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 firstname.lastname@example.org.. Published by Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1973. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 5: Heeding the Cry
There was much talk of voter apathy in the 1972 presidential election campaign. Indeed, apathy is all too characteristic of the mood of the ‘70s. Undoubtedly this apathy will not prove to be permanent. New issues and new causes will rouse us again. Yet there is reason to see in the current apathy toward public events a symptom of a longer and a deeper trend.
Apathy is a bad word in our vocabulary. We forget that it was once used by some of our Greek forebears, especially the Stoics, to describe the ideal state or condition of man. To be free from concern about what happens outside one’s sphere of control was, for the Stoic, salvation. That meant that the Stoic strove mightily to become virtuous in himself while cultivating indifference toward external occurrences.
We are heirs of the alternative view that emotional involvement in public events and concern about them are essential to our humanity. But that view arose with the Hebrew prophets who saw Yahweh as stern moral will and omnipotent Lord of history. This is a vision which, for good or ill, we do not share. It was sustained by a story of his mighty acts that no longer fits our apprehension of nature or history. It climaxed in an expectation of final judgment that cannot be identified with our fears of an end brought about by atomic war or environmental collapse.
If history has no Lord, and if we individually do not stand under the moral judgment of a transcendent maker, then does our continued concern for critical openness and historical responsibility make sense? Why worry how we write a chapter in a book that has no end, or at least no end that makes sense of the story leading to it? On the way to universal extinction, why take ourselves so seriously?
When we face these questions we can take some comfort in the great humanists of our century who, without belief in the prophetic God, continued the prophetic witness. Bertrand Russell is one such humanist. Few professing Christians have matched his record of responsible and costly involvement in the events of this century. By word and deed he has quickened the conscience of us all.
But on closer inspection Russell is not so hopeful an example as he seems. We are not asking whether there are heroic prophets who continue the witness to truth and righteousness in our time. We are asking instead whether there is any reason to continue this style of existence when its original grounds are lacking. In answering that question, we find that Russell is of little help. Reflecting on his own intense opposition to Nazism, Russell sought its grounds. Finally, he decided, it must be admitted to be merely a matter of taste.
Russell seems to be in much the same position as many of us liberal Christians. We are living off inherited capital. Those things we care most about seem not to be grounded in our present convictions about reality. We speak of what we "still" believe. We sense that crucial beliefs are slipping from us. We have no will to impose such beliefs on our children, and if we did, we would have no way. With the passing of prophetic theism, prophetic humanism fades too.
There is little mystery about where present religious trends are leading. When men cease to live in terms of meaningful history, they will inevitably revert to more ancient sources of meaning. Perhaps the historical consciousness has never been more than a thin overlay over the mystical and archaic one for most men. Perhaps the image of return describes the deepest longing of the human heart.
Theodore Roszak showed himself to be a brilliant critic of our dominant technological society in The Making of a Counter-Culture. More recently, he has published a book entitled Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society. In it, he is calling for the reaffirmation of God in order to rally the forces of the spirit against the dehumanizing society and mentality that oppress us. But the God he affirms is not the prophetic-Christian one; it is, rather, the archaic one. He condemns Christianity for having opposed such esoteric cults as magic and alchemy. Only through a revival of these mysteries, in his view, can we break out of the bondage to the rational through which we are bound to our repressive society as well.
The personal faith of Richard Rubenstein exemplifies this return to the archaic in a peculiarly lucid way:
"The biblical Lord of history is a redeemer God. He promises that the sorrows of the present age will ultimately be vindicated by the triumph of his kingdom. This view implies that human history has a meaning and a goal -- the coming of God’s kingdom. Unfortunately, nothing in our anthropological, biological, or psychological knowledge of man offers the slightest justification for his belief. . . . Man is the most cunning and predatory of all animals. He hardly seems a fit candidate for citizenship in the divine commonwealth. The Judaeo-Christian belief in the redeemer God is in reality the collective dream of Western man.
