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The Structure of Christian Existence 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.. Published by University Press of America, Inc., 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland 20706, Copyright 1990. Used by permission. This material was prepared for America Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 1: Introduction


Thus far, the major efforts to understand the distinctiveness and the finality of Christianity have been those made in that great movement of Christian thought in Germany, which we call nineteenth-century theology. Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Troeltsch represent its highest achievements with respect to our present concerns. Nevertheless, they provide us relatively little help today. Hegel and Schleiermacher did not sense the full seriousness of the claims of other religions, especially those of India, to rival and replace Christianity, and they treated them instead as stages in a single line of progress leading to Christianity. Although Troeltsch saw in his Die Absolutheit des Christentums (1901) that one could not treat these religions in this hierarchical way, he also so described the religions of India as to imply a clear inferiority. Later he realized that, on the one hand, he had done them a serious injustice, and that, on the other hand, every form of Christianity is no less closely bound to the particularities of culture than are these other religions. Thereupon, in his limitless openness and honesty, he retreated from his earlier claims and affirmed fundamental equality of the several higher religions, regarding each as indissolubly bound to its own culture.(Ernst Troeltsch, Christian Thought: Its History and Application [Meridian Books, Inc., 1957], pp. 51-52.) By that time the powerful Barthian proclamation was turning the energies of the theologians away from the question, empirically, historically, and philosophically formulated, as to the uniqueness and finality of Christianity. Today, with the decline of neo-orthodoxy, the question arises again with even greater force and urgency.

Two other criticisms must be directed against the nineteenth-century quest in addition to that of its self-acknowledged failure. First, the question of the distinctive essence of Christianity was subordinated to that of its superiority to other religions in such a way that the former question was inadequately treated. To determine the distinctive essence of Christianity, we should hold initially in abeyance the question of its relative value or excellence. Only when each religion is understood in its own uniqueness can questions of relative value be honestly treated.

Second, all three men closely identified religion with God’s mode of presence in history, and all three saw their task as that of comparing Christianity with other religions. But Troeltsch’s assumption that "we cannot live without religion" (Ibid., p. 25.) is no longer ours. The importance of religion is just as problematic for us as the importance of Christianity. We must understand Christianity in relation to the several forms of secularism just as much as in relation to world religions. Furthermore, in considering what we are accustomed to call religions, we have come to recognize that "God" may not be involved at all. The choice between theism and atheism is a different choice from that between religion and secularism. In this situation, the problem of understanding the distinctiveness of Christianity must be approached quite differently.

One approach, not infrequently adopted, is in the realm of ideas. Every competitor with Christianity for man’s loyalty assumes the form of a system of beliefs, positive and negative. We can compare Christian beliefs about man, the world, God, origin, and destiny with those of scientific humanism and Marxism as well as with those of Buddhism and Confucianism. This is undoubtedly important and valid. If beliefs essential to a position are false, or if in comparison with other beliefs they are exposed as clearly inadequate, then the position as such is rendered impossible, whatever advantages it may seem otherwise to have.

Nevertheless, the study of comparative doctrine will not take us far. In the first place, the diversity of beliefs among Christians is vast, and when we ask theologians to tell us which of these beliefs are of supreme importance, the diversity is not decreased. Beliefs that some regard as essential others hold to be incredible. In other religions a similar diversity is to be found. In a comparative study of beliefs, one is ultimately reduced to comparing individual spokesmen for the several movements.

In the second place, most Christians agree that what is essentially important lies deeper than assent to doctrine. The relation of intellectual assent to these other dimensions of Christianity is not one of perfect correlation. Few would claim that right belief guarantees a loving relation to one’s neighbor or that all persons who err in their beliefs are inferior in love. The accurate formulation of the relation of beliefs to more ultimate aspects of Christianity will be possible only when we treat these more ultimate aspects directly and see how they are, in fact, informed by beliefs.

In the third place, some Christian doctrines in most formulations refer to real changes effected in real people. This segment of Christian belief can only be discussed in relation to what has, in fact, taken place. It can be argued that the truth and validity of ideas are in no way measured by their results, but few of us would remain Christian today if we were convinced that the consequences of Christian belief were consistently destructive of personality and society.

For these and other reasons (including the fact that I have dealt and intend further to deal with problems of belief in other contexts) , I propose that we reject both religion and ideas as the primary context or vehicle for the investigation of the distinctive essence of Christianity and employ, instead, the category of "structures of existence." It is my conviction that Christianity brought into being a structure of existence different from those of Judaism and of Greek humanism as well as from that of such Eastern religions as Buddhism. It is my project in this book to show that this is so and to describe this distinctive structure of existence in its relation to the others.

