Response to Ogden and Carpenter

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 123-129, Vol. 6, Number 2, Summer, 1976. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


This is Dr. Cobb’s reply to two articles: “The Christology of John Cobb.” by James C. Carpenter, and “Christology Reconsidered: John Cobb’s ‘Christ in a Pluralistic Age’” by Schubert M. Ogden. A major difference between Ogden and Cobb lies in their divergent views of the possibility of cognitive and existential certainty. Cobb contrasts Carpenter’s ethical concept of the quality of life Cobb’s own interest in historical “progress,” which has not led to greater and greater virtue or improved quality of life but to greater possibilities for good and evil.


Schubert Ogden’s sharp eyes have caught a number of terminological inconsistencies in my book. However, the confusion he finds goes far beyond variations in wording, and I am disturbed by the extent to which I have justified his complaint. I prize clarity and yet see that over the years my thought has become conceptually less sharply defined. In part this is a matter of inadequate care and reflection. In part, however, it may also be because both reality and the theological task seem to me more complex, changing, and elusive than they once did. I understand better why Whitehead warned against the focus on clear and distinct ideas. However, I agree with him that we should not only distrust clarity but also seek it, and I am convinced by reading Ogden’s review that I could have sought it more effectively. Here it will be appropriate to state briefly my position on three of the topics where I have been confusing and which are particularly important to me.

(1) I want to argue both that our relation to our own tradition (the correlation of our faith with what has been recognized by this tradition as sacred) is broken and that when we recognize that the break was itself faithful, faith in a new sense is possible. I may not have achieved full clarity on the varied senses of faith that are involved, but this view of the changing nature and focus of faith is central to the argument of the book. I am calling for the embracing of “scientific” or “objective” study of Christianity along with other religions, a form of study that distances us from what is studied in a way that is opposed to what we have meant by “faith.” I am arguing that in a deeper sense this distancing expresses faith and that we need to recognize as Christ that in which this faith is placed. Hence I want to say both that what we have known as faith is dead and also that affirmation of this death is a new form of faith in broken continuity with the old. Yet, I realize that this, too, is confusing, and perhaps still confused.

(2) Ogden chides me for denying that the Logos is an abstraction. This is a complex issue in the Christian treatment of the “persons” of the Trinity and in Whitehead’s treatment of the three “natures” of God. My view is that in both cases the reference is always to deity in one of its aspects. It is true that deity in one of its aspects is “abstracted” from deity in all of its aspects, but it is confusing to say that deity in one of its aspects is “an abstraction.” That suggests that it is merely an eternal object, and of course God’s envisagement of all eternal objects is not itself an eternal object. In Whiteheadian terms a prehension does not have the full concreteness of an actual entity, but “the analysis of an actual entity into prehensions is that mode of analysis which exhibits the most concrete elements in the nature of actual entities” (PR 28). The causal efficacy of the past is the objectification of past actual entities by some of these prehensions. It is important to distinguish actual entities as thus objectified from mere abstractions,” although Ogden is correct that much of the concreteness of the past actual entity is “abstracted” from.

(3) There may be a real difference between us in our views of the relation of human to divine action. My understanding, in Whiteheadian terms, is that the initial aim, derived from God, opens up to us the possibility of acting freely and also directs us toward an optimum action. Hence, when we act, we enact some aspect of that which is given us as a particular possibility by God. This seems to me very close to the sense, widespread among Christians, that grace is prior to freedom, so that even for our best exercise of freedom we acknowledge our indebtedness to God. Rather than juxtaposing divine and human action such that the more God is active the less space there is for human action, I find it both Christian and Whiteheadian to affirm that the more God is active the more space there is for free human action. Our finest and freest achievements are the optimum enactments of what God’s act gives us as real possibility. My expression of this view may not have been felicitous. Ogden is correct (p. 118) that, even tautologically, our own achievements are our own achievements. I had hoped in a consciously paradoxical formulation to point to the fact that human achievement does not have the autonomy over against God that we are prone to attribute to it.

Most of Ogden’s critique of my book focuses on chapters 8-10, in which I argue for a distinctive structure of Jesus’ existence paralleling that attributed to him at Chalcedon. I find the choices Ogden offers me (p. 120f) too limited. He says I must either settle for a “merely hypothetical conclusion” or abandon the pretense that the only evidence I need is history.

