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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 12: The Question of Finality


At the beginning of this book, the questions of the distinctiveness of Christianity and its finality were distinguished. It was argued that the former should be treated in some abstraction from the latter before the latter could be appropriately considered. Hence, in most of the book different forms of existence have been presented with only incidental attention to comparative evaluations. In this concluding chapter, however, it is appropriate to reflect on the Christian claim that Christianity is not only distinctive but also in an important sense final.

The Christian perspective from which this book is written has been apparent throughout in the selection and organization of the material. Nevertheless, the descriptions of the several structures of existence aim at a degree of objectivity in the sense that their relative accuracy should be subject to evaluation also from other perspectives. When the question of evaluation is raised, and "finality" is chiefly an evaluative category, the dominance of the perspective increases. Hence, in this chapter I must speak more explicitly as a Christian concerned with the intelligibility and credibility of the Christian claim to finality. This does not mean that I am made confident of this claim through some suprarational act of faith. The Christian claim is a problematical one to me, as it is to many Christians, and the years of reflection that lie behind the present formulation might, so far as I am consciously aware, have led to much more relativistic conclusions. But the concern for this claim rather than some other is determined by a Christian perspective, and the persuasiveness of the arguments which convince me that it has some measure of validity depends in part on that perspective.

We must consider, first, for what the Christian claims finality. The answer is Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the Christian may make this claim on grounds that this book has not touched; for example, on the grounds that in Jesus and only in him God became man. Discussion of that kind of claim cannot be undertaken here. The claim may also be made, however, in terms of the work of Christ, and this work may be considered historically. The previous chapters have prepared the way for reconsideration of this form of claim.

If we consider the work of Christ as being that mode of life which came into being under his historical impact, we are likely to think first of Christian love as that which the Christian would offer as the distinctive fruit of Christianity. This would invite us to base the claim for the finality of Jesus Christ on the claim that Christian love transcends all other forms of love and cannot itself be surpassed. The preceding chapter points toward this kind of argumentation, and it has its value and importance.

Nevertheless, this kind of argument is exceedingly circular and hence relativistic. The Christian’s ideal of love is formed by Jesus Christ, and measured by this ideal, most other ideals seem inadequate. But there are many who doubt the possibility of actualizing this kind of love and point to the self-deceit so often involved on the part of those who claim to do so. There are many also who hold that other ideals of love are intrinsically more noble and beautiful. There are still others who see other characteristics such as justice, self-fulfillment, or truthfulness as of greater worth than love. What is supremely valued is a function of the perspective from which it is valued. What the Christian supremely values is, in truth, supremely valuable only if there is something final about the perspective from which he values it. Hence, the question of valuation is finally directed to these perspectives or structures of existence.

Furthermore, even when the Christian ideal of love is taken as normative, it is impossible to say that Christian love is "higher" than Buddhist love. The Christian himself can conceive no ideal of love higher than that of the Boddhisattva who renounces his own final blessedness for the sake of the world. Viewed simply in itself, there is little to distinguish Buddhist compassion from Christian love. The difference between them is a function of the different structures of existence in which they are found. Buddhist love differs from Christian love in that the Buddhist lover is not a self and, consequently, makes no distinction between lover and beloved, whereas Christian love is that of a self for other selves. Evaluation as between these cannot be on the basis that one or another structure of existence leads to a nobler form of love. Rather, these structures of existence themselves must be evaluated. If the claim that Jesus Christ is final is to be vindicated in terms of his work, then the structure of existence brought into being by him must be shown to be final in some humanly decisive way.

Christian existence has been presented as a unity. But just as there are many modes of existence in which Buddhist, Homeric, Socratic, and prophetic existence have been embodied, so also there have been many modes of existence in which Christian existence has been embodied. Contemporary Christian existence is far removed from that of the Middle Ages, and both are far removed from that of the primitive church. Further, in the primitive church, in the Middle Ages, and today, there is great diversity of modes of Christian existence. In addition, especially in the modern world, there are many who do not call themselves Christians who participate in Christian existence, and, of course, there have always been many who have called themselves Christians who have not participated in it. The claim for the finality of Christian existence is not a claim that any mode of its embodiment now or in the past is final.

