Becoming a Thinking Christian

cover picture
This book study begins July 1, 2018.

This book challenges Christians to think. Committed lay Christians, says Cobb, are already theologians; he wants them to realize this and then to become good theologians. Laypersons are just as capable as professional theologians of intellectual hard work, but they no longer expect the church to ask this of them. Cobb discusses why it is important for Christians to think about their own beliefs and assumptions. He encourages readers to find and become conversation partners. He also suggests steps a Christian's thinking may take; sources the individual can draw on, including how professionals can help; and where this thinking may lead. Cobb asserts that if there is a renewal of thinking in the church, there will be church renewal. The goal is to focus and sharpen one's thinking so that it is one's own, and to apply that thinking to one's being and acting. Each chapter ends with a section "Doing Your Theology" which is a list of questions for reflection and discussion. Chapter titles include: On Becoming What You Are: A Theologian; Ethics and Theology; Shaping Up; Biblical Authority; Christians and Jews; Professionals: Help and Hindrance; Christian Counterattack; A Critique of Economics; A Critique of the University; An Afterword on Church Theology

For the first (and only???) time, I will not be supplying the questions, but we will be using the author's end-of-chapter questions. We will most likely finish (and have our final potluck) on August 26, 2018.

Comments

1 – How do YOU determine the “real value” of anything? 114

2 – Where do you stand on “faith in technology?” 117

3 - “at whatever cost, we must grow.” Comments? 122

4 – Comments about “Homo Economicus”? 123

5 – Where do you see levels of moral development expressed in any of the areas discussed? 126

I just had to back up and respond to your questions here, Peter:

1. How do I determine the "real value" of anything?
To begin with, how it fits into the economy is probably the LAST thing that I might think of -- if I consider that at all. So, Cobb's "Professor Finkelstein" is WAY off for me when he says that the "assumption is that the real value of anything is what people are willing to pay for it" [p.114], and again, where he says: "We should value everything in terms of its actual economic services to human beings" [p.115]. I would replace the words "economic services" in this last sentence with "spiritual value" -- i.e., in the end, does it make people feel better, more alive, more connected, more fulfilled, more at peace with themselves and their world? That's what I value the most.

2. Where do I stand on "faith in technology?"
I'm closer to Cobb's "Rev. Stewart" character here in that if we put too much trust in technology, the ethical questions may not be addressed -- i.e., we can do this, but should we? As he says, "technological developments, like political power, should be subordinated to checks and balances that prevent them from being controlled simply by market forces" [p.119]. This should be true with AI (artificial intelligence) every bit as much as it should with the petrochemical industry. Technology is not "demonic" in and of itself, it's what we do with it that makes it dangerous.

3. Comments about the phrase, "at whatever cost, we must grow" [p.122]
Not if it's killing us -- as in rampant death-dealing pollution, environmental degradation, global climate change, and the devastations faced by entire populations of people and animals across the world. To date, huge corporations have ignored the ethical considerations of their growth and considered only the question "Will it increase our profits?"

4. So, what about "Homo Economicus" [p.123
The idea that "the good life" (whatever THAT is!) will be achieved simply through "improved productivity and growth" assumes that an efficient economic engine will give it to us. I do think that Cobb's "Robert Schwartz" character, then, is on the right track when he says this:

"Perhaps we could redefine the goal of the economy in terms of a healthy community within which all people have the opportunity to do enjoyable work and to meet their real economic needs" [p.123.

I would put an emphasis on "all people," not just those in the developed world who are constantly thinking of themselves first (hence, the term First World). Cobb's "Peggy Ray" character is right to note that the "market today is international, even global" so maybe we do "need smaller markets governed by the people they serve" [p.124]. The way that I hear that is that if an economic system serves only a few people at the expense of the many, we need a new and more egalitarian system.

5. Where do I see "levels of moral development expressed in any of the areas discussed?" [p.126]
I'd have to give this one more thought. But if I understand the question, I would say that the move toward harnessing sources of energy other than depending upon fossil fuels (e.g., wind, solar, tidal) is one step in the right direction. On a smaller scale, the efforts of the Colombian government to provide rural farmers economic alternatives to growing only coca leaves (from which narco-traffickers then produce cocaine) could be seen as "moral development." To date, the government in Mexico has failed at this. But, then, if it weren't for the drug-addicted 1st World, the 3rd World, might find it easier to base their choices on morality instead of sheer survival.

1 – After reading this far, especially sentences like: “Unless our self identification as Christians is primary, we cannot become good theologians.”, what do you understand Cobb’s “good theologian” to look like? AND what does your own “good theologian” look like? How do you feel about or understand the difference?

2 – Why do you think Cobb wants to use economics as his primary example? What are his assumptions?

3 – Now, before you read the last two chapters: What do you think is wrong with socialist theory? What do you think is wrong with capitalism?

FOR ANYONE READING MY COMMENTS: Please note that as I've gone back to edit a number of my earlier comments, it's put my responses out of order for you (i.e., they no longer follow my original or expected order from "Preface," through Chapters 1 through 9, to the final posting which should be "An Afterward on Church Theology"). That's just the way Peter has arranged this operating system: the last comment (or edit) you make here always appears at the beginning.

“An Afterword on Church Theology”

Cobb, clearly states his conclusion in this debate right here at the end of his book:

Without “the individual believer achieving explicit faith and developing it…[w]ithout that kind of theology becoming widespread in the oldline churches, these churches are doomed to continuing decline. No other type of theology will take its place” [p.139].

My point, on the other hand, is that another type of theology must take its place in “oldline churches” in order that a more legitimate Church can finally come to full fruition.