I am not sure what a “merely hypothetical” conclusion is. I assume that all beliefs about the past are hypotheses and in that sense merely hypothetical; so I do not understand myself to have argued for any “categorical conclusion” (p. 121). But these hypotheses are on a continuum from well supported to poorly supported. In my view the evaluation of my hypotheses should be according to where they stand on this continuum. If “merely hypothetical” means “not supported at all,” then I obviously do not agree, since I have gone to some trouble to support my theories. But I agree that all of the theories about structures of human existence that I elaborated in The Structure of Christian Existence are in need of further testing and refinement and that this is even more true with respect to my theory of the structure of Jesus’ existence.

The hypotheses about Jesus that I have found relatively well supported are, first, that the manner and content of Jesus’ teaching and actions implicitly claimed extraordinary authority; second, that this implicit claim to authority is best understood as an expression of a distinctive type of experience or structure of existence; and third, that the distinctiveness of this structure has to do with the relation to God constitutive of it. These latter hypotheses are not quite the same as what is usually meant by the hypothesis that Jesus’ implicit claim “is a true or valid claim” (p. 120). The issue is not initially truth or validity but more generally how the occurrence of the implicit claim is best explained.

As in the case of many implicit or explicit claims, there are possible explanations here in terms of delusion or conscious deception. I acknowledge my bias against this type of hypothesis, and in the last pages of the introduction to Christ in a Pluralistic Age, I tried to explain the “postmodern” perspective that I adopt. I dislike reductive explanations in the case of Buddha, of the great prophets, of mystics, of the shamans and medicine men of primitive religion, or of the contemporary speakers in tongues. Of course the explicit theories of such people about themselves and their experiences cannot all be taken at face value, but my bias is in favor of seeking explanations of these diverse experiences as real and as significant in their diversity; and I take seriously the interpretations implicit in the least reflective expressions of these experiences. This same bias operates in my treatment of Jesus. Therefore, in the sense that my hypotheses depend on a bias in favor of nonreductive explanations, Ogden is correct that I require something more than ‘historical evidence alone” to justify my hypotheses. I require also an attitude toward the task of historical explanation not shared by all historians.

Given my acknowledged bias, the question for me is whether the distinctive relation to God that seems to come to expression in Jesus’ action and words is possible. If in fact God’s relation to all persons is structurally identical, then the hypothesis arising from the effort to understand Jesus is undercut. But I have argued that there is a possible structure of existence that corresponds with the one that is called for by the historical interpretation. This allows the interpretation to stand. Such a procedure is speculative throughout and in no way proves the truth of the hypotheses, but I find Ogden’s final conclusion much too strong when he calls what I have offered “at best a wholly speculative interpretation in no way grounded in the Jesus of history it professes to interpret” (p. 122; italics mine).

Ogden points out not only that I have not proved the truth of my hypotheses but also that my formulations of my theory are slippery. I regret this. I will try to state again what I tried to argue for.

My hypothesis is that in Jesus there appeared in an important way a structure of existence of whose occurrence elsewhere we have no evidence. It follows from this hypothesis that the difference between Jesus and Christian believers is not a matter of degree but one of kind, i.e., participation in different structures of existence. This does not entail the improbable view that Jesus embodied the distinctive structure continuously from birth to death any more than Christians or Buddhists embody the distinctive Christian or Buddhist structures continuously. Further, our lack of evidence that others have embodied this distinctive structure does not allow the conclusion that no one else has. It does support the hypothesis that little historical importance attaches to any other possible embodiments.

The structure of existence that appeared in Jesus is distinctive in the way in which God was constitutively present in important occasions of Jesus’ experience. My hypothesis is that Jesus’ prehension of God was co-constitutive of his selfhood with his prehension of his personal past. God is immanent or incarnate in all occasions whatsoever, but when God’s immanence is co-constitutive of selfhood, we have a distinctive mode of incarnation. Ogden notes that I have described it variously as “full,” “fullest.” “perfect,” and “normative” incarnation (p.117).

