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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 6: Renewing the Vision


What we attend to determines to a great extent how we think, feel, and act. It shapes our vision of reality. Worship is one very important means of influencing what we attend to. It makes a lot of difference whether and what we worship.

The world as it is, or reality as such, is far too complex for us to attend to it in general. Attention is always selective -- extremely so. Pick up any university catalog and note the great variety of courses and how they are organized into departments. Every course deals with some aspect of reality. The aspect is selective in at least two ways. Some slice of the things that make up the world is selected for attention. And those things are looked at from a particular point of view or in terms of a particular method. For example, in a course on marine biology we would expect to deal with one segment of the living things on the planet. We would also expect to study them in terms of the categories of the biologist rather than those of the physicist or the poet. In addition, the particular perspective of the professor would be a further selective factor.

In the field of politics, so important to all of us, the selection for attention is still more extreme. The successful politician is the one who can direct attention to what is going on in such a way as to place himself in a favorable light and his opponent in an unfavorable one.

In the 1972 presidential election campaign, the Republicans were successful in drawing attention to shifts in emphasis on the part of the Democratic candidate George McGovern, his sympathy for causes such as busing for integration, amnesty, and liberalization of laws against abortion and marijuana that are farther left than most of the American people, and the danger of temporary economic dislocations caused by cutbacks in military spending and changing patterns of taxation. The Democrats were largely unsuccessful in directing attention to the close ties between Richard Nixon and the centers of economic power, the advantages to most citizens of redistribution of wealth and a shift from military to civilian spending, and such sordid tactics as those involved in the "Watergate affair. "

To be effective this process of attention-directing has to point us to something that exists. Total lies usually fail. But that is small comfort. For in all the infinite complexity of reality almost anything can be found.

Consider the way in which the Nazis reshaped the German mind in the ‘30s. Certainly they told some outright lies, but they won political power by directing attention to selected features of reality. These were lifted out of context, exaggerated, and distorted, but they were there.

There was injustice in the Versailles treaty, the presence of a Jewish community within an otherwise homogeneous culture did cause frictions, some Jews had been quite successful in business, and the Aryan race did have much to be proud of in its history and culture. By constantly calling attention to these features of reality and by constantly obscuring other, more important, features, the Nazis brought into being a quite new pattern of perception and understanding, a quite new vision of reality, that could be used to justify the most hideous acts.

Worship is the major way in which the church through the centuries has directed attention to those aspects of reality which it has thought most important. Although some of the prophets, such as Amos, denounced the worship of their day, the truth of the prophets has been made effective in history chiefly as attention has been directed to it in and through worship.

Not all acts of attention-directing are worship. The study of marine biology is not worship. The Republican and the Democratic political campaigns are not acts of worship, although there are liturgical elements within them. Even the great rallies at which the Nazis shaped the minds and destinies of hundreds of thousands of Germans were not quite worship, although they came very close.

These political movements direct attention to historical events understood to have temporary importance for some segment of mankind. Worship directs attention to what is felt as more encompassing, more basic, more ultimate, although it uses the more immediate as a means and points to it as an expression.

Some services of worship include a period for the sharing of concerns. This sharing of concerns is not in itself worship. The concerns may focus on the needs of the aged or on the protest against the war. As such, the statements of concern are social and political. But they are appropriate insofar as they give concreteness to ultimate commitments. The instances can function as part of worship insofar as they help to direct attention to the common and fundamental convictions that ground concern in individual cases.

One of the great problems of the church in every age is to find the right relation between the general and the particular or the ultimate and the relative. If worship calls attention only to that which is most basic and inclusive, many Christians will fail to grasp either the meaning or the implications of what they see. If worship directs attention primarily to the specific meaning of faith in particular circumstances, the ultimate will be falsely identified with instances. Also, judgments and theories on which Christians may legitimately differ inevitably enter into the selection of the instances.

This is a tension with which the church must always live. It becomes peculiarly acute in a time like ours when the ultimate as the Christian knows it is so hard to discern.

For worship to be effective, as is true for any means of directing attention, it must direct us to something we perceive as real and important when it is attended to. Too often in church services today what is said and done is felt by many of the most perceptive participants to belong to an unreal world. When this is the case, the participant, in defense of his integrity, must refuse the proffered vision. Then, of course, worship fails.

But when, in order to avoid this unreality, worship is brought into close relation with ordinary experience, then there is danger that it will lose its Christian substance. For worship to be Christian, attention must be directed toward something that is not simply identical with what is looked at most of the time. There must be some tension between the vision embodied in worship and the ordinary perception of reality.

I can make this point better with an example. Shortly before the Olympics were to be held in Tokyo, I was visited in Claremont by two Shinto priests. They were part of a committee to plan the use of flags for the Olympics. This provided them with an excuse for a tour of the world. They were using this opportunity to talk with representatives of other religions.

In the course of the conversation I spoke of how Christians in different countries tended to support their several governments in taking up arms against each other. More generally I was confessing the failure of Christianity to prevent its identification with national cultures.

I was somewhat taken aback, although I should not have been, when the priests asked, quite innocently, what was wrong with that? Was that not the proper function of religion? It was their view that their task as Shinto priests was to express, celebrate, and strengthen the spirit of Japan.

Christian worship all too often tends in that direction. It is hard for any of us to distinguish the values of our national culture, or of some subculture within it, from ultimate values. But most Christians would nevertheless react, as I did, with some surprise to the suggestion that no distinction is desirable. The relation is, for us at least, a problem.

