Sunday, July 17, 2011

Relational Theology For the Emergent Church: Moltmann & Cobb

I'm writing my master's thesis on the ecological theologies of the German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann and the American Methodist process theologian John Cobb.  These two widely influential theologians are about the same age (Cobb is 86, Moltmann is 85), have some very interesting overlapping emphases in their 'relational' theological programs (despite important differences), and converge even closer in their progressive politics.  I'm convinced that they are two of the most important theologians today for the wildly diverse emergent church.  Now, before you protest that the last thing we need is to exclusively concentrate on more white male Western theologians, let me agree with you wholeheartedly.  But that's part of my point in highlighting these two theologians from an older generation - they have been at the forefront of encouraging a more diverse theological conversation, engaging with feminist, Latin American, African, and Korean theologies.  To highlight these two theologians is then to also provide positive examples for what is often criticized as a mostly white emergent church movement talking amongst themselves, while at the same time showing that a lot of what we are 'emerging' into has been pioneered by an older generation of theologians.  Now, indulge me if you will as I explain my reasoning for pointing out these two classic thinkers.

But first, what is the emergent church?  In a nutshell, it's a young and growing post-modern, post-evangelical, post-liberal, even post-denominational movement that started in the 1990s.  Some of the emergent movement today is rooted in deconstructive postmodernism (especially influenced by the negative/apophatic theologies of Peter Rollins and John Caputo), some are post-liberal/Hauerwasians/anabaptists, while perhaps a very small minority are engaged in Radical Orthodoxy.  I am not attracted to any of these options myself, though I continue to learn a great deal from all of them.  I have a hunch that many persons in the emergent church today are moving (or have already moved) in yet other directions.

By my lights, the emergent church today is primarily under the philosophical influence of either deconstructive or constructive postmodernism.  True, the beginnings of 'the great emergence' was characterized by a lot of deconstruction in its first decade, but it seems to me that in the last few years we've seen a lot more constructive approaches growing in the movement (many have remarked that Brian McLaren's latest book is his most constructive to date).  While it was a necessary phase, some of us got tired of the constant wrecking balls of Derrida and started rebuilding...some of us traded our deconstructive 'hermeneutic of suspicion' and moved on to a constructive 'hermeneutic of humility.'  I would argue that for those in the constructive postmodern stream of emergence (I count myself here), there are two standout older theologians that we should be listening to alongside other younger emerging voices.  In short, these two theologians matter for emergent Christians because they both manage to move beyond the simplistic evangelical/liberal divide.

Jürgen Moltmann
Moltmann is what you might call a neo-Barthian - basically confessional and creedal, but radical and progressive in ways that one doesn't expect to see in orthodox theology.  It would not be fair to call Moltmann an evangelical in my opinion (indeed, even relatively moderate evangelicals like Roger Olson and Stanley Grenz have accused Moltmann of heresy for the various moves he makes in his panentheistic relational theology), but neither is he a liberal.  His stance on scripture is much more critical than the dominant evangelical position; he advocates for LGBT inclusion in the church; is a panentheist; affirms a great deal of feminist theology (his wife Elisabeth is a feminist theologian); has influenced and been influenced by Latin American liberation theology; is deeply ecological in focus; he's developed a theology of mysticism; affirms theistic evolution; is a universalist (though not a religious pluralist); and his politics are leftist.  But unlike liberal theology, Moltmann holds to orthodox ideas like the divinity, bodily resurrection, and parousia of Christ, the centrality of the cross, and the doctrine of the Trinity.  In a neo-Barthian fashion, he presupposes God's self-revelation in Israel and the Christ-event and thus only engages in natural theology in the light of these core biblical events - as he says, "Christian theology is the true natural theology."  Even so, he feels free to criticize certain parts of the bible for failing to describe the image of God revealed in Jesus.  He is remarkably open to discovering truth in other religions, emphasizes the importance of inter-religious dialogue, calls for religions to work together for the sake of justice, but nevertheless holds to the ultimate universal salvation of all through Christ alone.  For many progressive post-evangelicals in the emergent church movement, Moltmann's program is ideal in that it holds to many core convictions of their evangelical/orthodox background while moving in a more progressive, open, inclusive direction.  Key for Moltmann is that his theology is always in process, "on the way", and partial - mere "contributions" to a wider, global conversation.  Both Tony Jones and Danielle Shroyer, leaders in the emergent church, are self-described 'Moltmanniacs' (though I know at least Jones parts ways here and there with Moltmann).  As helpful as the currently popular N.T. Wright is in many ways, Moltmann seems to me to be more in line with the ideals of post-evangelical emergent Christians.  Emergents may want to modify some of Moltmann's thought in the light of other similar theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg, Elizabeth Johnson, and Jon Sobrino, but he nevertheless provides an incredible conversation partner.  For starters, check out either his recent "Sun of Righteousness, Arise!" or his mini-Christology, "Jesus Christ for Today's World."

