Teeming with the spoils of far-flung lands
Look inward and find the word in your street
Shouting to be born from the pathways of love
And deed on deed O city for the new day
Build in our lives what more excellent way.
My city stands in the four free winds
Her streets have seen our hearts dance and die
And in the night when the winds go down
Her glow is a heartbeat against the sky.
John Ylvisaker



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