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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 6:Chaplainís Office -- Friday Morning


"Did you want to continue the inquisition?" she asked, smiling, but at once regretting the tone of her question.

"Not exactly," answered Thomas. "But I do want to try to understand your theology better. Iíve been talking with Chan-Hie, and we both had a conversation with Prof. OíConnor. I think I may be more able to understand what youíre saying now than I was on Tuesday. And Chan-Hie got interested, too. I hope you donít mind."

The chaplain was somewhat reassured. The young men seemed to be genuinely seeking. She remembered delegations of conservative students in the past whose tack had been quite different. This seemed like a positive challenge. If only she could let go of her defensiveness! "I donít mind at all. Really I appreciate your interest. I know Iím not much of a theologian, but I do have strong convictions, and I hope I can explain them sensibly. Anyway, I can try."

"I was so upset last time we talked by your attack on Jesusí deity that I didnít even ask you what you do think of Jesus. I know Jesus is important to you, because you bring him into your sermons a lot. I know you think he was human, but if that were all I donít suppose you would talk about him much. Everybody else is human too. Is there anything special about Jesus for you?"

Chan-Hie broke in. "Tom has pushed me in the same way. He wants me to say why Jesus is so important to me. He thinks that has to mean that I believe that Jesus is divine. I donít know. Thatís why I came along to hear what you have to say.

"Iím glad you came, Chan-Hie. And youíre right, of course, Thomas. I do think Jesus was quite special. I did say something about that on Tuesday, but it wasnít what you were looking for then. The Spirit I serve was released to new effectiveness in history because of Jesus. That makes Jesus special. But youíre asking about Jesus himself rather than about the effects of his ministry on others. I havenít thought as much about that. But I do see the Holy Spirit present and at work in him. Since the Holy Spirit is God, I can say God was incarnate in Jesus. I really like incarnational language."

The language was familiar, but the context was sufficiently different that Thomas did not trust it. "But would you say that God is incarnate in everyone else, too?"

Chaplain Levovsky wondered how she should answer that. It was the old question about whether Jesus differs from us in degree or in kind. She knew she was against a difference in kind and she resolved to speak frankly. "Yes, or at least in some others. There are some people and communities in which I have a hard time finding any trace of the Spirit I serve. I think God is specially present among those who have faith and try to be open to the working of grace. I think of the church as the community in which the Spirit lives with particular fullness. I donít want to say that Jesus was fundamentally different. Because of Jesus, we can also be daughters and sons of God as he was Godís son."

"If youíre saying that Jesus was the first in whom God was incarnate and that this incarnation has extended to those who believe in him, I could at least recognize that as a traditional way of thinking." Thomas was wondering aloud. He was really trying now to connect her liberal ideas with classical ones. This was a new kind of undertaking for him.

"Thanks, I appreciate your help," the chaplain answered, "and I do find that image meaningful, but I canít quite say that. Iím sure the Spirit was at work in the world before Jesus. The Hebrew Scripture speaks of it. And Iím sure God is present in other religions as well. I simply wonít tie God down just to please the orthodox."

Her hostility to the rigidities of orthodoxy had gotten the best of her again. She knew there were other moves she could make, fully supported by Scripture and tradition, that would render her position more acceptable to conservatives. But she was impatient with that theological game. Maybe it kept peace within the church, she thought, but one always ended up with the sort of language that had so alienated her parents. Why not just say what she believed in contemporary ways?

"You confuse me, Chaplain," Thomas admitted. "Part of the time it sounds as though Jesus were really very special for you, but then you deny it."

"Probably the truth is that Iím confused, too. Jesus does seem very special to me. God seems to me especially real and present in him. But I get upset when people want to say only in Jesus. To me it seems that over thousands of years millions of people have found God in other persons as well. Iíve read a little about Confucius and Gautama Buddha and Lao Tze, and I can see why people have found God in them, too. I donít want to diminish them in order to exalt Jesus. So I draw back from the kinds of statements you might find reassuring."

"I really appreciate that," was Chan-Hieís response. Some Koreans are beginning to say that the missionaries did not bring God to Korea. God had been there all along. The missionaries often made us ashamed of Shamanism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. From what they said, it sounded as though all our ancestors were damned! Iíve never believed that. My Buddhist grandmother was a fine woman. She would go with the family to church. Her husband and her children kept hoping she would convert, but she refused to be baptized and died a Buddhist. I rather respected her for it. Iím sure God respected her too."

"The way youíre both talking makes me think you donít believe in missions at all," Thomas exploded. "You seem to think all religions are equally good. There are many ways to salvation. We should all just mind our own business. This relativism is just what I feared would happen if the orthodox creeds are abandoned!"

Chan-Hie responded quickly. "Thomas, I didnít say that. Itís true that we tend to be critical of the missionaries these days. But thatís partly in reaction to having admired them so much and followed them so blindly. They may not be so much to blame for having belittled Korean culture. They didnít know much about it. But we are at fault if they make us ashamed of it. We all thank God for the missionaries even when we cut them down to size as fallible human beings. They brought us the knowledge of Jesus that is so important to me."

Chaplain Levovsky replied also. "I do support missions. Weíve taken up special collections for missions twice since youíve been here, I think. We should share what we know and our goods as well. But in our denomination the main effort of Western missions today is not the conversion of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. It is serving the common people, sometimes in alliance with Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Of course, we still establish congregations and are happy to accept new members. In some countries in Africa our churches are growing rapidly while they are declining here in the United States. But we donít consider getting new members the main thing. For us, to serve Christ is just as much to feed the hungry, to teach people to read, and to help them in their struggle for justice, as it is to baptize them."

Thomas knew that most of the evangelism on the mission field was left to indigenous leadership. The role of missionaries had changed. But still he had thought of missions primarily as bringing people to Christ. The idea of missions as working with other religions did not have the right ring. Every time he felt that he could extend the hand of Christian fellowship a little further, more was demanded of him. He could see why real conservatives were sure it was better to hold the lines tight. He felt himself on a slippery slope. This was all he could take today.

Chan-Hie was enjoying the conversation, but when he saw that Thomas was restless, he suggested that it was time to go. Chaplain Levovsky was reluctant to end like that. "Before you go," she suggested, "could we pray together?" Of course they agreed. They prayed silently for awhile. Then Chaplain Levovsky prayed aloud:

"Spirit of love, draw us together in true community. Spirit of life, enliven us in your service. Spirit of truth, enlighten our minds and lead us into wisdom. Amen."

"I do hope youíll come to talk again," she said. "Next time letís talk about your ideas instead of mine."

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