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Ask Dr. Cobb

July 2010 Question

What does process theology say about the spread of oil in the Gulf of Mexico?

Dr. Cobb's Response

Of course, process theologians share the universal distress about the damage being done to the gulf and many of those people who live around it. Our suspicion of those who live and work in the service of the economy is such that we suspect that matters are even worse than the press informs us. When we read that the chemicals being used to slow the leak are far more toxic than oil, we find that entirely credible.

The question for this FAQ is different. It is about the interpretation of this event and the implications drawn from it.

As a theologian two biblical passages strike me with special force. One of them is found in Deuteronomy, and I will quote Deut. 30:19-20a. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse: therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and cleaving to him. . .”

The second is found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 2:24. “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

If we put these two verses together the message is clear. To serve God is to live. To serve wealth is to choose death. Of course, through much of history it has been common to spiritualize this teaching about life and death. Its concrete historical meaning has been less clear. But today that unclarity has ended. For us collectively to continue to serve wealth is to bring about more and more death.

There is, further, no doubt that the choice of serving wealth is deeply entrenched in our culture. The world is organized for the purpose of increasing material wealth. “Progress” means increasing per capita GNP (Or GDP). Even now when we see the consequences of this choice in one vivid instance, there is little discussion of changing masters. Most of the talk is how to continue to exploit deep sea deposits of oil with less risk of accidents. I have read the argument that the risk of deep sea drilling should lead us to focus on tar sands as our source of oil. Others argue for massive development of nuclear energy. This is simply a debate about which dangerous method to use to increase our energy supply and support a growing economy. There is also some talk of shifting to sustainable forms of energy, and for this we can be grateful. That could slow the move toward death.

But what would be required to change masters, to choose life? To serve God would mean to aim at the well being of God’s creation inclusively. The one nation that has come closest to making this choice is not a theistic one. It is the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. It aims at the gross national happiness! Although this could be understood in a purely anthropocentric sense, the Bhutanese know that human happiness is bound up with the health of the natural environment. To whatever extent they are serious about their commitment, they will judge economic activity by its contribution to the well being of the whole community. That, in turn, will mean that they will not sacrifice the well being of their children and grandchildren for present gratification of desires. Only sustainable economic activities will be allowed.

That the Bhutanese have chosen life shows that they take their Buddhist beliefs with far greater seriousness than we take our Christian ones. Very few Christian voices have been raised in a realistic call for overturning the economism that so clearly reigns in our societies and national and international affairs in favor of serving God. Given the clarity of Jesus’ teaching, this is profoundly disappointing. I hope that before I die I will hear a sermon on this topic.

Christians have not always accepted the organization of society in the service of wealth. Until modern times and especially the industrial revolution they understood how the desire for gaining or retaining wealth damaged the spirit of individuals. In opposing the service of wealth, Christians today have most of the tradition on their side. But this feature of Christian teaching has faded in the past two centuries as we have learned that industrial organization of labor and substitution of fossil fuels for human labor greatly increases the goods available to society as a whole.

Now, what about process theologians? I like to think that we have been more articulate and impassioned in directing humanity toward life than most others. We certainly should have been. Whereas in the case of most theologies, their philosophical commitments are a drag on their biblical ones, in our case, they reinforce the biblical message. The difference I have in mind is that process thought gives a large place to nature and locates human beings within it, whereas the dominant philosophies of the modern world are radically anthropocentric.

The official teaching of the churches has greatly improved, and I think that process thinkers have contributed to this improvement. Charles Birch, a Whiteheadian biologist, gave important leadership to the World Council of Churches. Herman Daly, a Christian Whiteheadian economist, has long been the leader among the fringe group of economists who take ecology seriously. A few of us process theologians also participated in the theological and philosophical discussions about priorities from the early seventies. When I was awakened, I gradually learned that even before the cultural awakening, there had been concern about ecological matters on the part of the previous generation of process thinkers. Charles Hartshorne deserves honoring on this point, although its role in his writings is disappointingly small.

In any case, process theology as a whole should stand unequivocally on the principle that the economy should be in the service of the created order, that the created order should not be exploited for the sake of the economy. This message is simple, but getting serious attention to it is not easy even in the church. Practically speaking it would mean determining how much energy (and other resources) can be produced without damage to the created order and then shaping an economy that functions within those limits. Of course, in shaping that economy the focus should be on meeting the real needs of all. This does not exclude a role for the untrammeled market or the entrepreneur or the corporation. It does not require radical egalitarianism. But the society we need cannot place the freedom of the market or of entrepreneurs or of corporations above the needs of human beings and other creatures. Jesus reminded us that the Sabbath is made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath. Similarly markets and entrepreneurs and corporations should be in the service of human beings – not demanding their sacrifices.

In terms of the contribution of process theology I have emphasized locating humanity within nature. As we think about the organization of the human economy, process thought has another advantage. Most modern philosophy is radically individualistic. This individualism is taken for granted in the dominant economic theory. For process thought, our relations with one another are a central part of who we are. We become persons in community. We are benefited far more by the wellbeing of the community in which we live than by our competitive ranking within society. This provides us with a different way of approaching economic issues.

May we choose life before it is too late!

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