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 firstname.lastname@example.org..
This essay originally appeared as chapter 16, pp. 261-272, in Charles Birch, William Eaken and Jay B. McDaniel (eds.) Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches in Ecological Theology, published 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Dr. Cobb suggests that Christianity needs the actual adoption of already-developed ideas as well as new ideas: “It is as important to liberate theology to pursue saving truth wherever it can be found (scientists, philosophers, Hindus…) as to liberate particular groups of people from oppression.”
Many of the authors in this book propose new ways of imaging human relations to nature, the earth, and nonhuman animals. Some self-consciously propose a new, life-centered theology of nature and a life-centered ethic. What is the role of such a theology of nature in the life of the church? Is it simply a restatement of already existing doctrines of creation? In the following essay John Cobb — who in his own work has been responsible for inspiring many theologians around the world, including several authors in this volume, to develop more ecologically inclusive visions — addresses these questions. Cobb recognizes that the current need in Christianity may not be for still more excellent ideas, but rather for the actual adoption of already-developed ideas by existing church communities. Why has such adoption not yet occurred, and how might it occur? Here Cobb offers his own suggestions.
In general, academic theology spends too much time asking formal questions about the nature and method of theology and too little in actually doing the work of theology. We learn more about what theology is by thinking theologically than by standing back, objectifying it, and asking what it is.
It is more important to think theologically about nature than to ask questions about that enterprise.
Nevertheless, there is also a place for this secondary activity of reflection about what is going on and about what should be going on. This is because the main problem now is not so much a lack of good ideas as the way this whole discussion is viewed by the larger church. There it appears, at best, as a side issue of legitimate interest to specialists, at worst, as a distraction from the truly urgent priorities. The response is not, therefore, serious debate of the alternative doctrines of nature that the discussion embodies but a not altogether benign neglect. I want to understand why this is the case and what can be done in response to it.
I understand by theology self-conscious Christian reflection about important matters. The suffering of animals is an important matter. The interconnectedness of all the elements making up the biosphere is an important matter. The deterioration of the chemical cycles on which all life depends is an important matter. How best to understand the relationship of human activities to all these features of the natural world is an important matter. And there are many other important matters that can be grouped together under the heading of the integrity of creation or a theology of nature. But I find an equally important matter to be the church’s difficulty in appreciating the importance of these matters. It is this to which I will be directing my attention. I think of this, therefore, not only as the kind of secondary activity I have described above, a thinking about theology instead of thinking about the topics with which theology properly deals, but also as itself a theological enterprise.
Theology as I have defined it can never be a purely private enterprise. Since reflection is theological only as it is self-consciously Christian, and since to be Christian is to be part of a large historical movement and living community, theological reflection is always in part corporate. Nevertheless, there is an important place for reflection that pioneers new areas of thinking without regard for whether this new thinking will give direction to the wider movement. A major concern of the Christian as Christian is to find truth, and this often leads to sharp divergence from dominant ideas and inherited opinions. On the other hand, there is also an important place for reflection that is geared to expressing the emerging consensus within the church, the sort of reflection that goes into the making of creeds and confessions. Between these there is a place for reflection that seeks ways of influencing the church, guiding its response to changing conditions and situations. This is badly needed now. How can ideas that have arisen at the private pioneering end of the spectrum be brought into fruitful relation to the pre-existing consensus of the church?
Such a question is often, even usually, interpreted in a way that is very far from my intention. The ideas that have been attained, in this case the new reflection about the natural world, are treated as a commodity, and the question is understood to be one of marketing. To market these ideas one turns to experts in communication who identify target audiences and package the ideas so as to reach them.
That, too, may have its place, but my concern is quite different. I am asking theologically about the relation of the ideas that seem now to constitute at least the beginning of a theology of nature to the ideas by which the church is accustomed to living. At present this relationship, or lack of relationship, is an important matter.
To answer this question drives us further back to reflect on what has been going on in Christian theology in recent decades. The theme of this discussion, the theology of nature, is suggestive here. We have had theologies of liberation, of women’s experience, of Judaism, of culture, of religion, of the body, of worship, of humor, of play, of work, of institutions, of the church, of the world, and so on, and so on. Now we are adding one of nature. We cannot understand the church’s response to a theology of nature apart from this multiplication of “theologies of.” What is going on in this new language?
