The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology

Index of Articles
MWT Course

Wildman's
Weird Wild Web

Home
Links
Jokes
Other Courses

Cobb, John B., Jr.

Contents

John B Cobb, Jr. (1925- ) (JeeHo Kim, 1999)

Glossary of Terms in Process Theology (Rolf Bouma, 1997)

Process Theology/John B. Cobb, Jr. (Rolf Bouma, 1997)

John Cobb: Mann's Quick Notes (Mark Mann, 1997)

John B Cobb, Jr. (1925- )

JeeHo Kim, 1999

 

Life

John Cobb, Jr. was born February 9, 1925, as the youngest of three children whose parents were Japanese missionaries during the period from 1919 to 1965. He had lived in Japan, mainly in Hiroshima and Kobe since his birth until 1940 when his parents left Japan. Then, young Cobb settled himself in Georgia to attend high school and a junior college, Emory at Oxford.

During his living in Georgia, Cobb held so deep a pietistic faith that it has had huge impact on his own ascetic personality and his moral convictions:

In junior college days, his pietism involved an extremely ascetic dimension; for example, money that might have been spent on candy or bus fare was sent to a mission for lepers in the Sudan. His pietism also contributed to strong moral convictions; he brought blacks to his Georgia church and publicly countered the lies in the anti-Japanese propaganda after Pearl Harbor. The negative effect that his pietistic moralism had on others is suggested in a cartoon in the college annual picturing John with a halo around his head and several more dangling from his arm. It was titled "Spares." (Griffin 1991, 226)

In 1944, Cobb joined the US Army where he was exposed to the intellectuals such as academic-minded Jews and Irish Catholics who revealed a wonderful world of different perspectives expressed by them to Cobb. During this period, he had a strange experience: "One night I knelt beside my bed for prayer in the most perfunctory way, when suddenly the room seemed filled with a presence of the most blessed sort. For a few brief moments I experienced what I can only describe as joy. It passed, I said thank you, and went to bed" (Griffin, 226). This experience led him to enter a kind of Christian ministry, pulling him out of government service.

His religious experience and his intellectual army friends made Cobb enter a world of the intellectual, the University of Chicago in which he chose an interdepartmental program for the purpose of exposing himself to "all the objections to Christianity produced by the modern world" (Griffin, 227). Here, he experienced a total shattering of his own convictions of Christian faith, especially his own vision of reality. "A central effect of this shattering of faith was upon his prayer life, previously his mainstay" (Griffin, 227). This shattering was also the main cause for him to have some sort of intimacy with Thomas J. J. Altizer who claimed the death of God.

A year later, changing his mind to study for Christian ministry at Candler School of Theology, Cobb instead entered the University of Chicago Divinity School with the hope for some affirmative religious study, where he realized that some of the faculty members had dealt with the same problem that he had. Then, he started his own struggle with the modern world view to reconstruct his own vision of reality with the help of two thinkers, Richard McKeon and Charles Hartshorne.

Richard McKeon was a professor of the philosophy department, who introduced philosophical relativism to Cobb, which claims that "numerous systems are each capable of handling the range of philosophical problems quite well from their particular perspectives and that 'almost all serious criticisms of major thought-systems are primarily a function of approaching those thought-systems with alien presuppositions'" (Griffin, 228). McKeon's influence on Cobb resulted in his second book, Living Options in Protestant Theology (1962) which deals with an issue of perspective, concluding that "[o]ne should recognize instead that one's thinking is given direction and impetus by a perspective that, in the Christian case, comes from one's participation in the Christian community" (Cobb 1993, 9)

The other person who has heavily influenced Cobb was Charles Hartshorne who introduced to Cobb a Whiteheadian metaphysics which enabled him again to take the idea of God seriously. Charles Hartshorne is one of the major figures in North America academic circle who advocate Whiteheadian philosophy. His "societal realism" stresses the idea of a plurality of real entities intimately related. Hartshorne claims "creative synthesis" that refers to the concept of the self-creation of each entity out of a complex many. With regard to his position on God, he is known as a "neoclassical theist," "dipolar theist," or "panentheist" which indicate his relation of continuity and discontinuity with traditional theism in terms of God's relationship with the world.

After finishing his dissertation, entitled "The Independence of Christian faith from Speculative Belief," Cobb took a job with the help of Ernest Colwell, vice-president at Emory, and then, was invited to come to School of Theology at Claremont by Ernest Colwell who was then president of the School of Theology at Claremont. In 1971, Cobb initiated with Lewis Ford a journal, Process Studies, and in 1973, with David Griffin, founded the Center for Process Studies. Cobb retired in 1990 from the School of Theology at Claremont.

