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 lecture and two additional ones were delivered as The Britt Lectures at the First United Methodist Church of Honolulu, on February. 16-19, 2007, under the overall title of “To Whom Can We Go?” Used by permission of the author.
Dr. Cobb examines an option to which Western Christians commonly turn today, namely the University, and enumerates its failings. He then suggests that we need to resist the imperial order in which we, like Jesus, live. A large part of that resistance consists in demonstrating that another order is possible and far superior. The vision of this other order has practical implications for the reordering of the world system for the sake of all of its inhabitants instead of the exploitation of the many for the enrichment of the few. We have much to learn from the university. But we must learn it as disciples of Jesus and not as promoters of the university’s mentality.
In the first lecture I explained why, for liberal and progressive Protestants the question of whether we should turn to someone other than Jesus is a serious, even critical, one. In the second lecture I looked at what happens when people simply drift away from Jesus into the wider Western culture, the option of Gautama, the Buddha, and the alternatives offered by the other Abrahamic traditions. I sketched my reasons for staying with Jesus. Obviously, proponents of these other options would have much to say in response.
In this third lecture I want to do two things. First, I want to talk about live options to which Western Christians commonly turn. When I was growing up the obvious choices were Communism and other Nazism. But today, those options have little appeal. Jesus has survived as a focus of loyalty far better than they. I could speak of American imperialism as an alternative context in which to find meaning, and that would be much more relevant. But the weakness of that as an ultimate loyalty is probably so apparent to a group like this that I will not use my limited time to discuss it. For thoughtful people in our churches it may be that the most common alternative to Jesus is the university. So I have selected that for my remaining example of alternatives.
Second, I want to clarify the nature of Christian discipleship. I am not interested in saying that similar behavior and thinking can have no other sources. I ended my second lecture by talking about a Hindu and a Buddhist whose work is, for me, an inspiration for how we may seek first the basileia thou. I am strongly tempted to claim both Gandhi and Ariyaratne as disciples of Jesus, and in the case of Gandhi, I might meet little resistance from him. Ariyaratne was a disciple of Gandhi, but I am not sure that he was aware of the indirect relation that established to Jesus. In any case, the issue is not whether those who stand in other traditions contribute to the other world that is possible. Some of them certainly do so in wonderful ways. For us the issue is how we can do so in faithfulness to Jesus.
1. Higher Education in the United States
First, then, I turn to the university. Why do I present it as an alternative to Jesus? The initial answer is that those who are most fully socialized into the culture of the modern university are socialized away from paying any special attention to Jesus. The negative role of the university in relation to discipleship to Jesus is a sociological fact that is hardly disputable. This negative role is clearer than any positive role of reorientation played by the university. It does not point its followers to any single authority, but it does point to the collective authority of a certain kind of science and scholarship.
Higher education has not always played this role of opposition to Jesus. The university traces its origins to the Middle Ages, when most universities were established by the church to perform a role in society defined and desired by the church. Liberal arts were central to that role, and the relation of liberal arts colleges to Jesus today is very different from that of the contemporary university.
The change in the relation of higher education to Christianity took place in two main steps. First, the rise of Darwinian evolutionary theory for almost the first time brought about efforts of some Christians to interfere with the scientific teaching to which by the late nineteenth century higher education was committed. The controversy is often misdescribed and exaggerated. The split between supporters and critics of Darwin took place both among scientists and in the Christian churches. The biology teacher, Scopes, whose trial for teaching evolution played so dramatic a role, was an active Methodist supported by fellow church members rather than an anti-Christian scientist. Some scientists testified against him. Nevertheless in the public mind, and widely in the universities of America, the choice was between science and religion. Universities declared their independence from the churches in order that religious prejudices not interfere with their scientific teaching.
Second, after World War II, the norm for advanced education in the United States shifted from the liberal arts college to the university. The former were part of the effort to follow Jesus. Most of them were established by churches for purposes of a humanistic education. Prior to World War II, they undertook to develop character and culture as well as to communicate information. Many of them had direct connections with church bodies. Required chapel was common. Most of what were called universities in that period were liberal arts colleges with some graduate programs and professional schools added. Liberal arts colleges persisted after World War II, but except for the most conservative ones, their Christian identity faded. Required chapel disappeared and even required attendance at convocations. Nevertheless, in my comments about the university as an alternative to Jesus, I am not including liberal arts colleges in general.
