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Process Theology as Political Theology 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 Westminster Press 1982. Copyright by John B. Cobb, Jr.. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter Seven: A Theology of History


In the preceding chapter the argument with Metz was about features of his thought that axe governed by his philosophical commitment to the Kantian tradition. This necessitates the radical anthropocentricity which he affirms and embodies in his political theology. It is proposed that a Whiteheadian ecological theology is today more appropriate to the indivisible salvation of the whole world. Such a theology strains the meaning of ‘political’, but it can and should conform to all those features originally proposed in the characterization of political theology by Metz, Moltmann and Sölle, and it carries forward its essential spirit.

In this chapter the features of Metz that are treated are more properly theological. They do not follow from his Kantian anthropocentricity but from his Christian Christocentricity. They are attractive and appealing to a process theologian in their positive meaning. But Metz so develops them as to exclude theological interest in an overview of history. From the perspective of process thought, too, a theology of history has dangers, but there are strong Christian reasons for developing one.

Section I explains Metz’s position and its existentially powerful outcome, but it also considers the limits which this position places upon Christian thinking and practice. Section II summaries the Whiteheadian theology of history as an example of the kind of overview that is needed to guide practice in many areas. Section III reflects on the limitations of that kind of practice which is directed by such an overview. Section IV concludes the chapter and the book by reaffirming the central intention that process theology must become a political theology.

I

Metz is quite clear that his project of a practical fundamental theology is a radical development in theology. It is correlated with the conviction that there are just two possibilities for theology, and that the alternative possibility, the one followed by almost everyone, is disastrous. This alternative is to accept the overwhelmingly prevalent view which he calls evolutionary and to explain Christianity and Christian beliefs within that context.

By ‘evolutionary’ Metz does not have in mind the specific theory employed in biology. Nor does he refer especially to those thinkers who have explicitly extrapolated from biology. His meaning is closer to what others might call historical; for he is thinking of any effort to understand human occurrences in terms of how they can be located and explained in the wider course of events.

It is not only scholars and theologians who are prone to evolutionary thinking. This mode of consciousness is ‘present as a kind of feeling for life, in man’s pre-scientific consciousness and has as such impressed itself on modern man’s everyday experience of life’.1 As a result ‘man’s consciousness of his own identity has become weaker and more damaged in the course of human progress. Man is at the mercy of a darkly speckled universe and enclosed in an endless continuum of time that is no longer capable of surprising him. He feels that he is caught up in the waves of an anonymous process of evolution sweeping pitilessly over everyone’.2 Metz fears that ‘the feeling of being locked into an infinite, empty anonymous time -- called "evolution" -- has long since extinguished any substantial sense of hope or expectation’.3 But he believes that prayer functions as resistance to this apathy.

When theologians adopt the evolutionary point of view, Metz thinks, their work can be ‘regarded, with different degrees of explicitness, as meta-theories with respect to religion and theology. In other words, religion can, for the purpose of these theories, in principle be either reconstructed or abolished and seen as pointing to a more comprehensive theoretical system.4 By locating religion in a larger explanatory context it gives ‘its public claim to validity a purely relative value’.5

Metz is convinced that faith cannot accept this relativization, and accordingly it is an essential task of fundamental theology . . . to defend, justify or give an account of the authenticity of religion, in opposition to those systems that claim to be meta-theories of theology’.6 It cannot do this by developing a still more comprehensive overview. It can only ‘justify itself as theology by a return to subjects and the praxis of subjects’.7

Metz is responding to the same problem faced by Barth. Liberal theology gave an account of Christianity as one phenomenon alongside others, explaining its particular value and importance. It might claim that religion is of supreme importance for everyone and that Christianity is the absolute religion. But even in making such claims it presented Christianity as a relative phenomenon which required justification in terms of more objective norms than its own claims and self-understanding. Barth rejected this liberal approach. Nevertheless in many guises it has returned. As Metz notes, almost everyone understands the various religious movements as just that, phenomena which differ from each other and require an explanation and justification in terms of criteria that are not their own. The sheer affirmation of one or another faith by those unwilling to submit their assertions to testing in a more neutral court is dismissed as fideism. Yet to understand one’s own faith as one among many and in need of justification beyond itself relativizes that faith in one’s own eyes. The only real absolute is the court of appeal in which justification is required. Metz refers to this as a meta-theory. But of course there are many meta-theories. The result is a loss of confidence.

Metz is convinced theology cannot accept this relativization of faith, but it cannot establish itself by fideistic claims. That means that fundamental theology can no longer be theoretical. He believes it can be practical. Its affirmations will be authentic to the extent that they represent real practice. That practice will appeal to vindication in the future, for Metz, the apocalyptic future.

Metz knows that the power of the evolutionary consciousness is not easily broken and that it can absorb his practical, fundamental theology as well. Hence he not only polemicizes against its mode of thinking but also points out that it is itself a socio-historical product. The world constituted for us by this mode of experience ‘is in fact a secondary meta-world, in other words, a world which, in itself and in its deepest reality, bears the deep impression of many systems and theories and which can therefore only be experienced and possibly changed in and through these systems and theories’.8 It is clear that Metz would like to overcome this evolutionary world and replace it, at least for Christians, by the apocalyptic one. But he does not underestimate the difficulty. Meanwhile he calls for a Christian practice and reflection in the midst of that practice.

These reflections of Metz need to be taken with utmost seriousness. There is a profound difference between thinking about faith from a perspective that is informed by an overview of history and thinking in and from the faith itself. Metz is correct that the latter is possible for us today only when the faith from which we think is the practice of faith, a practice which seeks its vindication in the fulfillment it expects rather than in victory over competing beliefs in the court of some supposedly neutral overview. Since faith does not arise through rational conviction of a superior conceptual system, but instead through the memory of past events and especially the passion of Jesus, its embodiment in practice does not depend on any overview -- only on the effective power of the memory.

