Ask Dr. Cobb

October 2004 Question

Since according to your biography, you are the son of missionaries to Japan and have spent a great deal of time overseas yourself, I have been looking forward to asking you; how do process-minded Christians like yourself understand the concepts of evangelism and cross-cultural missions?

Dr. Cobb's Response

The question of trying to convert other people to Christianity is an important one for progressive Christians generally. No doubt, hesitancy in this regard has been one source of our weakness and decline in recent decades. But our sense of the dangers involved in much evangelism and in cross-cultural missions must be honored. It has been too easy for Christians to ignore Jesus' critique of Jews of his day who undertook to “proselytize”

On the other hand, we cannot forget that few if any of us would be Christian today if, through the centuries, believers had hesitated to engage in evangelism and missions. However critical we may be of the methods used by some of them, those of us who affirm our Christian heritage must also be grateful for their accomplishments. Furthermore, any objective appraisal of the effects of the great period of Protestant missions beginning late in the nineteenth century must recognize its many impressive accomplishments.

So what about us process theologians now? Do we support continuing evangelism and cross-cultural missions? The questioner distinguishes these, and I will do so as well, speaking, of course, for myself and not for all process theologians.

For the most part, when we speak of evangelism within the United States, we refer to efforts to convert persons in our Christian or post-Christian culture from indifference or opposition to Christianity to its embrace. Here the task is only occasionally that of arguing against one highly developed value system and understanding of reality in favor of another. This fact makes it far easier to say, quite unequivocally, that in many instances, we strongly favor evangelism. We believe that most people, including those whose morality is socially acceptable, live without a clear vision of the deeper meaning of life. Today the religion of the majority is consumerism. For others, nationalism may be the controlling principle of their lives. I believe that many people are truly lost, in the New Testament sense, and that they need the gospel for their personal salvation. I see nothing about process theology to raise questions about this. Indeed, for me, process theology intensifies my sense of the idolatries and errors that harm so many people and from which they need to be liberated.

However, another word is equally important here. It is not those who say “Lord, Lord” but those who actually respond to God’s call who represent the truly faithful. Sadly, very sadly, we must acknowledge that there are many, many people who call themselves Christians who, from the perspective of process theology, are caught in idolatries, superstitions, and errors that are just as bad, sometimes worse, than those of the unbelievers of whom I spoke above. And happily there are those who have rejected Christianity, often because of the idolatrous and superstitious character of what they have found among professing Christians, who do follow Christ's calling in the world, even if they do not identify it as such.

With so much work to do to bring the gospel to church members and those who identify themselves as Christians, there is a question of where the focus of energy should be.  Is it more important to evangelize the church where the gospel is so often so poorly understood, or to evangelize those who are outside the church? Probably, process thinkers have tended to emphasize the former more that the latter. But the two are not really separable. Process theology has offered a way of understanding the gospel that has enabled a good many people who otherwise would have rejected Christianity to affirm their continuing identity as Christians. It has enabled some who had rejected the Christianity they knew to renew their faith. And it has provided an image of what Christianity can and should be that has won some who were otherwise uninterested. Its success in all these ways has been, thus far, statistically insignificant. We should work, and Process and Faith is working, to expand its availability.

I noted that, at least in practice, evangelism in the United States rarely entails an effort to convert someone from one set of clearly affirmed convictions to a Christian set. However, this does happen. There are “secular humanists,” who have thought through their non-Christian position quite carefully. There are Marxist atheists who are deeply committed to justice and convinced that Christian belief in God stands in the way of truth and progress. There are followers of New Age movements, who regard these as fundamentally opposed to Christianity. There are some who are convinced that science, and science alone, can arrive at any affirmations worthy of respect. There are thoughtful skeptics who oppose all elaborated belief systems.

I believe in evangelism in relation to these persons as well. But the approach to each group should be different. The major task in many cases, at least from the perspective of process theology, is to persuade adherents of such views that most of what they positively affirm can be affirmed, often should be affirmed, by followers of Jesus. Often their objections to Christianity are valid with regard to the dominant forms that Christianity has taken. If we can persuade a humanist, a Marxist, or a New Ager, and even a skeptic, that many of their strongest convictions can and should be affirmed also by Christians, we may also be able to suggest that, in rejecting Christianity, they have rejected not only much that deserves rejection but also much that could enrich their thought and their lives.

