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Autobiography

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.. One of the leading theologians of the last half century helps us understand his roots and influences. Used by permission of the author.


I was born of Southern Methodist missionary parents in Japan and spent most of my childhood there to the age of 15. This saved me from imbibing the racial attitudes so central to the culture of Georgia, which was their home. If my parents shared those attitudes, they never showed them or spoke in terms of them in my presence. My attitude toward racial differences was shaped by relations with Japanese. We were a minority treated with great courtesy. Both we Euro-Americans in Japan and our Japanese hosts were fully conscious of our racial differences. But it never occurred to me to think of our hosts as inferior.

My schoolmates at Canadian Academy were of many nationalities, and about a third were Eurasian. These were often the best students. I never saw anything wrong with mixing races.

None of this freed me from feelings of racial guilt. The Cobb family had been leaders in the Southern slave-holding plantation aristocracy. Participation in collective guilt is both motivating and disempowering.

Attending a Canadian school led to my learning another lesson. Around junior high we studied in successive years Canadian history from a Canadian textbook, U.S. history from an American textbook, and British history from a British textbook. Despite the close kinship and friendship of these countries, the treatment of the American Revolution and the War of 1812 differed radically. So far as I recall there were no contradictions and no falsehoods. But one could not but see that Canadians, Americans, and British had very different historical memories. At home I read a history of Georgia and another of the Confederacy. The importance of the interpretation of history for the self understanding of a people was clear.

Knowing that I was a Southerner affected me. I shared the knowledge of having lost a war and suffered the consequences. I knew also that our cause was wrong. This understanding of oneís history has complex psychological effects.

My three and a half years in the Army during World War II and its immediate aftermath gave a new direction to my life. Although my knowledge of Japanese was very limited, it got me into the armyís language school at the University of Michigan and saved me four months of a twenty-month program. What was formative about those years was the exposure to a quite different world from any I had known. Most of my fellow soldiers were Jewish and Catholic New Yorkers who preferred the life of scholarship to that of fighting. They were the first "intellectuals" I had met, and I found that the Georgia pietism that had formed me appeared to them as a curious sociological phenomenon. It was during those same years that I felt and responded to the call to ministry, but because of my new awareness of the intellectual world and its marginalization of my beliefs, I decided to immerse myself in that world before going to seminary.

I enrolled in the Humanities Division of the University of Chicago. I chose the program in "The Analysis of Ideas and the Study of Method." This took courses in a variety of departments with a focus on my special interest. I defined that as the study of the reasons for loss of belief in God in the modern world.

Within six months I went through my own "death of God" experience. What destroyed my sense of Godís reality was not any particular argument but immersion in a world of thought that simply had no place for God. For me this loss of God was the loss of the meaningfulness of life as well.

During the period of immersion in the dominant climate of modern thought I was also exposed to James Luther Adams and Joachim Wach from the Federated Theological Faculty. It was clear that they knew well the intellectual and scholarly culture that had overcome my piety. Yet they were still Christian believers. I had also studied with Charles Hartshorne, and it was clear that he was fully conversant with the modern atheistic world and had constructed an alternative in which God had an important role. Before abandoning all that had shaped my life until that time, I needed to expose myself more to this alternative.

I enrolled in the Divinity School. It was just what I needed. It was a radically theological place. Under the leadership of Bernard Loomer, the questions were all about basic beliefs. But the climate was the opposite of fideistic. One could not get by with asserting anything on the basis of authority or tradition. The question was whether one could provide and defend reasons for believing whatever one asserted. The Divinity School was far more of an intellectual hothouse than anything I had found in the Humanities Division.

In the Divinity School the two most widely respected thinkers were Reinhold Niebuhr and Alfred North Whitehead. I had worked through The Nature and Destiny of Man while in the army. And I had begun to get acquainted with Whitehead through Hartshorne. Through Loomer, Bernard Meland, and Daniel Day Williams, and to a lesser extent Wilhelm Pauck and Adams, I became acquainted with a quite different Whitehead. They had all been influenced by Henry Nelson Wieman. Where Hartshorne was highly rationalistic, Wieman was radically empiricist. Wieman earlier appreciated a great deal in Whitehead and taught his students and colleagues to do so. But he eventually turned against him. He had just retired before I entered the Divinity School, but his influence was still enormous, and I wrote my masters thesis on his thought. I came to recognize that Whitehead transcended the distinction between empiricism and rationalism and could not be captured in either of these frameworks. I owe a great deal to both Hartshorne and Wieman, and to Loomer for creating that rare thing, a truly open-minded and intensely serious community of inquiry about the most important questions. What I discovered during my years at Chicago, and what has shaped my intellectual life since then, is that although Whitehead was certainly not the last word, he had thought more deeply than the thinkers of the modern world and had brought into being a more viable alternative.

