Sunday, December 20, 2009

In the Hollow of His Hand: The Ecological, Eschatological Vision of John B. Cobb (pt1)


In 1969 the noted process theologian John Cobb experienced ‘a major turning point’ in both his Christian and professional life. His reading Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb at the prompting of his son joined his Christian faith with his lifelong passion for justice and a new concern for the global human community.

Within only a few years, Cobb came to believe that “a truly repentant Christianity could provide the underpinnings of the needed change.” But it would not be until 1992—23 years later – that the United Methodist Church as a whole would produce its statement Environmental Justice for a Sustainable Future to call for ‘a vision of ecological justice for all creation.’ And it would do so without citing Cobb.

Yet by the time Cobb wrote his first treatment of environmental issues in 1972, he had already been for the overwhelming majority of his life a Methodist born to Methodist missionaries, at one time so pious that fellow students depicted him in a cartoon as having halos to spare. Whatever the disparities between that devout youngster and the sophisticated academic he was to become, and regardless of his own ambitions to seek truth accessible beyond confessional communities, it can hardly be that a lifelong career of Methodism – some forty-odd years when he penned the first of his ecological works – failed entirely to impact the man.

It certainly cannot have failed to impact his thinking. Yes, his original faith may have been shattered by his first experiences studying at the University of Chicago, but only one result of those experiences was the Whiteheadian process theology that he would embrace for the entirety of his teaching career. The other results of this intellectual transformation were his membership in the North Georgia Conference, his part- time pastoral care over six Methodist churches, and his founding of a seventh.

Considering the veritable simultaneity of these seminal movements, if we are to see Cobb’s thought as anything but unnaturally disjointed, we must affirm that his process theology is not only profoundly Christian but in some way uniquely Methodist, and that his movement toward ecological thinking is no less so. Indeed, it is by being both teleologicaly and structurally Methodist in character that the process theology of John B. Cobb presents an image of graceful responsibility which already answers that later call of The United Methodist Church for a vision of ecological justice.


Cobb significantly locates the origin of Whitehead’s thinking within the mind-body problem of classical philosophy. Whereas previous solutions have sought to either claim the primal reality of mind in idealist Platonic fashion or to claim the primal reality of body in materialist Aristotelian fashion, Whitehead’s metaphysics seeks to ‘subsume the duality under some more comprehensive unity.’ That unification would be in the nature of primal human experience itself, as it comes to us in ‘discrete and indivisible units’ beyond the human capacity to analyze directly.

Because these momentary ‘occasions’ are so un-analyzable, they impart to us more than sense experience even as they constitute that experience as such. Indeed, sense data contribute to experience only the ‘physical pole’ of actual occasions, while our experience of occasions requires ‘some quality not present in the data…introducing an element of novelty.’ This originality, contributed by the experiencing mind through ‘eternal objects,’ Whitehead appropriately named the ‘mental pole.’

Together these physical and mental poles form a unique occasion dependent upon its antecedents but promising a novel future as it anticipates successive occasions. Thus, experience in process philosophy thus becomes the cascading “synthesis of syntheses of syntheses of the simple elements of which it is composed.”

The significance of this cannot be overstated. Experience is everything; the ‘actual occasions’ which constitute experience become the ‘actual entities’ which “are the finally real things, the ultimate individuals.” Apart from them, “there is nothing at all.”

Individual occasions build upon each other in systems of increasing complexity: interconnected occasions become a ‘nexus’ which, when interdependent, becomes a ‘society’ which, when temporally contiguous and successive, becomes in turn the ‘enduring object’ that, in molecular form, becomes the ‘corpuscular society’ that in specific instances forms the living cell. Those societies that have no specifically organizing part become plants, those that do become animals, and all have subjectivity unto themselves in simultaneity but become objects in time to the experiencing human soul.

This soul is itself a society. It is composed of all the occasions which form the life history of the person, a center of experience contiguous through time. While natural, it is remarkable in its experience of consciousness, its mentality. It is a living person. Like all other societies of occasions, the soul is both constituted by its relations to the occasions of its past and open, through its mental pole, to a novel synthesis between that past and the future disclosed in its initial aim.

The human person achieves the requisite high degree of contiguity between successions of occasions via language, consciousness, and historical construal. In other words, the living soul is no accident but is, in fact, an adventure, an exercise in human freedom.

