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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 cobbj@cgu.edu.. 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 3: At Home -- Tuesday Noon


Thomas had a simple lunch ready when Mary came home. They were both pleased that their campus jobs enabled them to eat lunch together several days each week. But when Mary saw Thomas she knew the conversation with the chaplain had not gone well. Thomas would need to de-brief with her, as they liked to call it. As soon as he had said grace, she asked him to tell her what Chaplain Levovsky had said.

"She told me how she became a Christian," Thomas replied. "I was really moved by her story. I like her more than ever."

"But you donít seem very happy about it! What did she say about the deity of Jesus?"

"Well, she didnít say so in so many words, but the truth is she doesnít believe in it at all. What I thought I heard her saying in those sermons is what she really means! She wants to free us from all the traditional beliefs."

It was Maryís turn to be shocked, really shocked. "But how could she be ordained to preach if she doesnít believe the churchís teaching? And how could the seminary approve her as your supervisor for this intern year? You must have misunderstood her."

"No," Thomas said sadly. "Iím quite sure I didnít misunderstand. She went to the most liberal seminary of our denomination. And I realize now that some of what I have read and heard in my seminary is more like what she said than I had taken in before. Iíve just been assuming that everybody really believed the way I did and ignoring the threatening ideas. Chaplain Levovsky states them so directly I canít ignore them."

Thomasís reply was far from reassuring. To Mary what it meant to be Christian was quite clear. It involved a certain way of life and definite beliefs. On unimportant matters Christians could argue if they chose, but on essentials there must be full agreement. Otherwise how could they worship and work together? She did not go around hunting for heresy. Far from it. To all who called themselves Christian she attributed the beliefs that went with being Christian. But here was Thomas reporting that a respected pastor did not accept the core beliefs of the Christian faith. And worse yet, Mary feared, Thomas himself seemed shaken! A chaplain-supervisor had no business undermining the faith of interns.

"Youíre in a difficult position, honey. But you will let the seminary officials know, wonít you? They wonít want their students supervised by a chaplain who is not a believer. If itís really as you say, I hope you can get reassigned quickly."

Thomas suddenly regretted having told Mary what the chaplain had said, or at least of having put it so strongly. Mary was so decisive! That was part of what he liked about her. He often found it hard to make decisions himself, and he needed her clarity -- the way she came to the point at once. Without her he doubted he could have ever finally decided for the ministry. She hadnít pushed him. She had just listened to him and helped him see that that was what he felt called to do. Once he was clear about that, she helped him brush aside all objections and quickly apply to seminary.

But this time she was moving ahead of him and in a direction he dreaded. She was assuming that he believed just as she did. Why shouldnít she? He had shared a lot of what he learned in seminary, but not in a way that would let her know what was really happening to him. That was partly because he wasnít sure himself, and it was hard to put into words. But it was also because he knew it would upset her.

What was happening? Looking back he could just begin to describe it to himself. The study of the Bible and the history of the church made everything about Christianity seem less fixed. For example, he still believed in the Virgin Birth, but when his New Testament professor pointed out that the genealogies in both Matthew and Luke seemed to assume that Jesusí descent was through Joseph and that the doctrine of Maryís virginity played no role in Paulís letters, he found it harder to suppose that this belief was essential to Christianity. He had come to accept the idea that Jesusí divinity was not dependent on Maryís virginity, although he himself continued to affirm the Virgin Birth. But he had not told Mary of his changing attitude. After all, he had not changed his own belief; so there had not seemed to be anything to tell.

He saw now that this softening process had gone farther than he had realized. It had become harder and harder to draw clear boundaries. Confronted by Chaplain Levovskyís story, he was confused. Could that, too, be Christian? Part of him wanted to say, "Yes!" But Mary didnít share that part of him and would not understand it -- at least not right away.

"I donít know what to do, darling," Thomas finally said. "I donít feel right about reporting officially what she told me in private. And I am confused. Maybe there is room in the church for people like her. Iíve found a number of students here who respond well to her and say theyíve never been able to make sense of Christianity before. At least itís a place to start -- a point of contact."

"How could the denial of Jesusí deity be a point of contact for the gospel?" Mary replied sharply. To her this made no sense at all. But she saw that he was not ready to act and that it would do no good to push him. "Why donít you talk it over with Chan-Hie?"

Chan-Hie Park was the other intern working with Chaplain Levovsky that year. He came from another seminary, he was single, and he had a quite different role on campus, working especially with international students. Mary and Thomas were not yet well acquainted with him, but they respected what they had seen of his work. Thomas thought Maryís advice was good.

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