Saturday, April 23, 2011

What Does Obama Really Think About War?

Over the last two years, there has been a lot of discussion in the press about president Barack Obama’s ethics of war and peace. In 2007, the journalist David Brooks asked Obama what he thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20th century theologian who is well known for his ethics of Christian realism. Obama replied, “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.” He then proceeded to explain what he took away from reading Niebuhr, which is nothing less than the standard Christian realist position that sin and evil are inescapable realities of history and that we must therefore be humble about our hopes for historical progress. Over two years later, Obama delivered a now famous Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway where the influence of Niebuhr’s Christian realism seemed to show up frequently as he wrestled with the tension between an ideal of peace and the harsh reality of war. Reflecting on the speech, Fred Kaplan wrote in Slate Magazine, “Read in its entirety, Obama's speech seems a faithful reflection of…Reinhold Niebuhr.” At the same time, there are explicit elements of the just war tradition in his speech. Which is it then? Is Obama a Niebuhrian realist or is he a just war thinker? As I will argue below through an analysis of two of Obama’s speeches on war, his ethical position is actually a hybrid of the two: strongly rooted in the Christian realist tradition while also maintaining the just war emphasis of universal rules of conduct.

One of the first interesting things to note about the Nobel Prize speech is the ethical positions that are rejected. Not surprisingly, Obama explicitly argues against principled pacifism and Holy War, the other two major Christian ethical responses to war and peace throughout history. What is somewhat surprising though, is that while Niebuhr saw pacifism as at best, heavenly idealism, and at worst heresy, Obama’s view of pacifism is more positive and nuanced: “I know there’s nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed of Gandhi and King.” He also calls for more attention to “alternatives to violence” in international affairs. Still, Obama does not see nonviolence as the only legitimate option for conflict management in a world that is always prone to evil. His apparent presumption against violence is something that more hawkish just war interpreters (like George Weigel) would not be comfortable with, while his understanding of the tragic necessity of war is in line with Niebuhr.

In a later discussion about the ambiguous power of religion, Obama asserts, “A Holy War can never be a just war” because it cannot exercise restraint. This is one of Obama’s four explicit references to “just war” and he only mentions (if by implication) four of the eleven just war criteria: for jus ad bellum, just cause and last resort; for jus im bello, micro-proportionality and noncombatant immunity. It might be argued that Obama’s mention of these four just war criteria is simply in passing and of no consequence for understanding his own war ethic. After all, it is not clear in context if he is actually affirming these particular criteria. Shortly after Obama mentions the criteria, he even claims that the modern situation of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and increasingly common wars within states “will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war…” Obama seems to be claiming that although the traditional just war criteria are helpful, they may need to be adapted in response to new 21st century challenges. Although this might make some just war theorists uncomfortable, Obama is absolutely clear that international ethical standards of war are a necessity: “I believe that all nations – strong and weak alike – must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.” Furthermore, in Obama’s speech about the Libya crisis in 2011, his argument for humanitarian intervention seems to line up with a number of just war criteria. At minimum, the speech strongly implies the importance of last resort, just cause, right intent, discrimination, legitimate targets, and micro-proportionality. When this evidence is viewed in the light of his apparent presumption against violence and his emphasis on developing nonviolent alternatives, Obama’s flexible view of just war principles seems more likely to bend in a dovish direction.

It is also clear that Obama’s position on maintaining international ethical standards of war is both pragmatic and principled: “When force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.” In the Libya speech, Obama again asserts that America often has both pragmatic and moral reasons to help establish peace and justice in other struggling states (in this case, through humanitarian intervention). He argues that the interests of the United States cannot be isolated from the well-being of other states: “our own future is safer, our own future is brighter, if more of mankind can live with the bright light of freedom and dignity.” According to Obama, other nations around the world must enjoy basic freedoms, human rights, democracy, and economic opportunities if America is to prosper. These various statements from the two speeches still leave room for a Christian realism, even as it apparently rules out the possibility of Obama holding to an amoral, purely pragmatic, self-interested political realism.