Christian existence is spiritual existence fulfilled in love. Since the claim of the finality of Christ has been translated into the claim of the finality of that structure of existence he brought into being, our systematic attention must now be turned to the relation of spiritual existence to other structures of existence. Since not only Christianity but also every other structure of existence is distinctive, this comparison should ultimately entail an individual discussion of the relation of spiritual existence to every other structure of existence. However, this is impractical. Instead, we will consider the Christian claim under three heads. First, in what sense is spiritual existence final within that historical development in which it emerged and came into dominance? Second, in what sense is spiritual existence final with respect to Socratic existence? Third, in what sense is spiritual existence final with respect to Buddhist existence?

Spiritual existence developed out of personal existence (the structure of prophetic existence) , which in turn had arisen out of preaxial structures of existence. The questions that demand consideration in claiming finality within this development are the relation of spiritual to personal existence and the possibility of transcending spiritual existence. In limiting serious consideration to these two questions, the superiority of axial existence in general to preaxial existence in general is assumed. Such an assumption would be impossible if superiority were understood in moral terms, even if the standards of morality employed were those given to the Christian. Such preaxial people as the Hopi appear to have achieved a general level of morality in their communities seldom equaled in Christian civilizations. Equally, the superiority of the axial over the preaxial cannot be understood in psychological terms. On the whole, there is probably less emotional illness among more primitive people. Most individuals in simpler societies are better adjusted to those societies and to their roles within them. Maturity, as defined within the culture, is more easily and more widely attained in preaxial communities than in axial ones. Nevertheless, the movement toward rationality, individuality, and freedom is of such attractive force and leads to so great an expansion of power over self and world as to be virtually irreversible.

Of all the questions to be dealt with in this chapter, that of the relation of spiritual to personal existence has been most fully treated in earlier chapters. Spiritual existence was presented as a further development within and of personal existence. The emergence of a center of existence transcending reason and passion, and responsible for decision and action, constituted the unique structure of personal existence. In spiritual existence, this center remained as the will, but it was objectified as one element within the whole psyche and was thereby transcended by a new center that took responsibility also for the will. In this way, spiritual existence took another step along the line away from preaxial existence, incorporating and preserving personal existence in a more inclusive synthesis.

This claim that in spiritual existence personal existence was fulfilled and transformed arises directly out of the descriptions offered in previous chapters, and so far it supports the Christian claim for the finality of Jesus Christ. Yet the continued existence of Judaism is a standing challenge to it. Paul already wrestled with the implicit refutation of his message present in Israel’s rejection of Jesus, and for us, too, this constitutes no less acute a theological problem. If indeed Christian existence offers to the Jew the fulfillment through transformation of his own existence, how can it be that millions of Jews have lived among Christians for nineteen centuries, unshaken in the conviction that Christianity represents a distortion of Israel’s faith rather than its fulfillment?

An adequate discussion of this topic is out of the question here. However, three points can be mentioned. First, during most of Christian history the church has had its greatest numerical success among preaxial peoples. This is readily understandable. The masses of people in the Hellenistic world, although profoundly affected by the axial revolution, remained primarily in the stage of preaxial civilization. Their world was still essentially mythical. The rapid assimilation of these people meant that the life, worship, and thought of the church were colored by preaxial, mythical elements. The situation was not improved by the vast influx of pagans following the Constantinian establishment of the church or by the mass conversions of the Germanic peoples. The church existed through these centuries as an unstable mixture of preaxial and Christian elements, while Judaism retained, to a far greater degree, the purity of its axial existence. Although we may judge that the essential reality which the church always recognized as its norm offered to the Jew a possibility unrealized in his mode of axial existence, we must recognize that he had much justification in seeing Christianity as a corruption of a truth preserved more purely in Judaism.

