John B. Cobb Jr. – Environmental “Evangelist”
by Ruth Broyde Sharone
No ivory tower has ever been able to contain Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr. Even at 92, the premier “eco-theologian” of our times is a man on a mission. He urgently wants to convert us. But not in the conventional sense. He wants us all – regardless of our religious orientation, our racial, national, and cultural origins – to “evangelize” for an “ecological civilization” whose guiding principle recognizes that we are all on one planet and that the care and preservation of our planet is a shared responsibility.
Born in 1925 to Methodist missionary parents in Japan, he self-identifies today as a liberal Protestant. John’s earliest memories were formed in an interfaith context. The primarily Buddhist culture he encountered, as well as a Canadian missionary school he attended in Kobe, had a profound impact on him. Japan’s culture and religion were substantially different from his own, but that never phased him. “Throughout my career, I have emphasized differences. I’m not one of those people who thinks that all religions are very similar. On the contrary, I think it’s wonderful that they are different. But difference doesn’t mean one is better than the other,” he underscores.
Thus, at age 15, Cobb was utterly perplexed by and unprepared for the racism he encountered when he returned with his parents to the U.S. in 1940. During World War II he watched incredulously as the American government created internment camps for Japanese-Americans and labeled them as “enemies of the country.” It flew in the face of his personal experience living in Japan. America’s actions were an affront to his moral conscience and subsequently informed not only his world view, but also his view of interfaith.
“My view is different from that of many people who have been involved in interfaith because I want to emphasize how different Christianity and Buddhism are and how wonderful it is that they are different,” he repeats. “It’s because they’re so different that we can both learn from each another.”
Throughout his life, Cobb’s criticism of the dominant view in churches, media, universities, and government has earned him the label of a counter-cultural rebel. His philosophical “run-ins” with church doctrine and practice have also characterized his work. Yet it would be hard to deduce that just by observing the unassuming, soft-spoken professor who still speaks with a slight Southern twang. In spite of his gentility, Cobb can readily assume a prophetic voice – deep, passionate and resonant – when holding forth on the urgency of his mission to change people’s ways in order to save our planet.
The Influence of Whitehead
To understand Cobb’s contribution and the ecological civilization he promotes, one needs to know about Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). Whitehead, a distinguished English mathematician, who was a senior lecturer at Trinity College Cambridge for 25 years, became deeply involved in the history of science at the University of London, and at age 63 crossed the Atlantic to accept a chair in philosophy at Harvard University. Over the next 23 years he wrote books on science, education, religion, and, most importantly, philosophy.
Process and Reality (1929) became the foundational text in process philosophy. As one scholar notes, in Whitehead’s process philosophy “there is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have consequences for the world around us.” Before process philosophy became a school of thought, it was called the philosophy of organism, or what Whitehead called “world loyalty.”
Process philosophy served as both catalyst and groundwork for John Cobb and powered his deep dive into interfaith dialogue, ecological civilization, and environmental ethics. Professor Cobb has written or edited more than 50 books, including Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition with D. R. Griffin (1976); Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology (1995), and Sustaining the Common Good (1994). Along the way, he co-founded the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California, where he remains co-director.
In explaining how process thought underscores his drive to save the planet, Cobb highlights the importance of Rene Descartes, a 17th century French philosopher/scientist/theologian who has been called “the father of Western philosophy.” “Descartes, for the first time in human history, really created a metaphysical dualism of the most drastic sort between the mind and matter,” Cobb notes.
The Journey Beyond Dualism
“Following Descartes’ pronouncements, philosophers scrambled, including the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. The most sophisticated philosophers were the ones who dealt the least with the natural world. In popular piety people still thought the whole of creation was God’s, but sadly the preachers were taught not to teach that in the seminaries,” Cobb laments.
“The idea that something is either mental or else material still has an enormous effect on the way that people think. Descartes thought that our bodies were material and our minds were, of course, mental. That dualistic perspective was the dominant result of Descartes’s work and influence until the evolutionary understanding that human beings are also a part of nature. If nature is just matter in motion, then it means that human beings are also matter in motion.
