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The Christology of John Cobb

by James C. Carpenter

James C. Carpenter (Ph.D., Vanderbilt University, 1975) is Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, North Carolina. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 103-115, Vol. 6, Number 2, Summer, 1976. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


In "A Whiteheadian Christology" John Cobb suggests that the classical problem for Christian theology remains "to explain how we can intelligibly affirm the unique presence of God in Jesus in such a way as to avoid detracting from his humanity and yet explain his strange authority" (PPCT 383). Our concern will be whether we can intelligibly affirm Cobbís Whiteheadian Christology to be a satisfactory resolution of this classical problem by examining critically what of our own humanity and the humanity of Jesus is allegedly opened by Cobb in his attempt to achieve that end.

Cobb fashions what he views as two distinct though related problems. First, there is the general problem of accounting for Godís presence in any person without displacing some aspect of that personís humanity. Secondly, there is the special problem of accounting for Godís unique presence in Jesus (PPCT 383, 385). He works toward the resolution of these two problems through an amplification of the Whiteheadian notion that the presence within a presently concrescing actual occasion of a contiguously related occasion in its past does not necessarily conflict with the self-determination of the newly concrescing occasion. His task, therefore, is twofold: (1) to show how this mode of presence of a contiguously related past actual occasion within a presently concrescing occasion is applicable to the relation between God and man and (2) to show how on this basis one can proceed to explain the possibility of Godís differing presence from person to person so as to account satisfactorily for his unique presence in Jesus (PPCT 385).

I

In "A Whiteheadian Christology," as in his other publications, Cobb suggests that we achieve

the greatest coherence and intelligibility . . . when we think of the ontological structure of God as much as possible in terms of the structure of actual occasions. Godís relations with actual occasions will then be understood as resembling in most respects their relations with each other. (PPCT 385)

Since "the mode of presence of one occasion in another is as prehended datum" and since God too is best understood as a prehended datum, God is therefore present in actual occasions in the way in which prehended data generally are present" (PPCT 385).

Elsewhere Cobb is careful to specify that both God and man are best characterized as living persons consisting respectively of societies of actual occasions (CNT 188, 192).1 In the present context, consequently, it is clear that we are to understand God to be present in man in the same manner in which one actual occasion is present within another and that this presence concerns the aims at the fulfillment of a concrescing occasion in a living person by the occasions or "prehended data" in its past.

In the case of a newly concrescing actual occasion in a living person the aims at its fulfillment from occasions in its past are received through four possible routes of inheritance: (1) from occasions residing in the same living person; (2) from occasions residing in some other living person; (3) from occasions residing in the same body in which it presently is the predominant or chief participant; and (4) from Godís special aims for that occasion (CNT 234). These routes of inheritance, however, often present conflicting aims for a newly concrescing occasion. Cobb simplifies this conflict in suggesting that the inheritance received from God is far and away the most significant. Indeed, it outranks the possibilities received through all the other routes of inheritance in at least two respects: (1) the particular region to be inhabited by a newly concrescing occasion in a living person and the sort of satisfaction at which it is aimed initially are granted exclusively through the route of inheritance from God (CNT 153f., 183; PPCT 387)2 and (2) the aim from God is by far the most ideal and relevant of all the aims received by a newly concrescing occasion (CNT 154). For Cobb, therefore, the conflict among these respective aims for a newly concrescing occasion is reducible finally to a conflict between the aim from God and the aims from all the other actual occasions in its past. Thus, should a person adapt the possibilities granted him in such a way as to make the aim at his fulfillment from God dominant, the significance of all the remaining aims must be reduced correspondingly. Similarly, should a person adapt the possibilities granted him in such a way as to make these other aims dominant, the significance of the aim from God must be reduced correspondingly (CNT 234, 248). We will return to this matter momentarily.

