God as Abba
John Cobb's Proposal that we
Rediscover God with
Help from Jesus
Excerpts from the Book, used with John Cobb's permission
Two Problems with "God" as Too Often Conceived
For me, God is of central importance to life and thought. As a boy I found that my conviction fitted comfortably with widely shared belief. I did not agree with everything I heard people say about God, but the problem with “God-language” was not much different fromother instances of disagreement and confusion.
Today the situation has changed. God remains of central importance for me. But I no longer find that belief to fit comfortably into my cultural context. On the contrary, many people are both skeptical that the word God has any reference and very uncertain what that reference would be like if it existed at all. In addition, the word now has a strongly negative connotation for many thoughtful and sensitive people, and I often find myself upset by how it is used. If the problem were simply linguistic, we could solve it easily. Just use another term: Creator, Goddess, Great Spirit, Almighty, Yahweh. Using other names sometimes helps, but the problem is deeper. What has happened?
One problem is intellectual. From the outset of modernity, belief in the biblical God has been problematic. The biblical God is operative in both nature and history, whereas modernity, from its beginning, denied that God was a factor in what happened in the natural world. That is, it asserts that if you are trying to explain any natural event, you are not allowed to attribute any role to God.
At first, there was one exception. The world seemed so wonderfully ordered that it could not be thought of as coming into existence on its own or by chance. Most people assumed that it was created by an intelligent and powerful being, and did not hesitate to call that being “God.” Scientists found that the world was governed by laws, so that the Creator was also the Lawgiver. Some religious people thought that every now and again the God who created the laws intervened and caused something to happen that did not obey them. Thus there were supernaturalists, but the default position was “deism,” that is, the belief that God’s only relation to nature was the one act of creation and the imposing of natural laws.
At the same time, everyone assumed that human beings were not part of the nature from which God was excluded. Opinions differed on how God was related to human beings. The devout could picture the relation as quite intimate, but the dominant culture encouraged the idea that God had created human beings and had also given them rules to live by. Unlike plants and animals, people might choose not to obey these rules. After death those who violated them were punished, whereas those who obeyed them were rewarded.
Deistic thinking still continues, but it has far less support than in the earlier period. It was deeply shaken by Charles Darwin’s demonstration that the world we now know developed in a natural evolutionary way from a much simpler beginning. God was no longer needed to explain the remarkably complex and beautiful world we have around us; it could be explained by natural causes. Equally important was that human beings are fully part of this evolving nature. If God is excluded from playing any role in natural events, then God is excluded from playing any role in human events. The default position now is atheism.
Credibility has not been the only problem we theists faced. For many people “God” has become an offensive idea because so many terrible things have been done by his followers. I grew up believing that God was always good and loving. I knew that human beings, even those who worshiped God, had done some very bad things, but I supposed that this was an aberration and that we Christians had repented and were seeking peace and justice everywhere.
However, along with many others, I came to see history differently. In the name of God, Christians had persecuted Jews for most of Christian history. This persecution had reached new heights in what we considered a Christian country, Germany. True, the Nazis were not Christians, but they could show the continuity of their anti-Jewish teachings and actions with statements of Christian leaders, and the opposition to Nazi anti-Judaism on the part of Christians was weak.
I learned that in the century-long theft of the New World from its inhabitants, many Christian missionaries had played embarrassing roles. I learned that, indeed, even the more recent missions to Africa and Asia had often supported colonial exploitation of the people. Even the better missions were often tainted with the sense of Western superiority, and with condescension toward those to whom they were witnessing. More generally,
More generally, I learned that over the centuries the churches were usually allied with the rich and powerful. I learned that the enslavement of nonwhite races had been supported as God’s will. I discovered that earlier members of my own family had written pious Christian books in defense of slavery. Even many of those leaders to
whom we looked with admiration, such as Abraham Lincoln, had been racists. The Bible that seemed evidently to oppose such racism had been widely and successfully used to justify it. (John Cobb)
Rediscovering God through Jesus
The purpose of this book is to propose that it is time for thoughtful Christians to free themselves from acquiescence to the late modern worldview. My conviction is that the biblical worldview in general, and the worldview of Jesus and Paul in particular, is superior. Of course, there are many respects in which their worldview is out of date. But bringing it up to date is much easier and more fruitful than trying to make the modern worldview adequate to our needs. We certainly have a great deal of knowledge about astronomy today that is far more accurate than the beliefs that prevailed in New Testament times. But adjusting to that information is no threat to the basic insights of Jesus or Paul.
