Cutting Edge – August 2000

Question: What is the cutting edge of your thought at present?

Publication Month: August 2000

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Nelson Stringer has suggested that I answer the question: What is the cutting edge of my own thought at present? That should be fun — trying to figure out how my concerns fit together and where they are headed.

I suppose my overriding concern is with where the world is heading. I’m convinced that present policies are leading us to destruction. So one “cutting edge” is pointing that out and proposing alternatives. They include policies in the fields of agriculture, forestry, city building, and, of course, ecology. But for some time now, I’ve been convinced that economic theories and the policies that stem from them are of dominant importance. 

That might seem to have little to do with theology or the church, but I have come to a quite different conclusion. The destructive policies I oppose have assumptions about the nature of the world and human beings and even about God. It is important to make them explicit and critique them from a Christian perspective. Of course, in my case it is from a process theological perspective, but most of the criticisms can be shared with Christians who are not consciously committed to process philosophy.  (For the Common GoodSustainabilitySustaining the Common Good, and The Earthist Challenge to Economism are books dealing with these issues.)

Just now I am focusing on the fact that current policies systematically enrich the rich with little of no benefit to the poor. Actually, in my view, the poor both in this country and globally are losing ground. Recent statistics indicate that the poorest 40% of the American population has lost over 70% of its assets in the past twenty years! The poor really are getting poorer — much poorer — while the rich are getting richer — much richer. This is not as clear when attention is directed to income instead of assets. By working longer hours, families are managing to keep their income up. (I am currently planning a conference for the Center for Process Studies on “the economics of poverty.”)

Of course, I have not lost concern about the fact that the same policies are hastening both pollution and the exhaustion of the earth’s resources.  It is hard to know whether the most catastrophic results will be environmental or social. In all probability the two will feed on each other. 

What has this to do with the church? Again, a great deal, I think. The church as a whole over centuries has been the chief way in which young people have been persuaded that life should be lived with concern for others, and that among the others about whom one should be particularly concerned, the poor are prominent. Obviously, not all have taken this lesson to heart, and their have been other features of church teaching that have justified terrible things. But the basic teaching of love for the neighbor and Jesus answer to the question: Who is my neighbor? have had their effect.

Today, large portion of the population of the North Atlantic countries are growing up with negligible influence from the church. The idea that one should be concerned about others, and especially the poor, is by no means self-evident. The goal of personal success in the competition with others is quite unashamedly adopted on a large scale. It makes the economist’s model of the world increasingly realistic. The result is that the impoverishment of the poor is a fact like any other to be taken account of in one’s battle to the top.

If the decline in the oldline churches is offset by growth in the conservative ones, one might think that there should be no overall change in basic attitudes. There are two reasons that this does not work out.  First, those who cease to be influenced by Christian teaching tend to be disproportionately represented among the opinion and decision makers. Second, the churches that are growing are less likely to encourage systemic thinking about public policies.

Unfortunately, it seems that as the oldline churches decline in numbers and status, they also are less likely to encourage systemic thinking.  Indeed, there is less effort to bring the faith to bear on the issues of the day. Like the more conservative churches they attend chiefly to the personal and familial needs of their members. Concern for the poor in both types of churches is expressed largely in personal charity.

Even so, there are strong elements in the oldline churches that keep alive a more systemic concern for public issues. This can be grounded in serious biblical scholarship and in the tradition. It gets a great deal of support from many of the seminaries of the oldline churches. It seems to be of great importance to reenliven this type of churchmanship and draw into it more younger people. (Lay Theology, Becoming a Thinking Christian, and Reclaiming the Church are books that indicate my concerns about the church.  I have also co-founded with George Regas the Mobilization for the Human Family and continue to devote a good deal of time to it. I edited a book of the position papers of the Mobilization, just published, entitled Speaking of Religion and Politics.)

There are many obstacles to moving in this direction. Some of them are focused on belief in God. The intellectual climate of our time makes a realistic view of God difficult. Many theologians urge us to abandon all “metaphysical” teachings, which means all teachings about what God is like apart from our ideas. Some of those who continue to affirm the reality of God understand God in ways that have few practical implications for how public policies should be framed. Without strong, clear convictions about God, the church has little possibility of a revival of vitality and willingness to give itself to the service of the world. I remain convinced that process theology helps when it is seriously tried and that it could help a great deal more! (A Center for Process Studies conference with evangelical theologians has resulted in a book, Searching for an Adequate God. Clark Pinnock did the real editing, but I get too much credit. On a back burner is my own book on God.)

A contributor to loss of Christian conviction in the oldline churches is the awareness of religious pluralism. This awareness is a gain, but the widespread relativistic response is not. If the church can encompass a deep appreciation of other religious traditions and an openness to learning from them in a Christocentric context, some of its needed conviction about its own distinctive mission can be restored. (My most recent book is on this topic: Transforming Christianity and the World.) 

I’m not sure that this gives much coherence to my fragmented efforts, but it is the best I can do.