What Shall We Do About “God”?

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 is a Baccalaureate talk given at Chapman University, May 18, 2007. Permission has been given for use by the author. This material was prepared for Religion-Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Both the East and the West have largely abandoned their religious traditions. There are severe limitations to these traditions, but their abandonment is not promising. Dr. Cobb discusses the challenge in terms of Process Theology. Following Jesus today requires complete openness to the best thinking of our times, both religiously and scientifically.

1. "God" the Enemy.

Somewhere in the widespread preference for "spirituality" over "religion" there is a revulsion toward "God." Such a revulsion is healthy. "God" has meant many things, and most of them harm more than they help.

Beginning with the evolutionary controversies in the late nineteenth century, "God" has symbolized, for many scientists, opposition to the best scientific theories. "God" justifies trumping empirical evidence with ancient writings. "God" is one who intervenes in ways that deny universality to scientific laws. This "God" is truly the enemy of science.

For many ordinary people "God" is associated with guilt, especially for natural sexual feelings and actions. "God" has laid down rules of conduct and even about desire that people know they do not observe. If their upbringing has been religious, even if they cease to believe in this "God," they may have difficulty freeing themselves from lingering feelings of shame and guilt. They carry this psychological damage with them. If their upbringing has not been tainted by this "God," they remain repelled by "Him".

When the ecological crisis gained attention in the late sixties, people found that "God" was the enemy of nature as well. "God" had desacralized the world and given human beings the right to subdue and exploit the earth. "God" directed attention only to history and to the world beyond.

Those who seek to end war often find "God" to be an enemy. "For God and country" is a common slogan, and the close association of God with nation has permeated Western civilization and Western imperialism for centuries. It makes the critical assessment of the actions of one’s nation difficult. It enhances the mystique that leads young men to volunteer for war. When nations, or groups within nations, struggle against one another, religious differences between them provide additional justification.

Those who seek justice also find "God" to be an enemy. Marxists complain that believers expect "pie in the sky by and by" in exchange for acquiescing in injustice here and now. There is a widespread sense, even apart from post-mortem expectations, that the given order in any society has been established by "God."

This sense that the given order is willed by "God" is further intensified by the idea that whatever happens is willed by "God." Probably no one really believes that God is "omnipotent" in this sense, but the idea can reappear as an excuse for inaction in the face of evil. If "God" wants things changed, "God" will change them. As creatures we have no responsibility to bring about a better world.

The omnipotent "God" evokes revulsion as well. When one experiences acute personal injustice or painful bereavement and supposes this was willed by "God," the healthiest response is either to be angry with "God" or to deny "God" altogether. Probably more people have rejected "God" because they could not affirm the "God" who causes such suffering than for any other reason.

2. The Limitations of Atheism

The solution to this problem would seem to be to just get rid of "God." But matters are not quite so simple. As Nietzsche recognized, the disappearance of God from our worldview has drastic consequences.

When we follow the scientists who get rid of "God," we end up in a mechanistic world, composed exclusively of matter in motion. Of course, no scientists really believe that all they think, and say, and do is completely determined by the physical laws governing matter in motion. But they often say that this is the case, and scientific atheists offer us little help in understanding why it is not.

When we separate questions about right and wrong from any relation to "God," we typically end up with a moral relativism that is quite problematic. The individual quest for wealth and power seems to be unchecked. It is not clear that the resulting societies are happier than those that affirm a "God" behind a moral order that opposes such values.

For a large segment of our culture, "God" has ceased to function as a check on sexual activity. Many, perhaps most, of our youth and young adults engage in frequent sexual encounters and experiments with few inhibitions. Yet it is not clear that they are more personally fulfilled than previous generations who were more restricted in their sexual activity. The importance of the drug culture among them suggests otherwise.

Even if it is true that "God" desacralized nature and turned it over to human beings to exploit, that does not show that simply getting rid of "God" will help. What once protected nature from human abuse was a sense of its sacred character. The atheism that results from getting rid of God removes whatever restraints belief in "God" still offers. It does not generate greater respect for nature.

In terms of the quest for peace and justice also, atheism has not proved a real solution. The French Revolution replaced "God" with "Reason." No doubt it had many positive effects. But few advocates of justice today want to repeat its history.