II

God, consequently, is but one of a number of prehended data available to a concrescing occasion and is present within such occasions in living persons in generally the same way in which all other prehended data are present. This similarity between God and the other prehended data, however, is not thoroughgoing and resembles the relations between actual occasions, we must recall, only "in most respects" (PPCT 385). Indeed, because God outstrips in importance all other prehended data available to a newly concrescing occasion, it is not enough merely to affirm that Godís presence can be satisfactorily explained as generally the same as the presence of other prehended data. This very exception which, as Cobb acknowledges, distinguishes God from all other prehended data requires additional consideration of how God can be present in persons so influentially without displacing any aspect of their humanity or freedom and independence as self-determining subjects. There is also, of course, the related question of how God is able to vary his presence from person to person so as to account satisfactorily for his unique presence in Jesus.

Cobb takes up these matters with the suggestion that within the relationship between two contiguously related actual occasions and, correspondingly, within a relationship between persons, there are two variables which together explain how God can be present in persons without jeopardizing their freedom and independence as self-determining subjects. In the case of two contiguously related actual occasions, one variable concerns the aim which the past occasion entertains for the fulfillment of the presently concrescing occasion. This aim at the fulfillment of the new occasion is highly variable in that it is always tailored to the unique possibilities which the past occasion poses for the new occasion within the framework of this specific relationship. The other variable has to do with the response of the concrescing occasion to this aim at its satisfaction by the occasion in its immediate past. This response is also highly variable, and because it can be either minimized or maximized it in turn is always tailored to the unique possibilities which the concrescing occasion entertains for its own self-actualization (PPCT 386-88).3

It is no different in a relationship between living persons, and in this regard we are concerned with what transpires in the relationship between God and man. Consequently, just as an actual occasion in the immediate past influences a newly concrescing occasion through its aim at fulfillment for it, God likewise influences individual persons through the particular propositions or aims at fulfillment which he entertains for them in each moment of experience (PPCT 386f.). It also follows that because there are no two persons whose life situations are identical, Godís presence in different persons is infinitely variable. The ideal aim which he entertains for the initial aim of each actual occasion in a living person accounts for the varying determination of his initiative or presence from person to person, and it is always uniquely tailored to the most relevant possibilities at work within the life situation of each individual person (CNT 154; PPCT 388).

Similarly, just as the newly concrescing occasion is able either to maximize or to minimize the influence of past occasions upon it, man is able either to maximize or to minimize Godís influence upon him. This means, of course, that the extent to which any individual person actually achieves Godís ideal aim for him varies considerably. Manís response to Godís initiative on his behalf, therefore, is characterized by just as much variation as is the presence of that initiative within him in the first place, for he is constantly accommodating the divine initiative to the specific possibilities which he entertains finally for his own self-actualization (PPCT 388).

In this manner, Cobb suggests, God is able to be present within individual persons without displacing any aspect of their humanity. While God and man can be characterized respectively by postures of mutual interdependence, both are likewise characterized as retaining throughout their respective independence and autonomy as self-determining subjects. If we are to evaluate the adequacy of Cobbís concept of the differences accounting for Godís varying and unique presence in individual persons generally and his unparalleled presence in Jesus more specifically, however, we must examine more carefully his understanding of the manner in which persons are able to minimize and/or maximize Godís influence upon them and determine how this applies to Jesus as a special case.

III

We have seen that there are two conflicting aims at the fulfillment of a concrescing occasion in a living person. These are: (1) the ideal aim at oneís fulfillment from God and (2) all the other aims at oneís fulfillment that have been entertained in the past. It is this conflict, Cobb contends, which enables persons either to minimize or to maximize Godís influence upon them. For most of us this conflict is resolved by a compromise between the two which determines finally the particular complexion of oneís aim at his own self-actualization (CNT 226, 248). Theoretically, the result of such compromise might be to minimize, even to the point of triviality, Godís influence upon us. In such instances both the final priorities reflected in oneís subjective aim and the particular satisfaction actually achieved would be at considerable variance with the ideal aim received from God within that moment of experience (CNT 233).