2. The Contemporary American University
After World War II the states took over the role of expanding the availability of higher education on a large scale. They expanded community colleges on the one side and graduate programs on the other. The function of higher education became primarily a means of preparing for better paying positions in society. Liberal arts were subordinated to job training. The other organizing principle of the new universities was specialized research. The academic disciplines replaced the liberal arts. The common core consisted of introductions to a diversity of disciplines. Graduate study was canalized by these disciplines and their sub-disciplines. There was an enormous expansion of research. The stars on university faculties became the leaders in specialized research.
At first the study of religion was excluded from the university. If the Bible was studied at all, it would be in an occasional course in English literature or Near Eastern studies. Gradually university faculties recognized that the total exclusion of religion was not necessary. The phenomenon of religion could be studied historically, sociologically, and psychologically without fear of contamination. There was considerable interest among students. What was still disallowed was any study from the point of view of a particular religion, especially of Christianity.
Let us consider what the basic message of the university is to students. One message is that of the importance of the economy and of preparing for competition there. Obviously, there is nothing opposed to Jesus in acquiring the skills needed for a good job. Jesus learned to be a carpenter. However, many of the jobs for which the university prepares one are deeply bound up with the global economy whose consequences for the planet are disastrous. Whereas a liberal arts education may provide some basis for viewing the global economy critically and making judgments as to how one wants to relate to it, very few students in universities are exposed to that kind of reflection. Their normal and healthy desire to prepare themselves to support themselves and their families draws them into a destructive system. In deciding on careers, the only value systems students encounter are those internal to the several professions and the general cultural view that they should find something they enjoy and that will be well rewarded economically.
A second message is that values are relative, so that any choices based on them are idiosyncratic. If one likes Christian values, fine. But any claim that they are the right values is unjustified. Students are not encouraged to contrasting what is with what might or should be. Study and research are focused on what has been, now is, and is likely to be in the near future. They are encouraged to accept that as reality and to adjust to it. They are not encouraged to think that another world is possible.
Fortunately, exceptions are tolerated by the university. Academic students of ecology were among the first to sound the alarm about the loss of species diversity and the declining health of the planet’s ecosystems. Some of them wrote about these matters with great passion. There was no question about their values. Climatologists have led in warnings about climate change in a similar way. Professors of Near Eastern studies may warn of the consequences of policies that ignore the reality. Sociologists may call attention to trends that they deplore without concealing their values.
A third message is that solutions to problems should be left to experts. This is especially problematic because the experts are equipped only in narrow fields and the solutions to most problems cannot be found in such fields. I have mentioned ecological problems. Certainly the solutions cannot be proffered by the ecologists themselves. But to what academic discipline can we turn? Most public policies are now defended in economic terms. But if we ask economists for solutions to ecological problems, the results are appalling. Should we, instead, turn to anthropologists, to sociologists, to psychologists, to political theorists, to agronomists, to chemists, to technologists, to demographers, or to historians? All can make some contribution, but none can provide the wisdom we so desperately need.
A fourth message is that the quest for any overarching view of the human situation, one that might provide a perspective on how to think about the specialized studies offered by the university, is naïve and misguided. It reflects outdated religious interests. The university’s message is that we have learned that knowledge is inherently fragmentary. We should not seek coherence among its various parts. We should cease to ask unanswerable questions about the meaning or goal of life and concentrate attention upon questions whose answers can be found by scholarly research.
Students often turn to philosophy in hopes of finding help in reflecting about questions of meaning and purpose. Some professors still take this function of philosophy seriously and undertake to help the students. However, the dominant forms of philosophy today do not deal with these questions and sometimes explicitly undertake to end such inquiry, treating it as meaningless. When the study of religion was introduced into universities, students turned to these courses for help. However, teachers in this field must be particularly careful to emphasize the objectivity of their treatment of their subject matter. Even if values are studied, the approach is to be value free. And in fact, the subject matter may hardly include the values of those who are studied.
A fifth message that students receive is that tough-minded people understand that they and others behave self-interestedly. Actions that claim to express dispassionate concern for the common good are shown to express deceptiveness instead. Honesty is better achieved by recognizing that one acts only for one’s own interest.
