|John B. Cobb, Theologian, Academic, Pragmatist|
John Cobb's Global Spirit
by Bruce Epperly
September 23, 2015
"As a Christian theologian, Cobb asks “Can Christ be good news?” and then
proceeds to share the good news of a faith that is inclusive, healing, hospitable,
and growing; a faith that embraces the marginalized, placing them at the center
of the theological adventure." - Bruce Epperly
In my last contribution, I reflected on Bernard Loomer’s vision of “size” or “stature” as the ability to embrace as much of reality as possible, including contrasting positions, without losing your spiritual center. Perhaps no theologian in recent times has been as inclusive as John Cobb. John has been my teacher and mentor for over forty years and is one of models upon which I have based my own teaching, ministry, writing, and administration. I have been inspired by Cobb’s vision of Christ as the embodiment and lure of God’s aim at creative transformation. In a polarizing age, I have taken to heart Cobb’s affirmation that Christ is the Way that excludes no way. Christ is the inspiration for the quest for truth and enables us to embrace wisdom and healing wherever it is found.
Cobb’s global spirit is embodied in the breadth of his theological and ethical commitments. Many theologians and scholars choose to focus on the micro, staying with the same subject matter their whole careers. In contrast, Cobb has always been on the move, and inspires his students to be ecumenical and dynamic in spirit as well. Cobb has been a leader not only in process theology but also in reflections on ecology and global climate change, economics, interfaith dialogue, pluralism, feminism, the intersection of theology and prayer, to name a few of the areas in which he has illumined laypersons, academics, and pastors. Cobb’s theology is both academic and practical. His work reminds scholars that one of our vocations is to be agents of creative transformation, bringing healing and justice to the world. As a Christian theologian, Cobb asks “Can Christ be good news?” and then proceeds to share the good news of a faith that is inclusive, healing, hospitable, and growing; a faith that embraces the marginalized, placing them at the center of the theological adventure.
If theology and philosophy are to tell big stories, intended to transform and heal the world,
then nothing is too small or too large for a theologian’s interest. - Bruce Epperly
As students at Claremont, many of us thought that between the creativity of John Cobb and David Griffin, there would little room for innovation on our part. Over the course of our careers, we discovered that Cobb and Griffin opened the door for our own creative thinking. Just think of the creativity of some of my classmates – Jay McDaniel, Catherine Keller, David Lull, Rita Nakashima Brock, and Rebecca Parker! Nothing is off limits or out of bounds for a process theologian. If theology and philosophy are to tell big stories, intended to transform and heal the world, then nothing is too small or too large for a theologian’s interest. In my own journey, I find myself dialoging with Cobb as I embark on my own adventures as a process theologian whose work has embraced healing and wholeness, spiritual formation, ministerial well-being, biblical studies, complementary medicine, and emerging Christianity. There is always more to explore if we are faithful to the God of process. There are more pathways to healing than we can imagine if we affirm that the aim of the universe – God’s vision – is toward the production of beauty.
I am grateful for the wisdom of John Cobb and his willingness to support his students with affirmations and inspirations. His way invites us to see holiness in every pathway of truth and work toward healing of this good earth and its peoples.
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Wikipedia - John Cobb
Below is a selection of content from Wikipedia's fuller discussion:
John B. Cobb, Jr. (born February 9, 1925) is an American theologian, philosopher, and environmentalist. Gary Dorrien has described Cobb as one of the two most important North American theologians of the twentieth century (the other being Rosemary Radford Ruether). Cobb is often regarded as the preeminent scholar in the field of process philosophy andprocess theology—the school of thought associated with the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Cobb is the author of more than fifty books. In 2014, Cobb was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
A unifying theme of Cobb's work is his emphasis on ecological interdependence—the idea that every part of the ecosystem is reliant on all the other parts. Cobb has argued that humanity's most urgent task is to preserve the world on which it lives and depends, an idea which his primary influence—philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead—describes as "world-loyalty."
Cobb is well known for his transdisciplinary approach, integrating insights from many different areas of study and bringing different specialized disciplines into fruitful communication. Because of his broad-minded interest and approach, Cobb has been influential in a wide range of disciplines, including theology, ecology, economics, biology and social ethics.
In 1971, he wrote the first single-author book in environmental ethics—Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology—which argued for the relevance of religious thought in approaching theecological crisis. In 1989, he co-authored the book For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, Environment, and a Sustainable Future, which critiqued current global economic practice and advocated for a sustainable, ecology-based economics. He has written extensively on religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue, particularly between Buddhism and Christianity, as well as the need to reconcile religion and science.
