Can the Church Help God Save the World?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.. This lecture was delivered by Dr. Cobb in November, 1999, at Drew University. Used by permission of the author.
I. Unpacking the Title
Titles are too brief to state clearly the topic of an essay or lecture. This one needs some unpacking. I will start with the end.
1. What is "the world?" Sometimes by world the entire universe is indicated. So far as I know the universe as a whole is in no imminent danger. It does not need saving. Or if it needs saving, that would be from the eventual consequences of entropy many billions of years from now. I doubt that God can save the world from that, and I am quite sure the church cannot help God to do so.
So by "the world" I intend something much more limited. I am referring to the planet Earth, and I often simply speak of the Earth. That, too, has its ambiguities. If we think of the planet in astronomic terms, it is in no special danger that we know of. If it is in danger of being destroyed by impact with a comet, or something of that sort, there is very little the church can do about it.
When we think of the Earth as in danger, we are thinking of a very thin layer on its surface. The planet will survive without it, but it is this thin layer of life on its surface that makes this planet so extraordinary, so precious. Human activity has damaged this biosphere severely already, and it threatens still more harm. It is the Earth as this living system that I have in view in the title.
Even this is not quite sufficient to clarify my meaning. When I speak of the world here, I mean to focus on the biosphere in a special way, one that some might call anthropocentric. Whereas sometimes the Earth and its biosphere are set over against humanity and its creations, I mean to include, and even accent the latter. The world of which I speak in the title is primarily the human world understood to be immersed in and inseparable from the biosphere as a whole. This does not mean that the other species with which we jointly make up the biosphere are not fully a part of the world. Their fate is important even apart from how humans are impacted by it. But the fate of the human species is foremost in my thinking. If saving the biosphere involved the extinction of the human species, that would not save the world I have in mind.
2. What, then, does it mean to "save" the world? The main problem here is that in Christian theology, in distinction from the Bible itself, "salvation" has become a kind of absolute. It is supposed that once salvation has occurred, all problems are solved, at least, all real and ultimate problems. It is assumed that there is some one all-pervasive ill from which we must be saved. This may be Hell after death or the burden of guilt here and now. In a different Christian tradition it may be social injustice and oppression.
In ordinary discourse today, and in the Bible as well, "salvation" refers to the avoidance of diverse ills. One who is drowning may be saved by a lifeguard. A bank may be saved from failing by governmental intervention. A city may be saved from destruction when a war ends before a planned bombing occurs. A species may be saved from extinction by careful management or preservation of habitat.
None of this means that there will not be further problems, further need of salvation. Indeed, the same problem may recur, and next time there may be no salvation. But this lack of finality does not minimize the importance of salvation now. Although one will eventually die, one whose life is saved now lives on and can do and be many things -- good or evil. Similarly a bank, or a city, or a species may employ its new lease on life in may ways. The term "salvation" should not be used in contexts where the problem that is overcome is trivial, but it should certainly not be limited to some final solution.
To speak of the salvation of the world assumes that the world needs saving. Of this I am fully convinced. We could spend all our time this morning describing the more serious ills that beset the human species as it is intricately involved in the biosphere. For my purposes here it will suffice to say that the dominant forces governing human behavior on the Earth today are driving events in a direction that cannot continue indefinitely. Human use of resources and pollution of the environment accelerates while the ability of the Earth to withstand such treatment declines. Unless we change course, catastrophe lies before us as physical limits are crossed.
Even more pressing, perhaps, are social problems. The same organization of the world for maximum production that is destroying the capacity of the Earth to sustain a large human population is also destroying all natural systems of human relationships. It is not only ecosystems but also human societies that have become fragile. Since the economic system also concentrates wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands and excludes the majority from participation even in its material benefits, it generates enormous suffering. The condition of many of the poor of the world is already a catastrophe. When the illusory hopes that the poor will eventually come to share in the spoils evaporate, there is danger of another form of catastrophe.