While the evidence for Obama’s Niebuhrian Christian realism is rare and only seems to be implied in the Libya speech, it is everywhere and explicit in the Nobel Prize speech. In an implied critique of the efficiency of just war criteria, Obama states that even a war as seemingly “just” as WWII resulted in the death of far more civilians than soldiers: “no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy” because “although war is sometimes necessary…war at some level is an expression of human folly.” Obama echoes Niebuhr’s “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist” when he argues that the religious ideal of the “law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature…we are fallible...but we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected.” This law of love is a “moral compass” for the ambiguous existence of both individuals and societies, who must strive for this utopian ideal of shalom that can never be fully actualized. Individuals can be relatively moral and societies can establish proximate justice. History can move in more or less positive directions, but not towards utopian perfection. As such, he is neither a Calvinist who believes in total depravity, nor is he like the rationalists that Niebuhr chides for naively believing in the essential goodness of humanity and a utopian view of history. In a revealing final statement, Obama states, “We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us and still strive for justice…Clear eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.”

In light of all that has been analyzed, Obama’s position seems clear: a hybrid of traditional Christian realism and flexible just war principles. He clearly calls for international ethical standards of war in line with the just war tradition, even if he might be willing to significantly revise them to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Obama also embraces the realist tension: embracing hope instead of cynicism while acknowledging the reality of evil in history that will never entirely be overcome. Obama stands not only with Niebuhr, but also with Augustine, who was both a realist and just warrior, who maintained a presumption against violence, and for whom even just wars are only the lesser evil.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What's the Big Deal About Process Theology?

At Claremont School of Theology where I am doing my graduate work in theology, there is a lot of talk about something called process theology – we have a PhD in process studies, the famous Center for Process Studies, and plenty of events and classes on the subject. Process theology consists of a rather complex metaphysical system that is based on the philosophy of the early 20th century British mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead’s most famous student, Charles Hartshorne (who passed away in 2000) helped popularize his thought amongst Christian thinkers with books like Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. Hartshorne’s most famous student was John B. Cobb Jr., who is the most well-known process theologian alive today, author of something like 40 books including A Christian Natural Theology and Christ in a Pluralistic Age. Cobb taught theology at Claremont School of Theology for decades, is now in his 80’s, and lives in a Christian retirement home with his wife about a mile away from my CST apartment. Some have called him the most important liberal Christian theologian of the 20th century. That’s probably not too far from the truth. The man is brilliant and a deeply inspiring religious figure. I've (half) joked at times that he's like a god here on campus.

But what is process theology? Like I said, it’s complicated (click here for an excellent article from another famous CST process theologian, Marjorie Suchocki explaining it). For process theology, dynamic relationality as the highest metaphysical principle is key – and thus it is sometimes called relational theology. As such, the deep, holistic interconnectedness of all reality is central to this theology. I will briefly point out some basic ideas that I generally think are quite helpful from process theology as it relates to the Christian doctrine of God:

1) “Omnipotence? No.”: God’s power is not coercive, but persuasive. If God is love, s/he cannot coerce – ever. That means God cannot ‘intervene’ or act like the puppet master to do whatever s/he wants to the world. Rather, at every moment God is luring creation towards the greater good. Creatures (even non-humans) can respond well or poorly to this lure. Physical healings, though not impossible for process metaphysics, are thus rare. This idea of God’s persuasive power can be helpful when considering theodicy – since God is literally unable to always prevent evil. God never desires for the innocent to suffer, whether from illness, oppression, or natural disasters, and is always working in every moment for the good of all creatures.

2) “Omniscience? Yes and no.”: The future is truly open and undecided – for us and for God. God certainly knows all that there is to know – the entire cosmic past and everything that happens at every moment in the present. God also knows the general possibilities for the future, but nothing is known for certain because creatures are truly free to create that future in response to God’s lure. God is thus not outside of time, but travels with creation through history. This idea is quite biblical, especially if one takes the Old Testament theology of covenant seriously.

3) “Impassibility and immutability? Not exactly.”: God experiences the world, is affected by the world, and is thus changed by the world. God experiences everything from joy to suffering with the world’s joys and sufferings – “God is the fellow sufferer who understands”, as Whitehead wrote. God’s experiences change and then God really responds to our truly free actions. Creatures actually make an impact on the life of God. Yet certain aspects of God never change: God is eternally loving, for instance. Nothing the world does will change this.

