June 18, 2012

Process Theologian John Cobb Urges “Secularizing Christianity”

Liberal Christians from all over the country gathered at United Methodism’s Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California earlier this year for the annual Emergent Village Theological Conversation (EVTC).  Claremont is a bastion of “process theology.”  According to the Center for Process Studies, process theology views God as “relational, present in every moment of our lives and in all entities and levels of being.  The world is interconnected, in effect a giant ecosystem where what harms or blesses one, harms or blesses all.”  One of the speakers was  James Cobb, a founder of “process theology” and emeritus Claremont professor.

Cobb spoke for two sessions at the EVTC.  The first was an interview about “process theology” in general, and the second was focused on what Cobb referred to as “secularizing Christianity.”  According to Cobb, process theology finds its roots in the work of philosophers John Dewey and William James, and was significantly shaped by the metaphysics of 20th century British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.  In the interview, Cobb said that “process theology formed itself over and against the dominant forms of classical Christian theology, which were all Aristotelian.”  The Whiteheadean metaphysical framework – a sort of pantheism – provides a fundamentally different way of understanding reality.

It is for this reason that process theologians like Cobb reject the traditional Christian creeds, saying that the mindset of the writers of the creeds was so infused with the Greek philosophical worldview that they had a warped understanding of many fundamental Christian truths.  “I am absolutely in favor of the efforts of the early church to make contact with and integrate with the best thinking of their time,” Cobb said.  But then he explained that despite it being the best option the early church had, the Aristotelian view they adopted was still fundamentally flawed.

According to process theologians, who place a high value on socio-historical analysis, Jesus and the Jews of His day had a narrative-based mindset, as opposed to the Greek substance-based way of thinking.  This led to problems for the early church when they were attempting to understand certain basic Christian truths.  Because of their Greek-based worldview, the early church struggled to explain how Christ could have been both fully God and fully man at the same time, so according to Cobb they gave up and “chalked it up to mystery” or “paradox.”

In Cobb’s view, this is one of the most destructive parts of traditional Christianity because it discourages the study and discovery of alternative interpretations.  “The whole notion of the supernatural is absent in the Bible,” Cobb says.  “Because, in order to have a supernatural, you have to have a nature where God is absent,” and God is in everything at all times.  The idea of the supernatural came into Christianity only because Aristotelians could not explain certain phenomena in their metaphysical framework.   Process theologians believe the joint humanity and divinity of Jesus means He was able to “participate in” God differently and more fully than a normal human being.  “I’m not saying this unity [between God the Father and Jesus] was an essential part of his existence,” Cobb said, explaining that this more full participation only took place at special points in Christ’s life and work.

EVTC participants returned the next morning for another session with Cobb, where he said that one of the main focuses of Christians should be on “secularizing Christianity.”  Before anyone could get the wrong idea, he quickly explained that by “secularizing” he did not mean “moving in the direction of secularism.”   Rather, he said:

Instead of either absolutizing what we are given from the past or trying to get rid of it altogether, you recognize that there is positive wisdom in what you have received, but that it needs to be viewed critically, sorted through.  You refuse to absolutize it; you are open to every objection that can be raised and listen to them, then you are secularizing that tradition.

To Cobb, “secularizing” merely means a close analysis of the Christian truths that have been passed down through the ages, and working to integrate them with the new knowledge and understanding that recent times have brought.  Both religion and secularism, he explained “are totally failing in response to the crisis which should be a concern to all of us…the planet on which we live is an endangered home for human beings, indeed for life itself.”  Typical religion “turns attention either upward or inward,” to God or to self to define what our concerns would be.  Cobb argued that we must turn to “an outward gaze, where the acute problems facing humanity as a whole lie.”

For Cobb, the prime example of corruption in our culture and religion is economic in nature.  In his view, “since the rise of modern economics, Christians have been forced to give up their criticism of greed, because the economists said ‘greed is good, and if you really want to help people, be as greedy as possible.’”  This widespread acceptance of such a traditionally unchristian value has “greatly diminished the confidence with which Christians proclaim the values of Jesus.”  And when policy is justified by economic theory, Cobb said, it is not surprising that modern politics has been so destructive.  “Ideally, the most fundamental commitment of the church today should be to the salvation of the world,” and not concern over political issues.

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