Metz shows in this way how Christian practice gains its distinctive character, It is not dependent on determining what is most appropriate from a general ethical system. The memory of suffering and of God’s calling people to themselves as subjects leads directly to participating in the suffering of the world and trying to help all people become the subjects they truly are. It recovers, therefore, the uncalculating element in Christian practice, It sets aside many of the problems of practicality which so often inhibit us. It enables the suffering love remembered in Jesus’ passion to be actualized again.

Metz contrasts this with what is actually occurring in the church

There is an increasing loss of deep inner conviction regarding faith in the official Church today, resulting in a corresponding loss of nerve and decisiveness. The life of the Church is characterized by a fear of powers and processes that are not understood. This, anxiety has sapped the courage of Christians to take new steps, encourage the development of new, alternative forms of Christian praxis and to make new religious and political experiments. This anxiety has led to a quest for stabilization in past forms.9

Attractive as Metz’s proposal of how to counter this decay of faith is, it cannot be adopted by process theology without extensive modifications, modifications so great that its particular values may be lost. For process theology the quest for the overview within which to understand particular phenomena, including Christian faith, cannot be given up. It is significant that Metz’s book provides such an overview as justification for rejecting the overview approach. He himself knows how deeply this necessity is rooted in our consciousness, and how difficult it would be to free ourselves from it. It is by his particular overview that he concluded that secularization is the product of creation and incarnation. This is not an argument against his proposal; for there are no easy answers in the modern world. The question is whether faith requires us to oppose the quest for the overview, Process theology thinks it does not, that the price, specifically from the point of view of faith, would be too high, It seems to involve a narrowing which in process perspective is antithetical to faith, This was discussed in Chapter Three as it bears on the relation of faith to other religious traditions.

More generally Metz’s program seems to abandon the Biblical mode of historical consciousness. Without an overview people cannot locate themselves in the course of history and thus understand what is appropriate for their time and place. The structure of the Bible itself presents such an overview. And I have suggested that Metz’s own writings present another.

But these criticisms in part misrepresent Metz’s more nuanced position. He writes: ‘My criticism, then, is principally directed against the attempt to explain the historical identity of Christianity by means of speculative thought (idealism), without regard to the constitutive function of Christian praxis, the cognitive equivalent of which is narrative and memory.’10 Elsewhere he identifies the evolutionary thought which he opposes as ‘a basic acceptance of technical rationality’.11 He speaks of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s ‘extremely valuable attempt to develop a universally historical hermeneutics’, complaining only that his ‘anticipation of a total meaning in history as . . . too little interrupted or irritated by what is described in the apocalyptic tradition as a universal catastrophe, in other words, the reign of the Antichrist’.12 Metz is more open to an Overview than some of his statements imply.

The difference might be that any pretence that an overview is objective or neutral is to be abandoned. If so, a process theologian can agree. There is no point from which to gain an overview other than the socio-culturally influenced locus where one is. Although human beings are free to transcend the determinism of that locus in both thought and action, especially by examining it and seeing how it affects them, they cannot think from a neutral or objective point outside of their concrete history. Overviews may be more and less ideological, more and less relevant to persons with highly diverse perspectives, but they always bear the marks of their situation.

Having abandoned the pretense of neutrality one might propose that Christian theology should be or include a Christian overview. Certainly it has played that role in the past, and Metz’s appreciation of Pannenberg suggests that he does not exclude this. But Metz does deny that fundamental theology can justify itself by ‘developing another and even more comprehensive theory which might be a theological meta-theory of the existing world theories’.13

Regardless of how Metz ultimately resolves this question, process theology must seek the solution in a different direction. It cannot oppose the relativization of every content of Christian faith, even the events of suffering which it remembers. It is open to all the meta-theories through which the content of faith is relativized, while rejecting their attempts to avoid their own relativization. It judges everything historical, without exception, to be relative. It supports the critical spirit without limit. It sees this spirit at work in the effort to gain an overview which relativizes every particular and also in the criticism of the overview both from the perspective of the particular and by more adequate and inclusive overviews. It perceives faith in the recognition of the relativity of all things human including one’s own self, and in openness to transformation. That which transforms, it understands as God incarnate in the world as Christ. That incarnation is seen everywhere because it is seen first and decisively in Jesus’ life, message, passion and resurrection. Faith is the memory of all of the ways in which God has acted to relativize the world and transform it -- a memory which is illumined throughout by the narrative of Jesus, which warns us against establishing even our relation to that narrative as absolute and which opens us to transformation in the present by the new that now comes.14

With this understanding and experience of faith, process theologians can share in the criticism of every objectifying and deterministic overview and of every failure to appreciate the decisive transforming work of Christ. But the quest for new and better overviews, overviews more fully informed by the memory of the passion of Jesus and the recognition of the universal working of Christ, is itself the work of Christ. The overviews are created goods, not to be clung to, but to be used and, in their turn, relativized.

If a fundamental theology is a solid and unchangeable ground on which to build, then from the point of view of process theology, there can be no fundamental theology, not even a practical one. There is no such ground. Every ‘fundamental theology’ is at best another created good which Christ as the creative good will relativize and supersede. It is the acceptance of that situation, rather than its overcoming, for which faith calls in the view of process theology.

An overview which relativizes the Christian religion and even the relation to the passion of Jesus is not then to be opposed on principle. Indeed, it is to be sought, especially when the absolutization of the relation to Jesus threatens to close us to other relations. But an overview is important in other ways. Since political practice is our special concern, let us consider it here.

Metz knows that we cannot move mindlessly from the memory of the passion of Jesus to responsible political action in our world. We require as much understanding as possible of our present political situation. For this we can certainly turn to the social sciences. But there are two limitations of this approach.

First, when we turn to the social sciences we do not find neutral objective disciplines which can provide the tools and information we need. We find instead bodies of thought impregnated by assumptions and points of view which should themselves be relativized and reconstructed from the perspective of contemporary Christian faith. We need the help of social sciences in which the process of such relativization and reconstruction is somewhat advanced. But we cannot go far in this direction without a Christian overview.