Second, the treatment of Jews by Christians has consistently, scandalously, and notoriously confronted the Jew with the most unchristian embodiments of spiritual existence. One would like to see the recent and most terrible abominations as simply the product of Hitler’s paganism, but this is impossible. Hitler’s extermination of millions of Jews is only the climax of a long series of pogroms in which the church has all too often been the chief instigator. One cannot read European history through Jewish eyes without the profoundest shame and a powerful impulse to dissociate oneself forever from the name Christian. Small wonder that the Jew has regarded his own tradition and life as superior.

Third, the classical and official formulations of Christian belief constitute an intellectual obstacle of no mean proportions. The doctrine of Jesus’ "deity," however it may be explained by sophisticated theologians, necessarily affronts Jews and appears as a repudiation rather than a fulfillment of their understanding of God.

If the failure of Judaism to perceive in Christian existence its own transcendence and fulfillment is due to such causes as these, then we may look to the future with interest and hope. Now in the national state of Israel, the Jews can reflect on the essence of their own tradition and of Christianity free from the unchristian pressures of a supposedly Christian majority. In these circumstances, they may come to a quite new appraisal of Jesus and of the existence brought into being by him. Also, if the acceptance of the finality of Jesus is dissociated from the acceptance of particular dogmas about him, the obstacles to a full appropriation of Jesus and of spiritual existence would be still further diminished. We should not expect a mass conversion of Jews to Christian churches, but rather an inner transformation of Judaism itself. Perhaps in this way Paul’s prophecy will find its fulfillment.

To a great extent this inner transformation has already occurred at the level of the individual. Partly by the subtle influence of a partly Christian civilization and partly by processes of inner development analogous to that in which Christianity itself arose, Western Jews, at least, have already to a large extent entered into spiritual existence. Nevertheless, thus far the transformation of those beliefs and practices which constitute Judaism as a religion has been seriously inhibited by the rejection of Jesus.

If spiritual existence fulfilled and transcended personal existence, we must now ask whether it, in its turn, has been or will be fulfilled and transcended by some other structure of existence. The claim of the finality of spiritual existence implies that no such further development has occurred or is to be expected. Yet such a claim, unless it is carefully restricted, implies both a prescience we do not have and a contradiction of Christian hope. Certainly, we do not wish to say that nothing better is possible than the existence we now know! All Christian images of resurrection and of new life beyond the grave point to something qualitatively new and other. In Jesus himself we see actualized a possibility in crucial respects quite beyond that which we now find realized in ourselves. (The omission from this book of explicit discussion of the structure of Jesus’ existence leaves this statement unexplained and unsupported. I hope to treat this subject in a later book.)

In the light of all this, what can it mean to say that spiritual existence is unsurpassable? To explain this we must distinguish two modes of analyzing existence. One mode is that primarily employed in this book in which attention has been focused on the intrapsychic structure, and especially on the center from which the occasion of human experience is organized and unified. The other mode attends to the relations of one occasion of experience with other realities, that is, the ways in which other occasions of experience enter into and give content to a new occasion. In this relational mode, distinctions would be made according to the distinctive roles played by one s own past, one’s body, other persons, and God. These two modes of analysis cannot be entirely separated, and this latter mode has played some role in this book, for example, in the analysis of personal individuality through time. However, most of the questions raised by this mode of analysis have been neglected, and in particular the way in which God is present to and in occasions of experience has been omitted from the discussion. Precisely the relationship to God is the decisive category for understanding the distinctiveness of Jesus’ own existence or "person" as well as the possibilities of a new reality in the future. In this mode, we can hope for something quite different from anything we now know.

But in the former mode, where intrapsychic structures of existence are in view, spiritual existence cannot be transcended. We have seen how in personal existence a psychic center arose transcending reason and emotion, and how in spiritual existence a new center emerged transcending also that of personal existence, which is now preserved as will. One might suppose that we could then, in a similar way, posit a transcendence of spirit, and so on indefinitely. But this is not the case. Spirit is defined as self-transcending self. It is the nature of spirit to transcend itself in the sense of objectifying itself and assuming responsibility for itself. Hence, this indefinite transcendence of spirit is also and already spirit. In this direction, there is no possibility of further development, only of refinement and increasing understanding of the reality already given.

