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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 10: The Faith That Kills and the Faith That Quickens


We live in a time when the four-letter words are "in" and the three-letter words, such as God and sin, are "out." Many people, even people in the churches, are uncomfortable with these words. They conjure up associations that are either incredible or objectionable, or both. In the presence of those for whom these words have such connotations, and their name is legion, I too am uncomfortable with them. But left to myself, in my personal understanding of reality, I find them useful and necessary. I believe that life is a gift and I can think of no better way to name the giver than "God." I find within myself that which blinds me to the possibilities of life and refuses to embody them even when I see them clearly, and I can think of no better way to speak of that than as sin.

Many of those who are no longer comfortable speaking of God and sin still speak much of faith. They find "faith" a word they can utter without embarrassment. Indeed, it is striking how central that word has become, as the word "God" fades to the margins.

I, on the contrary, hesitate before the word "faith." It means so many different things, and it is so easily used to conceal an absence of meaning. The common use of this slippery word falsely suggests agreement where there is none. And yet it is claimed that salvation itself depends upon what it names, or faith is even identified with salvation.

The reason for the excessive use of this word is that the Reformers, and especially Luther, discovered such rich meaning in it. To follow Luther has meant more than anything else to accept the slogan "justification by faith alone." Most of the greatest theologians of modern times have worked in the shadow of Luther.

The phrase "justification by faith alone" is not in the Bible. Even the phrase "justification by faith" is rare. It is one of several ways in which Paul makes the crucial point that we do not save ourselves by obedience to the law, but that instead God has done what was necessary through Christ.

However, faith is not just a narrowly Lutheran approach to justification. In some form it is crucial to religion in general and even to quasi-religious movements. To take a far-out example, consider the following quote from Ken Kesey as reported by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: "‘You’ve got to have some faith in what we’re trying to do. It’s easy to have faith as long as it goes along with what you already know. But you’ve got to have faith in us all the way. Somebody like Gleason -- Gleason was with us this far.’ Kesey spreads his thumb and forefinger about two inches apart. ‘He was with us as long as our fantasy coincided with his. But as soon as we went on further, he didn’t understand it, so he was against us. He had . . . no faith.’" (Bantam Books, Inc., edition, 1969, p. 27. The Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., edition was published in 1968.)

But what is this faith for which both Martin Luther and Ken Kesey as well as many other religious leaders call? Is it the uncritical acceptance of someone else’s authority? Certainly faith is closely associated in the popular mind with such authoritarianism, and Kesey’s call for faith could even be understood in this sense. This is the worst fate that has befallen the idea, but it was and continues to be an almost inevitable development. Consider how it happened in Christianity.

In the first generation Christians witnessed to an event that transformed their human condition and situation. Their lives and communities supported the credibility of their witness. What they said rang true to others. These people acted upon it, and their initial confidence was reinforced. Their lives were reordered around this new central fact and experience.

Believing the message was a matter of faith. Acting upon that belief was a matter of faith. Remaining loyal to its implications and living in the community of those who believed was a matter of faith. There was authority aplenty here, but there was no authoritarianism.

However, as time passed the situation inevitably changed. The Christian community settled down to become one among others. Its claims became one set of teachings alongside others. The reasonable man asked evidence or proof. Why should one accept Christ rather than another?

It is to the church’s credit that on the whole it accepted the challenge and tried intelligently to explain itself. Sometimes it succeeded in persuading an honest inquirer that what it taught made more sense than any other teaching available. He might then become a Christian. But the church could not exist as an assembly of individuals whose reason had led them to more or less similar conclusions. The church had a received truth that it could not submit to a popular vote. The received doctrine had the authority of the apostles, and the community used its own authority to keep its members faithful to this doctrine. Faith came to mean the acceptance of the authority of the apostles based upon acceptance of the authority of the community. What was believed by faith was what the community understood the apostles to have taught.

The local community became more and more a part of a larger institution. Authority moved from the community to the inclusive church and its officers. If this had not occurred, the many communities would have drifted into hopeless diversity. But when it occurred, the shift to authoritarianism became complete. Decisions about what is to be believed are made for one by distant and unknown persons many of whom are long dead. One must believe because the institution requires belief. Penalties for not believing as one should arise and are enforced by social pressure, by the church, and even at times by the state. Faith becomes acceptance of what one finds implausible on the grounds of an external and coercive authority. Nothing could be farther from the New Testament! Yet no development from the New Testament could be more natural!

Luther did much to distinguish saving faith from the acceptance of beliefs on authority. Faith was for him a deeply inward and personal appropriation for oneself of the promise of God. It involved all of man’s faculties. But this faith still presupposed the objective reliability of the Bible. The acceptance of that reliability became the ground for a new authoritarianism in which a book was substituted for an institution. The repeated efforts of Christian thinkers to avoid the association of faith with that authoritarianism have been only partly successful.

We can understand why authoritarian belief arises. We can see that it helps to maintain the unity of the church, and that, when the belief is sane and positive, it helps many individuals to have healthy and fruitful lives. There is comfort and relief in letting someone else do one’s thinking for one. And if one is in any case not going to work out his own beliefs, there are good reasons for turning the task over to the Catholic Church or the Bible rather than to many of the other willing masters that are around.