Seeing our world in such terms, I do indeed believe it is in need of saving. It cannot be saved from all catastrophes. Eco-social catastrophes are already occurring in Central America and parts of Africa, in East Timor and Kosovo, and others are inevitable. But there remains the possibility, though not the probability, that the occurrence of such local catastrophes will lead to change of direction before a far more comprehensive and consuming one occurs.
Even at best, the changed direction will not lead to an ideal world. Far from it. But it may lead to a livable one in which starvation and pestilence and genocide, the rapid extinction of species, and others of the most appalling evils of our own time will not be so prominent. That is the salvation of the world of which I am speaking.
3. The title speaks of "helping God" to save the world. That phrase contains many assumptions. On the one hand, it assumes that God does not act apart from creatures. That means that it rejects the apocalyptic themes in some Biblical writings or reinterprets them in prophetic form. It assumes that the long tradition of attributing omnipotence to God is erroneous, that God does not have a monopoly on power. What happens does not depend on God's aims alone. We cannot think of ourselves as observers watching what God is doing or waiting for God to act. We would wait and watch in vain. In the words of a ditty I learned as a teenager, God has no hands but our hands.
The phrase also assumes that God is not a creature of our imagination or language. It is a meaningless phrase unless there really is an activity in the world that transcends that of human beings. We are part of an order that is always being created. Among all the forces and powers that impinge on us, one is genuinely creative and trustworthy. For creatures to relate rightly to that activity is crucial if the world is to be saved.
The phrase also implies that God, rather than creatures, remains the primary actor in the dramas of salvation. It is not as though God had created us and then turned all responsibility over to us. The only locus of God's actions is in and through us creatures, for God does not act as one being alongside others. But God is the one who liberates, energizes, enlivens, and inspires us. Without that enspiriting presence we could do nothing, or at least we could do nothing salvific.
To speak of our helping God points to a still more specific way of thinking of how God works in and through creatures. One way of approaching this relationship is captured in the phrase: "let go and let God." This rightly points to openness to God's working through us, and there is indeed much of which we must let go if we are to be effective in helping God. But it wrongly implies that God works through us best when we are passive. In the extreme case, it suggests religious phenomena in which one enters a trance state in order that the divine Spirit may take over one's vocal cords and muscles. The Bible does not deny such occurrences or disparage them, but it does not hold them up as normative.
The more appropriate stance is one of active listening and responding to God's call. It is a stance of trusting that makes us available to the Spirit. We are willing to participate, even at some personal cost, in those projects to which we find ourselves called. We believe that when we do so there may be unforeseen, even unforeseeable outcomes that can be used to further God's purposes. But whether these occur is not decisive for our response.
4. So far I have spoken of creatures helping God to save the world. Obviously the creatures I have in mind especially are human ones. But the title speaks not of creatures in general but of one creation in particular -- the church. The remainder of this speech will be about the church. But it is important to emphasize that the possibility that the church may help God to save the world in no way implies that God does not need, and may not receive, the support of other communities, traditions, institutions, and, of course, individuals.
Indeed, even that formulation is misleading. It may be that the church's role will be much smaller than that of others. Perhaps Muslims or Buddhists will help God more than Christians. Perhaps it will be governments, universities, nongovernmental organizations, or a new political party that will lead the way. Those of us within the church know all too painfully the limits of its capacities, and we must hope eagerly that others are more ready to help God save the world than are we.
If the world is saved from global catastrophe it will be because many help God to save it, whether they see any role for God or not. God works through unbelievers as well as believers and through many types of believers. Sometimes the institutionalization of Christian belief may constitute the greatest obstacle for God to overcome.
But with all these qualifications about the limits of the church's possible help, I am convinced that its contribution is also important. It would be too much to say that it is indispensable. God works in mysterious ways that we cannot foresee. But it is my conviction that the church has a distinctive contribution to make, one that no other institution is able to make, and if the church fails to make its contribution, the chances of the world's salvation decline.
The church, too, can be thought of in many ways. Some think of a mystical body only partly realized in any earthly form. Others speak of a very specific institution or set of institutions. Some prefer to identify the church as the people of God or the community of believers, rendering its institutional expression secondary. Recently Christianity has been identified as a cultural-linguistic system embodied and promoted in the church as institution.