Cobb is the co-founder and current co-director of the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California. The Center for Process Studies remains the leading Whitehead-related institute, and has witnessed the launch of more than thirty related centers at academic institutions throughout the world, including twenty-three centers in China. Cobb is also founder and president of the Institute for the Postmodern Development of China, which uses Whiteheadian ideas in order to move toward a sustainable economy and address practical problems associated with social change and globalization.
Recently, Cobb co-founded the organization Pando Populus. Pando Populus aims to create an "ecological civilization," and is co-organizing a major conference on "Seizing An Alternative" with the Center for Process Studies in June 2015.
Although Cobb is most often described as a theologian, the overarching tendency of his thought has been toward the integration of many different areas of knowledge, employing Alfred North Whitehead's transdisciplinary philosophical framework as his guiding insight. As a result, Cobb has done work in a broad range of fields.
Philosophy of education
Cobb has consistently opposed the splitting of education and knowledge into discrete and insulated disciplines and departments. He believes that the current university model encourages excessive abstraction because each specialized area of study defines its own frame of reference and then tends to ignore the others, discouraging interdisciplinary dialogue and inhibiting a broad understanding of the world.
To combat these problems, Cobb argues that discrete “disciplines” in general—and theology in particular—need to re-emerge from their mutual academic isolation. Theology should once again be tied to ethical questions and practical, everyday concerns, as well as a theoretical understanding of the world. In service to this vision, Cobb has consistently sought to integrate knowledge from biology, physics, economics, and other disciplines into his theological and philosophical work.
Constructive postmodern philosophy
primary intellectual influence.
Cobb was convinced that Alfred North Whitehead was right in viewing both nature and human beings as more than just purposeless machines. Rather than seeing nature as purely mechanical and human consciousness as a strange exception which must be explained away, Whiteheadian naturalism went in the opposite direction by arguing that subjective experience of the world should inform a view of the rest of nature as more than just mechanical. In short, nature should be seen as having a subjective and purposive aspect that deserves attention.
Speaking to this need of moving beyond classically "modern" ideas, in the 1960s Cobb was the first to label Whiteheadian thought as “postmodern.” Later, when deconstructionists began to describe their thought as “postmodern,” Whiteheadians changed their own label to “constructive postmodernism.”
Like its deconstructionist counterpart, constructive postmodernism arose partly in response to dissatisfaction with Cartesian mind-matter dualism, which viewed matter as an inert machine and the human mind as wholly different in nature. While modern science has uncovered voluminous evidence against this idea, Cobb argues that dualistic assumptions continue to persist:
"On the whole, dualism was accepted by the general culture. To this day it shapes the structure of the university, with its division between the sciences and the humanities. Most people, whether they articulate it or not, view the world given to them in sight and touch as material, while they consider themselves to transcend that purely material status."
While deconstructionists have concluded that we must abandon any further attempts to create a comprehensive vision of the world, Cobb and other constructive postmodernists believe that metaphysics and comprehensive world-models are possible and still needed. In particular, they have argued for a new Whiteheadian metaphysics based on events rather than substances. In this formulation, it is incorrect to say that a person or thing ("substance") has a fundamental identity that remains constant, and that any changes to the person or thing are secondary to what it is. Instead, each moment in a person's life ("event") is seen as a new actuality, thus asserting that continual change and transformation are fundamental, while static identities are far less important. This view more easily reconciles itself with certain findings of modern science, such as evolution and wave-particle duality.
Ecological themes have been pervasive in Cobb's work since 1969, when he turned his attention to the ecological crisis. He became convinced that environmental issues constituted humanity's most pressing problem. Cobb writes:
"During the seventies my sense of the theological vocation changed. I did not lose interest in developing the Christian tradition so as to render it intelligible, convincing, and illuminating in a changing context. But I did reject the compartmentalization of my discipline of 'constructive theology,' especially in its separation from ethics, and more generally in its isolation from other academic disciplines... I was persuaded 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 went on to write the first single-author book in environmental ethics, Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology, in 1971. In the book, he argued for an ecological worldview that acknowledges the continuity between human beings and other living things, as well as their mutual dependence. He also proposed that Christianity specifically needed to appropriate knowledge from the biological sciences in order to undercut its anthropocentrism (human-centeredness) and devaluation of the non-human world.
|City Hall in Claremont, California. Cobb has|
lived and worked in Claremont since 1958.
Critique of growth-oriented economics
Cobb's economic critiques arose as a natural extension of his interest in ecological issues. He recognized that he could not write about an ecological, sustainable, and just society without including discussion of economics.