Second, the combination of sociological analysis with solidarity with those who suffer does not suffice to guide us in many of the concrete political problems of today’s world. Israel is one example. If we look sociologically at the state of Israel today we will find there quite typical examples of the oppression and suffering of a powerless minority, in this case the Arabs.

One Christian response would be to attempt to achieve some reconciliation between Arab interests and Jewish interests through complex negotiations. It may well be that Metz personally favors such efforts. But here we are concerned not with his actual judgements but with the implications of what he has written as a theologian. He writes that the church must have and act upon ‘an unconditional commitment to justice, freedom and peace for others’.15

If, indeed, we may not immediately and directly agree on the positive meaning of freedom, peace and justice, we all share a long-standing and common experience of what these things are not. And so this negative experience offers us an opportunity to unite, less, perhaps, in the positive planning of the freedom and justice we are seeking than in our critical opposition to the honor and tenor of unfreedom and injustice. The solidarity bred by this experience, the possibility, therefore, of a common front of protest, must be understood and put into action.16

If we act directly on this call, combined with an analysis of the structure of power in Israel today, we will seek justice for the Arabs regardless of the threat to the future of a Jewish state. Before we do that we need to remember many other things, especially the way the passion of Jesus has been employed through millennia by Christian believers for the oppression of Jews.17 We should consider also the need of a people for a homeland, an issue poorly illumined by either the memory of the passion of Jesus alone or contemporary social sciences. Indeed, we can only formulate political policies in relation to Israel in the context of an inclusive overview of human history. In seeking such an overview we must avoid the pitfalls Metz notes: the pretence of neutrality, the positivistic tendency, the forgetting of the subject and the denial of the openness of the future. But we can avoid these negative features of evolutionary thought better by offering an improved picture than by attempting to eradicate the need for any picture at all.

II

Concrete judgements responsibly directive of political practice cannot derive from the memory of Jesus’ passion even when one is informed by the social sciences. The meaning of what is occurring in the world can be derived only from an overview of what has happened in the past and its significance for the present. From Augustine to Hegel and Marx such overviews played a crucial role in shaping Western thought and specifically Christian theology. But in recent times they have fallen into disrepute.

One problem has been that they have been seen as philosophies of history, and philosophy has been expected to avoid the pitfalls of speculation. It has tried to define itself in such a way that it can achieve certainty. This has driven it to abandon the larger fields of synthetic thought and to accept logic, the analysis of language, and phenomenological description as its special province. Philosophy of history in the older sense is thereby excluded. Yet people cannot but operate with some conscious or unconscious view of where we now are in relation to where we have been in the past, and an occasional historian and psychiatrist has stepped in to fill the void left by philosophers and theologians. The resulting interpretations are rarely acceptable from the point of view of the Christian. Metz’s protests are in this respect well taken. But if we cannot engage in responsible political practice without an historically informed view of what is taking place, and if the views offered us by others are not satisfactory, then Christians, for the sake of political practice, should enter the field, recognizing that they do so from their own perspective, shaped by the memory of Jesus. What we then would develop would be a theology of history.

There does not exist at present a theology of history that is anywhere close to adequate to our needs. If such a theology of history existed, it could do much to remedy the sad state of the church of which Metz wrote so movingly. As Metz calls programmatically for a practical fundamental theology to respond to this problem. I am calling for a theology of history as a partial response.

Bits and pieces of theology of history are to be found in many journals of Christian opinion. They implicitly constitute the stuff of many a conversation about current events. Reinhold Niebuhr made a more sustained contribution in such works as The Irony of American History.18 Teilhard de Chardin offered a different perspective in The Phenomenon of Man.19 Van Leeuwen develops a rich and fruitful approach in Christianity in World History.20

The theologian who has done most to awaken us to the need for a theology of history is Wolfhart Pannenberg. He holds that meaningful interpretation of the course of events is possible only by a pre-apprehension of the fulfilling outcome toward which they move. Certainly this has been the dominant pattern of Western philosophy and theology of history through Marx. And without same vision of a future worth hoping for, an overview of history can be no guide to practice. The loss of expectation of a consummatory End of history is no doubt a major reason for the decline both of faith and of reflection about the meaning of history. But from the point of view of process theology, the need now is to renew the Christian interpretation of history without presupposing a fulfilling End. Some of Pannenberg’s interpretations, as for example in Human Nature, Election, and History,21 can be appropriated by process theology as valuable contributions to such an open-ended theology of history.

Process theology is clearer in its call for a theology of history than in any proposal it can make to meet this need. Scattered contributions have been made.22 But the best work in this tradition has been done by Whitehead himself.

Whitehead’s theology of history is entitled Adventures of Ideas. It was not written as a single book but developed out of several lectures and sets of lectures. Accordingly it might be more properly called the material for a theology of history than the theology itself.

To speak of a theology of history betrays my conclusion that Whitehead is to be considered a Christian thinker despite the fact that he does not clearly identify himself as such. He is a Christian thinker in much the same way that Kant and Hegel are. None of them, as philosophers, merely provide an abstract philosophical conceptuality which theologians are then able to use. The very fact that they are not professionally committed to supporting the faith contributes to the Christian authenticity of what they say. All three were deeply shaped by Christianity in their childhood and youth; all wrestled with Jesus Christ in their philosophical work and attributed a central role to him; all rejected the orthodoxies of their times; all contributed to the refashioning of Christianity. This, I take it, is the proper work of a truly free Christian thinker.

The first requisite to having a theology of history is belief in freedom. If there is no freedom, the enterprise makes no sense. Things simply are what they are, and evaluation and judgement are meaningless. There is no point in interpreting what is occurring, if that interpretation can have no effect upon behavior.