Of course, this is not taught uniformly throughout the university. It is perhaps most explicit and central in departments of economics. But most of the teaching in most other departments tends to support the view that we understand human behavior in terms of the quest of individuals to meet their needs and secure advantages in a competitive context. In addition, students are in fact encouraged to behave that way in pursuit of their degrees. Competition far exceeds cooperation in the classroom. The student understands that there will be further competition for jobs and for getting ahead in one’s work. There is little encouragement to think that another world is possible.
I have focused thus far on the experience of students. But the acceptance of the guidance and leadership of the university, rather than of Jesus, goes far beyond its relation to students. Most thoughtful citizens read books and magazines and newspapers and listen to radio and television broadcasts to get their understanding of what is going on it the world. Obviously, not all the writers and speakers they encounter are on university faculties. Nevertheless, the great majority have been formed in their basic understanding by the culture and ethos of the university as well as by the research that is done there. Accordingly, much of what I have said above about the message of the university to students is also the continuing message of the dominant media to the general public.
Actually I am describing the better aspects of the situation. The general media may present matters as if they were value free, but in fact they communicate primarily the values of their owners and, in many instances, their advertisers. The think tanks that provide research supplementary to the universities are also heavily biased by the sources of their funds and the selection of their leaders. Fortunately, many of the more thoughtful members of our society can recognize these biases and check them against the more objective stance of the university.
For example, in the field of science, thoughtful citizens trust scientific associations closely related to university faculties more than they trust the scientists who work directly for corporations. Unfortunately, even if we accept the idea that science is the dispassionate quest for truth, we know that scientists are also human beings with their social and economic needs. Most of us do not trust the scientists employed by the cigarette companies to tell us truthfully about the consequences of smoking for health, nor the scientists who work for oil companies to give us accurate information about global warming. We cherish the commitment of academics to objective research, and this provides a special authority to the university.
Sadly, the purity of research in the university has been badly compromised in recent decades. Research depends on funding, and the largest sources of funding are the military establishment and large corporations. This affects both the topics of research and its practical goals. It also, inevitably, affects the way in which the results of research are interpreted and presented. We can celebrate the resistance of academic disciplines to these distortions, but we cannot but be sad that the pressures toward such distortions are increasing and the institutions designed to check them are in trouble. We need to be on our guard against attributing to individual scientists and scholars the authority that belongs to their science when it is disinterestedly pursued when their ability to do research depends on funding from sources that are not at all disinterested.
However, my critique is not based on the fact that the university does not live up to its own ideals. This is a problem with all institutions and communities, and has been a terrible problem in Christianity. My concern about attributing too much authority to the university is of another kind.
3. Why Following the University is Dangerous
The university as a whole exaggerates the objectivity of its conclusions. They are in fact heavily biased by assumptions that are not themselves critically considered. To make the case that it is dangerous to follow the university too far, I will need to show (1) that there are such questionable assumptions and that they are inaccurate, and (2) that the consequences of operating with these assumptions are deleterious. Ideally this should be done discipline by discipline. This would, obviously, be a very large task that would greatly exceed what can be done in one lecture.
Nevertheless, the point can be made and illustrated rather simply. In the seventeenth century a worldview developed that took the clock as the model for the natural world. Its most influential expositor was Descartes. This world view won the allegiance of the scientific community and became to basis for scientific work. The progress made by the use of these assumptions was enormous. For a long time, although philosophers found them questionable, there seemed to be no scientific reason to doubt them.
(1) The first reason to challenge the basic model came with the theory of evolution. Descartes had argued that the human mind is of an entirely different order than the material world, so that the freedom and responsibility of human beings was not doubted. However, evolution showed that human beings are part of the natural world. If nature is mechanical, then human beings are part of the world machine. But if human beings are simply part of the world machine then the quest for truth implicit in science is itself an illusion along with human freedom and responsibility generally. Some proposed that if human beings are part of nature, then the Cartesian view of nature is inadequate. However, this idea has had very little effect on the way that the study of nature is pursued in the university.
The second reason to question the Cartesian assumptions about nature came with the inability of those assumptions to account for new developments in physics at the beginning of the twentieth century. This was especially true with regard to quantum theory. It turned out that the basic units of nature do not behave in the way expected of parts of a machine. However, except for quantum theory itself, this fact has had very little effect on how the sciences operate.