This whole situation reminds me of a quote from Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s classic (He is better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll), "Alice in Wonderland," that’s part of a conversation between Alice and the Red Queen:

“Alice laughed: ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said; ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’” To which the Queen responds: “‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice….When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’”

What most people don’t know is that this quote actually reflects a heated theological dispute that was going on back in the mid 19th century between the Oxford movement and Roman Catholics, on the one side, and the Noetic and Broad Church movements on the other side. This was a very active dispute in Oxford during the period in which Dodgson – viz., Carroll (an ordained Deacon in the Church of England, by the way) – was somewhat involved. The Red Queen takes the extreme “High Church” position that belief should be grounded in faith rather than reason. She’s expressing the position of the traditional Church that argued for belief in miracles and the notion that miracles proved the divinity of Jesus and existence of God. On the other side ranged philosophers and scholars such as David Hume and liberal theologians who thought we should read miracles figuratively – or at least be able to explain them rationally.

You tell me why we progressive theologians are still being censured and silenced by seminaries and the institutional Church over this ongoing dispute.

Paradoxically enough, right up to the end of his book, I often find statements of Cobb’s to be very reasonable – at least initially: e.g., that “the beliefs that many of us think we are supposed to hold” actually “leads to inauthenticity” [p.140]. And yet he then goes on to warn us that because most of those beliefs have become “official church teaching,” we must be extremely careful when we question their authenticity!

Cobb lists only four strategies to respond to this problem [pp. 140-141]:

1. “reject all creeds,”
2. “develop detailed confessions,”
3. “formulate a minimum statement…of the shared beliefs of a particular community in which diversity is acknowledged and affirmed,” or…
4. “that of The United Methodist Church” by way of its “inherited Articles of Religion from the Church of England…at the time of the English Reformation.”

That’s it. Referring to strategy #4, he does point out that “this style of describing its theological situation historically…highlights the quadrilateral” that was presented back in chapter 4. This is the one that I would reorder and begin with Reason, followed by Experience, and only then consider how we may be further informed by Scripture and Tradition (R.E.S.T.).

Cobb then makes an odd and unfortunately pejorative statement: “Lay United Methodists have not actually been encouraged to think” [pp. 141-142]. Whose fault is that? The clergy? The Church hierarchy? Scripture? Tradition? The laity themselves? It could be all of those – and more. But because that has been happening for millennia, can we not, finally, agree to stop repeating the same mistake?

That’s why I would offer an alternative strategy – not even a fifth choice, really, but one that I consider to be is the only reasonable choice left. Let’s begin to reformulate our theology in keeping with modern scientific discovery and plain common sense.

As a leader struggling to be heard in The United Methodist Church, himself, Cobb says somewhat plaintively at this point:

“A key problem arises for oldline denominations: How do they balance the need for authenticity with the need for church unity?” [p.143].

Unfortunately, I think that’s just what we’ve been doing for centuries. Out of a desperate need to keep the Church together, to keep it from fragmenting, we’ve sacrificed diversity for the sake of a false unity. I’ve long been saying (and not facetiously): “The United Methodist Church has become the latest church version of an oxymoron: We’re neither United nor Methodist.”

I recall something that Jesus was thought to have said in a situation very similar to this one: “You blind guides; you would strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” [Matthew 23: 24]. He’s pointing out that because we continue to focus on the small things we end up ignoring the larger issue. Remember, Jesus is talking about the religious leaders of his own time as he labels them “blind guides.” That’s pretty harsh. He’s advising his listeners not to copy those leaders because they do everything for the wrong reasons. For far, far too long the common people (i.e., the laity) have been overly impressed by their religious leaders. The greater problem, I submit, is that those leaders are even more impressed by themselves.

So, I found Cobb’s final conclusion profoundly sad:

“When we believe that the actions and teachings required for corporate life and unity with the whole church cause the church to witness fundamentally against the meaning of Jesus Christ in our day, we must protest, oppose, and – if necessary – leave. The number who have found this necessary is considerable” [p.144].

It’s sad because, like the traditional Church itself, Cobb seems to fear change. Using the very term within the title of his own book, he’s disturbed by the fact that more and more “thinking Christians” are rejecting the teachings of both Scripture and Tradition that he fervently believes are “required” for one to be an authentic Christian.

What he fears most has come true.

Hello Doug,
Peter advertised your participation on this blog tonight, so I began reading for the first time.
I was struck in you August 8 piece: "Let’s begin to reformulate our theology in keeping with modern scientific discovery and plain common sense." YES! That's the bedrock of my theology.
Do me a favor and read the Introduction to my website, www.secondreformation.com. It's a rather lengthy website, but the Intro can be knocked out in 5-10 minutes. I'd love to hear you reaction to the introduction because it speaks exactly to science and common sense.
Thanks, Jack Batson

Thanks for the opportunity to respond to your remarkable and visually stunning website, Jack! I commend you for your extraordinary efforts at trying to make sense of centuries of religious history. I would take issue, however, with your conclusions here in your introduction about just who “God” is, specifically:

“We hold that Christians should embrace generally settled scientific facts since facts can indeed support belief in a Supreme Being.”
“Even mundane scientific knowledge attests to the existence of an intelligent, rational God hidden behind the face of the universe.”
“The laws of physics, chemistry and many other areas of science all give impressive evidence of a great, rational Mind at work in the universe,….”
“God made us.”

While I understand where you’re coming from, I can’t make the leap that you seem to do that because all of creation is so amazing there simply must be a “Supreme Being,” “an intelligent, rational God” behind it all and that “God made us.” The most that I will ever be able to say is that the entire concept of God is an ineffable Mystery. Why not just say we do not and cannot know? Faith must always have room for doubt. The existence of the universe isn’t, ipso facto, proof of a “Supreme Being.” Again, from my perspective, we were not “made in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1: 26), but the other way around: we have made up a “God” in our own image in order to satisfy our own curiosity. That is a very human thing to do in the presence of inexplicable mystery: we speculate. But let’s not be too quick to turn such speculation into scientific fact.

You do say this:

“Christians should learn to accept generally settled scientific facts and reinterpret Biblical assertions which are clearly fanciful or metaphorical.”

Here I think that you’re on solid ground. The authors of Scripture were as fascinated by the questions, “Who are we and how did we get here?” every bit as much as we are. Their conclusions were just less scientific and rational and more mythic and mystical.

