The Church in Becoming: Reflections on Cobb's Ecclesiology
(Below are brief reflections on a few passages in Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition by John Cobb and David Ray Griffin. While this is not an exhaustive formulation of Cobb's ecclesiology, I believe these passages hint at some of the pressing concerns Cobb had for the church when he wrote the book in the early 1970s and hint at some of the pressing concerns many of us have for the church today.)
"Whitehead shows that any movement must either advance or decay. There is no standing still. The effort to repeat the past while holding the present at bay leads to decadence. The vitality and zest that were of the essence of the worth of the past are lost. What remain are only dying forms. A movement ‘preserves its vigour so long as it harbours a real contrast between what has been and what may be, and so long as it is nerved by the vigour to adventure.’ A living movement like a living person is continuously fashioning new syntheses of its own individual past and the new data with which external processes endlessly confront it." (130)
One of the metaphysical natures suggested by process thought is that all things are in becoming–that they are in the liminal space taking in that which is past and luring towards the open ended future. Not only does the smallest cell reflect this nature but our social constructions, including the church, do as well.
The health of something is in its ability to change.
The church has endured many changes throughout time and throughout cultures. To suggest it ought not to is not only idolatrous but resistant to the inevitable: change or die. For the church, or more specifically what we think the church is, to faithfully toil in the world, she must not only succumb to the inevitable change but be at the edge of provoking change in every moment.
I am not suggesting, however, a change that is merely a innovation. An innovation is simply a change to something that already exists. The church must not simply be an innovation but something new altogether. Process thought suggests that in each moment an actual entity is entirely new.
For those more traditional, my suggestion may be alarming; however, it must be noted that despite an actual entity being entirely new in each moment of its becoming, each moment receives the past to inform it in its becoming. Therefore, the richness of the Christian traditions that have come before have and will continue to inform the church in its moment-to-moment becoming.
“If the churches are to participate in the church, they must be creatively transformed through their openness to Christ. This means that they must accept ideas and practices against which they have been protecting themselves. But it does not mean that they should accept uncritically what is foreign to their traditions. Christ does not call us to Kulturprotestantismus! On the contrary, creative transformation for the Christian community involves the heightening of criticism both of itself and of that which it finds outside itself. It involves the critical appropriation of that which it discerns as the work of Christ in the world, at the price of whatever inner changes are thereby entailed. Such work is in fact now going on with impressive results. The catholic spirit is being released from its bondage in both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.” (131)
While the church in becoming receives the past, she ought to be open to the new possibilities also to inform her becoming. These new possibilities may include new shared practices or commitments. But as Cobb suggests, these new possibilities ought to be critiqued at every moment, lest they become idols that prevent the church from change. A critical posture places the church in the liminal space she belongs, as it is a space that loosely holds the past from which the church becomes.
John Cobb also suggests the church is to critique not only herself but the context in which she finds itself. One such glaring example of a context that ought to be critiqued by the church is American Christian nationalism. By nature, Christian nationalism is a self-preserving system, that actively resists the inevitable metaphysical nature of process thought. It seeks to preserve the status quo of violence to black and brown bodies. It preserves the drive to subjugate women to limited status. It leaves the queer community in the streets. It has no regard to the precious and fragile planet on which we find ourselves. Christian nationalism deserves a loud critique by those outside the church but a deafening critique by those within.
“Openness to Christ as creative transformation is rightly feared as a threat to the extant churches. The work of Christ they find outside themselves truly threatens them to the extent to which they have resisted Christ and thereby creative transformation. The Old Testament depicts Yahweh, the God acknowledged and celebrated in Israel, as using against Israel nations that did not acknowledge him (sic). Similarly, Christ can work for the destruction of faithless churches through forces that deny him–and to some extent all churches are faithless. There is no assurance that as our extant churches open themselves to creative transformation they will survive as churches." (131-132)
To conclude, creative transformation threatens any self-preserving system, including the church. Therefore, we must hold lightly to the church as we know it. The church in becoming is a church that opens herself to the possibility of being a new transformation in each moment.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Letters and Papers from Prison, penned the concept of Religionless Christianity, in which he conceptualized what the church may look like without God as a given. A church open to the creative transformation of Christ is a church that does not assume its particular expression is a given. To echo a similar thought, what might the church become if the church was not a given?
I leave you that question to wrestle with for yourself.
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