My own preference is to think of the church as the ever changing, and always needed, institutional expression of a socio-historical movement generated by the Christ event. My primary interest is in that movement rather than in its institutional expressions as such. But the institutions are crucial to the movement, and the health of the movement depends on how they serve it.
The focus of the movement changes through history. Sometimes the aim is primarily to create on earth a redemptive community of persons who love and serve God. Sometimes it interprets the needs to which it addresses itself in individualistic and otherworldly ways. Sometimes it seeks to extend its influence around the world. Sometimes it is content to turn inward. Sometimes it allies itself with political power to enforce its values. Sometimes it functions as a movement of protest against the powers that be. Sometimes it becomes little more than a transmitter of whatever values it finds in a culture.
Every form the movement has taken in history has been ambiguous. Sometimes it learns well from its mistakes and eschews them in future. Sometimes it does not learn and continues to repeat those mistakes.
Thus when I speak of the Christian movement I speak of a very ambiguous phenomenon in human history. My personal judgment is that it has done greater good and greater evil than any other historical movement. It continues to do both. To be a part of that movement, as I am, calls for repentance as much as for celebration. It calls for efforts to direct the energies of the movement into healing and saving channels.
To do so is to be faithful to the basic impulses of the movement. The movement retains its integrity through all manner of changes through its recurrence to its history and especially to the Christ event. This does not prevent distortions of all kinds, but it does point us to God's active and effective incarnation in the world and to God's saving purposes for the world. It calls us to participate in the working out of those purposes.
The church as the institutional expression of the movement shapes and governs most of its activities. It provides for the repeated reencounter of believers with the Biblical story and guides in its interpretation and in the determination of its current relevance. Typically the church is slow to adopt new insights that emerge here and there in the movement, but by the same token, it resists many of the most perverse errors. When it incorporates a commitment, it is usually able to direct far more sustained attention to it than would come from the less institutionalized parts of the movement alone.
5. Finally, there is the little word "can." Its meaning, I trust, is quite clear. I call attention only to the difference between "can" and "will." I am quite convinced that the church can help God save the world. I am much less sure that it will do so. But one contribution to the likelihood that it will do so is greater clarity about how it can.
II. Forming Attitudes
Probably the main influence of the church, one that can be malign or benign, is on the attitudes of people, especially its more active members. Attitudes are closely related with real beliefs, and these are in turn affected by, although not identical with, ostensible beliefs. But attitudes are also affected in less cognitive ways. Liturgy, for example, shapes attitudes in ways that are partly independent of its cognitive elements. For example, the fact that we learn to close our eyes when we pray affects attitudes toward God.
It is my belief, perhaps too optimistic, that in quite basic ways, the oldline Protestant denominations in this country are contributing positively to the attitudes that are now needed. My intention here is to point to some of those attitudes. If we are clearer about their importance, we may be able, with only modest adjustment of present practice, to do a better job of inculcating them. In Section III I will propose more daring hopes for how the church might help God save the world.
1. The church can, and normally does, promote the awareness of God. God can use those who do not believe, but there are distinctive contributions made by belief. Depending on the nature of the belief and associated attitudes, these can be positive or negative. They are negative, for example, when belief in God distracts attention from realistic appraisal of what is happening in the world or leads to the expectation that God will take care of matters independently of us.
But we are now looking for positive contributions. Awareness of God can help us dislocate ourselves from the center of everything. It can lead us toward a more realistic awareness of the reality and importance of other people in light of who and what they are for God. We may be able to attend more sensitively to the perspectives of others and modify our own accordingly. Awareness of God can encourage us to appreciate the greater appropriateness of seeking the common good rather than only our own and that of those closest to us.
Awareness of God can lead us from complacency to concern and from despair to hope. Both moves are necessary. We are not likely to help God save the world if we are complacent about its present condition and prospects. But if we despair, we will contribute nothing of value. If we are aware that we are not alone in our concern and efforts, we may be able both to face the reality honestly and to live with hope.
