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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 12: Christ as the Image of Love


In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey portrays a modern-day embodiment of the Greek god Dionysus, the god of wine and vitality, being transformed into a Christ figure. It is a novel vision. I wish I could believe it to be a foretaste of things to come.

The story is located in a men’s ward in a mental hospital. The ward is presided over by a castrating nurse whose rule ensures that the weak and cowardly men under her supervision will never gain the confidence they need. Into that ward comes a small-time card shark who found it more convenient to be sentenced to an asylum than to jail for his petty misdeeds. This man, McMurphy by name, is thoroughly sure of himself, out for profit and pleasure, and fully capable of enjoying what he gets. His contagious vitality is a threat to the nurse, and her enmity is great, but he manages to stay just within the bounds that save him from overt punishment.

The punishment that the men fear is electric shock therapy. As long as they are quiet and orderly, they are safe. But if they become violent, the nurse can send them for treatment, and will send them repeatedly, as long as they resist her will.

McMurphy’s Dionysian presence is enough to bring new life to the ward, but it is not enough to give the men the courage to leave. He is their hero, but as long as they see in all his actions the motive of self-interest, he cannot save them. Recognizing this, McMurphy changes. He uses physical violence to stop the bullying of the cruel ward attendants. He knows that that means the dreaded shock treatment, but he does not give in. He continues to resist the nurse for the sake of the others, accepting the repeated punishment until he is destroyed as a man. In kindness, one of the other men then smothers him in his sleep.

McMurphy, the man for himself, became the man for others. He suffered voluntarily for the sake of the men on the ward. Lest anyone miss the point, Kesey tells us that on the instrument of torture McMurphy’s arms were outstretched.

In our recent history, too, there has been a Christ figure. His name is Martin Luther King. King assumed great responsibilities for the sake of his fellow blacks. But he went beyond that. He assumed responsibility for the whole nation. It was the nation’s soul for which he sacrificed, both in the way he led the black movement and in his unequivocal opposition to the war in Vietnam. He knew that his way of nonviolent resistance was a dangerous one. He had premonitions of his own death. But he did not falter. When the assassin’s bullet struck him down, there was a spontaneous recognition that here was one who represented Christ in our time.

The central element in the Christ figure is vicarious suffering. When a man gives his life freely for the sake of other people, we see Christ in him.

But such utter self-sacrifice cannot be the goal of ordinary Christian life. Indeed, it was not the goal of Jesus or King or the fictional McMurphy. It is far better if one can serve others and live, indeed, if one can enjoy serving others and be served by them as well. When we picture the goal for mankind it is surely not a world in which everyone is dying for everyone else’s sake! it is a world in which mutual love fulfills all. The man who desires to die a martyr’s death is not a Christian hero. He is simply sick.

However, while wanting to suffer for others is sick, willingness to suffer if need be is Christian. Dying for others is the extreme possibility that is entailed in loving them. We see the full meaning of love when it leads to death in this way. Martin Luther King was not a better Christian when he died than while he lived. But the full meaning of his life became clearer.

The love that is expressed in this willingness even to die for others is called in the New Testament agapé. It is a very special kind of love. The word agapé was not much used in pre-Christian speech. For that very reason it could become a technical term by which Christians named what they found to be new and particular about their relation to one another and to other men. They found that they were able to care for others without the self-reference that is involved in most forms of love. And of course in Jesus they saw this special kind of caring ideally embodied.

Although the Christian idea of love has become familiar, almost banal, its peculiarity has to be stressed again in each generation. There are many other forms of love, and English is poor in its capacity to differentiate. Hence Christian love gets too easily confused with other kinds of love.

To distinguish Christian love from other forms is not to disparage the others or to say that the Christian does not have them too. It is only to say that whereas the Christian experiences many forms of love there is one that he associates especially with Christ and with his response to Christ.

All forms of love are in some measure spontaneous. One may go through the motions required by some form of love without loving. But love has to happen to us. We cannot command it.

Generally love arises in relation either to some need we feel or in relation to some attractiveness of the object. We love those things and persons which minister to our hungers and strong desires. We take pleasure in them and long for them when they are absent. That is healthy and good. Sometimes, apart from any prior felt need, we encounter something or someone that is beautiful or excellent. We are struck by admiration and affection. That too is healthy and good.

