The Sacred in the Secular City:
A Conversation With Harvey Cox

Volume 47, Issue 3 :: by Michael J. Crosbie

Harvey Cox. Photo by Michael J. Crosbie.

Harvey Cox. Photo by Michael J. Crosbie.

No one book has done more to influence the concept of and the conversation about the presence of the sacred in our cities than The Secular City by Harvey Cox, published in 1965. That same year, Cox arrived as a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, helping to shape new generations of clergy and theologians through his teaching and writing for nearly a half century. Coinciding with the occasion of his retirement from Harvard in 2009, Cox published The Future of Faith, in which he furthers his exploration of the Church as institution, and how it continues to change. I sat down with Cox (who now serves as Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard) to discuss his views of the sacred in the city, and new shoots of growth emerging in the dynamic context of an urban world.

Michael J. Crosbie: It’s an interesting time; the first time in the history of the world that more people are living in urban areas than not. Your landmark book, The Secular City, considered how the changing urban context might shape faith. What are your thoughts now about living in a more urban world and how that affects human spirituality and religious architecture?

Harvey Cox: The cities where people are living are not the utopian vision that some once had. I think the jury is still out to some extent, on what happens when this large a number of people congregate in large cities, in megacities, and when you pair that with large migration rates in history. Tens or hundreds of thousands of people are moving into cities; it’s a mixture of people that was not characteristic for the ancient cities and the classical cities. On one hand people can meet and get to know each other; sometimes it results in the lowering of prejudicial boundaries. But it also can exacerbate conflict. If you lived 200 miles away and you never saw me, that’s one thing, but if we lived on the same block we might collide. Look at what is happening in Kenya, Syria, or Western China. Old ethnic rivalries get revived, and it raises the stakes. The possibilities for the really enhanced heterogeneous communities are there, but so are the chances for mayhem. For me it presents a serious challenge to religious communities to provide the spaces and occasions where people can come together and get to know each another, and trust each other, and participate in each other’s traditions and festivals.

I was talking yesterday with some of my students working over in east Boston, which is a very low-income section of the city. There was a big corporation trying to build a casino there. A provision in the Massachusetts constitution states that the affected community has to have a say in whether they want a casino or not. The casino came in with enormous publicity saying that it would be great for east Boston and it would bring in jobs and money. But some Divinity students managed to organize a collation of Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim communities—congregations in east Boston—and they defeated the casino. They were outspent 87 to 1 by the casino industry, yet they won the referendum. The interesting thing to me is that for the first time these congregations met each other not just in a nice, ecumenical setting; they were really doing something for the community, it was controversial. This is an exemplary idea, that various faith communities can come together and accomplish something. For a year or two there would have been some construction jobs, but like anyplace a casino builds, the community would have gotten poorer for everyone but the casino. For the students I thought it was such a great example. The gambling issue used to be one that divided liberal from conservative Christians. But now there’s an alliance between the old pietistic approach and the more social-action-oriented people. It illustrates the fact that while there is more possibility for conflict, there are also more chances for really creative new things to happen.

MJC: Is there a connection here between the growth of urbanization and the growth of the “spiritual,” versus the “religious”?

HC: I think there is. What is really fascinating is the growth of the spiritual, but not the religious category, the way people describe themselves. This new phenomenon challenges the old distinction between sacred and profane. It’s not quite sacred and not quite secular; it’s something else, but we haven’t quite figured out what it is yet. I had a seminar two years ago where some of the students went out and interviewed people who described themselves as spiritual but not religious. We pressed them: “What do you mean by that?” One thing that was very clear was that no one wanted to be thought of as an atheist. We don’t like the packaging of spiritual reality that is being given to us; we don’t like being told what we have to believe. So our conclusion was that these people want to uncouple the spiritual reality from the power nexus that it has been identified with. For me that’s an important and welcome development. I think it’s been long needed. I like the idea that it has redefined this old sacred/secular dichotomy—it doesn’t fit with either, or it fits with both.

MJC: If more people are living in urban areas, maybe they relate spiritually more on an individual basis, rather than an institutional one?