But what specifically is unique about Godís presence in Jesus? According to Cobb, Godís presence in this instance involved, as with other men, the specific ideal aim which he entertained for Jesus and Jesusí response to that initiative as influenced by his own structure of belief. What distinguished Godís ideal aim for Jesus was that the main content of it was the clearest possible perception by Jesus of the unmitigated presence of God within him. Here is a case, we are told "in which God does aim to be the main content of that which is re-enacted or incarnated from the past, so that an occasion of human experience would not so much re-enact its own human past as some important aspect of the divine actuality" (1:146). This means that Godís ideal aim for Jesus was that he be prehended in such a way as to maximize the importance for Jesusí subjective aim of the fact that it was God whom he was prehending, i.e., to maximize Godís influence upon Jesus beyond the initial phase of his subjective aim. For Cobb, this enabled Jesus to "prehend God in terms of that which constitutes him as God -- his leadership, his love, and his incomparable superiority of being and value" (PPCT 393) -- and to reenact within his own life situation the very features of the divine reality which were shared with him in the ideal aim from God. What is unique about this ideal aim for Jesus is that Godís intention to be present in him in such high visibility is hardly displayed with such prominence in his ideal aims for other men (PPCT 393f.).

The opportunity afforded Jesus in the ideal aim from God was unique, and apart from this unparalleled initiative on his behalf he certainly could not have achieved the degree of awareness of the presence of God within him which Cobb considers him to have possessed. We are cautioned, however, not to conclude that Jesusí response to this ideal aim was coerced. Not even God, Cobb maintains, is able to determine how his ideal aim at the fulfillment of individual persons will be accommodated finally to the overall complexion of what these persons actually achieve. Consequently, we are to think of the relationship between God and Jesus as having had the same balance that characterizes all relationships between God and man. God offered Jesus a unique opportunity, and Jesusí response to this divine initiative, while unprecedented, was his own free and independent determination of the proportions which it was to assume beyond the initial impetus of the ideal aim from God (PPCT 393f).

The response of all men to the divine initiative within them is in each case unique. What distinguishes the response of Jesus is that for him there was no conflict between the ideal aim from God and all the other aims at his fulfillment out of the past. His response so maximized the prehensive objectification of God beyond the presence of his ideal aim that all the other aims at his fulfillment were reduced correspondingly to complete conformity to the ideal aim from God. Jesusí belief in God, therefore, was not as some superior force to be set over against the phenomenal world. On the contrary, his perception of both God and the world was so utterly harmonious that he was able to describe each from a vantage point which cannot be surpassed. Because there was no conflict finally between these two dominant strains at his self-fulfillment, Jesus was able to achieve through his relationship with God a perspective upon the relationship between God and man generally so true that it was and is in need of no additional transcendence (PPCT 395f.).

IV

Although no other person has been provided with the same ideal aim and thus the same opportunity as Jesus, there is no reason, Cobb suggests, why others cannot imitate Jesusí complete obedience to God in responding to the ideal aims with which they too have been provided. Such imitation, however, is not nearly so simple as it might seem, for what Cobb asks of the individual believer in our own generation is to relate effectively to the example of one from whom we are distanced in virtually countless ways. In "A Whiteheadian Christology" Cobb deals with this problem of our remoteness from Jesus by rephrasing the problem. He prefers to speak of the differing "structures of existence" (PPCT 397) which have preceded us historically and of the translation of the quality of life achieved within the structure of existence in one situation into newer and even radically different situations. In this light the particular problem for the twentieth century Christian as viewed by Cobb is that the structure of existence assumed by Jesus in his day bears little resemblance to the structure of existence which characterizes us, so that the translation of the quality of life achieved by Jesus into a context with which we can identify more immediately is no less radical than the contrast between his situation and ours (PPCT 397).