Three Trajectories in Cobb's Theological Journey

Cobb identifies his own theological journey as three trajectories. The first one is related to his attempt to "reconstruct for [him]self a Christian vision" (Cobb 1993, 9) by using the cosmology of Whitehead. In this stage, his mission as a process theologian was to interpret and apply Whitehead's philosophy to the reconstruction of Christian theology. Even though he took seriously the issue of perspective (Living Options in Protestant Theology), Cobb did not fail to recognized the issue of reason. He claims that "the recognition of the perspectival character of one's thought is no justification for restricting the critical and constructive power of reason" (Cobb 1993, 9). His third book, A Christian Natural Theology (1965) was full expression of his conviction of the harmony between perspective [Christian] and human reason [process philosophy of Whitehead]. In this book, he "wrote about what human beings in general are like, for example, that they are radically historical, diversely formed by their cultures" but not about any specificity of human existence shaped by a particular culture (Cobb 1993, 9). His another book, The Structure of Christian Existence (1967), was to deal with this issue, focusing on "the particularities of how human beings have been shaped in different cultures and religious communities" with emphasis on "locat[ing] Christianity in the global context" (Cobb, 9). The Structure of Christian Existence reflects his own complaint about the narrow dichotomy of existentialism between authentic and inauthentic existence "as the only alternatives."

The next move for Cobb was to his christology which is manifested in the book entitled Christ in a Pluralistic Age (1975). In this book, the focus was "the tension between the particularity of faith and the affirmation of pluralism," and his solution was "to understand faith in Christ as demanding openness to others" (Cobb, 9). He says:

I identified Christ with creative transformation. My way of understanding this is similar to Henry Nelson Wieman's, although I understand creative transformation as God's active presence in the world rather than as exhaustive of God's reality. Hence, Christ as creative transformation is the incarnation of God. As such, Christ is not another name for Jesus, but it is important to show how closely and richly Christ is bound up with the historical person.

I interpreted Jesus' message as one that disrupted the simple continuity of the hearers with the past in such a way as to open them to God's present gift of new possibility. I understood the new not as displacing the past or discontinuous with it, but rather as creatively transforming it. I proposed that Jesus' life and death generated a field of force and that to enter that field is to be opened to creative transformation. (Cobb, 9)

His understanding of Christ as creative transformation led him to realize the necessity of the recognition of pluralism and of dialogue with believers of other faiths in the world. This task was accomplished in his book Beyond Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism (1982). This book is dealing with the necessity of dialogue whose final goal is the transformation of each dialogue partner and with case study of the dialogue between Christianity and Mahayana Buddhism. And he makes a very important point when Christians get involved in any kind of dialogue with other religious traditions:

It is also my conviction that Christians have an additional responsibility. We not only need to be open to truth wherever we can find it and engage in the hard work of incorporating it into our theology, we also need to witness to the truth with which we have been entrusted through our own history. We know that too often in the past we have confused accidental cultural accretions with that truth and have idolatrously identified that truth with our own opinions. We also know that we have usually spoken without listening. For all of this we must repent. But to repent of past mistakes does not entail abandoning our witness. It means learning to witness aright. And the goal of that witness is to lead the other to attend to what we believe to be truth and to be transformed by it. (Cobb 1982, 140-1)

The second trajectory was initiated with his son, Cliff Cobb, about ecological crisis. A little book, Is It Too Late?: A Theology of Ecology (1972) reflects his ecological concern. Here, Whiteheadian cosmology played a significant role in explicating the ecological issues and providing the alternatives. In the seventies, with his ecological concerns, Cobb moved toward a kind of interdisciplinary project which bore fruits with the publication of The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community (1982) with Charles Birch, which was based on Cobb's conviction that "no problem could be more critical than that of a decent survival of a humanity that threatened to destroy itself by exhausting and polluting its natural context" (Cobb 1993, 10). The Liberation of Life argues that all forms of life should be liberated any kind of oppressive power combined with he mechanistic and dualistic world-views, claiming the cooperation of biology with ecological thinking and the reshaping of religious thoughts and political policies by the idea of liberation of life. Another fruitful result of the interdisciplinary project was For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (1989) with Herman Daly, which exposed "what is wrong in the assumptions underlying economics and what policies would follow from the assumptions we favor" (Cobb 1993, 10).

The third trajectory of Cobb is related to his idea of "theology in the service of the church" (Cobb 1993, 10). He wrote on prayer (Praying for Jennifer [1985]), on pastoral care (Theology and Pastoral Care [1977]), on preaching (Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus [1989] with five others), on theological education (Christian Identity and Theological Education [1985 with Joseph C. Hough, Jr.), and on ethical issues (Matters of Life and Death [1991]). Why, then, is the church so important for Cobb? He responds:

In any case, apart from these sociological judgments about the importance of the church, it is my conviction that Christ is the hope of the world, and the church is the place where Christ is named and affirmed. Also, the church is my community. My theology is in its service whether it wants to acknowledge this or not. (Cobb 1993, 11).

In other words, Christ is the main cause to determine the importance of the church in terms of affirming Christ. Without proclaiming Christ, the church is of no use. Here one may see his strong emphasis on christocentrism in his doing theology. This christocentrism is apparent in his position on religious dialogue and pluralism.