2. The church is beginning to help us take seriously the other creatures with whom we share the planet. Its official teaching has always included the idea that the God who created us created other creatures as well. Its sacred text informs us that before the creation of humans, and without regard to us, God saw that the other creatures were good. The text goes on to show, in the story of Noah, that God cared about the preservation of these other species.
In spite of all this, we confess that the Christian movement has been for most of its history so preoccupied with human affairs as to neglect and ignore the fate of other creatures. Indeed, matters have been worse. Many Christians, especially in the West, have claimed theological justification for brutal exploitation of other animals and unlimited appropriation of their habitat. We have treated concern about their suffering as sentimental.
Furthermore, Christian teaching in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and especially among liberal Protestant theologians, accentuated the anthropocentric tendencies of the Western tradition. In influential theologies, "creation" was restricted to the existential relation of the believer to God. The rest of the world was excluded from Christian concern. In accommodation to the contemporary mindset, "God" is treated far more as a part of what humans have created than as our creator.
Nevertheless, the understanding of the whole world as creation has remained pervasive of the life of the church. In recent decades it has been effectively reemphaisized, and the World Council of Churches has affirmed the integrity of creation. Most of our denominations have formulated statements that take seriously the natural world as a sphere of God's creative activity and concern. There is little resistance to the renewal of this Biblical emphasis in our churches. To some extent our churches are now encouraging an attitude of concern about the other creatures with which we share the planet.
3. Approaching this topic from a Biblical perspective there is little danger that we will go too far in the celebration of the Earth. "Going too far," from a Biblical and Christian perspective, is any move that would direct attention away from the central importance of human beings and our collective achievements and destiny. To celebrate the natural in such a way as to disparage human artifacts would be "going too far".
The issue of just how to balance an appreciation of natural processes with an appreciation of human creativity is complex. I will not attempt to deal with it here. I will only say that I cannot imagine a salvation of the world in which human ingenuity and inventiveness fails to play a large role. Equally, I cannot imagine a salvation of the world in which respect for natural processes and their indispensable services to the whole biosphere is not a central human attitude. I believe that the church nurtures attitudes that are relatively well balanced in this respect.
There is an important role to be played by technological enthusiasts. There is an important role to be played by those who celebrate the lifestyle of our ancestors who were far closer to nature. The latter are needed in order to check the tendencies of the former to replace the natural world with an unsustainable and inhuman artificial one. The former are needed to remind us that with our present population even our most basic needs cannot be met unless we find technologically advanced ways of intensive production from a diminishing base. But to keep these groups working together instead of against one another we need a wider horizon of understanding and an accompanying attitude that deeply respects both. I am arguing that the church does help to generate that.
4. Another dangerous duality is present in our culture which the church's teaching can help to dispel. Some focus on individuals; others, on systems. Among those who are concerned with our fellow creatures this shows up in the tension between those who affirm the rights of individual animals and those who are concerned only with landscapes and ecosystems. Among those who are concerned with human wellbeing it shows up between those who believe each individual should be given an equal opportunity and those who see these individuals as parts of systems that prevent genuine equality of opportunity from being possible.
This tension is present throughout Christian history, hence it may be misleading so suppose that the church can help. But because both individualistic and systemic emphases have played so large a role, and because such serious mistakes have been made in both directions, there may be some accumulated wisdom in the church. Perhaps its standard teaching and practice can alleviate the duality.
The church can never fail to accent the distinctive importance of each person as a child of God. In this respect its teaching is inherently and inescapably individualistic. But the church can, and at its best does, understand these individual persons to be affected, in the depths of their being, by their relations with others. In Paul's words, we are members one of another. We are not self-contained individuals who are then incidentally and externally related to others. We are who and what we are as individuals by virtue of our relations to others.
It is important, then, to help each individual as an individual. But real help involves the healing of the communities of which that individual is a member. Jesus' certainly healed individual sick people and forgave them their sins. But his message was about a transformed world in which God's will would be done. In some way, however limited, the church aims to be a community of persons in which there is deep concern for each as an individual but which understands itself as a church to be not just the sum of those individuals but a community in which together we can be more than we are as individuals. Most of our efforts to help individuals within the church are mediated through our efforts to make the church as a whole a more faithful community and institution.
