|Becoming a Thinking Christian
John B Cobb Jr, Abingdon Press, 1993
The Church has a problem of
significant dimensions which rests so deep in its nature that it is
difficult to see and understand. The problem concerns the viability of
its traditional message in a secular society.
As an American, Cobb isn't faced with the secular
challenge to quite the same degree as his fellows in Europe and Britain.
There at least 80 percent of the population no longer perceives
traditional Christianity as relevant to life. They may claim to be
"Christian" as opposed to some other religion such as Islam.
But that's as far as it goes.
Cobb describes what he calls the retreat of the
churches from engagement with the totality of society. There was a time
when everything from economics to child rearing was covered by Christian
theology. This is no longer true. Theology has gone from the Queen of
the sciences to the Cinderella of the kitchen hearth. A result is that now
Lay Christians lead most of their lives outside the
church as an institution.
What is to be done about the fracture between
Christian theology and the lives of ordinary people? Is it possible to
once more knit them together?
Cobb advocates a "counterattack". By this he
seems to mean that lay Christians should be critical of the assumptions
which underpin secular disciplines.
The purpose of such counterattack is not at all to
subordinate these disciplines to the authority of the church. On the
contrary, it should enable the disciplines to fulfill their intentions
Fundamental to the counterattack is that lay people should reclaim
authority from the professionals and become theologians in their own
right. There was a time when discussion of belief was part of life and
... in the nineteenth century professional theology began to grow
separate from the life of laypeople. In the second half of the
twentieth century the situation has become worse.
Theology has become that which is done by professionals. Cobb thinks
that this accounts in part for the decline of the churches. He thinks
that things are now changing. Just as many want to understand health
better, so also many now want to understand spirituality better.
All Christians are theologians. Only when this is recognised will it
be possible to work out our ethics properly. Cobb uses the example of
homosexuality to illustrate this point. We are duty bound, he says, to
recognise some of the complexities around the issue, and to know what
the Bible does and doesn't say about it.
Two interesting chapters relate a fictional account of discussion
groups around economics and university life. Each sets out to
illustrate how it is possible to identify assumptions which underpin
each area. It is here that Cobb's approach begins to show a few
For when underlying assumptions in the secular society are examined,
it becomes clear, writes Cobb, that Christians find themselves being
... accept the desirability that much of public life be based on
principles that are profoundly at variance with their ethical views.
Which ethical views? Those of orthodox Christianity of the fourth
century? Or perhaps those of Victorian England, or the present-day deep
More than that, what do historians, physicists, university professors
and a host of other secular concerns think about Christian assumptions?
I personally doubt that many of these assumptions bear examination in
the light of the way we now construe the world.
I don't want to detract too much from an interesting book which is a
rare attempt at facing up to the intellectual incompetence of most
committed Christians. Cobb wrote this in 1993. Since then we
have seen only a widening of the gap between those (like Cobb) who
propose renewal of the faith, and those who (like me) think that a
radical re-write is the only way ahead.
Cobb, to do him justice, tackles the gap with considerable acuity. He
uses the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (experience, reason, tradition and
scripture) to express his ideas. All four are linked and can't be
separated except for convenience.
To the four he adds "Jesus Christ", rightly insisting that
what Jesus said and did is normative. But there's the rub. What did
Jesus say and do? We know that the Gospels are not good history, though
they contain some good history. Cobb writes:
Christians as Christians are not free to reject Scripture and
tradition unless Scripture and tradition provide positive reasons for
doing so. But most Christians believe that, indeed, on some points
such reasons can be found.
The trouble is that Cobb does not even mention the degree to which
scholars have questioned the authenticity of the gospel texts. Few of those texts
the requirements of historians for good history.
This is a
critical issue if Christians are overcome the questioning of their
assumptions by secular society. After all, what's good for the goose is
good for the gander. If Christians should question secular assumptions,
so should they question ours. If we have a duty to question medical
ethics, for example, don't non-Christians have an equal duty to question
theology? And if we expect emerging medical ethics to respond to the
Christian position, shouldn't Christians be similarly expected to do the
The truth is that Christians tend to rest rather patronisingly on the
teaching that they have access to God's mind through revelation. Nothing
is as impervious to change as a claim to absolute truth.
Nevertheless, Cobb asserts that we are to test our
beliefs through reason:
As these beliefs emerge into consciousness, the way they relate to
one another involves reason. Questioning their sources is a rational
activity, as is every stage in the process of answering.
Fine - but if this is true, then neither scripture nor tradition is
the final arbiter. What does not stand against reason must be
modified or rejected. The Christian assumption that the Bible
(scripture) and the Church (tradition) have the final say can't be
rationally sustained. It rests upon assumptions about the world which
are no longer sustainable.
Overall, this book is a good read. Cobb offers a halfway house for
those Christians who are too timid to take on the long journey into the
wilderness of contemporary faith. But he did not convince me that his
"counterattack" has much substance to it, nor that it is
likely to revitalise an ailing Church.
Far from it. The danger is that books such as these give a false
sense of security to those few traditional Christians who feel uneasy
with the current situation, and who are restlessly probing the insecure foundations
of a shaky faith.