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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 4: Jesus the Disturber


Jesus is the most important figure in world history. Superficially this is attested by the worldwide acceptance of a system of dating in which the supposed year of his birth marks the inauguration of our age. But there are much deeper reasons for this affirmation.

Most history these days is written from a quite secular point of view in which the religious foundation of culture is little Understood or appreciated. Even so, accounts of the events in Europe through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are filled with testimony to the importance of Christian institutions and indirectly of Jesus. As one reads on, the church plays a lesser and lesser role, so that the student of European, and even American, history might suppose that the church had almost disappeared as a significant factor by the nineteenth century.

However, the myopia of these historical accounts is already apparent. In retrospect from the present we must judge that the changes taking place in the nineteenth century among Asian and African peoples were more important than most of the political squabbles in Europe that have dazzled our historians. And if we ask how these changes came about, the most accurate simple answer is that the peoples of Asia and Africa came into contact with that great disturber, Jesus.

We must recognize that it was as disturber and not as savior in some other sense that Jesus played his dominant role in the nineteenth century. There are, of course, Christian churches throughout Asia and Africa that bear witness to other dimensions of his impact as well. But far beyond the walls of these new churches the encounter with Jesus aroused dissatisfaction with a status quo which men had previously regarded as natural or inevitable and to which they had been resigned. In the light of Jesus, the injustice and unacceptability of both the traditional social structures and the new colonialism became apparent. The restlessness and criticism awakened by Jesus gave birth to the great nationalist and socialist revolutions of the twentieth century that have dramatically changed the map of the world and reduced Western Europe to one among half a dozen centers of power. Even in the nineteenth century, unnoticed by our historians Jesus was the most important figure in world history.

That Jesus is the most important figure in world history is more readily acknowledged by thinkers who are accustomed to looking behind social and political changes to the grounds from which they spring. In Eastern Europe a good many Marxist intellectuals today are extremely interested in Christianity, because they recognize that Marxism deals only with a segment of life and requires a wider and a deeper context in the understanding of man. Many of them would recognize that Jesus, rather than Marx, is the center of history. Thoughtful Hindus and Buddhists recognize how much of their contemporary self-understanding has grown out of their encounter and competition with Christianity, especially in India and Japan. The Christian challenge has extricated the fundamental religious impulse in their life from the cultural and traditional patterns in which it was immersed. Even the great enemies of Christianity, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, recognized in Jesus the one adversary worthy of all their efforts.

Some who recognize that the Crucified One towers over all other figures in world history deplore it. But we, as Christians, rejoice, regretting only that his influence is so often corruptly mediated by his followers. When we acknowledge Jesus as the center of our history, we make not only a judgment about the facts but also a confession of evaluation. What has come to us from him is that in terms of which we interpret and evaluate what we receive from other sources as well. That we are self-critical at all, and the particular way in which we criticize ourselves, derives from Jesus.

If this is so, then we must recognize that our relation to Jesus is of utmost importance for us, that to be more nearly what we would be is to perfect that relation. But when we then undertake to perfect that relation, either we do so naïvely and pietistically or we find that we confront difficult questions, many of which had hardly occurred to us.

We cannot improve our relation to Jesus unless we know who he was. For example, if he was a teacher who expounded enduring moral and spiritual laws, then to improve our relation to him would be to believe what he taught and to obey the laws he showed us. If he was a perfect personality embodying the ideal form of humanity to which all aspire, then we should seek to be more like him. If he was one who pointed away from himself to God or to the Kingdom of God, then we should look with him at what he saw. If he was one who denied the importance of the world and all that takes place within it in the name of another world, then we should practice asceticism.

Liberal Christians in the nineteenth century felt the importance of these questions and devoted remarkable scholarly gifts, motivated by deep Christian passion, to finding the answers. Albert Schweitzer has commented that their work and their achievements were unique in human history. To this day no other religious community has criticized its sacred scriptures so ruthlessly, with such a commitment to truth. But the quest failed. Schweitzer himself wrote the obituary. The failure of the quest must warn us as to the extent to which the Jesus to whom we try to relate is likely to be more the product of our fancies than the man who once lived in Galilee.

Less dramatically the quest has been renewed in the twentieth century. New methods of historical inquiry have been forged. Gradually the pendulum swing from theory to theory has become less wild, and a small body of reliable results has emerged. These tell us little of Jesus personality. They do not enable us to explain the sequence of events in his ministry or any development in his thought. They indicate very little concerning what view he may have had of himself or what his motives may have been. But they do allow us to say some things about Jesus’ message and about how he characteristically acted.

Perhaps what we can say with greatest confidence is that he was -- and is -- a disturbing figure. We can be quite sure that he included tax collectors in the community meals that were so central to his life with his disciples. That would be like a Norwegian during the Nazi occupation throwing parties for Quisling and his associates -- only more so, for the common meal meant far more in Jesus’ day than a party could mean in occupied Norway. We can be sure also that he overturned reasonable conceptions of justice, as in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16), where those who worked only a few minutes were paid as much as those who worked all day.

The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day could not assimilate such action and such teaching into their understanding of goodness. Neither can we, even though we have the advantage of being able to understand his teaching historically. That is, we can see that the ground of his strange behavior and stories was his conviction that God’s Kingdom was breaking in, that the decision each man made in relation to that Kingdom set aside all other considerations. We, on the other hand, know that world history continued and continues. Hence our judgments can and must be made in the context of this ongoingness rather than in that of the imminence of the end of history.

