Ministering to the Collective Soul amid the Arms Race

by Jeff Smith

Mr. Smith is an instructor in mass media and American culture in the department of popular culture in Bowling Green State University, Ohio.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 7-14, 1987, p. 17. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Some commentators on nuclear arms miss the mark. The author discusses such arguments as "nuclear madness," "death wishes" "the wrath of God," and the like. We must intervene in the cultural subconscious not just to understand but to change it.

It is easy to think of nuclear weapons as a new phenomenon in history, a ‘basic change in the circumstances of life," in the words of Jonathan Schell. But recent analyses of the nuclear threat have also examined how it arises from longstanding patterns of human behavior. Increasingly, writing on disarmament modifies familiar terms to describe the peril, speaking of the "nuclear madness" or "fixation" of "deliriums" and "death wishes"; or, in another vein, of ‘idolatry." "revelation" and "warnings" of "the wrath of God."

As these terms suggest, these kinds of analyses come from psychologists and theologians, or from others writing in the idioms of those disciplines. To say that nuclear weapons have their roots in the soul itself is to invoke theology and depth psychology, our diagnostic sciences of the soul. Jim Garrison, in The Darkness of God: Theology After Hiroshima (SCM, 1982) , has even suggested combining these two methods of soul-searching into a new discipline of "psycho-theology" designed especially for the nuclear problem.

Disarmament literature also uses such vocabulary, suggesting either "repentance" or "therapy" as possible answers. But although professionals diagnose the problem in this way. they don’t follow through with appropriate solutions. What would we think of a psychologist who offered a patient the following response:

PATIENT: Doctor. I’m convinced my neighbors are conspiring to kill me. This makes me extremely anxious. Moreover, I have wired my house with explosives and will blow it up if they try to get near me.

DOCTOR: You are suffering from a syndrome called "paranoia." You exaggerate the intentions of others and will only hurt them, and yourself, if you continue on this course. That will be $50, and do have a nice day.

Suppose the same person then sought advice from the parish pastor, and the conversation went like this:

PARISHIONER: Help me, pastor. I live a life of strife and discord with those around me. The only way any of us has yet found comfort is by threatening others’ lives.

PASTOR: What you describe is terrible in God’s eyes. Scripture clearly teaches that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. Now. please go and sin no more.

We would not think much of the psychologist or minister who would respond in these ways. Obviously, solving people’s problems requires more than refutation or warning. People need to be shown how to live a new kind of life. Telling someone to change her ways or else can actually make it harder for her to overcome a problem which, quite possibly, she is already as painfully aware of as is anybody.

Yet when faced with a collective problem like nuclear weapons, people seem to throw this obvious wisdom out the window. The dialogues related above are only somewhat caricatured examples of the "advice" psychological and theological writings offer on the issue. The following paragraph, from an address on "The Social-Psychological Dimension of the Arms Race" (reprinted in Search for Sanity [South End Press. 1984]. p. 272) by Morris Schwartz. typifies this common approach:

I believe chat the persons generating these [official] delusions and deceptions acutely feel the loss of security and stability [brought about by nuclear weapons], and that they feel afraid and powerless. They try to overcome and defend themselves against this feeling of powerlessness through a massive increase in nuclear arms, and they try to conquer their fear and reassure themselves by asserting that we can prevail if we do indeed multiply our nuclear arsenal.

Schwartz hereby states the problem and begins to analyze it psychologically. But look at his conclusion:

Thus as we escalate the arms race we increase the very devices that are responsible in the first place for our loss of security, and are left with a greater sense of vulnerability and insecurity.

Instead of following the analysis through, he merely re-emphasizes the problem. In similar fashion, many other such treatises begin by discussing the weapons, analyze the problem partway, and conclude, "And so we must get rid of the weapons." But they do not describe how to accomplish that goal.

There are three main reasons why psychological analyses veer off at the crucial moment. First, an analyst might have no name for the soul’s sickness and thus no "handle" on it. Second, although the analyst might have a name for it, he or she might be unwilling to ascribe it to people in general. And third, the analyst might admit that the sickness afflicts all people, but still regard it as an unchangeable "fact" of "human nature."

The first problem creeps into Edward Thompson’s analysis in Exterminism and Cold War (Verso. 1982. p. 330) :

There remains something, in the inertial thrust and reciprocal logic of the opposed weapons systems -- and the configuration of material, political, ideological and security interests attendant upon them -- which cannot be explained within [our usual political] categories.

Thompson tries calling this something "exterminism." which he defines as a certain inertial thrust within the deep structure of the cold war. But in coining a new name he is really denying that older terms make sense, or that the nuclear peril is part of some pre-existing pattern after all. It is to look upon the bomb as a basic change, a cause rather than an effect.

Discussions of the "madness" or "paranoia" of the arms race often exhibit the second problem. Writers broadly ascribe terms like these as frequently as they make excuses for ordinary people. Notice how George Kennan’s psychological language confuses his point: "Can we not at long last cast off our preoccupation with sheer destruction?" he asks in the New York Review of Books ("On Nuclear War," January 21, 1982) "For this entire preoccupation with nuclear war is a form of illness. It is morbid in the extreme." After a bit more such analysis, Kennan concludes, "I decline to believe that this is the condition of the majority of our people."

