Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Thomas Oord, Embodiment, and Pacifism

As I mentioned in my AAR round-up last week, Emory's Tim Jackson hosted a dialogue on Thomas Oord's book, The Nature of Love, as a special pre-conference event. I also briefly registered the challenge I extended to Oord regarding the logical implications of his claim that God is "noncoercive all the way down" -- namely, that he should be a pacifist. Oord welcomed the challenge and was gracious in his response, but I thought his answer telling, and worth considering in greater detail.

After sharing that he wants to be a pacifist, he said that when he thinks about it for too long he realizes he can't go "all the way" (given what he would do if his family were attacked, thinking about past justified wars like World War II, etc.). After pressing him on the undeniable thrust of his claim that we ought to imitate God's noncoercive love, he then said this: "The reason I might need to be coercive is because I have a body -- but God does not have a body. And with the body comes particular limitations and conflicts that may lead to situations in which I ought to act coercively against another person."

In my view, this is an ideal point of departure for this question, resulting from a severe theological misunderstanding. For what is the only faithful Christian reply to the claim that God does not have a body? God does have a body! The heart of the most basic Christian confession is the incarnation, the enfleshment of God in and as a body. And the normative ethical claim follows directly therefrom. When the one true God assumes, becomes, lives in and as a finite, material human body -- when we are confronted by the story and person, the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth -- what we discover is straightforward and universally uncontested, though surprising, nearly unbelievable: He refuses to kill others, all the way to his body's tortured agony and death. This one, God in the flesh, Creator creature, invisible visible, eternal life seen and touched, this one loves his enemies and rejects the sword and, to the end, accepts the consequences of finitude, conflict, embodiment in a fallen world. God dies rather than kill those who would kill him.

Whatever we say about violence or ethics in general, wherever we find ourselves in the ongoing conversation about what it means to live faithfully as Christians, the one thing disallowed by the incarnation is any statement remarking that "x is true of us, but not of God." Everything that we are as human beings, God became in Jesus Christ. First and foremost, that includes our bodies; more to the point, when conceived and understood holistically, the moral implications of the incarnation's normativity for Christ's disciples are, to put it mildly, revolutionary.


  1. Well said, Brad! I wonder if Oord would accept an invitation to respond to this further challenge?

  2. Brad,

    Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your taking our conversation seriously.

    I have several reasons I can't be an absolute or thoroughgoing pacifist. The one you mention is important. But it's not the only one reason.

    Your appeal to the incarnation of God in Jesus seems to place heavy emphasis upon the human side of a Christological paradox: Jesus as God-Man. As you may remember in our exchange, I quoted Jesus' own words that he says God's constitution is as Spirit.

    I also appealed to the Christian tradition, which has claimed that God has no body. Your correct insertion that Jesus has a body shows that my claim must be qualified for Christological reasons. But I don't think it takes away from the thrust of my claim, which is that the eternal God who created the universe is a omnipresent Spirit without a localized body.

    Among the many things I have not reconciled in my mind when it comes to pacifism is Jesus' own words on violence. If pacifism were central to his revelatory life and words, why didn't he clearly teach pacifism? Why didn't he frequently decry violence? I can find a few lines here and there that could be used to propose a pacifist standpoint (e.g., "love your enemies"). But Jesus' support of pacifism is not at all clear to me (or, for that matter, it has not been clear to the majority of theologians in the history of the tradition).

    I'm truly open to being convinced I should be a pacifist -- which is also something I think I said at the meeting. My personal emphasis upon theologies of love incline me toward that position. But there are many arguments, reasons, and experiences that incline me away from pacifism.

    So... I'd love to hear your (new) arguments supporting pacifism. And I'd like to hear why you seem to reject the dominant Christian belief that God is Spirit.

    I truly am willing to be persuaded to think differently...


  3. Tom,

    Thanks so much for your response. I appreciated the back-and-forth at the dialogue, and I'm grateful for further conversation here.

    I'm not sure I quite understand your distinction between a "heavy emphasis upon the human side of a Christological paradox" of "Jesus as God-Man" and the tradition's emphasis that God is constituted as Spirit. Because I am not intimately familiar with your work, this may be spelled out there; but in an orthodox Trinitarian construal, I don't see the problem. The triune God is Spirit; and Jesus the incarnate Word was, is, and forever shall be embodied as a human being -- crucified, risen, glorified. Thus we can say at once that God is Spirit and that God has a body.

    If that premise is not agreed upon, then we should locate the discussion there. However, if it is agreed upon, that is where I make the move (taken from Yoder) that the fact that God does have a body in Christ demonstrates to us how we also ought to be and act in our bodies -- namely, noncoercively. Taken "all the way down" (not scare quotes; I like the phrase!), I see this leading to pacifism.