One way of understanding this language would be to suppose that this is simply a new way of speaking of “doctrines of.” We could understand a theology of liberation as a doctrine of liberation, namely, as what the church teaches about liberation. Similarly we could understand a theology of women’s experience as what the church teaches about women’s experience. But to say this is to make immediately evident its inadequacy to what these theologies have been about. A theology of liberation is not asking what the church has said and now should say about liberation. It is arguing that all that the church says about all topics should be rethought from the perspective of the centrality to its mission of the liberation of the oppressed. It is a proposal about how to do all theology. A theology of women’s experience may not make quite so radical a claim. It may call only for the equal validity of a theology expressive of women’s experience with the inherited theology expressive of man’s experience. But it is likely to ask for a profound rethinking of the latter also. In any case it is something profoundly different from what would be traditionally understood by a doctrine of women’s experience. The latter would inevitably have been an interpretation of women’s experience from man’s point of view!
Some of the other examples could be more easily interpreted as using the term theology where once the church would have spoken of doctrine. A theology of institutions hardly exists, but the call for it may be only a call for the church to think seriously about institutions. Theologies of play and of the body could be understood as the church’s teaching on these topics, although in fact they tend to call for some shift in Christian thinking as a whole based on attention to what can be learned as one takes play or the body seriously.
Those of us interested in a theology of nature need to clarify what we are doing on this spectrum. One possibility is that we are simply using this current language to speak of the importance of the church’s developing its doctrine of nature more fully and in ways appropriate to our new understanding of the relation between human beings and the natural world. But most of us, I think, want more than that. We are not trying only to spell out what traditional theology implies about nature. Instead, we want to see the whole of theology influenced and reconceived in light of what we are learning about nature. This makes “the theology of nature” something different from “the doctrine of creation.”
But if that is what we want, we need to recognize that we are engaged in claiming a place for an additional “theology of” in a time when the church as a whole is reacting against the multiplication of competing theologies of this sort. We can, of course, dismiss this trend as simply reactionary in the bad sense, and we would have much justification for doing so. Those who do not want to deal with the issues raised by liberationists and women are trying to close the door upon them. Many are simply tired and confused by the endless demands for change and want the church to be an island of confident changelessness in the sea of secular confusion. For them the old-time religion is the answer. Such reaction must be taken seriously but not normatively.
On the other hand, there are real problems with the multiplication of “theologies of.” At least in appearance they are all in conflict with one another. Even if their relation is not strictly conflictual, to whatever extent they are calls to reorganize all theology from a particular perspective, they are necessarily in tension with one another. Some people can live in such tension and find it fruitful, but many find it bewildering, and the church as a whole, even when it has goodwill toward the many claims placed upon it, becomes confused about its mission. The multiplication of “theologies of” has been a valuable stage in the church’s thinking, but something more is needed. Unless the vitality and creativity that has been expressed in the “theologies of” make a further breakthrough, the church will revert to the doctrinal approach to theology. It will learn something from what liberationists, women, and others have said, but it will incorporate only what can be assimilated into the mainstream of a relatively unchanged tradition. If that is the church’s destiny, it would be better for us to drop talk of a theology of nature and simply reflect together on how we can contribute to the enrichment of the church’s doctrine of creation.
I hope, however, that we can do better. If the “theologies of” become “doctrines of,” I fear that the church as a whole will not be freed from its basic alliance with the dominant bourgeois class, its patriarchalism, its suspicion of the body, its individualism, or its anthropocentrism. Slightly improved doctrines about the oppressed, about women, about the body, about community, or about the whole of creation will not change the church much. In many, many respects the church will continue to be part of the problem rather than the bearer of good news. Can we envision a more promising scenario?
I think we can, tip until now the major challenge to business as usual and the old-time religion has been from liberation theology. I should, more properly, speak of liberation theologies. I refer to black theology, Latin American liberation theology, Minjung theology, and other theologies emergent in the third world. They do not speak with one voice, but there has been sufficient coherence in their message that they have constituted a shared challenge to established ways of thinking and acting. For a while it seemed that, at least in the ecumenical movement and at leadership levels in a number of churches and denominations, they might carry the day. Now, however, the tide has turned. Liberation theologies remain an important factor in the church scene, but they are being contained by more “moderate” voices. They are being treated as offering to the church one theme alongside other themes to which it needs attend. In short, there is danger that liberation theology will become a doctrine of liberation in a general theology that is not itself liberated.
