Christ in a pluralistic age

Written by John B. Cobb, Jr. Reviewed By Gordon R. Lewis

An increasingly influential writer from the stance of process theology, John Cobb of Claremont School of Theology has here developed a process christology in a way especially significant for perceptive students of contemporary theology, Eastern religions and relativism.

Cobb’s process methodology incorporates Hegelian dialectic. For example, ‘The thesis of the fullness and richness of orthodox Christianity and the antithesis of the honesty and responsibility of modernism have led me to the post-modern pluralistic method.’ Again, ‘The thesis of affirming a single truth, characteristic of both orthodoxy and modernism, and the antithesis of pluralistic relativism, have led me to affirm Christ as the process itself through which these movements occur’ (p. 15). Cobb seeks to go beyond both modernism and orthodoxy.

With the modernists Cobb says relativism is simply true. All our explicit beliefs and attitudes are historically, culturally, and biographically conditioned. All beliefs and attitudes, however, are not therefore equally desirable or true. While all are to be tolerated, Christians cannot continue to be Christians, Cobb asserts, without believing that for them Christ is truly supremely important.

What then does he mean by ‘Christ’? Not the absolutization of one pattern of life against others, nor a final step of the process of openness to what we see. Christ turns out to be the process of creative transformation as, for example. Christians engage in dialogue with polytheists, Buddhists and others. The incarnation of creative transformation (Christ) occurs not only in Jesus of Nazareth, but in all faiths and even unfaiths, universally.

‘The thesis of this book is that Christ is no more bound to any particular system of religious belief and practice than is the creative power of art to any particular style.’ Modern art has, Cobb says, destroyed every fixed value and every established order, even its own. ‘Every particular meaning that has been associated with Christianity and with Christ, as similarly every particular meaning of every other culture, has been relativized. There can no longer be a Buddhist or Hindu or pagan or Marxist art.… The absolute of modern art, therefore, is not itself a style. It is rather, artistic creativity as such through which the world of meaning is repeatedly transmuted by new forms’ (p. 41). Christ is, for Cobb, creative transformation, incarnate universally in any such process of change.

The hope of Christianity in the face of contemporary relativism, Cobb thinks, does not lie in reaffirming the faith. Christians must break relation to traditional language beliefs. All claims to the sacred have been permanently eroded. The question is not one of justifying any of them.

What then is his view of faith? It is not a religious relationship to a supreme Being, but a new life for others through participation in creative change. New Testament scholars will be surprised to learn that ‘the New Testament does not embody a system of values’. Yet in the face of pluralism we are told not to be indifferent.

Although Professor Cobb seeks creatively to transcend modernism, like so many liberals he has failed to discern a special redemptive revelation distinct from the general disclosure of God’s existence and power in nature. Cobb confuses universal divine immanence with the unique divine incarnation in Jesus who was the eternal Christ. Cobb rejects any objective provision in the atonement because he finds an objective basis for justification lacking in power. The efficacy of the atonement is attained by a powerful relation, he says, between the believer and Christ. A reader of Cobb does not know where the creative transformation is going nor what values guide it on its way. A blind power of creative change is hardly the ideal Christian life according to the New Testament.

Cobb sidesteps all substantialist language in reference to God, Christ’s two natures or the human self. Nevertheless one who says ‘I’ refers to ‘the ultimate subject of conscious experience and the ultimate agent of responsible action’. Instead of referring to the soul, he refers to a person’s ‘field of force’. Entry into Jesus’ field of force and progressive conformation to him opens believers to the Christ. Jesus is not only human, but also fallen. He was not only tempted, but ‘he yielded to temptation’ (p. 130). In apparent contradiction, Cobb later explains that Jesus participated in that one structure of existence in which one is without guilt and sin (p. 171).

Although it is no longer possible, Cobb thinks, to argue from the saving power of Jesus’ field of force to his divinity, he admits Jesus claimed a unique authority. Jesus was a paradigm case of incarnation because in him the tension of the self and the Logos was overcome in coalescence. That coalescence is not a particular pattern of living valid for all times, but an openness to ever-new possibilities. Unless great care is taken, Cobb says, people will hear imperialist claims in our assertions about Christ today. ‘This can be checked only by a full recognition of the variety of structures of existence among which that of Jesus is one and that of Gautama, for example, is another’ (p. 169).

Cobb has moved significantly beyond modernism when he says, ‘We should have learned by now that the attempts to end the suffering of people in the cities by tinkering with political and economic changes is futile. We win an occasional battle, but the war goes overwhelmingly against us. True realism would be to consider why we lose and to begin to work on the deeper causes of urban decay’ (p. 199). But Cobb fails to follow his own advice when he then finds a solution to man’s need in Paoli Soleri’s visionary three-dimensional city and architectural ecology or arcology. Cobb has dismissed the fact that man’s sinful nature, which explains the inevitability of sinful actions. Human depravity is changed not by arcology but regeneration by the Holy Spirit.

In addition to the outward planning, which may indeed have some benefits, Cobb calls for an inner acceptance of pluralism. It is relatively easy for one like Cobb, who has denied the trinity, decimated the atonement and imagined a universal incarnation, to ‘find’ that Gautama may have incarnated the Logos in a redemptive manner. The tragedy is that Cobb thinks he has preserved the values of orthodox images. His discussions of the Buddha-nature and the Logos, and of the self in Buddhist and Christian traditions, lead to a ‘synthesis’ without the distinctively Christian content. For example, Cobb learns from Buddhism a kind of radical love which can carry us into a post-personal form of Christian existence. How can the supreme New Testament value of agapē love remain if we have lost the I and the Thou to receive and give love? Adding Teilhard de Chardin to his authorities, Cobb concludes, ‘Finally we will be joined with one another in a single body.’ The aim of the Logos for each of us, he explains, is always toward an inclusive future.

Cobb’s book provides prime examples of what Francis Schaeffer calls ‘semantic mysticism’. Cobb wants the emotive values the orthodox images provide, to say that he has preserved Christianity in his alleged synthesis of Christianity and Buddhism. In that ‘synthesis’, however, the Buddhist lion has swallowed the lamb of Christianity in a positionless position, Nirvana or Nothingness.

Cobb’s identification of Christ with the universal process of change is a form of pantheism reminiscent of the ancient Stoic’s logos as an unchanging principle of change. Yet he insists that it is post-modern and supercedes the alternatives of the recent past. C. S. Lewis listed several ancient and modern varieties of this philosophy regarded as expressions of a human impulse toward pantheism. He then fittingly observed, ‘Yet by some strange irony, each new relapse into this immemorial “religion” is hailed as the last word in novelty and emancipation’ (Miracles, p. 101).

The problems of relativism, pluralism and Christ’s unique claims are not easy ones. All fair scholars admit elements of truth in other world religions and wherever they may be found. But Cobb’s book alerts all to the unbiblical dangers inherent in attempting a synthesis of Christianity as a system with the systems of other religions.

Gordon R. Lewis

Denver Seminary, Colorado