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Christmas Greetings & Thoughts on the Future of the Process Movement

John Cobb Christmas Letter & Thoughts on the Future of the Process Movement

Dear Friend,

I am 98, and for that age, my faculties (sight and hearing and even thinking) are quite good. The one about which I do complain is memory. Probably I’m typical for my age. People are very understanding. While I still can, I am reviewing my “legacy.” It is mixed up with the legacies of many others in the process movement. I conclude that my most important contribution is institutional. That is because the institutions to whose existence I have contributed are all acting responsibly in relation to what is happening. I think and hope that none of them give priority to my opinions. They are already out-dated.

The first is the Center for Process Studies. David Griffin gave it extraordinary leadership. Andrew Schwartz succeeded him, during a period when the future of the Center and the Claremont School of Theology, of which it was a part, was uncertain. Despite difficulties, he has helped move process thought from the margin of the American discussion to a role in the mainstream. Although Andrew and the School worked well together, it was clear that a friendly separation would be good for both. That has taken place. And an independent Center is once again acting as the “center.”

From the beginning, many of those most interested in process thought were church folk. For them, we organized Process and Faith. It has worked well for some evangelicals who are unable to swallow all of traditional Christian doctrine, but who understand that there is much in Christianity of great importance for them and for the world. Tripp Fuller has provided a home for such people for many years and Tom Oord has recently offered an alternative. I had nothing to do with establishing either of these organizations, but since I have contributed to the process theology that both find works well for them, I include them in the family. The process theology they embody is Christian, but the Christianity involved appreciates and learns from other spiritual traditions. “Process” seeks to serve these other traditions as well. Process and Faith has served other spiritual traditions as well as Christianity, and an important role of process thought is to provide an inclusive vision that makes positive sense of diverse traditions.

There are a number of very small-scale experiments inspired by process thought. Bonnie Tarwater has established an ecological farm and church near Salem. Sunday afternoon we worship in the barn with the ducks and the goats. She is developing small groups for self-examination and group action.

The Center for Process Studies operates chiefly in the academic world. Another process organization worked with institutions, including educational ones, but also ecological ones and governmental ones. Eugene Shirley organized Pando Populus. When CPS moved north as part of the Claremont School of Theology, Pando was designed to keep an activist process organization alive in Los Angeles County. The County has excellent goals, and Pando is recognized as a major contributor to moving toward them.

American process thought caught the attention of leading Chinese. Zhihe Wang came to Claremont and earned a PhD here. His wife, Mei Wong has joined him. They have organized the Institute for the Postmodern Development of China. Thanks to them, process thought has played a large role in China.

When it was clear that CPS would leave Claremont together with the School of Theology, we organized our local activities under the rubric of the Cobb Institute. It has given major attention to supporting the remarkable efforts of new Hispanic leadership in Pomona to revitalize that city under the new circumstances. But the activities of the Cobb Institute are often based on working together electronically; so, it also evolved quickly into a national and even international organization. The public programs organized especially by Ron Hines every Tuesday morning are an attractive way for outsiders to join our community. Jay McDaniel has been the superb leader of the Institute. He is now taking more responsibility for CPS and is being succeeded in the Cobb Institute by Mary Elizabeth Moore. 

For process thinkers feelings are the stuff of which the world is made. Still, action should be guided by thought. Ideas should have an effect, especially with respect to the global problems that became crucial in the twentieth century. In 2015 the Center for Process Studies organized a major conference subtitled “toward an ecological civilization.” We have used that term to name what we see as the most promising direction of activity and policy. Philip Clayton has organized the Institute for Ecological Civilization.

Despite the multiplicity of process organizations, I helped to add one more, a couple of years ago. We call it the Living Earth Movement. Some of us became extremely troubled by the way in which the American goal to control the planet was (in a sense rightly) recognizing China as its greatest obstacle. Some leading Americans seemed open to a nuclear war in response to that threat. Communications were breaking down, and they were being replaced by mutual demonization. The most advanced “chip,” of great importance for breaking new ground in technology, is made chiefly in Taiwan, and the U.S. wants to prevent China from having access. Although it formally recognizes Taiwan as part of China, it armed Taiwan to enable it to fight China, and blocked Chinese access to the chips. The world came close to war. We organized the Living Earth Movement (LEM) to encourage open discussion among nations, especially U.S./China. We believe that there is little hope unless the two greatest economies and most powerful countries cooperate and lead. Charles Betterton is making it possible for the LEM to “move.”

Among American nongovernmental organizations and movements, none are in better position to work with Chinese than the process ones. We process folk are well-regarded in China and have the trust of the Chinese government. But none of the organizations I have mentioned, other than the IPDC, were in position to discuss how we could fulfill the responsibilities inherent in the situation. 

A major obstacle to good communication seemed to be the success of American propaganda in portraying China as evil. The Living Earth Movement has written around fifteen short papers, mostly on topics on which China is vilified. They provide a more balanced account, and we are just now getting ready to go public with them. We now want to organize many interactions between Chinese and Americans. Fortunately, Pres. Xi has called for strengthening connections at many levels. Reports on the November Xi/Biden meetings in November in the Bay area suggest that the American government will be less opposed to reducing American hatred of China. The time may have come for us to help implement a possibility that may make a significant contribution to world peace.

We have asked Philip Clayton to take the lead in this project. He is already highly respected in China as well as in the United States. Greatly increasing conversation between Chinese and Americans would be a first step toward China and the United States taking joint responsibility for global leadership in the drastic changes needed for the survival of civilization. We stand ready to do what we can to help.

Finally, I rejoice not only that all of these organizations are engaged in important activities with excellent leadership and genuine sensitivity to the context in which they are acting, but also that they support each other when that is needed. There really is a process community, and I am only one contributor among many. Nevertheless, I claim it as my legacy and am glad that my passing will have little effect.

Meanwhile I wish each and all of you a Christmas and new year of hope and joy.

John Cobb

Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr. is an American theologian, philosopher, and environmentalist. Described by historian Gary Dorrien as one of the two most important North American theologians of the twentieth century, Cobb is the preeminent scholar in the field of process philosophy and process theology, and the author of more than fifty books. In 2014, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Cobb is a founding co-director of the Center for Process Studies and Professor Emeritus of Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University.