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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 11: Pandora’s Box


As a child I remember reading the story of Pandora and her box in The Book of Knowledge. In that account, after all the terrible ills of mankind had escaped from the box, Pandora slammed it shut. A small voice pleaded to be allowed to escape. It was hope. Pandora relented, and thus hope entered the world to counterbalance all the evils and make them endurable.

Later I discovered that such an interpretation was probably false to the story’s original intention. The meaning there may have been that hope is the last and worst of the evils. As long as men hope for something, they are victims of disappointment and disillusionment. Only when hope is abandoned can one adjust to reality and achieve what happiness is possible for man.

Those two interpretations represent basic alternative visions of reality. In one, man lives from his anticipations of a future. In the other, he accepts the course of events as they come, expecting nothing more. In our culture, and within us individually, these two visions struggle for dominance.

Christianity is on the side of hope. We were reminded of this recently by a whole spate of books of which the best-known is Jürgen Moltmann’s The Theology of Hope. Against the neoorthodox and existentialist tendency to focus on the present moment as the time of encounter and decision, Moltmann and others have stressed that the present has its meaning in its relation to the future. Hope is necessary if one is to muster the energies needed to say "No!" to injustice and meaningless suffering.

Most of our conscious hope focuses on short-term goals. We are motivated by the hope of winning a game, getting a job, or shortening a war. Reinhold Niebuhr taught us to hope for the resolution of particular social problems -- for example, the achievement of a balance of power between capital and labor. Niebuhr knew that success in that area would lead to new problems, but that did not lessen its importance. We do not need to believe in utopia in order to work for justice and peace today.

On other hand, what we believe about the larger context of our efforts makes a difference. Over the longer haul hope invests itself strongly in winning the game, getting the job, shortening the war, and achieving economic justice only if these seem to add up to something enduring. Consciously or unconsciously our particular short-term hopes give evidence of a deeper hope that the passing parade of events really matters, that it makes a difference to God himself.

That our hope is finally that we can make a contribution to God does not reduce the importance of what we believe about history. On the contrary. How we view the historical situation affects our hope all the more because what happens matters also to God.

To act zestfully for justice I need to believe both that some approximation of justice is possible in the particular situation and also that the attainment of justice can pave the way for other values. I will have little hope for the liberation of the Third World peoples if I believe that their revolutions have no chance of success. Even if I see military and political success as possible, I will have little enthusiasm if the liberated peoples can anticipate nothing but misery. This is the threat implicit in the warnings of ecologists and environmentalists. Their warnings pose a crisis for hope of unparalleled proportions, and I want to tell how this crisis has affected me.

Since World War II we have known that man had weapons with which he could destroy life on the planet. This awareness together with the expectation that man would sooner or later use these weapons cast a pall over the lives of many sensitive persons. But I realize now that I did not really believe that man would destroy himself with these weapons. Rationally I saw the danger, but deep down I felt that man would refrain from this final outrage.

The environmental crisis, however, poses a different kind of problem. In order to avoid self-destruction through atomic, chemical, or bacterial weapons, we have only to refrain from certain actions that we are quite clear about. But to avoid the horrors of environmental catastrophe, we must make radical changes in our way of living, and we do not yet even have a clear idea of what those changes should be. I can believe that men will refrain from consciously precipitating their immediate destruction. I find it hard to believe that men will pay the price in change now to avoid conditions which will make catastrophe inevitable later.

Let me explain. I will follow the projections of the research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the leadership of Jay Forrester and Dennis Meadows. They employed modern computer technology in order to project the interaction of basic world trends. The results are, to put it mildly, frightening, so frightening that most people find it more comfortable to ignore them.

The problem is the likelihood of overshoot and collapse of human population on a world scale. Although population growth in some places is slowing down, worldwide, it continues unabated. Because so many of the people now alive are young, rapid continued growth is inevitable. Doubling time worldwide, apart from catastrophes far greater than any that have occurred in recent centuries, is likely to be about thirty-five years.

Almost everyone agrees that world population cannot continue to double indefinitely three times a century. To project it as doing so leads to ridiculous conclusions. Just two hundred years from now the Hawaiian Islands would have to support fifty million people. China would have a population of fifty billion. We all assume that population growth will come under control before those figures are reached. We usually suppose that we can leave this for later generations to work out. But the projections of the MIT studies indicate that even one more doubling is not likely to be possible. That is a different matter. At this point we are talking about what population pressures will do within the lifetime of many of us.

The MIT projection is that if we continue on our way as at present, shortages of resources for industry will slow population growth within twenty years and stop it, early in the twenty-first century, at approximately six billion. They will then cause a fifty-year decline to a total world population of two billion people. Such a dying off of two thirds of the people on the planet is not pleasant to contemplate.

