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Christology in the United States

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 cobbj@cgu.edu.. The following essay was presented to a meeting of the American Association of Religion in 1995.  Used by permission of the author.


              Since 1965 the character of theology in the United States has changed drastically.  For the thirty years preceding that date, the discussion of theology in general and of Christology in particular had centered around the issues between traditional American liberalism and the neo-Orthodoxy that was brought in from Central Europe.  Defenders of philosophical theology and of humanistic Christologies had been put on the defensive by the new currents from the European continent.

            The Death of God theology and other developments of the late sixties changed the character of the discussion.  Both the liberal and the Neo-Orthodox traditions were put on defensive by Black Theology, Latin American liberation theology, and feminist theology.  Many other special issues were raised.  It became clear that not only the traditional doctrines of Christology, but the whole context in which the discussion was couched was problematic.  In general, the questions of intelligibility and credibility that had dominated the liberal agenda and the questions of continuity with the tradition that had dominated the Neo-orthodox one gave way to issues of praxis.  What effect did Christological affirmations have on behavior?  Whose interests did they support? 

            Much of the resultant work on Christology has been critical.  Many of those who have treated the topic have felt no need to develop affirmative Christologies of their own.  But still construtive Christological work has been done in this context.                       

            Nowhere does the pluralism of current American theology come to expression more vividly than in this Christology.  The diversity is not limited to the content of the doctrine.  It lies first in the understanding of the question that is being asked.  What counts as a responsible approach to Christology?  This differs in the several distinct but overlapping groups within which theological work proceeds.  The next and major section of this essay will propose a fourfold typology of the ways in which the Christological task is understood.

                                                                             II

            There is one group of theologians that understands the task of Christology quite traditionally.  Christ is the central focus of the church, and the church's task in each generation is to clarify who Christ is.  The church lives in a changing world, so that even though Christ is unchanged, the witness to Christ must change.  The language used in the ancient creeds no longer communicates; so what those creeds said in their time must be restated for our time.  This is both for the sake of believers and for apologetical purposes.  The gospel should not be identified with archaic formulations.  Its real scandal should be heard by removing the false scandals associated with an alien and outdated worldview.

            Members of this group differ in their judgments as to which features of the changing situation are most to be considered in the reformulation of the unchanging message.  Some focus on conceptual problems highlighted by changing worldviews.  Some emphasize the linguistic turn and the deepened understanding of metaphor, myth, and symbol that has come from it.  Some are alarmed by what human beings are doing to their physical environment and concerned about the role of theology in distracting attention from this.  Some are most impressed by liberation movements and the new recognition of the liberating power of the gospel.  Some are struck by the new awareness of the role of gender in shaping thought and language.  Some attend to the growing recognition of the intrinsic value and validity of other great religious traditions.  Some are particularly sensitive to how Christology affects Christian attitudes and actions toward the Jews.  Hence, even though I speak of this as one group, the Christologies that its members offer are quite diverse. 

            There is a second group that believes that Christology can no longer be carried on primarily as an inner-Christian activity.  This whole traditional program should be criticized from broader human perspectives.  The theological task is to view the long inner-Christian program of self-reflection in light of the global situation or of the new awareness of the autonomy of ethics or the obvious importance of peace among religions or commitment to the liberation of the oppressed.  All the issues mentioned above reappear here; so once again the variety is great within this community.  What unites it is the conviction that integrity demands attention to new understanding as it arises outside the church and acceptance of the norms that understanding involves.  Christology should be reconstructed in light of these norms.

            This classification of theologies separates theologians who are quite close to one another and groups some whose horizons and work are quite diverse.  Some who understand the task of theology to be faithfulness to the one gospel long ago given may yet engage in quite radical reformulation as a result of their reflections on the Holocaust.  What they say may be quite similar to the positions of others who believe that in light of the Holocaust Christians must acknowledge the validity of norms and truths they do not derive from their own revelation and must revise their doctrines accordingly. 

            Yet there is also a deep difference, and it is to this difference that I am calling attention.  In the first case the theologians believe that they are simply clarifying a truth that has always been known and believed in such a way that certain distortions will not recur.  In the second case theologians believe that what has been known by Christians in the past must be confronted by a quite different knowledge that has arisen through recent experience and that has at least equal authority.