In terms of the relational categories that have been omitted from this book, this limited statement of the unsurpassability of spiritual existence can be combined with a much stronger claim for the finality of Jesus Christ. The new possibilities for interrelationship among men, and especially of relationship with God, for which we may hope, are already foreshadowed and embodied in him. To move forward across new thresholds will not require some new impulse -- only the fuller realization of what has already been given to us in him.

The fulfillment and transcendence by spiritual existence of personal existence, and the unsurpassability of spiritual existence in that line of development in which it arose, go far toward explaining the Christian judgment of the finality of the historical work of Jesus Christ. But the claim goes farther than that. It implies that spiritual existence is related to other structures of axial existence in a similar way. That would mean that spiritual existence is able to fulfill and transcend these other structures of existence as well. This claim will be examined in relation to Socratic and to Buddhist existence.

At first glance, the historical evidence for the Christian claim in relation to Greek existence appears impressive. (Although there are a few differences, the following three paragraphs are substantially identical with my material on pp. 133-134 of The Finality of Chris:, ed. by Dow Kirkpatrick. Copyright © 1966 by Abingdon Press.) The great original success of Christianity was among persons who were heirs of Greek civilization. Furthermore, on the whole, the Greeks carried with them into their new Christian faith a continuing positive appreciation of their Greek heritage. They experienced Christianity as its consummation as well as its correction.

Against this rather obvious reading of history, two important objections can be raised, and some indication must be given as to how they can be countered. First, it is possible to view the Christianity of the Hellenistic world as more fundamentally a product of that world than a result of the impact of the Jewish Jesus. In this case, the victory of Christianity is simply another step in the evolution or devolution of the religious life of Greek civilization. According to this view, the Christianization of the Hellenistic civilization represents an absorption of Judeo-Christian elements into that civilization, but not a transformation or completion by a fundamentally new element introduced from without. My response to this is that despite the immense influence of Hellenistic culture on Christianity, the fundamental institutional, liturgical, and ethical patterns that won out in the struggle within the church are better understood in terms of their Hebraic background than in terms of their Hellenistic background. More important, the canonization of the Old and New Testaments represented the victory of the Hebraic side of the struggle and ensured that, progressively, its peculiar thrust would play a larger rather than a smaller role in the general self-understanding of Christendom.

Second, one may well argue against my view, that although the Hebraic development as consummated in Jesus won out over the decadent Hellenism of the first and second centuries, this tells us nothing of its relationship to the healthy Hellenism of the axial period. From this point of view, it may be claimed that the mentality embodied in the great philosophers is more comprehensively adequate and offers a more final resting place for the human mind than anything that has come out of Israel.

In our day, when the university and the psychological clinic seem to be dividing between them the historic functions of the church, this claim must be given the most serious consideration. Does not Christianity as much as any position live or die according to the validity of its truth claims? Must not these truth claims, like all other truth claims, be judged at the court of reason? Does not every attempt to escape this court of last appeal depend on ideas of authority or revelation or intuition, which can function responsibly only when they in turn are rationally tested? Is it not exceedingly dangerous to claim that some decisions or some areas of life are or should be free from the control of reason? Does not the appeal to reason bring men closer together, whereas every other appeal -- to emotion or to willful decision -- drive them apart? Is not unity in our day a matter of extreme importance?

My own answer to all these questions is affirmative. Insofar as this affirmative answer constitutes the adoption of the Socratic standpoint, I plead guilty to being a Socratic. If being a Christian means the acceptance on "faith " of beliefs that have not been subjected to critical reflection, then it is Christianity which can and should be subsumed within a Socratic synthesis. That would mean that the content of Christian belief would be critically evaluated and much of it accepted from a standpoint which lay outside of it, the standpoint of reason. Just this was the program of much nineteenth-century idealism, which was thereby in intention Socratic.

