A Critical View of Inherited 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..

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 20, 1980, pp. 194-197. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Conversion to global survival concerns did not uproot Dr. Cobb from his Christian faith. It did make him view the historical forms of faith more critically, for he could not doubt that Christian doctrine had contributed to the insensitivity to the nonhuman world that now threatens to destroy the human world as well.

The ‘60s were a shattering time for many of us. We were taught by blacks, Indians and Chicanos to read American history in a new way. The war in Vietnam forced us to look from unaccustomed perspectives at the role played by the United States in international affairs. On the one hand, this was for me a painful experience, forcing me to recognize the extent to which my identity was that of a white American, and making me aware of the extreme ambiguity of that identity.

On the other hand, the decade was not so difficult for me theologically. Whereas the radical theologies and the death-of-God theologies were threatening to many, it was all too easy for me to see these movements as attacking forms of Christian belief from which I had been weaned in my graduate school days at Chicago. Of course, I knew that my own form of faith was also being challenged, but the main impact I felt was a heightened responsibility to make clear that Christian faith in God did not depend on those ideas which were being most vigorously and justifiably attacked. My understanding of Christian faith was maturing, but I was not inwardly pressed in new directions. Indeed, my style of theology, which had been viewed with suspicion and contempt by the reigning neo-orthodoxy at the beginning of the ‘60s, was taken more seriously at the end.

Something Happened

It was not until the summer of 1969 that my complacency was shattered and I went through a conversion experience. As with many such conversions, the changes appeared more drastic at the time than they do in retrospect. Nevertheless, something did happen to me, and my work in the ‘70s was different because of it.

Up until then, despite my painful awareness of the many injustices in global society and the responsibility of the United States for some of them, I had assumed that the global movement which had eventuated in independence for so many countries was leading to their economic development also. The task, I thought, was to encourage greater generosity on the part of developed nations so as to speed up the process of development elsewhere. My son, Cliff, who was then 18 years old, had earlier come to a deep awareness of the global problem and had prodded me from time to time to think again. But until the summer of 1969 I had assimilated the new data he provided into the old world view.

That summer, quite abruptly, I was forced to the awareness that the structures of society and the patterns of development which I had taken largely for granted are leading humanity toward global self-destruction. Until then I had supposed that, despite all the evils in the world -- oppression, war, torture, starvation -- humanity had time to work toward their solution. That summer I realized that the very ways in which "progress" was being made -- e.g., dominant development policies as well as economic programs in the industrialized world -- were all part of the total network of processes that were destroying the basis of human life on the planet. The issue of human survival seemed so overwhelming in its importance that I felt I must reorient my priorities at once.

My first practical response was to work with others at the School of Theology at Claremont to organize a conference in April 1970 to relate theology to this issue. Our topic was "A Theology of Survival." My little book Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology grew out of a paper I wrote for that conference as well as other speeches I was making in those days. But it was clearly not enough to call attention to the problem and to point out the needed theological changes. Proposals for action were required also, but the search for appropriate proposals led to discouragement.

While the majority of writers continued to suppose that no real changes were needed, the minority who shared my view that the world was heading for disaster had little to offer in terms of constructive suggestions. We were dismissed by most as prophets of doom, and too often those few who heard what we were saying fell into despair. Neither complacency nor despair could contribute to the needed repentance.

It seemed then, and it seems now, that we must have images of a hopeful future. Some of us hunted earnestly for someone who might have something positive to say. We were shocked to find so little. We found that a tiny handful of lonely economists were discussing alternatives to a growth society. A California group was making thoughtful plans for what the state could be like in the year 2000. And a visionary architect in Arizona was projecting architectural ecologies (or "arcologies") which could use the earth’s resources more frugally while providing a more humane context for urban life. We held a second conference in May 1972 on "Alternatives to Catastrophe" at which the economist Herman Daly and the architect Paolo Soleri shared their hopeful visions with us.

A Basic Continuity

Nothing has happened in the years since 1969 to change my mind with respect to the importance of the new realization that dawned upon me then. A manuscript on explanation and causation in history which my conversion led me to lay aside 90 per cent completed still sits on a shelf. I have continued to speak and write and participate in conferences where it has been possible to share my concerns. The School of Theology at Claremont has tried to integrate a sense of the global crisis into its curriculum and its community life. For several years I had the rare opportunity to work with Jitsuo Morikawa, who led the American Baptists into a nationwide program on "Evangelistic Life Styles" which took seriously and realistically our global context and crisis. Last summer at MIT I participated in the World Council of Churches’ Conference on Faith, Science and the Future, which was committed to envisioning a just, participatory and sustainable society.

