The God Jesus Believed In – Review of Jesus’ Abba by John B. Cobb
Wow! What an accomplishment Jesus’ Abba is! Not just a summation of the life-work of a great 90 year-old theologian. It’s also a guide for devoted, activist Christians, and an appeal to those rejecting a God who wouldn’t be recognized by Jesus.
I struggled with how to characterize this book, as it doesn’t closely fit any of the usual categories of similar non-fiction, whether theology and ethics, Christian living, advice for leaders, etc. It does seem to cross several subject-area and genre boundaries, so I will merely stick with the statement above.
In John Cobb’s usual manner, he drives right to the foundations: “We are called to worship one God, the God of the Bible.” (xiii of Preface) This is standard fare for traditionalists but may startle some progressives. And how do we know this God? Through the Bible itself: “It needs to be studied with all the critical tools that we use when studying other great literature. When this is done honestly and well, I have long believed, we find that the Bible is the greatest literary achievement of the human race and that keeping its wisdom alive is a matter of great importance.” (xii)
And its wisdom, for Cobb, is not just the liberal ideals that fit well in a strictly rationalist modern worldview dominated by atheistic science. He admits to affiliating, generally, with the Christian liberal tradition while he is also “distressed with the direction it has taken… it has become harmless. But… it has little to offer.” (xiii)
In this fairly short book, Cobb then proceeds to show how God, particularly as revealed by Jesus, is “personal” and meaningful to him and can be to both those of more traditional leanings and to liberals or progressives. Knowing God this way is not just for our personal satisfaction but to inspire and lead Christians to “…the action required to save humanity from utter catastrophe.” (xiii)
The Great Importance of this Book
All this in just the preface, which should probably be titled “Why this Book is Incredibly Important”. Here Cobb gives powerful summaries of the six chapters of the book. At the end he tackles the question of whether his understanding of Jesus’ Abba (Father or “Papa”) might be a step back in “appreciating other great wisdom traditions”, the dialog among faiths. If we love God as Jesus’ Abba, just the opposite, he says.
Jesus’ Abba is clearly intended for a general audience although there is a lifetime of scholarship slipped between its covers. It lacks both footnotes and a bibliography. Therefore academics may be displeased. But I see this as an effort to keep the focus on the point of the book: Understanding and following God the way Jesus did. Accordingly, the effort to direct it to Christians of all types and levels of knowledge as well as to unbelievers.
King or Father?
So how does Jesus seem to understand the God he is referred to in the intimate familial terms of his day? From both Hebrew Scripture and later Christian theology, we might expect him to address God as King or sovereign in some form. But that, Cobb shows us, is the result of Christians quickly using the biblical concept of the kingdom of God to focus on God as its ruler, an all-powerful King. Going further, he dissects the New Testament Greek phrase, basiliea theou (kingdom of God): it could have implied a political region and ruler. “But if God is like a father, then his region or land will not be a kingdom. We might describe a father’s basiliea better as the family estate.” (p. 2)
Merely an academic distinction? Cobb doesn’t think so and he supports his point well. But is there a better English translation (and way of thinking) than “kingdom of God” and its being “at hand”? Given the lack of a precise term, he says his “… proposal is ‘commonwealth’. Jesus’ message is that the ‘divine commonwealth is at hand.’ Everyone should reverse directions and join in this new possibility. There is no reason to think of the God whose basiliea this is, as a monarch!” (p. 2)
While I was raised and spent many adult years in Evangelical circles, I’ve been largely aligned with progressives for several years now. So “commonwealth of God” was not new to me. But never before reading this book had the term or concept seemed so warm and inclusive and made such good sense to me.
An emphasis on God as Father and head of a familial community makes the effort to de-gender our language about God tougher. Cobb addresses this, self-consciously choosing to “re-gender” (his term) God in the book, despite his long efforts in the other direction. But he reminds us of the strongly feminine aspects of Jesus’ Abba.
So goes Cobb’s treatment of the various issues about Jesus and God that often divide or provoke conflict: What was Jesus’ mission? (Why traditionalists and modernists both have trouble with his healing work but needn’t.) What was (or wasn’t) his resurrection? In what sense may Jesus have been Messiah? These are treated briefly with keen insights… briefly so as to maintain focus on how Jesus saw and related to God as Abba.
What Happened to Jesus’ Abba?
This new intimacy with God, coming via Jesus, quickly faded. Cobb jumps ahead from Paul’s churches to medieval times for most of this historical retracement. He keeps it basic and readable, moving quickly to the modern period, which he marks from the development of science as our leading mode of inquiry into life and the nature of reality. Here we find one of the few, and indirect, mentions of process philosophy and its influence, with a specific mention of its architect, Alfred North Whitehead. I note this for those not familiar with Cobb, as he is well known as a key developer of process thinking within Christian theology. Process theology is actually infused throughout the book, though not by name and not generally in technical terms.
Along the way of laying out the big picture issues of God and Science (upper case), the point is made that God is not above-and-beyond nature, occasionally overruling it, but right within it, helping potentials to be reached. “Abba is at work.” (p. 45)
Chapter 3 is “Personal Experience of Abba”, covering the ways most people, perhaps all of us at some time, sense the divine. Leaving aside the “five senses” for a chapter, here the point is inner experience, something not measurable and sometimes difficult to describe. Cobb lets us in on this dimension of his own life. He discusses “companionship” with God as Abba. Then “the call forward”, the ability we have to make choices and thus, progress and find meaning in our lives. In this he appeals, in part, to common sense… to the way we naturally speak and think of actually having choices or “free will”, even if these are often limited and only partially free. Intellectuals and scientists following a strict determinist view are denying any meaning in life. But they seldom press consistency on this very far, the author reminds us…. Even if doubting that we have meaningful choices, we still live as if we do.
