“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
Both process and Wesleyan theology are fundamentally human-centered systems of thought. That is, whatever the scope of their eventual theological tasks, they both locate the solutions to their deepest problems within the human person. More specifically, they both happen to do so within the category of experience. This is both Whitehead’s grand metaphysical unification and Wesley’s famous epistemological addition to the means of knowing God.
Though the experiences they describe are obviously non-identical – Whitehead, unlike Wesley, dropped out of the Anglican church – Whitehead cited Wesley among his examples of religious experience. It can hardly be coincidence that both Whitehead and Wesley, against cultural backgrounds of scientific empiricism, asserted non-sensual experience as a efficacious means of discerning ultimate reality.
The difference is that, while neither Whitehead nor Wesley placed their experiencing human within an anthropocentric universe, the followers of Wesley have, and the followers of Whitehead very much have not. Methodists might, then, take Cobb’s contribution as corrective Wesleyan gain. Philosophically, we already prefer the non-anthropocentric universe. Perhaps now we can do so theologically as well.
In his first treatment of ecological issues, Cobb boldly writes: “The ethics of reverence for life is the ethics of Jesus, philosophically expressed, made cosmic in scope, and conceived as intellectually necessary.” This is because human holiness is conditioned by our regard for the holiness of life. Along with God in the opening of Genesis, we “perceive that the subhuman world is good.” On this point Cobb is quite emphatic: “In the creation story it is not said that God declared creatures to be good. On the contrary, God saw that they were good. Jesus makes the same point when he says that we are more valuable than many sparrows. ” In God’s eyes, both we and sparrows have intrinsic value.
Yet both Matthew and Genesis suggest that that value is non-absolute. Much as in process philosophy, worth is gradated; God in Genesis includes creation in the same terms, and God for Jesus clearly weighs us with the sparrows. The issue of the imageo dei, then, Cobb contends, may well be one of emphasis rather than negation; Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God, not that nothing else is.
The effect of all this is in both biblical and process theology is simply to exorcise the dualism of humanity and nature and replace it with the duality of creation and God. Only God is holy, but everything else is of real worth, albeit of varying degree. The vision of process and biblical thinking alike is that all that is has reality, subjectivity, and value. Thus, the love of all creation, with all things rightly appraised, is not sentimental nonsense, but saintly vision akin to that of Francis Assisi.
The vision of the Kingdom of God is the vision of communities of communities of communities. In God’s vision, we are not the summit of this chain. We are its foundation. It is in and through the service of creatures that God is served. “To say that we love God when we do not love God’s creatures is to lie. In serving the least of our fellows we minister to Christ…all that happens in the world also happens in the divine life. All that we do to creatures, we do also to God.”
Our dominion is our effect upon God’s creatures; we have it whether we would ask for it or not. What we have taken as absolute grace seems to have been all along our conditioned responsibility; the upside-down kingdom must truly be at hand.
And the consequent call of our current awareness is to join evolutionary progress rather than participate in the wanton destruction of species including our own.
Nature is not static, but dynamic and developing in a history not so unlike our own – and not now separable from it. Evolution details Genesis by describing how we are good along with all creation rather than as opposed to it. Humanity and nature are brethren at present and into the future; as such we need and keep and heal each other so far as we are able. We are, after all, all living in the same house – ecology means structure of the household. We are all entering God’s kingdom. We are all, in every moment, embarking on the same adventure.
The success of this mutual endeavor, being such, is not assured. Cobb admits that the growth of the developing world advances the clock which measures how quickly the ecological crisis will come, and that technology may well be insufficiently advanced to meet the coming challenge. More, many of our classically liberal solutions to systemic problems have failed to affect ongoing realities at all, and often made them worse. Our sense of omnipotence has been a disastrous, if luxurious, illusion. But Christians ought to be well acquainted with realism from their own moral experience, and the Christian faith has always been that which flies in the face of objective hopelessness.
Christian pragmatists can lobby for legislative reform even as Christian idealists critique the system of ecological iniquity by opting out of it ; there is hope for both because there is need for both and because the crucified God is precisely the one who makes all things new. Secularly, our continuing support for the decentralization of power in democracy can become our advocacy for the decentralization of power in the economic systems that crush God’s creatures.
Christians can challenge monolithic agriculture with cooperative capitalist ventures and claim spiritual rather than economic growth as our best national product. We can preserve wilderness for its own sake and ask what sort of world would contribute most to God. Christians, always and everywhere, can pray and work for the longer and larger good. The honesty that calls for repentance can also be the love that calls humanity out of its narrow self-interest and deathly, rote behavior.
Persuasive power-for need be no less influential than manifest power-over, though we can expect no specific outcomes; that is precisely what our sympathy with poverty entails. The poor, after all, never get exactly what they want. But they are often pleasantly surprised.
The ultimate Christian vision, the final focus of our lives, cannot be our selves. Our best vision of any justice must certainly be God. And for too long have we stopped at saying Caesar is not God and failed to say God is not Caesar. But God for Jesus is not the distant Almighty Father but the Abba whose absence was the epitome of desolation.
God for us is the God who dies and lives, who suffers with us and we with him, who both destroys and fulfills our past, who always influences but never determines our future, who insists on our responsibility by always urging us forward but never holding us back, who “calls us into intensified life, heightened consciousness, expanded freedom, and more sensitive love.”
And God with us, whom we hold in the tenderness of our hands and the hollows of our hearts, but whom we surely can never determine or contain, is no delusion but is rather a healing component of ourselves that pours outward from our hearts and hands in love and into every atom of the universe.