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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 8: Trusting and Deciding


The words "trust" and "decision" point to two quite different styles of life. "Trust" suggests that we let others make the choices for us. "Decision" suggests that we take the responsibility upon ourselves.

Both words have an important place in describing the Christian life. On the one hand, there is the slogan for trusting: "Let go, and let God." On the other hand, there is the slogan for responsible decision-making: "God has no hands but our hands."

These two themes are in obvious tension. One points to an emptying of oneself and passivity. We used to sing: "He is the potter, we are the clay." But we also sang "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and talked of building the Kingdom of God.

Is Christianity simply self-contradictory in affirming both of these? Should we choose one against the other? If so, which?

In the ‘70s our wise men and teachers are encouraging trust. As individuals we are urged to recognize our need for help. We have been trying to solve our problems by reason and will, and we have failed. We have tried to control our feelings and make both our feelings and our actions conform to principles in which we rationally believe. The result has been a stifling of feeling and a failure of action. We need to develop an attitude of trust toward others and toward the unconscious levels of our own being.

In small groups we have been learning again to trust one another. We have risked sharing our feelings and found that they were accepted. Others appreciate our openness. We thought they would despise us because of our weakness, and we find that instead they love us when they know us as we really are. It is an exhilarating experience.

Even more difficult for many of us than trusting one another is to trust the deeper dimensions of our own individual being. I speak here from painful experience of failure to trust my own unconscious and my body.

One of my vivid, and vividly unpleasant, memories of childhood is of piano recitals. Anticipation of such recitals clouded many weeks of my life. As the day came closer I would be gripped by anxiety. I would practice, and I would have no problem playing the piece by heart at home. But I was terrified that when playing before others I would forget. And of course such expectation is self-fulfilling. Sometimes I did forget. I remember one time especially. It was a piece in which the first part was repeated once before the end was played. I got through that far, but then I could not think how to make the transition to the last part of the piece. The knowledge was, of course, well established in my fingers and muscles. But I could not trust my body. I was reduced to playing the first portion a third time and then retiring in humiliation.

My case was an extreme one. Many people are able to develop great skills and to trust their bodies to perform well. But we are learning today that we have trusted our bodies far too little. Our culture has turned our bodies into instruments for the effecting of rational purposes. We have strengthened our wills precisely by denying our bodies the satisfaction of their needs. Even among primitive peoples men established their manhood by forcing their bodies to perform unnatural feats of suffering and endurance at the behest of their minds. We have now learned that the whole history of civilization has involved suppression of the body and its natural rhythms, needs, and wisdom.

When men cease to control and manipulate their bodies and the feelings that are most closely related to them, they enter into a quite different experience. The tension goes out of them. They have a new wholeness and spontaneity. Their imagination floats free. They become more creative. In these and other ways the attitude of trust opens us to resources for fulfilling our desires that are closed to us as long as we attempt to win our goals by controlled action.

Even so, it would be a serious mistake to take this trusting attitude uncritically. The body, the unconscious, and other persons are not wholly trustworthy. Animals have a bodily wisdom that causes them in general to eat what is good for them, but they can be tricked into eating poisoned food. The wisdom of our bodies is no greater. The attitude of trust toward others can be exploited by con artists. Madison Avenue advertising can manipulate our trust for the enrichment of business or the advantage of a politician. In the end it seems best to trust others and our bodies and unconscious only as far as critical reflection on the consequences of such trust justifies it.

This should be no news to a Christian. In traditional language it would be idolatrous to trust the body or the unconscious or other people in any unqualified way. Unqualified trust should be placed only in the One who is absolutely trustworthy, and that is God.

But practically speaking, what does it mean to trust God when we face a decision? Does it mean to go limp and see what happens? Sometimes it has meant that. In the Old Testament we read of the casting of lots in order to learn God’s will. In the Middle Ages there were trials by ordeal. John Wesley used to close his eyes, open the Bible at random, and then place his finger on a verse, supposing that God would so control the movement of his hand that the verse would answer his question.

Few of us believe in these practices. Yet when God is thought of as being outside us, working on us like an external force, these customs are understandable. The idea is to remove human control from the situation on the assumption that when this is done and divine aid invoked, the external divine power will take over. In this picture the antithesis of trust and deciding remains. To trust is to give up human decision in favor of what is supposed to be divine guidance. Man reduces himself to a puppet in order that God’s will may be done.

Most Christians who have understood trusting in this way have wisely preferred to assume responsibility for their own decisions. Is it not best to decide by rational evidence how far to trust what -- even reputed means of letting God make the decision? Are we not condemned to depend finally upon the individual and independent will to act, and upon reason to guide the action to the right end? Instead of trusting something else or someone else, must we not rely upon our own thinking and deciding? Is not every attempt to escape from this total personal responsibility finally a cop-out? Does not ethics, after all, have the last word about human behavior?

Certainly ethical action is desirable, worthy, and admirable. Reason and rational action are essential. It is by thought that questions of justice and the general good are to be decided and action is to be guided toward their realization. There are many things that should be done to attain these ends regardless of how individuals feel about them.