There is, however, some positive possibility in this changed situation. When the liberation theologies thought that by a united front among themselves they could carry the day, they tended to give short shrift to other “theologies of.” They were not very interested in feminism, not very sensitive to Christian anti-Judaism, not much interested in culture or in primal and Eastern religions, not particularly concerned about the repression of the body, and so forth. Certainly they were not much concerned about nature. The tendency was to see most of these “theologies of” as expressing the interests of discontented bourgeois and as irrelevant to the truly pressing problem of liberating the oppressed. But as time passed, and as the unlikelihood of single-handed lasting victory has become apparent, the mood has changed. There is more willingness to listen to other concerns and to take them seriously as legitimate needs rather than to dismiss them as establishment fads. This opens the door to networking and mutual support among the advocates of the “theologies of.”
If instead of a babble of competing voices, the advocates of the “theologies of” were heard in the church as making a coherent claim for a shift of direction, of thought and action, the chance for real change would be greatly enhanced. But the obstacles are still enormous. There are real tensions and conflicts among the various “theologies of” as they are now formulated. These generate oppositions that are fed by often unjustified mutual suspicions. Sometimes in retreat people guard their turf all the more intensely, even fanatically. Defenders of one “theology of” do not want to have to deal with the ridicule or anger directed to others; so they make clear their distance from the others. If there is unity underlying the various “theologies of,” that is not clear to most of their advocates. What at an earlier stage could be regarded as fruitful tension now appears as destructive fragmentation. Can anything be done to reverse this slide into self-destruction of what has been a redemptive expression of Christian vitality in the past two decades? I believe there are possibilities. I propose two.
My first proposal is inspired by the Theology of the Americas Conferences sponsored by the Maryknoll Fathers in the ‘70s. Participants noted that there were three vigorous movements of persons determined to speak with their own voice in a church that in the past had not heard them. These movements were among blacks in the United States, among peasants and workers in Latin America, and among women in the United States. They noticed also that there were profound suspicions among them, but they believed that there was a commonality deeper than the differences. They gathered representatives of the three movements. These aired their mutual suspicions honestly and with passion. The Latin Americans were convinced that class differences were primary the blacks, that the deepest issues were those of race; and the women, that all other problems flowed first and foremost from patriarchy. These divergences did not disappear during the course of the series of conferences. But each group genuinely heard the others. By the end, most of the participants acknowledged that all three issues were important. Real changes occurred within each, and in addition, a recognition of common interests emerged that has, to some degree, withstood the struggles of the ensuing period. At the very least, it is harder to play these groups off against each other than it would have been had the Theology of the Americas Conferences not occurred.
It is obvious that issues of creation or nature did not play much role at the Theology of the Americas Conferences. Indeed, many other issues were neglected that are important to other “theologies of.” Hence the emerging solidarity from those conferences left a great deal out, and what was left out has become more obviously important to the church in the subsequent period.
My proposal is that it is now time to bring together representatives of a wider range of “theologies of.” Obviously, I am assuming that representatives of the theology of nature would be an important part of such a meeting. I believe the theology of nature has a particular and peculiarly important role to play in bringing out the deeper shared concerns on many (even all) of the “theologies of.” I see this special relation in three ways.
First, all of the other “theologies of” are anthropocentric. This statement needs some qualification in that several of them are open to the natural world in ways that our dominant modern tradition has not been. Nevertheless, in all cases the starting point is in the human realm. Discussions among representatives of these traditions, even if individual members occasionally raise questions about anthropocentrism, will not thematize this issue. Representatives of the theology of nature are crucial for setting the discussion of human problems in the wider context.
Second, it is my observation that advocates of the theology of nature are appreciatively open to other “theologies of” in a way that these others are often not open to one another and certainly not to the theology of nature. There is a logic to this difference. The natural world cannot exclude the human world. The reverse is not the case. Indeed, those who have tried to include the natural world within the human world have in fact excluded much of what is most important. They are inevitably suspicious of those who raise these issues that they have excluded. Further, the more inclusive approach opens one to hearing many different voices and special interests. whereas those who begin with particular aspects of the human problem sometimes find the raising of other aspects of the human problems distracting.
By pointing out this greater openness on the part of theologians of nature I do not mean to say that we already include all the others and can do the job by ourselves. This is far from the case. What the “theologies of” have shown again and again is that those most deeply immersed in a situation have insights and understanding that more detached observers can never gain on their own. The study of women by men, even by sympathetic men, would never have gone below the surface of women’s experience. What we have learned from women as they explored their own experience could have been learned in no other way. Only those who have immersed themselves passionately in the study of Christian anti-Judaism could have become conscious of how deeply it pervades our tradition and our continuing practice. There is an enormous difference between what white sociologists and social ethicists told us about the black experience and what we learned when blacks forced us to listen to their own voices. Part of what we must most fear in the current reaction against “theologies of” is that the leadership of the church will once again try to speak for all rather than hear the many voices in their own integrity and wisdom. Theologians of nature certainly do not want to fall into that trap!
