Progressive Christianity – August 2002

Question: I always enjoy John Cobb’s clearly thought out answers to questions and often use them as the basis for discussion in study groups. There has been considerable discussion in Church and secular circles about the writings of such people as John Spong, Don Cupitt, Robert Funk, John Crossan, Karen Armstrong and others. What is your reaction to their approach to organized Christianity?

Publication Month: August 2002

Dr. Cobb’s Response

It is not, of course, possible to respond to these thinkers fairly when one groups them all together. Nevertheless, I think I understand the reason they are grouped by the questioner, and I will respond in terms of that understanding.

The thinkers listed are profoundly honest people who see contemporary church teaching weighed down with outdated, misleading, and harmful ideas. They see that many thoughtful and spiritually sensitive people are repelled by Christianity for good reasons. They think it very important to be straightforward in acknowledging what is not to be believed. This contrasts with much contemporary theology that takes as its role the defense of traditional statements either as they stand or moderately adjusted. This defense often underestimates the depth of change in worldview brought about by the natural and social sciences and by critical historiography. It can be persuasive among people who are not themselves deeply informed about, or by, these changes. But it tends to imply that breaking from traditional thought forms makes it impossible to continue to be a Christian believer. We are indebted to our critics for exposing the halfway measures that leave theology in an unhealthy limbo and push away many for whom the gospel could have great meaning.

In other cases the defense is in fact very radical indeed. It overcomes the doubtfulness of traditional Christian truth-claims by reaffirming the language in which they have been formulated while denying that any claim to truth is involved. To be a Christian, for these apologists, is to live in a certain symbol system while recognizing that no symbol system has any access to the way the world really is. In short, by denying that there is any correspondence between language and reality, they open the door to the continued affirmation of the whole range of traditional Christian affirmations. Unfortunately, this often works more as mystification of believers than as the clarification of what they really can and should believe, to which most of our critics are dedicated.

The straightforward critique of the tradition contrasts also with much preaching. Most of this is sufficiently vague or ambiguous that many hearers, assuming older ideas, can listen without taking offense, while others, who do not accept those traditional ideas, can interpret what is said in terms of their more liberal perspectives. This strategy makes it possible for theologically diverse congregations to stay together, but in the long run it cannot provide a basis for a healthy faith and church. Our critical thinkers are correct that the issues should be faced bluntly and that what is not to be believed should be made clear. We should be grateful for their work. Process theologians join these critics in much of what they do.

There is much in the tradition against which we polemicize vigorously. We try to be quite clear about what is not to be believed. We try to avoid ambiguity and mystification.

However, at the next stage our approaches differ. With most of these critics, there seems to be an effort to find “what is left” that can and should be believed. It is a stripped-down faith. Sometimes I even fear that it is a matter of peeling an onion, so that nothing will be left at all.

Process theology moves in a different direction. Our main concern is to clear away what is incredible and harmful in order to make room for a complex set of credible and healing theological affirmations. The beliefs we promote are different from much that is now affirmed in many churches, but it is not less. Part of our criticism of traditional theology is that it prevents us from seriously affirming much of the biblical way of thinking. We think that a process perspective opens us to truths that have long been obscured. The most obvious example is that we renew the biblical vision of a responsive God with whom human beings interact. We think that orthodox doctrine, along with much that continues to be transmitted in many churches, obscures this biblical vision. But this is by no means the only doctrine on which we believe that we are engaged in formulating a richer understanding of faith than traditional teaching has allowed.

An example of the difference between the two approaches I am outlining (recognizing that my depiction of the other approach does not apply equally to all those listed) can be found in the treatment of Christian uniqueness. The tendency of the critics of tradition listed by the questioner and of many other liberals is to argue against claims of significant uniqueness in Christianity. Christians, they tell us, should acknowledge other religious communities as meeting the same human needs in equally adequate ways. Process theology allows us to emphasize the differences among the great traditions, to appreciate their insights as complementary, and to aim to learn from others and be transformed by what we learn.

Probably the difference is greatest with regard to what is said about God. Most of the thinkers listed, if they continue to affirm God at all, do so in a minimalist way. Sometimes the emphasis is that “God’ is a symbol or to be understood in an exhaustively human-linguistic context. Sometimes a Tillichian idea of Being or of a Ground of Being may be allowed. But the remoteness to the biblical God is marked. In process theology the actuality of God is emphatically affirmed and the divine nature is described in some detail. God is understood to be a crucial factor in what happens in the cosmos as well as in individual lives. Indeed, God’s actual role in nature and human history is more fully clarified and emphasized in process theology than in most traditional theology.

In short, whereas process theology affirms very little that is directly rejected by the critics of theology who are listed here, process theology affirms a great deal that most of these critics rarely consider. It is this constructive and positive emphasis in process theology that gives it a distinctive role among the critics of traditional theology.

It is my belief that the healthy future of the church depends both on clearly abandoning incredible and harmful beliefs inherited from the past and on a fresh construction of a credible and beneficial vision of reality and personal life that deeply inspires and informs. Deconstructive criticism is essential but insufficient. Process theology intends to offer a more adequate way.

I do not want to end, however, on a negative note with respect to the radical critics. Even a drastically stripped-down version of our Christian heritage, if taken with deep seriousness, can deeply affect and move believers. This was powerfully illustrated in recent times by the Ecumenical Institute in Chicago. Classically, it has been illustrated by Albert Schweitzer. I believe that the church is not likely to survive very long on the bare bones of these kinds of minimalism. But I deeply respect those who not only call for honesty but also commit themselves wholeheartedly to the beliefs they find truly convincing.