Toward a Christocentric Catholic Theology

In 1987, in a book entitled Toward a Universal Theology of Religion, Cobb suggests his Christocentric Catholic Theology which claims a radical stance on the issue of religious dialogue and pluralism. Why does he claim a Christocentric catholic theology? First of all, Cobb rejects the terms "religion" because it is too limited to include other important binding force such as ideologies. Thus, he prefers to use the term "way" by which he means "not only ways to live but also ways to understand life and the total context of life" (Cobb 1987, 87). He also rejects the idea of "universal theology" because he believes that "'theology should concern itself primarily with that with which these ways have concerned themselves, not with the ways as such" and because he thinks that the idea of universal theology may lead to an assumption that "theology can begin with a perspective shaped neutrally by all the ways rather than by any one of them in particular" (Cobb 1987, 88). He also fears that "a universal theology [would] replace specifically Christian theology, which is viewed as being inherently parochial" (Cobb 1987, 88). He believes that it is impossible to claim a universal theology because it is 1) not only an unrealistic "delusion" 2) but also against Christian faith. Thus, he suggests a Christocentric catholic theology as an alternative. How, then, does he claim that christocentrism advocates religious dialogue? Isn't it against interreligious dialogue?

Cobb believes that christocentrism "requires of the Christian the rejection of all arrogance, exclusivism, and dogmatism in relation to other ways" because it is rooted divine Sophia, Wisdom "which is the very God of very God, which is embodied in Jesus. The Wisdom is "present everywhere and at all times" (Cobb 1987, 88). It is the source of all living life and of all human understanding. However, Cobb makes a radical statement that the affirmation of the Wisdom incarnated in Jesus does not mean that

Jesus is the only channel through which God is present in the world. On the contrary, the Wisdom we meet in Jesus is precisely the Wisdom that is already known by all. Exclusivism implicitly denies that this Wisdom is truly God, and thus opposes the Christian understanding of the incarnation, which, in turn, is the basis of christocentrism. (Cobb 1987, 89)

Cobb put the same point in a different way as follows:

Nevertheless, for Christians to recognize that there may be other revelations, or that what other communities describe in quite different ways may be appropriated as revelations by Christians, is an excellent point. (Cobb 1997, 52)

How could Cobb assert the incarnation of the Wisdom in Jesus and, at the same time, the relativity of the uniqueness of Jesus?

He owes a lot for his position to H. Richard Niebuhr's theory of internal history as expressed in Niebuhr's book The Meaning of Revelation. Christians as Christians live out Christian stories such as Genesis and the histories of Jews in the Bible and the history of Christian churches. Christian identity is confirmed by these diverse stories in the way that those stories is "understood and appropriated by believers" (Cobb 1987, 89). According to these stories, Jesus is the center of history. But it does not necessarily mean that the center of history is the whole of history. The range of this history can and should be expanded to include other histories of humankind. In this process of the expanding of history, Christian story can and should also be expanded. For Cobb, "the problem with that story is not, as some suppose, that Jesus is at the center, but that the circumference is far too narrow" (Cobb 1987, 89). He wants to expand the Christian story more broadly enough to embrace Jewish history, East Orthodoxy history, Muslim history, other people in other countries such as India, China, and Korea etc., and even pagan history. He believes that it is possible and necessary to expand our Christian story because the divine Wisdom is present everywhere to overcome "the we-they dualism" (Cobb 1987, 92). What, then, is theological basis for this expansion of Christian internal history?

For Cobb, the impetus for this expansion of Christian internal history comes from Jesus himself in the Bible. His "impulse to live out of a story larger than the one that is historically interconnected with Jesus comes from Jesus" (Cobb 1987, 92). In this sense, one may say that his desire for religious dialogue with other religious traditions is a natural result coming from the inner logic of Christocentricity. Christ, for Cobb, is like force of field which makes Christians be open to others. Simply because of this kind of understanding of Christ, he can acclaim that "[Christian] moral obligations arise out of devotion to Christ" (Cobb 1997, 51), not from outside. Therefore, "[t]he 'Christ] who closes us to the neighbor. . . [and] who closes us to criticism of our beliefs and practices, including our christological beliefs, is . . . an idol" (Cobb 1997, 54). What if, however, something happens that we as Christians have never expected?

Here is his radicalness to claim religious conversion or transformation as a result of religious dialogue. He believes that something may happen that Christians have never expected: conversion from Christian faith to another one. He argues that

[t]hat, of course, is only a beginning of the answer to the larger question. Suppose we Christians are impelled to include Gautama Buddha within our internal histories. Granted, the impulse comes from Jesus. Will the result be simply an expansion of the history from which we live so that the center remains Jesus? Or will Gautama introduce a new center--one that displaces Jesus from centrality?

Such displacement of Jesus is not to be rejected a priori in the name of Christian faith. On the contrary, faith expresses itself in action whose consequences we cannot anticipate. If faithfulness to Jesus leads to the displacement of Jesus from centrality, then such displacement is itself faithful. (Cobb 1987, 92)

If this happens, as Cobb believes, it is an unavoidable result of the dialogue as transformation that he advocates. The issue here for Cobb is whether the dialogue partner can be faithful enough to experience this kind of radical transformation and to accept it. And he also does not forget to indicate that this kind of radical transformation is also a natural and faithful loyalty to Christ. In this sense, he can be called a radical Christocentric "transformationist" (Cobb 1997, 54).

