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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 13: Joy


Joy is rare. Contentment, pleasure, gaiety, even happiness we can identify from time to time as we examine our moods and emotions. But joy goes beyond these. It is an experience that we associate with childhood. We remember from our early years, perhaps especially in connection with Christmas, whole hours of joy.

We should not sentimentalize childhood because it contains times of joy. It contains misery as well, a level of misery that we adults know only rarely. We are estranged from joy and saved from utter misery by the widening of our horizons and the growing complexity of our experience.

Childhood joy, like childhood misery, requires a complete immersion in the present. It allows for no side glances toward what others are feeling or thinking, no comparisons with earlier experiences or anticipations of future changes. Total involvement of the whole person is required. Such joy begins to fade about the time that Santa Claus becomes a pleasant fiction.

But we cannot be satisfied as adults with this loss of the possibility of childlike joy. We long for it, and we measure our happiness in relation to it. Our goal is its recovery in an adult form.

Christians have always been concerned to help people find joy. The history of Christianity is full of special methods and techniques devised for this purpose. Monasticism, mystical disciplines, the Franciscan movement, and left-wing groups before and after the Reformation offered ways of so simplifying and ordering experience that wholeness could be attained and adults could know again something of the joy of the child.

Some Christian movements for the attainment of joy have been intensely emotional. The sobersided Friends, whom we think of as quiet and self-contained, once quaked for joy. That, of course, is why they are still called Quakers. Likewise the Shakers shook, and the Holy Rollers rolled. Today there is a widespread recovery of joy through ecstatic speaking or speaking in tongues.

When such eighteenth-century revivalists as John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards preached, they were astonished by the intensity of feeling they aroused. Later revivalists aimed directly at arousing these feelings, culminating in joy. Revivalism became a technique. Pietists, too, had their techniques for achieving and sustaining joy. The Oxford Group, and the Moral Re-Armament movement which succeeded it, structured these techniques in one way. Camps Farthest Out structured them in another way.

But on the whole, revivalist and pietist techniques have played out. The church now has little to offer in their place. Since World War II the quest for joy has moved out of the churches into the human potential movement. There new techniques have been developed that work for many people. Alongside this Western development, and closely related to it, is the widespread interest in ancient techniques of the Orient, especially Yoga and Zen.

What attitudes should we churchmen take toward this burgeoning quest for joy and the many responses which surround us? First, we should regard it as a judgment upon us that those who seek joy must look elsewhere. In our reaction against the decadent pietism of the recent past, we falsely prided ourselves on our willingness to accept life as it is, realistically, in all its ambiguity, not painting it in more glowing colors. But we have found that people, indeed that we ourselves, remembering joy, will not settle for drabness.

We should be glad that, in a time when we have not known how to address this human longing, others have been able to help. We should be grateful, affirmative, and hopeful with regard to what they are doing. We should learn from them and critically appropriate for use in the church some of the techniques that have been developed outside the church.

Second, we should also retain a healthy skepticism. I hesitate to turn so quickly to this note, for it might seem to take back the word of praise and appreciation. I am sure that some of these techniques can produce joy, because I have experienced joy through them. I cherish the memory of those moments of joy. I am grateful to those who made them possible. I covet the same experience for others. We should not be skeptical about that.

But those who develop the techniques and those who received joy through them are likely to expect too much. Converts in Christian revivals often suppose that what has happened to them means that the joy they feel should pervade their lives. When it passes, they may feel more guilty and anxious than before, because they now believe that they have betrayed the spirit which saved them.

Richard Farson, together with Carl Rogers, was a leader of the Western Behavioral Science Institute for a number of years. He told me once that this problem is equally real for the human potential movement. He asserted that the subjective reports of those who spent time in the Institute’s sensitivity and encounter groups were consistently glowing. I believed him, since I had written one of those glowing reports. But the results of a study of a research team hired by the Institute to determine effective change in the persons who had participated were negative. When people returned to the worlds from which they came, they returned also to the patterns of human relations from which they had been briefly liberated. I believed that, too, since that was my experience, although I do think that in subtle ways, hard for research teams to measure, the experience made a lasting difference.

