With Imagination, Anything is Possible: Process Theology, MacGyver and Non-Violence

MacDoes God ever call us to injure other people? Again, I think the answer is affirmative. If killing Hitler could have stopped the Holocaust and shortened the war, Bonhoeffer was right to support that project. On a much lesser scale, Jesus used violence to cleanse the temple.

Whitehead pointed out that “life is robbery.” For one creature to live, other lives are sacrificed. Certainly human life involves enormous killing of other creatures. That is the kind of world we live in.

The above passage comes from an essay by written by John Cobb. John Cobb is perhaps my favorite theologian and philosopher of all time. In fact, there is a good chance that he may even be my favorite writer of all time. I agree with so much of what he says and writes about in fact (concerning God, ecology, interpreting Whitehead etc…), that I have often wondered if there was anything I might disagree with him on. Well, as it turns out, I disagree with him on killing hypothetical people.

Full disclosure, at this point in time I resonate (and have for a while now) with radical streams of Christianity that subscribe to non-violent, semi-violent, non-lethal, and/or anti-violent resistance; i.e. peace theologies such as those found in Mennonite, Quaker and some liberal/mystic Catholic traditons, for instance. I think one of the things that has captured my imagination so much about these types of radical ideologies is their emphasis on undying, unconditional love, and forgiveness, which of course, according to proponents of these types of radical peace theologies, is found to be exhibited and modeled in Jesus.

So, suffice it to say that I was really disheartened to learn, while watching a lecture by Bob Mesle which he gave at Claremont recently, that John Cobb would be willing to kill 15 people if it meant saving the whole planet. Now, to be fair, Cobb was responding to a hypothetical either/or scenario and he did clarify by saying that he couldn’t imagine a case in which this would ever be true.

The hypothetical situation Cobb was responding to sounded like, to me, a process version of the trolly problem found in ethics text books. According to the process view, relational power opens up possibility while coercive power closes down possibility, but it may indeed be so, according to John Cobb, that the best possibilities we are left with in a given situation may be the least of some perceived “evils.” For example, in the case of the trolly, choosing a track that will kill one person in order to save five.

So, here is where I start to wonder.

One of the reasons I have come to appreciate process thought so much is because of it’s unique emphasis on openness, creativity and novelty. So, it was absolutely baffling to me when I heard a room full of Claremont academics seemingly fall into the binary trap of the trolly problem. It seems to me that hypothetical either/or situations, like the one found in the trolly problem, are problematic if only because they don’t leave room for a few things that are so absolutely critical in process-relational thinking, namely: improvisation, openness, and creativity; or what I like to call “the MacGeyver Possibility.”

In the trolley scenario, we’re faced with the impossible choice of having to decide on killing 1 person to save 5 people by pulling a lever which alters the runaway trolley’s course.

Anyway, my theory (and I’m sure it’s not original) is that by adding MacGeyver to the trolley problem/equation, the outcome could indeed change because there is a significant chance that the 1980′s fictional TV hero could figure out a way to stop the trolley completely, using only a tooth pick and a swiss army knife.

Leaving room for the MacGeyver Possibility makes sense, I would think, if one was coming from a process-relational perspective, especially since, according to folks like Cobb, God lures us to act in a certain way that would be thought best in any given circumstance. Cobb writes:

“By introducing possibilities of such action that go beyond what the situation would otherwise allow, God expands our freedom. Violence as we ordinarily understand it restricts the freedom of its object.”

The words Cobb writes above seem to me to speak very much to what is going on in the MacGeyver stories. One of the reasons MacGeyver consistently seems to get out of perilous situations is because he’s able to overcome what gestalt psychologists call “functional fixedness.” So, essentially, MacGeyver is able to look at objects (or situations) and not get hung up on their typical functional purpose. Rather, he is able to see an objects potential role in solving a problem. MacGyver demonstrates a remarkable lack of fixation. The objects in MacGyver’s environment can have many different purposes other than their typical purpose; in Cobb’s terms, MacGeyver ‘expands the freedom of objects around him.’

In this sense, then, MacGyver could be classified as a strong divergent thinker. Objects then, for MacGyver, are essentially pieces of a larger puzzle that fit together to form larger tools. Objects don’t just have one purpose for MacGyver. This type of thinking, or restructuring, is what makes it possible for MacGyver to use nonviolent (or at the very least, semi-violent) methods to move from initial states to goal states.