“The influence of dualistic philosophy on theology at that time has been enormous. But there were some people who said ‘No, if human beings are part of nature, then nature is not simply material. We have got to rethink the notion of nature.’” This is what John Cobb learned studying at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. “We called it neo-naturalism, but of course, that still means you have to rethink a lot of what science does and how science is formulated, and it’s not an easy matter to just change your view. I think the one who did the most thorough job in transforming his view was Alfred Whitehead. As I see it, the modern world has unfortunately by-passed the thinking of this new view of nature. In universities, today, you don’t find it very much, but nevertheless it is still what we desperately need.”
Cobb believes that science which has not given up the Cartesian view renders itself unable to deal with a great many facts. “One of these is that the things that we do, psychologically or spiritually, effects what happens physically. According to mainstream scientific teaching, stemming back to Descartes, this is impossible. One of the problems facing science today is that many things that happen, science insists can’t happen. If science would accept the need to rethink nature and give up its strictly materialistic view, then these facts are just as important scientific facts as any others.
“We have to think historically, because the controversy between science and religion grew out of a very specific kind of science and a very specific kind of religion ... Many forms of religion are not in conflict with any form of science; and there are forms of religion that are in total conflict with science. Take Zen Buddhism, for example, among the most thorough-going of the Buddhist groups. Zen Buddhism is very different from science, but it is not in conflict with science. And it doesn’t get into any conflict with science in the way the Abrahamic religions do.”
Rethinking the notion of nature and science and humankind’s role in protecting the planet has been at the fulcrum of Cobb’s academic career and environmental activism. In 2015, at age 90, he conceived and organized a ground-breaking conference at Pomona College in Claremont called Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization, where some 2000 people attended including more than 200 from China. (Read TIO’s report on it here.)
He says there were virtually no eco-theologians until the 1960s. Theologians before then were almost entirely – and he includes himself – anthropocentric, dealing only with human relationships. “But in the late '60s we were awakened to the fact that ignoring the natural world meant that we were not only ignoring it; we were destroying it.
“We need to think not in mechanical terms but in organic terms. And there’s lots of evidence that that’s a good, sound way of thinking about nature. We really need to shift our view so that other things – besides human beings – have value in and of themselves. We need to respect all things in nature and not treat them simply as resources for our use. Then there would be a chance of having what we are calling for: an ‘ecological civilization.’ And that’s what I’m committed to. It’s still a civilization. It’s got science. It’s got technology. But it subordinates the use of things to the appreciation of all things.”
The impact of Cobb’s environmental evangelism shows up in the work of Pando Populus, an organization he founded two years ago to ensure his ideas would not be seen as ivory tower theory but would actually take practical form and shape. Recently he spent a morning with members and supporters of Pando to bring the resources of many different organizations to bear on local needs in a specific part of L.A.
“We had an event in Death Alley, the section in L.A. that has the most murders year after year, a section that is very far removed from an ecological civilization. People there wanted to take advantage of the availability of a little piece of land to help build community out of the existing less-than-communitarian situation. The people who showed up that day represented about 20 different organizations that are all interested in improving what happens there. Pando’s role was to bring together people who live there with people from the outside.
“We also work with large institutions. UCLA and the whole University of California system want to have zero waste. Of all the universities, UCLA is furthest along. Yet they throw away a billion dollars of waste every year and have come to the realization that it’s possible to avoid being so wasteful. In the near future, we will be bringing people together from all over the state to celebrate their achievements.”
Cobb is encouraged now that the concept of an ecological civilization is finally taking root in our society.
“Obviously the movement didn’t develop around that term. But from my point of view the most important part of the movement is not its own special teaching, but rather its potential to change the world.”
John B. Cobb Jr. speaks softly, but he carries a big mandate for humanity: to move into a new phase of consciousness, an organic phase of consciousness, one that will allow us to create the ecological civilization we urgently need.
Header Photo: Sonny Abesamis, C.c. 2.0