JOHN COBB’S SALVATION: JESUS’S MISSION AND OURS Book Review by Ron Hines, September 3, 2020
What? Another John Cobb Book?!
John B. Cobb, Jr. has just published a book on Salvation. He’s already published 50 books! Why now another, John, in your 95th year? He has spent a lifetime writing theology, and treatises on the organic philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, and warnings about economic and political trends which are leading the planet to catastrophe. He’s spent a full career and then some opening dialogue with Buddhists and other wisdom ways. He had considered his book Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Did Not Fail (2015) to be his last. Meanwhile, he was the intellectual architect of the 2015 conference in Claremont on Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization, and its proceedings resulted in a published book of essays and spin-off organizations (Ecological Civilization, Pando Populus). But now he’s back to the Jesus theme. Salvation is about Jesus’s Mission and Ours. In his latter years he’s been energized by the hearing he’s being given in Communist China, where government officials and others are eager to hear what this Christian theologian has to say about “Ecological Civilization,” a United Nations concept that is now enshrined in China’s constitution. John Cobb wants us to see the connection between Jesus’ proclamation of the basileia theou (which John translates as “divine commonwealth”) and China’s aim to develop “ecological civilization.” And he wants us to respond to God’s call to save the world, even though the mission to which Jesus was called ended up in failure!
John describes his work as a “confessional statement.” It was too much effort to write a scholarly book, he says, but the confession of his faith weaves together many threads from previous scholarly work, and updates it with his recent experiences in China.
As an ordained United Methodist pastor, I hear John’s challenge as a very concrete way to put feet on the motto our tribe likes to publicize. “We are called to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” It’s a nice slogan, but many comfortably middle-class United Methodist congregations think it means growing a congregation of nice folks who do nice things in their community, like operating a food bank or providing back packs of food on weekends for kids who would go hungry without government subsidized school lunches. (Of course, that’s good, but John’s vision challenges us to so much more!)
My Journey with John Cobb
In my five decades of ministry as an ordained United Methodist pastor my go-to theologian for understanding what it means to be Christian in our pluralistic world has been Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr., son of Georgia missionaries who served the gospel for decades in Japan. When Thomas Altizer came to a southern California United Methodist seminary to declare that his heart was “strangely warmed” when he came to the realization that “God is dead,” John Cobb gave me hope that the reality of “God” might continue to play a role in the world, the church, and my ministry.
As a philosophical theologian who encountered America’s radical empiricism at the University of Chicago, Cobb’s upbringing was stretched toward wider horizons as he grappled with “natural theology.” He wanted to address the widest possible audience in his quest for truth, but he also recognized the reality of his social location. His would need to write a Christian natural theology. As a post-M.Div. Ph.D. student at the School of Theology at Claremont, I was fascinated by the language world of John Cobb. In God and the World I learned his affirmation that God and the world create one another! And that God calls the world into ever new dimensions of creativity. In Structure of Christian Existence I became aware of significant learnings about how multiple human cultures dealt with the “axial revolution” of human freedom and dignity, which accounts for amazing human cultural diversity. Nevertheless, in Christian existence, I learned, we are accepted as we are by a God who invites us to a radical “self-transcending selfhood,” enabling us to love one another. The “Fall” of humanity into sin was not so much a matter of breaking God’s rules, as it was “missing the mark” of the great expectations by which God’s Call was luring us forward into ever greater expressions of harmony and zest in a wondrously diverse world where Life continues to surprise us.
Christ in a Pluralistic Age followed, interpreting Jesus in the light of Christ as the Logos, Christ as Jesus, and Christ as the image of hope. Jesus embodied the Spirit of Creative Transformation now at work in art and theology. A way is even opened to see Christ at work in a radically pluralistic world, where Christians may be better Christians if they incorporate truth from Buddhists, and Buddhists would be better Buddhists if they incorporate truth from Christians.
These were not the thoughts that reflected the fundamentals of the faith that nurtured my call to ministry! I find it odd to be dragged back into “fundamentals” that my faith has outgrown.
I found it quite a jarring experience the other night just before The Late Show to see an ad featuring Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, long-time unofficial
chaplain to US Presidents, and keeper of American civil religion. He didn’t say, “Are you saved?” But the implication of his message was that you are a sinner, and that if you just say the prayer to Jesus that Rev. Graham prays in his brief commercial, God will receive you and make everything all right. “Someone is on the line to pray with you now, if you just call this number.” I was surprised to see this on a Los Angeles major network station. It’s been a long time since I drove past billboards in Southwest Washington state imposing the question, “Are you saved?” or providing the answer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ!” Another billboard raised the question starkly: “Where will you spend eternity? Heaven or hell?”