To bring this all back to theology then, I imagine the God of process-relational theology to function very similarly. I mean, If MacGyver can assemble a slingshot out of a mattress to get himself out of a tricky situation, I’d say it’s indeed possible for God and/or humans not to have to kill hypothetical people (or real ones for that matter) when faced with tough dilemmas that life will inevitably throw our way.

Cross-posted on turri.me

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TNT: The Resurrection, Divine Knowledge, & Other Todd-Picks

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This is a very special edition of the Theology Nerd Throwdown.  Not only does the BoDaddy try to provoke me (theologically speaking) toward a rowdy defense of the resurrection but we have a very special guest – Todd Littleton.  Todd is the greatest Southern Baptist Minister on planet earth.  He is also the technical brains behind our High Gravity online classes, pastor to the HBC Deacon of the Year, & now officially an Elder.

Hence forth all ye Homebrewed Christianity Deacons shall know Todd Littleton as Elder of the Okie.

Over the course of the episode we discuss the nature of the resurrection, the divine attributes, the function of doubt in faith, atheism as a spiritual practice, the church and its obligations to the poor, the World Vision debacle, and a number of other goodies. Here’s the blog post where Bo provoked the first segment.  It was a blast to have a group of local Deacons in the room hanging out after we finished the High Gravity session on Mary Daly.  If you are ever visiting LA tweet us up & maybe we will have a recording you can join in on.

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Emergence, Panenthesim, Science & Process Theology with Joseph Bracken S.J.

Bracken_JosephJesuit Philosopher and Theologian Joseph Bracken is our guest this week on the podcast.  He recently retired from Xavier University & was honored with an amazing tribute – Seeking Common Ground – which includes articles from John Cobb, Catherine Keller, and more.  In this episode we take a tour through Bracken’s influential career working toward common ground between religion & science, Aquinas & Whitehead, and Religious Pluralism.  I can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading and talking with Father Joe.  Off the mic he is one of the most amazing nerds I have met & in conversation he has a quick & sensitive intellect.

On top of all the nerdiness you even get to hear a little inside Jesuit scoop about the new Pope Francis I.

Check out Bracken’s previous visits to the podcast where we talk Trinity & Process and then my favorite – Christology!  I am sure you are headed to Amazon to get a Bracken book.

*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***


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What is Process Theology? Let Monica A. Coleman Tell You!

Today the Emergent Village Theological Conversation on Process Theology comes to you!  This is audio from Session One where we introduced Process Theology.  Monica A. Coleman is Assc. Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions at Claremont School of Theology and is your guide into Process Theology!

She is the author of Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology (Innovations: African American Religious Thought), The Dinah Project: A Handbook for Congregational Response to Sexual Violence, and a contributor to the new Creating Women’s Theology: A Movement Engaging Process Thought.

There are a couple videos from the EVTC from Monica.  She discusses Life After Death & Creative TransformationCheck them out and share them!

You can follow her blog and all the other media projects that she does at http://monicaacoleman.com/.

She is indeed a master tweeter and Patheos Progressive Christian Blogger.

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A Calvinist Loving On Process Theology?

Paul Capetz – a real deal Calvinist, professional theologian, & Fuller Family Christmas Guest decided to replay to my sovereignty smack talking this week with a Calvinist rejoinder.  This is awesome and I am sure it will inspire you to get his book on the history of the doctrine of God (it’s awesome & for general audience) and check out the podcast 500th birthday we threw for Calvin.  Now…here’s Paul!

I applaud Tripp Fuller for initiating this stimulating and provocative discussion about Calvin’s theology and the question of metaphysical determinism.  As someone with a deep appreciation for Calvin (I have taught 6 seminars on Calvin at my school in the past 20 years as well as written a book on Calvin’s understanding of religion), I hope I can add some words that are intended not polemically but thoughtfully, thereby giving expression to some of the issues with which I have had to wrestle as a student and teacher of Calvin.

Let me begin by stating that of all the premodern theologians, Calvin best captures the whole of what is important in my understanding of Christian faith.  He is deeply indebted to Luther in his doctrine of justification, he is profoundly Augustinian in his understanding that religion is a matter of the heart and its affections, and he veers in the direction of Wesley with his emphasis upon sanctification.  Moreover, his high view of the Old Testament and his belief that the third use of the law is its primary purpose account for his oft-noted affinities with Judaism and thus make him an important bridge between Jews and Christians.  Finally, one cannot help but notice that Calvin is also vitally concerned with the political life and the shaping of society in the direction of greater justice for all and care for the needy.  In each of these respects, I follow Calvin without reservation!