Finally, you close your introduction this way:

“A modern "New Christianity" that would emerge would contain four main ideas: :
• God wants us to diligently pursue the tasks that he has given each person to do in this life, usually to raise children to honorable adulthood, and to pursue one’s special “calling,” using one’s God-given special talent.
• God wants us to avoid sin and uphold the moral order.
• God wants us to be kindhearted, generous, and forgiving, neither seeking revenge nor holding grudges.
• These three should be the subject of faithful prayer and Scripture reading.”

These are all admirable goals. But how do you unequivocally know what “God wants” or doesn’t want? Why not simply say that these four conclusions are your own – based upon your interpretations of scripture and tradition and your own lived experience of reality? They do make perfectly good sense.

Chapter 7 – “Christian Counterattack”

Here in this chapter, in my opinion, Cobb reveals most clearly his bias toward viewing all of reality through the lens of traditional or orthodox Christianity. Indeed, he reveals this at the very outset when he claims:

“God is actively involved in everything that happens. Through God’s creative redemptive work culminating in Jesus Christ, we are given insights into how every aspect of life is to be lived and every aspect of nature and history is to be understood” [p.99}

Incredulously, that is all-consuming and so is his conclusion: “Christian thinking and Christian practice similarly relate to everything” [p.100].

Oh, really? How do you know?”

Cobb seems suspicious of what he refers to as “autonomous sciences” (which, I take it, means independent from and not subject to Christian doctrine) because they’ve led us to a different “understanding of the world” than what’s been promulgated by the traditional Christian faith [p. 101]. I submit, however, that we can have both: a deeper understanding and appreciation of the life and teachings of Jesus through modern critical scholarship as well as what science reveals to us is the fundamental nature of reality. In the midst of uncertainty we don’t need to conjure up miracles and supernatural forces to fill in the blanks – which is exactly what the authors of our Scripture and Traditions all too often have done.

Cobb has a frustrating way of saying something which, to my mind, is completely agreeable, such as “we are already theologians and we can all become better ones” and yet two sentences later say this: “Unless our self-identification as Christians is primary, we cannot become good theologians” [p.102]. What? It’s a complete non sequitur. But then he turns back around completely to a statement, again, with which I totally agree:

“I have proposed that we find within our faith ample reason to accept the evidence that the sciences uncover. Our Christian beliefs must do justice to this evidence” [loc. cit.].

Then why, in the name of common sense, would you want to engage in a “counterattack” against sound scientific evidence, theory and research?

Because, concludes Cobb cryptically, “all our beliefs are subject to judgement” and “we are all creatures whose thinking is distorted. Only in God is there the final truth” [p.105]. That he believes that Scripture and Tradition reveal truth more perfectly than Reason (especially scientific reasoning) and Experience clearly exposes his predilection toward the traditional doctrines of the Christian Church.

To be fair to Cobb, he states that his counterattack is more against secularism than it is science [p.107]. If he defines secularism as the tendency to reject all forms of religious faith and worship, then I think that he does have a case. I just don’t think that he presents it well.

In consideration of question #1 in “Doing Your Theology” on p. 108, then, I do agree that “Christian faith has been pushed to the sidelines in the modern world,” but, I submit, that may not be a bad thing. Christian faith, as it’s been presented for centuries by the Church through its narrow doctrines and rigid dogma, needs to move over and make room for a more reasoned and reasonable view of reality. I believe that it could be more of a gain than a loss if the institutional Church and its loyal followers would find enough humility to allow new thinking to reformulate centuries of archaic conclusions. It will be a loss, however, if the Church will not move from its positions of the last eighteen or nineteen centuries, because it will die. People will simply place their loyalty in something more believable. That is already happening. It could be a gain, however, if the traditional communities established by the Church are replaced by more open and vibrant communities that value relationships and dialogue instead of those that insist upon what one “must believe.” It could be a gain if religious communities became dedicated to authentic revelation rather than continuing to insist upon some version of a supernatural one.

In consideration of question #2, I think it’s long past time to critique both the “secular world” and a narrow “Christian point of view” and strive to find ways in which both can inform and enhance each other. We can be thoughtful – even doubtful – Christians without sacrificing rationality and scientific evidence. I suspect that Cobb would disagree with my conclusion; but as a theologian, myself, I think that such a critique could actually be Christian.

I just dwell on your well-written and expressed comments.
I recognize most of your quotes from Cobb. But when I come upon questionable claims such as "the redemptive work of Christ" or similar, I just write that stuff off as the usual gobbledygook I've heard all my life and move on. You, however, delve into it and tear it apart. I love it!
I sat bolt upright when I came upon, "... reformulate centuries of archaic conclusions. It will be a loss, however, if the Church will not move from its positions of the last eighteen or nineteen centuries, because it will die." Oh, yeah. That's my main thesis. The Christian church is dying, right before our eyes. In plain sight. Terrible, because Jesus has too much to offer the modern world to let it go.

Chapter 9 – “A Critique of the University”

Cobb’s critique is significant, here, but he doesn’t seem to spend much time on the topic of what it means to be a “thinking” Christian theologian in the context of the university. I think he’s correct in observing that “the directions taken in the university are governed by two things…the source of funding [and] the internal development of individual disciplines” [p.134]. It’s also led to the saying that’s become a mantra in the university setting: “Publish or perish.”

It’s both tragic and ironic, then, that he makes this observation:

“It seems that the university attracts a large share of talent, provides time for thought and study, and then directs that thought and study away from the topics that so badly need illumination” [Ibid.]

While he doesn’t say it, I think that this has been especially true in the support needed for critical scholarship in religious studies – especially as it relates to the kinds of conclusions assumed for so long by Christian academicians regarding the Bible and the history of the Church. This is exactly why the scholars of the Westar Institute had to go outside the university to publish and present most of their discoveries and opinions.