Preceding chapters have outlined features of Whitehead’s ontology that are relevant to this question. He sees every occasion of experience as arising out of its world, including that world, and being necessarily constituted by it. At the same time he sees every occasion as finally making a decision as to just how it shall include that world and be constituted by it.

At the human, historical level, the constituting elements include physical necessities, customs, habits, unquestioned opinions and coercion. Most of what happens most of the time can be largely understood as the working of these blind forces. But this is not the whole story. There are also human purposes which stand in tension with the given. Most of these are thwarted. But there are fortunate cases when the material at hand is shaped to the attainment of purpose. Whitehead gives the example of the control of fire, ‘which obediently to human purpose cooks and gives warmth.’ ‘In fact,’ he continues, ‘freedom of action is a primary human need. In modern thought the expression of this truth has taken the form of "the economic interpretation of history".’23

Human purposes are affected by ideas. Such ideas may be assimilated from the cultural matrix uncritically. As such they are part of the determinism of our situation. But ideas can also be abstracted from this matrix as possibilities for acceptance or rejection, and relevant new ideas can arise. In this role these function persuasively, and not coercively. These persuasive ideas, too, can inform purposes and lead to institutional embodiment.

The extent to which we are moved by persuasion rather than by the force of the constituting world is a measure of the extent to which we are free. Of course, there is no such thing as absolute freedom, and Whitehead does not deplore the role of the world in constituting us. Nevertheless, the expansion of freedom is a real gain in terms of which we can measure the advance and decline of history. It provides a principle for interpreting the meaning of historical movements, whether the end of history will be failure or consummation.

The expansion of freedom is both a matter of extending the areas of individual life in which we are free and of expanding the number of people who are free. Hence one main aspect of progress in the modern world has been the abolition of slavery. Whitehead studies this in some detail. He emphasizes that technology made possible a society in which the necessary work can be done without slavery. But he also stresses the role of Plato’s doctrine of the soul as this was assimilated into Christianity and later into humanism. It took two thousand years to achieve ‘the final inversion of sociological theory, from the presupposition of slavery to the presupposition of freedom’.24

This illustrates the complex relation between ideas and institutions. Plato did not contemplate a society without slaves despite the critique of slavery implicit in his doctrine. By the time this implication of his idea was realized in practice, the doctrine was losing acceptance among intellectuals, who were discussing Malthus and Hume and social Darwinism.

Despite the ironies inherent in this situation, Whitehead does believe that there has been real progress. He prefers the ideas of Plato to those of Malthus, Hume, and social Darwinism, but he prefers the implementation of Plato’s ideas to their abstract entertainment. He knows that the abolition of slavery does not constitute the full meaning of the Platonic -- Christian doctrine, but he takes satisfaction in the change that has occurred. ‘When all such qualifications have been made,’ he writes, ‘Freedom and Equality constitute an inevitable presupposition of modern political thought, with an admixture of subsequent lame qualification; while Slavery was a corresponding presupposition for the ancients, with their admixture of lame qualification.’25

Implicit in Whitehead’s analysis is a statement of his own intended contribution to human freedom and equality. Much of modern thought has abandoned not only the word soul but also any ontological grounding for the worth and dignity of human beings. Those who abolish the idea of the soul do not intend to encourage slavery, any more than Plato understood himself as the emancipator. But modern positivist and physicalist ideas, as they are widely assimilated and reshape the common sense of the West, will have unintended effects. This may not take two thousand years! It is important for an affirmation of the human soul congruent with our best contemporary knowledge to be introduced to challenge these implicitly dehumanizing ideas. Whitehead offers us such an anthropology.

For Whitehead freedom and equality belong together because the most important form of equality is the equality of freedom. This does not mean for him abstract freedom. Freedom should include legal rights, but it is certainly not exhausted by them. Freedom is always present in its inevitably limited way in concrete situations which are socially and economically as well as physically conditioned. The removal of barriers to freedom is always appropriate unless it causes greater loss of freedom somewhere else. In his argument for the enfranchisement of women he formulated his principle succinctly:

I base my adherence to the cause upon the old-fashioned formula of liberty: That is upon the belief that in the life of a rational being it is an evil when the circumstances affecting him are beyond his control, and are not amenable to his intelligent direction and comprehension. External constraint upon the rational self-direction of conduct is, indeed, inextricably interwoven in the nature of things. But wherever it exists, and is removable without some corresponding loss of liberty, it is evil, it is the enemy.26

III

In a general sense Whitehead is close to Metz in the conclusions which he draws from this anthropology. Metz wants all people fully to realize themselves as free subjects. Whitehead is equally concerned with the realization of freedom by all. Both are concerned to reduce the coercive factors in life as far as possible. But there are apparent differences as well.

In the first place Whitehead’s presentation is not obviously Christocentric. In the brief summary above, Plato appeared as the hero of the story. It would have been possible to summarize Whitehead’s views quite differently, showing the very central place he does in fact accord to Jesus in this story.27 But it is better to let the difference be manifest. Whitehead views the total course of events with commitments which, it is here claimed, are Christian. He sees the great, even central, importance of Jesus, but he is under no compulsion to emphasize this, and he examines carefully the contributions of others, Christians and not, to the realization of what Christians seek. This form of Christocentricity is completely open to all historical movements and sources.

In the second place Whitehead attributes to the history of thought relative independence in relation to the history of institutions. This involves some modification of the praxis model, although it certainly does not minimize the importance of practice. The interaction of idea and practice is fully dialectical for Whitehead.

But there are other differences between Whitehead and Metz which are more directly relevant for practice. Whitehead’s commitment to the increase of freedom does not stress the Christian point that God sides with the oppressed and that we are called to solidarity with them. The general support of freedom and equality lacks the pathos of the Christian affirmation and can too easily be appropriated within a bourgeois framework without breaking that structure. Nevertheless, the difference between Metz and Whitehead is not as great as may at first appear. Metz, on his side, denies that any one party or class should see itself as the subject of universal history;28 and Whitehead’s vision allows, even requires, an argument that supports the Christian concern for ‘the least’.

