Preface to the University Press of America Edition

The Structure of Christian Existence
by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Preface to the University Press of America Edition

I am grateful to the University Press of America for making this book available again. It is a book into which I poured my most creative energies during the mid-sixties. In attempting to locate Christian existence in the history of the planet, it embodied daring speculation of a sort I would still like to encourage in myself and others. At the time I wrote I thought I was breaking new ground that should point in new directions for the development of Christian theology.

In one respect I was right. Christian theologians have increasingly come to view their work in a global context that takes seriously the other great religious traditions or Ways of humankind. Further, among these other ways Buddhism has exercised for many, as for me, a peculiar fascination. I rejoice in these developments and see my book as still having something to contribute to this discussion.

But other developments have occurred that have forced changes in the perspective from which this book was written. In the mid-sixties I opposed a unilinear view of human progress, but I continued to trace in the history of religions a progress from primitive, through archaic, civilized, and axial forms. I saw that something was lost in each transition, but emotionally for me the commitment was to what had been gained. I was, at a deep level, a “supersessionist.”

Reflections forced on me by my awareness of the negativities of the modern world has step by painful step led me to rethink all that. The changes have not been as much at the descriptive as at the valuational level, but these cannot be torn apart. I still believe that something was gained through the transitions described, but I am now emotionally aware of the enormous price that has been paid and the greatness of what was sacrificed. I have been compelled, especially by Paul Shepard, to a deep appreciation of primal existence and to the recognition that I failed abysmally to do justice to this longest-lasting of all forms of human existence. The image of the fall now seems profoundly pertinent to the account of the shift from that existence to the archaic one, and “civilized” no longer functions for me as a term laden with positive valuation.

A second great change since the mid-sixties has been the rise of feminism. To re-read what I wrote before that movement had made its impact has its painful aspect. How utterly oblivious I was to gender issues: I do not refer only to the unrelievedly masculine language of the book. I refer also to the fact that the history it traces is undoubtedly a predominantly male one. Even today I would not know how to rewrite the book to take into account the experience and existence of the other half of the species, but I do know that what I have done has profound limitations that did not even occur to me at the time I was writing.

The book is dated in a third way. It was addressed to a theological community in which existentialism provided many of the most influential categories. It was a critique of the way existential theology shaped the discussion, a proposal of a way beyond. But in the process of proposing new directions, it entered deeply into the issues as defined by existentialism. The title itself bears witness to this move. This led to a way of characterizing Christian existence that is far more individualistic than my own deeper categories of thought then justified. It also led to ignoring the nonhuman world. This abstraction of “existence” from the relational matrix allowed me to highlight certain things that are otherwise neglected, and hence I do not altogether regret this accent. But I could not write that way today. Liberation theology and political theology have shifted our horizons in healthy ways completely unanticipated by me as I wrote this book.

All this means that a book that, as I wrote it, seemed to have a certain comprehensiveness, now appears narrow in its definition of the issues and its way of treating them. Of that change I am glad, since it means that I have grown. But I do not repudiate the book. What I saw then in limited and partly distorted form was there in reality to be seen. It is a part of what has happened in human history that has not yet been integrated into the ongoing discussion. It needs to be noticed and acknowledged while it awaits the time that can include it in a larger, conscientized whole.

School of Theology at Claremont, California

J. B. C.,JR.