You won’t find that kind of “salvation” in John’s book! I grew up in a culture that assumed that each person needed to say “Yes” to Jesus in a special way in order to receive salvation, that is, assurance that God accepts and loves you now, and when you die, God will receive you when you meet his agent Peter at the pearly Gates! Salvation—it’s about me and Jesus, a personal relationship to Jesus, and Jesus calls me to spread the word to the whole world: “Jesus will accept you, too, if you but repent of your sin and accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” A pastor colleague in Manila was pleased that he could share Christ’s salvation with a taxi driver in the time it took to drive across town by sharing the Four Spiritual Laws published by an American parachurch group.
Mainline United Methodists these days would find the question, “Are you saved?” a bit odd—something for evangelicals still in the throes of pious Bible Belt culture. And of course, one would not expect “four spiritual laws” from Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr. Especially when he looks to the constitution of Communist China to articulate what the mission of Jesus was when he announced, “the basileia theou (divine commonwealth) is at hand!
A Wesleyan Witness
Not long after my return to being a pastor in Washington state after a decade as missionary pastor and seminary professor in the Philippines, I found John Cobb’s “Wesleyan Theology for Today” a helpful way to explore Grace and Responsibility. His aim was “to find in dialogue with Wesley some central convictions around which United Methodists might be able to reach enough consensus to move faithfully into the future.” He focused on staples of Wesleyan spirituality by naming the “Way of Salvation” in two modes: God’s pardon (justification and assurance) and God’s transformative work (sanctification, being perfected in love). He wanted to broaden our view of salvation by stating what it was not. The salvation for which we supremely hope is not other-worldly, and it is not restricted to “forgiveness of sin.” Rather, it names all we care most about. In the face of humanity’s “heading for
catastrophe,” salvation will be meaningful “only if we understand that God shares our concerns and is actively at work in effecting the healing, the liberation, the directing and the renewal of the natural world, for which we hope (Grace and Responsibility, 1995, pp. 26-33).
An earth “heading for catastrophe”? Yes, that’s been a theme for John Cobb ever since he published the first book-length theology of ecology, asking in 1970 Is it Too Late? to save Earth from ecological catastrophes. I was in Claremont when he hosted that conference on Alternatives to Catastrophe in the early 70s, and also in 2015 for another conference which brought 2000 people to Claremont to work on multiple fronts for Seizing an Alternative. It is the most succinct expression of John’s aim in this, his “last book.”
So, What Will John’s Salvation Book Teach Us?
John explains the flow of chapters in his book. He begins with the historical Jesus’s understanding of “salvation,” and the changes through Christian history that came to put so much emphasis on Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross to bring forgiveness of sin. Heightening conscious feelings of guilt and fear of punishment after death was the “capstone” of a “catastrophic development” in Christian history. “Too many Christians assume that the sins to be forgiven can be legalistically listed. Too many inhabitants of Christendom have thought that the most important sins were sexual. There is no chance that we will ever become real disciples of Jesus unless we clear our minds of these mistakes.” (p. 35).
He spends two chapters celebrating the historical nature of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and bemoaning “the fading of historical consciousness” just when we need it most. “It is only through historical consciousness that we can understand what it means today to be disciples of Jesus.” And Christians must recognize that much of our history needs to be rewritten with repentance for past mistakes.
Three chapters are spent giving some specificity to the concept of Ecological Civilization. Two basic convictions underlie his thought about this: 1) relationality, and 2) integration of human beings into the natural world. Details are carefully unfolded in chapters on “Communities of Communities” and “Ecological Economics.” A separate chapter discussed the prospects of such a civilization in the United States. John celebrates practical proposals for public banking, and in several pages celebrates the work of Devon Hartman, who is bringing solar power to the people in John’s immediate vicinity. If you find this
puzzling in a theology book, then you need to reread the section on historical consciousness!
There are a couple of chapters on “The Deconstruction of Obstacles” and especially “Deconstructing America’s Self-Understanding.” He draws our attention to the obstacles of Christianism, modern metaphysics, modern science, modern nationalism and racism, economism, and gives a chapter all its own on American exceptionalism and its impact on defense and the American university.