Richard Farson’s disappointment that the effects of human potential programs were temporary led him to leave that movement. He decided to work to change the environment of man rather than to concentrate on individual, inner change. But another response is now appearing.

We can see the importance of that response in the light of the eighteenth-century experience. Whitefield was a more effective preacher than Wesley. But Wesley organized his converts. Through class meetings, love feasts, and the singing of evangelical hymns, something of the joy experienced in conversion was retained and renewed. The results of Whitefield’s revivals faded. Wesleyan churches still exist.

Instead of abandoning the human potential movement with Farson, other leaders are beginning to institutionalize it. One such leader is Werner Erhardt. Out of his wide experience with methods of facilitating human growth he has developed a program which he calls EST. This is a new synthesis of techniques from East and West. More impressive than his description of his program is the obvious joy of those who testify to what EST has meant to them. There is no doubt that they have experienced a quality of childlike wholeness which enables them to feel this new joy. But even more important than this testimony to what will inevitably prove to be a temporary intensity of joy is the institutional structure that seems to be emerging. There are ongoing support communities with regular meetings and rituals in which the rich experience of conversion can be renewed and strengthened. In EST or in some similar concept there may emerge out of the human potential movement a new "church."

However, even when the effects of conversion are institutionalized and thus made more lasting, they change us only in limited respects. Some techniques may free us to greater imaginative creativity; others, to more adequate expressions of love and caring; still others, to the greater enjoyment of our bodies. We may be enabled to break bad habits, to enter into community, or to assume responsibility. We may even learn to be open to God. But we find that no one of these new attainments, and no combination of them, is commensurate with our total being. We are strangely and wonderfully made. As persons we are infinitely complex. There are always more areas in which growth and change are needed. Each time we reach what we think is the top of the mountain, when the clouds of excitement lift, we see a ridge farther above us than we had previously supposed the pinnacle to be.

Furthermore, success brings new problems just because it is success. Moral and pious people. the saints and the sanctified, have a bad public image. They are now beginning to share this negative image with the psychoanalyzed, the liberated, and the sensitized. The negative image may be unfair, but it should serve as a warning. If I succeed in throwing off a bad habit by practicing a particular technique, if I share my knowledge with another, and if he still remains bound to the destructive habit, how do I feel? Do I not feel pleased with myself for what I have attained? Do I not feel that he who is still enslaved deserves his fate? Condescension, complacency, and self-righteousness lurk in the wings when any effective technique is used, threatening to poison the health that the technique brings.

Our Christian skepticism should not become an attack upon those movements which today offer the water of joy in a parched land. But it should enable us to say in a constructive way that more is required, that the effects pass quickly if new disciplines and structures of community do not sustain them, that life is very complex so that conversion must follow conversion, and that subtle checks are needed against the very present danger of the perversion of joy into self-righteousness.

The most important element in the appropriate Christian response to the quest for joy is a fresh consideration of the basis for Christian joy. Our tradition has always been interested in techniques for evoking joy. But more fundamentally Christianity has centered on its good news, its gospel. Christian joy is the response to that news.

That joy should come as a response to good news is nothing strange to us. All of us have experienced it. We have learned that the one we love loves us in return, that the job we wanted is offered to us, or that the child we thought lost has found his way. And in hearing that news, we have been flooded by joy.

The Christian good news is that God has entered the world for man’s salvation, that he has made himself known in the helplessness of an infant and in a man dying on a cross. That news has implications. It means that we don’t have to use techniques in order to be freed from everydayness. The world of everydayness is already livable when God’s presence is recognized there.

But it is equally true that good news calls for a response, and part of that response is often the appropriate use of techniques which keep elements of the joy alive. For example, the news that the one we love loves us in return calls for actions which express and celebrate the mutual love and enhance and deepen it. We are free to learn ways and means of renewing the original joy evoked by the news. God is present in the techniques as well.

When we have heard the Christian good news, we experience the joy achieved by techniques in a new way. It is not an escape that we urgently need from an unendurable everydayness. It is instead an intensification and expansion of what is present everywhere, of what we can enjoy without the techniques as well. We can let the joy come and go without anxiety and without guilt. We don’t have to be joyful, but we are free for joy.