To claim that Christianity embodies a distinctive structure of existence does not involve the claim that this structure of existence is better or worse than other structures. I am convinced there is real diversity in the world -- that Buddhist existence is profoundly different from Socratic existence, and that prophetic existence is different from both. The claim that Christian existence also is different from all the others is a denial that it is simply a subdivision of one of them, such as the prophetic, and it affirms the importance of choosing between Christianity and other alternatives. The last chapter deals with the comparison and relative valuation of the several structures of existence, but this is preceded by an attempt to understand each structure as a peculiar and, in its own terms, ideal embodiment of human possibility. The question of comparative value cannot be appropriately treated until the radicality of the diversity is fully recognized.

The meaning of the expression "structure of existence," which plays such an important role in this entire approach, will hopefully become progressively clearer to the reader as he proceeds. However, some advance explanation is needed. The term "existence" is taken from existentialism, although in part the treatment here will differ. "Existence" refers to what a subject is in and for himself in his givenness to himself. But attention should not be concentrated exclusively on consciousness. Indeed, the interplay of conscious and unconscious elements within existence is one important factor differentiating the several structures of existence.

Existentialists seem typically to assume that the possibilities for man, the possible structures of existence, are and have always been fixed. They analyze with great sensitivity the different modes of existence that are chosen, especially in man’s innumerable attempts to evade a full and responsible acceptance of his situation. But they appear to think that just this range of modes of existence is that within which man as man has always operated.

Insofar as this is implied, I disagree. The existentialists are describing the several modes of existence among which modern man chooses, but the possibility of choosing among just these modes is itself the product of a history. The range of modes of existence available to primitive man, for example, was different. To designate this more radical kind of difference, I use the phrase "structure of existence."

The conviction that there is a diversity of structures of existence as well as a diversity of modes of existence within each structure is partly a function of reflection on human differences and partly a function of a priori considerations. The validity of the results of the reflection can be supported only by the book as a whole, but the structure of the book and of the argument can only be understood in the light of the a priori considerations as well.

The assumption is that man has really evolved from subhuman animal forms. His evolution involved the subjective side of life as well as the objective; that is, negatively, we are not to think of great inexplicable gaps in the forms of subjective existence any more than in the forms of biological organisms. It is quite incredible that the structure of existence described by Heidegger in Being and Time appeared suddenly in the world, directly superseding an apelike existence. If the evidence required us to assume that the earliest beings we call human did in fact embody this structure of existence, then we would have to posit exceedingly high levels of mentality in our prehuman ancestors, assuming that for hundreds of thousands of years they must have far more closely approximated our contemporary existence than does any now existing nonhuman member of the simian family.

However, such evidence as we have points in a quite different direction. It seems highly probable that as recently as ten thousand years ago the structure of man’s existence was still quite different from ours. Hence, it can be assumed that after biological evolution had long ceased to have importance, new structures of existence continued to develop in man.

The purpose of this book is to identify and appraise that structure of existence which came into being in and with Christianity., To understand such a phenomenon and to gain the perspective necessary for its appraisal, we must understand how it arose and how it has been related to other such phenomena. Hence, an evolutionary-historical approach is required. This does not mean that the later is necessarily superior to the earlier, or that historical triumph guarantees truth or rightness. But it does mean that understanding of the way in which one movement arises out of another and interacts with others is an important factor in determining responsible judgments about it.(Readers impatient with methodological and other preliminary considerations may wish to proceed directly to Chapter Three. However, they should not expect a full understanding of all categories there employed.)

The bulk of this book is an attempt to describe the emergence of new structures of existence, including the Christian one. Such an attempt is possible only by a process of highly selective generalization, simplification, and abstraction. My hope in offering the book is that the abstractions will prove fruitful beyond their particular application here.

The necessity for abstraction and simplification is readily apparent. In my view, only individuals are actual, and for our purposes that means that the final real entities with which we are dealing are momentary embodiments of human existence. These are virtually infinite in number, and no two have ever been quite alike. To speak usefully of modes of existence, however, we cannot refer to these endless variations. We must group them together in types or classes. But to do so means to impose an order upon them, and the type of order imposed depends upon the categories employed.