The last point that I want to make in this presentation is Cobb's practical suggestion for the dialogue with respect to the issue of ultimate reality. According to Cobb, there are those like Paul Knitter who assume that the ultimate reality is one and that diverse expressions of other religious traditions are nothing but different mode of experience of the same ultimate reality. Cobb expresses his doubt about this approach, criticizing it as an unproved "assumption that there is a one-to-one correspondence between what is thought of as 'ultimate reality' in our Western tradition and that with which all 'religious' traditions concern themselves" (Cobb 1987, 97). From his own experience including careful study on and dialogue with Zen Buddhists, he instead suggests "the vast complexity of reality on the one hand and the noncontradictory character of the diverse experiences of it on the other", claiming that he believes that "the dialogue becomes more fruitful when we are fully open to the opposite hypothesis" (Cobb 1987, 97). With his suggestion, he leaves others "with the task of formulating a creative synthesis in which the relationship between Emptying and God can be understood in ways that neither Buddhists nor Christians have adequately articulated in the past" (Cobb 1987, 97). And he offers a very practical suggestion for the dialogue that I evaluate as a good point with which we can start another beginning for the dialogue:

If we are looking for a formulation of what all the great religious communities or traditional Ways are offering, we must work hard to find more neutral language. For example, perhaps they all want to offer an account of what is most profoundly wrong with the human condition and to point out the way in which this can be alleviated or overcome. Even this may turn out to be an unsuitable formulation for some of these traditions. And certainly it is not useful when we approach the primal traditions, from which we also have much to learn. But it is better than supposing that they all want to offer revelations of God or mediate saving grace to history. (Cobb 1997, 52).

It can be recalled that Cobb's position opens a way to a fruitful dialogue without any loss of Christian identity which can be found in some of so-called pluralists. And he also tries to avoid the danger which inclusivists and exclusivists may fall into by claiming that Christian perspective is not the only one but just one among others. Nothing else in his position is more fascinating than his claim that the more faithful and loyal we Christians are to Christ the more open we are to others. I think it is a beautiful point to make. The only thing that I doubt is whether we can accomplish the task in our daily life as much as he wish.

Works Cited

Cobb, Jr., John B. 1982. Beyond Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

_____. 1987. "Toward a Christocentric Catholic Theology." In Toward a Universal Theology of Religion. Ed. by Leonard Swindler. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

_____. 1993. "Intellectual Autobiography," Religious Studies Review 19/1.

_____. 1997. "Toward Transformation." In The Uniqueness of Jesus: A Dialogue with Paul F. Knitter. Ed. by Leonard Swinlder and Paul Mojzes. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Griffin, David R. 1991. "John B. Cobb, Jr.: A Theological Biography." 225-242. In Theology and the University: Essays in Honor of John B. Cobb, Jr. Edited by David R. Griffin and Joseph C. Hough, Jr. Albany: SUNY Press.

For more detailed bibliography, see "Appendix B: A Bibliography of the Writings of John B. Cobb, Jr." in Theology and the University: Essays in Honor of John B. Cobb, Jr. edited by David R. Griffin and Joseph C. Hough, Jr.(Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), 243-265, which lacks books and essays published after 1991, and "Process Theology/John B. Cobb, Jr." by Rolf Bouma, also in this encyclopedia.

Process Theology/John B. Cobb, Jr.

Rolf Bouma, 1997

The past 30+ years have been witness to a generational cycle for the movement known as process theology. In the 1960's, process thought emerged as a significant player in theological circles, developing a theological framework based on the philosophical foundations of process philosophy. In the 1970's, process theology articulated those themes of deepest interest to it: interfaith dialogue, environmental awareness and action, scientific credibility, struggle for liberation, re-imaging of God. In the 1980's, process theology reached maturity as it welcomed others to join in the theological enterprise, and it is probably true that without the welcome given them by process theologians, feminist and liberation theologians would have experienced much more difficulty in joining the mainstream of theological conversation.

Now, in the '90's, some would claim that process theology has passed its prime. John Cobb, the theologian most closely associated with process theology, retired from teaching in 1990. Regardless of its current status, however, it is incontrovertible that the influence of process theology is still considerable. As one commentator notes:

Although the more technical details of process thought may interest relatively few within the academy, there is a little doubt that its major emphases have been widely disseminated. The perspective and assumptions of many theologians exhibit a process orientation, usually with little attention to its source. The diffusion of a process perspective within theology must certainly be credited in large part to the prolific writings of John Cobb. (Cady 1993, 15)

What motivated the development of process theology? The motivation seems to arise from a number of factors, but primary among them are concerns that the traditional understandings of God 1) emphasized transcendence at the expense of immanence, 2) failed to give a sufficient unity to the universe, and 3) failed to address constructively the problem of theodicy.

Process Philosophy/Whitehead & Hartshorne

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), a British philosopher whose writings attracted modest attention during his lifetime but remained outside the philosophical and theological mainstream, provided the philosophical foundation for process theology. Whitehead's thinking held that to be actual is to be a process. Anything which is not a process is an abstraction from process, and not a full-fledged actuality. Whitehead reversed the Platonic notion that only that which is outside of process is truly real, claiming that such an orientation leads to a devaluing of life in the world.

