return to religion-online

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 7: At Home -- Friday Evening


Mary was too excited to pay much attention to Thomasís dejection when he arrived home. "While you were out the Schmidts called. You know, Judy and Mike. They are in town and asked if they could come by to see us. Of course, I invited them to dinner. You know how much Iíve enjoyed Judy -- and Mike, too, for that matter. It will be fun to hear whatís been going on at the seminary since weíve been away."

Thomasís reactions were mixed. He felt the need to be alone, to try to come to terms with the confusion and distress he was experiencing. But he could also see the advantage of an evening of conversation with friends. Maybe the contact with familiar faces and familiar ideas could restore his assurance. Both of the Schmidts were students, and good students at that. Maybe they would help him reach some decision about what to do. At any rate the die was cast. "Great!" he said, trying to sound enthusiastic.

As always, Mary served a delicious dinner with style. She asked about their friends, and the Schmidts enjoyed telling stories about recent events, especially about some of the more eccentric professors. Toward the end of dinner Judy mentioned something about her class in Christology. That gave an opening for Thomas.

"Thatís a topic Iíve been quite concerned about lately, Judy. I wish I had had the course.

"Well," Judy laughed. "Iím hardly an expert after six weeks of classes, but Iíll be glad to share whatever I can. Whatís the problem?"

"The problem is that my chaplain supervisor doesnít believe any of the things I believe about Jesus." Thomas knew he exaggerated, but at the moment that was how it seemed. "If sheís right, Iím on quite the wrong course. If Iím right, sheís hardly a Christian at all -- certainly not a suitable supervisor for seminarians."

"Wow! Thatís a real problem," Judy replied, somewhat sobered. "Iím not sure I can help with that, but letís talk about it. Who is your supervisor, and what does he believe?"

"Chaplain Levovsky, and sheís a woman, and a very fine woman I might add. If I didnít think so highly of her I wouldnít be bothered so by her ideas. When it gets right down to it, she thinks Jesus was a man like other men. She sees God in him and gives him credit for the emergence of the church. But she thinks other communities have found God in other people. Thereís no need to convert Muslims and Hindus. We should work with them in meeting social needs."

"I can see that sheís pretty far on the liberal side," Judy replied. "But you know, Iím sympathetic with some of it. I havenít thought much about Muslims and Hindus, but I have been thinking a lot about women. Did you know that Iíve been in a womenís support group? Thatís been pretty disturbing too! Some of the members claim that women canít be saved by a male savior, that looking to a man for salvation just confirms unhealthy dependence on men. If we say that to be Christian is to believe that Jesus is the only savior, some of my friends reply that they canít be Christian any longer.

"But I donít see any choice," Thomas exploded. "Even Chaplain Levovsky wouldnít say that a Christian has some other savior than Jesus."

"Itís a real problem, I grant you. Some try to get around it by saying that Jesus had strong feminine traits, that he was androgynous. Others say that the relation to him has nothing to do with his gender. Still others suggest that we should look not so much to Jesus the man, but to the Christ-event that includes men and women.

"But where do you come down yourself?" Mary broke in. She was even more shocked than Thomas, but she had a deep confidence in Judy.

"Well," said Judy, "really I havenít come down. I guess the idea Iíve liked the best is an emphasis on the future. God came to us in a man. Thatís true. But that man pointed ahead to what was to come. The basileia theou. We translate that Ďthe Kingdom of God,í and that sounds very masculine indeed. But a basileia does not have to have a king. The word itself is feminine, and I think that as we envision what the basileia is to be, the dominance of males and male values ceases.

"But I donít see how the fact that basileia is a feminine noun has much to do with whether women can be saved by Jesus," Thomas was impatient to return to this issue.

"To me it does seem related," Judy answered. "We have to consider what salvation really is. A lot of theology today points to the future as the time of salvation. Jesus announced salvation and foreshadowed it, for example, in his table fellowship with all kinds of people. In that way he mediates salvation to us. He gives us assurance. But to believe this is not to depend on a man to save us. We depend on God to bring the basileia. When I think in those ways it doesnít matter that Jesus was a male. What does matter is whether the promised salvation will meet the needs of women as well as men.