There is a conception of God which does not falsify reality and which remains meaningful after the death of the God-who-acts-in-history. It is in fact a very old conception of God with deep roots in both Western and Oriental mysticism. According to this conception, God is spoken of as the Holy Nothingness. . . . He is an indivisible plenum so rich that all existence derives from his very essence.
"Perhaps the best available metaphor for the conception of God as the Holy Nothingness is that God is the ocean and we are the waves. In some sense each wave has its moment in which it is distinguishable as a somewhat separate entity. Nevertheless, no wave is entirely distinct from the ocean which is its substantial ground. The waves are surface manifestations of the ocean." (Richard Rubenstein, Morality and Eros, pp. 185-186; McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1970.)
It seems that when we deny the Father God as the transcendent creator, lord and judge of history, we find ourselves drawn back to the Mother Goddess who is the undifferentiated totality from which we are distinguished only provisionally and temporarily. She offers us release from all tension, reunion with the One, return to the beginning. But in the absence of hope for a better future, history is meaningless. In the absence of judgment, ethics returns to the social mores from which it arose. In the absence of real individuality, the person loses significance.
What, then, about us? We are drawn by the currents of our time toward this archaic vision. We cannot affirm the traditional transcendent prophetic God. Yet we believe in the importance of history, we live out of some kind of hope, our individuality seems to us real and valuable, and the prophetic passion for justice burns within us. Must we say of all this that it is "still" true, that is, that it is vestigial and doomed to pass away? Or is there an alternative to the Father God of the prophets and the Mother Goddess of the archaic and mystical visions?
There is an alternative, one deeply rooted in our Christian tradition, repeatedly affirmed in the recent past, yet still awaiting a formulation that can effectively grasp and shape the imagination. It is the vision of the incarnate God.
Thomas Altizer has struggled for an adequate formulation of this vision. He had taken as his starting point the kenotic hymn in Phil. 2:5-11. This speaks of Christ as emptying himself to assume human form. For Altizer, this means that the transcendent gives itself up to immanence, that spirit becomes flesh, that is, that God becomes man. Christ is the name for the ensuing movement of the divine within the world.
In this way Altizer affirms the forward movement of history. We are called, not to return to the primordial, but to go forward with Christ to the End.
Altizer points the way for us, but to follow him altogether would be to betray the convictions whose grounding we seek. Altizer insists that the End to which Christ leads differs from the primordial ground. But he is not able to make this difference clear. Like the exponents of archaic religion, he uses images of a Totality that is beyond differentiation. For him, too, ethical, social, and political concerns are displaced from importance in the Christian vision.
Is there a way of understanding the incarnate God that does meet our need? To put the question so baldly is to suggest that we are trying to construct a God to fulfill our wishes rather than openly seeking to know reality as it is. But that is not quite the case. We begin with our commitment to the open and critical spirit, our concern for ourselves as human beings and for our neighbors, our longing for justice in human affairs, and our desire to participate responsibly in history, and we ask, Are all these quite unfounded? Is our concern for these things simply a matter of taste or the product of a wish-fulfilling dream? And the affirmative answer to that question does not ring true. It is hard to believe that these concerns are simply arbitrary or fashioned to fulfill our needs, when they are in tension with the more obvious desires rooted in our organisms. Certainly these concerns are the product of some process that has been working its way through the histories that have fashioned us, and certainly there have been ideas associated with those histories that we can no longer believe. But what of the process itself? Is it simply the function of error? Or can it be that the process that has aroused these concerns in us has its own reality, that our continued sense of the importance of these concerns even when the beliefs that once grounded them have gone is fostered by the continuing functioning of that process, that this process has still more work to do in the world, that it is worthy of our attention and cooperation?
If there is such a process, we should be able to discern it elsewhere as well. And, in fact, we are much inclined to do so. We see it in the hopefulness and zest of children, in the tenderness of lovers, in the courage and zeal of revolutionaries, in the creativity of artists, in the awakening of a mind to truth, in the sensitivity of an effective counselor, in an athlete’s quest of excellence, in the longing for peace with justice for all men. And there are special moments in history to which we turn. There is Socrates drinking the hemlock rather than employ persuasive tricks in place of objective rational argument. There is Gautama receiving enlightenment under the Indian tree and teaching his disciples the way of moderation and compassion. There is Jesus dying on a cross.