I do agree with Cobb’s conclusion, however, that “For the sake of both church and world, we all need to become better theologians” [p.137]. But what makes a “better” theologian? Throughout much of this book it seems that Cobb would define such a person as one who adheres to almost all of the traditional positions of the Church.

As I’ve made “judgments” and “assumptions” about university settings (vis à vis question #1 in “Doing Your Theology” on pp. 137-138), it’s that those settings often are not as open to genuine exploration and critical scholarship as those of us outside the university might think. The pressure to stay within accepted parameters and not question the conclusions of previous research often cripples genuine exploration and the consideration of alternative points of view. When it comes to theology, this is especially true within any university that is associated with a particular religion – or with a particular denomination within a religion.

Is my critical evaluation “a Christian one?” Probably not, as Cobb has determined what is or is not “Christian.” Is it, however, legitimate and rational? I would say, yes – and that’s integral to what I would claim would make a truly “thinking” Christian. A key aspect of all good research is to evaluate prior conclusions as you search for the possibility that there might be more rational – even more reasonable – ones. That has been the way of discovery for centuries. We should apply the same “thinking” to Christianity. Alternatives are possible (see question #3, p. 138). There’s a good chance, I submit, that those alternatives are better ones.

Chapter 8 – “A Critique of Economics”

I found this chapter to be the most tiresome of all to read because, admittedly, I’m ignorant about most of the forces at work within our global economy – and, let’s face it, we can’t just talk about our national economy, or even our local economy, without taking into account how interdependent we’ve become as a species. To me, that’s the direction that Cobb could’ve taken us here that might have made it more interesting. But he didn’t.

In considering the “Doing Your Theology” questions, then, I just started with #1. I do agree that as Christians (but, here again, just as much, as compassionate human beings) we should join together with others in “critically examining the assumptions of economics and other disciplines and proposing alternatives” [p.127]. No one should “leave all fields of thought to the specialists” [Ibid.] – if you can ever actually determine who they’re supposed to be! Ignorance, while it may remain a blissful state for a time, can be dangerous – especially as it affects (either directly or indirectly) one’s life. This is as true for climatology, medicine, agriculture or politics as it is for economics – or any other discipline for that matter – even theology. It’s true because the decisions made by powerful individuals are increasingly affecting the larger community – local, regional, national, international and global.

To put it theologically (as this book intends for us to do), there is a saying worth our consideration from the Bible’s story of Cain and Abel. After Cain had murdered his brother Abel, “God” asks him where his brother is. Cain gives the classic careless and self-centered answer, saying, “I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?” [Genesis 4: 9]. I have argued with a biblical fundamentalist that this story isn’t to be taken literally but is an allegory meant to make us think. Cain’s words symbolize people’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for the welfare of others – for the rest of the human race you could even say. The traditions of Judaism and Christianity are meant to inform us that, indeed, we do have this responsibility. The greatest tragedy of our species, I submit, has spread exponentially simply because we’ve refused to accept it – and thought only of our own people, our own nation, our own religion, our own tribe, ...ourselves.

In the grip of the megalomania that is the Trump administration, I came across a statement that seems appropriate: “When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher wall.”

Hey, Peter, how do I "fix" a situation on the website (created by an edit that I made) that now has my postings out-of-order?

Chapter 6 – “Professionals: Help and Hindrance”

It is curious that, after all that Cobb has said in his previous chapters, here in Chapter 6 he says that each of us has to figure out for ourselves what we believe [p.89]. His final “Word of Advice” near the end of this chapter sounds very much like a recommendation of this Book Study group begun by Peter Lutz:

“…far better than pursuing your interests alone would be joining a group to work with the pastor. The task of reading relevant materials can be shared. Also, only as you articulate your emerging views and get critical feedback are they likely to mature” [p.96]

Indeed, as Peter has often said, “Meaning is homemade.”

My education as a theologian certainly did begin at home – with parents and grandparents who were my first teachers and mentors. This education continued throughout my lifetime, beginning with attending Sunday School as a child and including regular church attendance on into my adulthood. Through it all, I’ve been part of study groups discussing the Bible and theology, culminating in attending seminary at The Divinity School of Duke University. I vividly recall the perspective of that Master’s Degree program at Duke University which was foundational to the type of theologian I have become. The Divinity School at Duke clearly proclaimed their purpose this way: “We’re not here to train pastors. We’re here to educate theologians.” I was deeply grateful for that perspective then; and I am just as grateful for it now. What followed for me has been a professional career of thirty-eight years as an ordained pastor in The United Methodist Church, and later as an associate member of the Westar Institute (see https://www.westarinstitute.org).

Westar's first project, the "Jesus Seminar," renewed the quest for the historical Jesus begun by David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century and later taken up by Albert Schweitzer at the beginning of the twentieth. At the opening session of the Jesus Seminar in 1985, Bob Funk defined its mission as follows: "We are going to inquire simply, rigorously after the voice of Jesus, after what he really said." The Jesus of Nazareth discovered by the Jesus Seminar was a wisdom teacher whose parables proclaimed the arrival of God's kingdom. He was not, in the judgment of the Seminar, the messiah of the end-times. The critical scholars of the Westar Institute are the ones who have helped me the most in shaping my own theology over the last twenty-five years.

I am also a Spiritual Director certified through Spiritual Directors International (http://www.sdiworld.org), and while Christianity remains to be the foundation upon which I stand, my current theological frame of reference is distinctly interspiritual.★

Getting back to this chapter, however, I think it’s worth pointing out that Cobb’s conclusion (in this chapter as well as elsewhere) is significant in its constant swing back to orthodoxy. Rather than addressing any possibility of the need for a reformulation of Christian theology, he speaks of what -- in his estimation -- we seem to be losing:

“To drift on into institutionalism with most Christians having little understanding of what is being lost in the process is not a viable choice. Faith in Christ requires our attempts to understand what faith entails” [p.98].

Again, he seems to be coming back, not to right “thinking,” but to right “believing.”
___________________________________________________
★ Interspirituality has come to be understood as the heritage of spiritual wisdom that is common to all of humanity. It’s the sharing of mystical resources about the nature of spirituality across all traditions, but it’s also the ongoing dialogue about what all humankind is experiencing from those resources.