We realize today more keenly than ever that many things can block the healthy freedom of these kinds of love. We can be so concerned about our own virtue that we inhibit spontaneous feeling toward others. When we repress our feelings of anger, we suppress also our feelings of affection and tenderness. If we try to control our action too tightly by our rational will, others do not feel warmth from us. These are important lessons. By becoming more comfortable about ourselves and all our feelings we can become more generous and outgoing toward others. Surely this is desired by Christians as much as by anyone.

Even so, this is not the distinctive form of Christian love, agapé. The self-reference remains. We love what meets our needs and what attracts us. This does not mean that we are calculating the consequences to ourselves of our love. If we were, that would not be love at all. But what the other does for us determines how we feel about him.

Agapé, on the other hand, is free from this self-reference. One loves the other for the other’s sake. How much one loves him is not proportional to how much he meets one’s need or to his attractiveness. The examples of agapé that make this clearest are those of love to the despised and outcast. Anders Nygren even defined agapé as a downward movement of love, that is, as directed toward the inferior. But that is surely wrong. Christian love can be directed toward those who fulfill our needs and attract us as well. The problem is that in that relation it is hard to distinguish the concern for the other in his otherness and the concern for him as he is related to the one who loves. Only where the other meets none of the Christian’s needs and is naturally threatening or repulsive to him can agapé be readily sorted out and recognized. When agapé leads to suffering and death for the other’s sake, we have the vivid example that represents Christ.

If we suppose that love must entail strong positive emotion, then the Christian ideal of agapé for all men becomes not only impossible but silly. There will always be cases in which other persons arouse negative emotions in us. Those cases are the ones in which the presence or absence of agapé is most clearly tested. Can we genuinely, with real concern and caring, desire and actively seek the good for those who make us feel uncomfortable, who are physically revolting to us, who have all the goods we lack and think we deserve, whose complacency exasperates us, whose criticism threatens our self-esteem, or who simply rub us the wrong way? To whatever extent we can meet this test, agapé is present in us.

Agapé is not unreal or impossible. But it rarely dominates our being or governs our action. When we are honest about why we have acted as we have, we rarely can think that agapé has been decisive. There are all sorts of other motives, such as wanting to live up to our own image of ourselves as Christians, that corrupt agapé even in our nobler actions. Such honesty is difficult, but it is important. A main function of Christian prayer and spiritual discipline is to attain it.

However, we should not be so preoccupied with motive that we neglect the action. A friend once said that he could rarely send a CARE package since he realized that he did so to salve his conscience. My reaction was that for whatever reason he sent the food, it would still feed a hungry family. We should act as agapé requires whether or not agapé motivates the act.

Agapé is closely bound up with action. It is oriented toward the future rather than toward the past. It seeks to achieve the well-being of its object, and this change of state has to be future-oriented. On the whole, this form of love has dominated the conception of love throughout Christian history. It is outgoing, assertive, and bound up with action.

Less central to the Christ figure in the past has been another form of love. I suspect that it will grow more prominent as time passes. It is fully grounded in Jesus.

In the New Testament this other form of love is called compassion. Today we name it better as empathy. Both mean "feeling with." Jesus had compassion for people, and the Christ figure has been associated with compassion throughout its history. But only recently have we realized how distinct is this form of love from agapé, how important in itself, and how badly needed in the Christian life.

In the past, compassion has sometimes been viewed as a ground or aspect of agapé. If we feel with others, then we will be actively concerned for their good. That is true. But we have often neglected the fact that compassion or empathy in and of itself is healing and redemptive. To know that one feels with us in our pain helps us to endure the pain. To know that one rejoices with us in our joy multiplies the joy. To feel the empathy of another for us is to be released from the bondage of unhealthy emotions.

Both the universal need for empathy and the slighting of it in the Christian tradition can be seen in the way that we have understood God. There has been universal agreement that God is agapé. He loves us without regard to our merits.

However, to assert that God has empathy for us is a highly controversial matter. Indeed, in the mainstream of the orthodox tradition it has been denied. To empathize with another is to be vulnerable, to be subject to his pain and suffering. God was understood to be impassible, that is, not subject to any injury or hurt. Therefore, he could not be viewed as sympathizing with us in our human misery. And insofar as the image of Christ was shaped in relation to this view of God, Christ too receded from man in such a way that men doubted his capacity for empathy. The cult of Mary grew up in Christendom partly because of the need to believe that there was one who understood.

