Sunday, December 20, 2009

In the Hollow of His Hand: The Ecological, Eschatological Vision of John B. Cobb (pt2)


Cobb prefaces his 1995 book on Wesleyan theology, Grace & Responsibility, by calling it his attempt to ‘come to terms with’ his own theological tradition. It is his attempt to move Methodism forward by returning it to its past, notably Wesley’s ability to measure and encounter his own time. For Cobb, this is the spirit of Wesley.

For Cobb, ‘sizing up’ and meeting our own times are the means for the revitalization of a Methodism that almost certainly would have disappointed Wesley himself. He specifically links the book with his series of lectures ‘Wesleyan Theology and Process Theology,’ admits that he uses a process hermeneutic when approaching Methodist thinking, and explicitly writes here as a process theologian. Clearly Cobb himself did not and does not see process and Methodist theology as entirely distinct.

Cobb opens in classic Wesleyan fashion with a discussion of sanctification and grace but presses the point forward by connecting these to our contemporary sense of moral feelings aroused by crisis. These experiences provoke us because they challenge our unacknowledged sense of providence; they imply the secular location of causes in history and nature rather than in God.

But Cobb contends that this is only true if God exists explicitly outside the world. If one emphases God’s immanence, however, “God can then be seen as a factor in the explanation of events without being the sole cause of what happens.” Cobb then emphasizes Wesley’s focus on the salvation that leads to holiness, a process in which God is present and active, as God is involved in the entire creation. Cobb writes: “To whatever extent Wesleyans follow Wesley in seeing God as working within the world, we will want to identify that work and consider how we can share in it.”

The shape of this work is expansive and expanding. Following the other Reformers, Wesley began with the salvation of the individual and pressed outward to the salvation of all who would accept it; his addition to this was his emphasis on the sanctification that was “a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of.”

Part of this is the healing, the restoring of the normative human condition which Cobb rightly posits as an aspect of Wesleyan salvation. And Cobb is careful to show that this healing moves in the same direction that Reformation salvation does: outward. He notes that Jesus healed more people than he forgave. This ultimately works out toward the whole universe as described by Romans: “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains.”

This, then, is for Cobb the Wesleyan relation of God to the world: efficacy expanding outward in love. Wesley could not reconcile a loving God electing for damnation anymore than he could condone a theology which might excuse poor diligence in seeking holiness. Hence, Wesley’s vision of the Holy Spirit as God’s gracious presence in all people. But Cobb notes that for Wesley, the Holy Spirit was not primarily a presence of authority but a healing constituent within human nature itself. Writes Cobb: “The Spirit was the principle of life itself, of all understanding, of which is called conscience, and of every impulse to do good…God does not enter a person from without and take possession because God is already, always, a constitutive part of that person.”

This is the Spirit that in Wesley and in Cobb inspires the goal of perfect love which “inevitably and spontaneously expresses itself in service of others.” But it does not do only that. As Cobb quotes Wesley’s “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount”:

God is in all things, and…we are to see the Creator in the glass of every creature;… we should use and look upon nothing as separate from God, which indeed is a kind of practical Atheism; but with a true magnificence of thought, survey heaven and earth and all that is therein as contained by God in the hollow of His hand, who by his intimate presence holds them all in being, who pervades and actuates the whole created frame, and is in a true sense the Soul of the universe.

Though Wesley did distinguish between matter and living things in a way that current post-Newtonian physics does not, Cobb notes that his principle is clear: the power exercised by a self-moving creature results from God’s presence in it. The only difference between Wesleyan thinking then and now is that this principle applies to the entire universe: “Nowhere in the course of events does God function as the sole cause... the interactive character of the relation between God and creature…can illumine the whole creation.”

The love of God and neighbor now also extends also to the cosmos. Indeed, Cobb reminds us that “Wesley did not think of power in the abstract sense. It is the power to create, to govern, and to save, and all these are acts of Divine Love.” For Wesley and for Cobb, power is always power-for, and Cobb notes the contribution of the Wesleyan Randy Maddox, for whom “a God who did not take into account the changing response of humanity would cease to be unchangeably just and gracious.” So also, Cobb seems to imply, we cannot not have power-over creation but must have power-for it, and extend to it the love due a part of God so tender and intimate as the hollow of God’s hand.