To me this indicates that the assumptions underlying the natural sciences in general are inaccurate. Since I do not believe that we are machines, and yet I fully agree that we are part of nature, I do not believe that nature is a machine or is composed exclusively of machines. Since there is indisputable evidence that the entities of which nature is composed do not function as parts of a machine, the inadequacy of the basic model of nature that still operates in most of the natural sciences seems to be clearly confirmed.
(2) But that there are erroneous assumptions widely operative in the natural sciences is not enough to establish serious concern. The argument in their favor is that they work well. Science advances wonderfully, producing new technologies that are truly astounding. This gives it enormous prestige. To challenge its authority, I need to show that the consequences of the inadequate assumptions are deleterious. I propose to do this in regard to evolutionary theory.
A major reason for adopting the Cartesian model was to exclude teleology from the natural world. This was directed especially against Aristotelianism, the dominant science of the Medieval period. Aristotelians too easily supposed that they had explained a natural phenomenon when they described how it functioned, that is what purpose it served. Modern science developed much further by examining efficient causes, that is, what physical causes brought the phenomenon into being.
Because biological phenomena are so easily understood teleologically, modern biologists have been particularly determined to exclude purposes of any kind from the nature they study. This applies to divine purposes, since to explain in terms of God’s purposes is to end the pursuit of the study of efficient causes. But it also involves denying that animal purposes play any role in the world.
Fortunately, it is difficult to persuade people that animals are in no way purposeful in their actions. However, the scientific explanation always moves in the direction of showing that mechanisms can produce analogous actions. Scientists are more comfortable when they can explain apparently purposeful behavior by instincts that are physically rooted in neuronal structures and genes. This procedure can go a long way.
The issue became acute with regard to evolution. If human beings are part of nature, and there is no purpose in natural things, then human beings do not have purposes. This is a bit hard to swallow. It seemed that when scientists informed us that purpose plays no role in the world, they did so purposefully. But the point is still important to most scientists.
If science allowed that purpose plays a role in human actions, then it would be difficult to deny that analogous animal actions were also purposeful. Accordingly, the dominant teaching in the university is that, although subjectively we feel purposeful, purpose plays no role in what actually takes place in the world. Physical events cause the subjective feeling of purpose and also, without any influence from the side of subjectivity, they cause other physical events.
However, biological teaching about evolution guards itself against the intrusion of purposes in another way as well. It asserts that evolution takes place through two factors. There is the random, that is purposeless, mutation of genes, and there is the mechanical selection among the resulting organisms by the environment. The standard formulation allows no place for the animal activity, which it is difficult for common sense to interpret as wholly purposeless.
If in fact we examine what has taken place in the course of evolution, however, we see that the activity of organisms has played an important role. Much of this activity appears to common sense to be purposeful. Biologists typically do not deny this. They simply ignore it. If they are forced to deal with it, they are likely to resort to the doctrine that what appears purposeful in fact is to be explained mechanistically.
My point here is that the insistence that organisms are in fact machines and that purpose plays no role in evolution is not based on empirical evidence. It is based on deep-seated assumptions that force those who hold them to take positions that are profoundly contradictory to experience. They are profoundly dehumanizing. To whatever extent they are taken seriously, they undercut all notions of human freedom and responsibility. This is by no means a harmless consequence of the dominant assumptions still so little examined within the university.
I will illustrate also from the social sciences of which economics is today by far the most important. The assumptions of economics are different from those of the natural sciences, although they overlap. Economics is founded on the assumption that there are individual human beings who behave purposefully. Each individual purposes to satisfy as many desires as possible at the least cost in labor. Individuals are related to one another through market transactions and contracts. The free market provides the possibility of exchanges of goods and labor that always benefit both parties. The value of everything other than human beings is the price that will be paid for it in the market.
There is no doubt that a great deal of what goes on in the world can be understood well with this model. However, a great deal cannot, and the results of shaping so much of what we do as if the model were an adequate account of human beings and their relations is doing enormous harm in the world. We do not have time to discuss this in detail. I will only point out some features of human existence that are omitted from the model and the consequences of the policies that are affected by these omissions.
First, there is no awareness of the personal relationships that are crucial to human well being. I will formulate that in terms of the absence of any notion of human community. The result is that policies based on this model consistently destroy communities.