But there is another side of Calvin that explains the stereotypically negative picture of him.  First, there is his utterly deterministic view of divine providence.  Not only does God allow events we deem evil to occur but God is the active agent behind each and every event.  Of course, Calvin strives valiantly not to impugn God’s character by accusing God of injustice.  Still, it is hard for even the most sympathetic reader of Calvin’s theology not to find a logical problem in his theology at this point.  Second, his doctrine of election means that before creation God has predestined who is to be a recipient of salvation and who is to be damned.  Again, it is hard not to suspect that his position here leads to insuperable problems.  After all, what is the point of preaching the gospel if some people (indeed, the majority of people!) are incapable of responding to it by virtue of God’s decision to damn them before they are born?

As a theologian I employ an existential hermeneutic, if I may call it that.  What I mean is that I always look for the existential question being addressed behind any particular theological statement of doctrine.  So, for example, it is clear in the above two cases that Calvin is addressing two concerns near and dear to his heart.  First, his doctrine of providence is concerned to assure us that the events of personal life and history are meaningful because God is actively involved in all events.  Second, his doctrine of election is concerned to uphold the priority of God’s grace in human salvation.  But, having identified the motivating questions behind his formulations of these doctrines, we have to ask: are there other ways we could affirm these religious points without Calvin’s problematic interpretations of these doctrines?  This is how I believe we should approach the question of whether metaphysical determinism is really as essential to Calvin’s theology as most of those who call themselves “Calvinists” believe to be the case.

Process theologians and others with related viewpoints have correctly pointed to the influence of Greek metaphysical assumptions upon all classical Christian theology, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant.  There can be no serious doubt, I think, that the classical tradition is guided by an unquestioned axiom regarding God’s impassibility.  I have found process theology particularly helpful in offering new ways to think about this issue, especially its insistence that there can be a perfect exemplification of receptivity in God.  If we let go of the classical bias that looks upon change and passibility as imperfections—and I think we should—then there might be another way of working through the problematic aspects of Calvin’s theology identified above.

There is, in my judgment, one other problem with Calvin’s theology and that is a formal or methodological one.  Calvin, like all the premodern Protestants, believed it is necessary to account for every single statement within the Bible and to make them cohere with one another in a “system” of doctrine.  Calvin’s Institutes of 1559 is probably the finest achievement in the era of the Reformation of this form of biblical theology.  Two centuries of historical-critical labor, however, have sufficed to demonstrate that there are multiple theological perspectives in the Bible that cannot be harmonized apart from doing damage to the integrity of the biblical text itself.  Let’s take the example of divine determinism.  Obviously, Calvin has plenty of exegetical support for his deterministic doctrines of providence and election in both testaments.  Yet the Bible itself also offers counter-examples where the emphasis is precisely to assert human responsibility and hope for a redemptive outcome of even the most desperate circumstances if only sinful human beings will repent of their destructive ways.  I believe that an honest reckoning with the Bible requires us to leave behind Calvin’s basic methodological assumption of a unitary biblical theology and to think systematically about the various possibilities offered to us by the Bible for thinking about providence and election.  But agreement with my view means that we have to move away from the understanding of exegesis and theology bequeathed to us by the sixteenth-century Reformers and to grapple with the difficult issues of modern theology that have arisen of necessity from the historical-critical study of the Bible.

In sum, I believe that there is much of importance to retrieve in Calvin’s theology but that it cannot be salvaged in its entirety.  But is this a betrayal of Calvin?  I think not.  If Calvin was able to adopt a critical posture toward Luther, why cannot Reformed theologians today adopt a critical posture toward Calvin?  I might note in closing that two of the finest heirs of Calvin’s tradition in the modern world have done precisely that: Schleiermacher and Barth.

Paul E. Capetz
Professor of Historical Theology
United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities

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Prayer & Process with John Cobb

John Cobb answers your questions about Prayer and Process – in prep for for the Emergent Village Theological Conversation for 2012 that kicks off Jan 31.