Whitehead calls for us so to act as to maximize the richness of experience of all. To do so is to remove unnecessary external constraints upon the rational self-direction of conduct. These unnecessary constraints do not operate chiefly upon the rich and powerful but upon the poor and oppressed.29 It is among them that there exists the greatest gap between the quality of experience now realized and what they are capable of realizing as circumstances change. Hence the call to maximize the quality of experience generally directs us primarily to changing the conditions that now constrain the oppressed. This would mean making possible sufficient food and other necessities on the basis of a degree and type of labor that is itself enriching rather than debilitating. It would mean also providing those stimuli which are most likely to lead to adventures of thought and feeling. And it would mean empowering those who are now powerless to take charge of their own destinies.

A moral problem arises as to the justification of expending energies for the increase of the freedom of the already privileged. It is often supposed that in general the lot of the poor can be improved only at the expense of the rich. In this case working with and for the rich can only function negatively with respect to the poor. The conclusion would be a severe condemnation of those of us, for example, who make our living as professors in First World universities seeking to help the privileged students who attend them.

Certainly there are many instances when the possessions of the rich must be redistributed if the poor are to gain significant freedom. But if we think of the enhancement of freedom and enrichment of experience as something quite different from the increase or preservation of material wealth -- and this difference is clear in the case of the rich, if not in that of the extremely poor -- then working for the true benefit of the privileged is in itself positive. Process theology favors images of change in which all grow in freedom and in a correlative richness of experience.

Such statements, however, are all too likely to encourage complacency with existing unjust structures of which our educational institutions are an example. Globally viewed, existing educational institutions function to increase the power of the rich at the expense of the poor. When they educate some of the poor, they separate those who are educated from the real needs of their fellows. For example, most education throughout the poorer nations directs its recipients to professional and bureaucratic jobs that are already oversupplied. It siphons off leadership from the peasant communities which are badly in need of help in organizing themselves so as to take their destinies into their own hands and improve the base of their life-support systems. It makes the powerless even more dependent on inaccessible centers of power. Ivan Illich’s shocking call for ‘de-schooling society’30 is in fact a reasoned and relevant proposal for dealing with a disastrous injustice. As the world currently understands ‘education’ it will not be by extending it but by curtailing it that progress toward justice will be possible.

If those of us engaged in teaching the privileged are to justify our work, it cannot be only by claiming that we enrich the experience of our students. That enrichment must be an appropriate enrichment, one that arouses an awareness of the real situation of the world and elicits solidarity with the oppressed. This need not preclude the assimilation of the great riches of the Western cultural tradition, but it should introduce the student to the spirit of critical transcendence of that tradition which is its most valuable heritage and which today points to a global horizon that the tradition has neglected or obscured.

By thinking through the meaning of our legacy, process theologians are led, no less than others, to the view that the special concern of the Christian, as of God, is with the liberation of the oppressed. The natural emphasis of process thought, however, is on finding ways for all to grow together in freedom and richness of experience. Even the service of others is best conceived as a way in which through responsible expression of concern for others, the freedom and quality of experience of the server is enhanced. The tension between this quest for mutuality and the centrality of the cross should not be concealed. It is a tension internal to the life of one who lives in the spirit of process theology.31

There is a fourth difference of equal practical importance. It can be illustrated by the problem of Israel which was posed before as a challenge to Metz. His form of political theology seems to call for an immediate solidarity with the oppressed, wherever they are, and regardless of the circumstances of the oppression. Whitehead’s does not. In his view we should seek to remove obstacles to freedom whenever their removal does not reduce freedom elsewhere. This involves a rational, calculative approach which seems alien to Metz and which is certainly subject to distorted use. Every revolution can be opposed on the grounds that it will adversely affect someone’s freedom, and arguments about how many will be affected how much and in what ways can function as a serious impediment to the struggle for justice.

Nevertheless, process theologians have no way to escape this need for calculative reflection and all the ambiguities it introduces. However oppressive the Arab people find the Jewish hegemony in Israel, we cannot immediately support their struggle for liberation without considering the consequences that would follow from its success. The contributions which the Jewish people make, often through their original and profound ideas, to the global extension and deepening of freedom and the horrendous injustices they have suffered over centuries at our Christian hands weigh heavily in our considerations. There are times when, with fear and dread, we will tolerate some measure of oppression for the sake of goals that are ultimately contributory to freedom, although we will not forget the self-deception with which we allow inescapable limitations on freedom to pass over into unnecessary cruelty.

In his account of the movement toward the abolition of slavery, Whitehead faced this problem squarely, In his view the long delay in the abolition of slavery after the introduction of the idea of the human soul does not reflect only human willfulness and stubbornness in the pursuit of unjustified self-interest. It also reflects the fact that the extension of freedom and equality are not the only or even the most fundamental values. Even more fundamental is the survival of human community. More concretely, Whitehead speculates that the price for the abolition of slavery in the Roman Empire might well have been too high. He asks:

Would Rome have been destroyed by a crusade for the abolition of slavery in the time of Cicero or in the time of Augustus? Throughout the whole period of classical civilization the foundations of social order could scarcely sustain the weight upon them -- the wars between states, the surrounding barbarians, the political convulsions, the evils of the slave system. In the age from the birth of Cicero to the accession of Augustus to undisputed power, the whole structure almost collapsed, before it had finished its appointed task. Even earlier, it had nearly met its fate, and later by a few centuries came the final collapse. It is impossible to doubt the effect of any vigorous effort for the immediate abolition of the only social system men knew. It may be better that the heavens should fall, but it is only folly to ignore the fact that they will fall.32

Political theologians seem, on the whole, to be willing for the heavens to fall.33 Whitehead judged otherwise, and in this judgement most process theologians are likely, reluctantly, to follow. We need to appreciate the positive contributions of existing social structures as well as to be sensitive to their failures to embody the principles of freedom and equality. We need to recognize that no society will embody these perfectly. Hence, along with prophetic denunciation of the injustices which every society involves, we need to share in the consideration of the real alternatives confronting the society and in support for the best of the imperfect options available.