Such liberty is anything but absolute. The adventure of the self remains responsible to the occasions of its past even as it decides precisely how it will embrace those occasions according to the invitation of its subjective aim. The human is free to realize varying degrees of his or her initial aim and to adapt that aim through future successive occasions. What no human can do is escape the moral objectivity of values, the greatest of which is beauty, that which gives intrinsic value to occasions of experience.

This beauty is the harmonization of complexity, and its strength is increased through the increase of harmony and complexity alike. It is a social goal, and all civilizations attempt, succeed, and fail to realize beauty in varying degrees. This does not lessen its importance for them or for their individuals, as morality in process thought “always has to do with taking into account the larger rather than the more limited future.”

Now the greatest beauty and the most unlimited future by far is God. Whitehead’s “ultimate physical reality…underlies and expresses itself in every concrete occurrence” and “envisages possibilities both in pure abstraction and in their relevance for actual entities.” In other words, to become actual, the indeterminate aims of the mental pole must meet the determinate data of the physical pole.

Restriction is the price of value, and Whitehead called this principle of limitation or concretion God, the object of all worship. God is supremely good rather than metaphysically ultimate. God is the becoming of all things rather than their being. God’s agency is the completed and ideal harmonization of the cosmos rather than the bestowal of created things themselves. God experiences the world and must include in God’s self a synthesis of the total universe.

Thus, neither God nor world has independent ontological priority, but God is increasingly realized as world and life press on toward greater complexity and harmony – and in their appetite for beauty as such. Because no experience passes away in God, God remains everlasting, but whereas God constantly envisages the novel and creative aspects of becoming, God is never static and adds unto God’s self the totality of all experience.

Such is the Whiteheadian metaphysic with which Cobb and other process thinkers fundamentally agree. But it is Cobb’s specific refinement and extension of this thinking that has been deemed most Christian. By aiming for greater philosophic coherence, Cobb has made Whitehead’s God more catholically approachable for traditional believers as well.

A brief summary of these amendments must suffice.

Cobb’s first addition to Whitehead is to revise God’s primordial and consequent natures as an actual entity – God’s mental and physical poles – to be not separable and comprehensive, which Whitehead attributed to God alone, but cohesive and synthetic, as in all the rest of process thought concerning actual entities. God is thus for Cobb not “inexplicable in terms of the principles operative in the system.”

From this, Cobb also proposes that God’s initial aim is not solely primordial but is in fact a hybrid of God’s ideal appetite and the prehension of each new occasion; God’s future is more alterable than in Whitehead and more like human future itself. God for Cobb much more than for Whitehead endures as a consequent nature through time that constantly adds new elements. Cobb’s God thus becomes “temporal…a living person…defined by a temporal relationship among actual occasions.”

Third, where Whitehead remains silent on the issue of God’s relationship to space, Cobb completes the outstanding question by choosing for the omni-spaciality of God “including the regions comprising the standpoints of all the contemporary occasions in the world.” God for Cobb is everywhere, even as God remains a temporal and living person. This has more than passing significance for creativity, as God will create as humans create; God will create with them, instead of being simply a principle of creativity itself. Cobb’s God becomes more present and involved.

Thus, when Whitehead posits that the eternal objects which contribute to the mental pole of all experience are uncreated, and the initial aim of God can be no other than the initial aim of the occasion itself, Cobb asks precisely why all this must keep happening, if all occasions are fundamentally contingent. Whitehead’s creative God can do little more than harmonize something like Aristotle’s prime matter. But where Whitehead sees God as subordinate to the creativity of experience as such, Cobb asserts that the only satisfactory explanation for continuous creativity is God’s radically decisive role.

Though God’s creative experience includes our own, it is not limited to it. Though God for Cobb and Whitehead alike factors along with prehensions of previous occasions to influence precisely what each occasion becomes, God for Cobb is the sole factor for each occasion’s general becoming. Cobb thus moves closer to Whitehead’s somewhat sporadic vision of God as “the creator of all temporal entities.”

The effects of these additions to Whitehead upon process theology have been well documented. What has not been so closely observed is why Cobb might have thought to make them at all, beyond a simple desire for greater philosophical coherence, and why he came to suggest these specific alterations where others have gone in quite different directions. I propose that the answers to these questions can be found in a parallel mental arena in which Cobb was also continuously engaged, but of which he was by intellectual persuasion much more reluctant to speak : the ongoing tradition of Wesleyan theology in America.

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