This love is our responsibility. In Cobb and in Wesley we can be aware of God and become responsible to God through our spiritual rather than our bodily senses. This is not, Cobb is quite clear, the sort of strong emotional senses which Wesley himself seemed to lack and even denied having, but rather experiencing in a religious way, selecting elements of experience in particular ways and assigning them specific interpretations. These spiritual senses connect us to experience in such a way that we become responsive to the God of our experience and change our behavior accordingly. Thus, writes Cobb, “There is non-sensory perception of God all the time.”

We also become responsible through law. For Wesley and for Cobb the crucial law is not the morality of the day or the Hebraic legal code but, particularly, the rigorous demands of Jesus, especially those on the Sermon on the Mount. And for Cobb our responsibility to that law is even greater, as Wesley’s listeners lacked power to effect much change beyond their own persons. But for us now, especially in democratic societies where citizens participate in the legislative process, we are also responsible for its effects – and called to love through it.

This is a Wesleyan law and gospel, which Cobb applies for the sake of all creation: “We are pursuing collectively the path that leads to destruction. Nothing can be more urgent than that the Holy Spirit show us the way that leads to life and gives us the strength to repent of our now dominant practice of seeking short-term profit at the expense of our children and grand-children.”

Such is Cobb’s explicitly Wesleyan thinking on creation and responsibility as such. What are we to make of it? First, it is quite clearly process thinking. Not for nothing does Cobb emphasize Wesley’s determination to take account of his present world; process philosophy is certainly an attempt firmly in that tradition. And not for nothing does Cobb reject both Deist aversion to divine involvement and our own secular materialist notions of causality; process theology answers precisely both of these movements. And again, Cobb’s vision of outward-looking human moral agency is certainly the effect of process thinking’s own vision of all matter being charged by God, in both senses of that electric term.

But we ought to note also the specifically Methodist character of Cobb’s contributions to process theology itself. First, Cobb’s location of process thinking within the mind-body dilemma tells because that problem structurally parallels the faith-works problem that Wesley thought to solve with his theology of the heart. Both Methodist and process thinking are fundamentally theories of unification; they explicitly attempt to reconcile two apparently disparate ways of describing what we must intuitively regard as the same fundamental and experienced reality.

Also, the effect of Cobb’s unification of the mental and physical poles of God as an entity in process theology is to unite God via some synthesis. It makes God whole. Where Wesley wants to heal the human individual, Cobb the Methodist seems to want to heal Whitehead’s God. More, Cobb’s move in this regard is precisely the move which allows God to be more comprehensible to ordinary human understanding (if God experiences as we experience, then we can understand God through that experience) which seems an emphatically Wesleyan move. Finally, God’s consequent ability to improvise via the mental pole in relation to the datum of the physical pole is indeed consonant with the Wesleyan God of Randy Maddox, who takes into account the dynamic responses of the creatures whom God loves.

Nor is it inconsequential that Methodist Cobb places God omni-spatially where Whitehead very much does not; one need only refer again to the excerpt from Wesley’s ‘Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount’ to realize the resonance of this in Wesleyan thinking – and vice versa. The pervasiveness of God’s presence in process theology sounds very much akin to God’s prevenient grace in Wesley.

In both systems, it is because God is fundamentally with us that we can do anything, and Cobb’s addition of God’s decisively sustaining all activity to Whitehead’s merely including it is a salient Wesleyan point. For Cobb and Wesley both, God continues creation for a reason; both process and Wesleyan theology are, after all, forward-facing faiths. God lures us into our initial aim or into loving holiness.

Our hope lies in God’s decisive aim for a beautiful, healthy adventure into our promised and holy future, one which God will share with us and which we will share with God – and now, we understand, share with all creation as well. It is to that vision of fulfillment that we now turn.

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