As I look back now, it is clear that my conversion, though real, falls within a more basic continuity. For one thing, conversion to global survival concerns did not uproot me from my Christian faith. It did make me view the historical forms of faith more critically, for I could not doubt that Christian doctrine had contributed to the insensitivity to the nonhuman world that now threatens to destroy the human world as well. But as I explored the archaic and Eastern doctrines to which others in the environmental movement sometimes turned, I found them inadequate. To me it seemed, and seems, that Christianity has much to learn from others, but that an enriched and transformed Christianity can best guide us through our crisis.

In the second place, I discovered that the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, which since graduate school days had been so important in shaping my formulations of Christian faith, already contained the sensitivities called for in the new situation. Indeed, passages in Whitehead and in the writings of my teacher, Charles Hartshorne, which I had previously passed over without comprehending, now leaped out at me. Instead of needing to look elsewhere for a way of articulating my thought after my conversion, I felt a fresh excitement in returning to the same sources. I became more of a Whiteheadian than before.

Thinking Holistically

In the third place, although my immediate response to the conversion was to focus on the global issue in a way that shunted many theological and philosophical questions to one side, I came rapidly to realize that it is precisely the separation of issues and topics from one another that is the deepest cause of our global sickness. We must think holistically, breaking down the barriers between the disciplines. The most abstract thought is often the most concretely relevant when it is truly understood and appropriated, and efforts to be immediately relevant often do more harm than good.

Hence most of the projects that commanded my attention before the conversion have seemed to me appropriate to take up again in the past decade. I am convinced that the tasks now confronting the Christian thinker are vast. I am troubled that so much of the energy of professional Christian theologians seems currently to be invested in technical, historical and methodological questions. These are important, but when they become absorbing, this importance becomes invisible.

I am glad that blacks and women and Latin Americans have, throughout the decade been demanding that theology be so formulated as to call for and advance human liberation. I cannot identify with any one form of liberation theology, and insofar as they are separated from the technical, historical and methodological questions dealt with by the "establishment," these theologies suffer incompleteness. But I can hardly doubt that it is in these forms that theology today has authenticity and vitality. We cannot move toward global salvation without hopeful images of the future, and no image is hopeful which does not picture all groups as able to shape their own destinies. If we cannot think past the conflicting goals of different groups to the world in which their diverse interests can be reconciled, too much energy will be spent on bickering among those who should be allies in a common struggle. It is not yet clear whether we are able to grasp or be grasped by the hopeful images we need.

Even this is not enough. The thinking that could guide us out of our morass must be integrative thinking, not only about social goals but also in relation to the whole range of the sciences. Many of the sciences need new models both for their separate work arid for their relation to one another. They continue, in too many cases, to dehumanize the sensibilities and imaginations of those who study them. This effect is associated with the too-great readiness of scientific practitioners to sell their skills and their discoveries for uses that reinforce patterns of global oppression. A better model for quantum physics or the sought-for unification of quantum and relativity theory would not be merely an interesting theoretical development but a stage in the reshaping of the human mind that could help to free us from the enervating fragmentation that now blocks creative responses. In short, Christians should not be indifferent to the imaginative vision of such theoretical physicists as David Bohm.

Finding the Way

In addition to the relation of Christian thought to the sciences, we must turn our attention to the relation of Christian thought to the other great religious Ways of humankind. We live in a world in which we Christians can consider our Way only one Way among others, and yet we cannot give up the claim to a certain ultimacy and universality with respect to that Way which is Jesus Christ. This is for me a central theological problem, and my book Christ in a Pluralistic Age was an attempt to deal with it.

Whereas during the ‘60s I thought in terms of an ultimate choice between different Ways, in the ‘70s I have been trying to think past such a decision. I want to see how the parochial Christian Way we have inherited can be transformed, in faithfulness to Christ, into a Way which includes the truth of other Ways, and can therefore come to be what it now is not -- the Way.

My work on this problem has been chiefly in relation to Mahayana Buddhism, and my encounter with the great thinkers of that tradition has been, next to the global crisis to which I have referred, the greatest source of change in my thought. The truth of Buddhism provided me with a second perspective from which to view our inherited theology critically, but thus far it has confirmed me in my faith in Christ and also in my conviction of the continuing fruitfulness of Whitehead’s philosophy for responding to crucial issues of our time.