Third, theologians of nature can provide the context in which voice can be given to parts of creation that have been almost wholly excluded from the Christian discussion. I refer to nonhuman animals. Obviously, we cannot have porpoises or guinea pigs as direct participants. But this does not constitute a decisive obstacle. In the inner theological discussion we have listened to the voices of those Christians who have immersed themselves in the study of Christian anti-Judaism. Of course, we have also had dialogues with Jews as well, and these have been important. But Christians who speak as Christians about what Christian teaching has done to Jews represent Jews in these discussions in their own distinctive and highly effective ways. Animals can similarly be represented by human beings who have devoted themselves to studying how animals suffer at human hands and how Christian teaching has supported and encouraged their torture. This is a voice that no other “theology of” will introduce, and even theologians of nature will fail to do so effectively except as they consciously introduce spokespersons.
Whether a conference or a few conferences would succeed in bringing a new synthesis out of the multiplicity of voices cannot be predicted. It could not happen until a great deal of mutual suspicion and anger had been aired. Perhaps it would all end in mutual recriminations. But I am convinced that in and through the diversity there is a common spirit, a deeper underlying passion — I would call it a passion for life — that could come to expression. I also believe that a common faith in Christ has the potentiality to open us up to one another in such a way that genuine hearing occurs. Hence I am hopeful that should such a strategy be adopted, the results would be positive. If they were, then the emergent theology could compete on a more equal basis with traditional ones, and the insights and convictions now gathered under the heading of a theology of nature could penetrate more deeply into the life of the church.
The second approach I recommend is one that does not require major conferences. It is a move toward formulating a theology informed by the theology of nature but expressing itself in central categories of traditional theology and displaying its relevance to the whole range of Christian issues. This move is implicit in the call for a theocentric theology. Yet the need is to go beyond displaying that theocentric thinking gives a role to the whole of the natural world and articulating what that role is. Probably I can explain what I have in mind better by giving a concrete proposal as an example than by talking about what it would be like. The rest of this section is a probe in that direction.
In discussing the “theologies of” I described a tension between the tendency to particularity and the tendency to make universal claims. It is the acknowledgment of particularity that makes it possible to think of a creative synthesis emerging from their vigorous and honest interactions. But it is also possible to move from any one “theology of’ to formulations that make the universal features of the claims more apparent. This has happened especially among Latin American liberation theologians, who have worked out the full gamut of Christian doctrines in a way that can lay claim to being a continuation and transformation of the whole tradition. Something like this can also be done from the side of the theology of nature, and, as I have indicated, I believe this is the most promising starting point in the “theologies of” because, in principle at least, it is the most inclusive. What then is the form that a theology must take in order to be able to lay claim to being Christian theology as such rather than a “theology of”?
Some suppose that in order to be Christian theology as such, a position must be somehow neutral as among all competing voices. This is, of course, absurd. Any student of ideology can show that all Christian theologies in the past have expressed the experience and interests of some Christians rather than others. One of the things we have learned from the “theologies of” is that it is better to be honest and open about this than to pretend to oneself or others that one has found a neutral starting point. This needs to be said especially against the pretensions of academic theology.
Nevertheless, the inevitability of cultural and historical conditioning, if not of class, racial, or gender interest, does not prevent there being a difference between what can claim to be Christian theology as such and a “theology of.” A “theology of” can become Christian theology as such only if it takes its starting point in the reaffirmation of what it takes to be central features of the tradition. For Protestants, these will almost necessarily be found in the Bible.
We are hopefully free from the illusion that there can be a “biblical theology” in the sense that all the themes and ideas present in the Bible can be brought to a harmonious unity, which can then be reaffirmed as true Christian theology. Rather, the Bible reflects a historical movement spread over many centuries, facing many different situations, and responding in quite diverse ways. Its unity is much more the unity of a socio-historical movement than of a coherent system of teachings. Different parts of the biblical record take on relevance and importance as the church faces different situations.
Healthy Christian theology is always written in view of the real situation of the time, whether the issues it addresses are social, cultural, or more purely intellectual. In one sense it is always “theology of.” But instead of allowing a particular analysis of one contemporary problem to dominate its approach, it can return to its sources, inevitably influenced by present experience, and listen to them again. The difference is one of degree, but that is the difference between Christian theology as such and “theologies of.” The difference, even if only one of degree, is nevertheless real.