Whitehead belongs to a family of philosophers that includes William James and Henri Bergson. The basic moves they made beyond the dominant forms of modern thought reopened the question of God. Whereas God simply does not fit into the modern intellectual vision, God is not alien to this new one. Whitehead spelled out a description of the sort of God that does fit into and completes his view of reality. What he concludes involves rejection of some traditional doctrines, but it resonates well with much biblical thinking and Christian experience. The theological ideas of Whitehead can commend themselves to Christians quite independently of their interconnection with science, but for me the fact that they are part of an overview that also deepens our scientific knowledge is a strong reason for giving them serious consideration.

I left Chicago at the time that we veterans were completing our studies and colleges were shrinking in size. Teaching positions were scarce. I had become sufficiently reestablished in my faith that I asked for ordination in the North Georgia UMC conference. I was appointed to a parish in Appalachia half time, and taught half time at a local church junior college, named for its founder, Young Harris. I became a full-time teacher after one year and stayed there another two. I then taught at Emory University for five years before following Pomp Colwell to Claremont in 1958. I taught here for thirty-two years.

An important change in my life-orientation occurred in 1969. Largely under pressure from one of my sons, Cliff, I was awakened to the environmental crisis. I wrote articles and books, lectured, and organized conferences. The "Alternatives to Catastrophe" conference in 1972 brought Herman Daly and Paolo Soleri to Claremont. They have been important friends for me ever since.

The awareness of the crisis affected me in several ways. It made me more of an activist. It broke me out of my own disciplinary captivity. I changed my working definition of "theology" from an academic discipline to intentional Christian thinking about important questions. I discovered that Whiteheadís thought had important implications for action.

Meanwhile the Divinity School at Chicago had ceased to be a distinctive school of thought. The tradition that had been so important for me now had no institutional grounding or support. I wondered if I was called to respond.

Lewis Ford spent a sabbatical year in Claremont in the late 60ís, and we shared our concerns. In 1970 we launched a journal, Process Studies, so that work in process thought could be published. Ford was editor, and we handled business matters in Claremont. Ford was especially interested in technical philosophical studies that other philosophical journals would not want. I was especially interested in applications of Whiteheadís thought.

I dreamed of doing something more, especially in order to test and develop the relevance of process thought across a wide spectrum of fields. Jim Laney invited me to create a center at Emory University, and I would have gone except that, much to my surprise, Claremont made it possible to have a similar center here. In 1973 David Griffin joined us.

Our first conference was on "mind" in nature and was held at the Rockefeller conference at Bellagio, Italy. Among the biologists who participated were C. H. Waddington, Sewall Wright, and Theodosius Dobzhansky. The star of the show was the physicist, David Bohm, whom Waddington introduced to us. Arthur Koestler also came. We owe this auspicious start entirely to Charles Birch, who died a few weeks ago.

The second conference was held at the University of Hawaii with leading Buddhist thinkers. My work with Masao Abe in Buddhist/Christian dialogue began there. It resulted in a series of international dialogs and contributed to the formation of a Society of Buddhist/Christian Studies with its own journal.

The Center for Process Studies has expanded gradually. Our first new program was Process and Faith. The main work of the Center was oriented to the university, and many of its members were not church-oriented. We formed a new program for the church with separate membership.

Process theology thinks of itself as the appropriate theology for the progressive church, but we know that many progressive Christians do not want to identify themselves in this way. As the progressive segment of the church was increasingly marginalized, Process and Faith considered how a broader movement could be stimulated. Motivated by those discussions, I went to see George Regas, and what is now Progressive Christians Uniting was born.

For many years the Center did not engage in serious research on Whiteheadís own thought. Recently the Whitehead Research Project has been launched by our new professor of process theology, the Austrian Catholic who has joined us from the University of Vienna, Roland Faber.

David Griffin did remarkable work in planning conferences and securing the best people to participate. He also developed a considerable number of volumes out of these conferences and produced his own corpus. In addition he created a sister organization in Santa Barbara that ran conferences directed to the public. Out of these emerged a book series with SUNY press, "Constructive Postmodern Thought." Griffin edited some thirty volumes. In the United States this series has garnered only modest attention, but in China the first volume, The Reenchantment of Science, struck a chord. National conferences were held to consider this different kind of postmodernism. Zhihe Wang, the publications officer of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, came to Claremont to study with Griffin. Later his wife, Meijun Fan, gave up her position as chair of the department of Chinese literature in a Beijing university to work with him. We call their work the China Project of the Center for Process Studies and have also evolved the legally separate "Institute for the Postmodern Development of China."

