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A Conversation with John Cobb

By Joshua Stanton

John Cobb never tires of talking with students like this seminarian who has joined him at Claremont Lincoln University’s inauguration. Professor Cobb has retired from active teaching but not from vigorously pursuing his commitment to peace, the environment, and interreligion.

John Cobb never tires of talking with students like this seminarian who has joined him at Claremont Lincoln University’s inauguration. Professor Cobb has retired from active teaching but not from vigorously pursuing his commitment to peace, the environment, and interreligion.

TIO: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Professor Cobb. I’m particularly interested in talking about one of your recent books.

John Cobb:Which one?

TIO: The Dialogue Comes of Age: Christian Encounters with Other Traditions.

Cobb: I thought you might be referring to it.

TIO: One of the things that struck me was how it focused on dialogue between religious communities as a collective. Could you tell me more about that?

Cobb:The contributors thought it was very important to talk about Christianity in relation to each other’s tradition specifically. Important issues are raised between Christians and Buddhists, for example, that notions of dialogue between Christianity and ‘other religions’ might skim over….

TIO: But are religious traditions really so cohesive that it’s possible to refer to a single ‘Christianity’ and a single ‘Buddhism’?


I believe that when Christians are engaged in conversation with, say, Buddhists, people from many branches of Christianity find that important parts of their habits and beliefs are similar, shared by most in their tradition – more so than they may have thought.

What I would say is that, overall, thoughtful Christians – and even those who haven’t been – take history seriously. The Bible is quite dramatically a historical book. The relationship between people and God changes… at a unique historical moment.

Whereas… by contrast, Buddhists don’t care a great deal about history. It doesn’t enter into discussions of truth in the same way as it does for Christians. 

I don’t think this differs for liberal and fundamentalists, Orthodox and Protestant Christians. History is emphasized in Christianity. There are some Buddhists who lean towards history and there are some Christians who lean away from it. But the overall trend is apparent and makes dialogue between traditions possible, even though there are individual exceptions.

There are important issues that can be raised between Christians and Buddhists, for example, even though there is Japanese Buddhism and Southeast Asian Buddhism, and other kinds of Buddhism. Even though the West never colonized Japan in such a way as it did Southeast Asia, where Christianity was associated with the conqueror and Buddhism with the native, Buddhist-Christian dialogue is possible because of the relatively similar orientations that the respective practitioners of each maintain. 

TIO: What about dialogue between Christianity and other religious traditions?

Cobb: To take an example, between Christianity and Islam, the overlaps are much, much greater than they are between Christianity and Buddhism. Yet from my interaction in groups, it has been clear that similarities between Islam and Judaism are much greater than between Christianity and either group. This, of course, is due to the primacy of law for both groups.

Jesus and Paul problematized law dramatically. Law is not simply living a life of righteousness – it means obeying rules. Grace is fundamental to Christianity in the way it replaces the primacy of law. 

The mindset between historically rooted traditions and those that minimize history generates differences but not so much conflict. One cannot at once make history central and deny its importance. But for someone who views history as central, Buddhism is something that makes great beauty of life. And Buddhists can appreciate historical consciousness without adopting it.

TIO: What are the dynamics you observe between Abrahamic traditions, which agree on the significance of history?

Cobb: Well, consider relationships between Christianity and Judaism. The quick dismissal of Judaism with the label of legalism is something that those involved in dialogue have given up. The tone we associate with legalism is greatly mitigated. Christianity may also do things that are in accord with law, even if the focus and concern is not about the law. Negative ways we have often depicted each other can be overcome.

In this case, there is not a complementarity, as there is between Christianity and Buddhism, but a polarity. Understanding and appreciating that we are at opposite ends of the pole [in relating to law] can take place without negative impressions. 

It is also possible to focus on other differences. The notion of a person as revelatory of God is a Christian notion – but another area in which we could find an approximation within Jewish thought, without suggesting that Jews need to adopt such a view. The goal would be to show how Christianity evolved from Judaism….

TIO: It sounds like dialogue can be challenging, especially for the traditions that seem most similar.

Cobb: The most difficult dialogue is not with people of different faiths, but with ones of the same faith whom you may think violate fundamental tenets of that faith.

TIO: So what is the ultimate goal of dialogue?

Cobb: People who already have an idea that the ones they are talking to make at least some sense can engage in dialogue. The hope is not only to get along together better but to learn something that will enrich your own tradition.

If you are sensitive and don’t just get angry with those who express views that differ from yours, you will see that there is something in the other tradition that is worthy of your attention. 

Dialogue can take place with almost anyone willing to talk to you.