That’s a relief -- but then, who was the "we" he was speaking to one paragraph earlier? Kennan, like many other writers, has not settled this point for himself. He seems to implicate all people, yet he finds it unthinkable that the majority could be responsible for nuclear war.

Another way that writers excuse the people is to admit their guilt, but to consider it ignorance deliberately cultivated by elites, particularly through media manipulation. Or more subtly, they speak of the mass pathology as something passive, portraying ordinary people as (in Jim Garrison’s words) "victims of a compelling nightmare, hypnotized and magnetized" in a dreamlike state like that of children following the Pied Piper (Darkness of God, p. 3) Interestingly, this view reverses Caldicott’s formulation, in which the people were seen as adults and the leaders were the children. But both writers separate the two groups.

The third problem emerges in some writers’ attempts to close that gap. If human nature gives rise to the problem, then ordinary people are at least as culpable as politicians. Psychologists David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton, in The Caveman and the Bomb: Human Nature, Evolution, and Nuclear War (McGraw-Hill, 1985), express this view with their useful observation that "the nuclear arms race goes on because people allow it" (p. 22, their emphasis). Such a view at least makes it less mysterious that the arms race has been led from the start by a great democratic society. It also offers hope of a solution to the problem -- for in this formulation, the weapons are not causes of the arms race but instead are effects, which means that we can hope to act upon their causes.

This brings us back to our starting point: the need to fit the arms race into older, pre-existing behavior patterns. Those patterns -- or, one might say, the "prior" phenomena -- are human attitudes. If we can understand and change the attitudes, we can eliminate nuclear weapons.

Yet this approach seems further from a solution than the others. How can we change human nature? Here the whole psychological approach seems to break down, for it is based on an analogy between the psychology of individuals who can be treated in clinics, and the collective psychology behind the arms race. And collective citizenry cannot be brought into a clinic.

But Raskin is assuming that human nature is fixed and changeless. He is like Barash and Lipton, Who equate human nature with a lingering "Neanderthal mentality" that is out of place in today’s advanced world, In this scheme the prehistorical mentality is also ahistorical -- and thus a permanent condition. The authors argue for using our superior rational faculties to "say No" to our primitive impulses. It is urgent that we do so, they say, so that humanity might reach "the point at which, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to universal murder, we resolve to overcome the Neanderthal mentality and thereby transcend, if not overcome, our biology itself" (p. 267) But again, this is preaching to the converted. The reader has no doubt already ‘said No" for herself, and. might readily agree that "we" should resolve to do these things -- but she is then left to wonder how to convince those who aren’t reading the book and aren’t aware of the problem to join in such resolutions. The book offers no answer; it ends with the words just quoted.

We might hope that theologians would have a better grasp of human nature than do psychologists. That humanity is in a bad way is no news to theologians, who know full well that sin appeared on earth well before 1945. Surely they know better than to agree with Schell’s description of the nuclear age as "the second fall of man." The first fall, they would say, was total, and explains all subsequent problems.

Or would they? Dale Aukerman, in Darkening Valley (Winston-Seabury, 1981) , sees the splitting of the atom as "a postponed swallowing of the tough core of that original fruit" (p. 161) This all but denies that the first fall really occurred: Adam had the fruit in his mouth but didn’t actually swallow it. Human rebellion from God wasn’t complete until we started messing with uranium,

This is a theological way of saying that the bomb is a cause and not an effect. It denies the free human decision to create the bomb. I imagine that it is driven by the same desperate desire to believe that a secular solution can be found before it is too late.

Similarly, Aukerman’s claim that "really it is only for the devil, for those aligned with him, and for those who might yet turn from him that time is running out" (pp. 168-69) separates leaders from ordinary people. And his warnings about God’s wrath do not offer ministry, only judgment. He dispenses more law than gospel.

In fact, the nuclear peril has thrown the notion of gospel into crisis. It has given humanity the power to short-circuit the Last Judgment, thus calling into question God’s omnipotence. There are several possible responses to this. One is to trust that God still holds the last trumpet and will not allow humanity to end the world on its own. Politically aware theologians (and many ordinary believers) find themselves caught between trusting in this assurance -- and so taking no political action -- or taking action based on what seems to be a loss of faith in God. If their theology sounds peculiar, it reflects the cruel force of their dilemma.

But there is another possible response that points toward real answers. Also inspired by theology, it takes sin and the fall seriously. In this view, humanity has the power to destroy itself -- but it has been doing so little by little throughout history. Part of our sinful nature has always been to seek more efficient methods, and in the bomb we have found one. Let us not make Adam’s mistake and imagine that this particular fruit of the tree of knowledge really does give us godlike power. Nuclear weapons are just one more confused, frail, human invention -- maybe, like so many sins, even a stupidly well-intentioned one.