A more sustained and successful atheism was established in the Soviet Union. Again, its positive accomplishments deserve more attention than they have received in the West, but few people in Russia want to return to the Bolshevik state from which they have been liberated.

3. A Richer World View – the Philosophy of Whitehead

This suggests that we need a richer worldview than the one that emerges from the simple denial of "God." This is widely appreciated in our culture today. This recognition results in the strong interest in spirituality that opens the West to some of the accomplishments of the East.

Meanwhile the East, especially China, is copying the West without God, especially in its educational system, and suffering some of the negative consequences that follow from the scientific atheism noted above. For a long time China has been suppressing its traditional culture to make way for scientific thinking. Now many Chinese realize that a society cannot live by mechanistic science alone.

China needs to find or develop a worldview that allows it to recover much of its traditional culture and values in a way that also opens it to the knowledge that has been gained by Western science. Indeed, it needs a worldview that values the kind of inquiry and creative imagination without which participation in continuing scientific work will not be possible. But that does not mean taking at face value contemporary scientific atheism. That was not the worldview of those who brought modern science into being.

Currently in China there is remarkable interest in the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Fourteen universities have established centers for the study of his thought and its application in varied fields. Numerous conferences are being held. Whitehead himself recognized that his basic vision had much in common with Chinese traditions.

At the same time he was a mathematical physicist, and developed his theories in large part in order to comprehend the new findings of physics in the twentieth century. For him modern science itself needed revision and integration into a larger worldview that gave pride of place to values. It is this larger worldview that may prove helpful in China.

The West also needs a world view to underlie and support its quest for a spirituality that avoids the sheer materialism and relativism of modern atheism without returning to the supernatural, omnipotent, intervening, moralistic, and anthropocentric "God" against which it has reacted. Whitehead offers much to the West as well. His physics replaces valueless "matter" with "events" that have value for themselves as well as for others. In this sense, he re-sacralizes the world, but not in a way that discourages rigorous examination.

For Whitehead, each event seeks to attain some value in itself and for others beyond itself. This does not lead to moral rules valid for all, but it overcomes the kind of moral relativism that plays havoc with social life and weakens the drive for justice and peace. Each event is what it is because it is largely a product of all the events in its past; so the idea of self-contained individuals makes no sense. We are all members one of another. But some part of the outcome of each event is open, so that there is a place for self-determination or freedom. We all bear partial responsibility for what we make of ourselves and contribute to others.

The achievement of value depends on a combination of determination by others and determination by self, of repetition and novelty, of law and spontaneity, of permanence and change. This is all grounded in a cosmic aim at value. We are not ultimately alone in an indifferent or hostile universe. We can allow ourselves to be borne forward by an everlasting companion who suffers with us in our sufferings and rejoices with us in our joys. Of course, we can also resist the call forward and harden ourselves against it. A healthy spirituality is one that at the deepest level opens itself to something that is at once part of oneself and beyond oneself.

China needs to reappropriate its traditions selectively. The same is true in the West. There is much in our traditions that we rightly reject. But it would be simple-minded to suppose that there is nothing of value there.

4. Critically Re-appropriating the Christian Tradition

The West has multiple traditions, but I will speak of my own, the Christian one. Until the late nineteenth century belief in God provided the needed context for modern science and supported its development. The split, insofar as one has occurred, is due as much to the insistence of scientists that human beings are part of a wholly purposeless world as to the naïve and distorted beliefs of many Christians.

The rejection of a moralistic "God" did not originate with modern atheists. Its most vigorous and profound spokesperson was St. Paul. That even Paul’s writings have been turned into a source of moral laws shows how powerful is the human desire for rules. For both Jesus and Paul, the only law is the law of love, and that is a "law" that cannot be imposed or commanded. Fortunately, from time to time Paul’s writings have inspired Christians to a spirituality of love, God’s love of us, our love of one another, and our love of God. Love relativizes all rules, but it does not relativize the importance of expressing love.

Biblical teaching is not nearly as anthropocentric as later Christians made out. In Genesis God declares the world good quite apart from human beings. God’s dominion is exercised for the sake of creatures, and the dominion assigned to human beings has the same purpose. The Bible has no word for "nature" in distinction from humanity or history. Human beings are simply part of God’s creation. Nor is creation an abrupt act of making the world out of nothing, as later Christians asserted. The world we know comes into being as a wind from God sweeps over the face of the already present waters.