Wayne Teasdale (author of The Mystic Heart) was the one in 1999 who actually first coined the term “interspirituality” to describe this particular kind of spiritual perspective. It assumes that beneath the diversity of theological beliefs, rites, and observances lies a deeper unity of experience that is our shared spiritual heritage. A mystical approach to spirituality, in fact, is the origin of all the world religions. Practitioners of interspirituality are convinced that every authentic spiritual path offers unique perspectives and rich insights into this deeper, direct experience of truth. In our own time, the wisdom and depth of all paths are available to anyone who will bring an open mind and heart – as well as a generous spirit of his or her own – to this kind of search across traditions.

All authentic spiritual paths, at their mystical core, are committed to the common values of peace, compassionate service, and love for all of creation. An inner life awakened to responsibility and love will naturally express itself through engaged spirituality, in “acts of compassion…contributing to the transformation of the world and the building of a nonviolent, peace-loving culture that includes everyone.” (from The Mystic Heart)

Chapter 5 – “Christians and Jews”

As a long-time member of the NCC&J (National Council of Christians & Jews) when I was an active pastor, I’ve been decidedly on the side of increased dialogue across religious traditions. So, I’ve always been critical of the “Jews for Jesus” movements, because such proselytizing condemns Jews for the “lack” of their faith and perpetuates the idea that fundamentalist Christianity is the only way to salvation (whatever that is). So, Cobb’s “Professor Wilkins” character has it right when he says this:

“What we find again and again in history is that the people who care most about their own communities are often quite harsh in their condemnation of others. This is true especially when the other communities threaten theirs” [p.78].

I would agree, at least partially, with Cobb’s “Dr. Reynolds” character who said that it would be better to “leave [Jews] alone” than to try to convince them that the Jesus they let get away was their actual Messiah. We might, just might, be able to “help them appreciate [one of] the greatest figure[s] in their own history,” however; and his name was “Jesus” [p.85].

But then I’m one of those radically progressive Christians who doesn’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was divine – or anything at all like the “second person” of the Trinity. While that powerful prophet may have revealed the essence of who or what God ought to be like, we Christians don’t have all the right answers about just who Jesus was or what, exactly, he said. In that regard I have a lot of gratitude for the scholarship, theology and witness of the so-called “Jesus Seminar” – now, better known as the Westar Institute. I would urge any “thinking” Christian to read more of what their scholars have written.*

It should come as no surprise, then, that I am a decidedly unorthodox Christian – but I suspect that Cobb would insist that I can’t be both. He even has his “Dr. Reynolds” character say, “We Christians do confess that in Jesus God was incarnate” [p.86]. What does that really mean? I would say that wherever there is life and blessing, there is God. We Christians don’t have an exclusive right to that Reality.

If I were to answer any of the questions on “Doing Your Theology” on page 87, I’d simply repeat myself in response to #3 and say this: Whenever Scripture and Tradition are in opposition to Reason and Experience, regrettably, the Bible and the Church are in error. We would do well to learn from other religious traditions whatever could be valuable to us. Yes, we should share what we consider are the more important aspects of our own tradition. But we should also simply listen, respectfully, when we disagree and not judge others harshly when we cannot accept their point of view. We, in fact, may be the ones who are wrong. I submit that there have been many aspects of Christian theology that have been wrong in the past (e.g., a virgin-birth, a god walking around as Jesus doing miracles, dead men coming back to life, et al.). The Church might well be wrong about some of the doctrinal conclusions that it holds as truth even to this day.

We could use a little more humility.
____________________________________
* I would recommend reading the July-August 2018 edition of Westar’s "The Fourth R" – especially the lead article written by Lloyd Geering entitled “Reformation to Reformulation of Faith.” In recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation set in motion by Martin Luther, Geering proposes that not only has our “Christian worldview” changed, but so has “the role and authority of the church” and the very “nature and content of [our] faith.” The “humanistic secular culture” of today, he claims, may be every bit as significant and powerful as that first Reformation. What's more, it “is the direct product of past Christendom.”

Chapter 4 – “Biblical Authority”

Significantly enough, I’m at odds with Cobb beginning with just his second sentence in this chapter. He begins by referring back to the previous chapter that “emphasized the authority of the Bible” [p.57]; then he says: “On this general question there is little dispute among Christians” [Ibid.]. Oh, really? I’m one who holds quite a bit of disputes with our tradition’s assumption that the Bible should be our primary source of authority. Cobb even goes on to say, for example, that “If someone else argues that some forms of homosexual activity are to be affirmed, then that person must provide a biblical basis for that” [Loc. cit.]. Must? I’ve had far too many persons of authority in the Church tell me what I “must” or “must not” believe. But then I’ve been at odds with the authority of the institutional Church for a long, long time.

I do agree with Cobb that when it comes to matters of theology, “the question of how the Bible is authoritative” ought to come up. But, again in my mind, throughout the history of Christianity (or with the sacred scripture of any other religion) we’ve over-emphasized Scripture and Tradition at the expense of Reason and Experience. One of my favorite theologians, John Dominic Crossan, has a wonderful observation about the Bible in this regard:

“My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” [in Who Is Jesus? Answers to Your Questions About the Historical Jesus, p.79]

So, when Cobb says “To abandon scriptural authority is to abandon Christian identity or, at least, an inclusive Christian identity” [p.58], I profoundly disagree with him. I think that I can, and should, disagree with the Bible when it doesn’t make sense or isn’t in line with my lived experience – this is especially true as it conflicts with contemporary scientific discovery. Cobb loses me even further when he goes on to say that when someone like me forms a “synthesis” of what is or is not Christian, “he has given up a unifying Christian identity and ceases to take part in the theological task” [Loc. cit.]. Wow. With that single sentence Cobb has effectively excommunicated me from the Church. But then, I’ve had United Methodist colleagues of mine accuse me of not being Christian – and that I should leave the Church.

