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Liberal Christianity at the Crossroads 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 Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1973. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 3: The Story We Live


The public schools have been a major center of controversy. It is right and inevitable that this be so. We all pay taxes to support them, and most of us send our children to them to be educated. We cannot or should not be indifferent to how our children are educated.

Today the controversy centers on busing, and this is a special and highly ambiguous form of the deeper controversy as to whether our children should be grouped in schools according to ethnic, cultural, and economic status. That is an important issue. Controversies flare up from time to time also over sex education, the way children are taught to read, the observance of Christian holidays, prayer in the classroom, and the teaching of evolution.

Less frequently the dispute goes into more substantive matters of the content of texts and courses. Here controversy focuses most often on the teaching of history and, especially, of American history. That focus expresses a sound instinct. A major function of our public schools, alongside teaching the three "R’s," has been the Americanizaton of children from diverse backgrounds. The central means of that Americanization is the teaching of American history. How we understand ourselves as Americans is a function of how we read that history. The Birch Society is right, from its point of view, to be concerned about the element of self-criticism that some of our American histories have recently contained. Blacks and Mexicans and Jews and Indians and Orientals are right to be concerned about the way they are pictured or ignored in the story.

One might argue that in the writing of history we should be concerned only for truth -- not for the interests of special groups. But that is to misunderstand history as story. The past is inexhaustibly complex. Even if a group of people should limit themselves to a consideration of the events occurring in a fifteen-minute period in a particular room, and everyone should cooperate for the rest of their lives in seeking to report them accurately, they would touch on only a very small portion of these events in highly selected ways. Their sentences would never exhaust the actuality.

To tell a story is to select, abstract, arrange, and interpret. Hence it involves distortion. The story never corresponds to what it is about. There can be many equally true stories of the same events.

This variety of true stories was brought home to me in grade school. I attended a Canadian school in Japan. There in alternate years we studied Canadian history from a Canadian textbook, British history from a British textbook, and United States history from an American textbook. For the most part they dealt with quite different events, but they were most interesting where they overlapped.

All three dealt with the American Revolution. The Canadian history told of the heroic defense of the Canadians against the brutal efforts of the colonies to the south to force them into disloyalty. It told also of the influx of loyal British subjects who were being persecuted in the rebellious colonies. The British history gave only a paragraph or two to the event. It was portrayed as a side issue to the great wars raging in Europe. The British decided that it was not worth the trouble to suppress the rebellion. I need not tell you of the stories of brilliant exploits against great odds which filled whole chapters of the American history.

All these accounts were true, but of course they all offered highly selected and distorted truths. Each was written from a particular perspective governed by particular interests and questions. Any history must be. Equally every perspective on the past and present is shaped by some reading of the past.

How we have viewed our alternatives in Vietnam has been largely shaped by our perception of American history. For example, if we read American history as the expansion from thirteen weak and disunited colonies to world dominance in service of a mission to spread throughout the world the enlightened American way of democracy, equal opportunity, and prosperity through competition, then we will think that what was above all important in Vietnam was that we not falter because of petty moral scruples but do whatever was necessary to impose our will upon that land. Whereas if we read American history as the struggle to subordinate power to justice and moderate justice by mercy, then we would see in our behavior in Vietnam an appalling failure of our true calling and would long to share in public confession and repentance.

That the struggle about the present is at the same time a struggle over the reading of the past is nothing new. Indeed, it is characteristic of the whole Judeo-Christian tradition. The New Testament provides us with many good illustrations, for example, the question of how to interpret the event of Jesus’ death on the cross. The background for interpretation is given by the Scriptures, that is, by the history of Israel. But how is that history to be read? Christian preaching in the early days consisted to a large degree of retelling that story so as to show that the crucified Jesus was the messiah of Israel. The Jews who rejected Jesus continued to tell it, of course, in another way. To this day a major difference between Jews and Christians is the way each reads Israel’s story. In general, Jews read it in terms of the law, with the prophets playing a secondary role. Christians read it in terms of the prophets, with the law playing a secondary role.

At first, the Christian story was told for Jews. As Christianity grew among the Gentiles, however, it was told and retold to make sense of this unexpected development. In Rom. chs. 9 to 11, we find Paul’s most sustained effort to carry forward the Christian story so as to include and interpret these events. In some of the later New Testament writings, such as Revelation, the persecutions suffered by the Christians at the hands of the Romans were given meaning by a further extension of the story. And in The City of God the greatest of Christian theologians, Augustine, retold the story of the world so as to make sense of the whole history of the Roman Empire that was crumbling around him.

In modern times, however, few have lived by these ancient Christian stories. Beginning in the Renaissance and winning dominance in the Enlightenment was a quite different story in which the civilization of Greece and Rome constituted the focus of interest and the period of Christian triumph in the Middle Ages was deprecated. The tellers of this story gradually gained more confidence in their own time until, in their accounts, classical antiquity faded into the background and the modern world rose to dominance as the bearer of light and progress. These histories could then portray the exploration, conquest, and settlement of the rest of the planet by Europeans together with their growing science and technology and new social and political institutions as the basis of interpreting events and guiding the course of current affairs. Social Darwinism in the writing of history, together with images of the white mans burden and manifest destiny and bringing the Kingdom of God, gave meaning to life in the half century leading up to World War I.

Those histories are to us now just as alien as the Biblical and Augustinian ones. Where does that leave us?

