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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 9: The Grace That Justifies


The issue of Newsweek that appeared just after the landslide reelection of Richard Nixon reported that the President believes that this nation needs to reject permissiveness in favor of a new stress upon personal responsibility. His new administration is to be based upon this philosophy. In calling for this emphasis on the individual’s duty, Nixon is in tune with deep and widespread feelings in the American public.

Some people will react to this with anger. It suggests to them a form of law and order that is little more than the imposition of the will of the strong upon the weak, or of the majority upon the minority. There is reason to fear that some of this will be involved. But it would be wrong to suppose that this is all that is meant, or even that this is what is more fundamentally intended.

My own reaction is one of sadness. I believe in individual responsibility. I believe that some of what is meant by permissiveness has done damage in our society. But a renewed stress upon moral responsibility taken by itself is an effort to recover what is not recoverable and what would not be worth recovering.

Our society has alternated between a tight moralistic pattern and a loose easygoing one. In theological jargon we talk about legalism and antinomianism. A legalistic system tries to help people find the good life by providing numerous rules by which to live. The rules often come out of rich experience and deep satisfaction with that experience on the part of one generation. But the following generations find them oppressive. They revolt against them. Sometimes in doing so they attack all rules. They call for pure spontaneity and the liberty to do whatever one wants or feels like doing as the true way of finding a whole and satisfying life. This is anti-legalism or antinomianism.

Antinomianism, too, in the period of experiencing liberation from old rules, is deeply satisfying. But it does not satisfy for long. Outwardly it tends toward a chaos in which individuals find themselves less free than they had been under law. Inwardly it leads to meaninglessness. Some begin to find patterns of living that lead them out of chaos and meaninglessness. They offer these patterns to others. These become a new set of rules. Society adopts them. Legalism has returned. People revolt against it. Antinomianism follows.

The last century has illustrated this pattern. Victorianism means to us a rigid system of oppressive rules by which people pretended to live. Behind the facade we have learned to see resentment and lust. This unattractive culture had grown out of the evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century. In those revivals many people had found a new and richer life through personal and religious discipline. The children of the saved became respectable through the acceptance of that discipline. In Victoria’s time they ruled England.

Many factors combined in the past half century to destroy the sway of Victorian legalism. The name of Freud can represent some of them. The new self-understanding that the psychologies derivative from him have released into our culture has deeply transformed it and affected all of us.

Freudianism exposed the hypocrisy and repressiveness of Victorianism. In doing so, with or without the approval of Freud himself, it challenged every system of rules. It encouraged an attitude of appreciation for what is most deeply rooted in our natures, what is libidinal and erotic. Expression replaced control as the dominant value. The sense of obligation was seen as the problem rather than the cure to man’s ills. What one feels like doing, not what one thinks one ought to do, became the criterion of right action.

This antinomianism breeds a new legalism in two ways. First, insofar as it succeeds, it becomes a new set of rules itself. Many of us have been in groups in which in the name of complete spontaneity and honesty we felt pressed toward expressing quite limited aspects of what we were feeling and thinking. I have personally profited from such groups. But the requirement that I express only what I deeply feel and avoid all head-tripping is just as strict and difficult a rule as any that has been laid down in the name of moral obligation. It is enforced by social pressure in much the same way.

Secondly, there is revulsion against the extreme manifestations of this antinomianism. O. Hobart Mowrer a few years ago wrote a book bitterly attacking Freudianism for having undercut morality. He argued that psychological health depends upon clear and vigorous moral teaching and discipline. Some forms of contemporary therapy operate with contracts between the patient and the group. These contracts are commitments to take definite actions. They are enforced by group approval and disapproval. On a broader cultural scale we recognize the fresh articulation of the desire expressed by Richard Nixon to return to a society of responsible individuals.

Most Christians have tended toward legalism. Some have held to legalisms that are rigid and exacting. Others have followed the path of moderation. A few have rejected rules altogether in the name of the gospel of liberation. The alternation of legalism and antinomianism has been characteristic of Christian history.

Even so, on this point I dare to say that Christianity has the answer. It offers the alternative to both legalism and antinomianism that satisfies the legitimate concerns of both. It teaches grace and response. Even when as now its message is poorly understood, still it touches our lives and saves us from the final destructiveness of both life under law and the rejection of law.

The Christian position can be quickly summarized. It runs something like this: You don’t have to be or do what you ought to be or do; therefore you are free to be or do it.

Very simple! Also quite bewildering. Some would say, silly. Isn’t it self-contradictory to say that we don’t have to do what we ought to do? Or else isn’t it just stating the obvious fact that we sometimes don’t do what we should? How could the fact that we don’t have to do something make us free to do it? And if we are free to do what we ought to do, are we not equally free to do something quite different? Doesn’t that give us a license to do evil?