I’m still here.

Cobb continues to refer to a state of being that he calls the “Christian identity” and, for him, it seems, Scripture and Tradition remain the primary ways in which that identity is supposed to be determined. He’s suspicious of what he refers to as divided loyalties [p.59]. So, when I first read this book twenty-five years ago, I almost stopped with this chapter and tossed the book away. At this point in my reading it sounded to me like he’d not titled the book honestly. He wasn’t interested in “thinking” Christians as much as he was “believing” Christians – and he was going to “help” us understand what we must believe. As Cobb continues to contrast “Biblical and Secular Authority,” in an almost fundamentalist vein, he says this:

“People who have divided loyalties along these lines cannot really be Christian theologians in the sense for which this book calls. To be theologians is to desire that all the beliefs by which we live be Christian” [Loc. cit.]

He claims that in order for “Christian identity to be fundamental and inclusive,” we must base our “reasons within the Bible and the tradition” [p.60]. He states that his reason for writing this book was “in the hope of renewing a unifying Christian vision that can function as the real basis of life in the world” [loc. cit.]. But he lost me, right here, in this chapter.

But, of course, I didn’t throw the book out. In the same way that I’ve faced every doctrine and dogma of the Church, I plowed through Cobb’s conclusions and argued for a better, more inclusive, more sensible way of doing theology. That others have found my views suspect, of course, has been my history within the Church.

So, when Cobb says just a bit further (under his point 6. Reason), “It makes no sense to rank any other authority above reason” [p.64], I shout, “Yes!” and wonder why he seems to have been saying the opposite just before this!

As he moves on to consider our tradition, I adamantly say, “Yes!”, again, when he says this about it:

“…there is always the danger that [tradition] has become a congealed body of ideas to which some later theologians believe they should subordinate their own creative insights and honest convictions. In this sense, tradition can become a threat to authentic theology” [p.66]

Regrettably, in my opinion, Cobb seems to circle back around to end where he began in the closing pages of this chapter as he talks about scripture as “the Word of God” [p.69]. It’s as if he believes it had been dictated to its authors in the same way that fundamentalist Muslims believe that the Qur’an was dictated by Allah directly through Muhammad – i.e., that there’s little or nothing of Muhammad’s thinking in the scriptures of Islam.

Finally, and somewhat curiously to me, Cobb has very little to say about “Jesus Christ” at the close of this chapter except that Jesus, as the Christ, is central to Cobb’s theology [p.70]. I’m left wondering, “How so?” Left with more questions and disagreements, I could think of nothing to add to his “Doing Your Theology” questions on p. 71 than what I’ve already said.

1 – I’m very satisfied with my position on abortion. I don’t believe it is different from other medical procedures that help improve the life of the actual person involved, the possible mother. I don’t believe in souls. I believe that life begins (and ends) with breathing. I believe that there are way too many people in the world, and that that is a major contributor to most of the wicked problems of the world. However, as a male I am not subject to abortion myself, so my position is perhaps less (maybe much less) important than a woman’s position. Just as I want people to have the widest possible viewpoint on issues in their lives, I want the widest possible list of choices available for (almost) everyone. I’m in favor of constraining people who have demonstrated that they will not live in community with others. Of course I live at the top of the social hierarchy, so my view is in only one direction, and as much as I can try to learn what other viewpoints show, I can only partially do that.

2 – a) I probably began this belief at home, as my parents were strong supporters of Planned Parenthood all my life. As I matured, it just seemed like the right thing to do, and I have never seriously encountered individuals with other viewpoints. All the arguments I have heard of are from lower levels of moral development, so are easy for me to ignore.
b) Most of my Christianity is cultural. I can’t believe in supernatural, and I don’t (really) think anyone else should either, although that’s up to them. There is very little Christianity in many of my moral views, as I think when there is a conflict between human and Christian, the human should prevail.
c) I can find nothing in the Bible about abortion, especially the reference our author gives in Exodus 21. I don’t find that related at all.
d) My appeal to biblical authority is minuscule, and only used (seriously) when I think the other person has a much more conservative view of biblical authority than I do. I think the Bible is a great story book, but I place my confidence in science.
e) If there is nothing to apply, then there is nothing to justify.
f) My view of biblical authority is that it represents one opinion of what may be many, and must be weighed in the mix with all others. This is very postmodern of me, but applies to my thinking in social situations. If there is any scientific evidence available to help resolve an issue, I am much more inclined to use it.

As always, Peter, you've opened up some wonderful possibilities here for a truly profound discussion over the nature of life itself. What is life? If you are a thinking being, you are alive (cf. René Descartes' statement "I think, therefore I am."). I would define your very being as the essence of your soul -- and that you definitely have one! When did it begin? When will it end? No one knows. To me, the soul is just one more way of defining who you are. I do believe, however, that life begins long before "breathing" -- unless you assume that a mother's respiration is the one that is providing it early on.

And as far as the "supernatural" is concerned, if your concept is of "the Big Boss-Man in the Sky," I would have to agree with you. But how did all of this begin? What was the cause of Reality as we've come to know and experience it? I just can't wrap my mind around creation happening "out of nothing." So, who or what was behind it? That question continues to intrigue me.

I think there's more "Christianity" in your moral views than you might realize. I'm not quite sure what you mean when you say that "when there is a conflict between human and Christian, the human should prevail." What do you mean by "human" -- and could a person's view of what it means to be truly Christian ever be, at least at some level, consonant with your definition of "human?"

Like you, I do "place my confidence in science," and yet over issues of spirituality and what it means to be fully human, I think that religion has a lot to offer us -- even us postmodern folks!