But there are problems with the ethical life. To be strictly ethical is to be constantly deciding what to do in the light of all sorts of considerations. Even if the ethical man decides to be spontaneous, he has to be spontaneous "by the numbers." He acts spontaneously when, and as long as, his rational reflection leads him to judge that it is right to act spontaneously. In such spontaneity something is missing.

The ethical life is a burdensome one. It is hard to know what is right. There are so many claims upon us that seem justified that it is difficult to decide how to balance them against one another. We are always left with the sense that there is more to be done. We find ourselves driven and weighed down. Others sometimes find our dutiful and righteous actions oppressive. We do not enjoy life, and others enjoy life less when we are around.

Recognizing these problems, some of us make a point of not being too righteous. We allow ourselves a few carefully selected vices. We filter out many of the claims upon us so that they will not trouble our consciences. In short, we seek moderation. We want to be ethical where it really matters but casual elsewhere, knowing how to have a good time.

Both those who strive for the full ethical life and those who for good reason dilute it with moderate self-indulgence are victims of the final corruption of such a style. That corruption is self-righteousness. The man who works diligently at acting righteously in all things knows that others do not do so. He cannot avoid recognizing his superiority even if, as a matter of principle, he avoids mentioning it. It is simply the case that, measured by the standards that are evident to him, he is more moral than those who cater to their own fancies without regard to the wider consequences of their acts. Those who moderate their virtue with self-indulgence in order to avoid this offense are often the more guilty of it. For they believe themselves to be superior, in true goodness, to those who go all the way in the ethical life as well.

There is an opposite problem that also afflicts the ethical man -- the problem of despair. He recognizes that his ethical actions fail to achieve their goals. He seeks the good of others while actually often offending them. He redoubles his efforts to do what is right only to find that the harder he tries the less successful he is. He knows that much of the problem lies in his spirit or attitude which seems to others hard, brittle, and critical. So he tries to make himself gentle, flexible, and accepting. But his efforts to change his own spirit are frustrating and futile. The more sensitively he perceives what he ought to do and to be, the harder he tries to do and to be it, the more is he aware of the gulf that separates him from his goal. To avoid despair he may make himself less sensitive and engage in self-deception. The man who begins with a passion for total righteousness sometimes ends in a lie.

We seem to have arrived at a dilemma. On the one hand, trusting, in the sense of turning over decision to something or someone else, fails us. On the other hand, the life of ethical deciding does not attain the goodness toward which it strives.

Christianity has rightly understood that we can go beyond the ethical life only if there is a completely trustworthy reality. But traditional Christian teaching has been much less clear as to how the existence of such a reality solves our problem. When God is conceived of as an external, transcendent reality, he may be supposed to be fully trustworthy, but it is not at all clear that we have trustworthy access to his purposes. If we are told that we have such access through revelation, the problem is complicated but not helped. Do we have trustworthy assurance that revelation has occurred? Is there a trustworthy account of that revelation? And, if so, is there a trustworthy way in which the revelation can be interpreted in its relevance to the concrete situation I now face? In responding to such questions the church develops an elaborate system of apologetic theology and of moral rules much like those against which Jesus and Paul protested. Trust in God is transformed into acceptance of authority and obedience to established teaching.

If the reality of One who is trustworthy is to free us to go beyond the ethical life, that One must be trustworthily present in our experience. There is a Christian tradition of such presence as indwelling Christ, Holy Spirit, and inner light. This tradition has been profoundly hurt in its influence by exaggerated and distorted expressions, which have attracted widespread attention. In the second Christian century some Christians claimed to have been informed by the Holy Spirit just when and where Jesus was coming again in final judgment. Similar erroneous claims to private inspiration have recurred frequently in Christian history.

But the presence of the trustworthy need not be associated with visions and trances and claims to new revelations. More fundamentally it is experienced as an empowering, healing, directing, and enlivening power that operates within. If the reality of such a power can be believed, then an attitude of trust is justified.

Can we believe in the reality of such a power? Traditional language about it carries little weight with us outside the often artificial context of the church. But the inward quest for a trustworthy power is very much alive. There are two directions of this quest which together can help the liberal Christian to move forward.

In many of its forms the human potential movement is a quest for a trustworthy center within the psychic life. It teaches that when obstacles are removed, there appears an inner power which makes for healing, for growth, and for mutual love. Although some forms of the movement seem to call for a generalized trust, others are rightly concerned to direct trust toward that which is trustworthy, recognizing that many of the most powerful forces within us are dangerous. When the rational will releases its tight control over feelings, a lot of aggression and bitterness may pour out in all kinds of senseless ways. In themselves these are destructive, and their open expression must be carefully channeled. They are certainly not what is to be trusted and acted upon. The trust is rather that these negative feelings, this garbage, is not the deeper reality of the person, that beyond it and beneath it is something else. When one gets in touch with this something else, and trusts it, growth occurs.

What is trusted is sometimes thought of as the true self, and this is contrasted with the ego of ordinary experience. Since this ego is the rational will which is the agent of deciding, trusting is set sharply over against deciding. Insofar as the true self is able to organize experience and personality, the task of the ego is to relax its hold and passively allow this to happen.