Christianity is, therefore, not so much a technique for finding the joy of salvation as a message that, when it is really understood, evokes joy because it announces salvation. In this sense Christianity proclaims an objective reality rather than cultivating a subjective one, though it does not despise or oppose the cultivation of the subjective one as well.

That means also that the good news announced by Christianity is for all men. I as an individual am included. But if I hear the news rightly, I do not rejoice primarily because of what the news means privately for me. I rejoice because of what it means to everyone. If tomorrow we heard (what of course we will not hear) that real peace had come to Southeast Asia, that a new government had emerged representing all the people, that the United States was prepared to give billions through international channels to rebuild what our tens of billions have destroyed -- if we heard all that, I would rejoice because of the relief from moral anguish I would feel privately and inwardly, and because of the renewed possibility of pride in being an American. But primarily we would rejoice together because of what the news would mean to all of us and even more to the noble and long-suffering people of Vietnam. Shared rejoicing about the good news for all people is more fundamental to the church than is private rejoicing over personal attainments.

It would be grossly unfair to suggest that those who find joy through techniques are insensitive to the needs of others. The pietist convert, like the participant in the human potential movement, is concerned that others too find joy. He may even take too much satisfaction in being an instrument of their salvation.

Yet we dare not be silent about the risk of the private search for joy that is likely to dominate the ‘70s. The man converted in pietist revivals and engrafted into the church was often changed in lasting ways. He became more disciplined, more responsible, gentler, a loyal member of the community, generous with his money, regular in prayer and Bible-reading, willing to engage in humanitarian service. But too often his prejudices against those of other cultures and races were not softened. Sometimes, even, he became less sensitive to wider social issues. believing that the same, very personal, means by which his own life had been soundly established should work for all, and ignoring the need for structural changes in society. The same dangers are inherent in the human potential movement.

The objectivity and universality of the good news should guard us as Christians against these dangers of privatism and individualism. It should establish a sense of our solidarity with all men in receiving the wholly unanticipated and undeserved gift. We are members of one another, and what God has done for us he has done for us all.

In vivid and characteristically exaggerated imagery Dostoevsky teaches us this Christian lesson in a story told in The Brothers Karamazov. (I am indebted for this story to Dorothee Sölle, who included it in her lecture, "The Role of Political Theology in Relation to the Liberation of Men," one of the plenary addresses at the conference on Religion and the Humanizing of Man, Sept. 1-5, 1972, Los Angeles.)

"Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell God. ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away."

The Christian news is objective and universal. In that way it counters our easy tendency toward subjectivity and individualism while also providing a context in which the quest for joy may be freely pursued.

The news is also important. It is that God has given himself to man for man’s redemption, that is, that Christ, the Messiah, has come.

Cynthia Ozick, a Jewish writer, has noted the importance of this news. "For novelists it matters very much whether the Messiah has come or is yet to come. The human difference is this: If the Messiah has not yet appeared, then the world is still profane, and our task is to wrest him forth, to go and fetch him, so to speak -- to do what is necessary to bring him on. But if the Messiah has already cleft the skin of human history, then the world is at this moment transfigured into a holy site, and we need only stand still; already redeemed, we do God’s work unawares, and even the most unlikely vessels inherit the divine redemption." (Cynthia Ozick, The New York Times Book Review, June 11, 1972, p. 4. I am indebted for this quote to the editorial in The Christian Advocate, Dec. 21, 1972.)

The more important the news, the more is at stake in the finally decisive question. Is it true? The news comes to us bound up with legends, with an archaic world view, and with an anthropomorphic picture of God. Even when it is freed from these trappings, it seems to run counter to the continuing dominance of evil in human affairs.

But the Christian news can withstand these doubts. There is a power of life and growth, of healing and reconciliation, present to all humanity, indeed, in all things. In Jesus, God "has already cleft the skin of human history." And we as "the most unlikely vessels inherit the divine redemption." There is reason for joy.

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