Why we should think of God as pacifist—(3) Addendum

Ted Grimsrud—June 10, 2014

I am about ready with the final part to this series on “Why we should think of God as pacifist.” But before I finish that post, I want to spend a little time responding to a concern raised by my friend Scott Holland in his comment to my previous post. Because Scott’s comment has pushed me to try better to clarify my argument, I wanted to put my response up as a regular post.

This is Scott’s comment:

“Ted, I’m a bit surprised to see a serious reader of [Gordon] Kaufman become so anthropomorphic about the divine. If God is a pacifist is the deity also a man, a monogamist, a moralist and an all around good guy?

“It seems one thing to call humans to a life of non-violence and peacemaking. However, given the awesome and awful force of the ruach, pneuma and winds of life, I would think only a Manichean could easily confess God is a pacifist? But then, heresy is sometimes a blessed thing!”

I did have this kind of concern (of being too “anthropocentric” in talking about God) in the back of my mind as I wrote out my ideas. And I expect to have it be part of my further reflections. And I also had Gordon Kaufman, who is indeed an important influence for me, in the back of my mind. Avoiding “heresy” was not part of my thought processes, though (however, if I thought I might be accused of being “Manichean” I might have thought about “heresy” a little bit).

These are some thoughts, not all necessarily consistent with each other:

Is calling God pacifist problematically “anthropomorphic”?

Is calling God pacifist problematically “anthropomorphic”? I’d say not—no more (actually, less so) than any other characteristic we might use for God (including “awesome and awful force”). Why is consistent love less obviously “godly” than “awesome force”? Scott seems to be implying that “love” is subordinate to “awful force”—the latter being somehow more fundamental. This is a common view; I would suggest that seeing God in terms of “awful force” too is quite anthropomorphic. In fact, I’d suggest that seeing God in such terms is more likely to be a projection of human desire than seeing God as pacifist (considering how rare pacifism is among human beings).

Of course, there are many pacifisms—so I am referring to what I call “pacifism (properly understood)”—see my post, “How pacifism [properly understood] works as a core Christian conviction” (more on this below). I have adapted a quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel, substituting “pacifist” for “just” (these concepts would be pretty close for Heschel, I believe—they certainly are for me): “Some say that thinking that God is pacifist is seeking to make God like humans (an anthropomorphism). On the other hand, I believe that thinking that we should be pacifist is seeking to make humans like God (a theomorphism).”

If by anthropomorphism (in a negative sense) we mean projecting onto God human characteristics in inappropriate ways, I imagine that any attribution to God of characteristics that lead to violence are most likely anthropomorphic, given how powerfully propagandistic forces have worked over the ages to push human beings toward accepting the legitimacy of violence (see Walter Wink’s enlightening discussion of “the myth of redemptive violence” in his book Engaging the Powers).

Is pacifism something trivial and sentimental?

By seeming to equate calling God pacifist with being “also a man, a monogamist, a moralist, and an all around good guy,” Scott presents pacifism as a a kind of trivial and even mainly sentimental thing. I think this is a common view as well. I am convinced that what pacifism signifies is something much more profound, fundamental to the human condition, and characteristic of the character of the divine (and hence of the universe) than Scott suggests. Hence, it is important to struggle with language that can convey that seriousness.

The point is not to stick with the term “pacifism;” perhaps it is irredeemably trivial or superficial in too many people’s minds. But I don’t think so—partly because I can’t think of any other term even remotely as valuable. I am talking about what I call “pacifism (properly understood).” By this I mean placing the priority on love in all our relationships (with God, other humans, our selves, and creation). Is the term “love” also irredeemably trivial or superficial? If it is, and it may be, then our challenge is not to live as if love doesn’t matter but to find better language to talk about the realities of our interconnectedness, our call for compassion, our commitment to life. Or to bite the bullet and insist on redeeming the language of love (and, I would say, pacifism) in order to get at what matters most in our existence.

Part of the reason I want to try to talk about God as pacifist is because the consequences of thinking that God is not pacifist but instead at times does want and indeed commit violence have been disastrous. What fuels my concerns on this topic are (1) a sense of how religious faith has been profoundly compromised, even discredited, by how it has accepted (even endorsed) violence in much of human history and (2) a fear that the healing alternative that Jesus offered has been and continues to be ignored, distorted, and trivialized when it offers our best hope for finding wholeness. And this, I believe, is the most “theomorphic” hope we can have.