This is an acute question for professional historians and philosophers of history. In general, they have abandoned the effort to write universal history. They content themselves with bits and pieces of specialized inquiry into the past. They try to throw light not on our present existence in general but rather on some limited aspect of it. Nevertheless, they are caught in a dilemma. As long as they deal with meaningful interpretation at all, they are involved with presuppositions which, if examined, will point back toward some implicit view of universal history and the relation of their narrow subjects to it. If they abandon the quest for meaningful interpretation, then they must recognize their own efforts as trivia not worth the attention of serious men.

If professional historians refuse to tell us a story about the human past to illumine the present, we may he sure that others, less fastidious, and less well qualified, will supply the lack. Christian fundamentalists tell the story of man’s creation, fall, and redemption, and point forward to a final judgment. Marxists tell how bourgeois society rises from a feudal past and hears within itself the seeds of its own destruction and of the rise of a communist society. Nietzsche describes the death of God and the coming of the superior man. Charles Reich pictures our time as that of the rise of "Consciousness III" against the background of "Consciousness I" and "Consciousness II." Norman Brown portrays civilization as rising on the basis of repression and now to be overthrown by the liberation of the body. Meanwhile white supremacists, Black Muslims, Latin revolutionists, Palestinian guerrillas, Israelis, and many others are telling their stories with passionate conviction as a basis for present action.

Many of these stories are interesting and enlightening. None of them are wholly false. We are moved by each. But as liberal Christians we distance ourselves critically from all of them. The truth of one too often conflicts with the truth of the others. The factual errors and cruder distortions of interpretations involved in each offend our love of truth, but our criticisms appear as petty and irrelevant to those who live by these stories. They attack us as uncommitted spectators incapable of effective action.

The criticism hurts because it seems true. In comparison with the dedication of Black Muslims and Palestinian guerrillas, our gestures seem frivolous. Apparently we do not believe in anything strongly enough to live and die for it. We sadly watch while those less troubled by questions of objective truth and fairness become the only real actors on the scene.

There is much truth in that picture of ourselves, but it is not the whole truth. Our reaction to the criticism shows that we too implicitly live by a story that calls for action. Otherwise we would be indifferent to the charge. Our recognition of the selective truth and the distortions of these many stories shows that our story is a more inclusive one. Our ability to respond positively to all the other stories shows that ours deals with more fundamental values.

Perhaps if we can uncover and articulate our own inchoate story we can both be more critical of the judgments we pass upon others and more effective as participants in history. Perhaps we can learn to tell that story with conviction, in spite of our acknowledgment that it is too fragmentary and selective.

The story by which we live is correlative with the values we prize. It is the story of the rise of life out of the inanimate, and of consciousness out of the unconscious. It traces the emergence out of the pre-human of the human and of the distinctively human capacities for language, for humor, for worship, for art, and for thought. It recounts the use of these capacities, on the one hand, for destruction and conquest and, on the other, for bringing about order and justice on a broadening scale. It notes the rise of an understanding which assigns worth to the individual and hence to all individuals and thus challenges the absolute right of the group to impose its collective will. The story portrays the emergence of a love of truth for truth’s sake and its struggle against the myths and ideologies by which men justify their self-interested actions. It finds here and there a concern of men for other men that goes beyond the erotic. It presents the development of visions of the future that include all men in a world of peace, justice, and mutual affection.

The story shows, however, all these changes against a background in which in the great course of events might too often triumphs over right. Those who have hold of partial truths often destroy each other for the sake of those truths and the institutions developed to preserve and enlarge the scope of love often become instruments in self-aggrandizement. The struggle that matters most is fought out, not between good people and bad people, but within the heart of each man. Men are capable of endless self-deception, so that the emergence of every ideal becomes an occasion for hypocrisy. Those who pursue truth most vigorously and those who love justice most passionately often become most cynical. Through the story we see our time both as one of vast achievement and potential and as one in which men have lost confidence that the achievement is worthwhile or the potential actualizable.

This story by which we live is a universal one, to be traced in its distinctiveness in every culture. It finds its richest expressions in those two great families of cultures which we call East and West. Our century is one of decisive interpenetration of those two cultures. How that interpenetration occurs will determine the cultural and human possibilities for the next century. Liberal Christians, open to both East and West. have an opportunity for creative leadership in the deepest events of our time. The chapter of the story that we now write can be as great as any.

I have spoken of the history by which the liberal Christian lives without reference to Jesus, but in fact Jesus has dominated all that I have said. We read history as we do because we are the products of a history at whose center he stands. It is a history that is fed by many streams that have not flowed through him, but our openness to those streams and our selective acceptance of their contributions are because of him. That we seek to understand our present through an inclusive story of the past we owe to him.

To realize that Jesus is the center of the history in which we find meaning for our lives now can liberate us from false attempts to prove our devotion to him. We do not have to bring Jesus artificially into our rhetoric or attempt to force our lives into a pattern that we associate with him. We do not need to whip up strong emotions about him or about his crucifixion for our sake. We do not need to employ the language about him that has characterized our tradition. But we do need honestly to recognize that what is most important and precious in our lives we owe to a history of which he is the hinge. The attempt to understand ourselves more fully and more critically will then lead us to seek a clearer understanding of him as well. But in the process we are called, not to put on a special pair of supposedly Christian glasses. but to use our eyes as they are, to call the shots as we see them, to give ourselves to those causes which commend themselves to us under whatever label.

To find the meaning of our lives through Jesus is to be free. We do not have to struggle for that freedom. We need only to recognize and to accept what is true before we seek it. The story by which we live has already set us free.

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