There is no doubt that this point can encourage support for existing structures which in fact should be overthrown. What now functions can always claim to have proven itself, whereas the proposals of revolutionaries have not. We must recognize the danger that ‘realism’ can be used to justify what in fact it does not justify. But we must recognize the danger that the abandonment of realism can lead to unjustifiable projects also. In the spirit of Niebuhr, we must hope that prophetic passion is not destroyed by realistic appraisals of the possible. It is the task of the Christian imagination to generate visions of what is actually possible that can give realism to efforts guided by the passion for justice. That imagination must be disciplined by a knowledge of political, social and economic theory. But it must not be restricted to the patterns into which the thought of the past has been channeled.34

IV

Chapters Three, Four and Five offered supplementation of what has been done by the German political theologians from the perspective of process theology. Chapters Six and Seven have criticized features of Metz’s position and proposed an alternative. The net effect may appear to be the claim of superiority, for process thought over German political theology. That would be unfortunate.

As a process theologian I do believe that this tradition can contribute insights to the development and enlargement of political theology. I have argued this in some detail. But the deeper thesis of the book is the need for process theology for its own sake and for the sake of the gospel to become a political theology, a need unlikely to have been realized without the stimulus and challenge of the theologies of liberation and of political theology.

Looking back, many of us who stand in the tradition of process thought must recognize that quite unconsciously our work has largely expressed our position as white, middle-class, North American males. No doubt it still does. Even when the distortion introduced into our perceptions by this sociological situation was pointed out to us, we were slow to acknowledge it. Even now we tend to universalize judgements that are in fact shaped by quite particular and limited cultural experience. To force us to further self-criticism we need more external criticism, especially from Black, political and Latin American theologians.

The preceding chapters have indicated many disagreements in detail as to how a political theology is best formulated. They have accepted wholeheartedly the conviction that the call of the Christian is to participate in God’s work toward the indivisible salvation of the whole world. No less inclusive a goal can be truly Christian in our day. The political theologians are also entirely correct in holding that commitment to this goal entails involvement in all dimensions of social and public life. It cannot be appropriately sought through an individualistic approach. Individuals must be called to share in the task. They must be assured of God’s forgiving love in Jesus Christ. But such assurance that we are justified is not the full salvation for which we hope. We remain sinners bound up with a suffering and oppressed creation. It is for the whole world that God experienced death in Jesus and continues to suffer with us.

To understand Christian faith in this way is a great gain, but it is barely a beginning. Those Christians who agree that it is the indivisible salvation of the whole world to which we are committed may still disagree fundamentally as to what is required for its salvation. Some believe that the defense of Christendom against atheistic Marxism is the most basic requirement. Others hold that the overthrow of capitalism is the absolute need, even if this entails the universal hegemony of the Soviet Union. Still others see hope only in the destruction of all forms of industrial civilization and the return to much simpler forms of social organization. The vast majority, of course, adopt none of these extreme views, but this does not mean that there is a consensus around some middle position.

Direct debate between advocates of alternative scenarios is rarely fruitful. But Christians can generally agree on one further step. If we are concerned with the salvation of the whole world, we have learned that we should listen to the various subjects of this salvation. We are learning that what has been seen from the perspective of white North Atlantic males is only a small part of what needs to be seen. Proposed solutions to global problems which are based only on the experience of the recently dominant group are unlikely to lead to the indivisible salvation of the whole world.

When the door is opened to a plurality of perspectives, confusion must be expected. The experience of Blacks in the United States has been quite different from that of peasants in Latin America. Both differ from that of North Atlantic women. As these voices were heard in the late sixties and throughout the seventies, the claims they made upon white, North Atlantic males seemed to be in marked conflict. Adjustments to one set of demands might be opposed by another group. But with surprising rapidity the three groups have moved toward a common front, one which brings a richer contribution to the whole than any could individually have made. Much of the credit here goes to the Theology of the Americas movement.35

But the work has just begun. We must see the world’s reality and needs in a way that is informed by the experiences of all its people. Blacks, women and Latin Americans have much to contribute to this -- but there are others. For example, we must not forget the experience of Jews who have suffered more than any others at the hand of Christians through nineteen centuries. A global vision that unites many groups of Christians at the expense of continued anti-Judaism will not do. Again, the flight of homosexuals from Cuba reminds us that a society committed to many forms of liberation may yet oppress some of its minorities. There are also the young and the old, the disabled and the emotionally disturbed, the geniuses and the free spirits.

 

 

of process theology. Chapters Six and Seven have criticized features of Metz’s position and proposed an alternative. The net effect may appear to be the claim of superiority, for process thought over German political theology. That would be unfortunate.

As a process theologian I do believe that this tradition can contribute insights to the development and enlargement of political theology. I have argued this in some detail. But the deeper thesis of the book is the need for process theology for its own sake and for the sake of the gospel to become a political theology, a need unlikely to have been realised without the stimulus and challenge of the theologies of liberation and of political theology.

Looking back, many of us who stand in the tradition of process thought must recognise that quite unconsciously our work has largely expressed our position as white, middle-class, North American males. No doubt it still does. Even when the distortion introduced into our perceptions by this sociological situation was pointed out to us, we were slow to acknowledge it. Even now we tend to universalise judgements that are in fact shaped by quite particular and limited cultural experience. To force us to further self-criticism we need more external criticism, especially from Black, political and Latin American theologians.

The preceding chapters have indicated many disagreements in detail as to how a political theology is best formulated. They have accepted wholeheartedly the conviction that the call of the Christian is to participate in God’s work toward the indivisible salvation of the whole world. No less inclusive a goal can be truly Christian in our day. The political theologians are also entirely correct in holding that commitment to this goal entails involvement in all dimensions of social and public life. It cannot be appropriately sought through an individualistic approach. Individuals must be called to share in the task. They must be assured of God’s forgiving love in Jesus Christ. But such assurance that we are justified is not the full salvation for which we hope. We remain sinners bound up with a suffering and oppressed creation. It is for the whole world that God experienced death in Jesus and continues to suffer with us.