"That does make sense, I guess," said Thomas, a little reluctantly, "though thatís not the way Iíve thought of it. I think of Jesusí atonement on the cross as that which saves all who by faith identify with his dying and rising. I guess thatís just what bothers the feminists -- identifying with a male savior. But I donít see how that relates to finding God in more than one person.

"Well, if we need figures who foreshadow the final salvation, it seems much better to us women if some of them are women. Jesus may have an extra special place. I for one donít object to that. But I also see a foreshadowing of the basileia in Ruth, in Esther, in Mary Magdalene, in Catherine of Siena, in Sojourner Truth, and in Mother Teresa. In other words, I see God incarnate in both women and men, and now I am inclined to minimize the differences between Jesus and these incarnations instead of maximizing them as I once did."

"Has your work in the Christology course tied in with this at all?" Mary asked. She was bewildered but not entirely lost. She had read a little feminist theology and felt mildly sympathetic. But it had never occurred to her that feminists would want to downplay Jesus just because he was a man!

"Yes, Mary, somewhat, although we havenít gotten to any feminist theologians yet. I think one or two will be tacked on at the end. We have been exposed to theologians of hope, and Iíve already told you that I think the emphasis on the future helps. In addition Iíve found in Donald Baillie a way to think about Godís incarnation in Jesus that doesnít separate Jesus so much from others."

"Youíre referring to God Was in Christ, arenít you?" asked Thomas. I read that a couple of years ago, and it didnít seem particularly important then. But these last few days Iíve found myself wondering whether I should re-read it."

"I do recommend it," Judy replied. "Baillie makes sense of something that perplexed me for a long time, long before I became a feminist. How can one person be both fully God and fully human? I could make the statement that he was, but I didnít really know what I was saying. After reading Baillie I saw that the problem was that I thought of deity and humanity as external to one another. Baillie enabled me to see that the more fully God is in us -- we call that grace -- the more genuinely human we are."

"I like that," said Mary quietly. "Jesus was fully human because he was fully divine. But that makes Jesus very different from the rest of us, even the saintly women of whom you spoke."

"Probably Baillie would agree with you," Judy acknowledged. "He seems to want to see incarnation as like grace, but still different, although he doesnít explain how. But I see Godís incarnation in grace as the only incarnation there is. It may have been more complete in Jesus than in anyone else. I donít know. But it canít be different in kind. If God is present in human beings, God is incarnate to some degree, and in some special people that incarnation becomes peculiarly clear. For now, Iím satisfied with that."

Thomas was not satisfied with that, but he was bothered now by something else. Chaplain Levovsky had talked so easily of God being present in people. Judy did, too, and apparently Mary found that easy to accept. But he didnít. How could God be in something. He thought of Godís presence as personal encounter. Of course, he did affirm Godís incarnation in Jesus. But that was utterly supernatural, utterly unique, a complete mystery! One was not supposed to understand it. In Jesus the impossible happened. Thatís what made all the difference.

Baillie at least recognized the problem, Thomas remembered. Baillie emphasized that what he said was paradoxical. But Thomas wasnít accustomed to thinking of Godís grace as being God internal to people. For him Godís grace is Godís forgiveness of our sins, the gift of life and new life. It might be that Baillie is right, that the more we receive from God the more human we are, but for Thomas that was a far cry from incarnation. In grace God gives things to us and forgives us. In incarnation, God becomes a human being.

"As you talk about Baillie," he said at last, "it makes him sound like a mystic, as if God were found within us, or as if Godís being merged with ours. I wasnít struck by that when I read him. I thought he was more orthodox than that."

"Youíre right. Maybe my interpretation is more mystical than he intends. But I think if itís mystical, itís a biblical mysticism. Itís not a merging of ourselves into the divine or a denial of the ultimate difference between God and creatures. Itís just that the supreme gift of grace is Godís own presence within us, liberating, empowering, and directing us. I canít think of that as an external force. I find it working in me. Itís part of my experience. And, as Baillie says, the more effective it is in shaping my life, the more fully Iím human, that is, the freer, stronger, more fulfilled and effective I am as a human being."

