Thursday, November 29, 2007

Review: Reclaiming the Church by John B. Cobb, Jr.

I recently finished reading John Cobb's Reclaiming the Church: Where the Mainline Church Went Wrong and What to Do about It. John Cobb is my favorite theologian - I was introduced to his work in Systematic Theology in seminary, and I felt like I'd finally found something who was writing about the theological thoughts of my own mind. (My personal favorite is his Grace and Responsibility), a process-oriented look at the theology of John Wesley, perfect for this United Methodist-nerd.) Reclaiming the Church is a short little book - it took me forever to read though since I kept getting distracted from it.

Cobb starts out in his introduction by talking about the state of the mainline/oldline church: it has become lukewarm. He says, "As a group and on the whole we are lukewarm. We do good things. We serve the needs of real people. But we inspire no passion. We no longer even call for primary commitment to the gospel that we purport to serve. We are quite content if, among the priorities of our members, Christian faith comes in third of fourth, after family and employer and nation perhaps. We accept still lower rankings from many of our members with little complaint, glad for the small favor of occasional attendance and financial contributions." (4)

In the first chapter, Cobb writes that the church has "a lack of a shared sense of the primary importance of that to which the church witnesses." (8) He argues strongly that "the professionalization of theology" is key to the lukewarmness of the church today: "The problem lies in the gap now existing between theology and church life, a gap that did not exist to any comparable extent a century ago. The pastors who initiated the fundamental theological changes involved in the social gospel were able to do so because they understood themselves to be responsible for articulating the meaning of the gospel to their people . . . Today, the situation is different . . . lay people and pastors do not understand themselves as responsible to think as Christians." (23) Do you agree?

Cobb goes on to talk about "responding to the loss of cultural props," highlighting endings and beginnings that have deeply impacted the church. Endings (not ended, but ending): Eurocentrism, Nationalism (particularly referring to Western Europe) and Economism, Enlightenment Rationalism, the Sexual Revolution, and Patriarchy. He says there are two serious proposals for reforming the church: renewal and transformation. Renewal, which focuses on the inner life of the church, "concentrat[ing] on our own commitments without seeking to impose them on others," or transformation, which lives always out of its past but "in such a way that it learns from and is changed by its cultural environment, while also taking responsibility to Christianize that environment." (43-44)

Cobb urges transformation, but recognizes that renewal and transformation sometimes work hand in hand as "two moments in a single process." He highlights moments in church history where groups sought renewal but in the end achieved transformation. "When the problem is that the distinctive biblical thems are clouded by the dominance of cultural patterns, renewal is needed. Transformation is needed when our historic teaching limits us to the themes dominant in our own tradition, preventing us from hearing the voices of those who have suffered." (55) According to Cobb's analysis, are we in need of renewal, transformation, neither, both? Again, Cobb prioritizes transformation. Transformation, he says, "is what happens when God is effectively present in an event . . . God's effective embodiment in the world can be named Christ. Thus Christ is causally present wherever transformation occurs." (60)

Cobb argues that we should boldly proclaim a purpose of the salvation of the world. He doesn't see this as an exclusively Christian purpose, but says, "What is important is not that we have a purpose shared by no one else, but that we genuinely understand our purpose to be Christian." (69) The way he frames and articulates this distinction is one of his strongest points, I think.

Cobb moves to talking about unity, a topic of high interest in today's very polarized church. "when contradictory positions are felt so strongly, we do not have lukewarmness! The problem for the church is that the intense convictions are not about Jesus Christ." (77) Emphasis mine. Exactly. He says that our goal of unity is "to find a way to do justice to the deepest convictions of both the traditionalists and the reformists, not to find compromises that will avoid institutional splits . . . the possibility of achieving authentic reconciliation lies in the existing unity. This unity is in Christ" (78) So simple and yet so complicated, right? "Most Christians can recognize authentic faith in another, even when the locus of emphasis differs." (79) I wonder here if we have moved beyond even this point though. Do we recognize authentic faith in one another despite our deep theological differences? Sometimes, yes. But sometimes we begin to question the faith of our theological foes, I think. In our scathing rhetoric against those we disagree with, rarely will you find a comment acknowledging that faith is still at the core of each person. What do you think?

Cobb also goes on to talk about how we can have a common effort with people from many faith traditions in working for the coming of the basileia of God. He argues that though he understand Jesus to be the only 'savior,' that indeed others can "contribute to salvation," and contribute to enriching the Christian faith (ie: Buddhist meditation practices used in Catholic monasteries). (89-90) He urges us to accept whatever helps us in our task as "coworkers for the Basileia." (91) I found this section particularly helpful, even if I'm not relating it very clearly, for understanding how I can claim the centrality of Christ and Christ's identity as way and savior without disregarding other faith traditions.

Cobb is a such an intelligent writer - even a short 100 page book like this one is full of content that makes me read and reread. But the effort is worth it - Cobb has insightful wisdom about the church and how we might move from lukewarmness, and I recommend you check out this (or any) of Cobb's work.
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