The Christian counterclaim, that it is in the last analysis Christianity which absorbs the Socratic achievement, depends on the view that although beliefs are important, the issue is finally at a still deeper level. In this book, it is formulated in terms of the structures of existence. The claim is that spiritual existence can fulfill and transform Socratic existence in a way in which Socratic existence cannot fulfill and transform itself or Christian existence. The basis of this claim can first be shown in the comparison of the two structures of existence. Socratic man identifies himself with his reason, which he recognizes as one element within his psyche. Spiritual existence is constituted by the emergence of an "I" that transcends reason and passion and will as well as itself. To incorporate such an "I" is impossible without ceasing to identify oneself with one’s reason, whereas the reason of Socratic man can be incorporated into spiritual existence.

The claim that spiritual existence fulfills and transcends Socratic existence, however, must mean more than that Socratic reason can be incorporated into Christian existence. It must mean also that there is something about Socratic existence which calls for this expansion into a larger whole with a changed center.

Greek existence came into being through an act of aesthetic distancing of nature and the gods, which freed the Greek to become aware of the formal properties of the world. Reason came into importance in dealing with these forms, and even when it was turned upon itself and upon the soul as a whole, it had no other kind of categories by which to think than those which were achieved by this psychic act of distancing. Primitive Christianity did not of itself provide the requisite categories, but the self-transcending self of Christian existence knew itself and the psyche as something other than the sensuously experienced world. When it absorbed, as in Augustine, the Socratic passion for knowledge, it was able to achieve a language and a quality of self-knowledge inaccessible within Socratic existence itself.

A similar limitation can be seen in Socrates’ immensely impressive ethical achievement. Because of the essential character of Socratic existence, the identification of the self with active reason, Socrates could not attribute to the self a responsibility for the evil which a man enacted. Since the self is reason, it is necessarily good. If evil transpires, this can only mean that the self is overpowered by an alien force, and reason cannot be responsible for its own defeat. Socrates’ own life and thought point to an inchoate awareness of a responsibility that could not be expressed in these terms, but just here lay a threshold that could only be crossed by some structural change. This structural change was offered by Christianity, which in this way also fulfilled the fundamental direction of the Socratic development.

With respect to the thesis that spiritual existence is the fulfillment and transcendence of Socratic existence, a qualification is necessary. The incorporation of Socratic reason within Christianity introduced an element that holds also the possibility of the destruction of spiritual existence. This is not because the prizing of reason or its high development as such threatens the self-transcending self of spiritual existence. But insofar as the perpetuation of this self-transcending self depends on beliefs of any sort, it is vulnerable. The history of Christian theology can be read as the attempt to employ and develop reason, on the one hand, and so to direct and restrict it, on the other, as to preserve the possibility of Christian existence. Such restrictions have always been wrong, and today are quite out of the question. The possibility that the use of reason by spiritual man will destroy the beliefs with which Christian existence is most closely associated and on which it seems ultimately to depend must be accepted. Where this occurs, however, there is no simple return to Socratic existence. The self-knowledge gleaned during the Christian era has left too large a legacy to allow for this. Partly for this reason, the great traditions of India offer themselves to the Western mind as powerfully attractive alternatives to the structures of existence that arose in Israel and Greece.

Both historically and systematically, the relation of spiritual existence to Indian existence is radically different from its relation to either personal or Socratic existence. In the case of both personal and Socratic existence, consciousness, selfhood, and the power of the soul to transcend and to act upon its world were prized. Spiritual existence carried farther in the same direction a development already affirmed and far advanced. Thus we can speak of fulfillment as well as transcendence or transformation of existing structures. But the Indian sages of the axial period had opposed this whole line of psychic development. To them it was essential either to establish the self beyond the differentiated world, which included the flow of psychic experience, or to annihilate selfhood altogether. Spiritual existence is not the fulfillment of this effort. Nor can the Christian recognize in extinction of his self-transcending selfhood the fulfillment of his existence. Finally, it is impossible to conceive a third structure in which both spiritual selfhood and the extinction of self could be subsumed in some higher synthesis. Buddhism, as the culminating achievement of India, lies side by side with Christianity as an alternative mode of human realization. It stands as the ultimate challenge and limit to the Christian claim to finality.