For example, one can classify such moments of existence according to their emotional content, and then one must make the further choice as to what classification of emotions he will employ. Or he can classify according to the ways in which reason and emotion interact, or the ways in which one entity takes account of other entities, or the extent to which it is self-determining. No one classification is true or false -- only better or worse for certain purposes.

I am, furthermore, making a distinction between modes of existence and structures of existence. This distinction, too, is a simplification. No sharp line can be drawn between diversities of mode and diversities of structure. The choice of modes within a structure affects in time the structure as well. Furthermore, the greater inclusiveness of a structure is purchased at the price of still greater abstractness.

Because of this element of arbitrariness, it is important to make my assumptions explicit. These are that the major religions and cultures of mankind embody different structures of existence, and that this is the deepest and most illuminating way to view their differences. If this is correct, then the distinctive essence of Christianity can best be seen in terms of the structure of Christian existence, and it can best be compared with other claimants for our allegiance at this level.

Two additional methodological questions should be mentioned. First, in describing a structure of existence, one must distinguish between the self-understanding of those who participate in it and our understanding of it. The latter plays the primary role in this book. However, our understanding must be derived from investigation of the self-understanding and must illumine it. Also, the development of the structures themselves was dependent on particular self-understandings. Especially when the self-understanding was a reflective one, any understanding on our part should take it with utmost seriousness as we attempt to describe the structure of existence that it brings to expression.

Second, there is an acute terminological problem that is complicated by the interconnection of self-understanding and present explanation. To compare the several structures of existence with each other, it is necessary to employ terms foreign to the self-understanding of some of them and even to use terms employed by them in ways not identical with their own usage. This would not be so problematic were it not for the fact that these terms also lack clear definition in our normal modern usage. Hence, in some instances terms are used in ways, hopefully made clear in the contexts, that are alien to the self-understanding of those to whom they are applied and also highly specialized in relation to ordinary usage today.

For example, the idea of "a person" is, on the one hand, strange to the Old Testament and, on the other hand, often indistinguishable today from that of "a human being." Despite this fact, I have employed it to refer to a particular kind of existence that emerged for the first time in Israel. The justification is that no other word seems better to designate this structure of existence and that those aspects of humanness, which are especially brought into focus for us by the idea of personhood, received their decisive embodiment first in Israel. In other senses, of course, primitives, Indians, and Greeks were "persons," too. The situation is similar with respect to my treatment of "mythical," "reflective," "rational," "reason," "will," "responsibility," "the sense of ought," "self-transcendence," "spirit," and many other terms.

In the development of our present-day structure of existence out of those of prehuman animal existence, there were no drastic discontinuities. On the other hand, this book attempts to define clearly differentiated structures, some of which have succeeded others. Such succession implies discontinuity. But there need be no contradiction between the affirmations of continuity and discontinuity, and indeed both are affirmed in any intelligent theory of evolution or development. This can be easily shown.

One of the major obstacles to early acceptance of evolutionary theory in biology was the empirical fact of relatively fixed species. The discovery that there were far more species than originally supposed and that these shaded off into one another helped to overcome this objection. Nevertheless, biologists still think in terms of species and differentiate between the range of variety to be found within a given species and the differences that distinguish one species from another. This differentiation is not absolute, and it has arbitrary elements in its application, but it points to the fact that, through a process of gradual change, forms emerge which constitute something new, and which then have the capacity to perpetuate themselves indefinitely.

The process of the development of new structures of existence shares this balance of continuity and discontinuity, but it must be described differently. The new structure arises by the increase or heightening of some element or elements in the old structure. Such intensification may be very gradual, and it may be impossible to say at exactly what point the boundaries of the old structure are broken. Nevertheless, the relative strengthening of some element in the old can in the end lead to a regrouping of all the elements, bringing about, a quite new range of possibilities for further development. The new structure is discontinuous with the old, although the process by which it came into being was continuous. This emergence of discontinuity within a continuous process will be called the crossing of a threshold.

Chapter Two turns from these general introductory reflections to a presentation of ontological and psychological ideas that underlie the descriptive treatments of the several structures of existence. Some aspects of the ontology are more fully and technically developed in Chapter II of A Christian Natural Theology. Although the categories of Whitehead’s philosophy are constantly formative of the thought in this book as well, explicit use of his terminology is reduced to a minimum. This book should be generally intelligible apart from familiarity with Whitehead’s philosophy, although a student of Whitehead will have a more precise understanding of the meaning at many points.