Today we recognize that to empathize with others is a perfection we should not deny to God. If our clue to the nature of God is found in Jesus, then we must indeed affirm that God has compassion for us, that he shares with us both joy and sorrow.

Empathy relates to the past in much the way that agapé relates to the future. The feelings which one shares are those which the other has had, not those which he will have in the future. As agapé is actively oriented toward changing the future, so empathy is passively oriented toward receiving the past. And it turns out that this passive openness to the past has a power to change the future hardly less than the active direction of energies toward that end.

When empathy and agapé are combined in the Christ image, we have the vision of a new way of overcoming what is destructive about selfhood. We Westerners prize the selfhood from which Buddhism seeks to set us free. Yet we cannot deny the Buddhist analysis. My selfhood is bound up with insatiable craving. Also it separates me from you. However much we reach out to each other, a gulf remains. I am enclosed in my solitude; you, in yours. We hunger for each other, but we also resent and fear each other as threats and competitors. We see ourselves objectified by each other, used by each other, rejected by each other. In No Exit, Sartre places on the lips of his hero the now-famous phrase, "Hell is other people."

Christianity has strengthened selfhood more than has any other tradition. It has taught that through our relation to God we can endure the separation from each other. It has also taught that we can reach out to one another in concern and heal in some measure the sickness of our mutual isolation. But Sartre’s existentialism shows that modern man has retained his isolated self-hood without the healing elements of groundedness in God and Christian love. Then, indeed, hell is other people. We can find happiness neither with them nor without them. All life becomes hell.

Christians today must face honestly this problem of the mutually isolating character of selfhood. We cannot solve it by simply reemphasizing our traditional teaching. We must incorporate that teaching but we must also go beyond it. Love can show us the way.

Empathy and agapé both challenge the final separateness of my self from other selves. If my feelings are shaped by empathy for others, then I receive their feelings into my experience on the same basis that I relate to my own past. If I have agapé for others as for myself, then my concern for the future of others becomes like my concern for my own future. Ideally I am no longer bound to a single line of inheritance from the past projected forward to my lonely death in the future. I live from others and for others. But not only so. In a community of empathy and agapé others live from me and for me as well. We become Christs to one another.

Obviously I am describing a state of affairs that is very distant from what we know. But we need such a vision in order to appraise what is now happening and to guide ourselves as Christians through the multiple possibilities now appearing for self-transformation and new types of relationship.

As long as individual selfhood is isolating and painful, there will be those who seek to escape it. The primordial eschatology of man is escape from self into unity with the all. Our dreams and visions are full of unions in which the self is lost in a larger whole.

Christianity has resisted this deep human longing in the name of the value of the individual person. In Christian eschatology the individual has been preserved as individual. He receives blessedness as an individual. There is a social dimension. But he is not reabsorbed with others into the original unity. The end is different from the beginning, enriched by the attainment of multiple personal selves.

Can Christianity maintain that commitment to the person? Our Western literature witnesses to the loss of selfhood. The widespread attraction of Eastern techniques of meditation is associated with the desire to be released from the isolated self. In the face of this it is not enough simply to affirm traditional Christian views. The usual pictures of heaven and hell are largely revolting to us. Even apart from our incredulity we are offended by their individualism. They deny our solidarity with one another in both good and evil.

Yet Christianity would no longer be Christianity if it abandoned its affirmation of the personal self. More than that, something that most of us prize very deeply would be lost to mankind. Christianity cannot make its contribution to the coming world faith by abandoning its greatest achievements. It must reconstitute these achievements in contemporary garb in order to go beyond them.

Hence we must think through more radically the meaning of love in relation to the personal self. I am suggesting that the isolation of the self is a function of lovelessness or imperfect love. I am suggesting that rather than abandon our selfhood we can perfect it in new kinds of communities of love. I am even suggesting that some of the methods for moving forward in this direction are already at hand.

Finally, we could only hope to move toward such a love if that love is grounded beyond ourselves. And it is. God loves us not only in that he actively seeks our good regardless of how we respond to him but in that he empathizes with us and takes our feelings into himself. We are in fact never alone. And because we are loved by God, we can also, in some small but perhaps growing measure, love each other. That is the meaning of Christ.

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