Nevertheless, there are judgments that can be made between the two. These are not systematic judgments and, from the point of view of the Buddhist for whom the events of history are meaningless, they are without importance. But from the point of view of one who lives in history and by his understanding of history, the judgments must be made. These are judgments about the relative capacity of Buddhist and spiritual existence to survive in the ever smaller world in which we live. These judgments do not unambiguously favor either Buddhism or Christianity.

At the level of belief, Buddhism today has much advantage. Socratic reason, in its modern scientific form, has rendered the Buddhist doctrines of no-self and no-God more plausible to many modern men than opposed Christian convictions. Whereas Christianity is in these crucial respects in a crisis of belief, Buddhism in its axial form feels secure. If present trends continue unabated, Christian belief must disappear, and if, as I believe, spiritual existence cannot indefinitely survive the loss of such beliefs, spiritual existence also is doomed. In that case, we should be grateful that the world is offered the Buddhist alternative to Western nihilism.

However, I am not myself persuaded of the inevitability of this outcome. The assumption that underlies and comes to expression in this book is that although the Buddhist goal of annihilating selfhood is a possible one, the self hood that the Buddhist annihilates is also real and quite capable of rich development. If we are confronted with the two possibilities of being self-transcending selves or overcoming self-hood, then we cannot suppose that scientific knowledge decisively opposes the conception of selfhood. Similarly, it is my conviction that our scientific knowledge of the world can best be fitted with our human self-awareness and with the witness of aesthetic and religious experience in a comprehensive synthesis that points to the reality of God. In this conviction, I am heavily indebted to Whitehead, and I have written about the understanding of God that is involved in A Christian Natural Theology. Thus my own beliefs allow for and support spiritual existence, and I could not hold these beliefs if I did not find them to have great persuasive power. If they or similar beliefs do have such power, then spiritual existence is not doomed to extinction. The present advantage of Buddhism at the level of beliefs may be temporary.

The second element in a judgment of survival power is more favorable to spiritual existence. It is now inevitable that the technological results of modern science will spread throughout the world. This spread adds greatly to the prestige of science itself, and this, too, is certain to become a universal factor. But modern science is essentially Western, and that means that the context for its rise and development was the incorporation of Socratic reason into Christian existence. The history of science is intertwined with a philosophy that even more clearly witnesses to this context. Entry into the modern world cannot be simply the acceptance of technology but must also involve acceptance of aspects of that structure of existence which has nurtured it. The modernization all Eastern nations want is inescapably also Westernization, and Westernization involves, to some degree, the emergence of the responsible "I."

The question mark that is placed beside Christianity has to do with its capacity to survive the consequences of autonomous reason. The question mark that is placed beside Buddhism has to do with its capacity to survive in a world in which the cultural forces will work so strongly to produce the personal or spiritual selfhood which it negates. The answer to this question is objectively no dearer than the other. Yet I must record my judgment that in a world destined to Westernization in all outward ways, the Westernization of the soul is almost inevitable.

It may be, of course, that this Westernization will occur in radically post-Christian terms. Perhaps the structure of spiritual existence is already being superseded among us by other structures to which the sense of the "loss of self" witnesses, but which do not seem to lead to the serenity of Buddhist selflessness. Seidenberg paints a depressing picture of that " posthistoric man," (Roderick Seidenberg, Posthistoric Man [Beacon Press, Inc., 1957]

The original edition was published in 1950 by the University of North Carolina Press.) into which he says we are evolving. But I am not convinced that this must be. We have far from exhausted the possibilities of self-transcending selfhood, and in our infinitely complex society, there are forces at work extending and enriching this selfhood as well as forces which are undermining it or seeking escape from it. The outcome is unsettled. This situation in which the destiny of man hangs in the balance is the ultimate call for new modes of Christian existence.

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