Category: Prophetic Voices

Secular prophets

Today’s post wraps-up several reflections about John Cobb, a “process” theologian who seeks to sharpen our prophetic hearts and voices to challenge our “lesser angels” that promote attitudes and positions that are less than healthy and sometimes destructive to the planet and to relationships.

Cobb is skeptical of secularism because it leans only (or too heavily) on our contemporary, cultural reasoning and values, to the exclusion of the rich traditions of world religions (which Cobb prefers to call “Ways” instead of “religions”). However, Cobb believes the act of secularizing is essential for healthy societies and for healthy faith.

As I understand Cobb, he consults what Richard Rohr calls “the perennial tradition,” the collective wisdom of the world’s great faiths and philosophies–the common gems of insight and healthy community that are drawn from these traditions, to form a value system or worldview (my words, not Cobb’s) to enable each Way and each person to engage in ongoing self-critique.

We are in a time of heightened religious consciousness, religious competitiveness, religious schism, and religious activism. People today (more than in the past, I believe) are not hesitant to claim for their political preferences an air of divinity. Michael Flynn famously said, “America needs just one religion.” My faith community (United Methodists), which is also Cobb’s tradition, is experiencing widespread “disaffiliations” by persons and congregations. Many other faith groups have, or are, experiencing similar divisions. In this fractious period of heightened religions self-consciousness, it’s important to engage in secularizing self-criticism, which examines and (when needed) strips away the religious veneer that surrounds our political preferences, our social prejudices and our personal proclivities.

Cobb believes we need secular prophets who engage in this important work, much as biblical prophets did long ago.

Sometimes a “Way” or a tradition can keep the secular world from crashing on the rocks. Sometimes insights from the secular world can keep religious traditions (or “Ways”) from crashing on the rocks. Head Harbour Lighthouse, Campobello Island, New Brunswick (photo Cathey Leach)

The problem with secularism

The previous several posts may lead one to think that John Cobb favors secularism. While he believes the process of secularizing is a healthy and much-needed activity for (literally) the world’s survival, he sees dangers in secularism. This may be a subtle distinction, but I believe it is very important.

In Spiritual Bankruptcy, Cobb acknowledges that “the secularizers have kept the traditions fresh and alive. But as humankind faces the need to make dramatic changes, and seeks the wisdom to guide it, the dominance of secularism is today an even greater obstacle than religiousness.”

I invite you to think about politics in the US; the global rise of authoritarianism, tribalism, and various injustices; the climate crisis; and the role (or absence) of religious communities in these matters. Against this current backdrop, hear this paragraph from John Cobb:

Secularizers in any traditional Way seek to draw knowledge and understanding from the best thinkers of their day. Today experts in all fields are encouraged to be secularists. Secularism builds up its knowledge and understanding out of presently available sources rather than by critical appropriation of a tradition. The result in modern history has been the amassing of vast quantities of information, but in a way that is barren of wisdom.

What wisdom from your Way (Cobb’s term for a religious or non-religious tradition) helps you address one or more of the difficult problems now facing our world?

From “John Cobb on David Korten: An Appreciation of David Korten’s Change the Story, Change the Future,” April 12, 2018 (photo by Thomas Oord)

Healthy self-criticism

John Cobb, in his 2010 book Spiritual Bankruptcy, notes that sometimes those who practice a particular religion may tempted think that their way is “the only way.” The great church historian Roland Bainton noted that “the worst wars are religious wars.” Extreme competition can be deadly.

Against this backdrop, Cobb offers a refreshingly different view, speaking for those of varying faiths who are engaging in the process of secularizing:

We are secularizers who believe that the deepest element in our traditional Ways focuses on actual betterment of conditions in this world. We believe that we are most faithful to our own Ways when we are most open to the wisdom of others as well. We believe that we are liberated by our tradition to evaluate critically every aspect of it. We believe that through secularizing our traditions, we can contribute to the urgently needed responses to the threat of disaster that becomes ever more imminent.

How would you describe “the deepest element in our traditional Ways?”