The human potential movement has grown out of the discipline of healing. To the restoration of normality it has added as a goal a deeper fulfillment of human potentiality. But its disparagement of deciding in favor of trusting is connected with its inattention to ethical issues. Here lies its widely recognized limitation.

The second direction of the quest for the trustworthy is found within existentialism, where deciding, rather than trusting, has been stressed. In some of its forms existentialism has denied that there is any trustworthy ground for deciding at all. Deciding is seen as arbitrary. But even those, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who seem to hold to this position, qualify it. Sartre’s own life and teaching testify to a profound recognition of the importance of human freedom and deep sensitivity to how it is to be achieved.

What existentialists do oppose is every form of legalism. They deny that there is any body of external rules which binds us or that the superego as an internalization of such rules has final authority. Man’s dignity and responsibility consist in his freedom beyond all rules. He can and must face the future in free choice. The experience, wisdom, and habits of the past should not finally determine him.

Situation ethics is a recent expression of this insight. Decision should be appropriate to the situation and not controlled by moral rules inherited from the past.

But what does it mean for action to be appropriate to the situation? How can one possible action be judged more appropriate than another? If this is not done by rules, it must be done more intuitively. The Sartrean might say: Act as freedom requires in the concrete situation. The Christian might say: Act as love requires. The meaning differs little. Both assume, unconsciously perhaps, that man can achieve a sensitivity to what is happening which enables him to see what is possible and needed. When we free ourselves from the blinders of habit and prejudice and the burden of moral rules, there is a deeper level of our moral being that grasps directly what is right and appropriate. In terms of this we can critically evaluate our actions.

Alfred North Whitehead pointed to this basic fact of ethical experience when he wrote that there is a universal "intuition of immediate occasions as failing or succeeding in reference to the ideal relevant to them. There is a rightness attained or missed, with more or less completeness of attainment or omission." (Religion in the Making, pp. 60-61; The Macmillan Company, 1927.)

The human potential movement works through the chaos of our feelings to a deeper center that is the trustworthy source of healing and growth. Existentialism works through our bondage to rules and habits to uncover the trustworthy grasp of what is appropriate, what is freeing and loving, in concrete situations. That to which both come is grace.

I fear that this sounds very abstract. It is time to consider what it means in daily life to live by grace.

Suppose you sense that someone is hurt and needs reassurance. You experience that need as a claim upon yourself which is at the same time an opportunity and an impulse to act. You act as the occasion seems to require.

This differs from the model of the purely ethical life in that you do not distance yourself from the situation in order to sift the evidence, judge the contemplated action in terms of moral principles, or think through the probable consequences of various courses of behavior. Instead, you trust your sense of the situation and the impulse to act. You decide in terms of that trust.

Now, your act may turn out to be in error. You may have misinterpreted the other’s expression, or even if your sense of his need was accurate, you may have blundered in your effort to reassure. You may have deepened his hurt and alienated him.

At this point you confront the key choice. How do you respond when you realize that your impulsive action failed? You may decide that trusting intuitions and acting on apparent opportunities is a mistake. That would mean that you would turn toward a more rational and calculating, that is, a more ethical, style of life.

But you may instead decide to trust grace. Then you would recognize your need to become more sensitive. That might mean that you would try to open yourself to the deeper levels of your own experience. You would work through your defensiveness and your tendency to project your own attitudes onto others and to try to control and manipulate them. Meanwhile you would continue to take the risk of acting on such light as you had, humbly learning from your mistakes.

You would do this in the conviction that there is within you a potency of real sensitivity and appropriate response. You would recognize that you cannot generate or control this potency. You cannot predetermine its contents by deducing them from rational formulas.

Trusting grace by no means excludes reasoning. The tendency to disparage reason on the part of both the human potential movement and some existentialists must be countered. The question is not whether to think but what to think about. If we try to decide what to think about by thinking alone, we are driven into a fruitless circle. The wise man is one who perceives what is appropriate to think about so that his thinking, which may be very abstract, complex, and subtle, becomes a part of the response to the actual situation. He uses thinking to clear away the impediments to accurate perception and sensitive response. What he perceives may be hidden to the man of less disciplined thought.

What of the relation of trusting and deciding when we live thus from grace? They can still be distinguished. Trusting our sense of what is needed can be distinguished from deciding to act upon it. But this does not do justice to our actual experience. The intuition of rightness is at the same time an impulse or a lure to the act. It can be resisted or rejected, and indeed there are powerful forces of habit and fear that oppose themselves to the impulse. That is why decision is necessary. But the decision operates within the impulse. It is made possible by the impulse. Insofar as it confirms the impulse, it is an act of trusting.

Trusting and deciding are both hard work. We experience the demand to trust and to decide as a heavy responsibility. But when we decide to trust and to make decisions in the context of trust, we realize that the grace we trust and for which we decide is at the same time the source of the trust and the decision. To live from grace is to receive by grace both trusting and deciding.

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