The God Who Has Not Failed by John Cobb
Reviewed by John Cowan
John Cobb is one of the initial shapers of Process Theology. Following on the work of Process Philosophers such as his mentor, Alfred North Whitehead whose basic stance in the words of the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is “Everything flows,” John takes this insight into Theology. Perhaps the most startling of his assertions is that God too is in flow. Gasp on that for a moment if the possibility has not occurred to you before.
While this is a book by a process theologian I would not read it if I were looking for a primer on process theology. Most of the book rises from seeds other than that. At least so I think. If the book is all process theology then process theology differs little from today’s mainstream. For the sake of orientation, the Trinity is no longer in the mainstream but back in an eddy somewhere.
John writes well and simply. So simply that for a while I was hoping he would upgrade his syntax and vocabulary. However the deeper I dug into the book the more I appreciated that at least his words were simple. The thoughts are not.
He retells in a new way the story of the universe from its creation and shape; through the story of the Jews emerging with their One God; and the sprouting of the prophetic tradition; flowering in Jesus and his minority opinion on the nature of God as daddy; including the immediate coming of the Kingdom of God; and Paul and his creation of kingdom-like communities; to the church creating distortions; to a map for realigning humanity so that wealth no longer dominates world decision-making.
This is a lot of book in one hundred fifty some pages. If you can find a copy or get an on-line peek, in the preface starting at page xxi he outlines the book. Here are some, only a few, of his ideas.
• Jesus had a view of God flowing from the prophetic tradition of Israel and in his time not widely shared. Jesus’ picture of God while not presented directly shines through that which he had come to teach, the coming of the Kingdom of God. His name for God, “Abba” says it succinctly. The translation is: “Daddy.” And daddy is here and now opening the door for each of us to enter the Kingdom. (A better translation of the Greek basileia than “kingdom” might be the “household” or the “ranch,” Kingdoms have kings, God’s ranch does not. God’s ranch has a daddy.)
• Modern philosophy describes the world as a collection of objects. We are billiard balls bouncing against each other. Each person’s interior life is simply a collection of internal forces that result from external pressures. What we do is predetermined. There is no personal responsibility. We are objects, not subjects. This position removes our own subjectivity, our ability to effect anything, at the same time as it makes an effective God impossible. But, why is it that common sense says the exact opposite? Will you explain to the traffic cop that you did not run the light but your running the light is the result of other forces? In general, society insists that you are a subject not an object.
Abba who is a subject acting on subjects cannot exist in the billiard ball universe. But once the universe is seen as a great thought with subjects acting on subjects there is room for Abba to create. More philosophers are coming to see it this way.
• Those who realize that they are subjects experience being nudged by some interior force, lured to be and do the good. There is an inner voice that calls us forward. Where is that sense or voice originating? That is what we call “God.” And now perhaps better it is what we will call “Abba.”
• Most of Christianity has ignored this message from the very beginning. The actual Jesus, the one who trudged around Galilee has only a toe-hold in the Gospels and has pretty much disappeared by the time Christianity was solidified in the Third Century.
• Paul is often portrayed as not understanding Jesus’ message, but it was Paul that actualized Jesus dream of the Kingdom of Heaven by forming communities of love throughout the Roman Empire.
• The world must be reformed so that wealth no longer drives society. His text is Jesus’ aversion to wealth and to the wealthy, and his hope is Pope Francis.
I would disagree with John in some areas. For instance the scripture scholars I have read would say that to understand Paul’s work we must take into account the preexistence of Jewish synagogues in the places that he labored and the fact that first he tried to turn them Christian and then if he failed he set up his competing Christian community, differing from the synagogue in little but in the message of the crucified and risen Jesus, which these scripture scholars (and John Cobb) would say does Jesus a great disservice since it was not his message. His message was the coming of the Kingdom of God
I would prefer to see the Kingdom as an altered state akin to what Jesus experienced at his baptism and John Cobb himself has experienced while in prayer. I have been in communities that for a time, a couple of days, lived in this state, or something resembling it. Reading Paul’s letters to his fledgling congregations I see too much wrangling to believe they were the promised Kingdom. Actually I wonder about Jesus’ leadership team during his lifetime. If that is the best that can be done the task of entering the Kingdom is a lot easier than I thought.
I do not think Jesus as hard on wealth and the wealthy as John thinks he was. Jesus came to announce the kingdom not provide a starting place for Bernie Sanders. Jesus had several wealthy friends who did not divest their wealth and Paul’s missionary and building campaign was funded by his supporters with some apparent big hitters.
I would not argue with most of what he says. I feel uplifted by most of John’s message, seeing a platform on which we might build a new Christianity.
A small but critical point. There is no index! I have several things I think he said that I cannot find again. When reading, if you sometimes look back or want to look up something to quote to others accurately, lay out the bread crumbs yourself.
If you are in the market for a quick look at many of the new and shiny ideas of today. Buy the book.