From “The Worlds Major Religiousities,” by The Best Schools, August 30, 2022

Secularizing the “sacred”

In his 2010 book, Spiritual Bankruptcy, John Cobb discusses the process of secularizing. He wrote: Some secularizers are liberal, some conservative, some orthodox, some neoorthodox, some liberationist, and some progressive. I employ for myself the last of these labels. But if the best possibilities for secularization are now with progressives, it is only when progressives are defined as those who draw upon the best of liberalism, the best of conservatism, the best of orthodoxy, the best of neoorthodoxy, and, especially at present, the best of liberation theologies.

In my view, that’s an important paragraph because it seeks to affirm the best of these various traditions and it may help us get past today’s rampant polarization and tribalism. Like Cobb, I identify with the progressive “label,” but (like him), I try to avoid doing so in an us versus them kind of way.

Cobb says the word religion is problematic because it means many different things in different contexts. Cobb sees the process of secularizing as a way to highlight the best and most practical attributes of “the great traditions that have shaped the world in the past two or three millennia, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” Then, Cobb suggests that “instead of religions, we call these, and other smaller movements, Ways, or the traditional Ways of humankind.”

To begin to unpack some of Cobb’s points, I invite you to ask whether you self-identify as more secular or more religious. I grew up in a secular world and while matters of faith and theology are important to me, I served as a pastor for much of five decades with a secular self-consciousness. So, I’m very much at home with Cobb’s advocacy of the process of secularizing. Even as we respect the broad dimensions of the sacred, I agree with Cobb that one of our healthiest spiritual actions is to secularize (and thereby de-sacralize) aspects of religion that are today (as Cobb asserts) spiritually bankrupt.

Old Testament prophets did this in their day. Hence, Cobb’s subtitle: “A Prophetic Call to Action.”

From “John Cobb,” The Work of the People: Films for Discovery & Transformation,

Faith in practical process

An old friend had two sons, an attorney and a pastor. He liked to say that one practiced and the other preached. He knew, of course, that both his sons practiced their faith through the processes of their vocations every day. Like law, faith is an evolving process. The Ten Commandments were said to have been written in stone, but the application and interpretation of those “Ten Words” are more fluid.

John Cobb, in his 2010 book, Spiritual Bankruptcy, calls one of Protestant Christianity’s contributions to the world the process of secularizing. From the book’s Preface: There is a strong tendency among people everywhere to divide the world into “us” and “them.” This division has proper and necessary secular functions. …

In the actual course of human affairs, however, the we/they distinction has not been so innocuous because it takes on a religious character. “We” have the right ideals, the right practices, the right traditions. “They,” by their errors in all these respects, are inferior to “us” and are often experienced as a threat. To secularize is to break down this absolute distinction, to understand both “us” and “them” in a broader perspective.

Today, I read Cobb’s words with an awareness of bitter divisions in numerous religious tribes as I watch them break into smaller tribes. Secular, more objective and less parochial “outsiders” might help wise leaders in every camp understand how outsiders may view our internal divisions as a sign of pettiness, not greatness. Cobb wrote: ...the rigid distinction of “us” and “them” … is particularly dangerous in a pluralistic world (so) it is important to secularize the sacred. That does not mean that we should disparage or belittle what has been experienced as sacred, but does mean that we should subject it to critical evaluation.

From Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action, by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Embracing the secular

My friend Don named John B. Cobb, Jr. (born 1925) as a person who has helped shape his thought and life. Cobb is a “process theologian.” His website is Process & Faith. Building on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000), Cobb believes God is intimately involved in, or engaged with, human life, including its structures and processes.

This is an extension of the idea of incarnation, (personified in the Christian tradition by Jesus) that God has become (and is becoming) flesh and lives among us. I think of it as God being continuously engaged with every aspect of creation, including humanity as a whole and humans as individuals. Cobb helps me think of God as not a static reality “out there” somewhere, but as dynamically, fully engaged with us.

In the next few posts, I plan to reflect on Cobb’s 2010 book, Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action. His theme is nuanced–a rejection of secularism while affirming the process of secularizing, about which faith has made many positive impacts. Cobb defines secular as “this world and its real values and its real problems.” The secular is where the action is–and Cobb sees God in that action.

From “About Us,” by John Cobb, Process & Faith

Russian moms

Today, the Sabbath in Jewish tradition, I’m reflecting with gratitude on the role of the Old Testament in my life. Like everyone in the Christian faith, I inherited the Jewish tradition, so I view it through a “Jesus lens.” However, the Jewish tradition belongs to every human being who welcomes its wisdom.