In the past week people over at Tony JonesRachel Held Evans, and Kurt Willems have been asking prayer and the relationship between Process theology and Openness theology.  Well John Cobb is here for you!

Of course y’all sent in questions about other stuff too…Occupy Wall Street, Postmodernism, Economy, Ecology, and other theological goodies.  I (Tripp) did this interview in Cobb’s library so listening to it will be like my first time because in real time I was a very distracted FANIAC!

For other resources check out:

Our TNT podcast about why people should come to the Emergent Conversation.

Marjorie Suchocki’s entry level PDF is super helpful.

The schedule for the conference looks amazing!

Bruce Epperly’s podcast continues to generate conversation.

His book Process for the Perplexed is fantastic.

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John Cobb Answers “What is the relation between process theology and openness theology?”

People over at Tony Jones, Rachel held Evans, and Kurt Willems have been asking around the interwebs what the relationship between Process theology and Openness theology.  Well John Cobb has an answer for you and here it is…….

Overall, the relation is friendly, supportive, and overlapping. Of course, there are differences and disagreements. I think the difference is primarily that of the context and constituency of the two theologies. The disagreements reflect those differences.

Openness theology is the outgrowth of the experience and reflection of thoughtful and sensitive members of the conservative evangelical community. They have seen that some of the doctrines that this community has inherited are not consonant with either Christian experience or the Bible, and they have undertaken to modify them. They do not see this modification as in any way contrary to evangelical faith, and it is important to them that that the changes they are making are in no way a compromise with secular culture.

Process theology has attracted some people who had reacted strongly against conservative forms of Christianity. They are often people who have wondered, both for intellectual and existential reasons, whether they could believe in God at all. Some have reacted against the way the Bible has been imposed as an arbitray, external authority. Some trust philosophical reflection more than the theological tradition, and some are more interested in coherence with contemporary science than with orthodox theology.

What is remarkable is how close these two movements have come in the content of their affirmations! Both reject the impassive, nonrelational God of traditional philosophical theology. Both reject the idea that everything that happens is a direct expression of God’s will. Both strongly affirm human freedom and responsibility. Both emphasize the goodness and graciousness of God, putting love central among God’s attributes.

Openness theologians argue for these views scripturally, and process theologians do so philosophically. But this difference is far from total. Openness theologians are interested in the reasonableness of their beliefs, and Christian process theologians are interested in their faithfulness to the basic message of scripture. Since the lines are not sharply drawn, there are those who feel comfortable in both communities.

One doctrine on which a fairly clear line of disagreement can be drawn is on divine power. Although the two groups largely agree on how that power actually operates in the world, it is important to those rooted in the evangelical community to affirm that God’s giving us freedom and responsibility is a voluntary divine decision. God’s power is such that God could control everything, but God chooses to limit the exercise of that power so as to make room for creaturely freedom.

Process theologians reject this solution on three grounds. One is the problem of evil. If God could have stopped the Holocaust and failed to do so in order to honor the freedom of the Nazis, we find God’s judgment highly questionable. The second is the nature of divine power. We believe that divine power is not coercive power but empowering, liberating, and persuasive power. The exercise of divine power enhances the power of the creatures. It does not remove it. The third is the nature of being as such. To be, in our view, is to have power. God could not have created powerless creatures because the idea of powerless creatures does not make sense. To create is to share power with creatures.

This is not the place to pursue the debate. Nor should this disagreement block friendly cooperation and mutual respect between the two groups. Indeed, there is no reason that Christians should not identify in a general way, at least, with both.

We who are Christian process theologians and do care greatly about the relation of our affirmations to the Christian scriptures are particularly gratified by the development of openness theology. Whereas we have recognized that in our reading of the texts we could be accused of bias and even eisegesis, the very similar reading of the texts by openness theologians is reassuring. We can claim scriptural support for many of our views with greater confidence.

There is a recent book that grew out of conferences we have held in Claremont with openness theologians. It is called “Searching for an Adequate God.” Clark Pinnock did most of the work on putting these essays together and deserves 95% of the credit. To my embarrassment, by insisting on putting my name first among the editors, he has given the impression that I made a major contribution. But it is a fine book, and I am proud to be associated with it.