For Whitehead, the basic unit of reality is the "actual occasion" or "actual entity." Actual occasions are momentary events which are partially self-created (willed) and partially influenced by other actual occasions. Actual occasions are dipolar, having both a physical and mental function. Physically an actual occasion prehends the physical reality of other actual occasions, and with the mental pole it prehends the "eternal objects" by which actual entitles have conceptual definiteness. The eternal objects are the abstract possibilities of the universe, and actual enetitles are distinct from each other according to the way they realize or actualize these possibilities. All entities are capable of "enjoyment", in which they actualize their possibilities in the process of coming-to-be.

Whitehead's view of reality identified two sorts of process. One is the temporal process in which there is a transition from one moment to the next and from one actual entity to its successor. Time, for Whitehead, was unitary (although not atomistic). Actual entities come into being at each moment of time, and then immediately perish, giving way to the next actual entity in its moment. Entities which possess an experiential unity to them (and there are levels of unity) are "actual occasions" or "occasions of experience." What in traditional philosophy would be considered an individual with enduring substance is, for process thought, actually a series of momentary experiences. Personal human existence, therefore, is a "serially ordered society" of occasions of experience.

The second sort of process is that which occurs within the individual moment. A unit of time is not static. It possesses process of its own in its coming-to-be, its maturity, and its end. Entities in moments of time do not "be", they "become." In this way, the past influences but does the determine the present. The future is truly yet to become. There is freedom within the present to move toward one of a multitude of possible futures. Each actual occasion has a subjective aim which introduces novelty.

Whiteheadian philosophy brings relationship to the fore. All entities are related, and entities in proximity influence/impact each other. Through prehension, other entities are internalized and made a part of one's occasions of experience.

"Why God?" according to process thought? God is the great valuator, without whom order and gradation of value would be non-existent. The fact that creation is not a chaos points to God. Whitehead's philosophy reserved a prominent place for God, although it was a conception of God which differed significantly from orthodox Christian conceptions. God is not the infinite God of Christian orthodoxy, but God is good, albeit limited. God was necessary for Whitehead in order to explain subjective aim as well as the conceptual prehension of eternal objects.

How to describe God? God has a dual structure (dipolarity) which is the complementary reverse of that belonging to all other actual entities. Whereas they are primarily physical and secondarily conceptual, God is primarily conceptual and secondarily physical. The dipolar structure applied to God means that he has a primordial nature and a consequent nature.

In his primordial or conceptual nature God functions to envisage the eternal objects, to maintain them as timeless conceptual possibilities. God's own desire or aim is to see the eternal possibilities become actual. In God's consequent nature, God is affected by the actual entities of this world, being influenced in return by the world which God influences through his primordial nature. God is conscious of all entities, and since each entity manifests in an inferior way the self-creativity which God manifests supremely, all entities are co-creators of the divine reality. At least, they are creative of that aspect of divinity which is consequent upon the world. God is an 'actual entity,' but since he is a nontemporal being, God is not an 'actual occasion.'

In America, three strains of Whiteheadian thinkers emerged: 1) empiricists such as Henry Nelson Wieman and Bernard Meland; 2) rationalists such as Shubert Ogden and Charles Hartshorne, and 3) speculative philosophers and theologians such as John Cobb.

Charles Hartshorne was the foremost American spokesperson for Whiteheadian philosophy. He spoke of "societal realism" to stress that there is a plurality of real entities intimately related. He used the term "creative synthesis" in the title of his most comprehensive book to emphasis that each entity is a self-creation out of a complex many. When describing his position on God, he referred to himself as a "neoclassical theist" to indicate his relation of continuity and discontinuity with traditional theism, a "dipolar theist" to accentuate his critique of the one-sidedness of traditional theism, and a "panentheist" to indicate his view of the relation of God and the world.

While Whitehead said that God was a single actual entity, Hartshorne regarded God as an ordered personal series of actual occasions, i.e., as a divine person enjoying a concrete existence. Hartshorne was concerned with Whitehead's view of God as everlasting. Since this made God contemporaneous rather than past, it made it impossible for God to influence other actual occasions. Hartshorne thought that his conceptual of God as a series of actual occasions rather than a single actual entity brought greater consistency to process thought.

John Cobb, Jr.

John Cobb's career as a theologian began in an unusual way while a student at the University of Chicago. Studying theology with the intent after graduation to study for the ministry at the Candler School of Theology, Cobb's encountered contemporary critiques of Christianity which prompted a crisis of faith. He chose to transfer to the Divinity school at Chicago where he was introduced to the cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead. Thus began an odyssey which would lead him to his position as leading spokesperson for the process movement and would result in positions as Ingraham Professor of Theology at the School of Theology and Avery Professor in the Claremont Graduate School at Claremont in California.