Second, there is no attention to justice. When governments follow the policies encouraged by most economists and leave the distribution of income to market forces, it becomes more and more unequal. The rich gain not only economic power but also political power, which enables them to influence government to help them become richer.. They gain control over education and the media as well. They have the power to exploit the weakness of the poor, and this power is almost always used for that purpose. The social fabric is stretched to the breaking point.
Third, there is no attention to the natural world. Often this is avoided with an explicit affirmation that its ability to provide resources for the economy has no practical limits. New technology can always find a way. This is simply wrong, as the world is learning to its distress from global warming and the collapse of fisheries, to cite only two of many problems.
- Jesus and the University
- Following Jesus Today
My critique of the university makes clear that I do not believe that the widespread turn from discipleship to Jesus to acceptance of its authority is a wise one. If we adopted the norm of quantity of information, it is obvious that the university has a thousand-fold superiority. But the guidance we need is not provided by information. When this is organized by inadequate assumptions and set in a context that provides no wisdom or vision, information can do more harm than good. When it is manipulated for the interests of an elite class that is not interested in the common good, the situation is still worse. For my own part, I am not at all tempted to turn for guidance from Jesus to the university.
I trust from what I have said before that no one will suppose that I dismiss all that has been learned by the university. That would be absurd. The question that is important for the present discussion is the point of view. Do I view Jesus through the supposedly objective approach of the university as one figure among others who held and taught idiosyncratic and now outdated ideas? Or do I view the university from the point of view of Jesus to ask what I can learn from it that will enable me to contribute to God’s work of bringing the basileia theou? You will understand that my choice is unequivocally for the second of these options. What the university can teach me is vast, but it does not provide the point of view from which that information can be used for the salvation of the world.
Let me provide what may seem a more practical and realistic illustration of the difference. Let us suppose, what is in fact quite unlikely, that Harvard University would decide that it should address the problems of the world Let us suppose that it brought together its leading scholars from a dozen departments to think together about what changes should be made in the current world order. What might we expect this distinguished group of scholars to conclude?
My expectation is that they would call for adjustments in the current global economy to take account of the special needs of Africa and perhaps some other regions. They might call for more international regulation of the oceans. They might support the Kyoto Protocols. They might recommend a more balanced approach on the part of the United States to the Israel/Palestine controversies. They might ask for the restoration of some civil rights taken away from American citizens through the Patriot Act. They might call for moderation in the World Bank pressure for unregulated labor markets. They might call for stronger international work to deal with the threat of global plagues. They might encourage the United States to work more closely with the United Nations. They might even call for a Tobin tax on international financial transactions to finance the United Nations and expand its programs.
I am viewing the prospects optimistically and suggesting that they might support a list of proposals that I would support. It is also possible that they would support the current neoliberal program calling for less governmental control, less restriction on foreign corporations, and total trust in the global market. They might argue for the strengthening of American hegemony to enforce all these policies, and to make sure that the United States would control global natural resources, especially oil. But to make my case I am supposing the best results I can imagine.
Now let us consider the results when the World Council of Churches assembles a far less distinguished group of Christians from around the world to reflect on similar matters. We have some idea what to expect because this happens from time to time. Whereas the Harvard group would take for granted the basic structures of the global economy, the WCC group would question and challenge it fundamentally. They would argue that another world is possible. Whereas the Harvard group would take for granted U.S. hegemony, the WCC group would call for a world no longer dominated by one superpower. Whereas the Harvard group would respond to particular extreme cases of environmental problems, the WCC group would ask for a fundamental change in the way human beings look at nature. In short, whereas the Harvard group would discuss reforms that are not deeply threatening to the powers that be, the WCC group would be likely to call for resistance.
It is my judgment that the reforms that a morally concerned group of elite faculty would propose, even if all were quickly enacted, would not change the course of world affairs in such a way as to avoid catastrophe for the planet. A deeper analysis of the world’s problems can easily show the reality of this threat, but American academicians are on the whole unwilling to enter such waters. They view the world from the perspective of the elite of the world’s one superpower. Nothing in the ethos of the university suggests that they should do otherwise.
On the other hand, the scholarship of the Christians brought together by the World Council of Churches will not compare with that of the Harvard group. From the point of view of the university, much of their analysis will appear unrealistic, even misdirected. No doubt they will make more factual mistakes than the Harvard professors. Nevertheless, I expect of this group much more than I expect from the Harvard group.