John B. Cobb, Jr.
John Cobb on the other hand is a liberal theologian, but like Moltmann, he is not so easily categorized.  In my view, he transcends most liberal theologies while preserving their basic intuitions much like Moltmann transcends orthodox/evangelical theologies.  He is certainly not a Barthian, but engages in a form of natural theology called process theology (which like Moltmann's trinitarian vision, is panentheistic and relational).  With liberals, he affirms that the Christian faith must be evaluated based on the best knowledge of our day.  He does not presuppose God's uniquely special revelation in Israel and the Christ-event like Moltmann or Barth does (Christianity should not involve that kind of "special pleading", Cobb argues), but still seeks to demonstrate on the basis of history and philosophy why the Christ-event and history of Israel are objectively important and worth committing one's life to.  In this sense, Cobb remains 'confessional.'  But the doctrine of the trinity, Jesus' divinity, resurrection, or any other belief about him must still be evaluated on the basis of the best historical-critical scholarship, philosophical, and scientific thinking of our day. At the same time, Cobb's theology is different from other liberals in that it remains christocentric.  While most liberals are theocentric, Cobb keeps Jesus central even as a committed religious pluralist.  Unlike some liberals, Cobb affirms that God is an actual reality, is in some sense personal ('not-less-than-personal'), and is constantly involved in the world to bring about the greater good in history through persuasive power.  Cobb's process vision of God is neither a purely apophatic or deistic God, to be sure.  For all of his liberal inclinations, Cobb manages to be open to the real possibility of an afterlife, emphasizes the importance of prayer, and affirms that Jesus most likely really healed people (process theology rejects divine intervention, but God's persuasive power is nevertheless sometimes capable of bringing about some kinds of physical healing).  His process logos/wisdom Christology affirms that Jesus was much more than a mere prophet or good teacher, coming close to the intuitions of the Chalcedonian definition (even as he rejects the Trinity as an unnecessary philosophical speculation).  He takes sin seriously, is deeply concerned with renewing the church for today, and seeks to keep his theology closely rooted in the bible (he's even written a commentary on Romans). For emergent Christians who truly lean liberal rather than post-evangelical, John Cobb offers a powerful version of liberal Christianity that in my view is a great improvement on the more popular versions offered by Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong.  Emergent Christians may want to modify Cobb's thinking in dialogue with other similar thinkers like Marjorie Suchocki, Joseph Bracken, Philip Clayton, or Bruce Epperly, but like Moltmann he is a powerful dialogue partner on our quest for a new kind of Christianity.  I would also like to point out here that emergent leader Doug Pagitt recently blogged about his appreciation for process theology, while Tripp Fuller at Homebrewed Christianity has been working out his own style of process theology for a while now. Check Cobb's Christology in "Christ in a Pluralistic Age," his more philosophical interaction with Whitehead in "A Christian Natural Theology," or for an intro to process see his classic book co-written with David Ray Griffin "Process Theology."  Lay persons might want to first read his two little books "The Process Perspective, I & II" for a really easy intro to Cobb's thinking.

I have argued that while the emergent conversation obviously won't find all their answers in Cobb or Moltmann, they will indeed discover deep wisdom in these two experienced thinkers (and as I argue in my thesis, deep wisdom for the ecological crisis in particular).  I myself can't get on board with everything either one of these thinkers say, but I consider them to be key theological dialogue partners for my own evolving theological vision.  While many have been looking to biblical scholars like N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg as the contrasting options for progressive/emergent thinking Christians today ("Are you with Wright or with Borg?" some Christians tend to ask), I think that we need to turn to theologians like Moltmann and Cobb as well - in fact, I think these theologians have better options than the Wright/Borg (false) dichotomy offers.  Again, we absolutely need more diverse voices in a post-modern age, but both Moltmann and Cobb have been emphasizing this point for decades.

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