5. Much the same can be said of the duality of the present and the future. The church has often called for the sacrifice of the present to the future. In extreme cases, it has tortured persons to force them to make those confessions that the church supposed would open for them the gates of heaven! At other times, apocalypticists have justified slaughter and mayhem in the name of the coming of ultimate justice and righteousness.
Partly in reaction to such sacrifice of the present to the future, the church has often taught quiescent resignation to whatever is and sheer acceptance of the circumstances of the present. To live day by day in obedience to church teaching replaces hope for a transformed world. This may involve loving and serving one's oppressors.
Confronted by profound threats to the wellbeing of the world, the issue of how to relate present and future take on new urgency for us. We know that our day-by-day participation in this affluent, consumption-oriented, society embodies an unsustainable lifestyle that is exploiting hundreds of millions of workers around the world. We urgently need some vision of a future that will be, in comparison with this, more nearly just, participatory, and sustainable. It seems that we need to live in some way from that future instead of as prisoners of the present.
But living from a radically different future is also problematic. That future will be conceived as one in which people are more fully rooted in place, so that authentic community can grow among us. Yet to live from that very different future alienates us from our own place and our present human companionship. That future will be one of serene acceptance rather than constant efforts to change, but to live from it now seems to involve anxiety and intense work to reverse directions.
Does the church help us to find a way of being now that relates us healingly both to future and to present? I think so. It is the way of faith, hope, and love. Faith means trust in the present working of God and opening ourselves to respond to God's call. Hope means believing that there can be a better tomorrow and trying to understand both what that may be and how it challenges our lives in the present. Love means genuinely caring for all persons including those caught in the present, even when they are committed to a course of action that seems to us to make matters worse.
6. One of the deepest divides in our society is between those at the top who see reality comfortably from that point of view and those at the bottom whose experience is so different. The current official declarations of the wonderful success of the U.S. economy reflect the view from the top. Those who view it from the bottom experience an absolute decline in their wages. They have to work harder and harder to make it at all, while being assured that everything is great.
The view from the top is the one that determines public policy. It is a sincere view, in the sense that millions of people share it without question. Their personal experience fits it, and the media and their friends consistently reinforce it.
It would be far too much to say that the church effectively provides an alternative for most of its members. Most of those members, although far from all, share the view from the top. They can attend church regularly and be but little disturbed in that view.
Nevertheless, there is real possibility that the more serious members of the church be exposed to the tension between these two views. Church pronouncements typically take into account to some extent the experience of the poor and excluded. They are less celebrative than the general public of the economic success story that leaves out so many. Some sermons risk disturbing the complacency of church members on this topic. Study groups within the church occasionally grapple with questions of poverty and welfare. Volunteers who work with the poor sense that there is a reality that the top-down perspective obscures.
To whatever extent the church takes the Bible seriously, it must disturb the complacency of the top-down view. It must introduce the bottom-up view to challenge it. Without that challenge, the church will not help God save the world.
The bottom-up view, furthermore, must be more inclusive than the exclusively human one of which I have spoken. The bottom includes the other species whose habitat is daily reduced and the domesticated animals who are brutally treated so that our meat will be cheap and tender. Unless the church can sensitize us to their perspective as well, it will fail to communicate the attitude apart from which the needed changes are unlikely to occur.
III. Greater Challenges for the Church
Perhaps in what I have been saying, I have expected of the church more than it is likely to do. But my intention has been to stay close to its actual practice. I believe that on the whole the attitudes that our oldline Protestant churches in this country communicate are supportive of what we need. I want to lift them up and show how our heritage supports our inculcation of these attitudes in one another. I hope in this way to assure us that much of what we are doing is on the right track, easy though it is, in these respect as well, to end up in distortions.
But I believe the church is called to do much more. I am not optimistic that on any large scale it will respond to this call. But I am confident that here and there it will, and already does. These are always matters of more and less, not all or none.