The members of the WCC group will come from many countries and view the world more from the perspective of the periphery than from the center. It is true that most of them belong to the elites of their own countries, since it is difficult to bring the really poor together for such meetings. However, most of them, as Christians, understand that they should view matters from the point of view of the masses of the people. They at least make some effort to do so. What they see needed from this perspective is not minor reform of current patterns but a quite different world order. As one who shares their concerns, I earnestly hope they will not abandon Jesus for the university.
When one compares the probable conclusions of two such groups, one sees the effects of Jesus. It may not lead to differences about particular facts. But those not influenced by Jesus will view these facts from the secure position of the top. Those influenced by Jesus will view them primarily from the point of view of the bottom. This simple difference has enormous consequences. It has never been more important for the human future that policies and activities be directed by the view from the bottom.
I have been speaking of the need to resist the imperial order in which we, like Jesus, live. A large part of that resistance consists in demonstrating that another order is possible and far superior. The vision of this other order has practical implications for the reordering of the world system for the sake of all of its inhabitants instead of the exploitation of the many for the enrichment of the few. That will require a great deal of reflection. We cannot learn from Jesus all that we need to know in order to propose and implement the needed changes. We have much to learn from the university. But we must learn it as disciples of Jesus and not as promoters of the university’s mentality.
But to follow Jesus is not just, or even primarily, to think about how to make the world more like the divine commonwealth for which we pray. More immediately and more practically for most of us, it means strengthening Christian communities. Such strengthening certainly involves funding and membership, but that is not the main point. To strengthen them in the Christian sense is to help them become more effective embodiments of counter-cultural values.
I have put this in terms of "strengthening" since I believe that most congregations to some extent not only teach but also embody counter-cultural values. We do teach the importance of mutual care and of loving and serving others. We may not think of this as counter-cultural because the influence of Christianity in society has led to the adoption of these concerns by some outside of the church as well as within. However, although it may affect the rhetoric of international policy it rarely affects its substance. And as our society is becoming more secular, these values are fading in favor of the competitive and mutually exploitative relations of the empire.
One reason that the mega-churches have come into being is that they are skilled at organizing to provide accepting contexts for persons whose status in society otherwise depends on competitive success. There are many legitimate criticisms to be directed against some of the mega-churches, but even they also provide signs of the commonwealth’s nearness.
Success in creating communities of mutual acceptance in our churches is certainly limited, and all too often, it is conditional. In some of the mega-churches the cost may be the acceptance of the beliefs of its leaders. In others it may be the following of particular lifestyles. Of course, in smaller churches the conditions of acceptance may be equally demanding. Some people go to bars in order to get the acceptance of themselves as they are that they crave and need. To strengthen the counter-cultural character of our churches in this respect is to make acceptance less and less conditional, to enable members to share themselves and their problems more and more honestly, and to encourage them to think more freely. Needless to say, it is not easy to go very far in these directions.
The success in being a counter-cultural community expressive of the nearness of the divine commonwealth can be viewed especially by the difference between status in the congregation and status in the world. Already in the early church there were times when persons of wealth and social status were given far more attention in the congregation than were the poor. Throughout history the church has fallen short in this respect. Nevertheless, there is within the congregation some tendency to minimize the social and economic roles of the members and to treat people as members one of another in the Christian fellowship. That tendency always needs strengthening. All of us live in the imperial, hierarchical society as well as the church. All of us need constant reminding that status in the world does not determine the worth or importance of the individual in the divine commonwealth. A healthy Christian congregation gives special attention to its members when they are in special need. This is true for rich and poor alike, and it is not connected to the ability of the needy to contribute to the life of the congregation. In some times and places congregations can and will deal with the financial needs of their members. Today most are not able to do that. This is a serious loss that reduces the possibility of modeling the other world that is possible, the divine commonwealth.
The church has, over the years, produced communities other than congregations that are sometimes able to embody the counter-cultural values more effectively than most congregations. I will close with a description of the Christian community in which I am now privileged to live. It is a retirement community, because of that it is much easier to ignore the status that its members once had in the wider society.