As part of his investigation into why economic policies so frequently worsened the ecological situation, in the 1980s Cobb decided to re-evaluate Gross National Product (GNP) andGross Domestic Product (GDP) as measures of economic progress. Together with his son, Clifford Cobb, he developed an alternative model, the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW), which sought to "consolidate economic, environmental, and social elements into a common framework to show net progress." The name of the metric would later change to Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). A recent (2013) article has shown that global GPI per capita peaked in 1978, meaning that the social and environmental costs ofeconomic growth have outweighed the benefits since that time.
Cobb also co-authored a book with Herman Daly in 1989 entitled For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, Environment, and a Sustainable Future, which outlined policy changes intended to create a society based on community and ecological balance. In 1992, For the Common Good earned Cobb and Daly the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.
In recent years, Cobb has described current growth-oriented economic systems as the "prime example of corruption" in American culture and religion:
"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."”
Cobb sees such values as being in direct opposition with the message of Jesus, which in many places explicitly criticizes the accumulation of wealth. Because of Christianity's widespread acceptance of such economic values, Cobb sees Christians as far less confident in proclaiming the values of Jesus.
Biology and religion
Along with Whitehead, Cobb has sought to reconcile science and religion in places where they appear to conflict, as well as to encourage religion to make use of scientific insights and vice versa.
In the area of religion and biology, he co-wrote The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community with Australian geneticist Charles Birch in 1981. The book critiqued the dominant biological model of mechanism, arguing that it leads to the study of organisms in abstraction from their environments. Cobb and Birch argue instead for an "ecological model" which draws no sharp lines between the living and non-living, or between an organism and its environment. The book also argues for an idea of evolution in which adaptive behavior can lead to genetic changes. Cobb and Birch stress that a species "co-evolves with its environment," and that in this way intelligent purpose plays a role in evolution:
"Evolution is not a process of ruthless competition directed to some goal of ever-increasing power or complexity. Such an attitude, by failing to be adaptive, is, in fact, not conducive to evolutionary success. A species co-evolves with its environment. Equally, there is no stable, harmonious nature to whose wisdom humanity should simply submit. Intelligent purpose plays a role in adaptive behaviour, and as environments change its role is increased."
The Liberation of Life stresses that all life (not just human life) is purposeful and that it aims for the realization of richer experience. Cobb and Birch develop the idea of "trusting life" as a religious impulse, rather than attempting to achieve a settled, perfected social structure that does not allow for change and evolution.
Religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue
Cobb has participated in extensive interreligious and interfaith dialogue, most notably with Masao Abe, a Japanese Buddhist of the Kyoto School of philosophy. Cobb's explicit aim was to gain ideas and insights from otherreligions with an eye toward augmenting and "universalizing" Christianity. Cobb writes:
"...it is the mission of Christianity to become a universal faith in the sense of taking into itself the alien truths that others have realized. This is no mere matter of addition. It is instead a matter of creative transformation. An untransformed Christianity, that is, a Christianity limited to its own parochial traditions, cannot fulfill its mission of realizing the universal meaning of Jesus Christ."
In short, Cobb does not conceive of dialogue as useful primarily to convert or be converted, but rather as useful in order to transform both parties mutually, allowing for a broadening of ideas and a reimagining of each faith in order that they might better face the challenges of the modern world.
Cobb has also been active in formulating his own theories of religious pluralism, partly in response to another Claremont Graduate University professor, John Hick. Cobb's pluralism has sometimes been identified as a kind of "deep" pluralism or, alternately, as a "complementary" pluralism. He believes that there are actually three distinct religious ultimates: 1) God, 2) Creativity/Emptiness/Nothingness/Being-itself, and 3) the cosmos/universe. Cobb believes that all of these elements are necessary and present in some form in every religion but that different faiths tend to stress one ultimate over the others. Viewed in this way, different religions may be seen to complement each other by providing insight into different religious ultimates. Cobb's pluralism thus avoids the criticism of conflating religions that are actually very different (for instance, Buddhism and Christianity) while still affirming the possible truths of both.
Revitalizing Christianity in a pluralistic world
|David Ray Griffin. Cobb co-founded the|
Center for Process Studies with Griffin in 1973.
Cobb believed that through at least the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, American Protestant theology had been largely derivative from European (specificallyGerman) theology. In the late 1950s, Cobb and Claremont professor James Robinson decided that the time had come to end this one-sidedness and move to authentic dialogue between American and European theologians. To establish real mutuality, they organized a series of conferences of leading theologians in Germany and the United States and published a series of volumes called "New Frontiers in Theology."
After writing several books surveying contemporary forms of Christian Protestantism, Cobb turned in the mid-1960s to more original work which sought to bring Alfred North Whitehead'sideas into the contemporary American Protestant scene. Cobb aimed to reconstruct a Christian vision that was more compatible with modern knowledge and more ready to engage with today’s pluralistic world. He did this in a number of ways.
