REVIEW: John Cobb’s “Jesus’ Abba”

Heilige familie, Gerard Edelinck, after Rafaël, 1666 – 1707.  Courtesy, Rijks Museum, Netherlands.

So, you say you haven’t figured out how to put a log on the fire, brew a fine cup of tea, and engage in an authentic, heartwarming conversation about the ultimate questions of life with an authentic and seasoned seeker of wisdom? The next best thing will be settling into your favorite comfy spot and considering yourself a partner in conversation as you make your way through John B. Cobb, Jr.’s latest work, Jesus’ Abba.

What recommends this book most emphatically, perhaps, is that it is offered by a practitioner of the Way of Jesus, with characteristic humility.  The wisdom contained here seems to arise from a certain willingness to put one’s egocentric goals on a back burner and to submit to a larger loyalty.  It’s my guess that such wisdom simply is not available to Machiavelli and his disciples – who are legion!  Ancestral Quakers seemed to capture the same idea when they alluded to “the light within” but were adamant in their observation that the path to “more light” requires first stepping into the light that already we have been given.

So, what about the book? With great perspicacity, Cobb is careful to situate the conversation in the historical context. How did we Westerners arrive at the materialistic and reductionist paradigm in which the dominant culture is now embedded? From whence came these seldom questioned and rarely challenged assumptions?  Cobb shows that conceptual scaffolding supporting the move away from science as sorting (into categories) or science as narrative (about the aims and desires of natural entities) and the move into the practice of science as measurement (of mass, location in space and the interacting forces) propelled materialistic and reductive concepts of the natural world. And, because the new methodology has resulted in major scientific advancements, there has been little incentive for cross-examining the supporting paradigm.  Indeed, there has been resistance from those who fear that tinkering with the paradigm could distract from the straightforward enterprise of measurement and prediction and finding useful applications for newly discovered “laws.”

For those who are interested, Cobb unpacks the role of Rene Descartes and Emmanuel Kant in providing a systematic account of a dualistic world – a world of material objects observed and analyzed by humans who, shockingly, somehow possess an unexplained and incongruous consciousness. Most moderns make no attempt to address how it is that consciousness exists alongside of and has an effect on things “material;” they simply label it “the hard problem” and move on! Others may follow Descartes and Kant and attempt to account for consciousness by positing an even more magical, ex machina “God.” (Even now, religious adherents often assign this “God” menial “sweep-up” jobs, asking the divine to stand-in for whatever begs for explanation.)

But this sort of bifurcation – of the material world on the one hand, and a mysterious and subjectively conscious one, on the other – has resulted in a range of bizarre and untenable outcomes. First of all, the (assumed) dead, mechanical, and unconscious material world would seem to hold no intrinsic value, or value in-and-for-itself – instead, it’s assumed to have only instrumental value, based on its usefulness to us humans as self-centered subjects. Should we go hiking and come upon a majestic waterfall or an exquisite sunset, consistent moderns must advise us that the awe we feel is nothing more than a subjective, irrational, and private sentiment. Such a sentiment could even be dangerous if it interferes with the hard-nosed business of exploiting the natural world for economic growth and development!  Should we object to the cruel conditions and extreme suffering of animals on factory farms or in a Confined Animal Feeding Operation, those who have economic reasons to maintain the status quo can hide behind widely accepted mechanistic assumptions even as they shield the paradigm from overdue review and debate.

Cobb suggests that a genuinely compelling religious understanding has also been a casualty of this bifurcation in Western culture. The main streams of thought in both conservative and liberal theologies have mostly opted to leave Enlightenment assumptions unchallenged. One result has been that fundamentalists have posited a God who resides in a supernatural realm, creates and lays down the law in the natural realm, and rewards or punishes based on how our behavior conforms to a culturally located set of rules that believers embrace as absolute and relevant for all cultures. But he shows that the damage extends to liberals too, who, accepting the bifurcation, focus on the material side of the equation: they may embrace religious reforms that correct the Machiavellian abuses perpetrated by dogmatists and politicians, but they are left without grounds for rejecting a rampantly materialistic and self-seeking culture, and for dedicating themselves to passionate and deep transformation.

Of course, a radically different assumption is possible. We can decide that what we experience in terms of our loves, our lures, our aims, our imaginations, and our creative urges deserves a status that is equally as real as any visual perception of the outside “objective” world. To this we can add a most likely assumption: We can posit that other entities also have loves, lures, aims, imaginations, and creativity – even entities quite different from ourselves. To assume the opposite – that we alone have these experiences – must require repeated brainwashing.

Finally, I’d like to discuss Jesus’ Abba by turning attention to a very private experience, indeed. Some readers will resonate. Others will not. Others may – someday. The scene varies. Sometimes it’s a hospital room, or maybe even the back seat of a car stuck in traffic. But, pretend you are there and there is one constant. A newborn baby is appearing – now – with tiny fingers and toes, helpless and vulnerable, and with unimagined potential. The pupils of your eyes widen and soften and you realize that something in this experience is beyond words. With a certain immediacy you suddenly see everything in a new light – almost an epiphany.  Marvel, wonder, and an indescribably sacred feeling all combine. And, there’s an immediate understanding of how you’re to use your power relative to this intrinsically valuable new life. Freely, even joyfully, you offer yourself.

“Abba,” as Cobb reminds us, is an Aramaic term for something like a dear father or daddy. It’s baby talk. And the remarkable thing is that this is a name that Jesus used to address God on more than one occasion. It’s as if Jesus, in the midst of a culture that was much more enthralled with coercive power and with political titles such as Sovereign King and Lord, recognized that the way a parent offers herself in service is not anomaly; it is warp and woof in the very fabric of the universe.

Surely, if this is more than a metaphor and somehow deeply descriptive of all that is, we children of the universe will not see our duties as a joyless checklist. We know that our hearts will sometimes sing and sometimes break. Most of the time, our hearts will do both. Yet, love casts out fear. I believe Jesus’ Abba invites us here – to open ourselves to the heart of the universe at this level and to be about Abba’s business. I highly recommend reading it.

To read more and to order the book, click here.


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