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?”
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.”
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.
This concludes several posts about the Old Testament as a resource. As more people submit their DNA to groups like Ancestry.com, I keep hoping my DNA results will show some semitic origins. Whether by birth or by adoption, I’ve always felt at home in Jewish synagogues.
At a long-ago luncheon for Christian clergy at a synagogue, I heard this Jewish prayer for the meal that we were served: Blessed are you, Lord God, creator of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. This was the mealtime prayer we taught our young son.
A rabbi helped us with the key Hebrew phrase from young King Solomon’s prayer for wisdom, which found its way inside our wedding bands: “give your servant lebh shomea (a listening heart).”
This phrase (a listening heart/mind) is part of my evolving breath prayer: Abba/Amma, lebh shomea. I’ve never spoken in tongues and I can write all the Hebrew I know on a popsicle stick, but my heart is being shaped by these ancient words for “father/mother” and for the essence of prayer–listening.
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).
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.
A discussion topic among theologians today is theism. It’s part of the evolution of faith. Our understanding of deity has progressed from ancient, fear-based understandings that led to attempts to appease or placate the gods, to a more intimate, love-based, relational understanding of the divine.
The Old Testament was, and is, an vital part of this history. A key OT story is Moses’ breakthrough understanding in his call to return to Egypt to lead the enslaved Israelites to freedom. Moses’ dialogue with the divine Voice is both quaintly charming and profoundly revolutionary.
Moses asks, “What is your name?” Or, “Who shall I say sent me?” In a time when many gods were worshipped, it was important to invoke the correct name. The Voice responds, in essence, “I am nameless.” The deity of Israel could not be so easily described and was without a “handle.”
The divine Voice in the Moses story was more verb than noun–no idol to be adored, but rather the creator of the universe, to be experienced in the relationships and in human history: Say to them, “the God of your ancestors has sent me.” This was a pivotal step from local gods to a universal God.
The challenge today is to retain a divine objectivity that exposes the moral bankruptcy of prejudice, tribalism, injustice, and every form of discrimination, while not objectifying the Voice, which is inherently relational and made known through the dynamic process of creation and human history.
Pilgrimage is a significant Old Testament theme. Abraham and Sarah, first generation migrants, moved (at age 75 for Abraham) from Ur to Canaan. This was the first of many migrations that took place for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they were welcomed, sometimes they were viewed as illegal immigrants. To think biblically includes put oneself in the situation of a migrant–or to at least having empathy for those who journey from one place to another.
Some pilgrimages were permanent life resettlements. Some were occasional or annual, such as journeys to Jerusalem for Passover. In the OT, Psalms 120-134 were sung as pilgrims made their way to the Temple mount in Jerusalem. The one biblical story of Jesus’ youth was about his separation from parents during a pilgrimage of Nazareth folks to the Jerusalem Temple. Pilgrimage can be a way of remembering our roots and i can be a journey to new and better days.
As part of a month-long camping trip, much of yesterday was spent at the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, just across the Maine border in Canada. Unexpectedly, I became emotional. The park’s spirit of international cooperation, the leadership role played by the US, and the extraordinary leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt reminded me of the America I remember before our detour into lesser things with the rise of Trumpism. Campobello was a healing pilgrimage, a homecoming.
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.”
My early life was influenced by what Marcus Borg called an “earlier paradigm” of Christianity. I was not as focused on life after death as some folks, but Billy Graham (in the 1950s) and the dominant Protestant culture of my youth gave me a consciousness that included afterlife.
In my mid-20s, coincident with my time in seminary, I began to view life after death as “sheer bonus” (a Theodore Runyon phrase). I saw it not as an extension of earth-ways, but a cosmic, universal reality that is without beginning and without end. Eternity is now, and always.
A dear friend, shortly before his death at a relatively young age, told me that he had heard a definite though not audible Voice say, “You take care of things on your side of the river and I’ll take care of things on this side of the river.” The “river” became a comforting metaphor.
About a decade ago I studied with Richard Rohr for three days in Albuquerque with a peer group. I was helped by Rohr’s focus on a non-dual, unitive view of the Universe and on the generosity of a radical, grace-based, inclusive hospitality.
Add some Borg, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and others I’ve mentioned, and you get a Jesus-flavored universality that includes all creation, rests entirely on unmerited favor, or grace, and sees reconciliation, relational justice and healing as inherent to cosmic union and eternal life–a great celebration.
In Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity, pp. 107ff is about “Born Again: Dying and Rising.” He wrote: In the gospels and in the rest of the New Testament, death and resurrection, dying and rising, are again and again metaphors for personal transformation, for the psychological spiritual process at the heart of the Christian life.
When I was young, operating from the “earlier paradigm” Borg describes (September 13 post), I thought resurrection and life eternal were “invented” by God after the death of Jesus. Borg wrote: … the path of death and resurrection is “the way” that Jesus himself taught. I now see that the crucifixion and resurrection story as a revolutionary, timeless “object lesson” to demonstrate the way things are.
Borg helps me understand that the point of this story, of creation, of life itself, is transformation. It is a universal experience to which Christianity witnesses but does not hold a copyright. It is at the heart of every faith and everyone’s life experience, whether or not one is conscious of it or grateful for it. Because transformation is a universal experience, it can be a starting point for every human conversation.
The Jesus story–which I understand within the context of the larger Jewish story, which I understand within the larger context of the story of the Universe–is my story. As I live into the theme of transformation (which I understand to be the heart of everything), I’m able to receive, appreciate and find common ground with everyone’s story. This makes me excited about waking up every morning!