To understand Christian faith in this way is a great gain, but it is barely a beginning. Those Christians who agree that it is the indivisible salvation of the whole world to which we are committed may still disagree fundamentally as to what is required for its salvation. Some believe that the defence of Christendom against atheistic Marxism is the most basic requirement. Others hold that the overthrow of capitalism is the absolute need, even if this entails the universal hegemony of the Soviet Union. Still others see hope only in the destruction of all forms of industrial civilisation and the return to much simpler forms of social organisation. The vast majority, of course, adopt none of these extreme views, but this does not mean that there is a consensus around some middle position.

Direct debate between advocates of alternative scenarios is rarely fruitful. But Christians can generally agree on one further step. If we are concerned with the salvation of the whole world, we have learned that we should listen to the various subjects of this salvation. We are learning that what has been seen from the perspective of white North Atlantic males is only a small part of what needs to be seen. Proposed solutions to global problems which are based only on the experience of the recently dominant group are unlikely to lead to the indivisible salvation of the whole world.

When the door is opened to a plurality of perspectives, confusion must be expected. The experience of Blacks in the United States has been quite different from that of peasants in Latin America. Both differ from that of North Atlantic women. As these voices were heard in the late sixties and throughout the seventies, the claims they made upon white, North Atlantic males seemed to be in marked conflict. Adjustments to one set of demands might be opposed by another group. But with surprising rapidity the three groups have moved toward a common front, one which brings a richer contribution to the whole than any could individually have made. Much of the credit here goes to the Theology of the Americas movement.35

But the work has just begun. We must see the world’s reality and needs in a way that is informed by the experiences of all its people. Blacks, women and Latin Americans have much to contribute to this -- but there are others. For example, we must not forget the experience of Jews who have suffered more than any others at the hand of Christians through nineteen centuries. A global vision that unites many groups of Christians at the expense of continued anti-Judaism will not do. Again, the flight of homosexuals from Cuba reminds us that a society committed to many forms of liberation may yet oppress some of its minorities. There are also the young and the old, the disabled and the emotionally disturbed, the geniuses and the free spirits.

There are other vast groups to which we need to be attentive. Most of the people of the world are formed in their perceptions and hopes by religious traditions other than Judaism and Christianity. What they see is quite different from what we see. In the twentieth century, dialogue with representatives of other traditions has advanced greatly. But we have hardly begun to integrate what we are learning there with what the liberation theologians are teaching us.

Still more difficult but not less important is to consider the perspectives of the voiceless. Unless catastrophe intervenes, there will be future generations of human beings to whom our present policies are bequeathing an impoverished planet. There are other creatures with whom we are now sharing the planet to whose welfare many humanitarians appear quite indifferent. A global transformation that is insensitive to these voiceless ones would not be the salvation of the whole world!

The World Council of Churches has provided a forum for many voices including those who would speak for the voiceless, Slowly and painfully it moves toward a vision of a just, participatory, and sustainable society. Gradually it brings its own participants to the realization of how deeply we will need to rethink our theology if we are to contribute to a saved world.36 The work has just begun.

Individual thinkers, of course, are in the vanguard. Among those who are sensitive to the widest range of experiences and interests women are conspicuous. Rosemary Ruether has incorporated the concerns of women, Blacks and Latin Americans. She has also dealt passionately with Christian anti-Judaism.37 And she, like many women, is deeply aware of the close relationship between human oppression and environmental destruction.38 Her capacity to move toward a creative synthesis informed by all of this is encouraging for the future course of political theology.

The close relation between oppression of human beings and exploitation of nature has been richly documented by Carolyn Merchant in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution.39 In particular she shows the anti-feminism that was involved in the shift of the image of nature from organism to machine with the accompanying concern to dominate nature. Merchant shows that a fundamental philosophical idea lies at the root of modern science and technological society. The many particular problems we face cannot be dealt with satisfactorily unless this, too, is challenged. She speaks here of ‘the mechanistic view of nature, developed by the seventeenth-century natural philosophers and based on a Western mathematical tradition going back to Plato’.40 ‘This view assumes that nature can be divided into parts and that the parts can be rearranged to create other species of being.’41

Against this view she opposes holism, of which the most important expression today is the science of ecology. In this perspective ‘the parts . take their meaning from the whole. Each particular part is defined by and dependent on the total context’.42 In this ecological view of a nature which includes human beings, nothing is wholly self-subsistent. Nothing satisfies the definition of a substance as ‘a thing existing in such a manner that it has need of no other thing in order to exist’.43 Each thing is what it is by virtue of its relationship to other things. With such an understanding we can see and experience nature as alive and all living things as having their own purposes and claims and values independently of human interests. We will again exist in a world of subjects rather than a world of objects, and such a world will call for a new type of science and a changed role for technology.44 Compared with such a revolution the issues separating liberals and Marxists are relatively minor.

Much in the experience of Blacks, of Latin Americans, of Africans, of Hindus, and of Buddhists, as well as of women, favors this ecological view of nature against the mechanistic one. There is, therefore, some prospect that others seeking their own liberation may join the more far-sighted women in the recognition of the need to challenge the fundamental ideas on which our scientific-technological society has been built. The chief obstacle here is the real urgency of political action combined with impatience with speculative philosophy. But political theology cannot realize its goals without reopening these basic questions of the intellectual life. The effort to solve problems within a system so designed as inevitably to create such problems is doomed to frustration. The system itself must be uprooted beginning with its deep hold upon the common sense and imagination of each of us.

