The Big 5 is a series where theologians tell us what 5 books have most shaped, changed, or inspired their theology, philosophy, or thought.
First up, J.C. himself – John Cobb. Check out Cobb’s big 5 plus his runners up, what book he wished he had written, what book he needs to re-read, his “summer reading” suggestions, tips for teaching, favorite places he’s visited, a question he is currently thinking about, the most overlooked thinker he loves, his favorite craft beer or beverage of choice, and what person (living or dead) he liked to answer his questions.
1. Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy. I read this on a troopship returning from occupation of Japan in 1946. It was my first exposure to mystical thinking and experience, and I was overwhelmed. Huxley was a leading intellectual of that period, and I had previously been deeply impressed by his “Brave New World.”
2. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man. I read this not long after. It was my first exposure to theology, and once again I was overwhelmed. Although I had no expectation of becoming a theologian, it set a permanent standard for me as to what theology should be. When I picked up schooling again after the war, these two books had deeply shaped my thinking. Reinhold Niebuhr was a prolific writer and guide to Christian ethics, universally admired by my teachers, and he remained normative for my thinking until I encountered Latin American liberation theology.
3. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality. This was the most important book to which I was introduced as a student. I hardly understood it enough during my student days to list it from that time, but I appreciated its greatness and eventually had the chance to give seminars on it. It has shaped my cosmology and to a slightly lesser extent my theology since then. Whitehead was a mathematical physicist who developed a radically original vision, the most coherent of the twentieth century. He wrote many other books and in his life time was much admired. Soon after the academic community turned against cosmology and religious thought and began to exclude him, but I thought, so much the worse for academia.
4. Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb. In the late sixties one of my sons, urged me to read this book so that I would understand how he and his friends were thinking. It awakened me, almost violently, to the awareness that humanity was on an unsustainable path. It has turned out to be wrong on many details, but the basic point has only become more established and disturbing. It has reinterpreted what salvation is all about and given me a transformed sense of my mission. Ehrlich was a leading biologist with a specialty in ecology. We owe to him and a small group of ecologists the awakening of which I speak; so the term “ecological crisis” is the way we define the unsustainability.
5. Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness. Strictly speaking it was not the book that played that large a role in my development but conversations and co-teaching with Shepard. Until I met him I never questioned that becoming civilized and more civilized was positive. I had developed my own overview of history that expressed this. Paul taught me that civilization entailed alienation from nature and from our own bodies and set us on the unsustainable course on which we now found ourselves. Shepard has many books, but Nature and Madness most directly contrasts civilization as madness with nature as healing. He taught in Pitzer College and Claremont Graduate School.
The book I most enjoy teaching is Whitehead’s Process and Reality. That is because I always learn so much. Of course, the students who study this book with me are not a typical cross-section of the American public, but it is deeply satisfying to see that, when they do really understand what Whitehead is saying, many of them can never go back to the way our culture has socialized us to think.
I’ll list Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature as the book I wish I had written, although in fact I’m very glad he wrote it. My special appreciation for this book is that the author has deeply understood its implications and re-directed his life accordingly. He is our finest leader in relation to the most important issues we face, and his leadership is based on deep wisdom and insight. I want to call more people to join his movement with real understanding of its intellectual grounding.
What do I need to re-read? Lots of books, of course. I’ll list Daniel Day Williams, The Spirit and the Forms of Love. I have often said that it remains the best one-volume systematic process theology. I think that is true, but I should re-read it in light of all that has happened in the decades since Williams wrote. Most process theology has been philosophical theology in a way that gives much of its authority to Whitehead or another process philosopher. Williams was able to locate what he learned from Whitehead within the ongoing work of theologians. He displays its rich contributions without asking them to submit to the authority of any philosopher.
What do I recommend for summer reading? Of course, that depends on who is asking for a recommendation. I’ll assume it is someone who is interested in process theology and wants advice about how to get into it. I would recommend C. Robert Mesle, Process Theology: a Basic Introduction. If the questioner wants to understand the philosophy behind process theology, I commend another book by Mesle, Process-Relational Philosophy: an Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead. I also recommend some of Whitehead’s own writings. For someone who has studied the history of Western thought, I recommend Science and the Modern World and Adventures of Ideas. These books are based on lectures for general audiences, and although they are intellectually demanding, they can be understood by thoughtful people willing to consider challenging ideas. I’ll also add to the list my own most recent book, Jesus’ Abba: the God who has not Failed. The book owes a great deal to Whitehead, but I have tried to write most of it more as I credited Williams, that is, in a way that engages Christians in the context of beliefs they already have.
I’m afraid I am of little help with respect to the “tips.” From my point of view, with respect to the really important questions, what is needed is not information, but a glimpse of something that our culture and philosophical tradition have missed or obscured. We have been taught to think that our sense experience is our primary access to the world. This has led to modernity ending up in solipsism and meaninglessness. Process thought considers sense experience important but secondary, requiring explanation by more basic elements in experience. Whitehead’s focus is on what he calls “prehensions.”
My task as a teacher is to get students to notice that their experience is primarily informed by a type of relationship that is hard to find considered at all in most of what students have been previously asked to focus on. I find the most helpful approach is to ask people to think about how one moment of experience is informed by the immediately preceding one. That, of course, is not easy. But. if one focuses on that question, one may recognize that the preceding experience largely informs the present one even though it is now past. That is, one may get a sense of how the past is present. For example the musical notes heard just before are still functioning in the present, so that one hears a musical phrase, not just one note of that phrase.
The presence of the past in the present is, for Whitehead, the fundamental nature of the causality that has eluded modern philosophers and scientists. It is also the key to how the body informs experience, but also to how experience affects the body. One will never again be tempted by reductive mechanism. It is also the way in which we are really related to other people.
The relationship is a conformation to the past and can be understood as feeling the feelings felt in the past. This means that experience largely consists in “com-passion.” If one truly “sees” this, then learning the rest of process thought is not all that hard. If one does not grasp the fundamental nature and role of “prehensive” relationships, one may learn a lot of process jargon, but one will not know what one is saying. Taking notes can distract from the task of “seeing” differently.
I have been in many wonderful places, but my strongest memory even today is of a time in 1939 when the family spent a couple of days around Interlaken in Switzerland.
The question with which I am currently preoccupied is the degree and kind of unity that various kinds of collections of individual entities can have. For example, a swarming of bees generates a decision that affects them all. Does this require a unitary act of decision of the swarm? How does that work? Or does Gaia actually make decisions as a unity?
I guess that Whitehead still qualifies as “overlooked.” So I’ll list him.
Never having tasted beer, it would be pointless to answer this.
The thinker whose answer to my question above I would most like to hear is again Whitehead.