There are three identifiable phases to Cobb's career. The first phase saw him as primarily a process thinker whose missions was to interpret, enlarge, correct, and apply Whitehead's philosophy. In the second phase, he began a program of theological exposition of Christianity, dealing with traditional topics of Christian faith and culminating in his book Christ in a Pluralistic Age, in which he developed a logos Christology in which Christ was understood as the power of creative transformation.

The third stage was a career as a practical theologian. Inaugurated with his interest in ecological issues, it branched out with the conviction that theologians must think responsibly about the most important matters of the day. Since theology and ethics are intertwined, a Christian theologian is someone who "thinks about important questions self-consciously as a Christian."

Cobb self-consciously opposed the treatment of theology as a discipline, believing that this had its roots in the German model of theology as Wissenschaft. Feeling that this approach divorced theology from ethics, and turned theologians into critics of theology rather than constructive theologians in their own right. Cobb fought

to include conversations with other disciplines as a way of addressing the significant issues of the day. As a result, discussions with biology turned Cobb toward ecological concerns (The Liberation of Life). Discussions with economics turned Cobb toward issues of justice and sustainability (For the Common Good: Redirecting the economy toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future).

Thus Cobb's career mirrors his assessment of what theology should be. He himself valued most his contributions to Christian theology, yet it was of those very works of which he was the most critical, saying that they would have to be revised to fit his understanding today. His conversations with feminist theologians, for instance, would push him away from a logos to a sophia Christology, and his extended contacts with theologians from other religious traditions lead him to regret the supercessionist streak in his theological writings. His general openness to change through encounter, however, can be seen in the self-criticism which he directs towards his past.

Process Theology

Process theology's ambitions were immense. As Cobb himself puts it, "[m]y program was the renewal of the kind of work done by Hegel without his unilinear treatment of history" (Cobb 1993, 9). In its approach, process theology would be described as a philosophical/speculative theological movement, as opposed to confessional or biblical. While using the language and structure of Christian theology, its primary source for doing theology is experience of the world interpreted through a Whiteheadian framework.

Doctrine of God

Process theology teaches that God is dipolar (having two natures) and is integrally involved in the endless process of the world. God has a "primordial" or transcendent nature, referring to God's timeless perfection of character, and he has a "consequent" or immanent nature by which he is part of the cosmic process itself. This process is epochal, i.e. not according to the motion of atoms or changeless substances but by events or units of creative experience which influence one another in temporal sequence. God prehends all other actual entities, and in turn is prehended in part by them. God also sets the limits on creativity and influences subjective aims by giving actual occasions an ideal "initial aim."

Christology

Christ is identified with creative transformation, which is God's active presence in the world. In this way Christ is the incarnation of God. Christ is not another name for Jesus, but it is important to show how closely and richly Christ is bound up with the historical person of Jesus. Cobb interprets Jesus' message as one that disrupted the simple continuity of the hearers with the past in such a way as to open them to God's present gift of new possibility. The new does not displace the past nor is a discontinuity with it, but creatively transforms it. Jesus' life and death generates a field of force and to enter that field is to be opened to creative transformation.

Anthropology

Process theology shares a number of perspectives with existential philosophy, in particular the notions that existence is radically contingent and that the future is radically open. Existence is being-in-the-world, and not in some other realm. In contrast to existentialism, however, process thought does not define death as the ultimate horizon (there is, after all, a form of immortality in process thought), and process thought stresses relatedness in a way which is entirely foreign to the solitariness of existentialism. Relationship exists not only with other humans, but with other actual entities (animals, plants, rocks, stars, God). Furthermore, process thought challenges the existential notion of the break with the past with its idea of an incorporated past transformed by creative novelty.

Process thought agrees that humans consist of "body" and "soul" (psyche). When higher-grade occasions of experience "entertain aims that transcend the needs of the body, and where they exercise considerable control and have established an important continuity through time, [such] that they . . . employ the body for their own purpose . . . ," such can be referred to as "soul."

Sin for the process theologians shares important characteristics with corruption of the notion of self as it is understood in eastern religions. Self-absorption and greed derive from notions of the self which cut a person off from his or her interconnections. Process theology's prescription for salvation entails openness to the creative transformative love which Christ embodies.

One last aspect of process theology's anthropology worth mentioning is it's affirmation of pluralism in the varieties of "Christ"s which come through the different traditions. Christ is truly universal, which for process theology means that Christians should be open to the achievements of other faiths, traditions, or ways. Faith is saving faith at the prereflective level, and the result is that all people have faith. Why, then, bother with doctrinal beliefs rather than just live at the prereflective level of saving existence? The process answer is that psychic wholeness leads us to match post-reflective belief systems with pre-reflective experience.

Pneumatology

Cobb's attitude towards traditional trinitarian doctrine is that it is "the heart of the Christian faith, a source of distortion, and an artificial game that has brought theology into justifiable disrepute" (Cobb 1976, 109). It is not that process theology wants to do away with the idea of the Holy Spirit or with Christology. Process theology allows for a doctrine of the Holy Spirit, relating it to the consequent nature of God, or that aspect of God which is influenced by the world. Thus Christology relates to the primordial nature, and pneumatology to the consequent nature. Cobb allows that either dipolarity or quadernity (transcendence, immanence, creativity, responsivity) are more logical frameworks for the process idea of God than that of trinity, yet he wishes to retain a point of contact with Christian tradition. For him, though, the important distinctions within God are twofold, not threefold.