Even so, authoritarian belief is alien to the genius of Christianity. It even contradicts it. Authoritarian belief is simply the occurrence within our tradition of a fate that tends to overcome all traditions which survive the vitality of their childhood. Authoritarian belief blocks freedom, openness, and the quest for truth. It is the faith that kills.

Alongside this deadening form of faith there are others that quicken. The term for faith most commonly set over against authoritarian belief is trust. There is no question that trust quickens. I treated trust at some length in the chapter on "Trusting and Deciding." But quickening faith takes still other forms as well. We shall briefly consider six.

1. One meaning of faith is more clearly expressed as faithfulness. The man of faith is loyal, trustworthy, steadfast. He keeps faith with others. His word counts. His yes is yes, and his no, no. His behavior conforms to his assertions, and his assertions conform to his convictions. He endures in adverse circumstances. He is true to himself and true to his friends.

Faithfulness is exalted in the New Testament and in the Christian tradition. But faith in this sense is exalted everywhere. There is little that is distinctively Christian about it.

2. Another phenomenon that is sometimes called faith is life-affirmation. When after many catastrophes a man picks up the pieces of life and begins again, we say he has great faith. We do not mean that he is confident that all will go well. He knows better than that. We do not mean that he holds firmly to particular beliefs. Whatever he once believed may now be shattered. But he refuses to be beaten. He stands again on his feet. He does what is necessary.

I doubt that this kind of life-affirmation is ever in view in the New Testament. But in a broader sense, as we compare our Judeo-Christian heritage with other traditions we do see that it is a life-affirming one. It asserts that life as such is good despite all suffering. Hence it grounds also the response of affirming one’s own life even in the most adverse circumstances. But moving as this is, it is not what the gospel is about.

3. A third type of faith is the spirit of confidence in another. This is primary in Jesus’ use of faith. If in confrontation with him a person was utterly confident that he could be healed, then healing came. Jesus would say, "Your faith has made you whole."

Utter confidence, whether in another person or in God, is a powerful force. There is no reason to be skeptical of Jesus’ assertion that men and women were healed by it, even dramatically healed of decidedly physical diseases. Our understanding of these matters is still in its infancy, but there are several lines of contemporary experience and inquiry that suggest that in the future men will recognize a still closer interconnection of psychological and physical forces and a still greater possibility for changes in the psyche to affect powerfully the condition of the body. Confidence of the kind inspired by Jesus may even have an effect on the world outside one’s body. It would be dangerous to set any limit on the supernormal or miraculous changes effected by such confidence.

But confidence of this sort is not a specifically Christian phenomenon. It is evoked by other charismatic figures besides Jesus, both within and without the Christian community. On the other hand, many Christians lack any experience of such confidence and of the supernormal events associated with it. In our time of spiritual poverty, we tend to gape at such events, to be incredulous, and, if persuaded of their reality, to make much of them. But Paul rightly treated them as among the lesser gifts of the spirit. We may hope that the time will come when we can follow Paul here.

This kind of confidence is a valuable and positive force, and it usually works for good. But it is a serious mistake to identify it or its consequences with what is fundamental to Christian life.

For most of us most of the time the possibility of such confidence plays a paradoxical role. My parents are members of a prayer fellowship. On one occasion the fellowship prayed for several weeks for a young woman lost on a mountain in Baja California. She was found safe, and she fully recovered in a short time. My parents assured me that no one was more surprised than were the members of the prayer fellowship.

Clearly they were asking divine aid without expecting it. Would it be better to maintain, in the face of all contrary probabilities, an attitude of utter confidence that whatever we ask of God he will give us? Surely not! If we want to move mountains, we had better stick to bulldozers. It is a perversion of the gospel to suppose that the person who dies of cancer suffers because of lack of faith. It is well to remember that Paul three times asked for the removal of some irritant, and that his request was not granted. There is no particular virtue in working ourselves into special states of mind in our efforts to be confident that something will happen.

4. In the fourth place, "faith" is sometimes used to refer to our basic way of experiencing the world. Let’s call that our vision of reality. By vision I don’t mean simply sense experience through the eyes. I don’t mean visions either. Nor do I mean our explicit theories about the world, our world views, although that comes closer. A world view articulates a vision of reality more or less adequately, but the vision itself underlies and precedes the articulation. Much of it is usually unconscious. It is made up of elements that are so self-evident to us that it would ordinarily not occur to us to state them. Our vision of reality is the system of unquestioned presuppositions in relation to which other ideas appear as plausible or stupid.

However, our vision of reality can change. One way this happens is by verbally expressing heretofore unconscious assumptions and examining them alongside alternative assumptions. In such comparisons certainty about them is sometimes shattered.