* Check Out Cobb Answer More Questions HERE Monthly….Submit Your Own

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Paul the Process Theologian

Did you know Paul…the Apostle Paul…was a Process theologian? Well now you do!  Getting ready for the Emergent Village Theological Conversation (YOU SHOULD COME!) I thought I would share John Cobb’s lecture he gave on Paul’s Process 

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0827205295/?tag=homebrechrist-20

leanings.  This comes out of a really sweet commentary on Romans he wrote with David Lull which is well worth checking out.  Now enjoy discovering how Whiteheadian Paul was.


Thank you for this opportunity to talk about how my philosophical theology has influenced my interpretation of Romans. In my opinion, everyone is influenced in all their thinking by what they understand to be real. But since relatively few, these days, even relatively few philosophers, discuss metaphysics, or recognize this level of reflection, the influence is largely unconscious and therefore uncriticized. I owe to Whitehead and Hartshorne the fact that I think a good deal about this question. I need very briefly to explain the difference between the way I understand reality and the way that most people today, especially as heirs of the Enlightenment, assume it to be.

Most people think that their access to a world other than their own experience is through their sense organs. They focus especially on what they see and what they feel through touch. For practical purposes this gives them a world of solid objects that are colored. If they have studied some epistemology, they may agree that in fact what is given is only a phenomenal world. In either case, whether sensa or material objects, the entities making up the world are mutually external. It is widely assumed that no two things can occupy the same space at the same time.

 

These assumptions underlie the political and economic thought of the Enlightenment as well as its natural science. They have made any real concept of “community” difficult. They have made a coherent interpretation of quantum physics impossible.

 

I have been persuaded that another understanding of reality is better. This begins with an analysis of a moment of human experience itself. This is an event, rather than a sense datum or an empirical object. Instead of trying to understand this event as a product of objects in motion, this approach proposes the hypothesis that the world as a whole is composed of events and that in their most basic structure they resemble human experiences.

 

The analysis of the basic structure of a moment of human experience is in terms of its relationships to other events. Most of the content of one moment of experience comes from the influence, the flowing in, of past experiences. Much of the remainder comes from new stimuli derived from the body, especially through the brain. These mediate the influence of events outside the body, especially through the sense organs. There may also be some influences from outside the body, especially other human experiences, whose effects in experience are more direct and immediate. And in the theistic vision of Whitehead, there are also novel possibilities for the self-constitution of the new experience that express the inflowing of God into the occasion of experience.

The references to the body and its sense organs can be generalized only to other vertebrate animals. But the general point, that the presently occurring event is constituted by the inflowing of other events can be generalized much further. Hence, in this view, the real things that make up the world are not mutually external individual objects; instead, they are events constituted by the new unification of other events. In Whitehead’s terms, events are not “simply located.” Each event includes other events. A human experience is largely constituted by its relations to others. It is social through and through. The same is true of a quantum of energy.

 

What does this have to do with the interpretation of Paul? Quite a lot, I think. Of course, I am not claiming that Paul held to just the same view of reality to which David and I hold. But I do believe that when Paul has been read through the eyes of the dominant understanding, much of the richness of his thought has been obscured. I believe that when one is open to believing that entities interpenetrate one another, much that he says can be affirmed more seriously, and, indeed, more straightforwardly.

 

Speaking of those in the communities of believers, Paul said that we are members one of another, that together we constitute one body, and that this is the body of Christ. As long as we think of ourselves as bounded individuals, fundamentally external to one another, connected through contracts or common interests, this language can not be taken very seriously. On the other hand, if we understand that we are fundamentally constituted by our relations with one another and with a past that includes the Christ event, the language makes much more sense.

 

I have been embarrassed throughout my career by my extreme limitation with respect to languages, and especially the biblical languages. Prior to this opportunity to work closely with a New Testament scholar in the interpretation of a text, I have been quite hesitant to make pronouncements about the meaning of scripture. However, given my biases, in my Christology, I did dare to pick up on Schweitzer’s idea that Paul thought of a spiritual field of force emanating from the Christ event. I dropped the word “spiritual,” since in my understanding such a field of force emanates from every event and is at once both physical and spiritual. It consists in all those events that in some measure internalize the one in question. Every historical event affects all the events in its future. Given this metaphysical view, it is easy to assert that some events, such as the Christ event, have had a far greater field of force than most others, that the church serves continuously to renew, re-form, and channel this field of force, that the decision to orient oneself in terms of that field of force rather than others increases its efficacy in one’s life, and that much of Paul’s language about our relation to Christ makes sense when we think in these terms.