We know now that the world is composed of quantum events, a view that is vastly different from ideas in the minds of any New Testament writer. But their worldview was basically one that gave primacy to events. That events characterize the world at microscopic levels is not an uncongenial idea, whereas the modern world is not able to assimilate it. And above all, the idea that events are both subjective and objective would pose no problem to the ancients, whereas the moderns have to deny it, conceal it, or treat it as an anomaly.I have focused on what is central for Jesus, the reality and purposes of Abba. I have wanted to show that belief in Abba makes a lot of sense today.
Of course, I have not proved the existence of Abba;
indeed, it is not really possible to prove the existence of anything. I cannot prove that I exist, but we know much that we cannot prove. We cannot prove that there were any events before the present moment. How could we do so?
But I for one do not doubt that many things have happened, and I doubt that you are seriously doubtful. Although we cannot prove anything, we can disprove a good many things. We can disprove the indivisibility of what we still call atoms, named when we thought they were indivisible. Science has disproved the astronomy generally accepted in New Testament times. It has disproved the idea that the world is just six thousand years old.
I believe we can disprove some beliefs about God as well. For example, the systematic implications of the belief that God is all-powerful and the belief that God is all-beneficent contradict each other, and their combination is incompatible with the historical facts. It is very sad when those who consider themselves followers of Jesus spend their time defending ideas that are indefensible and are not found in the Bible. The idea that the Bible is inerrant is another belief that is easily disproved. So is the idea that Jesus and Paul were supporters of what are today called “family values.”
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. On the contrary, it is coherent with our experience and responds well to the needs of the world in our day. It can be tested against personal experience. I commend it enthusiastically.
For my part, I strive to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. There are those who follow Jesus without sharing his belief in Abba. I admire them, but I am convinced that the effort to follow Jesus while ignoring his Abba has a tragic character. It usually results from being socialized into a culture and a way of thinking that is not deserving of commitment. I am convinced that a much deeper and more joyful faithfulness is possible if we seek to relate to Abba as Jesus did. I commend a faithfulness to Jesus that shares Jesus’ confidence in the love and empowering power of Abba.
"Abba cares much more about the future of the world than about who believes in him and who does not."
But loving an omnipotent God, or a morally judgmental God, or an exclusivist God, or a God who demands sacrifice in order to forgive, can be harmful. Abba is none of those things. I believe that loving Abba is the best hope for the world’s future, and loving Abba means working with Abba....Abba cares much more about the future of the world than about who believes in him and who does not. We who love Abba will eagerly cooperate with those who do not, if they are working to save the world. But today we may rejoice that the leading voice in the movement to save the world comes from one who loves Abba: Pope Francis. It is my hope that my tiny effort to renew and strengthen the worship of Jesus’ Abba will also build support for the great work of Pope Francis. (John Cobb)
"Abba is always present in the world working for good."
In sum, with regard to all that I have said thus far, I believe that we experience in some usually faint and fragmentary way Abba’s presence with us, working in all things for good. Abba’s work is most effective if we attend to it, open ourselves to it, align ourselves with it. This is part of the meaning of faith. Our resulting thoughts and actions sometimes have effects beyond our intentions. We can experience ourselves to be participating in Abba’s salvific work in the world. And we can sense the companionship of Abba as well as of others who work with Abba. We can know something of the divine commonwealth, the presence of which Jesus announced. (John Cobb)
"Abba is present even in the cells in our bodies."
I am repeatedly surprised by how rapidly wounds heal when the body is given the chance. Doctors often comment that their medicines do not heal us. They counter hostile forces in the body. When these are removed, nature works its healing power. When thought and emotions are healthy and supportive, the healing work of nature is speeded and strengthened. For me, there is no “nature” from which Abba is absent. That does not identify God and nature. There is much in nature other than Abba. But I think that it is Abba’s presence in nature that makes for healing. I believe that Abba is in every cell in the body calling it to do its part for its own well-being and for the well-being of the whole