Suppose, then, that we are sensible enough to conserve our resources more carefully, and especially to recycle everything we can. That will stretch out available resources over a much longer period of time. It will allow population to rise higher, although still not to double its present figure. But in this case, early in the twenty-first century will come a pollution crisis that will destroy in a few years five sixths of the world’s population!

If we employ our ingenuity to control pollution to a degree beyond any we now anticipate, then population will rise further still, only to be stopped by terrible famines later in the next century. The only projection that does not lead to catastrophe is the quite impossible one of immediately stabilizing population and industry on a worldwide basis at present levels. That could be done only by methods none of us would condone. Unless survival can be with dignity and decency, unless there can be some prospect of a good life in a good society, perhaps it is better that the whole human experiment end soon.

These projections are bleak enough, but they leave many dangers out of account. I am sufficiently optimistic to believe that men may refrain from destroying the planet with atomic and bacterial weapons under ordinary circumstances. I am not sufficiently optimistic to think that if two thirds of us Americans were dying for lack of resources, we would fail to use our weapons to extract such resources from other, more favored, nations. Environmental catastrophe would almost certainly provoke a final and totally destructive war.

The basic point is that, in order to produce catastrophes we need only to continue to think and act as we now think and act. That is all too easy. In the past we have supposed that present economic development enhanced the prospects for our children and grandchildren. We did not have to choose between our enjoyment of the world’s resources and their chance for a good life. Even now, as the threat becomes clearer, we still refuse to face the moral issue on any large scale.

When we confront this picture, the problem of hope becomes a very pressing one. One possibility is to fall back upon what some people call -- wrongly, I think -- faith in God. One can suppose that God will not let anything so terrible happen, that he will intervene to prevent it. Against such a view the Jews rightly remind us that God did not prevent Auschwitz.

A second possibility is to give up. That need not be so bad. Catastrophes of great magnitude may not occur in this century. By the time our style of life has made the planet unfit for human habitation, we will be dead. Louis XIV is reported to have said, "Après moi, le déluge." That might be the slogan of our generation. If catastrophe is inevitable, eat, drink, and be merry. But I cannot in fact adopt that attitude either. I have been shaped too deeply by my Christian heritage.

My actual response has been to look for alternatives. That search expresses hope. Without arguing with the projections, I have believed that there may be some ways of warding off, or at least of mitigating, catastrophe, ways that, if clarified, men might adopt in time. Perhaps there are steps we could take, steps that would appeal to persons for many reasons, and that, if taken, would save our children and grandchildren from destruction. Perhaps there is some way in which short-run self-interest for our generation could be made coincident with the interests of our descendants in the next century.

If population increase by itself were the cause of catastrophe, the situation would be hopeless. Population growth cannot be halted without catastrophe within the next century. But this is not the case. Increasing consumption of goods, land, and energy is the more fundamental threat. The discouraging problem is that an increasing population could level off its consumption only if each person consumed less, whereas all our habits and traditions point to rapidly increasing per capita consumption. Voluntary asceticism does not appear likely to effect the needed change.

Since so much of the world’s consuming is done by Americans, we have a special responsibility to deal with this dilemma. Could we, while trying to bring the growth of population under control by humane methods, also develop life-styles that would give more satisfaction to people while reducing consumption? Could we develop an economy that would better distribute goods and work while operating at a slower pace and allowing for more enjoyable leisure? If so, then the changes would not involve a net sacrifice. The threat to man’s survival could even function as a prod to develop a saner and a happier society.

When the problem is put in this way, hope is strengthened. The achievement of such a goal, although difficult, and even unlikely, is not impossible. It is worth the try. Hope does not require advance assurance of success.

An adequate blueprint for action must be many-sided, experimental, pluralistic, and open-ended. No one has all the answers. I shall discuss just one piece of the answer, a piece that has encouraged me in my hopeful quest to find reasons for hope.

One of the ironic features of our present situation is that we are very prosperous, consuming at a great rate, but feeling rather poor, too poor to respond vigorously to the needs of our own people for decent housing, adequate food and medical care, good education for children, and protection from violent abuse. Part of the reason is that our desire for comforts and luxuries is insatiable. But part of the reason is also that so much of our consumption adds nothing to our enjoyment of life. The most glaring example has been the staggering waste involved in our destructive war in Vietnam. But there are others.

Men who once walked to work now own expensive automobiles and use vast amounts of gasoline to spend an hour driving to work over fabulously expensive freeways. As measured by gross national product this is progress. Walking to work added only a few cents to the GNP for the shoe leather used. Now many a man spends five to ten dollars a day for driving and parking and then spends more money at a gym or golf course to get the exercise he misses by not walking. He has and spends a lot more money than he once did. In that sense he is richer. But he may have no more left to spend on what he really enjoys, and he now wastes two hours a day on freeway driving. If people could get their exercise walking to work in pleasant surroundings, surely this reduction of consumption would not be experienced as sacrifice.