 

The Whiteheadian metaphysics also makes sense of Paul’s language about our relation to God. The idea of God’s Spirit indwelling us and of God’s love being poured into our hearts has been puzzling to those who accept the dominant worldview. For a Whiteheadian, it is quite straightforward. God is literally in us in the strong sense of participating in constituting what we are moment by moment. The effectiveness of that presence depends greatly on our decisions and many other factors.

 

Most important for our interpretation of Romans is the relation between ourselves and the Christ event. If that event is fundamentally external to us, then its saving effect must be that, in some way, it changed God’s attitude toward us. Theologians have held various views about how Jesus’ death satisfied God’s requirement of righteousness from human beings so that God declared believers to be just. For nearly a thousand years many Christians have supposed that some such doctrine is the heart of the gospel and that it expresses Paul’s message.

 

If we approach Romans with the view that all things participate in other things, we can find there a quite different understanding of how Jesus brought into being a new relationship between humanity and God. The crucial relationship of others to Jesus is one of participation. This is strongly suggested in Romans 6. The NRSV tells us that we have been baptized into Christ Jesus and that this is a baptism into his death. We have been buried with him by baptism so that just as Christ was raised from the dead, so we too might walk in newness of life. If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection life his. In 8:17 Paul tells us that we are joint heirs with Christ—if we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

 

Despite all this language, at least in Protestant circles, the focus has been on pistis. This was certainly important to Paul, but we believe that it should be understood in a way that ties it much more closely to the rhetoric I have summarized of union with Christ Jesus. We propose that Paul taught that just as we participate in Jesus’ suffering, death, burial and resurrection, so also we participate in his pistis. But the dominant translations are based on different assumptions and do not allow this idea to come to expression.

 

The role of a philosophical theology is not to dictate translations. It does, of course, bias one toward one translation or another. Theological bias influenced by philosophy has prevented translators from writing about the pistis of Jesus. Only very recently have they acknowledged that a number of texts can be read better as speaking of this. We think that the pistis of Jesus was as important to Paul as the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, these expressed or resulted from his pistis.

 

Further, pistis has almost always been translated as “faith” even though in some instances, such as references to the pistis of God, translators have recognized that they must translate it as “faithfulness.” We recognize that both translations are valid, but we believe that “faithfulness” is the more inclusive term and that Paul often had this more inclusive meaning in mind. We chose to reverse the balance, using “faithfulness” wherever it fits and “faith” only where it is clear that Paul focused on the narrower meaning. In particular, we believe that Paul was impressed by the faithfulness of Jesus, for example, in going to the cross for the sake of sinners, and that speaking of the faith of Jesus does not capture the fullness of Paul’s meaning.

 

Clearly, Paul was also interested in the pistis of those to whom he wrote. We understand this also to be more richly understood when it is translated as faithfulness in most places. How is this faithfulness related to that of Jesus? We think this relation is much like the relation of baptism to the death and burial of Jesus. For Paul the relation is one of uniting with Jesus. Our faithfulness participates in Jesus’ faithfulness or opens us to being formed by Jesus’ faithfulness. God then sees us in light of the faithfulness in which we participate rather than in terms of our continuing limitations and failures. We cannot participate in Jesus’ faithfulness without participating in Jesus’ suffering and death. Paul believes that through thus uniting with Jesus we are united with him also as children or heirs of God and are assured that we will share in his resurrection or

glorification.

 

To show that this is a plausible interpretation of Paul’s theology led us to a concentrated focus on Romans 3:21-30. For the detailed exegesis of this passage I have been wholly dependent on David Lull. But I am persuaded that his retranslation of this passage is more accurate to the Greek and makes far more sense than what we find in the NRSV. It also fits much better with the theology we find elsewhere in Romans.

 

We have, of course, relied heavily on other New Testament scholars, scholars who are unlikely to be influenced by the metaphysics that is important to David and me. This is important. Philosophical theologians must be especially careful to avoid any crude eisegesis, and the concurrence of scholars without their prejudices as to the meaning of texts is especially important.

