Ask Dr. Cobb

Inconvenient Truths

Question: 
What does process theology have to say about inconvenient truths?
Publication Month: 
February 2007
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

I have asked my own question this month. Sadly, few questioners bring up the question of the fate of the earth. Yet it remains the overarching one, the context in which we should consider all the others. Process thought supports, if it does not require, this view that all other issues are subordinate to this one.

Incarnation

Question: 
What is the meaning of the 'incarnation' from the process perspective?
Publication Month: 
January 2001
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

We associate the incarnation especially with Christmas. That may be a mistake. It implies that Jesus was born unique, whereas our evidence for his distinctiveness comes from his adult life. It has encouraged thinking of the differences as metaphysical rather than as structural and historical.

Immortality

Question: 
I've just started reading C. Hartshorne's Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. The one response I find least satisfactory is his observation on immortality. What are your views?
Publication Month: 
June 1998
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

Christians have varied ideas about "immortality" and tend to cover up their differences with vague rhetoric. Behind that rhetoric I encounter three general views with lots of diversity within them.

Immanent or Transcendent?

Question: 
I'm a member of one of the protestant churches in Holland. I've read Thomas Merton and some books about Zen. In my tradition God is 'very transcendent.' The things I've read are more 'immanent.' How do you (i.e. process theology) see God; immanent or transcendent?
Publication Month: 
January 2003
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

The issue of immanence and transcendence is crucial for religious thought. One reason that it never gets settled is that it has so many meanings and turns up in so many different contexts. A view that emphasizes immanence in one context may emphasize transcendence in another. What the terms mean depends in part on the metaphysical assumptions, usually unconscious, of those who use them.

Human Value

Question: 
What is the value of the human race and should it be saved? This question is asked in view of the fact that our human population is destroying our own carrying capacity and bringing to extinction other life forms that are not less valuable than our own. Though human beings may be unique due to our advanced level of self-consciousness, does this uniqueness and all that it wrought outweigh the right for less sentient beings, our brothers and sisters, to have a habitat and simply exist?
Publication Month: 
April 1999
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

At one level this question could be simply brushed aside as irrelevant. The human race will not intentionally wipe itself out for the sake of other species, and there is probably no one who would seriously advocate doing so.  But at a deeper level, the question is very important. What is our justification for making our own survival and wellbeing as a species so central to all our acts and moral assertions? Does that justification stand up to criticism?

Homosexuality

Question: 
Has process thought anything to contribute to the debate about homosexuality?
Publication Month: 
June 1999
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

Has Process Theology Backed The Wrong Horse?

Question: 
Has process theology “backed the wrong horse”?
Publication Month: 
July 2007
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

William Placher, one of the brightest lights on the theological scene today, wrote a review of Gary Dorrien’s third volume of The Making of American Liberal Theology. This volume covers the period 1950-2005, and it is entitled “Crisis, Irony, & Postmodernity.

Hartshorne and the Chicago School

Question: 
In your January '07 FAQ on Whitehead, you concluded with this paragraph, to which there has not been the promised followup: “Readers may be struck by the complete omission of Charles Hartshorne from this account. He, too, was a neo-naturalist. But he was so different from the Chicago school that none of my discussion of the relation of Whitehead to that school applies to him. I will take up the relation of Whitehead and Hartshorne next month.”
Publication Month: 
June 2007
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

First my apologies for forgetting to follow through on the promise! Thanks for the reminder.

Goddess Theology

Question: 
Is there a convergence between process theology and Goddess theology? What common ground do they share?
Publication Month: 
August 2005
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

Goddess theology, as I have experienced it, is an eco-feminist theology. Process theology shares more common ground with eco-feminist theology than with any other major movement of which I am aware. Indeed, I have difficulty finding any points of conflict.

God & Violence

Question: 
Preface: I am totally new today to process theology--at least as systematic theology. Intuitively, perhaps I have been thinking this way for a long time. Here is my inquiry. I'm reading Walter Wink's book the Powers that Be. In the book, Dr. Wink dismisses the possibility that Jesus' action in the Temple (i.e., the making of the "whip," driving the people and animals out, and turning over the tables) was violent. In another part of the book, he characterizes God as being non-violent in character even though he characterizes the Hebrew Bible as showing the violent nature of God. I, on the other hand, have no problem seeing Jesus action in the temple as an act of violence (how reckless, for example, to stampede animals--innocent people could have been injured; to have the crowd experience a crush at the doors and people be killed or injured; the possibility of bones being broken by over turning the tables. I see Jesus in the process of change... of becoming rather than being always and forever non-violent. Does this show, as I think it does, that God (and Christ as God incarnate), was/is not immutable, but rather God/Christ was violent at times, but changed in nature in reaction and relation to humankind?
Publication Month: 
January 2000
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

From the point of view of process theology God is never violent in the usual sense.  Central to our understanding is that God relates to us persuasively rather than coercively. God lures us to act in that way that is best in the circumstances. By introducing possibilities of such action that go beyond what the situation would otherwise allow, God expands our freedom. Violence as we ordinarily understand it restricts the freedom of its object. We think that God's loving nature was revealed to us in Jesus, both in his behavior and in his teaching.

God & Power

Question: 
Divine persuasion or coercion?
Publication Month: 
May 2001
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

God & Possibility

Question: 
Is God, in process theology, the ground of all possibilities? And if so, are all possibilities actualized in God?
Publication Month: 
September 2002
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

In general I have avoided the more technical metaphysical issues in these discussions. We want to talk about process theology and that brings the focus on the "So what?" questions. How God relates to us is certainly central to process theology. The metaphysical status of eternal objects not obviously so.