HC: I think it’s good. It points up the importance of events like the festival. Muslim and Christian communities, a few times a year, have public displays of faith, it’s out in the streets. Whether it’s a saint’s day or revolves around breaking a fast, whatever it is, it has a public face that is not strictly institutional. It’s not just inside a church building or mosque, so people are exposed to it. Then people ask questions: Why do you do it that way? What is this day? What does it mean? Then believers have to explain something that they may have never had to explain to themselves. It clarifies their own faith traditions in a way that they might not have thought of before, and it has that positive advantage. More of this happens in cities.

MJC: You mentioned the importance of creating an environment, a space for the sacred and the spiritual, which I think is very important—this idea of having a public space that allows these things to happen. How do you create those spaces?

HC: Well, you have to carve them out; they don’t create themselves, especially with the price of real estate. Somebody has to provide that space. It doesn’t, however, have to be a space sacred only to one tradition, and that’s the big thing we are learning about urban spaces and churches, synagogues, and mosques. We can share spaces without losing much, in fact we might even gain something from it. The space itself takes on a kind of “movable feast” quality; it can be a mosque on Friday, a synagogue on Saturday, and a church on Sunday. It’s economically more feasible, and it’s welcoming. It’s one way for these poor city churches that can’t afford to keep the heat on and a roof over their heads to survive.

We have also learned a lot from storefront churches. One feature of a storefront church is that you see what’s going on before you jump into it. Some of the bigger churches have learned that lesson, and they minimize the barrier between inside and outside, as opposed to the old style where you have a gigantic, thick door, and you’re either in or out. This is a recognition of this new, emerging spiritual space—it isn’t totally encompassed by this side or that side. It’s a zone of transition. That’s what a mall is all about: you walk through it, and you look the goods over, the old idea of the open market place. You have this emerging spirituality where some are not quite ready to commit, but not quite ready to walk away, either. A passage from T.S. Eliot’s wonderful poem, Ash-Wednesday captures this: “Will the veiled sister pray/For children at the gate/Who will not go away and cannot pray:/Pray for those who choose and oppose.” There are a lot more of them now: they don’t quite want to go away, but they’re not quite ready. It’s an enormously important category, religiously, of people. I think churches could be so much more responsive to those people by creating the spaces, creating the occasions, an atmosphere where they feel welcome, they don’t need to sign up to be there.

MJC: We now have the first pope in an urban world, the first pope from the Americas, not afraid to live in a city hotel instead of an aloof, papal apartment.

HC: He’s an urban cat.

MJC: A good description of him. I was interested in your division of the history of Christianity as first the Age of Faith, then the Age of Belief, and now the Age of the Spirit. How does the Age of the Spirit play out in the urban context?

HC: I don’t think we are quite in the Age of the Spirit yet. We are moving into it. That’s what I said in the book, The Future of Faith, that there are indications that we are on the edge of it, but we are still mired in the Age of Belief for many people. Being a Christian means believing in certain things, some of which stretch back to the changes in doctrine that Constantine made. Before the creeds, being a Christian was trying to be a follower of Jesus. There was no universal creed; it was Constantine who insisted on that, and said everyone had to toe the line. What I am saying in The Future of Faith is that we are entering into an Age of the Spirit and it may take a long while, because people will cling to the Age of Belief, and there will be people who insist I have to cling to it. But as far as the Age of the Spirit and the city is concerned, I think they co-adhere pretty well. The city is the place where the things we just talked about are possible, both conflict and confluence. According to Aristotle, a city is a place where strangers meet. What happens when strangers meet? You can have hatred and bigotry, but you can also have the emergence of a new, richer form for community. You have enhanced opportunities and enhanced dangers.

MJC: So as we move into this Age of the Spirit, what are the opportunities for the city to encourage it?

HC: Give it space. One of the great things that churches and other religious institutions have are spaces in the city. This emerging spirituality needs open space where people can be, and do, and ask, and criticize, and celebrate, and do what one needs to do. It is space that provides an occasion to acquaint people with the great traditions, and perhaps to go on from there. I think there are a lot of wonderful opportunities. It’s a great moment for faiths—plural.

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at


  1. wonderful article. humanity is on the verge of change, an inevitable change and I for one would be so disappointed if the change came about without space and room for the mind of god, (multi-gods and multi- beliefs) peace