            Some of the clearest examples of this second group are to be found in the writings of feminist theologians.  To be a feminist theologian is to affirm the authority of women's experience and the goal of overcoming patriarchy.  The authority of women's experience and commitment to this goal are maintained independently of whether they can be justified by appeal to Christian tradition, including the Bible.  Indeed, more energy is typically devoted to exposing the patriarchy of both than in showing that historic Christianity now supports feminism.  Yet feminism becomes feminist theology only when it undertakes to show that within the Christian tradition there also lie possibilities of reformulation that can accommodate feminism.  Feminist theology is a call for a revolutionary transformation of Christianity in which those elements that are supportive of feminism come to dominance.  But the appeal is to the intrinsic merit of feminist insights and goals as much as to the Christian tradition.

            Rita Brock has recently written a feminist Christology that fits the model I am describing.  She begins by setting aside the paradigm of sin and forgiveness as the basic understanding of what is wrong and how it is made right.  She replaces this with the paradigm of damage and healing.  She supports this shift first by appeal to current psychological wisdom, especially to the work of  Alice Miller.  If that to which the New Testament bears witness can now be acknowledged as salvific, it must be in terms of healing those who are damaged more than of forgiving sinners. 

            Brock finds plenty of evidence in the New Testament account of Jesus that he was indeed a healer.  But she does not believe that focusing on Jesus as an individual is healing today.  It encourages both individualism and authoritarianism.  Instead, we need to see how Jesus himself was sustained by a community, a community in which women played a central healing role, a community that healed Jesus.  It is this "Christa-community" that healed then and has the power to heal today.

            Another clear example of this kind of theology can be found in John Hick.  He is professionally a philosopher, but his deep concern with Christian theology, and specifically Christology, is manifest in his writings.  At one time he held to a Christology that he would now characterize as exclusivist.  But his encounter with Muslims in Birmingham forced him to reject this mindset.  Since then he has been pressing for Christians to change their Christologies, not because they are unfaithful to Jesus Christ but because they are demonstrably falsifying of what occurs in other religious communities and obviously destructive in Christian relations to these communities.

            John Hick appeals to a deep commonality in the great religious traditions despite his keen awareness of their differences.  In doing so he stands in the tradition of Schleiermacher who discerned behind the diverse religions a shared experience of absolute dependence on God.  Much of liberal theology through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appealed to some such common element in all the religions as a basis for mutual understanding among them as well as for norms to determine which is the best.

            A third group of theologians has emerged in reaction to this tendency to appeal from the particularities of Christianity to religious experience in general.  This appeal to religious experience or some religious universal assumes that despite the diverse linguistic formulations to be found in the several religious communities, all are relating to the one God or the one Ultimate Reality.  The third group rejects this radically. 

            In doing so this group is positively influenced by developments in contemporary philosophy and the social sciences that stress the impossibility of getting beyond particular languages to a reality of which they speak.  The implication is that each community lives by and in a "cultural-linguistic" system.  George Lindbeck's book,The Nature of Doctrine, signaled the emergence of this theological approach and gave great impetus to it.

            Although this group arose primarily in reaction to the appeal to religious experience, it is also fully cognizant that its position radically excludes the kind of feminist theology represented by Rita Brock.  There can be no appeal to woman's experience or to contemporary psychological knowledge for norms by which to evaluate the Christian revelation.  The revelation must be the sole judge of the validity of woman's experience and of psychological theories insofar as they are to function theologically.

            This group shares much with the first.  Theology must be done from within the cultural-linguistic community by appeal to its own traditions.  But the ethos of this group differs from that of the first.  The traditions themselves have allowed a place for common human experience.  Within them various forms of "natural theology," whether under that rubric or another, have played a large role.  There has been a strong tendency to believe that the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ is also God of all peoples, indeed of the whole of creation.  Hence the missionary enterprise often seeks points of contact for the gospel.  There is even some openness to learn from others about their experience of the same God.

            This third group rejects natural theology radically.  Any appeal to sources of knowledge outside of Christian revelation is opposed.  Christ is the only revelation, and the task of theology in general and of Christology in particular is to witness only to him.  If feminists are to participate in Christian theology, they must display the justice of their cause through their interpretation of the one revelation. 