Even the psychological analysis is influenced by Whitehead, but it deals for the most part with problems he left untreated. I have not adopted any one psychology but have given my own order and definition to ideas that have become a part of lay psychology generally. The analysis has grown up in interaction with its application in distinguishing the several structures of existence. Hence, it in no way seeks completeness. It avoids those controversial issues, a treatment of which is not required by the argument, and it deals at length only with questions that become important in the application.

The basic application is made in Chapters Three through Ten. The question here is that of the choice of topics. Where in human development are the great thresholds crossed? The actual course of the development of new forms of existence is inconceivably complex, and every account, even the most detailed, is a high abstraction. In this case, where selected structural unities are sought behind the exceedingly diverse details, the abstraction is still more extreme. A brief explanation of the basis of selection and the organization of the material is needed.

First, and least controversial, is the judgment that with the rise of man a major threshold was crossed, not only biologically but also existentially or psychically. To understand that threshold, and thus our common heritage as men, we must form some notion of animal existence as well, so that both the continuity and the discontinuity can be understood.

Second, there was a major new beginning in human affairs in the fourth millennium before Christ. This is often called the rise of civilization. The way was paved for this development by the earlier rise of the Neolithic village. It is reasonable to suppose that parallel with these new developments in society there was also the emergence of a new structure of existence, a structure that distinguishes civilized man from his primitive ancestors.

Third, there is great value in Karl Jaspers’ idea of an axial period.(Cf. The Origin and Goal of History [Yale University Press, 1953] pp. 1-21. See also the similar point made by Lewis Mumford, The Transformation of Man [Harper & Brothers, 1956] Ch. IV.) Although a number of features of Jaspers’ presentation are highly dubious, significantly similar developments in human existence did occur in the first millennium before Christ independently in China, India, Persia, Palestine, and Greece. This fact is of extraordinary importance for our total understanding of the history that has formed us. However, there was profound diversity among these cultures as well as similarity. It is more illuminating to speak of a plurality of structures of existence that proceeded to develop side by side -- as well as to interact -- rather than to speak of a single new structure of existence expressing itself in several forms. Furthermore, in Greece and Palestine there were further developments leading to the rise of still additional structures. The sharp distinction of Homeric and Socratic structures within the great diversity of modes of existence in Greece is a gross, but hopefully helpful, simplification. Much the same must be said of the parallel distinction of prophetic and Christian existence.

In addition to an account of what is common to the axial cultures, completeness would demand separate treatment of each of them as well as of the new structures to which their further development gave rise. However, since that is not practical, and since the major concern is to identify what is distinctive in Christianity, the discussion is chiefly focused on Greece and Israel. To broaden the range and indicate more sharply by contrast the peculiarities of both the Greek and the Palestinian developments, a brief treatment of India is included, with special reference to Buddhism. Among all the ancient traditions, Buddhism is Christianity’s most serious competitor for modern man’s attention and loyalty.

In the discussion of each culture, the majority of the space is devoted to a selective account of the beliefs and orientation of man in that culture. The selectivity is in terms of the purpose of highlighting that which expresses most clearly the peculiar structure of existence embodied in that culture. Some attempt is made to show how each culture arose by an accentuation of some element in its background and by a restructuring of existence around a new center. In concluding each chapter, I attempt to describe more directly the structure of existence as such.

The treatment of Christian existence, with which this series concludes, is somewhat longer than the others. Furthermore, it is supplemented by a separate chapter on love, which attempts to clarify the distinctiveness of Christian existence by comparative treatment of this essential element in it.

Although the selection and organization of the material throughout reflects the special interest in illuminating Christian existence and is undoubtedly influenced by its Christian perspective, the attempt in Chapters Three through Ten is to describe each structure of existence as objectively as possible. In Chapter Twelve attention is focused on comparison and relative evaluation as a means of justifying the Christian claim to finality.

Chapter Twelve introduces but does not discuss the important question of the emergence of new modes of existence in the centuries since the rise of Christian existence. The analysis of Western civilization in these terms would be fruitful, but it is not undertaken here. Concluding the study with Christian existence implies the judgment that despite the great variety of modes of existence that have appeared, and despite the great distance that separates us from primitive Christianity, a single structure is expressed in the whole of Christian history. However, we may have arrived at the end of the period for which such a designation is appropriate and for which such a judgment can be defended. An appraisal of the present situation with its many conflicting tendencies should be facilitated by the categories and the perspective developed in this book, but the task remains to be performed. In its absence, the implications of this study for our future must remain undeveloped.

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