An interview with international ecological theologian John Cobb
By Kim Hwan Young
All belief systems, including philosophy, religion, and ideology, continue to change and evolve. The conservative insistence on maintaining the purity of heritage from founders and doctrines often fails to meet the practical need to adjust to worldly changes. But if there is excessive deviation from those earliest teachings, there is a need for ‘conservative innovation’ as well as ‘progressive innovation’ in order to restore original intentions.
The process philosophy and process theology developed by English philosopher-mathematician Alfred Whitehead (1861-1947) shook the 20th century. Process philosophy and theology claim that the universe is not a physical environment or object, but rather is created through events and processes that are experienced and understood subjectively and objectively.Additionally, each event/process is radically connected with countless other events/processes. It is estimated that there are around 1,000 Whiteheadian scholars and activists who have embraced this idea globally. They value cooperation rather than competition.
The American philosopher and theologian John B. Cobb III is a representative Whiteheadian. As a retired pastor in the Methodist Church,Cobb founded the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology, where he taught, working to incorporate Whiteheadian thought into postmodernism and ecology.
John B Cobb II pursues a theology that accepts the achievements of science like evolutionary theory and a theology that converses with Buddhist thought. He is said to be the most important North American theologian alive. He also provided considerable theoretical background for the Chinese Communist Party adopting the principles of ecological civilization into its constitution in 2012. I met Dr. Cobb on his visit to Korea amidst the publication of his essays in Ten Thoughts to Save the Planet (edited and translated by Han Yun-jung). Born in 1925 in Kobe, Japan, Cobb had previously visited Korea in 1936 when he was 11 years old.
In what follows, Cobb shares his wisdom regarding the topics of the ecological movement and religion.
What is the relationship between Christianity and the ecological movement?
The Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam,differ fundamentally from other religions in their historical orientation. The mission of Jesus in the historical context was not limited to teaching God’s grace and human calling. For Jesus, the grace and divine calling at the heart of the Hebrew tradition was obvious. I think what Jesus truly sought was to save people from war and the Roman Empire. God also gives us a specific calling today: to save the world from self-destruction.
Do you think ecology was not a very important issue for Jesus or his disciples?
For almost 2000 years, ecology was not important to Christians. But once we realized we were destroying the planet, ecology became important. Because Christianity is a historical faith, the most urgent task is different according to time and space. There was a time and place in which the emancipation of slaves was the most important cause. The tremendous threat of war is a serious problem for God in every construction of time and space. I believe that the God-given calling for Koreans must be the pursuit of peace.This opportunity for dialogue must be maximized to end the belligerent attitude of inter-Korean talks.
Some people may wonder what the point of worrying about ecology is when God will create a new heaven and earth after the coming of Jesus and the Final Judgment. believing the salvation of the individual is more important. What is your response to this?
Such a claim is a very strange interpretation of Jesus’ or Paul’s remarks. It is not a healthy response to God’s call. The focus of the New Testament is not extreme individualism. I think the message of Jesus is oriented towards all Jews, and Paul’s message towards the whole world. Focusing only on personal salvation leaves no way of expressing neighborly love.
What is the future direction of the ecological movement?
Ecological civilization. The use of the expression,‘ecological civilization’ clarifies the crucial point that every aspect of civilization must change. The foundation of our present civilization is not God but the worship of money. The worship of money is idolatry.
Is your call for a religionized ecology?
It was not Christianity that dominated the life of Medieval people. I call their religion Christianism, not Christianity.It was a kind of ideology. At the heart of Christianity was the Church and related institutions, not God. And for centuries after that, the prevailing religion was nationalism. Today’s religion is economism. Everything is quantified and measured by money. Even the government, especially the U.S.government, works for money. I hope that this economicism will be replaced by Earthism. The whole earth must be our concern. I do not think Earthism is a religion. I want Christians to become Earthists, not worship the Bible or the Church or the economy or the nation. I hope not only Christians, but also Buddhist and Muslim believers can become Earthists. Christians alone cannot save the planet. In order to save the planet, we must recruit as many partners as possible.”
What role can Korea and Asia play?
East Asia has tremendous potential to lead the international process philosophy movement. This is because of language. Unlike Indo-European languages, East Asian languages, including Korean, emphasize events rather than objects. On the other hand, it is very difficult to avoid objectification in English. The Buddha opposed the objectification of the Indian language. This is why there is common ground to be found between process philosophy and the Buddhist tradition.
This article was originally published in Korean. Go here to read the original text.