The effects of process thought in China are incommensurable with those elsewhere. Fan publishes a bi-monthly paper, "Cultural Communications," that reaches numerous high-ranking officials. Eighteen universities have centers for process studies. We have co-sponsored and provided speakers for conferences on a wide range of topics.

The area in which there has been the greatest interest is education. This is a topic on which Whitehead himself wrote. Several of our process centers are in universities of education. Thirty-five million Chinese students are now experimenting with a Whiteheadian curriculum.

Most surprising to me is that the Chinese Marxists are interested in our ideas about the economy. I was invited in the fall of 2008 to give the keynote address at a conference on capital. I declined because I was committed to a trip to India in January. They changed the time of the conference so that I could attend it on my way home in January. I understand that my lecture has been published in the leading Marxist journal.

Ecological consequences have led to the greatest dissatisfaction with the modern development at which China has been so successful. This spring we expect at least fifty Chinese scholars and government officials to come to Claremont for the fourth of our series of conferences on "Ecological Civilization." Wang thinks that the announcement by the government that China aims to become an ecological civilization was influenced by our work.

When the Chinese thought of ecological improvement of their cities, they tended to create tree-lined boulevards and large parks in city centers. These were beautiful, but they increased the distances for commuting within the city. We have held conferences on sustainable urbanization, and we took my favorite architect, Soleri, to China. There is still no immediate prospect of the Chinese building an arcology, but they have an exhibit of his work currently in Beijing and the group coming to our conference on ecological civilization plans to visit Arcosanti. We have at least introduced a different way of thinking of an ecological city.

When we learned that the government wisely plans to focus attention on rural development, we rejoiced, but we also feared that this would involve the modernization of agriculture on a vast scale. That means substituting fossil fuels for labor and the depopulation of the country-side where a billion Chinese still live. We believe this would be disastrous, and we set out to make sure that decision-makers would be aware that there is a different, postmodern, alternative that we might call ecological agriculture. We held a conference at an agricultural university at which one of Dean Freudenbergerís sons, David, read a paper that he had co-authored with Dean. This paper has had wide circulation. Last November, we co-sponsored, with the Academy of Social Sciences and the governor of an agricultural province, a second conference. We are now confident that our message has been heard. Another conference this May, in Claremont will also be attended by influential leaders.

I am no doubt overestimating the extent of our actual influence. China is so vast, and its government bureaucracy and university system are so complex that what I have spoken of is a drop in a large bucket. But in comparison with our influence anywhere else in the world it is a very large drop. This is obviously not because of us Euro-Americans. It is because of Wang and Fan

I am deeply pleased by our Korea and Latin American Projects as well. I rejoice also in the global growth of the process movement not directly connected to us. We had a meeting in Claremont a decade or so ago that gave birth to the International Process Network. Its existence has helped to encourage people in other parts of the world to organize around process thought. Japan has been well organized for thirty years. Interest and organization is developing rapidly in Western Europe. Three new centers have been founded in Eastern Europe. I am particularly pleased that two closely related centers have been established in Congo. A Catholic archbishop is involved. Our seventh International Whitehead Conference was held in Bangalore, and it generated interest in India. So even though we have had very little effect in the world of thought and research in the United States, we can take satisfaction in the global growth of the movement. Institutionalizing the process tradition was a good decision.

I have spent much more time teaching and writing my own books than promoting programs. I take great satisfaction in those activities as well. I am especially joyful as I think of the students with whom I have worked closely. As examples, Iíll mention two who were my seminary advisees and three whose RelD projects I supervised. Iíll then note a few with whom I worked on dissertations.

Very soon Progressive Christians Uniting will celebrate one of my seminary advisees, Mary Ann Swenson. She was also associate pastor of our church next door to the seminary. Often the people of whom I am most proud are persons whose ability and strength are such that they had little need of me. That was certainly true of Swenson. She knew what she wanted and she did what she needed to do to prepare herself for pastoral ministry. On the other hand, I do not think that she sought the episcopacy. That was the choice of others.

Another seminary student was Rebecca Parker. Her gifts were obvious when she was a student in Claremont. She has now served for many years as president of Starr King seminary. Even though she was not a Unitarian and had none of the obvious credentials for such an office, the Unitarians wisely picked her. Starr King has flourished under her leadership. Her books with Rita Nakashima Brock, whom I also claim as a PhD student, are models of the sort of writing from which I have hopes of spiritual change in the church. They combine the depths of personal experience with the depths of scholarly learning.

