The Structure of Christian Existence

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

Published by University Press of America, Inc., 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland 20706, Copyright 1990. Used by permission. This material was prepared for America Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


(ENTIRE BOOK) An inquiry into what is distinctive in Christianity and into its claim to finality.


  • Preface

    If the conclusions of this study are accepted, the understanding of the nature and function of the theological enterprise as a whole will be affected. In this and in other ways this book constitutes critical conversation with other current theologies.

  • Preface to the University Press of America Edition

    Written in the sixties, this books was made available again in the nineties. Cobb confesses that changes have come about in his thoughts of the linear view of human progress, the rise of feminism and his critique of existentialism.

  • Chapter 1: Introduction

    Since the breakdown of supernaturalism, the claims of Christianity to uniqueness and to finality have continued, but they have required justification.

  • Chapter 2: The Psyche

    A presentation of ontological and psychological ideas that underlie the descriptive treatments of the several structures of existence.

  • Chapter 3: Primitive Existence

    A description of what distinguishes the structure of human existence in general from the structure of subhuman animal existence in general.

  • Chapter 4: Civilized Existence

    Civilization depends on and makes possible a high degree of rationalization of the reflective consciousness. Prior to the rise of the great civilizations of antiquity, from the fourth millennium before Christ on, rationality played a minor role in human life.

  • Chapter 5: Axial Existence

    In the middle part of the millennium before Christ a new type of thinking arose, reflecting a new type of existence, called by Karl Jaspers, "axial period," and what distinguished axial man was the new role of rationality in the structure of his existence.

  • Chapter 6: Buddhist Existence

    Gautama rejected the quest for a transcendent self, and he purified the reflective consciousness from the last traces of mythical influence. This, he believed, also broke the power of the bond that held the successive moments of experience together in the unity we have called the soul. In the process, therefore, reason was vigorously active, but the goal of this activity was a final passivity of the reflective consciousness toward what is given in the unreflective consciousness.

  • Chapter 7: Homeric Existence

    Homeric man distanced the world aesthetically and projected into that distance both the numinous powers and his own motives and emotions. Insofar as he was conscious of himself, it was of himself as he appeared in the public world.

  • Chapter 8: Socratic Existence

    Socrates identified himself with his reason, now understood as active conscious thought based on what is given by the unreflective consciousness and tested against it. The resultant bifurcation of the soul passed through the reflective consciousness itself, recognizing the emotions as part of that consciousness but regarding them as alien to the self.

  • Chapter 9: Prophetic Existence

    Prophetic man accepted responsibility for the outcome of the conflict of forces within his soul, thereby identifying himself with a center transcending reason and passion alike.

  • Chapter 10: Christian Existence

    Among the Hebrews the mythical was ethicized and personalized so that the power of the sacred remained overwhelmingly present. Responsibility for ones actions was recognized thus requiring control over ones emotions and thought. So Christian existence is spiritual existence that expresses itself in love. Spiritual existence is explained as a structure of radical self-transcendence, and its power for both good and evil is emphasized.

  • Chapter 11: Love

    For the Christian, love is the possibility of openness to the other as another and concern for him as such. It is made possible by the gift of an undeserved love, and hence it cannot seek a deserving object for its expression. The possibility of its occurrence consists in a freedom from the sickness of self-preoccupation, and, hence, the prior relation of the other to the self cannot be relevant.

  • Chapter 12: The Question of Finality

    Socratic man identifies himself with his reason, which he recognizes as one element within his psyche. Spiritual existence is constituted by the emergence of an "I" that transcends reason and passion and will as well as itself. To incorporate such an "I" is impossible without ceasing to identify oneself with one’s reason, whereas the reason of Socratic man can be incorporated into spiritual existence.

  • Appendix: Gnosticism

    Gnosticism appears to have been abortive. It did succeed in extricating the self from its identification with reason and will, and in this respect it went beyond Socratic and prophetic existence. But it did so in such a way as not to incorporate or fulfill Socratic and prophetic existence but so as to negate them.