            The similarities with Barth are obvious and affirmed, and his influence is strong.  Nevertheless, there is also a difference.  In Lindbeck's formulation, the context is radically pluralistic.  Theology is for the sake of Christians.  Other communities have other cultural-linguistic systems.  The implication is one of live and let live.  The Christian task is to deepen our immersion in our own system, to allow it to shape our individual and collective lives.  Whether this involves witnessing to members of other communities is by no means clear.  Also, the God of whom Christians speak is so tied to Jesus that nothing can be said of how this God relates to those who do not live from faith in the revelation in Jesus.

            A fourth group accepts the cultural relativism of the third, but interprets it differently.  It assumes that from the perspectives that come to expression in cultural-linguistic systems and are shaped by them, something of reality is seen.  What is seen is not the same as what is seen by members of other communities.  Hence there is a circularity between perspective and what is seen.  But the interaction of communities can change both and lead to each seeing elements of reality not seen before.  Cultural-linguistic systems are not self-enclosed.  They are historical.  The task is not to preserve them unchanged but to develop them in ways that increase their grasp of reality.

            The difference in assumptions here is all-important.  Whereas much of recent thought has denied that language refers beyond itself to anything other than language, this fourth group is not persuaded.  For this reason, it cultivates dialogue.  Although the cultural-linguistic system of Christians is very different from that of Buddhists, in dialogue Christians appear to gain the ability to see some things they had not noticed before, and the same seems to be true for Buddhists.

            From this point of view, much of what is of concern to the second group can be affirmed.  Members of this fourth group believe that contemporary psychologists have learned some things about human reality that Christians would never have learned through closer attention to their specific revelation.  Also, attention to the experience of women has brought to light much about the past and present and the nature of reality in general that could have been learned only in this way.  Theology should assimilate this new understanding.

            To this point there is agreement with some members of the first group who are engaged in quite radical revision of past formulations in their efforts to reformulate the unchanging gospel.  But there is a difference.  The dialogical approach of the fourth group is open to the possibility that what it learns from the other has a normative importance for theology.  The new doctrinal formulation must acknowledge the authority both of the Christian revelation and of women's experience or of Buddhist wisdom gained through Enlightenment.  Here this group sides with the second.

            But there is a difference from the second as well.  For the fourth group what is done in accepting the normative role of a wisdom that arose outside of the community of Christian faith must itself be understood as an expression of faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  One must be open to all the sources to which Rita Brock and John Hick attribute normative authority because one is a Christian believer.  The central task in formulating a Christology is to show that believing in Jesus Christ calls one to learn whatever can be learned whatever the source.

            This also requires, of course, that Christ remains the basis on which Christians judge the truth of the purported insights and wisdom of other communities.  This brings this group back in touch with the first.  Still, there is a difference.  In the first group Christian revelation functions as a once-for-all given.  There can be radical changes in formulation, but the theologians understand what they are doing as bringing to clearer and more adequate expression what has already been there in the revelation.  For the fourth group the revelation calls for its own transcending.  It must be shown to provide within itself the ability to judge when a change is in fact a going beyond and when it is a falling beneath.  But the judgment is not based on similarity to what is already revealed or to conformity to any norms implicit in it.

            Rosemary Reuther belongs to this fourth group, at least in some of her writings.  She takes as normative for Christians the prophetic tradition.  She recongizes that this tradition is as patriarchal as any of the other traditions in the Bible.  But it has at its heart a principle of critique and repentance.  To be faithful to that tradition today is not to criticize only what it criticized but to criticize even that tradition in light of new recognition of oppression an injustice.  The repentance to which we are now called is quite different from that to which Israel was called.  But becoming different in that way is precisely what faithfulness to that tradition entails.

            In the academic scene in the United States, the second group, which in this typology may appear to be extreme, is in fact the mediating one.  Much of the energy that goes into reflection about the Christian tradition in general, and Christology in particular, is generated by awareness of its oppressive character.  Many religious thinkers seek to free themselves and others from this oppression by tearing down all Christological claims.  Their norms, in their own understanding, come from quite different sources.  Their sense of what is religiously healthy requires them to separate themselves wholly from the church and from the Christian tradition.  They are post-Christian and anti-Christian.  Those who share in the criticisms but believe that they can be internalized into Christianity are in the minority among the academic students of religion and are often ridiculed and ostracized by the dominant group.