Eschatology

The future is radically open in process theology, and so it can claim grounds for hope as progress is an open possibility. Furthermore, God is at work using appropriate means (non-coercive) to draw all entities toward a future consistent with God's primordial nature. The future towards which we should head is one in which freedom leads us to pursue community, in which the kingdom of heaven means the fullness of God's responsive love as experienced in the enjoyment of all entities, and in which peace fosters an amplification of the harmonies which resonate from differences.

Cobb specifically pleads ignorance regarding the possibility of life after death, although the structure of process thought would seem to preclude it. Immortality is achieved in that one's actual occasions are prehended by other actual entities, which endure even an the serially-ordered actual occasion which is "I" have come to an end (in other words, I die).

Process theology is one of the most open theological movements, being directed outward with its interests in engaging with the issues facing humanity and the world. While conscious of being a Christian theologian, Cobb has written on ecology, pluralism, sexism, physics, biology, economics, theological education, and the university. He has always maintained that he is a "church theologian", because he believes the leadership of the churches provides one of the few genuinely transformative voices in a world desperately needing transformation.

Ethics is fundamental to process thought. God is intimately tied with what comes into becoming. God serves a basic role as the great valuator. Hence process theologians will be found at points where praxis is crucial. Engagement is not the problem for process theology. The problem is whether the conceptual framework is sufficient to carry the load process theology asks it to bear, and whether traditional theistic schemes were sufficiently decrepit that they were unsafe to carry the baggage process theology identified as being necessary in the modern world.

Questions for Consideration:

1. As a "theory of everything", process theology claims kinship with similar theories proposed by Hegel and Teilhard de Chardin. Although Hegel and Teilhard de Chardin use the language of divergence ("unfolding") to describe the cosmic process, each is convergent as to where the cosmic process is heading. Does process theology avoid convergence (and should it) with its universal element of creative transformation as an agent for diversification?

2. Neville expresses great appreciation for process theology, yet believes that process theology makes a critical mistake in positing a determinate God as the origin of everything, and in denying the notion of creation ex nihilo. Is this a mistake, and if so, how critical?

3. Process theology turns to God as the great valuator, and grounds ethics in the primordial nature of God which perceives all possibilities. Is it possible to give God the function of valuator in any meaningful way when the evolution of the cosmic process must proceed to a certain point before consciousness arises and anything approaching intentionality can be ascribed to God?

4. According to process thought, God does not "know" us nor do we "know" God in the present, but only in the past. Does this present a problem which traditional theology is better equipped to address?

Bibliography

Works Cited

Cady, Linell E. 1993. "Extending the Boundaries of Theology: The Writings of John B. Cobb, Jr.", Religious Studies Review 19/1.

John B. Cobb, Jr. 1976. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

--------. 1993. "Intellectual Autobiography," Religious Studies Review 19/1.

Cobb: Works

Cobb, John B., Jr. A Christian natural theology, based on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead. Philadelphia, Westminster Press [1965]

--------. Becoming a thinking Christian. Nashville : Abingdon Press, c1993.

--------. Beyond dialogue : toward a mutual transformation of Christianity and Buddhism. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, c1982.

--------. Can the church think again? Nashville, TN : United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 1976

--------. Can Christ become good news again? St. Louis, Mo. : Chalice Press, c1991.

--------. Christ in a pluralistic age. Philadelphia : Westminster Press, [1975]

--------. Doubting Thomas : Christology in story form. New York, NY : Crossroad, 1990.

--------. God and the world. Philadelphia, Westminster Press [1969]

--------. Grace and responsibility : a Wesleyan theology for today. Nashville : Abingdon Press, c1995.

--------. Is it too late? : a theology of ecology. Denton, Tex. : Environmental Ethics Books, c1995.

--------. Is it too late? : A theology of ecology. Beverly Hills, Calif. : Bruce, c1972.

--------. Lay theology. St. Louis, Mo. : Chalice Press, 1994.

--------. Liberal Christianity at the crossroads. Philadelphia, Westminster Press [1973]

--------. Living options in Protestant theology : a survey of methods. Lanham, MD : University Press of America, c1986.

--------. Matters of life and death. Louisville, Ky. : Westminster/John Knox Press, c1991.

--------. Praying for Jennifer : an exploration of intercessory prayer in story form. Nashville, Tenn. : Upper Room, c1985.

--------. Process theology as political theology. Philadelphia: Westminister Press, c1982.

--------. Reclaiming the church. Louisville, Ky. : Westminster J. Knox Press, c1997.

--------. Sustainability : economics, ecology, and justice. Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis, c1992.

--------. Sustaining the common good : a Christian perspective on the global economy. Cleveland, Ohio : Pilgrim Press, 1994.

--------. The Structure of Christian existence. Philadelphia, Westminster Press [1967]

--------. Theology and pastoral care. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, c1977.