Let me illustrate with my own experience. When I look to the Bible for the purpose of developing a theology of nature, I turn to the early chapters of Genesis, the story of Noah, some of the Psalms, some of Jesus’ teachings, John 1, and Romans 8. I then want to see what has been said in subsequent theology about some topics that have usually been peripheral to the discussion. On the other hand, when I think about the theological task as such, I turn directly to many other passages. My question is shaped by my perception that the greatest problem for responding healthily to a wide range of issues, many of which are directly relevant to nature, is now the heritage of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment fastened upon our minds anthropocentrism, dualism, and individualism. Modern thought has worked out with great consistency the implications of the view that each entity, including each person, is basically a self-contained being related to others only externally. This applies to the relations among human beings, the relations of human beings to the rest of the world, and the relations between God and the world, if these are allowed at all. The relations among the academic disciplines and the whole way we have been conditioned to see the world are also consistent consequences of the teaching of the Enlightenment. I personally have been particularly disturbed by the way this modern vision leads economists (and policy makers) to see the economic enterprise as a self-contained feature of reality such that what happens in the physical world is not relevant to its theory or practice. I am also troubled by the extent to which theology has allowed itself to be defined as one academic discipline among others with its distinctive subject matter and method, related only externally to other disciplines. This has rendered academic theology virtually irrelevant to the pressing needs of our time.
I can see that there are roots of this atomism in the biblical tradition, but I am also convinced that they do not dominate it. Quite the contrary. Hence I want to claim the biblical heritage as a source of authority against what has happened to the modern world, including academic theology and much of the life of the church. I think this is a legitimate theological enterprise in the mainstream of church theology. In carrying out this enterprise all the passages I mentioned above in connection with a theology of nature are relevant, but they do not stand out for me as the most important ones. I turn instead to the apostle Paul. I find in him an ecstatic vision of what philosophically I call internal relations. For Paul the Spirit and Christ are within us and we are in Christ. This mutual immanence is not rhetorical carelessness but central to his articulation of Christian experience. Furthermore, at least those of us who are Christian are members one of another, as well as joint members of the Body of Christ. Although the imagery goes further in Paul than elsewhere in the Bible, it is by no means discontinuous with much that is said throughout. If we ask whether the Bible is better understood by a hermeneutic of external relations alone or by one that allows for internal relations as well, I, for one, have no doubt that the latter answer is correct. I think this could be argued in a hundred ways, but this is not the place for that.
To me it seems that the central image of the mutual immanence of God and the world and even of people in one another is Christ. Hence I prefer Christocentrism to theocentrism. The word God, even in Paul, suggests a greater degree of separation or over-againstness. This has been so accented in much of Christian history and modern culture that talk of God is often very alienating. I have certainly not given it up, and I often call myself theocentric. But at least as we speak with one another within the church, I prefer to say Christocentric.
I trust you do not misunderstand me. By Christocentric I do not mean Jesus-centric, although the human-historical Jesus too has a central place. There may be times when one could substitute Jesus for Christ in Paul’s language and make sense, but that is by no means always the case. We are not “in” the human historical Jesus in the way we are “in” Christ. We cannot read the later Trinitarian doctrine back into Paul; nevertheless, for us to affirm with Paul that we are in Christ and Christ is in us is the affirmation that we are in God and God is in us. There is no objective difference between theocentrism and Christocentrism. I prefer Christocentrism because the rhetoric of the church about Christ has kept the sense of God’s incarnate presence in us and in the world in a way that language about God does not insure.
Few after Paul maintained the vivid sense of mutual immanence that pervades his writing. Greek language and habits of mind worked against it. Nevertheless, there were central Christian teachings that simply could not be articulated without it. One was the doctrine of the incarnation. In Antioch that was understood in terms of the divine indwelling in Jesus. But it was in Alexandria that, according to Alfred North Whitehead, the struggle with the central Christian mysteries of Trinity and incarnation led the theologians to the one great metaphysical advance since Plato — the doctrine of the immanence of one entity in another.
The struggle continued in later centuries. The tendency of Catholic theology was to image grace in a way that suggests external relations between God and the recipient. Protestantism in many ways carried individualism further than Catholicism had. Nevertheless, at this point its Biblicism helped. Grace could not be viewed as something external to God and externally added to the human recipient. Grace came to be understood as the living and effective presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer.