Chapter 3 – “Shaping Up”

This chapter just kept bringing me back to that question, “How do you know what you know?” And Cobb rightly points out an issue that, for me as well, is an ongoing problem when he says, “…the dominance of a belief through most of the tradition does not guarantee that it is right” [p.48]. (e.g., witness the current debate within the United Methodist Church around what’s fast becoming the next denominational oxymoron: “ a Way Forward” – navigate your way around www.umc.org/who-we-are/commission-on-a-way-forward-news-and-updates). And yet Cobb also reveals his own conservative side when he says that “Christians as Christians are not free to reject Scripture and tradition unless Scripture and tradition provide positive reasons for doing so” [p.49]. Who determines what is “positive?” As we’ve seen over the history of theology, positivity has all too often led to overconfidence and dogmatism. The less the Church has known, the more positive it’s become.

So, for me, a problematic thread of Cobb’s emerges early on in this book; it’s revealed (in one way or another) in his often-repeated question, “Is it really Christian?” [p.56, 2. b., et al.]. His measuring stick for justifying any answer to that question seems to be that it must have its source in either Scripture (“biblical authority”) or Tradition – preferably both. But what do we do if our conclusion is that both are incorrect? Reason and Experience will always supersede, for me, both Scripture and Tradition if I come to the conclusion that they “got it wrong.” I think that I am consistent in justifying this approach.

In consideration of “Doing Your Theology” – and point #2 [p.56] – I still would stand by my rational and experiential approach toward “doing” my theology. While I remain deeply grateful for the education in this field given to me by my professors at Duke University, I have been helped, immensely, over the last couple of decades by the scholars of the Westar Institute. And while the reference is not a completely comprehensive one, I’d refer you to an example of some of their resources here: https://www.westarinstitute.org/westar-on-the-issues/?utm_source=Westar+....
a. Where did you derive this belief? – a lifetime spent studying the Bible and its varying interpretations while engaging in conversations with others in-and-out of the Church
b. Is the source Christian? – as it has begun and grown from within the parameters of that “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” my answer would simply be, “Yes, I believe that it is.”
c. How is the source related to the Bible? – Scripture is but one lens through which I view reality; and while it is informative, the Bible has never been my sole source of authority.
d. Is the way you appeal to biblical authority here a way you would employ whenever it is applicable or only selectively? – Because I am not a biblical literalist, I would have to say that I refer to Scripture only as I deem it to be relevant, suitable and appropriate – so, in that sense, then, “whenever it is applicable.”
e. If you apply it selectively, can you justify this? – I don’t apply it that way.
f. If not, can you reformulate your view of biblical authority so that you can use it consistently? – I have and I think that I do it consistently.

In this, you will see why I really begin to disagree with many of Cobb’s conclusions as he presents his positions in the next chapter on “Biblical Authority.”

This is pretty slick. You can still participate in our group to a certain extent by answering the questions on here. While I agree that God is Mystery, in order to talk about what God may be, I used an analogy and talked about that. My analogy is "what happens among a group of people in a community discussion". If I use that for (at least one aspect of) God, I can say some interesting things.

I do miss actually being with you all -- speaks well of your image of "people in a community." In the final analysis, I think that we've just made up our own image for this "category" or "persona" we've called God. That it works for some and not for others ought to not, then, destroy the importance of our continuing to come together -- to hold precious our "common-unity."

Chapter 2 – “Ethics and Theology”

To begin with, I’d like to highlight a theme running throughout this chapter that I think is significant: say and do what you really believe, not what others have told you that you should believe. “Using biblical passages as proof texts” can make you “avoid having to think” [p.28]. So, “we do have life-shaping beliefs! To take responsibility for our theology is, first of all, to make explicit what we already believe” [p.35]. And, all too often, sadly, there’s a difference between “real beliefs” and “avowed beliefs” [loc. sit.]. The former are your actual convictions; the other may just be your public persona. So, I agree with Cobb that each of us must “become aware of what [we] really believe. Only then can [we] take responsibility for [our] beliefs” [p.40]. What’s more, “there is little point in discussing how your theology is to be evaluated and improved if you do not know what your theology is” [loc. sit.]. So, think about it!

His closing paragraph in this chapter sums up this most important point: “The only place that authentic theology can begin is with the real beliefs of real Christians. … We can grow theologically only if we discover for ourselves that our beliefs are not adequate or appropriate. To abandon real beliefs because someone else tells us they are not orthodox only encourages the inauthenticity… [so,] “begin only where you really are.” [p. 41]. Amen to that.

I still like referring to what’s been called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. But most of us never have treated it as an equilateral quadrilateral (if I may push that image a bit) – i.e., we give more weight to one or two than we do the others. I’ve always done that myself. Where most orthodox Christians begin with Scripture and/or Tradition, however, I begin with Reason (i.e., does it make sense, is it in line with scientific discovery, etc.), only then do I move to the second “side” of this quadrilateral which is, for me, Experience (i.e., it’s part of my lived experience of the way things are – or at least ought to be). Over the years, I’ve come to refer to Scripture and Tradition less and less – especially where I’ve concluded that they’re in conflict with Reason and Experience. If I were to consider this whole quadrilateral at all, then, it would take on the acronym R.E.S.T. because I’ve clearly ranked them in that order. Why not? Try it; give it a REST.

I agree with Cobb, though, that “the relation between a general theological conviction and specific ethical conclusions is rarely so simple” [p.33].

So, to just one of Cobb’s questions:

1. State your position on abortion, capitalism, or homosexuality. Do you assert that position as a Christian? Explain.

While I am against abortion as a “convenient” method of birth control (the callous and casual “Let’s-just-get-rid-of-it; I-don’t-want-it” approach), I am fervently in support of a woman’s right to choose. It’s her body – never mind the circumstances surrounding what caused the pregnancy. A pregnant woman should never be pressured to carry an unwanted child to delivery just because someone else wants her to.

If being a Christian means the protection of all human life (an irony in itself in that it often, then, disregards other forms of life), then in that sense I am not a Christian. If, however, being a Christian includes struggling with complicated moral issues in which the choices between good and evil are unclear, then that’s where I am. When to kill another human being (or “allow one to die”) – even an embryo or, at the other end of the spectrum, a person who is terminally ill – is a decision fraught with profound moral conundrums.