These are perfectly good questions. They arose in the early church in response to the message of Paul. They have recurred whenever the gospel in its distinctiveness has been preached. They point to the fact that the Christian message is paradoxical in the sense of being against the grain of common sense. But perhaps at this point common sense is no adequate guide. Perhaps common sense runs back and forth between legalism and antinomianism and can find no way out. Perhaps we should be prepared to listen to surprising ideas and to be patient while they try to explain themselves.

We live in a psychological age. To explain a basic Christian teaching is for us, therefore, largely a matter of explaining it psychologically. In the process something may be lost of the original meaning, but psychology is a good place to begin.

Paul too gave a psychological account of the problem in Rom. 7:7-12. He said that as an infant he had natural and spontaneous desires which were perfectly innocent. In that condition he was very much alive. But as he grew older he learned that he ought not to desire things which belonged to other people. He recognized that and he tried to obey it. But recognizing the value of the rule did not destroy the desires that went counter to it. Instead, he found that the knowledge that he ought not to want certain things made him want them even more. The harder he tried to obey the law, the more inwardly frustrated he became. The rule that was good in itself tore him up inside. It seemed that he could never again have that innocent wholeness which had made him so alive as an infant.

The solution to this problem in Paul’s terms is Jesus Christ our Lord. We must try a psychological translation, since that is where our understanding begins. Paul believed, and we agree, that the rule against coveting is a good one, so we can’t solve the problem simply by approving of coveting. But we can see that if man is to have life, he has to become free from the cycle of struggling not to covet, coveting, and condemning himself for coveting. To do that he has to stand outside that whole cycle and adopt a different attitude toward it. He has to recognize that that is "where he’s at," and that it is not a healthy place to be. He then has to see that the reason he’s caught up in it is that it is so important to him to be a good person. He can see that deep down he has to believe that he is a good person in order to live with himself with any inner comfort or satisfaction. He doesn’t like himself except as he conforms to his notion of goodness. But even when he understands himself, his insight does not change his condition.

Still, change can occur. He can experience himself as so fully loved, accepted, affirmed by another, that his need to win his own approval diminishes. Its power over him won’t disappear, but in principle, we may say, it is broken. That is, there is another basis now for his self-acceptance and his inner comfort.

When this happens the whole situation changes. He still sees that coveting is wrong and that he continues to covet. But that no longer upsets him deeply. He can face the fact of his own failure to live up to his ideals about himself without becoming preoccupied with this failure. He is free to turn toward others, and to act in their behalf. In the process the actual coveting declines. He finds himself obeying the law.

At the psychological level, that is what I mean by the principle: "You don’t have to be or do what you ought to be or do; therefore you are free to be or do it." You as a person, in your fundamental worth, are secure. Hence you should be under no psychological compulsion to prove yourself. When you appropriate that truth psychologically, you are free from the tensions that make the moral rules destructive. The rules remain, but you now find yourself conforming to these rules without pain and struggle. They express and describe what you want to be and do.

Paul did not have in mind the accepting love of another human being. And even when we approach this matter psychologically, we should not stop with that. The power of human love to free the neighbor should not be minimized, but it should not be exaggerated either. When is human love really without conditions? The vivid experience of a liberating love is so rare and precious that in our eagerness to retain it we may place ourselves in bondage to conditions, real or imagined, that we associate with it. Also no fellow human can know us in such a way that we can be sure that his acceptance includes everything about us, or that it will last.

Our need of acceptance, if we are to be freed from the pressure to prove or to justify ourselves, is total. The question I confront about myself finally is not whether what I am or do is acceptable to this person or that, although that matters greatly to me. It is whether what I am and do is acceptable. If it is not, then I cannot accept it, except by self-deceit, even if some other human being seems to accept it. If it is, then I can stand secure even if other human beings condemn me. If in order to be acceptable I must cease to covet, then I am caught in the cycle of self-preoccupation and misery that Paul described. If I am acceptable even in my coveting, then I can accept myself, transcend my coveting, and live.

Further than this psychology cannot go. It can describe the need to believe ourselves acceptable. It can teach us techniques by which we may try to persuade ourselves that we are acceptable. But it cannot announce that in fact we are acceptable.

For this very reason psychology sometimes cheats us here. It tries to enable us to accept ourselves by dulling our sensitivity to the moral law. It suggests that coveting is not, after all, so bad, since everyone covets. We are taught to accept ourselves by lowering the standards of expectation.

There are expectations that many of us have internalized from which we do indeed need to be freed. We have been taught to condemn sexual desires that should not be condemned. Christians have sometimes thought that they should be free of hostile and negative feelings in ways which could only lead to unhealthy repression. Hence we are indebted to the psychologists who have helped us to understand the distorted forms that the law has taken.

But there are true moral principles to which we should not dull our sensitivity. We should act so as to contribute to justice and peace. We should avoid involving ourselves in the exploitation of the less privileged. We should act now so that the conditions on this planet for our children and our grandchildren will be healthy and hopeful. We should become more aware of the feelings of others and deal more openly with them. We should love our neighbors as ourselves.