The most obvious "more" to which the church is called is to act on the beliefs and attitudes that it inculcates. I had intended to propose at this point some of these actions. But I was not sure that I had much fresh wisdom to offer. And I have decided to devote what time I have left to the church's task of thinking rather than to its task of doing. I do so because this emphasis is so much rarer at the present time. I make two proposals.
1. I believe the church is called to think seriously about its beliefs and their implications. To do so would be revolutionary both for the church and for the world. I believe the revolution in question would help God save the world.
Calling the church to serious thinking runs deeply counter to the trends of the past half century or so. Our old-line Protestant churches have abandoned theology. We have decided that theology is a specialized academic discipline of no real relevance to congregational or denominational life.
Since we make no serious effort to think together about who or what God is and what implications God's reality has for our personal or ecclesial life, we depend more and more on a shared rhetoric that has little or no reference beyond itself. Individual Christians have varied ideas about what to expect from God and how to relate to God. But as congregations and denominations we simply agree to differ and not to disturb one another. Belief in God then becomes compatible with almost anything.
In recent decades society has organized itself for the increase of wealth as its supreme goal. Whereas different portions of society were formerly structured around diverse goals, now this one has triumphed. Whereas the political order once aimed at justice and community, it now serves the economy. Whereas education once aimed at producing citizens and leaders of society, it now aims to produce good workers and others who will be successful in the market. Whereas science one aimed to push back the frontiers of knowledge, it now serves industry. Whereas medicine once aimed at human health, it has been transformed into the medical industry.
A church that took God seriously could not stand quietly by while society as a whole engaged in such blatant and acknowledged worship of the increase in wealth, but this silent acquiescence is just what has happened. This is a point on which Jesus was very clear. You cannot serve both God and wealth. Yet in most congregations today, I doubt that many people even understand the problem. They have thought so little about God, or restricted that thinking to such narrow channels, that relating their belief in God to the actual social events of their time does not seem an appropriate activity.
If society continues to worship Wealth, it is hard to imagine how God can save the world. It is the worship of Wealth that leads to the extreme economic injustices of our time. The subordination of all other considerations to the aim at Wealth leads to the degradation of the natural world, the destruction of human communities, and the near elimination of justice as a public concern. Catastrophes already abound. Unless there is a change of course, they will grow greater and more inclusive.
But to whom can we look for a challenge to the Lordship of Wealth? Of course, there are individuals who protest, but thus far these voices have proved easy to ignore. The protests are usually in terms of some one value that is being slighted in the pursuit of wealth, and the response can be one of throwing a bit of the wealth at the solution of that problem. Protesters are often bought off. We need more institutional support and embodiment for the challenge to the new religion.
What about the university? Here we have a tremendous concentration of intelligent and highly educated people of good will. We provide a remarkable amount of freedom for them to pursue their research interests. We encourage them to view phenomena from many perspectives.
In relation to the enormous wealth, power, and resources of universities, I am personally shocked at how little these great institutions do to redirect society away from its present suicidal course. Of course, there are many wonderful exceptions. I am greatly indebted to university professors among others for what understanding I have of what is happening. But if we ask for the preponderant impact of the university on our society, we must acknowledge that overwhelmingly it supports the status quo and feeds it. It has been coopted into the service of wealth. It is far more part of the problem than part of the solution.
Weak and peripheral though the church is, it has still produced more relevant criticism of the dominant social direction of our time than has the university. The World Council of Churches has given leadership. When it gathers people to come up with a position paper on current economic issues, those who come have far fewer credentials than could be found in an analogous group gathered under university auspices. But the results are typically more challenging. Gathering under church auspices, and representing Christians from many parts of the world, leads to a kind of questioning rare among academics who assemble under academic auspices.
If theological reflection were renewed in the church, if serious lay people were encouraged to think about God and about the implications of belief in the God of the Bible, the church could and would find a far more effective voice. Silent acquiescence in the worship of Wealth would end. The self-evident rightness of that worship would be brought into question in the public arena.