Perhaps more important today than the question of how to relate to thoughtful people who have rejected Christianity for good reasons, is the question of how to relate to members of other religious traditions. In the United States there are now many Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc. There are also adherents of Native American religious traditions. Most of our denominations have renounced evangelism of Jews. My judgment is that we Euro-American progressive Protestants should not engage in evangelistic efforts in relation to any of these communities. We should relate to them in as open, welcoming, and generous a way as possible. We should certainly welcome individuals from any of these backgrounds into our churches should they show interest. But the negative consequences of any organized effort to win converts will outweigh any gains from occasionally success.

I turn now to missions. Here I refer to Christian work in parts of the world that are not culturally Christian. Christian missions include agricultural, medical, and educational work that is not primarily directed to converting individuals to Christianity and persuading them to join a Christian church. Most of this I strongly support.

Most of the growth of Christian churches is some of these cultures has been from converting those whose participation in the traditional religions has been marginal at best. For example, in Japan, the part of the "mission field" where I grew up, most of those who became Christian knew Buddhism only in cultural or superstitious form. Most of them, like most missionaries, had very little contact with serious Buddhists.

Of course, questions can be raised about the socially disruptive consequences of introducing Christianity into a traditionally non-Christian culture. My own judgment is that in Japan the consequences have been generally good. Individuals converted from cultural and superstitious forms of Buddhism to serious Christian commitment have been personally benefited and have contributed much to Japanese society. The church has been an agent of support for justice and peace in Japanese society. Also, Japan has become a center of Buddhist-Christian dialogue to the benefit of both communities. I believe Japanese Buddhism is purer and deeper today because of Christian missions in Japan.

The remaining question is whether Christians should seek to convert deeply committed Buddhists. If the method employed is respectful conversation in which the Christian is as eager to learn as to teach, I say, Yes. But “convert” should not mean that the Christian tries to get one who lives out of the legacy of Buddhist wisdom to abandon that wisdom. The only form of Christianity to which one might rightly try to convert a serious Buddhist, from the point of view of process theology, is a Christianity that has itself been transformed by the incorporation of Buddhist wisdom. I do believe that in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, Buddhists should try to dissuade Christians from those aspects of their teaching and practice that Buddhists see to be objectionable and should try to teach them aspects of their wisdom that that Christians lack. Similarly Christians should engage in serious criticism of Buddhism and emphasize what we find in our heritage that seems to be missing in Buddhism. In this sense the best dialogue is one in which Christians and Buddhists aim to change one another as well as to be changed by one another. Whether the changes sought amount to "conversion" is another question. In rare instances a Christian participant in dialogue may shift personal identity to Buddhism and vice versa. But the success of a mission expressed in dialogue is certainly not measured by such shifts.

I have moved from the general to the specific. To answer questions about cross-cultural missions, one must do so. Most old-line denominations have renounced missions to Jews. Their missions in Islamic countries do not aim at converting individual Muslims to Christianity. They are adopting a hands-off policy with respect to China. In India they are adapting to the government's opposition to proselytizing. Most process theologians would agree with these decisions.

On the other hand, cross-cultural missionaries are active in Africa. Much of Africa is now either primarily Muslim or primarily Christian. The role of missionaries today is rarely the preaching of the gospel to those who remain committed to indigenous traditions, although missions as a whole continue to support this activity. Is this to be affirmed or opposed?

Perhaps we should ask retrospectively has the Christianization of much of Africa been a good thing from the point of view of process theology? That is a hard question. In my judgment, given the far greater appreciation we now have for the values of traditional African culture and religion, the overall impact of the West on Africa has been negative. We Westerners have much, much indeed, of which to repent. But given the terrible economic and political impact of Western colonialism, we may judge that  Christian missions, with all their faults, have been a force more for helping the African people than for dehumanizing them. This is not the place to defend this thesis.

Today, if missions have a role, and I think they do, it is to work with the people of Africa, Christian and others, to find a way to respond to the continuing destructive pressures, especially economic, that are still wreaking havoc. This is a very complex task that must draw on traditional African wisdom, but also on the Bible and modern European thought including scientific thought. There is no way back to what may well have been a far happier Africa before the impact of modern Europeans. As long a Africans want Western Christians to work with them, we have a profound responsibility to respond. It is my belief that an indigenized gospel is now and can continue to be a creative power in Africa.

If you found this article helpful, please consider contributing to Process & Faith by making a donation or becoming a member.