John asks “How is Ecological Civilization Possible”? Although Jesus failed, he changed history, and we, too, can change our history. We could follow the spirit of Pope Francis’ encyclical on integral ecology and we could follow the example of China as it lives into its aspiration to be an ecological civilization. We can claim the positives in the history of the Social Gospel movement, culminating in the witness of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was also influenced by Gandhi. John points to “glimmers of hope” in many localized communities around the globe.
His final chapter asks, “Can God Help?” Here he points to his previous “last book,” on Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Did Not Fail. He summarizes attacks on the doctrine of divine omnipotence, in which God has all the power. “If God has all the power, then there cannot even be resistance to God. We are in no way responsible for what we do. The worst sins are all God’s doings. This is very different from Jesus’s Abba.” (p. 150) He started talking about God, and ended up affirming human self-determination. He reminds us of his debt to the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, and shifts from the cosmological to the existential, reminding us of God’s “call forward”—a theme from his God and the World (1969).
“The task of bringing the divine commonwealth is not fundamentally ours. But God works in and through creatures, especially human ones, to that end. Our task is to let God work in and through us. The question to ask should be, not whether God can help us, but whether we can help God.” “God has the power to empower us. All our power to do good derives from God. But God could not pick up the man left beaten by the roadside. It took a Samaritan.” (p. 155)
Here are further samples of John’s message in Salvation.
1. John identifies his writings as falling into three clusters—explicitly Christian theology, the philosophy of Whitehead and its implications and applications, and “ecological civilization,” which is about the world John hopes is coming. John has called Salvation his “last book,” drawing together themes of his lifetime, and especially messages he has articulated in Jesus’ Abba—The God Who Did Not Fail, and in writings associated with the 2015 conference, “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization.” (See Putting Philosophy to Work, Process Century Press, 2018).
2. John interprets Jesus’ proclamation of the “divine commonwealth” as what today is named “ecological civilization.” The term reflects John’s conviction that salvation includes “relationality” and “integration into the natural world.” Most of John’s recent thoughts on “ecological civilization” are published in Chinese! (See a journalist’s witness to his work in China here.) His engagement with “ecological civilization” has come from its having become, under the leadership of the Communist Party, embodied in China’s constitution. It is similar to Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, which emphasizes God’s aim at “Integral Ecology.”
3. Jesus failed in his mission to save his people from their suicidal determination to oust Rome, but Christian communities were formed in his wake that lived by his teaching. His disciples reformulated his mission so as to open these communities fully to Gentiles. In this, his “final” book, John Cobb wants to make clear that all of his books add up to God’s “call to save the world” from its self-destructive descent into climate chaos. Today Jesus’ message invites the possibility of forming a countercultural society that would offer a way of survival. “Look to God for what only Jesus’ Abba can do for us.”
4. “Jesus’ mission was to save his people from the Roman yoke. Most of those who shared that mission turned to military means, which Jesus saw to be self-destructive. So, the mission to save his people included saving them from their own proclivity to violence. “Saving his people from Rome and from themselves was the most inclusive mission possible at that me. To follow Jesus today is to adopt the most inclusive mission in our day. That is to save the world from the self-destruc on on which it now seems bent. . . . To me the call to Jesus’ disciples to save the world seems clear and simple. We need to stop serving wealth. We need to love our enemies. But I have not succeeded in making the argument so clear and simple.”
“S ll, I commend the book to the a en on of anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus. I believe we are called to do our part in ‘saving the world.’”
5. The holis c goal of “sustainable society” in the 70s was usurped by neoliberal economists and American business interests to promote “sustainable economic growth”! “But the economic, poli cal, educa onal, and social systems remained in place, and despite specific gains, humanity, as a whole, lived more and more unsustainably. American imperialists and neoliberal economists won the day!”
6. “We have lost forty years to domina on by those who are more concerned about the increase of their own wealth and power than the well-being, or even survival, of their fellow humans. Perhaps we can s ll make possible the survival of a significant part of the human popula on and also the building of a regenera ve society out of what is left.”
7. “I believe working for integral ecology or for the coming of ecological civiliza on is, today, the clearest expression of discipleship to Jesus, but I have not made this clear in my previous wri ngs.“
8. “Jesus made clear the radically countercultural nature of the divine commonwealth, and we must make clear the radically countercultural character of integral ecology or ecological civiliza on. We will see that Jesus’ teaching of universal love, that is, love that includes the enemy, is required for either.”
Buy the book! See description and vendor links at Process Century Press.