Judaism has a strong, though painful, history in Russia, powerfully revealed in the classic play/movie, Fiddler on the Roof. As the Russian czar cracked down on Jews, Tevye wryly asks/prays, “So we’re the chosen people? Once in a while, couldn’t you choose somebody else?”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is tragic and obscene at so many levels, including the division it has caused between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Orthodox, Jewish and secular moms, wives and girlfriends may be among Putin’s greatest problems now.

Russia is experiencing its most dramatic mobilization and forced military service since World War II. The Sabbath is a day to break away from worldly brokenness to experience (or imagine) harmony among persons, nations, and all creation. Today, I stand in harmony with the babuskas.

From “The Russian Orthodox Leader at the Core of Putin’s Ambitions,” by Jason Horowitz, New York Times, May 22, 2022

OT and WOW

The Old Testament, according to a Jewish rabbi I heard speak long ago, maintains that the benchmark for an ethical community is how well it treats those without rights. In ancient Jewish society, the three major groups without rights were widows, orphans and wanderers (aka homeless, refugees).

Empires consolidate power by taking away rights, as in Putin’s Russia and his war against Ukraine. Who are the “widows, orphans and wanderers” in American society today? An era of rights-expansion begun by Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954) is being reversed by today’s US Supreme Court, by various state legislatures and by leaders of the national Republican Party.

I’m grateful to the Christian communities who have touched my life by keeping this OT quest for justice alive. I’m grateful for the exposure I’ve had to Judaism through the OT, through several synagogues over the years, and through numerous Jewish rabbis, Jewish scholars and Jewish friends.

From The Home for Little Wanderers

OT as resource

In 1991, I was part of a team that introduced Disciple Bible Study to a large suburban congregation. DBS is a small group, 34-week Bible study with reading assignments equivalent to a seminary class. Seventeen of the weeks were devoted to the Old Testament. The OT may seem long ago and far away, which it is, but that’s not all it is. The OT is a life resource for anyone, regardless of one’s faith tradition.

The next few posts will be about the Old Testament as resource. As one gets into this material, it becomes clear that OT stories form a significant part of the foundation of the western world. These stories are relevant for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, three monotheistic faiths that sprang from the OT, as well as other faiths and secular persons who identify with no particular tradition.

The OT drops a plumb line into our midst (an image used by the OT prophet Amos), an objective voice that calls for impartial justice and fair treatment of all persons, regardless of their status or wealth. In these times, when political ideology prioritizes the end (election victory) over means (or any ethical consideration), the OT is a much-needed resource to help society find its bearings.

The recent exercise of political power by a US governor to send immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard is the kind of thing that the OT plumb line exposes as abuse. In ancient days, poor people were considered pawns to be used at will by people, as in King Ahab’s seizure of Naboth’s vineyard. The OT says, “No.”

From “DeSantis criticized for sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard: ‘It’s un-American’,” by Richard Luscomb and Nina Lakhani, The Guardian, September 16, 2022

An emerging paradigm

In The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg describes “an earlier paradigm” of Christianity that typically viewed Christianity as the only true religion, which saw the Bible as a divine product to be interpreted literally, and which focused on believing, the afterlife and a life focused on requirements and rewards. From his mid-teens to his mid-thirties, “Christianity didn’t make much sense intellectually” and the faith he learned in childhood “ceased to be persuasive.”

However, Borg became convinced that “there are no serious intellectual threats to being Christian, and he rediscovered a life of faith “that makes persuasive and compelling sense of life in the broadest sense—a way of seeing reality and our lives in relationship to what is real; a way of seeing God, our relationship to God, and the path of transformation. The sacrifice that Christianity asks of us is not ultimately a sacrifice of the intellect.”

He wrote the book to share his personal attraction to an “emerging paradigm” of faith that has been developing for over 100 years, “to communicate this way of seeing to those for whom an earlier understanding of Christianity makes little or no sense. They number is in the millions.”

In these two sentences, Borg describes the importance of this emerging paradigm: …the earlier paradigm uses the language of God’s grace and compassion and love, but its own internal logic turns being Christian into a life of requirements and rewards, thereby compromising the notion of grace. Indeed, it nullifies grace, for grace that has conditions attached is no longer grace.

From “Remembering Marcus Borg,” by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Practice