The community was established by Congregationalists who gave it the name of Pilgrim Place. Those of us who are retired here are known, accordingly, as Pilgrims. Originally, the community was to provide homes for retired missionaries. Even now about half of the residents have served extensively outside the United States, but this is no longer required. Still, in order to be admitted one must have been engaged in professional Christian work of some kind.
For the most part we come from the liberal or progressive wing of the Protestant church. Recently we have been joined by a good number of Roman Catholic lay people, who have found ways to give their lives in Christian service, especially through the Grail. They find ours a fully congenial context, and we find them a wonderful addition. We hope we will grow in ecumenicity.
I am describing it here, however, in terms of the extent to which it is organized and operated by the counter-cultural values of Jesus. I will consider this under two headings: first, the relations among us in comparison with relations within the hierarchical society; and second, financial matters.
When people enter the community it matters rather little what status they have had in church or society. New Pilgrims are welcomed simply as Pilgrims. Most of us hardly know who they were before they came. Acceptance is essentially unconditional. Once they are here they are fully part of the community. Because there are many jobs that Pilgrims need to do, we hope that newcomers will join in service to community, but we understand and accept the occasional resistance that expectation meets. This is especially true for those who continue to be especially active outside the community. All are free to plot the paths that make sense to them. Nevertheless, the milieu is one of mutual service. And when any have special needs, they can count on others giving what support they can.
We are highly organized in a town meeting with many committees. We appreciate the hard work and leadership that some are willing to give. But leadership is not power over. It is a special form of service to the community. I have never been aware of anyone seeking power over others. As myself one who remains quite active outside the community, I am very grateful to those who are willing to take on the hard work of leadership.
With regard to finances there are possibilities here not available to most congregations. Until recently the pattern was not to consider the financial situation of an applicant for admission until after the admission process was complete. Most of those admitted have been able to pay the normal rent and fees. But a few needed help from the time of admission and in many cases, as time passed, there has been need of assistance. Although Pilgrim Place does not assume the legal responsibility to care for life for all who enter, it is understood that it will do so. Fellow Pilgrims ensure that this will be possible.
This is done in two ways. Those of us who are able are asked for annual contributions to the budget that keep fees from rising as rapidly as they otherwise might. More interesting and distinctive, Pilgrims put on an annual two-day festival shortly before Thanksgiving. This has become a major event for the whole Claremont community with hundreds of non-Pilgrim’s volunteering their services for some period during those two days. Many Pilgrims work all year to prepare for the festival and to engage in activities that make money for it. The net profit has been around $200,000 a year in recent years. This all goes to help those whose resources have been depleted. This is supplemented when needed by interest on an endowment that has been accumulated over the years for this same purpose.
Only two or three people know who are being helped in this way. We are eager that there be no distinction among Pilgrims based on their financial situation. We have been quite successful in this regard.
We believe that in our life together here the divine commonwealth has drawn near. We think that Pilgrim Place not only embodies the values of Jesus in much the way the early congregations did, but we think it also bodies these values forth visibly for the Claremont community. We think that is why so many are glad to volunteer their time to help us. We think it also suggests to many that, indeed, another world is possible.
I emphasized that being a retirement community enables us to go further in embodying the values of Jesus than can most congregations. But I want also to make clear that we, too, have problems and limitations. The early communities of Jesus’ followers were not free of problems! Certainly we are not.
A few years ago we went through and agonizing discussion of whether we should continue the policy of admitting people without regard to their financial condition. We decided that we would have to change. We could support a few who, from the beginning, would be dependent on the community but not many. In admitting new people, we would have to know what commitments we were making.
The problem was especially acute because our policy of accepting people and taking care of them regardless of their financial condition was well known. There were a few instances where, before coming to Pilgrim Place, people gave away the assets that might have made them self-supporting. This was understandable. For example missionaries in Africa might decide that the needs there were so critical that they should give their assets to needy institutions there before retiring to Pilgrim Place. They could do so because their needs here would be met. This might be admirable, but if many followed suit, our ability to take care of one another would come to an end.
I end on this note of realism because it is important that in our efforts to live from the nearness of the divine commonwealth we recognize that there will always be problems and dilemmas. To organize a community according to Jesus’ values in a world that is based on quite different values is always a struggle and never completely successful. But that does not make the effort futile or the results worthless. Another world is possible, and even now we can live in and from its nearness. To do so is to follow Jesus in our time.