2. You may regard the proposal that we renew thinking about God as a quite unrealistic fantasy. You may be right. I continue to hope, and here and there I see glimmers of change that fuel that hope.
But now I will confess to a hope that seems still more farfetched. Not only would I like to see the church challenge the worship of Wealth, I would also like to see it engage in critique of the theology that supports that worship.
Perhaps I should not use the word "theology" in this extended way. I could say "theory" or "ideology." But since the theory is presented authoritatively rather than as a tentative system of hypotheses, "theory" seems too weak, and "ideology," better. And since the ideology supports a deeply religious attitude and set of institutions, I incline to stick with "theology." I am referring, of course, to the economic doctrines that are taught in almost all the graduate economic departments of our major universities. I would like to see the church challenge the "theology" that directs the affairs of a society committed to the worship of Wealth.
Before pursuing this specific proposal, I want to broaden it. This broadening may make it still more unrealistic, even outrageous. But if I fail to do so, I may leave the impression that the currently dominant school of economics is a unique case of an ideology requiring Christian critique as bad theology. That is by no means my view. Neo-liberal economics may be the most important ideology taught by the university, because of the role it has been assigned by society. But every discipline in our university, operates out of assumptions that deserve critical examination.
Even those few who agree that such critical examination is desirable may regard my call to the church to engage in it as foolish. Surely such critical examination requires expertise in the field to which it is applied, and surely that is found in the university rather than the church! This is, certainly, partly true, and one can argue that academic disciplines should be left alone to engage in their own self-criticism. One can even point out that from time to time such self-criticism does take place. So why involve so suspect at institution as the church?
My answer is that the university does not encourage the needed critique of assumptions and that the experience and convictions of the church enable it to make a valuable contribution. I will spell out the argument in five points.
First, such self-criticism as occurs within an academic discipline is rarely very radical. Those who operate within that discipline normally subscribe to its most basic purposes and assumptions. They may go quite far in pointing out how those purposes are not well served by current practices, but as participants they have no leverage for asking about fundamental purposes and assumptions. Such questioning places them outside the bounds. Indeed, when they go too far, they usually find themselves denied a continuing role within the discipline. Thus, for example, when Herman Daly challenged the commitment of economic theory to promoting economic growth, he was for all practical purposes excommunicated from the guild.
Second, preparation for leadership in academic disciplines that claim to be scientific and rarely includes the kind of study that facilitates radical self-criticism. In most instances, even the history of a discipline is little studied. There is a strong tendency to take the present form as normal and normative. For example, the history of economics is little studied in departments of economics, the history of biology, in departments of biology, the history of corporations, in business schools. Historical consciousness opens the door to contrasting what is with what has been and, indirectly, with what might be. Without fostering that consciousness, the university discourages radical criticism.
Third, those disciplines in which self-criticism is better developed are unlikely to engage disciplines other than their own. In the humanities historical study is often prominent. In the study of literary criticism, for example, one may well study the history of literary criticism. As a result there is more likely to be a criticism of the assumptions of one generation of literary critics by the next. But it is unlikely that those trained in literary criticism will direct their attention to biology or economics or business.
Philosophy was once the discipline assigned the task of understanding the whole. It engaged, therefore, in analysis of assumptions generally and this could include those of other disciplines and institutions. However, philosophy in this country abandoned its synthetic and universal task in favor of identifying its own limited subject matter alongside that of other disciplines and developing methods for its study.
Fourth, where there are moves in the direction of assumption criticism, there is still need for much more. Philosophy, especially in its continental forms, resists being so narrowly enclosed. Post-structuralism raises questions that apply across the board, and it pursues these in many and fascinating ways. It challenges the complacency of the sciences as well as the humanities, but we still await sustained and systematic deconstruction of physics, biology, or economics.
The leaders in assumption-criticism have been feminists. This is because they have a clear positive agenda of a sort that cannot be identified for poststructural deconstructionists in general. Their positive insights enable them to see the distinctively patriarchal character of the assumptions underlying the sciences and social studies. Their challenge is a powerful one.
