Jesus – August 2004

Question: “What were the special (if any) experiences that Jesus of Nazareth had in his background that enabled him to be so much more receptive to God’s aims than the rest of us? If Jesus was ‘both the manifest expression of God’s character and purpose and the fulfillment of the possibilities present in humankind,’ and if Jesus is not ontologically different from other human beings, to what does Process Theology attribute this greater than normal receptiveness to God’s aim for his life?”

Publication Month: August 2004

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The assumption underlying this question is that Jesus’ distinctiveness lies primarily in the fullness with which he responded to God’s aims for him. This is the view of a number of process Christologies. Other liberal Christologies have similar ideas, beginning with Schleiermacher. He thought that whereas God-consciousness plays some role in everyone, it was perfect in Jesus.  In the Ritschlian tradition some affirmed that the distinctiveness of Jesus lay in the perfection of his moral character.

My own approach has a different emphasis, but I want to give some response to the question as posed in this way. I certainly believe that Jesus was far more receptive to God’s aims than I am and that the vast majority of people are. To what can we attribute this greater than normal receptiveness?

As long as the question is just about a greater than normal receptiveness, I do not see it as requiring an answer. We assume that there are considerable differences among people on many qualities. That some are more responsive to God’s call than others is what we would expect. Indeed, we would expect a considerable variation. Perhaps genetic factors play a role, but I would emphasize human freedom. Nothing compels one to be responsive or resistant. That is the decision made moment my moment.

The rhetoric we use about Jesus, however, often singles him out in so extreme a way that this kind of answer may seem insufficient. But even for extreme differences we have analogies. The difference between the musical abilities of Mozart and me are truly extreme.  In the spiritual realm, I would say the same of Gautama Buddha and me or of St. Francis and me. These people inspire awe and wonder. Genetically determined gifts that explain part of the difference, but at least in the moral and spiritual sphere, the answer is primarily the way people exercise their freedom.

I mentioned that, although I do believe that Jesus’ was wonderfully responsive to God’s call, I do not think of this as an adequate way to talk about his uniqueness.  He may not have been more responsive than Gautama or Francis. There may be some simple people of whom we have never heard who have also been extraordinarily responsive to God’s call. Perhaps Jesus was the most responsive of all, but, in itself, I do not think that accounts for his distinctiveness.

To me it is equally important to focus on what Jesus was called to be and to do. Let us suppose that he was called so to actualize the Jewish faith of his day that it could have an appeal and a relevance far beyond the Jewish community. It is clear that responding to that call was not what Gautama and Francis were about. Or perhaps Jesus was called to relate to God in such a way that others would be able to see in and through him what God is like. That is not what God called Gautama to do and be, and insofar as that would apply to Francis, it would be in a way derivative from what happened in Jesus.

Jesus would not have described his call in these ways. People are often unaware of the deeper divine purposes. Jesus seems not to have had Gentiles in mind more than peripherally. The passages in John that emphasize seeing God in and through Jesus are unlikely to reflect Jesus’ own thinking.  I am inferring God’s purposes from the future course of events, and of these Jesus was ignorant. Jesus understood his call to be to proclaim repentance in view of the imminence of the basileia theou.  Responding to that call faithfully led him to crucifixion. It also led to an understanding of Judaism that opened its doors to Gentiles. In Paul’s view both Jews and Gentiles are to participate in Jesus’ faithfulness, which now defines the righteousness of God.

The distinctiveness of the call would have made very little difference had Jesus not been extraordinarily responsive. But if we decided that Gautama and Francis responded equally well to the call of God, Jesus would remain uniquely important to us, and authoritative for us. Jesus’ faithfulness had historical effects very different from the faithfulness of Gautama and Francis.

When we attend to the nature of the call to which Jesus responded so well, the question of the special situation of Jesus makes a lot of sense. First of all, Jesus was a Jew, and only a Jew, a very devout Jew, could have heard and responded to the kind of call that came to Jesus. He lived in Galilee, and the kind of Judaism he received was probably the only kind that could have led him to teach and act as he did. Whitehead suggests that the powerlessness of the Galilean Jews enabled them to think more radically about the ideal life than was possible for persons who had some practical control over public affairs. In his day Judaism was already attractive to many Gentiles, so that the changes in Jewish teaching that derived indirectly from him sufficed to open the doors of the communities of his followers to the full participation of many Gentiles.

This is in no way to minimize the mystery of Jesus’ faithfulness. It is only to say that the call that came to him, and the vast effects in human history of his responsiveness, were possible only in the very specific historical circumstances of that time. It is the ideal for Christians today to be as faithful to God’s call to us as Jesus was in his day. But even if we fulfill that calling, in concrete ways we would not be very much like Jesus or that the effects of our faithfulness would be similar to his.

I have tried to move the discussion into another dimension as well. My proposals are controversial among process thinkers, and I acknowledge that they are speculative. I do not apologize for that, since I believe in speculating, that is, in proposing hypotheses and working out their implications. But I acknowledge that the evidence for this speculation is limited. Still, I will sketch them again. I have worked them out more fully in Christ in a Pluralistic Age.

These are Whiteheadian speculations but probably not ones with which Whitehead would have been particularly pleased. That is they employ Whitehead’s analysis of actual occasions but do so for purposes that express very specific Christian interests. I want to see how far I can go toward making sense of the beliefs of early Christians about Jesus’ relation to God.

My speculation is that in different occasions of human experience, the various prehensions that make up an occasion are related to one another in diverse ways. In most of us Westerners, at least, the most determinative prehension is that of our personal past. I inherit from that past all sorts of desires and anxieties and deep-seated habits. I interpret other prehensions from this point of view.  Some of them appear threatening, others comforting. I allow some to make major contributions to my experience in each moment and I minimize others. The “I” that does this is constituted by the prehension of my personal past.

There is also a prehension of God. This is God’s call. I experience this call as coming from another. It, too, may be threatening or comforting. I admit it into my experience more or less, and I conform to it more or less.

Having described this normal structure of experience, I judge that it does not characterize everyone all the time. It does not characterize very small children. It does not characterize enlightened Buddhists. It does not characterize theistic mystics. I believe that, during much of his ministry, it did not characterize Jesus.

My evidence is chiefly that many of Jesus’ sayings express a relatedness to God that is different from the otherness I have described. Another possible structure of experience, suggested by these texts, is one in which the I, or perspective from which everything else is appraised, is constituted jointly by the prehension of God and of one’s past.  In this case, God’s presence in the occasion of human experience is not felt as another about which a decision is to be made but functions, together with the influence of the past, as the perspective from which decisions are made.

This speculation brings a process Christology somewhat into line with the Christologies of the early church. These sought to affirm the integral union of the human and the divine in Jesus. They did so in terms of substance, in ways closed to process thinkers. In the process approach, it is necessary to ask the question of the structure of Jesus’ existence and the role God played in it moment by moment. Whereas some of Jesus’ sayings suggest that he feels free to speak for God, at other times he experiences himself as sharply separated from God. The speculation I have offered applies only to the former times. It undergirds the idea that Jesus’ sayings have peculiar authority. But, of course, they remain thoroughly historically and culturally conditioned.