For that to happen, cities would have to be built in a quite different way. But they can be built in that different way. The whole phenomenon of urban and suburban sprawl with its extreme waste and costliness can be reversed. The life that would ensue would be pleasanter. No reduction would be necessitated in enjoyable consumption. Is it not possible that people might be lured by its attractiveness into taking a step like this that would at the same time make possible life and happiness for our descendants?

Dependence upon wasteful and unpleasant transportation is not the only problem with our present cities. They eat up farmland that will one day be urgently needed for the production of food. They create a wretched environment for the poor whom we crowd into their centers. Goods and services become increasingly difficult to provide. Tensions are generated that erupt in violence and destruction which only worsen conditions for the wretched.

I personally found a new surge of hope through my encounter with Paolo Soleri. He has meditated for years on the conditions of our cities, and he has envisioned new cities. He calls them architectural ecologies, or arcologies. These would relate people to one another in far more human ways while greatly reducing the present waste of resources. The arcologies that he proposes are beautiful to behold, brilliant in design, and, best of all, technologically and economically possible.

It may be that in promoting the work of one visionary architect I am moving away from my role as theologian. But I do not think so. Our basic belief, that is, our theology, must express itself in the concrete reality of our life or it is phony. If one thinks he believes in God or in freedom for his fellowman, while being unaffected thereby in his daily activities and in the way he votes on election day, then he is deceiving himself. He is playing games with ideas. He does not believe what he supposes that he believes. Similarly, when we design a building or a city, it expresses what we really believe, what we really prize, the way we really live.

Most architects, certainly the great ones, know this. There is more theology in the writings of architects than in that of any other profession. Certainly Soleri is no exception. He is inspired by Teilhard de Chardin. He sees the task of the city as facilitating what Teilhard called convergence. That is, having spread out over the whole globe, men must now come together in new dimensions and intensities of interaction. Our new frontiers are not at the fringes of spatial expansion. Even our exploration of the solar system can only be a side issue. Our new frontiers are to be found in our relationships with each other. Soleri is designing cities that would help to open up new possibilities of creative community.

I know, of course, and I suppose that Soleri knows, that his arcologies may not work. First, they may not be tried. Second, if they are tried, they may turn out to produce new and unforeseen problems so serious that they must be abandoned. Neither I nor anyone can be certain that any particular program will achieve its goals.

But certainty is not necessary for effective hope. What is required is some image of what might work. My general conviction that there must be some way through the morass grows weak if I cannot find even one plausible suggestion. The spirit of hope needs concrete, if provisional, forms.

The degree of our need for hope is a function of the seriousness with which we take the threats to man’s well-being. But it is also true that the seriousness with which we take these threats is partly a function of our hope. A man of little hope cannot face the threats. It is necessary for him to deny or belittle them. Better to refuse to face reality than to be overwhelmed by despair. But the man whose basic hopefulness is strong can hear the dangers openly and then enter into the difficult but creative task of finding a way through.

Whether we have basic hope is partly a matter of our genes and of our early environment. But it is also bound up with our ultimate convictions about the world. It depends upon where we look to get our clues to the nature of the whole. If we look at the many acts of narrow self-interest that characterize so much of our society, we may conclude that men are, after all, self-centered beings who act and think and dream only to gain their private ends. Or if we note primarily the ways that, out of sheer habit or stupidity, men fail to rise even to the demands of self-interest, we will have plenty of evidence that inertia rules the world. In either case, we will have little reason to be hopeful as to man’s prospects.

It is possible, however, to notice another characteristic of human behavior. At times men heed truth even when it is painful. At times, for the sake of their children or even their friends, they undertake difficult and painful tasks. At times, they envision a better world and are moved to act by their vision even when they know they will themselves have no part in it.

Christianity urges us to attend both to the inertia and to the narrow self-interest, which it calls sin, and to the transcending concern for truth and for others, in which it discerns the Spirit that is Holy. Some Christians have thought the former too ugly and have wanted to declare men virtuous. The result has been to view life unrealistically, to expect of it what it does not afford, to fail to deal prudently with the actual possibilities of our life together. Other Christians have seen only the clash of interests and the resistance to the creative new. They have grown cynical and have despaired of this life, sometimes directing their hope to another world.

Christian hope, on the other hand, sustains a balance. It recognizes sin in others, and especially in oneself. It perceives the destructive consequences to which inertia and narrow self-interest lead. But it sees also that something else is happening, that new insights arise, that men are touched by conscience, that the plight of others moves many to generosity. As long as that is true, we have no right to despair. And that is always true. For God is not dead.

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