Theology as human language

At the same time, I am not ready to accept that “anthropomorphic” is a terrible cussword and something we should seek altogether to avoid. I am not sure how careful of a reader of Gordon Kaufman I have been, but I do like his work a great deal and believe I have been strongly influenced by his writing (starting, for me, with his little book An Essay on Theological Method and continuing on through most of the rest of his books).

One big lesson I have learned from Kaufman is that our language about God is always human language, always metaphorical, always aspirational—never totally accurate, never totally objective, never simply descriptive of what is. It seems to me if we recognize the humanness of all our language about God we would recognize that such language cannot help having an anthropomorphic element. Certainly, such a recognition should lead us to keep working very hard at learning more and adjusting our understandings as we do. It’s not permission to accept that it’s okay simply to project our desires onto God and call that theology. However, it is to see that we can’t separate our humanness (including our aspirations and hopes) from how we think of God.

If it’s true that we can’t help but filter everything through our humanness and articulate it in human language, I think our goal would then not be to find ways to talk about God that escape our human perspectives, but language about God that helps us best serve life and coheres best with the universe as it is. I like Kaufman’s ideas about the centrality of what he called “humanization” (an admittedly clunky term). I think we need God-talk that serves humanization. Hence, language that sees God most fundamentally as violent, impersonal, arbitrary,  and somehow free from the focus and limitations of love does not serve humanization.

I will write more soon in this series of posts about how the question of God as pacifist relates to how we see the natural world.






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Filed under Biblical theology, Gordon Kaufman, Pacifism, Theology, Violence

3 responses to “Why we should think of God as pacifist—(3) Addendum

  1. Ted, have you read Grace Jantzen, who grew up Mennonite in northern Saskatchewan before a distinguished academic career in England. I would like to see her referenced more in Mennonite peace discussions. Perhaps best known for her feminist philosophy of religion, when she died tragically young, she had published the first of a multi-volume series unpacking how our cultural narratives encode death and violence. The first volume, “Foundations of Violence,” traces these codes in Greek and Roman culture. The second, “Violence to Eternity” in Judaism and Christianity. And the third, “A Place of Springs” offers Quakerism as a counter to the kinds of violence and death encoded in Enlightenment Modernism. Sadly, the second and third volumes had to be assembled from her notes by students and colleagues after her death. As a feminist, she is especially good of showing the relationship of all this to gender. But from the first, she also stresses the implications of all of this for how we have dealt with the natural world. I am sure you are aware of her work, which does seem relevant to your series here. But I write this note also because she may not be known to some of your readers. As a woman who grew up Mennonite and often worships with Quakers, I was so happy to discover her.

    • Thanks, Phyllis. Indeed, I read Violence to Eternity several years ago and liked it a lot. I’ve been thinking I need to revisit it and refresh my thinking. What I especially appreciated was her critique of the death focus that mainstream Christianity has had. I need to track down the other books, too. It is sad that she died so young and that, partly because though Canadian she spent her academic career in Britain and published there, her writings are hard to find stateside.

  2. Scott Holland

    Good response, Ted. I’m only trying to nudge you to move somewhere between the more conventional pacifist God-talk of JHY and the more constructive theological imagination of Kaufman. Yes, of course, all of our theology is metaphorical and thus theopoetic rather than theo-logical. A difference in the work of at least the later Kaufman is his movement away from the anthropomorphism of a “personal God” to a more bio-historical understanding of the life-force of Serendipitous Creativity. In the evolution of life and love, Nature, Creation, Energy, Eros and the Wind are not always as manageable and polite, or even as kind, as the Old Guy in the Sky. Is not this projected deity in the end a bad fiction so contrary to the phenomenological energies of lived life?

    I agree with Phyllis that Jantzen offers yet another set of artful metaphors for imagining the quest for cultures of peace. I learned to know Grace when we were both lecturing in Belgium. She was then at work on constructing a theology funded first by aesthetics and beauty rather than by ethics and discipleship as first principles. Then death came. “A Place of Springs” captures the outline of her vision and voice.

    In a world of violence, Ted, I really have no quarrels with your passionate call to peace. Anything that encourages human flourishing and prevents human cruelty is in my view a good prophetic and pragmatic theology. But for it to work it must capture hearts and minds as something true, or at least as a good rather than a bad fiction.

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