Is it possible for worship to be at once real and Christian? The answer to that question may not be the same for all of us. Hence I shall state quite personally how, for me, worship both points to what I acknowledge to be real and remains in tension with my ordinary perceptions as these are shaped by my general experience.

I know that I am not the center of the universe, but I continually relapse into feeling and thinking as if I were. That relapse is checked in a variety of ways, but most of my general experience strengthens it rather than checks it. Worship, on the other hand, directs my attention to my finitude. It renews my conviction that I am only one among many, and it shapes my feelings and motives in a way that is more appropriate to that fact.

My tendency much of the time is to become settled in my attitudes and opinions. In the course of an ordinary week I defend them and extend them. They tend to become increasingly fixed bases for the evaluation of new ideas. I become less open to points of view that are really new. In worship, on the other hand, I am reminded that reality and truth lie far beyond me and that the opinions of others deserve respectful attention. I am challenged to give up my grip on the truths I think I know for the sake of receiving the truth that makes me free.

My tendency much of the time is to attend to what is disappointing, to note the little injustices of life, to become resentful that I cannot have all the advantages, appreciation, or admiration that I suppose someone else receives. That is, my natural self-centeredness leads to dissatisfaction with my lot and a vague resentment that life has not done better by me. In worship, on the other hand, my attention is drawn to what makes life good and to the generosity with which these gifts have been bestowed on me. I become ashamed of my resentment, and a sense of gratitude is renewed.

My tendency much of the time is to become complacent about my own goodness. I compare myself favorably with other people. But at the same time I suffer from guilt, I condemn myself for certain blunders I have committed, for failures to use important opportunities, for aspects of my personality which I seem unable to alter. Surprisingly my feelings of guilt don’t make me any less critical of others. On the contrary, I am likely to try to assuage my guilt by noting how others are even worse than I and even by blaming others for my own shortcomings.

In worship this structure of misery is challenged and in some fragmentary way overcome. I am turned from comparing myself with others to comparing myself with what I may and should become. My failure stands out more starkly, my excuses are exposed, my tendency to blame others appears as the final heightening of the guilt. But at the moment of recognition of guilt, I realize that it’s all right. There is no need to pretend to virtue or to defend myself, because I am already pardoned. I can turn away from guilt and begin again freely to deal with the new opportunities of the new day.

My tendency much of the time is to give up on the public issues of our time. I see an urgency of change in one direction for our very survival, and I see a continuing movement in a quite different direction. I see the church which might provide the spiritual dynamic for a great repentance profoundly unsure of itself and able to do little more than seek its own survival.

In worship I am brought face to face again with the mystery that checks my gloom and defeatism. My attention is called to a power that works for good within me and among others. I realize that my own impotence does not limit this power for good and that indeed when I attend to that power I am not so wholly impotent after all. Even I can be a participant in its work. I do not have to know the outcome in order to experience hope.

In worship, then, I am renewed by attending to that which is central to all reality, that which gives, judges, and forgives, and that which works for good and grounds hope. That, of course, is God.

I have been speaking of real potentialities of quite ordinary Christian worship. But rarely are all of them realized in a single service. Sometimes I seem to be hardly touched at all by what takes place, and I find it all too easy to understand why so many have dropped out of worship altogether. To make these potentialities real is an important responsibility for all who share in the shaping of services of worship. But even if the potentialities of traditional worship were fully realized, that would not be enough. Today we need to attend to aspects of reality that traditional worship has screened out.

For one thing, most traditional worship tends to estrange us from our bodies and our sexuality. The discomfort and confusion experienced about sexuality in most Christian cultures is intensified by worship. In reaction against those pagan cults in which sex and the divine were too nearly identified, our tradition has separated them far too much. Our worship has tended to desexualize us. We can rejoice to see the return of the dance and the physical embrace to our services, but that alone does not suffice.

Another need, urgent in our time, is the overcoming of our Christian exclusiveness. Our worship has traditionally strengthened our experience of our Christian corporateness -- and that is good. But it has tended to do so in such a way as to set ourselves apart from other traditions and communities. We need to learn how to attend to those aspects of reality highlighted in other traditions without losing sight of those which have been stressed in ours.

Traditional worship focuses on our relation to God and to our neighbors in such a way as to obscure our kinship with animal and plant life. It leads us to think of ourselves as actors on the stage of nature rather than as participants in the natural process. Here we can learn much from other traditions, but we cannot simply appropriate them. We must learn this as a new lesson in our own context of beliefs and understanding of man.

Finally, our traditional worship centers on the word. The word is the central means of directing attention. In the writing of this chapter, I have been using words, too many of them perhaps, to direct attention to the importance of how we direct attention. The primary task of worship is to direct attention more effectively and more healingly. But we are learning that there is another response to the recognition that all experience is selective. There are techniques developed especially by Hindus and Buddhists for achieving a state of consciousness that is not selective, or that is at least much less selective. That consciousness is expressed in silence rather than in words. We are now challenged to incorporate such meditative silence into our worship without abandoning the Word.

Often we leave our services of worship, especially we liberal Protestants, with a renewed sense of the problems of the world, the needs to be met, the work to be done. I am suggesting that in the area of worship there is work to be done.

But the final note of worship cannot be exhortation. You and I will not save the world. We will not even transform the worship of liberal Christians. Our contributions, even if we make them, will be slight. If we are to make even those slight contributions, we individually and collectively need to be reassured precisely that everything does not depend on us. We need our attention directed toward the tasks to which we are called, but still more we need our attention directed to that which uses for good even our failure to fulfill our task. We don’t have to succeed, because the last word of preaching, the last word of worship, the last word of the gospel, the last word of reality is grace.

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