No one in seminary education can have been unaffected in the ‘70s by the surge of women into ministry and by the theological issues that women are raising. The feminist challenge to inherited Christian teaching may be more fundamental than that of the global crisis or other religious Ways. I have not given this challenge the sustained attention I have devoted to the other two, partly because the task is being ably carried on by women theologians. But I cannot speak of how my mind has changed in the ‘70s without testifying to the repeated jolts I have received from this quarter. Step by step I have been forced to realize how very patriarchal indeed our tradition has been, at levels far deeper than language, and to how great an extent my own thinking had been unconsciously shaped by masculine biases. Still, I have concluded here too that a transformed Christianity is more able to guide us than a new feminist religion, and that Whitehead’s philosophy is a fruitful aid in overcoming the masculine bias of our heritage.

My conviction of the continued fruitfulness of Whitehead’s philosophy has deepened along with my awareness that the tasks confronting Christian thought are far beyond the capacities of any one person. To encourage wide participation, David Griffin and I established the Center for Process Studies. Since 1973, the center has been a major part of my life. Its function is to stimulate interreligious, intercultural and interdisciplinary reflection aiming toward more inclusive modes of thought. It has sponsored conferences with Buddhists, Vedantists, Chinese philosophers, biologists, neurophysiologists, physicists, political philosophers and feminists, as well as with Christian ethicists, theologians and biblical scholars. Conferences are now planned on aesthetics, the Holocaust and education. There have been some encouraging spin-offs. The new patterns of thinking needed for our time cannot be stage-managed by anyone.

To place Christian thinking in the straitjacket of church theology is a serious mistake. Christians should think in the service of all creation and in relation to the deepest challenges to the gospel. Such thought could, of course, be understood as "church theology," but the tendency of that rubric is to focus attention upon the traditions and current life of the church in a way that is too limiting. Nevertheless, Christians must be concerned about the church, and quite specifically about those particular denominations and congregations with which they are involved. I have been deeply concerned about the disease of the church at a time when it has such remarkable opportunities for global leadership. It seems today that in order to elicit vitality and sacrificial commitment, American churches must preach idolatry. That is, they must call for wholehearted devotion to quite fragmentary truths and goals.

Some churches refuse to do this. They remain open to the wider range of truth and formulate more inclusive goals. But these churches are not able to present a sufficiently convincing vision of what faith is, or of purposes worth living for, to evoke more than fragmentary commitment. The tendency in these churches -- the ones with which I am most closely associated -- is to identify a number of worthwhile goals and to devise a variety of loosely related programs and strategies for moving toward them. But the skills these churches require and the conceptualities they use to understand what they are doing have only a vague relation to Christian faith.

We need total devotion to that which is worthy of total devotion -- that is, to God as related to all things. As a church we lack the vision or the understanding to evoke that devotion. In large part the fault lies in the failure of us Christian theologians to deal adequately with the intellectual and cultural issues of our time. Hence my concern for the church leads me to redouble my efforts to encourage more unifying modes of thought and to wrestle with the meaning of Christian doctrine in that context.

But this concern has led me also to try occasionally to deal directly with the meaning of a holistic faith for the practical day-by-day life of Christian churches. I have spoken and written on spirituality and published a booklet on theology and pastoral care. But the task here too is vast, and I can personally contribute very little. I am pleased that those most directly dealing with the practice of professional ministry and the life of Christian churches are expressing a renewed sense of urgency to achieve Christian integrity at a level deeper than the verbal. I look to others for leadership but hope to contribute what I can.

An Ecological Model

I count myself fortunate that through much of this decade I have had a happy collaboration with the Australian biologist Charles Birch. Apart from him, the work of the Center for Process Studies with leading biologists and physicists would have been very difficult to initiate. He is chiefly responsible for the conference which resulted in the publication of Mind in Nature. Birch shares with me both the Christian faith and the influence of Whitehead’s philosophy, as well as keen concern about the global disaster toward which the still-dominant trends are leading us.

We are now finishing a joint manuscript tentatively titled The Liberation of Life: From Cell to Community. We want to show that philosophy can help biologists to develop an ecological model of living things that will both be more fruitful scientifically and give more appropriate guidance to ethics and social policy. We believe that our book points to a way of thinking of God that can help to enliven Christian faith as well. It is indeed a dangerous matter in these days of specialization to deal with so many fields, but for all its limitations the book embodies the effort to attain to a more holistic vision. I hope it will encourage others to carry on that effort.