The most fundamental criticism by Ogden (p. 118f) is that I have not been clear about what he elsewhere calls “The Point of Christology” (The Journal of Religion, 55/4 [October. 1975], 375-95). In part we differ in that among all the points of christology, I am disinclined to insist upon one as the point. However, I did single out one of the points of christology as the theme of this book, and here I fear Ogden misunderstood me. He supposed that I thought that the crucial christological claim has to do with the incarnation in Jesus of a distinctive structure of existence, a topic to which I devoted three of the book’s fifteen chapters. I regard the question about Jesus’ distinctiveness as important in its interrelationship with other questions, but I do not assign it the centrality Ogden attributes to me both explicitly and by implication in the weighting of his review. Instead I have proposed that we view the christological question, with Tillich, as changing from period to period. In our own time, there is a complex of christological questions. I have singled out as of special importance that of the Way of creative transformation (Christ in a Pluralistic Age. p. 21f). I see this transformation as existential, but also as communal, cultural, and world-historical. My discussion of Jesus is designed chiefly to justify this christological focus in relation to his work and person, since otherwise it cannot be truly christological at all.

A major difference between Ogden and myself lies in our divergent views of the possibility of cognitive and existential certainty. Ogden believes, as I understand, that on the question of ultimate importance for our existence, we can attain certainty. I believe, without certainty, that we can be certain of nothing whatsoever and must work out our stance toward life in the midst of uncertainty. Ogden’s view enables him to focus incisively on the christological question, and to view other questions as distractions. I see a network of interconnected, important questions, with no one singled out for all Christians and for all times as wholly decisive.


Carpenter wrote his critique of my christology on the basis of an essay I published in 1971 along with his study of A Christian Natural Theology. He seems to have found little help in The Structure of Christian Existence, although I myself understand the essay chiefly as supplementing that book. His criticisms deal with (1) my doctrine of God, (2) my understanding of human beings, and (3) my treatment of

Jesus and his influence.

(1) For Whitehead God is not an exception to the categories, and in A Christian Natural Theology I interpreted this to mean that we should view the relations between creaturely occasions and God as far as possible as resembling the relations among the creaturely occasions. That is, I suggested that we should think of creatures as prehending God and of God as prehending creatures, and that “prehension” should have a univocal meaning here and when applied to the relation of creatures to other creatures. Neither Whitehead nor I intend to give equality to God and individual creaturely occasions or persons. If something like equality, or at least polarity, is sought, it would be between God and the world as a whole.

This inequality between God and human persons disturbs Carpenter, who seems to find it oppressive and restrictive. My stress on divine initiative seems to him to deny or disparage the human freedom that is important to both of us. I can only say that in the way Whitehead understands divine initiative, it operates always to optimize human freedom.

Carpenter chides me with having to demonstrate that my understanding of God and the world is the only possible understanding. But that I would never claim. Clearly many other understandings are both possible and actual. It is worthwhile to discuss their respective merits, but to prove that all are in error save one is an unprofitable enterprise.

There is one point at which Carpenter has misunderstood me. He thinks that I anticipate “that we will arrive eventually at the goal of full humanity which God envisions for us” (p. 113). He cites page 82 of God and the World, but I make no such statement there. I believe we humans are quite free enough to destroy ourselves. Also, I do not think of a final goal where the process will come to rest. On the other hand, I do hope for human advancement in the direction God calls us.

More to the point is Carpenter’s objection to the Whiteheadian view that all human action expresses in some measure God’s aim, there are difficulties here both with respect to Whitehead’s own teaching and with respect to its translation into theological language. I understand that apart from God each occasion (if it could be at all) would be the passive resultant of the causal forces of the past. God opens to the occasion the possibility of creative novelty in its response to these forces. Human behavior that would destroy the world might be the result either of unchecked causality of the past or free acts made possible by the divinely given transcendence over these forces. The latter would be an actualization of a possibility derived from God even if quite distinct from and opposed to God’s ideal aim. This formulation would require extended exposition not appropriate here.

(2) Carpenter’s objection to my doctrine of human beings is that I “treat human subjecthood restrictively in light of our defiance of or obedience to” the initial aim (p. 114). I am startled and troubled by this criticism. It is true that in “A Whiteheadian Christology” my discussion of the human is very abstract, but I do not see that this criticism applies to my major work in anthropology, The Structure of Christian Existence. The only structure that can at all be characterized in terms of defiance and obedience is the one I called “prophetic.” Doubtless there are many questions about human subjecthood I have not treated well or at all, but I do not know how to respond to such a sweeping charge. Even in the essay with which Carpenter is preoccupied my purpose was to provide a Whiteheadian Christology in which Jesus’ distinctiveness was not described in terms of degrees of obedience or conformity to the initial aim.