If we sensitively attend to these laws, they will affect us in much the way that Paul described himself as affected by the law against coveting. They, too, will destroy the spontaneous life within us. Insofar as we try to deal with this destructiveness by weakening our seriousness about the laws, we seek our own health at the expense of the neighbor. These laws, in Paul’s terms, are holy, just, and good. But they condemn us and destroy us.

In the face of moral laws like these how can we believe that we are acceptable? It cannot be on the basis of our innocence, for none of us are innocent. It cannot be on the basis that we have met standards for acceptability. The man of sensitive conscience knows that he has not. And it is not sufficient that a fellow human being accept us, valuable and helpful as that is.

As I have wrestled recently with this problem, I have been helped by some comments of a friend, Lauren Ekroth, who is deeply involved in several forms of the human potential movement. He said that in order to receive benefits from these methods of human development, it is necessary at first to rely upon the experience and wisdom of the leader. But in the end, when insight and understanding have come, or when new wholeness and strength are experienced, a person finds that they are his own. They well up within from depths he did not know he had. The sense of deriving these benefits from the teacher turns out to be an illusion.

So it is with the acceptance that frees a man from the need to justify himself. He seems to experience it in the words and gestures of another person. But finally, if it is real, it turns out to be within himself, independent of the imperfections of a fellowman’s acceptance. It wells up within him from depths he did not know he had -- from the depths where God is.

The basic task of the church is to announce and realize God’s free acceptance. It does so by being itself an accepting and affirming community. But it does so more fundamentally by pointing, through word and sacrament, to the reality that it serves and from which it lives.

To be faithful, however, the church must affirm acceptance in a way that does not dull the sensitivity of our consciences. It continues to make us aware of the legitimate demand of true righteousness. We are not freed from the consciousness that we are often, even continuously, in the wrong. The church’s task is rightly to balance grace and law.

Herbert Braun recently retired from an illustrious career as a professor of New Testament at the University of Mainz. Once when he preached at the leading Protestant church in that city he attacked the congregation for having come to church. He urged that they should be out on the golf courses, enjoying themselves.

That was a dramatic way of preaching grace. Braun believed that many of those who attended church did so out of the belief that faithful churchmanship helped them to become acceptable people. Certainly that has been a widespread reason for supporting churches. Church attendance is felt to be a particularly meritorious kind of action that may compensate for some of the compromises with which daily life and business are filled. Insofar as that is the reason for coming to church, Braun is right. The man who has heard the gospel will know that he does not need to support the church. But if Braun meant that the one who had truly understood the gospel would in fact not come to church, then I think he was wrong. The man who is freed from the supposition that church attendance is a way of gaining merit and of justifying himself will ordinarily support the institution which bears that message.

Carl Michalson used to make the same point about prayer. The Christian, he said, doesn’t need to pray. In the pietistic circles of Methodism that sounded strange. I grew up thinking that the more I prayed, the better; that prayer was the means of becoming what I should become. But Michalson was right. If one uses prayer as a means of meeting the requirements of acceptability, then prayer becomes an enemy of the Christian message that we are accepted already. On the other hand, Michalson was not attacking prayer. The Christian, he said, is at liberty to pray. He does not live under obligation but under freedom. He may approach God whenever he wishes and chooses.

The meaning of grace goes still farther. It touches us in the very ground of our being at that point of gnawing anxiety about ourselves which is deeper than all the particular worries and fears in which we express it. How much of my behavior, and I suspect of yours as well, is to be explained by this deep-seated uneasiness that something is missing, something is lacking, something is insufficient. Sometimes I feel that if only I could get some idea across, publish one more book on just the right subject, or shape the minds of a few students in the appropriate way, then I would have accomplished something, be somebody, fulfill my mission in life. Sometimes in the face of the acute practical problems of the world, I feel instead that only by contributing to their solution can I justify myself, that is, can I be and do what I should be and do. Thus I am driven to work by a need that is deeper than fear or ambition.

Now, insofar as I heed the gospel, I find that I do not need to write books or engage in social action in order to justify my existence. But I do not necessarily stop writing or acting. I may instead find that I am freed to work better as my response to the grace by which I live.

There is a special irony that a discussion of grace may be peculiarly liable to communicate law instead. Suppose that you have found what I have said to be persuasive. How then do you react? If I were in your shoes, I would be inclined to engage in some self-criticism. How little I am open to grace! How hard I work to justify myself! And how barren are the results! I must work harder at living from grace and not from law! Alas! If grace becomes law, where can grace be found?

The good news is not that if we will meet certain conditions, open ourselves in a certain way, or give up trying to justify ourselves, God will then be gracious to us. The gospel is instead that God is gracious to us. Therefore we can be open and cease to try to justify ourselves. But whether we are open or not, whether we trust him or not, God is gracious. Indeed, God is nothing other than Grace itself.

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