Although many ‘conservative’ Christians seem to be committed to the mechanistic view of nature with the accompanying ‘supernaturalism’ which separates God from the world, what they are conserving has little to do with the Bible. The Biblical vision has much to offer as an alternative to both mechanism and the organicism which it displaced. It offers us a picture of a world of interconnected and interdependent creatures in which human beings have particular but not exclusive privileges and responsibilities. The unity of this world is not that of an organism but of a creation. That is, the world has its unity in its relation to God. Finally, this relation is understood in terms of God’s incarnation. In Christ God is the light and life of the world. There is no world apart from the divine enlightening and enlivening presence within it. But there is also no God, remote and self-existent, apart from concern for and action within the world. The Biblical vision of the world and of the relation of God and the world is not mechanical but ecological.

This Biblical vision comes to its ecstatic climax in Paul’s apostrophe to universal salvation. Not all of us today will be able to take it as prosaic fact. But it has not lost its power to inspire as well as to mystify.

For I reckon that the sufferings we now endure bear no comparison with the splendor, as yet unrevealed, which is in store for us. For the created universe waits with eager expectation for God’s sons to be revealed. It was made the victim of frustration, not by its own choice, but because of him who made it so, yet always there was hope, because the universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and enter upon the liberty and splendor of the children of God. Up to the present, we know, the whole created universe groans in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth. Not only so, but even we, to whom the Spirit is given as firstfruits of the harvest to come, are groaning inwardly while we wait for Cod to make us his sons and set our whole body free. For we have been saved, though only in hope. Now to see is no longer to hope: why should a man endure and wait for what he already sees? But if we hope for something we do nor yet see, then, in waiting for it, we show our endurance.45

 

Notes

1.Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. David Smith (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), p. 6.

2. Ibid.

3. Karl Rahner and Johann B. Metz, The Courage to Pray, trans. Sarah O’Brien Twohig (New York: Crossroads, 1981), p. 27.

4. Metz, Faith in History and Society, p. 5.

5. Ibid., p.6.

6. Ibid., p. 7.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p. 4.

9. Ibid., p.68.

10. Ibid., p. 161.

11. Ibid., p. 6.

12. Ibid., p. 55.

13. Ibid., p.7.

14. For full-length treatment of the understanding of Christianity presented in this paragraph see my Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia, Pa. Westminster Press, 1975).

15. Johann Baptist Meta, ‘The Church’s social function in the light of a "Political theology’’, trans. Theodore L. Westow, in Faith and the World of Politics, Concilium, vol.36 (New York Paulist Press, 1968), p. 14.

16. Ibid., p. 18.

17. That Metz is fully sensitive to this is clear in his ‘Ökumene nach Auschwitz; Zum Verhältnis von Christen und Juden in Deutschland’, Gott nach Auschwitz, ed. Eugen Kogon and Johann Baptist Metz (Freiburg Herder, 1978), pp. 121-44. This has been translated into English by Peter Mann as ‘Christians and Jews after Auschwitz’. See Johann Baptist Metz, The Emergent Church (New York, Crossroad, 1981), pp. 17-35.

18. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952).

19.Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York Harper & Bros., 1959).

20. Arend Van Leeuwen, Christianity in World History (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1964).

21.Wolfhart Pannenberg, Human Nature, Election, and History (Philadelphia, Pa. Westminster Press, 1977).

22. I contributed a book depicting history in terms of the emergence of structures of existence. John B. Cobb, Jr., The Structure of Christian Existence (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1967).

23. Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York The Free Press, 1933), p. 84.

24. Ibid., p. 26.

25. Ibid., p.15.

26. Alfred North Whitehead, ‘Liberty and the enfranchisement of women’, Process Studies vol. 7 No. I (spring 1977), p. 37.

27. See chapter six in John B. Cobb. Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: an Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia, Pa. Westminster Press, 1976).

28. Metz, Faith in History and Society, p. 116.

29. See Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p.95.

30. Ivan D. Illich, Deschooling Society (New York Harper & Row, 1971).

31. Daniel Day Williams, The Spirit and the Forms of Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).

32.Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, pp. 25-6.

33. Note, however, the sober realism of Jürgen Moltmann in ‘An open letter to Jose Miguez Bonino’, Christianity and Crisis (29 March 1976), p.60. ‘The necessity of a speedy and radical transformation of the socio-economic conditions can be understood by everyone as indisputable. But what use is the best revolutionary theory when the historical subject of the revolution is not at hand or is not yet ready?’

34. See Dorothee Sölle’s call for fantasy in Beyond Mere Obedience, trans. Lawrence W. Denef (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg, 1970); and Rubem Alves, Tomorrow ‘s Child: Imagination, Creativity, and the Rebirth of Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).

35. James Cone, the leading Black theologian, has gained a deep appreciation of the oppression of women and has found real solidarity with Third World theologians. ‘The Gospel and the liberation of the poor’, The Christian Century (18 Feb. 1981), pp. 162-6. Recently he has tentatively agreed to take part in a new proposed Christian-Buddhist dialogue.

36. See the report on ‘Humanity, nature, and God’ of the 1979 World Council of Churches Conference at MIT on Faith, Science and the Future. Paul Albrecht, ed., Faith and Science in an Unjust World (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1980), vol. 2, pp. 28-36. Note the inclusion of comments on what can be learned from other religious traditions.

37. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faith and Fratricide, the Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism, (New York: Seabury Press, 1974).

38. Rosemary Radford Ruether, New Women/New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation (New York: Seabury Press, 1975).

39.Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper & Row, 1980).

40. Ibid., p. 290.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid., p. 293.

43.René Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, Part 1:51. The translation is from Descartes: Philosophical Writings, ed. and trans. Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Thomas Geach (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1954), p. 192. In this passage Descartes recognizes that only God fully meets the requirements. He defines other substances as requiring nothing but God for their existence. For process theology God is nor a substance either.

44. Birch and I have tried to contribute to this project in L. Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, Jr., The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community (Cambridge: University Press, 1981).

45. Romans 8:18-25. New English Bible.

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