John Cobb (1925-) and Process Theology
Bill Long 11/17/06
Great Thoughts...and then One Contradiction
It is always terribly inspiring for me to listen to a person around 80 years-old who is vibrant, intellectually sharp, witty and still lovingly engaged in his life's work. For example, a month ago I was moved by the poetry of Robert Bly (b. 1926) when he visited Eugene, OR. Tonight I was impressed by the bright, focused, engaging, energetic and sharply precise presentation of Process Theology for our day by 81 year-old Methodist theologian John Cobb. He was born three months before my father, though my father died in 1981. Since 1981 Cobb has written 25 books. Though I was impressed by Cobb's energy and clarity, in one crucial respect he seemed to be inadequate and, as a result, less than useful for theology today. This essay reviews his lecture and then presents my criticism.
A God For Today
Cobb's task was to exposit one way in which the liberal (progressive) church seemed to have lost its way today. Just to emphasize, however, that he doesn't see himself primarily as a critic of the progressive church, he stressed the ways that this church as been "on the right side" of history--such as repenting for Christian anti-Judaism, racism, and sexism; and recently embracing environmental issues. Yet the topic that interested him was the way that the progressive church had let down its children by not knowing how to speak adequately about God for our generation. He pointed out that two popular ways to speak about God "out there" today are: (1) biblicism and (2) medieval language. The former is adopted by those who think that biblical categories are sufficient to use in describing God; the latter are content to use the theology of Aquinas (1225-74) to express faith. These languages, though possessing useful notions, are not fully adequate for today because they ignore the scientific context in which our lives are lived. What is needed, however, is not simply a scientific language of God, as if God is some kind of cosmic machine in our day.
Rather, Cobb argued for the importance of challenging a "scientistic" world view by developing what he called a "wholistic" world view. This world view, which he referred to as "enriched naturalism," opens the door to thinking about God as an effective actor in our world today. God is not the omnipotent God of some strands of the Christian tradition; God is, rather a deity who himself is involved in the learning and evolutionary process of creation. Christ is the power of creative transformation in the universe. Underlying these assertions is a commitment to the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).
A Problem Emerges
And, here is the problem. Cobb emphasized the importance of the progressive church's speaking freely of God today. He longed for a means by which a sort of consensus could develop in the progressive church, much like the way in which the theory of Personalism dominated the leading Methodist divinity school 60 years ago (Boston University) in the person and thought of Edgar S. Brightman. Then he said that he thought this would happen when developments in the sciences that are congenial to Christian faith are capitalized on and developed. Which development did he highlight? Well, the philosophy of Albert N. Whitehead.
I hope you see the contradiction. One the one hand Cobb seemed so "modern," so committed to extracting something of value from the most current thinking and then suffusing it with theological reflection; on the other hand he labeled this "modern" thinking as that of Whitehead. The only problem is that Whitehead has been dead for nearly 60 years, retired for almost 70 and whose signal contributions in philosophy and the philosophy of science date from the 1920s and 1930s. Some might even suggest that Whitehead left off interacting with the actual practice of mathematics, his original field, nearly 90 years ago. Certainly he may still have some general observations of use to us today. But just as certainly he is an uncertain trumpet to blow when trying to assess the value of the most recent and modern scientific developments.
Process Theology as Passe?
The original appeal of process theology, which Cobb himself developed more than 40 years ago in dependence on Whitehead and Hartshorne's philosophy, was that it provided a potent alternative to a Barthian theology which emphasized a remote God who intervened dramatically in the world to save and judge. The process deity seemed more fitting for the nascent environmental movement, for the movements which exposed the errors and sins of traditional Christian theology. After all, not only was the Church feeling its way along; so was God.
But I had the overwhelming sense as Cobb spoke that the process God was fading as he tried more and more to explain Him/Her/It. Certainly an active, learning, struggling God is not an unattractive one for our day. But the heavy philosophical terminology, which owes more to the debates of the 1930s than the realities of 2006, is certain to make people in the pew wonder if process theology is more trouble than it is worth.
And not only the people in the pew. Cobb's younger co-director of the Center of Process Studies, David Ray Griffin (b. 1939), has retired and, instead of spending much time on process thought, has been one of the most outspoken conspiracy theorists to explain 9/11 (that the government supposedly planted explosives in the WTC and then deliberately ran the planes into the Towers). Though I am not one to dismiss conspiracy theorists regarding 9/11, I am, I hope, to be forgiven if I see in this a glint of the idea that process theology itself may be a little tired. It really is too bad. John Cobb makes a most impressive presentation.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long