What distinguishes the structure of existence in Jesusí situation from that of the contemporary Christian can best be broached, Cobb suggests, through an analysis of the pronoun "I." This "I," we are told, is to be identified with both reason and the passions as the two dominant modes which have always characterized human psychic activity. What the "I" represents, however, also exceeds such characterization, for it differs from levels of achievement within more primitive structures of existence in transcending the conflict between these two modes of human psychic activity and in opening up what Cobb describes as an "element of self-identity through time" (PPCT 391). The "I," consequently, is an emerging center within human experience lending organization or structure to that experience. It is, in fact, the center around which that experience comes to be organized for the first time (PPCT 391). The "I" represents the quality of life achieved within a particular structure of existence as shaped by the way in which a person assumes responsibility for himself within the context of the possibilities open to him.4

Cobb understands there to have been an identification of the individual "I" of Jesus with Jesusí prehension of God which enabled Jesus to assume Godís authority as his own (PPCT 392) and on this basis to have introduced into the world "a final and unsurpassable structure of existence" (PPCT 398) in which all individual believers are able to participate. Cobbís view of the matter is advanced as follows:

I have urged that we should recognize the radical diversity among men even at the level of the structures of their existence. The distinction of Jesusí structure of existence from that of other men has been central to the above discussion. This at least suggests that Jesusí message and work may have introduced into human history a new structure of existence different from his own in which Christians participate. A new structure of existence opens up new problems and new possibilities for man . . .

It is my conviction that Jesus brought into being for those who responded to him a final and unsurpassable structure of existence. This structure was the solution of the problem posed in the Jewish structure of existence and in that sense was salvation. It in its turn, however, has introduced new possibilities of sickness and fragmentation as well as new possibilities of health. Hence Jesus as savior is not only the ground of the new structure of existence but also the one in relation to whom the health of that structure can be attained. (PPCT 397f.).

One problem with this passage is that although Cobb clearly asserts that persons who respond to Jesus are able to share in the "final and unsurpassable structure of existence" which he opens up for them, nowhere does he expand upon what might constitute the criteria for a response sufficiently satisfactory to assure participation for these persons within the structure of existence introduced by Jesus. The problem remains of how the quality of life achieved by Jesus within the structure of existence in his situation is to be translated into the "final and unsurpassable structure of existence" opened up by Jesus for the Christian in his radically different situation. Indeed, if anything, Cobb merely compounds this problem, for now we are confronted with the additional problem of somehow resolving how Jesus could possibly have opened up a "final and unsurpassable structure of existence" different from the structure of existence in his own situation.

Elsewhere in "A Whiteheadian Christology" Cobb attributes to Jesus a perspective on the world "truer than our own and itself not subject to further transcending" (PPCT 396). Does this not imply that we might regard the structure of existence in Jesusí situation as final and unsurpassable? Otherwise, how is he to have achieved a perspective on the world both "truer than our own and "not subject to further transcending"? And even if we were to assent to the view that the new structure of existence introduced on our behalf by Jesus is superior to Jesusí own structure of existence, would not Cobb still have to resolve how Jesus could have attained a perspective on the world both "truer than our own" and "not subject to further transcending" while being within a structure of existence that has been surpassed? Indeed, with what are we to identify the ideal for humanity in such an instance: with the ideal limit embodied by Jesus within a structure of existence that has been surpassed, or the ideal limit associated with a "final and unsurpassable structure of existence" inhabited by persons unable to surpass Jesusí perspective on the world?

A related problem is that Cobb no sooner suggests that Jesus has introduced a "final and unsurpassable structure of existence" than he qualifies this statement by adding that the new structure of existence poses not only "new possibilities of health" but also "new possibilities of sickness and fragmentation" (PPCT 398). Isnít that contradictory? How is it possible for what is allegedly a "final and unsurpassable structure of existence" to pose "new possibilities of sickness and fragmentation"? So long as this is the case, does it not follow that there must be some other structure of existence which could surpass our supposedly "final and unsurpassable structure of existence"?

V

We have yet to resolve, of course, the problem of how we are to translate the quality of life achieved by Jesus within the structure of existence in his situation into the "final and unsurpassable structure of existence" introduced by him for us in our radically different situation. Cobb does indicate that we are able to secure our fullest participation in the structure of existence introduced by Jesus only as we respond to him (PPCT 398). But how are we to respond to one from whom we are so remote historically? To be sure, we are at so remote a distance from Jesus as to make it appear that the achievement of a satisfactory relationship with him can hardly be analogous to the co-determinative fashion in which Cobb views two contiguous actual occasions as being related to one another. Although the relation between two such actual occasions might help to explain how eyewitnesses in Jesusí lifetime might have been able to relate to the quality of life embodied by him, it does not explain how we in our era are to bridge all of what has come to separate us from him. How would Cobb resolve this problem?