For one, Cobb has stressed the problems inherent in what he calls the “substantialist” worldview—ultimately derived from Classical Greek philosophy—that still dominates Christian theology, as well as most of western thought. This "substantialist" way of thinking necessitates a mind-matter dualism, in which matter and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of entities. It also encourages seeing relations between entities as being unimportant to what the entity is "in itself." In contrast to this view, Cobb follows Whitehead in attributing primacy to events and processes rather than substances. In this Whiteheadian view, nothing is contained within its own sharp boundaries. In fact, the way in which a thing relates to other things is what makes it "what it is." Cobb writes:
“If the substantialist view is abandoned, a quite different picture emerges. Each occasion of human experience is constituted not only by its incorporation of the cellular occasions of its body but also by its incorporation of aspects of other people. That is, people internally relate to one another. Hence, the character of one's being, moment by moment, is affected by the health and happiness of one's neighbors.”
For Cobb, this metaphysics of process is better-aligned with the Bible, which stresses history, community, and the importance of one’s neighbors.
|Claremont School of Theology, 2013|
Also, instead of turning further inward to preserve a cohesive Christian community, Cobb turned outward in order to discover truths that Christianity may not yet possess.This is in direct opposition to those who feel that Christianity as a religious system is absolutely final, complete, and free of error. Cobb has not only turned to other religions (most notably Buddhism) in order to supplement Christian ideas and systems, but also to other disciplines, including biology, physics, and economics.
In fact, Cobb has not shied away even from re-imaging what is now regarded as the “traditional” Christian notion of God. He does not believe that God is omnipotent in the sense of having unilateral control over all events, since Cobb sees reconciling total coercive power with love and goodness to be an impossible task. Instead, all creatures are viewed as having some degree of freedom that God cannot override. Cobb solves the problem of evil by denying God’s omnipotence, stressing instead that God’s power is persuasive rather than coercive, that God can influence creatures but not determine what they become or do. For Cobb, God’s role is to liberate and empower.
Against traditional theism, Cobb has also denied the idea that God is immutable (unchanging) and impassible (unfeeling). Instead, he stresses that God is affected and changed by the actions of creatures, both human and otherwise. For Cobb, the idea that God experiences and changes does not mean that God is imperfect—quite the contrary. Instead, God is seen as experiencing with all beings, and hence understanding and empathizing with all beings, becoming "the fellow sufferer who understands."Cobb argues that this idea of God is more compatible with the Bible, in which Jesus suffers and dies.
Additionally, Cobb's theology has argued against the idea of salvation as a singular, binary event in which one is either saved or not saved for all time. Rather than seeing one's time in the world as a test of one's morality in order to enter a heavenly realm, Cobb sees salvation as the continual striving to transform and perfect our experience in this world. Cobb's idea of salvation focuses less on moral categories and more on aesthetic categories—such as a preference for intense experience over dull experience, or beauty rather than ugliness. Cobb writes:
"If morality is bound up with contributing to others, the crucial question is: What is to be contributed? One contribution might be making them more moral, and that is fine. But finally, true morality cannot aim simply at the spread of morality. It must aim at the wellbeing of those it tries to help in some broader sense. For process thought that must be the perfection of their experience inclusively."
Cobb admits that the idea of morality being subservient to aesthetics is "shocking to many Christians," yet he argues that there must be more to life than simply being morally good or morally bad and that aesthetic categories fulfill this function specifically because they are defined as goods in themselves.
Within the last twenty years, Cobb has become increasingly distressed by the popular identification of Christianity with the religious right and the weak response of mainstream Protestants. To encourage a stronger response, he organized Progressive Christians Uniting with the noted Episcopal priest George Regas in 1996, chaired its reflection committee, and edited a number of its books. As the perceived gap between the policies of the American government and Christian teaching grew wider, these books moved beyond simply reformist proposals. The last of these was entitled Resistance: The New Role of Progressive Christians.
Cobb's most recent book is entitled Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action. It argues against both religiousness and secularism, claiming that what is needed is the secularization of the wisdom traditions.
The influence of Cobb's thought in China
Process philosophy in the tradition of Alfred North Whitehead is often considered a primarily American philosophical movement, but it has spread globally and has been of particular interest to Chinese thinkers. As one of process philosophy's leading figures, Cobb has taken a leadership role in bringing process thought to the East, most specifically to help China develop a more ecological civilization—a goal which the current Chinese government has written into its constitution.
With Zhihe Wang, Cobb founded the Institute for Postmodern Development of China (IPDC) in 2005, and he is currently the president of its board of directors. Through the IPDC, Cobb helps to coordinate the work of twenty-three collaborative centers in China, as well as to organize annual conferences on ecological civilization.