Without going into any great detail in regards to capitalism, I do think that when any economic system only benefits private individuals or corporations, it becomes immoral and my position as a Christian would be to oppose such a system.

The issues surrounding human sexuality (including homosexuality, transgender sexuality, asexuality, pansexuality, et al.) are, in many ways, less troublesome for me as a Christian because I’ve become convinced that our sexuality is not binary but a shifting continuum in which created difference is the rule, not the exception. What’s more, while sexual orientation has been separated into just two categories – monosexual (attraction to a single gender) and plurisexual (attraction to multiple genders) – contemporary scientific studies show that our prior conclusions about human sexuality were more limiting than they should have been. We are a species that can identify with multiple sexual orientations as well as multiple gender identities. As a Christian, I stand against any society that labels those who don’t necessarily comply with its set “rules” as outsiders and then ostracizes them with negative characteristics and hurtful stereotypes – homophobia, if you will, of any sort.

Just as a final coda: what’s important to me, as a Christian, is that we never ridicule or belittle another person for his/her feelings of sexual attraction. Sexual orientation, while not a fixed identity, can’t be intentionally altered (through “corrective” therapy). The attraction that someone feels cannot be changed to fit our current heteronormative culture. To my mind, the presence of many unique sexual orientations doesn’t imply abnormality or “sexual deviance,” it just adds to the diversity – and diversity is a well-established scientific fact about reality itself.

Becoming a Thinking Christian
by John B. Cobb, Jr.
“If we want Church renewal, we will have to renew thinking in the Church.”

Preface

I would wholeheartedly agree with Cobb’s opening comment in his Preface: “To be a good theologian is to be a Christian who thinks” [p.7]. I would add that that’s true for a follower of any religion – Christian or otherwise. But Cobb’s a Christian; so, supposedly, are we. We all should accept the “intellectual challenge,” then, as he rightly points out, and do it with “integrity” [p.7]. Among my regrets, as an ordained clergyman, have been the ways in which I’ve allowed myself, all too often, to be accepted as the answer person among lay people when it comes to the interpretation of scripture and theology. To be sure, I have a Master’s Degree in such things, have studied ancient Hebrew and Koiné Greek, and spent a lifetime both embracing and in search of what I’ve come to know and name to be Holy. And yet I agree with Cobb that “no amount of learning about the ideas of others, takes the place of thinking for yourself...”[p.8].

Chapter 1

So, to Cobb’s questions:

1. Consider how you comfort bereaved parents, your prayer life, or how you view changing gender language about God. Are your views similar to any of those described in [Chapter 1]? Select one of these topics and formulate your position in agreement or contrast with those described.

I’m reminded of a question that my favorite professor at Duke University, Dr. James “Mickey” Efird (professor of New Testament and ancient Greek), would often ask us: “How do you know what you know?” The simple answer, of course, is that we’ve been carefully taught – first, by our parents and family, then at school – through books and hired teachers, as well as through friends, associates, people whom we’ve come to respect and admire, and finally by making up our own mind. Cobb is right, however, that all too often “We become dependent on others even with respect to things that we could do for ourselves” [p.11]. We can’t just “leave theology to the theologians” [p.11].

Cobb asks us to choose only one of the topics from this chapter; so, I’d like to step right into the heart of the matter and consider, yet again, the nature of God – or, as Cobb entitles this topic in #7, “Feminism and God” [pp.22ff]. For me, the nature of God transcends gender. In fact, God remains to be, for me, an ineffable Mystery. All that we can ever say about God is pure conjecture. Our scripture claims that we human beings were created in the “image” and “likeness” of God [cf. Genesis 1: 27]. I think it’s been the other way around: we’ve created a god in our own image. And while that has been a blessing in some ways – as it’s given rise to the sacred significance of life, love and the nature of holiness itself. It has also been a curse – as it’s given rise to religiously proscribed concepts of abomination, sin and a truly vengeful deity.

I would agree with Cobb when he says, “No image of God is true. … To be attached to [any] particular images is…a form of idolatry” [p.23]. We cannot learn all that we need to know about God from the Bible or religious tradition – much of which, tragically, points us in the wrong direction because it’s of our own invention. So, I think Cobb is disingenuous when he says, on the one hand, that we “cannot decide the question of what God is actually like,” but then say, that it “must be learned from the Bible” [p.23]. He even rightly observes, later, that “resistance to change in the church is so deep” [p.24f] that we still can’t make up our minds on the nature of God. But can we ever come to be comfortable with the fact that we never will?

2. Reflect on the assumptions underlying this position, especially the beliefs about God that come to expression in your position.

While Cobb has asked us to select only one among many topics [p.26], I think that our “beliefs about God” remain to be so critical we should think that one through over-and-over again – especially if we fervently believe that we’ve come to the “right” conclusion. As Fagin, in the musical Oliver, sings to himself in “Reviewing the Situation,” when it comes to theology we should ponder our assumptions and conclusions and say to ourselves, as well, “I think I’d better think it out again!”

In that regard, the nature of prayer is an absolutely critical one, it seems to me. Much of what most Christians assume prayer is, I’ve concluded, sadly, “falls on deaf ears,” because our ideas of God remain to be a figment of our own imaginations. As it’s been said, “The only hands God has are our hands.” So, let’s get about helping to create and maintain a world that will be a blessing and not a curse – as we, all too often, have made it.

While such a discussion about prayer may come to no comfortable conclusion or satisfy no one, even so, it is a discussion well worth having.

"So, let’s get about helping to create and maintain a world that will be a blessing and not a curse." Oyes, oyes!
I tell people that the Kingdom will come as we labor to make the world so, being guided by the Holy Spirit.
Again, since by goal is to reform Christianity and make it into a rational, understandable, ethical religion, I compromise with the highest levels of criticism. I allow for the Holy Spirit, for prayer, for miracles, and for allegorical meaning in parables. Sorry about that. But to give those things up means that a very few people will be talking to themselves alone, in my opinion, although that talk would be pretty interesting!
jb