Elsewhere Cobb suggests that what resolves the problem of the historical distance between Jesus and believers in our own era is that a presently concrescing actual occasion is capable of "unmediated prehensions" of past actual occasions (1:148). What he is concerned to show Is that since an actual occasion in even the immediate past of a concrescing occasion which it has influenced has already arrived at its term or satisfaction, and hence is no longer concrescing, in principle it makes no difference whether its prehensive objectification in the newly concrescing occasion originates in the immediate or the remote past. The past actual occasion in either case is presently nonexistent (1 150). For an elderly person who recollects an experience from childhood, for example, we have reference to an event in the remote past which is still able to exert influence upon this personís present experience (1:151). What Cobb concludes, consequently, is that while all past actual occasions are technically nonexistent or no longer concrescing, theirs is most properly characterized nonetheless as a causally efficacious nonexistence (1:150). A case of even the very earliest childhood experience now recollected by the oldest person among us, however, involves past occasions of experience from within the same living person and not occasions from another person in the remote past. It is not clear, therefore, why this example should necessarily apply to the relationship between Jesus and the individual believer in our own era. Indeed, why should Cobb rely upon unmediated prehensions of past actual occasions at all to explain the relationship between Jesus and believers in our era? Could not intervening occasions, for example, serve to mediate satisfactorily the distance between him and us?

But even were we to resolve the problem of our remoteness from Jesus historically, has not Cobb created a possible conflict between our prehensions of Jesus and our prehensions of God? As we have seen, Cobb contends that there is typically a conflict in all persons (except Jesus) between the ideal aim from God and all the other aims received from oneís past. Among these other aims at oneís fulfillment, we will recall, is the inheritance from past actual occasions in some other living person. Since Cobb is not concerned whether this inheritance is from the immediate or the remote past, this would appear to include the route of inheritance through which we receive the aim at our fulfillment from Jesus. If this is so, what is there to prevent a conflict between the aim at our fulfillment from Jesus and the ideal aim from God?

According to Cobb, a person maximizes Godís presence within him beyond his ideal aim only as he devalues all the other aims at his fulfillment out of the past correspondingly. Cobb takes great care, moreover, in assuring us that Jesus was not God. The relationship between the two, we are told, was an experience of communion and not union (CNT 233-35). In addition, Cobb is concerned that we not view Jesus as having had direct access to Godís divine knowledge (PPGT 393) or as having been peculiarly gifted with inordinate conceptual abilities or infallibility (PPCT 395). To accede to any one of these possibilities would be to replace Jesusí freedom and independence as a self-determining subject with an overbearing presence within him by God. How, therefore, since our inheritance from Jesus is to be included among all the other aims at our fulfillment out of the past, and not with the ideal aim from God, are we to avoid the conclusion that we must either devalue Jesusí aim at our fulfillment in maximizing the route of inheritance from God or devalue the ideal aim from God should we choose to maximize what Jesus would afford us?

What is especially troublesome about the relationship between God and Jesus as portrayed by Cobb is that our two different routes of inheritance from them indicate either a conflict between these two figures or redundancy on the part of Cobb. This is a serious problem, as we shall see, for it places in doubt the very need for a Whiteheadian Christology at all. In "A Whiteheadian Christology," for example, Cobb specifies that Jesus is both the ground of the "final and unsurpassable structure of existence" which he introduces on our behalf and the "one in relation to whom the health of that structure can be attained" (PPCT 398). While this twofold claim is in accord with Cobbís interest in arguing for Jesusí "causally efficacious nonexistence," or the "unmediated prehension by a presently concrescing actual occasion of occasions in the remote past," it is not in accord with his remarks concerning the providential guidance of God.