Christianity is not bound up with any one world view, but it cannot be entirely separated from a vision of reality. That is, there are basic ways of perceiving the world that simply don’t fit the gospel. For example, if a man thinks of reality entirely as what is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched, the needs to which the gospel speaks are not even recognized. The vision of reality of the Judeo-Christian community centers on personal subjects and their interrelationships, and these are not visible through the sense organs. Or if one perceives the world as made up of inexorable forces that by pure necessity work out their effects, then the responsibility which Christianity attributes to persons cannot be acknowledged. Or if one perceives all things as equally good or bad, recognizing no distinctions of better or worse, then the concerns for justice and peace, so central to Christianity, become nonsensical.

The Judeo-Christian vision of a reality in which personal subjects are of central importance, and in which they are responsible for what they do in relation to possibilities of good and evil, has been held by many people who did not call themselves Jews or Christians. They adopted it without thinking, simply as common sense. They have even employed it to criticize Christian teaching. Hence the gospel could be proclaimed in a context in which it made sense. Questions of philosophy or world view could be set aside.

Today, however, other visions of reality are challenging and displacing the Christian one. Traditional expressions of the Christian vision are crumbling and cannot be restored. The question of the future of Christianity and the question of world view have again become entangled. Faith in the sense of a vision of reality is important for the gospel.

But, of course, the gospel is not the proclamation of a world view. Originally it both presupposed and changed the vision of reality that it found. Today it must do the same. There is nowhere to begin except where people are. The gospel must be spoken in a way that makes sense. If it is, it can open the way toward a new, more congenial vision of reality, while theologians and philosophers pave the way with new insights and generalizations.

5. When the gospel is effectively heard it changes not only the way a person perceives reality but also the way he is. It changes his mode of existence. Theologians have increasingly directed attention to this Christian mode of existence and identified it with faith.

One reason for this trend in recent times is that the beliefs, and even the vision of reality associated with Christianity, have become doubtful. That seems to undercut also the grounds of faithfulness and the possibility of confidence. But the occurrence of a distinctive way of being is better understood today than ever before, thanks to the rise of existentialism.

Rudolf Bultmann has shown us that the modern philosophical understanding of authentic existence illumines Christian faith. Paul Tillich has described the new being as that mode of existence in which to participate is to have faith. Building on their work, others have described how Christianity has heightened man’s sense of responsibility for himself and of the gull between his best deeds, thoughts, and motives and that which he is responsible to be and do. It held up a new ideal of love and at the same time brought into being a way of life in which that love was both needed and possible.

To use the word "faith" to name the distinctively Christian existence is legitimate. But it is not free from problems. Many who sincerely believe in Christ as their savior participate very little in this way of being. Others who reject Christianity embody this mode of existence more fully. On the other hand, keeping faith in this sense alive is not as independent of doubtful beliefs as its advocates sometimes suppose. It may be clearer to think of Christian existence as an outgrowth of faith rather than as itself the one, key meaning of faith.

6. The contemporary German theologian Gerhard Ebeling has taught us to think of faith in still another way, which is the sixth and last we will consider in this chapter. Faith, he says, is certainty. When I first read that, I was put off by it. Certainty is bound up in my mind with particular beliefs, and I am suspicious of those who claim to be certain about anything. But that is not at all what Ebeling means. "Certainty" is the translation of Gewissheit, and a better translation in this case would be "assuredness." Traditionally we have spoken of assurance, but that too suggests that we are sure about something, whereas Ebeling speaks of a state of being in which we find ourselves grounded, established, or, in traditional language, justified. The man who is assured is free for what comes, free for the future, free for his neighbor. He is free to follow truth wherever it leads him.

Ebeling believes that this is the gift of the gospel. When the Christian message is rightly spoken it establishes the one who hears, that is, it makes him an assured person. Indeed, the Christian word is the word that accomplishes that result, whatever words are used in the speaking.

As I have reflected over this formulation of Ebeling to which I first responded negatively, I have decided that he does indeed come close to the mark. Of course, no early Christian would have put his thought in this way. And to me it seems that this is only one part of what the gospel does and cannot become the criterion of the whole. But the gospel does accomplish this to the extent that it is truly heard, and of all that it does, nothing could be more important than this. Whether or not we call it "faith," we must learn how to speak of assuredness, and more important, how to make it a reality.

Even so, assuredness is not the heart of the gospel. It is at most the heart of what the gospel accomplishes. The gospel is not about faith in any of these senses. The gospel is about grace. The gospel tells us what grace has done, and in the light of that we can discern what it is doing now. We are free to talk about that, to be critical even of the ways in which the New Testament describes it, to use whatever language most clearly communicates what we find. We are free to call it all faith, but we are also free to use other terms. Our effort to understand what grace does is a response to grace in which we can see the working of grace. We can learn much from the history of past efforts to describe what grace does, but we have much yet to learn.

So, in conclusion, let me say: be faithful, affirm life, have confidence, stand fast in a Christian vision of reality, enter more deeply into Christian existence, be assured. But do not be disturbed if your experience does not fit these concepts. You are not required to have faith in any of these senses. All forms of quickening faith are gifts. Grace works in us freely and according to its own purposes. Be glad, for you have been given much.

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