a+ a- print

Interview with Professor Harvey Cox
October 8, 2010

[The following is taken from an interview with Dr. Harvey Cox, one of the preeminent theologians in the United States and Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School, conducted by Masao Yokota, advisor to the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue.]

Masao Yokota: What are your thoughts on the 80th anniversary, this year, of the founding of the Soka Gakkai?

Harvey Cox: The 80th anniversary of the founding of Soka Gakkai brings much history to mind--the great economic depression of the 1930s, the wars, the Cold War and everything that followed. Soka Gakkai began as a small lay movement and eventually has grown to reach all around the world as a distinctive voice for what is now called Buddhist humanism.

Soka Gakkai in America grew, matured and became a vehicle for interfaith communication, peace-making, human rights and other kinds of activities. I am personally grateful to have been associated with Soka Gakkai and with President Ikeda, both here in America and during my visits to Japan. I look forward to continued association in the years to come.

Yokota: Many people have expressed appreciation for your book, The Future of Faith. In there, you talk about the Soka Gakkai and Soka Gakkai International President Daisaku Ikeda as an example of reformation within Buddhism.

Cox: In my most recent book, The Future of Faith, I describe three stages in the history of Christianity, which I call the "Age of Faith," the "Age of Belief," and now most recently, the "Age of the Spirit."

This new period, the "Age of the Spirit" has some distinctive qualities. One is a more egalitarian and less hierarchical view of religion. Another is an openness to conversation, learning and dialogue with other religious traditions. Third is the increased leadership of women. However, when one looks outside of Christianity itself, one cannot help noticing similar trends and developments on other world religious traditions.

In my book I included the Soka Gakkai movement as an example in the Buddhist tradition of this movement from hierarchy to egalitarianism, to ecumenical and interfaith openness and to commitment to human rights and peacemaking. I included that along with movements also in other faiths, including Judaism and Islam.

Most striking for me is that as Soka Gakkai embraced and continues to embrace the spirit of this "Age of the Spirit," it continues to flourish and grow.

[Excerpts from The Future of Faith:

The spiritual, communal, and justice-seeking dimensions of Christianity are now its leading edge as the twenty-first century hurtles forward, and this change is taking place along with similar reformations in the other world religions.

Recent developments in Islam and Buddhism provide good examples . . .

. . . The best illustration [in the Buddhist sphere] is what has sometimes been called the "Buddhist Reformation" that has taken place in Japan in the past few decades. It occurred in the Nichiren Shoshu, the largest Buddhist denomination in Japan, the one stemming from the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin (1222-82), who is sometimes compared to the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. Early in the twentieth century, some lay followers of this tradition founded a movement called Soka Gakkai (the word means "value creation") in an effort to move education in Japan away from its authoritarian methods and to encourage students to think creatively. It grew rapidly and now has chapters in 128 countries, where its members work for world peace, women's rights, and interfaith dialogue.

At first the priesthood of the Nichiren Shoshu and its lay affiliate got along well and cooperated in the building of an impressive modern temple at the foot of Mt. Fuji, the sacred mountain of Japan. But tensions grew as leaders of the Soka Gakkai began to suggest that true Buddhist requires lay leadership, equalitarianism, human rights, and the reform of society. As the conflict heated up, in 1991 the Nichiren priesthood, in a colossal act of clerical hubris, excommunicated 11 million Soka Gakkai members. To enforce this decision, the priests banned Soka Gakkai members from entering the temple, and then the high priest Nikken Shonin ordered the splendid building's total demolition. Against the wishes of these members and to the horror [of] all architects, the high priest's directive was carried out. The temple was demolished. But Soka Gakkai, as an expression of what some scholars call "Buddhist humanism," thrived.]

Yokota: In your discussion about the "Age of Faith," you mention that Jesus, the founder, treated everyone equally, calling his disciples, "My friends." The Buddha also cherished friendship. In his 1991 speech at Harvard University [which you attended] on the age of soft power, Ikeda ended his speech by quoting Emerson on friendship. How important is friendship in religious practice?

Cox: It's important to me that when Jesus said to his disciples, "Do not call me master. Call me friend and I will call you friends." And then he did a very radical thing for a rabbi or religious teacher at that time. He washed the feet of his disciples, which is usually done by the servant. But he made himself a servant in that regard, emphasizing that there would not be this hierarchy. I know the same is true of the Buddha and also of Mohammed. Mohammed emphasized the egalitarian aspect all are of an equal basis under the one God. He treated his followers as equals as well.

This equality was already present in some early stages of these religions. But then they tended to develop into a more hierarchical pattern. What I can observe happening now is at least the beginning of the dismantling of this hierarchical, pyramidal structure and a more egalitarian way of regarding and relating to each other is emerging.

Yokota: Your book highlights the importance of behavior. In this regard, what was your experience of meeting with Ikeda?

Cox: I didn't know what to expect when I was going into President Ikeda's home. The house, a beautiful classical wooden structure, was located in a lovely forested area. We went over a bridge to get to it. In a way, it was sort of imposing

But when I was brought into his house, President Ikeda came out to meet me, raising his arms up high and said, "Ah the Emperor of Theology! I'm so glad! I'm so honored!" It was kind of a joke. It was such a relief that he set an atmosphere of humor and equality. He maintained that the entire time I was with him.

I have met some religious leaders before who expected a lot of deference. I've met one or two popes for example. They don't come out to meet you offering a joke!

President Ikeda is immediately very relaxed and informal. Informality is really what I noticed about it. And then his genuine interest in what I had to say and what I was thinking. That was pretty evident. It was a bit disarming to meet him that way and also refreshing.

[Excerpts from The Future of Faith:

I first came into contact with the Soka Gakkai when its international president, Daisaku Ikeda, gave a lecture at Harvard in 1993 [sic] Knowing of my interest as a Christian in dialogue with Buddhists and that I had been a Visiting Intellectual in Japan in 1986, the sponsors asked me to respond. Ikeda spoke about the need for intercultural and interreligious exchange. After the session, he told me he would like to assure some kind of presence of his movement at Harvard, both to learn from proximity to the university and to become the voice of humanistic Buddhism. I suggested they buy a building and offer an "open space" where people from the community and from different parts of the university, who are sometimes at odds with each other, could meet for conversation at a neutral place without arousing departmental jealousies. Today the resulting Boston Research Center1 , inspired by the principles of Buddhist humanism and the conviction that all life can be made sacred, supports a range of programs in global citizenship. The worldwide organization sponsors similar efforts.]

Harvey Cox is one of America's preeminent theologians. He was the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School until his retirement from that position in 2009. His interests focus on the interaction of religion, culture and politics. He also taught in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda, The Persistence of Religion: Comparative Perspectives on Modern Spirituality, was published in English in 2009.