We have seen that Cobb views God alone as entertaining for each of us the ideal aim most relevant to what we might achieve within any moment of experience. The ideal aim from God, however, is "ideal" not only because it is the most relevant for a specific life situation, but also because each of these ideal aims fits harmoniously with all the others into a larger whole, which Cobb describes as "Codís aim at universal intensity of satisfaction" (CNT 180). Consequently, each ideal aim represents Godís constant adaptation of specific situations to all of what is at work in the universe, and all these together are entertained within the larger context of what we might call his "universal aim" (CNT 180f). In short, the ideal aims entertained by God are the means by which the universe and all the actual occasions in it are guided by God to "the ideal strength of beauty" (CNT 180) which he envisions for them all as a harmonious whole.

In A Christian Natural Theology Cobb specifies quite unequivocally that only God is to be identified with this "aim at universal intensity of satisfaction" or principle of guidance in the universe (CNT 180f, 251). He alone is "the ground of being, the ground of purpose, and the ground of order" (CNT 226f) which makes possible and sustains the ongoing existence of each of us within the context of the larger purposes which all of our existences together ultimately are to serve and to which they must constantly be redirected (CNT 227, 251). Moreover, Cobb is no less unequivocal in specifying that the same dynamic applies to the relation between God and Jesus as between God and any other person. The initiative in that relationship, we will recall, was Godís, and Jesus merely responded to the opportunity posed for him within it. What was unique is not that Jesus became or in any sense was God but the particular combination of the ideal aim entertained by God and Jesusí maximal receptivity to and fulfillment of that aim.

In light of his views concerning the providential guidance of God and the dynamics of the relationship between God and Jesus it would appear that Cobbís contention in "A Whiteheadian Christology" that Jesus is both the ground of the "final and unsurpassable structure of existence" which he introduced and "the one in relation to whom the health of that structure can be attained" (PPCT 398) is a case either of unnecessary duplication or of outright conflict between Jesus and God which attributes to Jesus a role elsewhere assigned by Cobb exclusively to God. A more logical approach, for example, would be to contend that God is the sole ground of this "final and unsurpassable structure of existence" and that its finality and unsurpassability are due to Jesusí having fulfilled so maximally the ideal aim entertained for him by God. Indeed, if the role assigned by Cobb to Jesus is to be in keeping with both his own remarks concerning the providential guidance of God and the Whiteheadian principles upon which he acknowledges his work to be based, it seems that God should be both the ground of the "final and unsurpassable structure of existence" introduced by Jesus and "the one in relation to whom the health of that structure can be attained."

Such duplication and/or conflict poses the question of why Cobb should bother with a Whiteheadian christology at all? While he indicates that his is an attempt to resolve the classical problem for theology of how to account for Godís unique presence in Jesus without displacing any aspect of Jesusí humanity, in the course of that attempt he generates so many additional problems that he appears to have succeeded at little more than compounding and thus falling prey to the very problem which he seeks to resolve.

VI

We have been considering Cobbís view of the providential guidance of God within the special context of problems associated with his estimate of what transpired in the relationship between God and Jesus. We turn now to the larger context of the consequences of this providential guidance for persons other than Jesus. The specific issue is whether in light of Cobbís general understanding of Godís providential guidance we can view him as indeed present within individual persons without displacing their freedom and independence as self-determining subjects.

Theoretically, the answer is yes. Whereas man is undeniably influenced by the ideal aim which God entertains for him, beyond that ideal aim he can either maximize or minimize Godís causal efficacy for him. Upon closer examination, however, it appears that there is a definite preponderance in the relationship between man and God which tips decisively to the side of God. The reason for this is Cobbís having made of God such a blatant exception. Only God, we will recall, is viewed by Cobb as being present within all other actual occasions, as entertaining the ideal aim for each newly concrescing actual occasion, as "the ground of being, the ground of purpose, and the ground of order" (CNT 227), as the principle of guidance, and as the one whose universal aim for the "ideal strength of beauty" (CNT 180) of the universe is never finally defeated. What is important about these exceptions is that there are, indeed can be, no analogues in the case of man.

