Doubting Thomas: Christology in Story Form 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.. Published by Crossroad Publishing Company, 481 8th Ave. # 1550, New York, NY, 10017. Copyright ã 1990 by John B. Cobb Jr. All rights reserved. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 2: The Chaplainís Office -- Tuesday Morning
"Come in, Thomas," called Janet Levovsky, "how are things going with you and Mary?"
"Thanks, weíre comfortably settled, and we both like our jobs."
"You seemed troubled when you called yesterday to ask for an appointment. I was afraid something had gone wrong."
It was hard for Thomas to say what was bothering him. He had never raised this kind of question with a professor. As his supervisor, he felt toward her in much the same way. He didnít want to seem to be critical. But the chaplain was waiting. "I really liked yesterdayís sermon. Itís always a treat to hear you preach. You come through as yourself and what you say comes out of your own experience. Maybe itís for just that reason that I have to take it so seriously."
"Thatís good to hear, but I take it that I said something you didnít like. I really do appreciate your coming to tell me about it. Sometimes I hear about criticisms at second and third hand, and I feel so frustrated. This way Iíll understand better. What was wrong with my sermon?" She knew she was becoming defensive and regretted it.
"I guess what Iím concerned about is not what you do say so much as what you donít say. Yesterday the point seemed to be how human Jesus was, how much like us. And as I think back over your other sermons, that seems quite consistent with what youíve said before. I know itís right to say that Jesus was truly human, of one substance with us in his humanity, but surely thatís only a part of the message. Surely Jesus was divine, too. Isnít that the main point -- that Jesus was uniquely divine?"
So that was it, thought Janet, another conservative on her hands. Indeed, seminary students seemed to be getting more conservative all the time. Meanwhile, she was becoming less patient with those old problems. There was so much the church needed to be doing for peace, for liberation, for mutual understanding among the peoples and religions! And still these hang-ups on ancient dogma! But this time, at least, the conservative came to talk -- not to snipe at her behind her back. And he seemed really to be asking questions, not giving her an exam for orthodoxy. She resolved to be open with him.
"Thomas, I think I understand whatís bothering you. And all the more I appreciate your coming to talk with me about it. You and I have come to the church by quite different paths, Iím sure, and so we think about our faith quite differently, but Iím confident we can work together, even if we have to agree to disagree on some matters. Youíve picked up bits and pieces about me from earlier conversations and from my sermons, but let me tell you the story of my faith-pilgrimage a little more fully. Then youíll understand better where Iím coming from."
Both of them began to relax a bit. Chaplain Levovsky was no longer defensive, and Thomas was eager to understand her better.
"I grew up outside organized religion. My parents thought of themselves as agnostics. They ridiculed what they understood to be Christian dogma and led me to wonder how any intelligent person could be a Christian. Occasionally I listened to radio and TV preachers, and that only confirmed in me my parentsí rejection of faith."
"Some of that media stuff is pretty bad," Thomas agreed.
"Thatís what I thought," Janet responded, eager to underscore any agreement. She continued, "The only thing that cut against this attitude was my fondness for my fatherís sister, Margaret. She didnít talk much about it, but I knew she was a Christian, and I loved to be with her. Occasionally when I was in high school I would spend a weekend with her. She would ask me whether I wanted to go with her Sunday morning. The first time or two I declined, but later I went with her to her discussion group. What I found there had nothing to do with the strange ideas about how three persons were one God or about Armageddon or miracles. Instead, I found a group of caring and sensitive adults who were interested in me in a way I had never experienced before. I felt that I could tell them what I really thought, and off-the-wall as some of those ideas were, they took them seriously. They thought of themselves as a group of seekers for spiritual truth supporting one another along the way."
Thomas remembered a college group he had been in that had some of that feel. But he had been a little too sure of his beliefs to be quite at home there. For the first time, he felt a pang of regret.
"That group talked about all kinds of things," Chaplain Levovsky continued, "much of it not specifically Christian. But sometimes they stopped to pray, thanking God for being with them or asking Godís special blessing on one of their members. I had no idea what they meant by ĎGod,í but what they did seemed genuine."
Thomas noticed that there were tears in the chaplainís eyes. Clearly these were very precious memories.
"My aunt became sick, and after a long illness she died. During her illness we went as a family to visit her every few weeks, and between times my parents let me go alone. Even in her pain and weakness she was for me a tower of strength. I would ask her sometimes about God and about Jesus. Her answers were very simple, naive, I suppose, but they redirected my life. When I think of Christ I think of Aunt Margaret.
"My parents were astonished at the new course my life took -- most of all when I told them I wanted to go to seminary. But they prided themselves on their tolerance, and they were relieved that I didnít go in for what they considered the hocus-pocus and absurdities of the Christianity they had known. They havenít become Christians themselves, but they donít object much to my variety of faith. We get along well together."
"So the deity of Jesus and the atonement and the resurrection havenít been important to you?" Thomas asked.
"Iím afraid my position is more extreme than that, Thomas. I think they are important, but they seem more like important obstacles that prevent people from following Jesus than like important aspects of faith itself."
Thomas was moved but he was even more troubled than when he first came in. "But then what do you believe?" he cried.
"I believe lots of things, Thomas," she replied gently. "I believe that the spirit I found in my auntís discussion group back in my high school days was the Holy Spirit, and I try to serve that Spirit always. Iíve learned how closely the community that grew up around Jesus and especially after he was no longer with the disciples is bound up with that Spirit. And Iíve learned that that Spirit is truly God with us. I have learned to call that Spirit Christ."
"Is that all?" Thomas blurted out.
Chaplain Levovsky was hurt; she had thought that Thomas was following her with more understanding. But she checked her renewed feelings of defensiveness. She could see that Thomas was genuinely troubled and needed time and help to assimilate what she was saying. "Thatís a great deal," she answered. "If you had ever experienced the thought world and the feeling world of unbelief in which I grew up, you would see how very important those beliefs are. I have known redemption through that Christ, and I try to help others find it as well. For me nothing is more important than that."
It seemed there was not much more to say. What for her was an obstacle to faith was for him its very content. In terms of all he believed, she was no Christian. Yet sitting there, hearing her story, he felt the genuineness of her faith. Could there be more than one way to being Christian? Could one who did not believe in Jesusí deity still be a believer? "Thank you," he said, "for sharing with me. I admit Iím very confused. Iíll have to think about it. May I come again if I have more questions later on?"
"Of course," she said. But as she let him out she felt the return of a deep sadness. Sometimes she wondered whether the Spirit from whom and for whom she lived was different, after all, from the Spirit of whom the Scriptures witness. Maybe those who attacked her were right. Maybe Christianity was what her parents rejected rather than what her aunt had lived and taught her to love.