God & Pop Culture

Question: 
I just pulled out my old program, '3 days of peace and music' (original Woodstock program), and found an interesting statement therein: 'Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can't ever forget. It becomes part of everything you do. In that respect this is an extension of LOVE SUPREME since my conception of that force keeps changing shape. . . .' My first reaction was, 'Wow!' Process theology in its infancy stage! Right there at Yasgur's farm. Cool. The first panentheist. BTW, the quote is from John Sinclair (founder of the White Panther Party, 'political prisoner', acid head, etc., etc...)."
Publication Month: 
August 2001
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

My first reaction to this comment, was just to let it stand. It seems a bit out of my range. But I've now decided to respond.

Much Protestant theology focuses on what we believe. The left wing of the Reformation included some who emphasized personal, immediate experience of the divine, but the major Reformers did not. This highly personal experience was often appealed to as providing authoritative information, and the Reformers were rightly suspicious of such claims.

God & Love

Question: 
"God is love," says the author of 1 John. How does process thought generally answer the issue at the basis of two questions: "Is love an abstract standard outside of Godself that God embodies perfectly?" or "Is love whatever God does, simply because God does it?"
Publication Month: 
May 2000
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

This question harks back to the Realist-Nominalist debates of the later Middle Ages. The Realists, such as Thomas Aquinas, believed that human beings have some knowledge of the distinction between good and evil. God, they argued, is purely good. The Nominalists taught that good and evil have no existence in themselves. Such distinctions depend entirely on the point of view. We cannot place our preferences as absolute, and then judge God by them. On the contrary it is God's judgment that establishes what is good and evil.

God & Evil

Question: 
Two questions this month struck me as complementary, and I decided to combine them. They are: 1. Process theism seems to speak of God as eternally envisaging and harmonizing all possibilities. But some possibilities are horrific—genocide, rape, torture . . . If God is good, how can these possibilities be eternally in God? How can such possibilities be “harmonized”? Perhaps it makes sense to say as Wieman does that possibilities do not exist primordially, but are created with the universal process? 2. If all events are eternally in God’s memory in all their immediacy, how do we avoid the notion that all evil is also preserved in God forever? There are allusions to this problem in PR (the idea that God “dismisses” such events into the triviality of their mere facticity). I find these responses unsatisfying. How does God overcome the evils which God experiences? How is it that goods are preserved (“tender care that nothing be lost”) and not evils?
Publication Month: 
January 2006
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

The first of these questions is, for me, theologically easier to respond to than the second, but philosophically more difficult. That is, I think that when we understand what Whitehead means by the “eternal objects,” the sense that God’s inclusion and ordering of all of them does not have detract from God’s goodness. On the other hand, I have repeatedly found that my effort to explain what Whitehead means by a pure possibility fails to communicate. Still it may be worth trying again.

God & Change Pt. 2

Question: 
Moving from a static concept of God to a process understanding, is there not the danger to limit God to the process and therefore getting a static understanding again?
Publication Month: 
July 2001
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

There is often a problem with short questions from a person whose thought one does not know. One may easily misunderstand and not really respond to the concern. But the topic here is important, and I've decided to take my chances on responding to the wrong question.

God & Change Pt. 1

Question: 
"I have often been asked by the fundamentalist Christians where the Bible explains God as being a changing God. My response has been: 'the whole bible shows a God changing.' This is not a sufficient answer for those seeking a proof text. My premise and the fundamentalist premises are different, so I am not sure how to respond."
Publication Month: 
September 1999
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

That the whole Bible shows a changing God is certainly the most important answer. It does so by taking time seriously, on the one side, and showing that God interacts with the creatures on the other. What we do matters to God.

Global Warming

Question: 
How does a process theologian respond to global warming?
Publication Month: 
December 2006
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

This is a more and more urgent question. Global warming has now become the cutting edge of the ecological crisis. The ecological crisis is the most serious of all the pressing questions facing us as a human species. This crisis portends disasters of a magnitude with which our imaginations cannot cope. Since 1969 it has been the context within which I personally have viewed all the many problems, theoretical and practical, that demand our attention.

Future of the church

Question: 
Can a vital church in the future be continuous with the church of the past?
Publication Month: 
May 1999
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

This is a tough question. My answer is "yes", but the "no" answer must be taken very seriously at several levels.

At a very simple level, we know that the music of the past does not speak to many younger people today. Musical tastes have always changed over time, but the pace of change is now radically accelerated. A service of worship that is comfortable to older people is a downer for most of the young. Hence the churches that are appealing to the young are often new types of churches quite discontinuous from our oldline congregations.

Free Will

Question: 
I was wondering what process theology has to say about free will. It seems that the temptation to become purely deterministic is possible within process theology. I understand that that temptation is resisted, but I wonder if there are any resources I could read on how free will is explained in this context.
Publication Month: 
May 2006
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

Dr. Cobb's Response

Process theology affirms self-determination but not “free will.” That may seem like a quibble, but it is an important quibble. The idea of the “will” is part of a way of thinking that process theology rejects. It is sometimes called “faculty psychology.” It depicts the human psyche as divided into quasi-substantial parts, for example, passion, reason, and will. Freud’s analysis of the psyche in terms of id, ego, and superego is another example.

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