We experience a deep unity in all of these. They manifest to us what is most precious and worthy. We feel that it is right and good, not that we should imitate these men, but that we should be responsive as they were responsive. That means that consciously or unconsciously we do discern in this process a direction and a character that we trust, with which we want to be in tune and which it seems appropriate to celebrate.
If we try to specify more exactly what it is that unites these many events and persons, we may best say that it is a movement of transcendence. I do not mean by transcendence something that is outside the events. I mean, rather, a movement within the events beyond what is given by the settled situation toward a wider and a richer future. We must picture these events not as driven by the past but as drawn by and into the creative possibilities of the future. In our own continuing experience we can discern that alongside the many forces that lead us to repetitive and empty gestures, to defense of ourselves against the risk of pain, to managing and distancing others so that they will not break into our security, there is another voice that calls us to openness to the other, to exposure of our settled beliefs to novel facts and ideas, to following new and promising roads even when we cannot know where they will lead, to the free acceptance of responsibility for movements whose ends are wider than our own self-interest. Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek poet and novelist, once put it this way:
"Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath -- a great Cry -- which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: ‘Away, let go of the earth, walk!’ Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, ‘I don’t want to. What are you urging me to do! You are demanding the impossible!’ But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouting, ‘Away, let go of the earth, walk!’
"It shouted in this way for thousands of eons; and lo! as a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.
"Animals appeared -- worms -- making themselves at home in water and mud. ‘We’re just fine here,’ they said. ‘We have peace and security; we’re not budging!’
"But the terrible Cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. ‘Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters!’
"‘We don’t want to! We can’t!’
"‘You can’t, but I can. Stand up!’
"And lo! after thousands of eons, man emerged, trembling on his still unsolid legs.
"The human being is a centaur; his equine hoofs are planted in the ground, but his body from breast to head is worked on and tormented by the merciless Cry. He has been fighting, again for thousands of eons, to draw himself, like a sword, out of his animalistic scabbard. He is also fighting -- this is his new struggle -- to draw himself out of his human scabbard. Man calls in despair, ‘Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle, beyond is the abyss.’ And the Cry answers, ‘I am beyond. Stand up!’" (Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco, pp. 291-292; Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1965.)
Kazantzakis speaks with dramatic power of the terrifyingly insistent Cry. Alfred North Whitehead has written of "the tender elements of the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love." (Process and Reality, p. 520; The Macmillan Company, 1929.) There is a great difference in mood, but what they speak of is the same. The Cry operates in quietness. Love in its persistence in the face of every rejection is a terrifying force.
This tender Cry, this terrifying Love, to which it is so much more comfortable to shut our ears and hearts, is the God whom we have been trying to heed as liberal Christians. It is not a figment of our imagination or a product of our wishes. It is there to be discerned if we will be attentive and perceptive.
This Cry grounds our concerns for truth and justice, not by assuring that our goals will be attained, but by calling us continually into the renewal of concern. To hear the Cry is to recognize in ourselves the inertia that opposes it. In this way it judges and condemns us.
But the Cry is not primarily judge. The Cry grounds our hope. When we project past trends into the future, we are discouraged. We see that as men continue to struggle for power and unlimited wealth they must inevitably hasten the planet toward catastrophe. But when we discern the working of the Cry, the future opens up again. Past trends need not continue. The Cry works everywhere. In the most surprising quarters we find men moved to transcend their self-serving quest for power and wealth. Where we least expect it, compassion shows itself, men strive disinterestedly for excellence, a vision of peace moves tired hearts to try again. Even out of the clash of hostile forces arises unexpected good.
To respond to the Cry is to move with the deepest rhythm of the universe. It is not the only rhythm. In the short run it is not the most obvious. There is no guarantee of its success. It may not even save humanity from total ruin. All the same, the Cry remains the deepest rhythm. In attunement with that rhythm there can be peace in the midst of confusion and joy in the midst of suffering. There is wholeness and authenticity.