One final word. I believe that the point of view of interpreters deeply affects what they see and describe. I have accented the role of our point of view in my comments. I also believe that it is crucial that what we see and describe from that point of view can be seen also by those who are not particularly interested in the point of view. I hope that even those who are committed to more conventional metaphysical ideas will agree that Paul may have thought in a way more like what we describe. Of course, I would be even happier if some decided that this point of view is fruitful and adopted it, at least provisionally.

 - John B. Cobb, Jr.

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“Who Was Jesus?” John Cobb Answers #FANIAC

My favorite living theologian, John Cobb, is excited to be a part of the 2012 Emergent Village Theological Conversation Jan 31-Feb 2. Below you will see him answer the question ‘Who Was Jesus?’ sermonically.  Here he is discussing Colossians 1:19 “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” For more Cobb check out his podcast visits (One & Two), his FAQ page, and his sweet new book.  Of course you can come chill with him in SoCal this winter!!!  NOW…for the one & only John Cobb! #FANIAC

To be a Christian is to hold Jesus in highest esteem. Even more important, it is to live as Jesus’ follower and as one who believes that in following Jesus one is also serving God. According to the synoptic gospels, people in his day, marveling at his words and deeds, called him “Lord.” The great question then was whether he was the expected one, the Messiah, or, in Greek, the Christ.

For his disciples, the resurrection appearances of Jesus settled these questions. Jesus was definitely Lord, and definitely Messiah or Christ. Although much that was expected of the Messiah had not happened, the title Christ almost became part of Jesus’ name or a virtual synonym. Jesus’ was God’s beloved son, chosen by God for the salvation of all who followed him.

Paul developed these ideas. As was expected of the Messiah, Jesus was a descendant of David, and through his resurrection he came to be, or to be recognized as, the Son of God. Jesus fulfilled God’s mission by opening the doors of salvation to all, including the Gentiles. Jews had been seeking salvation by obedience to the law, but this did not work. By his faithfulness to God even to death Jesus provided another way. Jews and Gentiles alike could participate in that faithfulness. This meant that they would suffer and die with Jesus. God accepts that participation as righteousness. Those who thus participated are reconciled with God and will also participate in Jesus’ resurrection.

This is truly an exalted picture of who Jesus was and is and of Jesus’ work for God and on our behalf. There is a heavenly dimension in that the resurrected Jesus is no longer an earthly figure but a heavenly one. But Jesus remains unquestionably a human being. “Messiah,’ “Son of God,” “Lord,” and “Savior” are all human titles. The resurrected Jesus is the first fruit of the transformation in which we are all to participate.

There is no suggestion that Jesus belongs in another realm as a divine being alongside God the Father. The thinking of Paul remains in the fully monotheistic tradition of Judaism.

Now in Colossians we are confronted with a very different picture. A generation has passed, and the Rubicon has been crossed. The faithful are now predominantly Gentile. Paul is the great leader, virtually the founder, of the Gentile church, and believers are eager to claim his authority for what they say. But their ways of thinking are no longer Jewish. The sharp distinction between the one Creator and the many creatures has faded. Jesus is the primary focus of their thought. He, not the emperor who claims their worship, functions as their God.

They still affirm the God whom Jesus addressed as Father. But the emphasis is now on the intimate, indeed insoluble, relation between Jesus and God. All things on heaven and earth have been created through Jesus and for Jesus. “In him all things hold together.”

To Jews of that time and to us today, it is impossible to think that a person inhabiting a human body could function in these cosmic ways. Probably that was never quite the intention. “Jesus” had come to name not only the human figure about whom we read in the synoptic gospels but also a divine being who temporarily inhabited a human body and in that role died on a cross for our sake. But there is less clarity in this Colossians passage about this distinction than in the prologue of John where it is clear that the everlasting Word of God became a human being in Jesus. There is no preexisting divine Jesus.

Even John is not as clear as it might be about the distinction between the human being Jesus and the Word that became flesh in him. The creeds likewise blur this distinction to the great detriment of Christian faith. Jews could see God’s Power, God’s Spirit, or God’s Wisdom manifest in a human being. Paul affirmed this of Jesus. If we believe, as I strongly do, that something of God is present in all God’s creatures, there is certainly no problem in emphasizing the rich and full way, certainly distinctive and possibly unique, in which God was present in Jesus. But we need to retain the distinction between the divine that was incarnate in Jesus and the human being who was partly constituted by that incarnation. In Paul the distinction is generally clear. In Colossians it is badly blurred.