This view is available even to non-believers since it makes use of Christian beliefs not about God but about humanity and culture. It requires believing only, as C. H. Sisson has put it, that Christianity "has, even for those who are what is called skeptical, undeniable strengths in its far-reaching correspondence with the deeper reaches of human nature," and that our culture inherited its world view from many of our ancestors ("Putting Faith in Writing," Times Literary Supplement, December 21, 1984, p. 1468). Theology can provide us with a powerful framework for self-analysis. We can think of original sin as an archetype for our secular and psychological ideas about evil.

Evil was a point of contention between Pelagius and St. Augustine some I ,600 years ago. Crudely put, the Pelagian view denied original sin; evil was more a case of unrealized human potential than some kind of congenital condition. In disarmament literature this Pelagian view predominates and the Augustinian view that grace initiates salvation is finally dismissed or evaded. This may seem strange, since the church decided for Augustine’s view. But in our culture the debate goes on. Luther and Erasmus, Hobbes and Rousseau, Burke and Paine -- each dispute has resonated with the same issues. American culture, a society of both Puritans and Jeffersonians, of transcendentalists and business tycoons, resonates with them to perhaps an unusual degree.

So it is easy to hypothesize that the nuclear weapons debate does too. The bomb simultaneously reveals both the power and the weakness of human works -- which supports both the Pelagian and the Augustinian views. Armaments are just machines. yet at the same time they are flaming swords held over our heads by angels. The first atomic bomb was spoken of in reverential, religious terms, a simultaneous affirmation of both Augustinian humility before God’s power, and extraordinary Pelagian pride in humankind’s. Standing at the apex of two central traditions of our culture, this attitude explains the "tremendous internal momentum" which Schell has noted in the arms race, and which drives so many writers on the subject to despair.

How can we find answers within this conceptual framework? First, we must abandon religion’s prophetic condemnations and look instead at what it teaches about cultural images and symbols. There are cultural "repertoires of values," says theologian Bernice Martin, which express themselves through a "hidden vocabulary" of symbols that saturate popular culture and structure its assumptions; We need, therefore, to look at

the inchoate constellations of imagery, sentiment and identification which form archeological strata in our culture, sedimented deposits of unconsidered, implicit meanings lying beneath the surface of reasoned debate. . . . They stand unanalysed behind what counts as a good story, a proper response in a crisis, and so on [Martin, in the anthology Unholy Warfare: The Church and the Bomb (Basil Blackwell. 1983) p. 1101.

Martin’s approach brings psychology back into the picture. Psychology is the basis for any study of cultural imagery, Sentiment and identification are psychological phenomena, and "archaeology" a familiar metaphor for the probing of a troubled mind.

Chernus reminds us that Christian religious culture has long hoped for rather than feared the prospect of the world’s end. Historian Perry Miller, in Errand into the Wilderness (Harvard University Press, 1956) , argues that the belief in impending world destruction has been paramount in the Christian West, and that Newtonian physics provoked a serious crisis by challenging that belief, Newton himself researched the Book of Revelation in hopes of restoring that eschatology. It follows that we, as Newton’s heirs in this century, and the builders of a mechanical doomsday system. have received society’s full authority to accomplish just that task.

Chernus also offers a solution, but sadly, it is unworkable if not dangerous. Disarmament activists, he suggests. should attempt to create in the popular mind an equation between nuclear war and hell, and disarmament and heaven. Through such a change in the cultural imagery, we could "choose our own salvation as a political as well as spiritual act" (p. 910)

This raises new problems. What if a guilty, sinful people likes the idea of hell? It distorts Christian theology to claim that we can choose salvation by disarming; even Pelagius didn’t go that far. Besides, who would believe it? In 1944, one year before the A-bomb, war and genocide alone killed hundreds of thousands. Was that heaven? Would the trumpet have sounded if the recent Iceland summit had ended differently? If people carry the ancient debate in their bones, they’re not likely to mistake a Pelagian dream -- disarmament -- for an Augustinian one -- divine redemption.

Chernus’s basic argument that we need to reorient cultural imagery is an excellent insight. It is only necessary that this be undertaken with full understanding of that imagery in all its historical complexity. Chernus is correct to suggest that churches (and, I think, psychologists and anthropologists) ought to be the ones performing this task.

In this way, we can begin to shape the final answer. It will be a type of collective therapy which, like individual therapy, relies on "reframing" the issue. In the clinic, reframing is done through words exchanged by patient and therapist. But the same term has been used in critiques of public discourse, and specifically of mass communication. Media portrayals of issues can bring the cultural subconscious to light, just as an image in a patient’s dream can bring the patient’s subconscious to light. Art can make popular culture more self-aware, as can political activity, to the extent that it helps reframe an issue. The "bounds of possible thought" about nuclear weapons may be set by the prevailing "nukespeak," as Paul Chilton has pointed out (in Nukespeak [Comedia Publishing, 1982]) But through persistent "peacespeak" they can also be expanded, much as the bounds of possible thought about race were expanded by the civil rights movement -- under the image-sensitive leadership of Christian ministers.

Political activity remains the answer, but it should aim to recast media depictions of nuclear war and peace. That may seem an old idea, but nuclear weapons are an old problem. The new element is the undespairing recognition that it is possible to minister to the soul of the people at large, beyond just helplessly reminding each other that "we" need to mend our ways.