Now, does anything guide the direction of the call forward if not a God who pre-determines? Yes, inspiration! Nothing like guidance to record an “infallible Word of God” as in common (mis)conception of the inspiration of biblical authors. Rather, Cobb explains, “If we open ourselves to the call forward and do not resist or question it for some period of time, what happens in and through us will be the realization of the best possibility available moment by moment.” (p.61) This is inspiration – sometimes noticed and dramatic, often not.
I really appreciated the section on healing. Cobb not only accepts that Jesus spent much of his ministry healing others, he believes genuine faith healing continues today, although there is much showmanship and exaggeration now, as there was in reports in Jesus’ day. He lays out the whole-person kind of understanding of health that one would expect from a man steeped in Process thought – the inclusive-of-all-phenomena approach that has guided the formation of Cobb’s understanding of Jesus, God and the Bible.
Cobb wraps up chapter 3 with a nice summary of Western philosophy in relation to the problems of science and faith… in just a few pages. But he invites the reader to skip over this if preferred – continuity will not be disturbed.
Chapter 4 is “Can Science Get Along with Abba?” In a word, “Yes”. But to do so Science must be rid of the reduction of reality to only material objects. (Of course, this “materialism” eliminates God, but it’s more than just that.) Subjects also exist and affect reality. They even do things we think of as “paranormal” or beyond the five senses. A hint at how Cobb answers the Science-and-Abba question is here: “The discovery of a call forward in ourselves suggests that everything that lives is called to live, to live well, and to live better. If the one who calls is God, it is reasonable to think that the one who calls all things is God. And this gentle caller, who lures and does not force, is best understood as Abba. Abba seeks the realization of intrinsic value. This is Abba’s working in us, and it is Abba’s working in all living things….” (p. 100). The summary of the tension in science and faith in this chapter is extremely well done and helpful. Having read several books on this issue, I can think of nothing that expresses better both the problem and the “answer” – the lowering of the sense of conflict. Worth the price of the book in itself.
Chapter 5 moves from the mainly conceptual to the deeply relational, “Does Abba Call for Christian Exclusivism?” In a work, “No.” Rather, God’s call is for “deep pluralism” involving mutual respect and dialog toward understanding, not aimed at converting. Cobb here lays out both the shared-belief foundations and a roadmap of processes for this. He speaks about both the Abrahamic traditions and the eastern ones, particularly Buddhism. I happen to know that for decades he and others with similar perspectives have pursued dialog with Buddhists and, more recently, with the tradition of Confucius and others in China. (The Chinese happen to be quite open although they must be careful in the use of God language.) Cobb includes some very positive remarks about contributions Christians and other Westerners can receive from “indigenous wisdom” as well.
The final chapter brings us to our uncertain, potentially dire future: “A World in Crisis Needs Abba”. Cobb affirms the progress of history, though not in the typical end-of-history (eschatology) view of Christendom. Rather, here is the positive sense of mission (being “missional”), reflecting Jesus’ view of the intentions of his Abba.
I view the section in this chapter, “Abba’s Power and Ours”, as the pivotal concept of the entire book. Clarifying his belief that God’s power is persuasive rather than coercive in any way, Cobb says that such power is empowering and liberating. It expands rather than limits human choices. Here we come to an insight into the reason for the book’s negatively-framed subtitle: “The God Who Has Not Failed”. “… God is always confronted by a world which, to a very large extent, determines its own future. Attributing control to ‘God’ has had terrible consequences. The controlling God has failed.” (p. 139)
How does Abba’s empowerment come? In what forms and processes? Much of that involves communities and “communities of communities”. Cobb spends several pages on this, including another personal vignette into a unique community of the latter part of his own life. And he tackles the largest of communities, the nations of the world, as well. Here is no simplistic globalism nor naïve liberalism, although one could fairly say philosophies of this general nature are involved. A naïve kind of conservatism might suspect Cobb of perspectives he does not have. For example, on higher education he hopes we can “… abandon the absurdity of value-free scholarship and enlist our universities in serving a desperately needful world and in preparing students to do so as well.” (p. 154) In this final section, he lays out several hopes for world cooperation and compassionate, sensible action – things I consider feasible. Having already applauded the posture and work of Pope Francis, and writing just after his impactful encyclical of 2015, Cobb, a life-long Protestant, wraps up saying that if some of this is achieved, more might join in celebrating Francis’ work and “… just perhaps, more people will join him in the worship of Abba.” (p. 154)
In a brief postscript, Dr. Cobb reminds us he has not and cannot prove the existence of Abba, but that “belief in Abba makes a lot of sense today.” (pp. 155,6). It is a more reasonable, sensible and satisfying option than accepting the modern worldview and leaving God and the Bible aside entirely. And there are many things, including some beliefs about God that we can disprove, such as a God who is both all-powerful and all-beneficent. He says, “The basic argument of this book is that, although many ideas associated with God and Christian faith have been disproved, Jesus’ teaching about Abba has not…. I commend a faithfulness to Jesus that shares Jesus’ confidence in the love and empowering power of Abba.” (pp. 156,7) Amen.
Don’t let my summation suffice. Get this book and read it! You will be stretched… and grown!