Cobb: Co-authored Books

Cobb, John B., Jr. and Joseph C. Hough. Christian identity and theological education. Chico, Calif: Scholars Press, c1985.

-------- and Herman E. Daly. For the common good : redirecting the economy toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future. Boston : Beacon Press, c1989.

-------- and Clifford W. Cobb. The green national product : a proposed index of sustainable economic welfare. Lanham : University Press of America, c1994.

-------- and Charles Birch. The liberation of life : from the cell to the community. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

-------- and David Ray Griffin. Process theology : an introductory exposition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, c1976.

-------- and David Tracy. Talking about God : doing theology in the context of modern pluralism. New York : Seabury Press, 1983.

Cobb: Edited Books

Cobb, John B., Jr., ed. The Theology of Altizer: critique and response. Philadelphia, Westminster Press [1970]

-------- and W. Widick Schroeder, eds. Chicago, Ill. : Center for the Scientific Study of Religion, c1981.

-------- and James M. Robinson, eds. The later Heidegger and theology. Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1979.

-------- and Franklin I. Gamwell. Existence and actuality : conversations with Charles Hartshorne. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1984.

-------- and Christopher Ives. The Emptying God : a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian conversation. Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, 1990.

Glossary of Process Terms

Rolf Bouma, 1997

 

actual occasion/actual entity

The process alternative to enduring substance in traditional philosophy. An actual occasion is an event which displays an experiential unity. Change is attributed to the creative contribution of each occasion, as well as the influence (prehension) of other actual occasions, and endurance is due to the inheritance of common qualities from previous actual occasions in the sequence. This is true of all actual occasions from electrons and atoms to rocks and plants to humans and God. Humans are an extremely complex nexus of occasions with memory, imagination, and heightened conceptual feelings.

concrescence

Meaning to "become concrete," concrescence is the second type of process in process thought. As a process which happens within each individual actual occasion, these are "processes of their own momentary becoming." From an external, temporal point of view they happen all at once; yet at a deeper level they are not to be understood as things that endure through a tiny bit of time unchanged, but as taking that bit of time to become.

creative transformation

The way in which novelty is introduced into the stream of events. The source of novelty is the Logos, whose incarnation is Christ. Where Christ is effectively present, there is creative transformation. Love is linked with creative transformation, in that all human responsive and creative love involves creative transformation.

creativity

Each actual entity has a measure of freedom to pursue a subjective aim. To the inheritances and prehensions of the past, the entity can add its own creative contribution. If its subjective aim is realized, an entity achieves satisfaction, which is passed on to the next moment of

dipolarity

there are 2 poles or aspects of God: 1) abstract essence and 2) concrete actuality. The former is eternal, absolute, independent, unchangeable, and includes those abstract attributes of deity which characterize the divine existence at every moment. The latter is temporal, relative, dependent, and constantly changing.

enjoyment

In the moment of concrescence, each unit of process "enjoys" subjective immediacy. Enjoyment means that each unit of process has intrinsic value, which is an inner reality in and for itself. Enjoyment is not necessarily conscious, or necessarily related to the pleasure end of the pain-pleasure continuum. Enjoyment as an experiencing subject is "to be, to actualize oneself, to act upon others, to share in a wider community."

process of transition

the primary process in process theology. It holds that the temporal process is a transition from one actual entity to another. One momentary event "perishes" after coming into being, and gives way to the next. Time is not a single smooth flow, but comes into being in little droplets

prehension

a feeling or grasping of the physical and conceptual data of actual entities. Prehension involves more than just consciousness of, or an observing of the phenomenon of, another actual entity. In prehension, other actual entities are internalized and the prehension of them becomes part and parcel of the ongoing process. Prehension is not a conscious act except in higher forms of life.

John Cobb: Mann's Quick Notes

Mark Mann, 1997

 

Son of Methodist missionaries in Japan, himself an ordained Methodist minister, studied under Hartshorne at Chicago (he follows his teacher’s criticisms of Whitehead)

An important process thinker for integrating process thought with Christian doctrine

Accepts thorough-going relational metaphysics over a substance-based

Soul: a centering series of becoming that gives direction to the development of the whole person; it is both integrative and directive

Defines God as a person, a continuously self-surpassing reality, ever succeeding itself

God not the sole creator of the world: God and world create world (and God!) together

Main feature of Christianity is its self-transcendence and the radical responsibility that lies at the base of this self-transcendence

Christ: derives from the pre-existing Logos (or God’s primordial nature), insofar as God’s aims call the world toward its own creative transformation, this is Christ at work, Christ is the incarnation of the transformative Logos into the world, Jesus reveals the supreme incarnation of the Christly aims from God, which affects the continuing development of human history by opening it to new possibilities for transformation; Christ is wherever there are transformations toward the good

Theology of Religions: Dialogue is the key for it transforms both parties (which is the goal) enabling both parties to give new trajectories to their ancient traditions

Ecology: dualisms (mind/nature) have had disastrous effects on the world (objectification of nature), a new ideal is needed for a just and sustainable world where humans learn to respect life in all of its fullness

The information on this page is copyright 1994 onwards, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you want to use text or stories from these pages, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.