Thomas could remember Paulís language about Christ and the Holy Spirit as within us making us free and strengthening us. He had to admit there was biblical justification for that kind of mysticism. Indeed, he wished he felt the Spirit at work in him as Judy seemed to feel it in her. But the idea of something other than himself being within him still didnít make much sense. "I wish I could experience something like that," he said, "but even if I did I wouldnít understand how God could be in me!"

"I have trouble with that, too." Mike spoke up for the first time. "Itís hard for me to think of anything in me except myself. I think of God as present to me, not present in me. But have you noticed that itís usually the women who think of God present in them and the men who think more of encountering God as one who comes to them from beyond?"

"No, Mike, I hadnít connected the difference with gender," Thomas admitted.

"It was Prof. Matsumoto who pointed this out to me. He also pointed out that itís something of an East-West distinction, too. In the East, at least in China, Korea, and Japan, people think of things or events as made up of their relations to everything else. The Buddhists talk about "dependent origination." An event or an experience is just the coming together of other things. There isnít any boundary separating its inside from its outside."

"Sorry," Thomas interrupted him. "This is coming too fast for me. But it sounds important. What is Prof. Matsumoto saying?"

"Iím not sure I fully understand, Tom, but I did take a course from him on Hinduism and Buddhism, and that helped, the Buddhist part especially. Just think about your experience right now. Then think about what Iím saying. Is it inside or outside your experience."

"Well," Thomas answered hesitantly, "I guess that distinction doesnít work, does it. Of course, what I hear and understand is part of my experience. But since you are the source, it is certainly coming to me from outside. So itís both inside and outside -- or neither. Is that the Buddhist point?"

"Thatís part of what Iíve gotten out of it, at any rate. If you follow that line of thought through, youíll see that if youíre related to God at all, then God is both outside and inside your experience -- or neither -- in the same way. The God who is in your experience is also much more than your experience. More traditionally weíve talked about God being both immanent and transcendent."

"Okay, I accept that." Thomas agreed. "But my experience isnít me. I am the one to whom the experiences happen or the one who possesses the experiences. Iíve had other experiences in the past, and Iíll have more in the future. Maybe God is in the experiences in the way you say, but that doesnít put God inside of me."

"Thatís a tough one," Mike agreed. "I raised the same point with Prof. Matsumoto. He just said: Thatís the problem with you Westerners. That left me puzzled and a bit angry. I started to say that was Christian teaching. But then heís a Christian, too, and I knew he would ask me where it was stated in the Bible that the self is separate and distinct from the experiences. I shut up and listened."

"And what do you think about it now?" Thomas asked.

"The longer I live with that way of thinking the more sense it makes to me."

"Well, offhand," Thomas complained, "it doesnít make that much sense to me. When I decide to do something, itís not just an experience that decides. My decision leads to changes in experience."

"Youíre right, Tom, and Prof. Matsumoto acknowledged that Eastern thought hasnít dealt very well with deciding. In fact, he says that it was writings about decision and personal ethical responsibility that led him to Christ. But does it help any to think of the ĎIí who decides as outside of experience? Iíve come to think of my Ďselfí as one aspect of the experience, affecting all the rest, as you say, but also affected by all the rest."

Mary broke in. "This is way beyond me. I do think of God as in me. Indeed, I feel that way about my relations with other people too. And maybe that is because Iím a woman. I donít know. But what Buddhism has to do with it I donít understand."

Judy saw that Mary was tired and that if they got any deeper into these mysteries, she might really get upset. Considering that she was the only one of the group who was not studying theology, she held her own very well in these discussions. But enough was enough. "Itís getting late. We really must be going. We have a big day tomorrow, and I know you are busy, too. Dinner was delicious. Youíre a great cook, Mary!"

"Yes, indeed," agreed Mike sincerely. "And itís been a long time since Iíve enjoyed a theological discussion so much. Good luck with Chaplain Levovsky!"

Viewed 96929 times.