Nowhere in Christian history has the understanding of indwelling, of mutual immanence, or of internal relations been understood clearly enough or carried far enough. Even Paul did not generalize it fully. He was so preoccupied with the relation of Christ and the believer that we cannot say whether Christ is in all things or all things are in Christ. For strong affirmation that all things are created and cohere in Christ and that Christ is in all things we must turn to Colossians. Further, I do not know where to find any clear statement that all things are members one of another. Still, in this general vision there is the basis for a powerful Christian protest against the habits of mind that have dominated us since the Enlightenment. If Christians could come to see that we cannot understand the saving work of God within us, the incarnation of God in the world, the presence of the Holy Spirit, or the character of the Christian life apart from a doctrine of mutual indwelling that is irreconcilable with atomistic individualism and all its works, we could have powerful leverage to liberate us from oppressive canalizations of thought and practice.
I hope it is clear that, at least in my own perception, I am not falsifying the central message of the Bible or even exaggerating the importance within it of this motif. I am not searching the Bible to find a message that I can use for purposes that are not really dictated by the Bible. I believe that Christian thought has suffered immensely from its inability to grasp and articulate the depth of mutual indwelling that Paul, and other biblical writers, experienced and affirmed. I believe we see that impoverishment more clearly today because its consequences and their destructiveness are so manifest. I believe it is authentically Christian thinking to single this out for special focus and to imply it in the fresh application of the relations between God and the world, among human beings, and between human beings and other creatures.
One reason for the suspicion against which I am arguing is that I have made no secret of the great influence on me of Whitehead’s philosophy. This arouses the suspicion that I am using theology to support philosophical ideas rather than the other way around. But these alternatives do not apply. On the issue of internal relations, so central to his philosophy, Whitehead understood himself to be adopting an insight from Christian theology and generalizing it. I have adopted its generalized form, learning this from Whitehead himself. Certainly this has in turn affected the way I read the Bible. This seems to me a normal and healthy expression of the development of Christian thought.
I describe this personal situation because it points to another of those barriers erected in modern times that I would like to see come down. This is the barrier between theology and philosophy. It is now thought that each has its own proper province and that no confusion should be allowed. The result has been bad for theology and worse for philosophy. Philosophy has withdrawn from the discussion of most important matters. Only at its fringes, where a few brave souls talk about environmental issues or animal rights, does it enter the public arena. Theology, on the other hand, has truncated its capacity to deal with those important issues it does raise by giving the appearance of authoritarianism or special pleading rather than participating from its own resources in free and open discussion. Neither contributes much to the human need for an inclusive vision within which to understand the many divergent strands of life and thought.
This whole approach of reifying separate disciplines that are then allowed to impinge on each other only externally is but one expression of the atomism from which Christian faith should set us free. When we think self-consciously as Christians we should be free to think as clearly and as vigorously, as openly and as honestly, as it is humanly possible to think. Whether our help comes from those who are called scientists, or those who are called philosophers, or those who are called Hindus, is a quite secondary consideration. It is as important to liberate theology to pursue saving truth wherever it can be found as to liberate particular groups of people from oppression.
If a vision of this sort becomes central to Christian theology as such, then there will be no further need for a theology of nature. It will suffice to have a doctrine of creation. A theology of nature is needed when the guiding images at the center of theology as such are not informed by what needs to be learned in reflection on nature. If the theology of nature has informed the center, it can then allow itself to be shaped by that center as a doctrine that flows from that center. If, for example, our reflection on other animals takes place in the context of the conviction that Christ is in them and they are in Christ, that we and they are members one of the other, and that together we build up the body of Christ, it would no longer be possible to turn our backs upon their suffering with indifference. It is, to repeat, because current formulations of Christian theology in general do not picture our relations to animals in any such way that we need the corrective of a theology of nature.
The question would remain whether a Christocentric theology of this sort could render unnecessary the other “theologies of.” The answer, I think, is yes and no. No, in that no general formulation would take the place of hearing the special insights that come from those who suffer in varied ways and who are pressed by suffering to reexamine much that others take for granted. Yes, in that such a theology would affirm precisely the need of each to hear the other and to be transformed through what one hears. That process of transformation would affect the center as well. The meaning of “Christ” cannot remain the same after the impact of black theology or of the recognition of how often and how easily Christocentrism has been used to evoke and justify the persecution of the Jews. But such a center would provide a way of hearing the many voices in which their tendency to exclude one another would be overcome and they could be more fully incorporated into the ongoing creation and transformation of theology as such.