It might seem, then, that we should just dismiss Jesus as a deluded fanatic. But we can’t. Something happened when he turned the world upside down. Men saw their lives in a new and very disturbing light. It was disturbing because on the one hand it showed them things about themselves that, once having seen, they could not forget, whereas on the other hand there was no adjustment of their lives which could comfortably reconcile them to this new truth. We are still caught in that quandary. For example, when we are told that prostitutes are better than preachers, how do we react? We preachers would like to ridicule the idea, but we cannot. It has a haunting truth that will not let us go. Should we, then, encourage everyone to become a prostitute? Of course not. That would be totally to misunderstand Jesus. It was in repentance that the prostitute showed her superiority. Should we, then, confess the preachers’ sins of pride and hard-heartedness and vested interest in established patterns that become apparent to us as we hear Jesus’ condemnation? Of course, but having confessed. we are not off the hook. We are still enmeshed in the habits of feeling, thought, and action whose bondage we have admitted.

To come to terms with Jesus has been throughout the centuries an immensely disturbing challenge to Christians. We can distinguish four main ways in which we have attempted it.

The Catholic Church rightly saw that the demands of Jesus were unreasonable and inappropriate for the ordinary man who must support a family and carry on the affairs of the world. For him the church taught a stringent but practical morality derived from the Old Testament and Stoicism. The distinctively Christian element in his life came through the sacraments by means of which Christ became redemptively present to him. Those, however, who could not settle for this halfway house, those who wanted to be fully Christian, separated themselves from the world. For them the church institutionalized the religious life. This involved renunciation of sex and property and the control of one’s own life so that he could live in the upside-down world of the gospel.

Through the centuries there has been another, a sectarian, response. It was contemptuous of the Catholic solution. In the sectarian view there can be no halfway Christianity. Every Christian is called to full discipleship to this disturbing Jesus. Each must live out this discipleship in the world with the responsibilities entailed in raising a family. In just that context he must renounce all use of force, turn the other cheek when affronted, and give his last garment to whoever asks for it.

Of course, governments cannot function on such radical principles. And some Christians believed that living in the world required participation in shaping the course of events rather than passive response alone. Luther struggled with this problem, rejecting monasticism with the sectarians but seeking to affirm an ethic of the possible with the Catholics. Luther saw that even the monks and the sectarians who strove for perfection did not attain it, that they were constantly falling under Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees for self-deception and self-righteousness. None, he was convinced, could live by Jesus’ teaching. But that excused none from living in continual relation to that teaching. It was Jesus who once and for all made clear that no man is righteous, that no man can save himself, and that we are wholly dependent on grace.

Christians influenced by Romanticism questioned the intense focus on continuing sinfulness of the Lutheran view. They were concerned to emphasize the fulfillment of human potentialities and the possibility of bringing into being a more Christian society. They found in Jesus a high appraisal of man as man, the infinite worth of the individual, and the vision of a society in which God’s will is done on earth. Jesus as companion and helper on our upward journey replaced Jesus the disturber. But Jesus has refused this role. He remains the abrasive teacher who turns all things upside down.

All these responses to Jesus have their saints and heroes. Each has penetrated deeply into the hearts and minds of many Christians and has shaped churches and social institutions that endure to our own time. But none has succeeded finally -- or at least, none has succeeded for us.

We find ourselves again in confrontation with Jesus the disturber, who will not let us rest even in our best responses to him. As we look at him we find ourselves lifted and borne forward by a history in which his spirit, often incognito, has remained the driving force. But we see that even the best embodiments of that spirit, whether churches, schools, or revolutionary movements, are extremely ambiguous. In the direct light of Jesus’ teaching they appear to us as corrupt and corrupting. We find ourselves entangled in the corruption, in the inertia, in the hypocrisy, and in the self-deceit and halfheartedness of life. But unlike Jesus and some of our Christian forebears, we see no way out. No Kingdom is now breaking in to free the world from ambiguity and suffering. We are called to live in this world without pretending to purity of heart, never satisfied, always seeking ways to deal with particular problems, but without the illusion that our efforts will usher in an age when effort will no longer be needed. We must give ourselves unstintingly to causes likely to fail, causes whose success would only open the way to new problems. To respond to Jesus in this way is not to escape the disturbing recognition of the inadequacy of the response. Yet it is to some such response as this that we are called.

Fortunately there is another side to the teaching of Jesus in addition to the insatiable demand. The extremeness of his call is matched by the extremeness of his promise. God forgives without limit and without conditions. He is more ready to give than we are to seek. God’s present action in the world is there to be experienced with joy.

The grounds of Jesus’ promise are the same as the grounds of his demand -- the inbreaking Kingdom of God. Those grounds are not ours today. But just as the demands continue to disturb us even when we do not share their grounds, so also the promises continue to assure us even though we cannot believe them in the form they take in Jesus. We continue to struggle for a goodness that will allow us to approve of ourselves. And that goodness, in the light of Jesus, always eludes us. But just at the point of deepest disgust with ourselves, our pretensions. and our defenses, we find a paradoxical affirmation. We are forgiven, and therefore forgive ourselves. Just when our efforts to forge ahead collapse, we find ourselves borne forward and set upright again.

The upside-downness of the world into which we are thrown by Jesus the disturber turns out also to reverse our misery as well. Just as our greatest successes are turned into failure so also our failure is turned into success. Just as our joy is turned into wretchedness, so also is our wretchedness turned into joy.

The world that Jesus gives us is one we cannot manage or control. The worlds that we understand and organize all collapse at his touch even when they are constructed in his name. That does not free us from the responsibility of constructing such worlds or of forming them in service to him. But when we have accepted the fact that he destroys all that we do even, and especially, when we do it in his name, then we are ready for the joyful surprise that the destruction is blessing and not curse. Jesus the disturber is our friend.

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