4) “Omnipresent? Yes, yes, and yes!”: Much more than tradition theism, process theism emphasizes immanence. Process theology is a form of panentheism – all (‘pan-’) in (‘-en-’) God (‘-theism’). This is not to be confused with pantheism ("all is God"). Panentheism maintains a sense of transcendence. Because God is infinite, anything finite must exist within rather than outside God – since there is nothing ‘outside’ infinity! So the world exists within God, participating in the life of God, even as God participates in the life of the world. This implies a deep sense of interconnectedness and mutuality. The God of process theism is never absent from the world, but is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Not just humans, but all creation is shot through with the loving presence of God.

Recommended readings on process theology:
1) The Process Perspective (by John Cobb): easiest intro to process theology available.
2) Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (by C. Robert Mesle): A bit more comprehensive than the previous book. An excellent, classic work.
3) Christianity and Process Thought (by Joseph A. Bracken): A neo-process theology written for nonspecialists. Unlike some process thinkers, Bracken argues for a trinitarian process theology.
4) In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being (ed. Philip Clayton): written by my advisor, the neo-process theologian Philip Clayton. A comprehensive survey of the theology of panentheism, including process views.
5) The Crucified God (by Jurgen Moltmann): Not a process theologian, but Moltmann establishes the theological grounding for a 'suffering God' in his theology of the cross.
6) The Openness of God (Pinnock, Sanders, etc): Not process theology either, but similar in many ways. This is the classic book on "open theism" - evangelicalism's closest approximation to process theology.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Following Jesus Into a Pluralistic World

I have been thinking a lot lately about the possibility of being a Christian pluralist. Thank you to all who took the time to read my recent series of posts on the subject. Judging by the number of hits I got, it looks like this subject generated some serious interest! Of course, this is not surprising to me at all. Religious pluralism as a socio-cultural phenomenon is a reality, regardless of how we as Christians respond – with theological exclusivism, inclusivism, or some form of pluralism. As I wrote in my series on pluralism, globalization is a major reason for the changes in how everyone thinks about religion. The comparative theologian John Thatamanil writes that globalization “names an omnipolar movement of capital, technology, people, and ideas that renders obsolete an older story that speaks of a simple unidirectional flow of modernity from West to East.” And thanks to globalization’s dynamic movement of ideas, “Christians do Zen, Buddhists engage in social activism, and everyone does Yoga.”

With this globalizing movement comes greater awareness of the religious other in a way that is unprecedented in the history of the world. People respond to this phenomenon in various ways: they give up on everything associated with religion altogether (secularists, atheists, agnostics); they retreat into a narrow conservativism (fundamentalism); they become “spiritual but not religious” (everything from unaffiliated Christians who reject all labels but keep most of their beliefs to New Age and syncretism); they embrace “multiple religious belonging” (Buddhist-Christians, Hindu-Christians, Jewish-Buddhists, etc); or perhaps they become more theologically inclusive/pluralistic within a single tradition. At Claremont School of Theology, I know quite a few persons who embrace multiple religions in surprisingly thoughtful ways, but even more who are just pluralists of some form or another. One could also cite the recent book from Rob Bell, “Love Wins”, as an example of Christians moving towards a more inclusive spirit in response to globalization. Notice that Bell calls our attention to Ghandi - a rather unorthodox, though heroic Hindu - as a reason to rethink exclusivism.

If you have read my blog series on pluralism, you know how I am personally processing this phenomenon. I am interested in preserving as much particularity as possible while also affirming as much truth in the religious other as possible. This is a delicate balancing act, to be sure. However, as a follower of Jesus, I am convinced that it is worth the effort. Jesus’ most central teaching is to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. Although I express my love to God in various ways, love of neighbor is surely supreme. In a pluralistic context, love in the way of Jesus means more than mere tolerance – it means deep generosity and warm hospitality. Loving our Buddhist neighbor today means that we should actually open ourselves to their stories and insights, in the hopeful expectation that we might be moved, challenged, and transformed in some way by them. Love requires openness and even vulnerability towards the other. If we cannot be at least open to discovering genuine truth in the religious other, then our love for them is neither sincere nor Christ-like.

As the theologian John Cobb writes, “if we truly place Jesus at the center, we may be completely open to appreciate what happens in other communities with other centers.”

My prayer for all of us who follow Jesus is this:
May we develop the courage to build deep friendships with the religious other.
May we learn to listen to the religious other without the constant urge to convert them.
May we go beyond tolerance towards a love that hopes for mutual transformation.
May we faithfully follow Jesus into this new and exciting pluralistic world.