Not only creation out of nothing but omnipotence in general is absent from the Bible. It comes to play an overwhelmingly important role in Western Christianity because Jerome, when translating the Bible into Latin, chose "omnipotence" consistently to replace Shaddai, one of the proper names of God in the Hebrew scriptures. The consequence for Christian spirituality has been disastrous. The biblical God interacts with people, is affected by what they do, and pursues the divine purpose chiefly in and through their actions. That is a very different role than that of omnipotence.

The Hebrew Scriptures include stories that tell of terrible acts by the ancestors of the Jews, even by their special heroes, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David. Some of these acts are condemned in the text, others are not. Indeed, some of the worst are said to be commanded by "God." This is certainly a problem for those who treat the biblical text as sacred, regard the biblical heroes as models, and suppose that everything said about God is true.

Nevertheless, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures the primary emphasis is on God’s call for a just society. The Torah or books of Moses approach this goal through detailed guides to the organization and operation of society. The prophets approach it through strong condemnations of the abuse of the poor and powerless by the rich and powerful. Jews give priority to the former; Christians, to the latter. The prophets often criticized the government of their nation, some paying for this criticism with their lives.

Jesus stands in the line of prophets. He lived when Israel was controlled by Rome and Jews had little opportunity to reform their government. He called on his hearers, instead, to live from the basileia theou, which I like to translate "the divine commonwealth," not from the Roman basileia. He spelled out the characteristics of living from the divine commonwealth in its obvious contrast with accepting the values of the empire. The Romans understood that this was a political threat, and for his rejection of the final authority of Rome, they executed him, and many of his followers as well. To express love for God by following Jesus is always dangerous, but it certainly does not oppose the quest for justice.

5. Process Theology

Among Christians there are those committed to following Jesus and, just for this reason, to remain completely open to the best thinking of the time. In the late nineteenth century a Baptist seminary in Chicago held strongly to this commitment, and Rockefeller built the University of Chicago around it. The "Chicago school" has taken a variety of forms: socio-historical, radical empiricist, rationalist, and cultural. Some of its leaders looked to Whitehead for guidance, and although all forms of the Chicago school emphasized "process" against static "substance," the labels "process thought" and "process theology" now usually refer to the Whiteheadian branch.

At the Claremont School of Theology in California, David Griffin and I established The Center for Process Studies, which has become the national and international center for the application of Whitehead’s thought in many fields.

It is the China Project of the Claremont Center for Process Studies that has led in promoting Whiteheadian thought in China. There, Christian theology plays a very small role. The goal is more to help Chinese connect their commitment to modernization to their traditions in ways that respond creatively to their ecological and educational needs.

Griffin and I as well as other co-directors of the Center, past and current (Philip Clayton, Roland Faber, Mary Elizabeth Moore, and Marjorie Suchocki) are all theologians who find in Whitehead’s vision rich resources for rethinking our Christian heritage. We, and our students, have written not only about God but also about the problem of evil, Christ, the church, Christian education, pastoral counseling, preaching, the nature of human beings, history, liberation and salvation, spirituality, religious diversity, interfaith dialogue, science and religion, and other standard theological topics.

But followers of Jesus who adopt Whitehead’s vision cannot stay within the bounds of any academic discipline. We have also written about the ecological crisis and involved ourselves in criticism of standard theories in biology and economics and even physics. We have been deeply concerned about sustainability, and much of our writing has been against the global economy and American imperialism. David Griffin has become the leading writer in the 9/11 truth movement.

Both East and West are in a spiritual and ecological crisis. There are severe limitations in their religious traditions, and both Easterners and Westerners have largely rejected their heritage. But the results of abandoning them are not promising.

We can do better. There are spiritual resources in our traditions that offer fresh possibilities for the future. We do not need to adopt other cultures wholesale or to create a wholly new spirituality. We do need to mine our own traditions critically and carefully, rejecting what is historically and scientifically wrong as well as what is repressive and oppressive, while we affirm what is healing and liberating, personally and historically. In this process the thought of Whitehead can be of great help.