It is hardly the case, of course, that Cobb would agree with this conclusion. His belief that manís subjecthood is distinguished by constant freedom for his own self-determination and his commitment to the Whiteheadian principle that God and man are mutually dependent upon and independent of one another might even suggest that Cobb has allowed what we now contend he has denied man. This denial, however, is a consequence of inconsistencies in Cobbís own understanding of the relationship between God and man. They result in his having effectively denied, albeit unknowingly, what he otherwise might appear to have achieved quite satisfactorily.

What is at issue is the possibility of relative freedom or freedom within certain limits for both man and God, and it would appear that Cobb has maximized the occasion for such freedom in God while severely minimizing it for man. Whether or not man is cooperative, Cobb anticipates that we will arrive eventually at the goal of the full humanity which God envisions for us (GW 82). Because his universal aim is eternal and his providential guidance everlasting, God has merely to readjust his ideal aims for us "to the partial successes and partial failures of the past so that some new possibility of achievement always lies ahead" (CNT 251). Cobb deprives us finally even of such relative freedom as might be ours by excluding us from a principle of guidance which, while allegedly operative on our behalf, is wholly beyond both our own understanding and any hand which we might actively lend to the shape of our ultimate destiny. It is just as he at one point suggests: "men are instruments of purposes they do not comprehend" (CNT 251).

Whether or not the possibility of a proportionate balance of relations between God and man is technically permitted by Cobb, nowhere is it employed. It is no mistake that the initiative in the relationship is characterized as being associated primarily, if not exclusively, with God, while man is held to a minimization or maximization of what is activated within him by God. Where is there such corresponding initiative for man? Is his response to the initiative of another advanced to him from outside himself the sole basis for speaking of human initiative and subjecthood? If the relationship between God and man is indeed analogous to the relation between two contiguous actual occasions, why must man always be characterized as the analogue to the presently concrescing actual occasion? Why is it that only God is portrayed as vitally present in all other actual occasions? What of manís presence in God? Given that Cobb understands man as influencing God, how fully can such influence be minimized by God? Are the aims which man entertains for God ever totally defeated? If not, since even Godís prehensions of other actual occasions must be positive (CNT 240), then why does man not have a more active hand in the ultimate resolution of the aim at "universal intensity of satisfaction" (CNT 180) which Cobb assigns exclusively to God? Why, moreover, when we think of God as radically absent must we necessarily be thinking of nothing at all? Does the reverse apply, so that should God ever entertain the possibility of man as radically absent he too would necessarily be thinking of nothing at all?

There is little reason finally to accept Cobbís view of human subjecthood unless we are in agreement with the exceptions he makes in distinguishing the role and properties to be associated exclusively with God. And it would appear to be only in light of these exceptions that Cobb is interested in speaking of the human condition at all. He treats our human subjecthood restrictively in light of our defiance of or obedience to what he believes to be the presence of the divine initiative within us. Are there no other levels for a process theologian where human subjecthood might be examined just as fruitfully? If not, how are we to explain, for example, our flagrant and continuing abuse both of ourselves and of our environment? Must such activity always necessarily be in at least partial accord with Godís larger purposes for the universe? Should the earth and all its resident populations be devoured this evening by a chain reaction of nuclear holocausts, must that too be in at least partial accord with Godís aim at "universal intensity of satisfaction?" Why should that possibility be viewed as anything other than the makings for a creation, once again, out of nothing in total violation of what God anticipates ideally for the universe?

Cobbís is an argument for how we might understand God to be present within us without displacing any aspect of our humanity or freedom and independence as self-determining subjects. Nowhere, however, does he disarm the alternative that perhaps we need not understand God as being present within us at all. The radical absence of God within and among us, and of us in turn within him, might be the occasion for utter randomness which Cobb would surely anticipate. But what of the possibility that the universe does indeed function more randomly and less purposefully than Cobb would prefer? Or what of the possibility that "the ground of being, the ground of purpose, and the ground of order" in the universe need not be associated exclusively with God or even with God at all? And what of the possibility that the God whom Cobb portrays is exceptional only in that he is the avowed instrument of purposes which we humans divine to be at work in the universe but which we cannot presently fathom? While Cobb attempts to account for how God can be present in man without displacing his freedom and independence as a self-determining subject, it would appear that he accomplishes the reverse. What he offers, finally, is a way of presenting man to God without displacing Godís ongoing independence as a subject eternally free both for his own self-determination and the ultimate determination of all else in the universe.