    I am interested in what you find lacking in Jesus' teachings on violence. Again, this is my influence from Yoder coming out, but I find it everywhere. Certainly in the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain, the rebuke of Peter (Mark 8), and the rebuke of sons of Zebedee (Mark 10). Moreover, though obvious, the entire passion narrative seems to be a lived meditation and faithful embodiment (no pun intended) of the way of the kingdom vis-a-vis violence.

    Anyway, there's a bit of a response. Thanks again for yours -- I look forward to hearing more.

  4. Brad:

    As someone who is a bit more familiar with Tom's work, I think the problem lies with the fact that Tom does not share your "orthodox Trinitarian construal" of Jesus as God.

    His claim that God is "non-coercive all the way down" is determined more by a process metaphysic than it is by an understanding of the action of God apocalypsed in Jesus Christ. So when you think "non-coercive," think of what process theologians mean when they speak of the divine "lure" giving space to the autonomous "free will" of the human being.

    Now, from my perspective, such a view of "non-coerciveness" cannot on its own terms preclude "violence," since a process metaphysic seems to me to be logically competitive all the way down. On Tom's view, God's non-coercive love is metaphysically bound to "give space," if you will, to whatever free response one might choose -- even if that be violent.

  5. Nate,

    I knew about the process bit, but (as you note) out of unfamiliarity with his particular work, I hadn't connected all the dots. Agreed, though, on "a process metaphysic" being "logically competitive" all the way down.

    First principles, first principles...

    As a different question for Tom (though I'd still love to hear a response re: the first), I have a question about the nature of redemption you shared in the dialogue. Specifically, as I heard you, redemption is left "open-ended," not only to noncoercive free will -- so that there is an open possibility whether all will be saved, though certainly none will be damned -- but also to those who have already been saved, to making the decision to sin again.

    My question that night was and now is: What kind of redemption is that? What is the content of salvation if one can relapse into sin? The language is pertinent, because I think of those I know in recovery from substance addictions; they don't want to always maintain the neutral ability to choose between health and abuse, they want to be free of the power of alcoholism! They want this power that rules their lives conquered and defeated, and themselves utterly liberated to be what they were created to be. Having gone through the fire, they don't want the option to transgress, to touch the fire again: they want the fire put out.

    So there's another one. Trinity, metaphysics, violence, redemption -- we keep it nice and light here.

  6. Brad (and Nate),

    Thanks for your responses. I appreciate your willingness to keep the conversation nice and light! : )

    First, we do share the commitment that Jesus is human and divine. So we have no problems at that point. We may have different metaphysical schemes with which we work to affirm this claim. But I don't think those differences pertain at this point (but I could be wrong).

    If I remember correctly, I said that evening that two issues must be considered when we talk about God's inability to prevent the occurrence of genuine evil.

    The first has to do with God's inability to coerce. By inability to coerce, I mean the inability to control others or situations completely.

    Here, I craft a position that at least some major process theologians think is not process metaphysics. I claim that God's very nature is essentially kenotic: freedom and/or agency giving love. Rather than argue that God is metaphysically constrained by outside forces, I argue that God's eternal nature is such that God cannot fail to provide, cannot override, and cannot withdraw the freedom and/or agency God loving gives all others (up and down the creaturely complexity spectrum).

    (I hope the previous paragraph indicates how I differ from the view I think you, Nate, were attributing to me. I should also say that the Journal of Process Studies recently reject a scholarly review of my book, The Nature of Love, in which I spell out this position. It was rejected because the editor deemed the position I take as not a version of process theology.)

    But the second part of why God should not be held culpable for failing to prevent genuine evil has to do with God's constitution as spirit. As omnipresent Spirit, God does not have a localized body with which to exert bodily impact upon others with bodies.

    Now, perhaps I should qualify my claim. Perhaps the logic of the God-man paradox requires that I affirm that for about 33 years, God did possess such body in Jesus Christ. It seems appropriate. It doesn't undermine my view, however, that God does not currently have such a body. And therefore I bring this argument into play when explaining why God should not currently be charged with culpability for failing to prevent evil by using a localized body similar to what we have.

    Despite the texts you quote about Jesus, I still do not think that nonviolence was a major theme in Jesus' life and ministry. This doesn't mean that a Christian has no grounds for pacifism. I just still think that if absolute nonviolence were so central to the Christian ethic, Jesus would have spelled it out more clearly.

    As far as power for redemption goes (which you address in your latter post), I like John Wesley's general framework. Wesley says God acts first and empowers the possibility of our free response. We can be redeemed when we respond appropriately to God.

    Thanks for the opportunity to chat. I don't claim to have it all figured out, and I am open to learning better ways of thinking about these important issues.

    In appreciation and friendship,