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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 8: Thomas Alone in His Study -- Saturday Morning


Thomas had not slept well after the conversation with Judy and Mike. He didnít know whether he was more upset or excited. So many things that used to be dear were confused! So many settled planks in his belief system had come loose! But at the same time it seemed that new doors were opening up. He was certainly not ready to write the seminary saying that Chaplain Levovsky was not a suitable chaplain supervisor. But he was not ready to decide not to write either. He had to sort things out.

Thomas had found that when he was confused, he needed to sit with paper and pen and at least identify in writing what he was confused about. He wrote down two headings and then made notes on each. Several pages went into the trash basket. But after a couple of hours he had an outline like the one on the following page.

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I. The boundaries of legitimate Christian thinking Ė the problem of heresy.

A .Are there established doctrines all Christians should accept?

B. If so, what are they?

C. If now, how do Christians decide what to believe?

    • Bible, creeds, tradition central but not wholly decisive.
    • Maybe Jesus himself is crucial.
    • What makes sense to us Ė how important is this? Can we believe what does not make sense to us? Should we?

II. What do I think about Jesus Christ?

  1. A. How I think of Godís presence is crucial here.
    • If God is present to human beings but not in them, then Godís incarnation in Jesus was wholly unique.
    • If God is present in others as well, then Godís incarnation in jesus may not be so very different. (I must re-read Baillie.)

B. If God is present in people other than Jesus, is this just in Christians or is it in others as well?

    • If only in Christians, then Jesusí uniqueness remains very important. (Paul connects the Spirit to belief in Jesusí Lordship.)
    • If in everyone, then Christianity seems to be only one expression of Godís saving work. (John says the Word enlightened everyone who came into the world.)

C. In what way is Jesus savior?

    • Did he atone for the sins of all on the cross? (Or, all who were predestined to be saved?)
    • Did he preach the coming of a basileia in which Godís will would be done?
    • Did he initiate a community in which Godís Spirit is effective?
    • If all the above, how are they related?

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Tom felt better after he had gotten all this out on paper. He knew there were lots more questions, and he knew that he didnít have the answers. But he also knew that he was shifting. The Pauline passages about Christ and the Holy Spirit being "in" the believer were taking on a real meaning for him. He wasnít willing to let that go. He would follow where that led, even if it led part of the way that Prof. OíConnor and Chaplain Levovsky went. Part of that was genuinely Christian. Even if it reduced the difference between Jesus and believers, Thomas decided, he could live with that, too. After all Paul did talk about our becoming sons and daughters of God through faith in the one Son of God.

Paul, however, definitely did not say that Jesus provides just one way of salvation alongside others. He didnít say, "Let the Ephesians go on worshiping Diana; sheíll do just as well as Jesus." No! Paul had no doubt about the boundaries. And Thomas would stay with Paul.

But then what about Chan-Hieís Buddhist grandmother? Did God damn her for her stubborn refusal to accept Christian baptism? Thomas did not feel comfortable saying that -- at least not to Chan-Hie. But wasnít there something wrong with holding theological doctrines and then refusing to draw the consistent conclusions in particular cases?

Thomas realized that he had long been uncomfortable about the implications of his theology in one area. In college he had attended a two-day conference on the Holocaust. He had become aware for the first time of how deeply Christians, and even official church teaching, especially about Jesus, had contributed to the Holocaust. The idea that all Jews deserved punishment because some long ago had called for Jesusí crucifixion was certainly cruel and unjust! The conversation with Prof. OíConnor had brought those painful memories back. He could sympathize with the commitment of some of the Jews to keep the Jewish people alive at all costs and to fight off all efforts at Christian conversion. He accepted the comments of some Christians that the church has forfeited the right to try to convert Jews. He was glad to hear that his denomination did not support missions to Jews. But he gave up trying to make sense of this theologically. Vaguely he thought that since Jews are a chosen people, God will work things out for them and we Christians can leave this matter to God.

But now the challenge was much wider. The implication seemed to be to leave everyone alone -- and everything to God. That sounded wrong -- dead wrong.

He couldnít put the matter aside this time. He had to come to terms with it. Could people find salvation through other religions -- Buddhism, for example? How could he decide? He knew so little about it. Then it occurred to him that there was a Fellowship of Buddhist Students that met once a week on campus -- in the chapel as a matter of fact. Of course, Chaplain Levovsky would see nothing wrong with that! Maybe he could attend a meeting and make the acquaintance of some of the Buddhists. Perhaps he would even win some of them to Christ! In any case, learning something about them would help him to think about the question.

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