Cobb, we will recall, sets out to achieve two goals in "A Whiteheadian Christology." The first is to show how the mode of presence of a contiguously related past actual occasion within a newly concrescing actual occasion applies to the relationship between God and man. The second is to show how on this basis one can proceed to explain the possibility of Godís differing presence from person to person so as to account satisfactorily for his unique presence in Jesus. He falls short of the second goal because he fails to achieve what he seeks to establish in the case of the first and because of unnecessary duplication and/or conflict which he poses in the relationship between God and Jesus. He fails to achieve the first goal because he makes of God an exception which does not permit the relationship between God and man to be analogous to the relationship between two contiguous actual occasions and because his overwhelming commitment to what he regards as exceptional in God severely restricts manís independence from God as a subject free for his own self-determination.

 

References

CNT -- John B. Cobb, Jr. A Christian Natural Theology. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965.

GW -- John B. Cobb. God and the World. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969.

PPCT -- Delwin Brown, Ralph E. James, and Gene Reeves, eds. Process Philosophy and Christian Thought. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1971.

SCE -- John B. Cobb, Jr. The Structure of Christian Existence. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967,

1. John B. Cobb, Jr., "The Finality of Christ in a Whiteheadian Perspective" in The Finality of Christ, ed. Dow Kirkpatrick. New York: Abingdon Press, 1966, pp. 132-54.

Notes

 

1 Cobbís view of God as a living person places him at some variance with Whitehead, since Whitehead prefers to treat God as an actual entity and nowhere refers to him as a living person. Cobbís reason for going beyond Whitehead in this regard is that he believes the treatment of God as a living person to be far more harmonious with Whiteheadís own metaphysical assumptions throughout Process and Reality. Otherwise, Cobb advises, the four basic principles of Whiteheadís own system as projected in that volume (i.e., actual occasions, God, eternal objects, and creativity) are left with the most arbitrary and unsatisfactory relations with one another. Cobb views Whiteheadís failure to identify God as a living person as an oversight exposing a weakness in his own system which Cobb now proposes to correct (CNT 176f.).

2 Cobb understands all actual occasions to inhabit a particular region or spatiotemporal locus within a larger world. These regions, however, are divisible and. on that account, open to literally infinite variation. This presents us with the immediate problem, consequently, of why a presently concrescing actual occasion should be described by some particular atomization of its region rather than another. This atomization cannot be determined exclusively by the influence of the occasions in its own past, for occasions which have already arrived at their respective satisfachons are not able to legislate what specific bo,mds finally inform the loci or regions of succeeding occasions. Nor can the atomization be legislated exclusively by an actual occasionís freedom for its own self-determination, since such freedom occurs, we are advised, only within a context whose possibilities have already been prescribed (CNT 153).

The particular atomization of the concrescing occasionís region is provided for, Cobb maintains, in the initial aim from God. Here is the determination of its relation to all other actual occasions, as well as the determination of what sort of satisfaction it is aimed at. This allows, in turn, the composition of the subjective aim of the concrescing occasion at its own self-actualization being determined finally by its own modification or shaping of the various possibilities granted it through the aims at fulfillment for it of all the actual occasions in its past (CNT 96).

3 Technically, the extent to which the influence of the immediate past actual occasion upon the newly concrescing occasion is variable depends on whether we are dealing with "pure physical feelings" or "hybrid physical feelings." Cobbís own interest is in the latter, by fax the more complex of the two (PPCT 386, CNT 183).

4 For a more extensive treatment of the Christian structure of existence, but not having to do expressly with the problems about to be raised concerning Cobbís approach mí"A Whiteheadian Christology," see his book The Structure of Christian Existence (SCE).


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