The city, the church, and the 1960s

In June 2020, our new edited volume Histories of Knowledge in Postwar Scandinavia: Actors, Arenas, and Aspirations (Routledge) will be published. In the weeks to come, we will publish a series of samples from the book. This one is based on Anton Jansson’s chapter.

The 1960s and 1970s are widely regarded as the heyday of secularisation theory. Social scientists and public intellectuals claimed that religion in a modernizing society was inevitably declining or retreating into the private sphere. Secularisation was more or less taken for granted, and can be seen as a form of knowledge about religion in a modern society.

One man who – in the words of leading church historian Hugh McLeod – “did more than anything else” to bring secularisation theory to a wider audience was Harvey Cox. Cox was neither a social scientist, nor a secularist intellectual attacking the church. Quite the opposite – he was a young Baptist minister and assistant professor of theology, who became a global celebrity when his paperback The Secular City was published in 1965. In it, he accepted secularisation as a fact, while discussing what it meant for the churches. The book sold over a million copies, and was translated into many languages.

One of those languages was Swedish. In Sweden, the book came out in two editions as Har Gud skapat tätorten? (1966, 1967). It was debated in Christian circles, but also extensively covered in the general national radio and press. For a decade or so, Cox was a natural reference point in various discussions about Christianity and the modern society.

In my chapter “The city, the church, and the 1960s” I write about the Swedish version of Cox’s book, and use this to make a few points related to the history of knowledge. Circulation is a much-discussed concept in the research field, and here I relate to it in two ways. First, Cox’s book is analysed as a knowledge object in transit, as something that changes as it moves. Cox’s work was received somewhat differently in Sweden, where his discussions on sexuality were not so much noted, but those on urbanization became central. This aspect is later weakened, as Cox is increasingly perceived as a political theologian. Second, while Cox by no means introduced the notion of secularisation, he seems to have accelerated and deepened the circulation of secularisation theory, as it moved on different arenas. Cox’s work was referred to and discussed not only in press and radio, but found its way into various textbooks, educational material etc.

Related to this, I also discuss how the Cox’s work, and its circulation, show an entanglement between knowledge and ethical, or even political, encouragements. It presents and strengthens the notion that secularisation is more or less a given fact, but it also, maybe even primarily, uses secularisation to discuss how Christians need to act in the modern world. Its epistemological claims are thus paired with ethical ones.


Anton Jansson

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