Turning to my RelD students, the one you know best is Ignacio Castuera. It was easy to recognize his brilliance. He wrote a thesis that was feminist and liberationist before those movements existed. At the time I hoped he would complete a PhD and be the creative spokesperson of Christian Hispanics in the United States. He made other choices. To this day his fertile mind generates new ideas faster than any five human beings could implement them. Nevertheless, we are working together just now on organizing a new movement to change the political landscape of this country. A bit ambitious, we will admit. But nothing could be more exhilarating than this kind of envisioning with him.

A second is Ed Hansen. Ed spent a year working at Glide in the tenderloin and wrote up his experiences and his reflections. As Ignacio introduced me to feminism and liberation, Ed taught me about homosexuals and the suffering they undergo in a patriarchal society. At the time, Ed did not identify himself with the gay community, although his brother had come out and suffered accordingly. When teachers say that they learn more from their students than they teach them, they may exaggerate, but at least in these two instances for me it is an understatement.

A third is Chip Murray. When he was a student in Claremont he taught my oldest son in Sunday School next door. When we invited my advisees socially to our home, we could count on Chip to entertain us with his stories, mostly true ones about his experiences as a black in a racist society. He also became the leader of the black community in Pomona. It did not surprise me that he went on to become a major leader in Los Angeles. Claremont wanted him to teach our students how to preach, but he had more important work. I contributed negligibly to his achievements, but I rejoice in all he has done.

Selecting a few from the PhDs whose dissertations I supervised is even more difficult. I have given some indication of the work of David Griffin; so I will not repeat that here. However, I will mention that in addition to his extensive corpus in philosophical theology and his vast work as organizer of conferences and editor of the writings of others, he has become the leading spokesperson for the 9/11 truth movement. As one who is fully persuaded by Griffinís information and arguments, I rejoice in this work and consider it immensely important.

The other student who has also been a very close colleague is Marjorie Suchocki. She has great technical skill in philosophy and theology, and more than any other student, she persuaded me to change my own thinking and formulations. She led Process and Faith for years, and continues to organize the International Whitehead Film Festival. She served as dean at Wesley and in Claremont. She is an immensely popular speaker and has spread the message of progressive Christianity, specifically in its process form, throughout much of the Methodist church.

When I look beyond those with whom I work locally, I begin with Del Brown, chiefly because of his recent death. He was a fine dean at Iliff and at PSR. Quite independently of our efforts in southern California, he worked to clarify and strengthen the progressive wing of the church. He also built bridges to the more progressive segments of the conservative evangelical community. I miss him.

One of those with whom I have worked closely over the years is Jay McDaniel. He has settled in Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. I dare say he is the most appreciated and beloved member of that community. He has published extensively in ecology and spirituality from a process perspective and has built a network of connections that are invaluable in getting things done. In recent years he has been our finest representative in China.

Probably my most brilliant student was Catherine Keller. Her mind was so much quicker, more incisive, more imaginative, and more sensitive than mine that I hesitate to think of myself as in any way her teacher. She would bring me fifty pages of a draft of her dissertation. I would congratulate her on it and tell her to keep going. She would toss the pages aside and start over. She has established herself among cutting edge intellectuals both in the religious community and beyond. Her problem was to learn to speak and write for ordinary people. She has mastered that skill, and I consider her the finest theologian in her generation. I know that I am prejudiced, but I think I am not alone in this judgment.

Another brilliant woman student was Mary Elizabeth Moore, now Dean of Boston University School of Theology. Her field was Christian education, but she wrote about that as a theologian. At the time she was finishing her program, a national search for a professor of Christian education brought us back to her. She related theology to the practice of ministry and became a leader in developing a new understanding of practical theology. Her practice extended to working with her students in the actual care of the earth, which she understood as part of practical theology. I am sure she relates her theoretical commitments also to her work as dean. It was a joy to be her colleague for some years at Claremont.

As I write this I am impressed by the extent to which my students have become administrators. Nancy Howell was dean of St. Paulís Theological Seminary for a while, and it happens that Susan Nelson, the current dean of the Claremont School of Theology, was also my student. She has been a full partner with Jerry Campbell in creating a truly new vision of theological education. I am indeed proud.

But I must stop. I am proud of them all, even those with whom I have lost touch. I rejoice also that as my own students retire, some of their students carry on the torch. I believe there is a future for process thought.


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