When I call on the church to engage in this critical task, I do not ask it to claim the field to itself. Where feminists have led the way, we should celebrate and promote their work. If deconstructionists will engage in this work, that too should be affirmed. All our current disciplines and institutions embody distortions that inhibit their helping God to save the world. All need criticism. There is so much to do that competing for the right to do it would be ridiculous.
Fifth, not only does assumption criticism need expansion, but Christians from the oldline Protestant denominations who take their faith seriously and thoughtfully are positioned to make important and distinctive contributions. I offer three reasons.
One, we are accustomed to a self-criticism of the church that goes far beyond that of any other institution. We are preoccupied with questions of fundamental assumptions and their validity. Our study of theology is primarily historical, and the historical methods we use are highly relativizing. We have paid a high price for this self-relativization, but we have not abandoned it. In short, assumption criticism is for us at the heart of our intellectual work.
Two, we tend to think that our beliefs need to be informed by what is known by others and that they have some relevance to what others should think. It is true that many of our leaders, especially in the neo-orthodox epoch, argued that theology was one academic discipline alongside others, much as philosophy had done. This meant abandoning the idea that our affirmations are dependent on what others learn and may contribute to them.
If we make that move, and many have, then the project to which I call the church cannot be pursued. But I am arguing that there are impulses within our movement that work against these fixed boundaries and push toward openness and influence. If we recognize that by breaking down boundaries we have a much better chance of helping God save the world, this may encourage us to do so.
Three, like feminists, we have positive convictions and commitments that sharpen our perception of the nature of the assumptions underlying other disciplines. For example, if we believe that God is at work in the world, we will be immediately aware of contrary assumptions when we study another discipline. If that discipline is set up to be self-enclosed so as to exclude the possibility of divine influence on those it studies, we can easily point this out. Of course, that does not prove that the assumption of self-enclosedness is wrong, but it opens up the possibility of reconsideration.
It would be interesting to pursue this point in relation to biology and especially its evolutionary theory, where the commitment to excluding any possible role for God has led to denying that creaturely purpose can influence evolutionary processes. The implications of this assumption are sometimes quite evidently counterfactual, but the way evolutionists cling to this assumption shows that it has religious importance for true believers.
However, it is time to return to economics. Here one may suppose there is a place for some kind of God in the invisible hand that turns universal selfishness into the instrument of the universal good. But Christians can rejoice that economists have learned to do without God at that point. The exclusion of the Christian God is clearest in economics at the point of limiting human behavior to rational behavior and defining that as self-interested behavior. What is excluded is any genuine interest in others or in the common good. Excluded also is any judgment that it is better to satisfy some desires rather than others.
Similarly, concern for justice or fairness is systematically excluded. As this anthropology increasingly displaces the Christian one, human behavior and public policy adapt to the new normative description. Also, the value of anything is necessarily only what some human being will pay for it in the market place. Hence the natural world exists only as resource and commodity for human use. The notion that something other than the satisfaction of a human desire could have value in itself, or for God, is systematically denied.
The exclusion of God is achieved by viewing human beings as wholly self-enclosed individuals. Along with the relation to God, the relation to other human beings is also excluded. Hence community counts for nothing. The destruction of human community in the pursuit of aggregate Wealth is affirmed and celebrated whatever the actual price in human suffering and in the degradation of the Earth.
Thoughtful Christians are in position to challenge these assumptions. To point them out and to note that there are other options against which no arguments have been given does not refute these assumptions. But it relativizes them. In doing so, in principle, it relativizes the devotion to Wealth to which these assumptions give rise and the theology that embodies and develops them. It suggests that society should reconsider the course of action to which total commitment to such doubtful assumptions give rise.
Christians can, of course, go farther. We can propose alternative assumptions more congenial to the best in our heritage. We can seek allies among adherents of other faiths, among deconstructionists, among feminists, among animal liberationsists, among environmentalists, among multiculturalists, among liberationists, and among humanists in formulating these assumptions and together point the directions in which a society based on these other assumptions would move. We can help God save the world. Perhaps we will.