The great danger of this blurring is that Jesus’ humanity be lost. Jesus became for many Christians a God walking around in human form. Fortunately, there were many Christians who resisted this loss. Antioch was a great center of the ancient church and of its teaching. There they clung to such formulations as that of the divine indwelling a human being. This is far more intelligible, far more faithful to Paul, and far healthier for the church. And throughout the whole controversy in the ancient church about the nature of Jesus it prevented the obliteration of Jesus’ humanity.

But those who in fact worshipped Jesus insisted that Jesus was not only the human being indwelt by God but also God. And over the centuries this confused and confusing idea has played havoc with Christian teaching. Jesus’ humanity has too often been swallowed up in Jesus’ deity.

If this had not happened, Jews would not have been so profoundly alienated from Christianity. There would have remained the dispute as to whether salvation comes through obedience to law or participation in the faithfulness of Jesus, but this could have continued as a debate that might prove fruitful for both parties. Christians had no business asking Jews to compromise their monotheism. Mohammed, who had the highest appreciation for Jesus as the greatest of God’s prophets before the revelation of the Qu’ran, might well have become a Christian. At least the mutual enmity of Christians and Muslims would have been greatly eased. Perhaps both Jews and Muslims might have learned from Christians to understand more fully God’s sacramental or incarnational presence in the world.

But all of this is what might have been. What has in fact been is that neither Jews nor Muslims could appreciate a Christianity that compromised God’s unity, even if it claimed that its teaching of three divine persons did not do so. What has in fact been is that many have been alienated by a teaching that places believing very doubtful ideas about Jesus over following him in humble service even when that entails sharing in his suffering.

For several centuries now Christians, especially Protestants, have been engaged in rescuing the human Jesus from his de-humanization by the church. Unfortunately, like many needed reactions, it has often gone too far. Humanizing Jesus has often meant reinventing him in the image of contemporary ideals, on the one hand, or in a negative light, on the other. Almost always it has separated him from “the Father” whose presence his followers saw in him.

Jesus is not alone in being subjected to this treatment. It seems to be important for us to bring the most admirable people down to our size. I believe that there are human beings who are truly remarkable in diverse ways and that humanizing them should expand our image of humanity rather than reduce them to fit a small one. I believe that we can and should say things about the fully human Jesus that we say of no one else. Being unique does not make one less human.

For that reason, despite my heavy critique of the confusion of deity and humanity that I find in this passage in Colossians, I also find much to appreciate. I have taken as my text verse 19: “in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” In my view the more fully God dwells within us the more fully we are human. Precisely because God dwelt so fully in Jesus, Jesus shows us what humanity in its fullness can be.

Our recognition of God’s presence in Jesus is also our assurance that God is like Jesus. Far from condemning us for our sins and failures, God loves and forgives. In the language especially emphasized in this passage we are reconciled to God. If we participate in Jesus’ faithfulness, there is nothing left for us to do.

We can come to God with the assurance that we are already fully known and accepted as we are and therefore can open ourselves in responsiveness to God’s inward call. In Jesus we learn that while we are secure in our relation to God, following our calling is not a path of safety in human terms. There is no assurance that our ventures in service of the weak and the poor will succeed, but there is assurance that God affirms them and uses them beyond our knowledge. God used even Jesus’ death for our salvation.

The author of Colossians expressed his devotion to Jesus in language some of which proved harmful in later centuries and in different contexts. We can learn from that to be careful that our formulations of our devotion not put others down. But we need equally to know that it is not the strength of our devotion that is dangerous to others, but only its mis-description and misunderstanding. We need to find in our time and for ourselves the way to express no less devotion, ourselves now, than the author of Colossians expressed in his time and place.

* This and more John Cobb HERE

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Religious Pluralism, Christology & Process with Monica A. Coleman: Homebrewed Christianity 123

Monica A. Coleman is Assc. Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions at Claremont School of Theology.

She is the author of Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology (Innovations: African American Religious Thought), The Dinah Project: A Handbook for Congregational Response to Sexual Violence, and a contributor to the new Creating Women’s Theology: A Movement Engaging Process Thought.

In this interview she talks about books by John Hick, John Cobb and Paul Knitter among others.

You can follow her blog and all the other media projects that she does at http://monicaacoleman.com/.

She is indeed a master tweeter and Patheos Progressive Christian Blogger.

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