(3) This leads to the christological questions themselves. Clearly Carpenter does not understand what I mean by a structure of existence, He operates in terms of what he calls “quality of life.” This is a perfectly good phrase, and I may have used it myself, but it does not help with the major points I was trying to make in this essay.

For example. Carpenter cannot understand how I can speak of a structure of existence as unsurpassable and also states that it introduces new types of evil (p. 109). This is because he thinks of a structure of existence as a quality of life, and clearly that life has superior quality in which these new types of evil are overcome. As Carpenter uses it, quality of life seems to be an ethical concept. My interest, on the other hand, is to show that historical “progress” has not led to greater and greater virtue or improved quality of life but to greater possibilities for good and evil. Axial existence is productive of far greater good and far greater evil than primitive existence. Jesus had an immense effect on human history both in calling forth a new structure of existence capable to the highest degree of both good and evil and in helping to overcome the evil. I could not make this double point in terms of “quality of life” as Carpenter desires.

Carpenter rightly notes that I distinguish the structure of Jesus’ existence from the structure of Christian existence and then imply that both are final. I acknowledge that my statements in the essay were cryptic and confusing. They referred back to a slightly longer discussion in The Structure of Christian Existence (p. 143f) where I distinguished two modes of analyzing existence. I noted that in the book I had dealt chiefly with intra-psychic structures rather than the relations of one occasion to other entities. The finality I claimed for Christian existence has to do only with intrapsychic structures. In the relationship to God, which distinguished Jesus from us, we are to hope for something quite different from what we now know. I have tried to develop this at some length in Christ in a Pluralistic Age, a book which was not available to Carpenter. Today, although I still think there are some unsurpassable elements in the historic Christian structure of existence, I put much more emphasis on the future developments that are needed, developments that would lead toward Jesus’ structure of existence.

On page 104 Carpenter summarizes from A Christian Natural Theology the four sources of influence on a human occasion as if they were four sources of aims. This would be a minor comment on his misreading of my book except that this misunderstanding explains why he finds conflict or redundancy in the influence I attribute to Jesus and to God (p. 111). If all influences were direct influence upon aims, there might perhaps be redundancy here. But the dominant efficacy of the past upon us is not directly a contribution to our aims. In Whitehead’s presentation there is a marked difference between the causal efficacy of the past and the derivation of the initial aim from God. I have confused Carpenter by arguing, in A Christian Natural Theology, that an occasion may have hybrid feelings of the aims for it of past occasions, but I never intended to reduce the efficacy of the past to this very special case. Past occasions do affect the present aim in that the initial aim is always relevant to the concrete situation of the concrescing occasion, its actual world, which is the totality of these past occasions. But this does not make for redundancy. Both the causal efficacy of past occasions and new possibilities derived from God are metaphysically required.

There is, therefore, no redundancy between the efficacy of past persons, including Jesus, and the efficacy of God. We live in a very different world because of Jesus, and for that reason we derive very different aims from God than we would derive if we were not in Jesus’ sphere of influence. In part, Jesus’ influence is to sensitize us to God’s graciousness and thus to inspire trust in the initial aim. To be deeply affected by Jesus is to become more receptive to God’s aim for us.

Carpenter rightly complains that I have not explained sufficiently how Jesus affects us. He notes (p. 110) that in one essay I argued that even remote past events can have direct efficacy, but I intended that this be viewed not as the major explanation of Jesus’ efficacy but only as a relevant factor in understanding certain doctrines of his presence. His efficacy is to be seen primarily in the new structure of existence he called into being. Although Carpenter complains that I nowhere “expand upon what might constitute the criteria for a response sufficiently satisfactory to assure participation . . . within the structure of existence introduced by Jesus” (p. 108), I in fact devoted extensive attention to this topic in The Structure of Christian Existence. In that book I also tried to suggest how Jesus’ teaching, combined with the experience of the earliest community of believers, led to the emergence of the Christian structure. I have since supplemented this somewhat in chapters 5 and 6 of Christ in a Pluralistic Age.