            The theological typology offered above was designed to show the precariousness of this group within the theological community.  Their role is to offer revolutionary proposals within theology so as to rebuild a bridge to those who have rejected all of its traditional forms.  A crucial judgment that the church must make is whether to reject their offerings because of their ambiguous character and radical demands or to seize upon them as an occasion for repentance for that in our history which now appears evil to so many sensitive critics.

            Most theologians are deeply dissatisfied with the present state of the church.  This is least true of theologians in the first group.  They view the present situation, with all of its urgent need for reformulations, as continuous with a long past rather than as a decisive crisis.  But the other three groups do feel the sense of crisis keenly.

            For the second group the crisis is whether persons who are awakened to the evils inflicted on the world by Christianity can remain Christian with integrity.  This will be possible only if the church repents.  If it does not, then it will be left to those who do not see the need of repentance, who will blindly or even wilfully continue the oppressions of the past.

            For the third group the crisis is one of Christian identity.  The church has been acculturated in such a way that it no longer witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Its members no longer know what it means to be Christian.  They cannot distinguish the gospel from all kinds of beliefs widespread in the secular world.  Unless the church reclaims its distinctive message, its distinctive language, and its distinctive practices, it will merge into the general culture, sanctioning whatever positions and ideas are currently dominant.

            For the fourth group the crisis is partly defined by the two directions indicated.  There is truth in both, but as they are formulated, each seems to reject the truth in the other.  To fail to repent will be to continue in sin, and that cannot be the right direction for the church!  But if the norms that govern the needed metanoia are found only outside the church, then the identity of the church is indeed threatened.  There is, indeed, need to renew the faithfulness that establishes our identity as Christians and not to confuse this with whatever is current and dominant in the culture.  But if that is done by closing itself to the truth and wisdom that others offer us, we will be impoverished indeed!

                                                                             II

            I have already indicated that there are other ways to classify Christological work in the United States.  We could discuss that work that is being done in response to the Holocaust, that which is being done in the horizon of world religions, that which is being done as an expression of the experience of oppression, as by Blacks, and so forth.  This variety is the most obvious feature of American Christology.  And this classification cuts across that which I have offered.

            There are also other issues that cut across both of these classifications.  One may be called ontological.  Historically even when Christians have used the extreme language, "Jesus is God," they have not meant that God is Jesus.  God has been assumed to be present throughout the creation in ways that Jesus was not.

            However, in the twentieth century, many have rejected metaphysics.  For some theologians this has meant that our knowledge of the one God who created heaven and earth comes to us through revelation rather than philosophy.  But for others, it has meant that talk of God must be talk of some natural or historical reality since we no longer believe that any other talk has meaning.  In this case "God" names some aspect of natural or historical reality, and if "God" names Jesus or what may be called the Christ-event, then there is no reference of the word "God" except Jesus or the Christ-event.

            This issue is more directly about the doctrine of God than strictly Christology, but it deeply affects Christology as well.  It cuts across the divisions indicated above.  One may understand the Christological task in any of the four ways identified above and come down on either side of this divide.  But the tendency to maintain a distinction between Jesus and God, attributing to them different ontological status, is strongest in the first and fourth, and the tendency to identify God with the revelation of God is strongest in the second and third, which in other ways seem to be most strongly opposed to one another.

            Among those theologians who do have a realistic doctrine of God, the distinction of Christology from above and Christology from below is meaningful.  Traditional forms of the former are likely to be found only in the first group identified in Section I of this paper, but analogous disctinctions can be made also within the fourth group.  The distinction between Alexandrian and Antiochene types of theology can also be made, and although these tend to correspond to the previous distinction, they are not identical with it.  And traditional Catholic-Protestant distinctions and distinctions among Protestant traditions are still visible among Christologies.

            Nevertheless, despite the continuing relevance of these traditional distinctions, they appear as secondary issues in the wider horizon of Christological discussion in the United States.  In this discussion the traditional approaches to reflecting on Christology are themselves rendered highly problematic.  It is this problematic, rather than the differences among the traditional approaches, that constitute the distinctive American contribution to Christology at this time.


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