Nuclear Absolutism and the Quest for Certainty

by G. Clarke Chapman

G. Clarke Chapman is chair of the department of religion and philosophy at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and the author of Facing the Nuclear Heresy (Brethren Press).

This article is a commentary on Peace and Certainty: A Theological Essay on Deterrence. By Oliver O’Donovan. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 17, 1990, pp. 50-52, 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.


Discerning true and false absolutes is a task that in the long haul should be accomplished by congregations.

What does nuclear deterrence have in common with (1) pacifist idealism, (2) the modern notion that warfare must be total, and (3) romanticism’s vision of history? According to Oliver O’Donovan, the common denominator is that all of these hope to suspend or close ordinary history through the impending advent of the Absolute. They long for release from the partial and ambiguous and look for the arrival of what is total and univocal. These seemingly disparate streams of influence culminate, O’Donovan contends, in the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. "Deterrence" is far more than weaponry; it is a germinal idea. It assumes that the threat of vastly disproportionate destruction will "suspend history," averting not only war but lesser conflicts, and it implies that world peace is within reach.

O’Donovan traces this idea to the early 19th century. Schleiermacher and Tolstoy mused that if warfare were transformed by superweapons or unrestrained barbarity, normal defense would become useless and so peace attainable. Such hopes gathered momentum from the pacifist reaction to World War I and from the new technology of strategic air bombardment. Both hawks and doves reasoned that war would disappear in face of the insane disproportion between armed force and any hope of resistance. Unlimited chaos was thought to be the path to peace and high-tech horror the way to a timeless paradise.

How did nuclear deterrence become plausible? O’Donovan attributes it in part to a century of world-weariness and a loss of nerve, an impatience with incremental justice and compromise. But deterrence also has a deeply religious appeal: positing the Absolute at the end of time frees us from frustrating inadequacies. Deterrence is premised on a threat so vast, so awesome, that no defense can be practical. Such limitless power is especially appealing in our secular society because it derives from science and technology. Human craft and historical destiny have converged at last to realize the dream of perpetual peace.

Sound too good to be true? Exactly, says O’Donovan, who goes on to argue that even if World War III never happens, deterrence has already failed in several ways. First, it has not allayed doubts about whether nuclear threats would actually be carried out; sooner or later someone may call the bluff. Second, since the response of those threatened remains unpredictable, the nation issuing the threat becomes "self-deterred." The result is stalemate and moral indifference. Third, the ensuing balance of terror is unstable, inviting a superpower scramble for nuclear superiority as well as subnuclear proxy wars. Fourth, an interminable arms race must follow, with no end in sight. And fifth, attempted remedies such as plans for strategic defense or for limiting targets to military objectives only increase anxiety about a first strike.

So the dream of achieving peace through the bomb is mortally flawed. Its logic rests upon supreme disproportion not only between virtually limitless power and any hope of protection but also between its goal (averting cataclysm) and its means (the threat of that very cataclysm) Such incongruity goes beyond the immoral; it approaches blasphemy -- it idolatrously confuses what is relative with what is absolute. Deterrence ranks as a religious issue by invoking absolute measures in order to protect a relative (though undeniably genuine) good: the survival of Western society and values.

It may surprise readers that O’Donovan considers deterrence rooted in utopian yearnings for the Absolute. Isn’t deterrence usually defended on antiutopian grounds? No pacifist himself, O’Donovan points out that because violence and evil can never be abolished prior to the eschaton we will always need limited military force. Nuclear deterrence obscures this task, for it is unusable. Why then is it advocated by so-called "realists"? O’Donovan mentions few names, but he does single out a British Niebuhrian, Richard Harries, along with unnamed apologists for NATO who reassure us that Western targeting policy is discriminate and proportionate. They forget, says O’Donovan, that "disproportion is not an accident of modern deterrence; it is the principle on which it is thought." These self-proclaimed realists overlook deterrence’s idealism. Ironically, they underestimate the full extent of original sin, the incessant drive toward usurping divine powers and prerogatives. Preoccupied with specific enemies, "realists" neglect to ask whether deterrence is too perilous to be used against any enemy.

O’Donovan advocates renouncing unilaterally any nuclear retaliation on cities and calls for a multilateral effort to reduce global tensions while upgrading limited war-fighting capabilities -- his own form of nonpacifist realism. Unlike many "realists," however, he keeps a vision of eschatological peace that guards against excessive pessimism about what is historically attainable.

Most significant is the way O’Donovan exposes deterrence as an absolutist and thereby religious phenomenon. Because humans have always yearned for the Absolute, monotheism must be ever vigilant against idolatry. The bomb is only the most recent surrogate for the ultimate, but it remains so even in our present moment of cold war thaw and glasnost.

Robert Jay Lifton, a research psychologist who seeks the roots of our modem fascination with mass death, also sees "nuclearism" as a secular religion. "Nuclearism," he concludes in The Broken Connection, is the passionate embrace of nuclear weapons as a solution to death anxiety and a way of restoring a lost sense of immortality" and achieving "mastery of death and evil." While Lifton traces the origins of this yearning differently than O’Donovan, for Lifton as well as O’Donovan the climax is totalism, a covert religion. The beguiling antidote to ambiguity is ultimacy: the threat of limitless chaos. For two analysts from such different disciplines, this is a striking convergence.

How can we cope with our misplaced yearning for total solution? There are in my view, three options, as represented by ecumenical theology, nuclear revisionism, and a confessing church movement.

Ecumenical Theology. Since World War II mainstream church policy statements have established a rough consensus. An early benchmark of this consensus is the 1944 report of the Calhoun Commission, convened by Robert Calhoun for the Federal Council of Churches. The group’s roster reads like a Who’s Who of mid-century U.S. Protestantism, including the Niebuhr brothers, Paul Tillich, Georgia Harkness and Douglas Steere. The commission concluded that World War II was not simply a natural fact, nor was it an act of God, nor was it directly caused by human sin; it was rather a complex event embracing all these factors. Our response must likewise be complex: to confess complicity in the war while doing whatever was necessary for an Allied victory, to acknowledge justice and heroism on both sides and to pray for strength and discernment to act rightly while dedicating our efforts to God’s will.

Given the patriotic zeal and self-righteousness of the war years, the commission’s words are admirably balanced. It reminds the home front of God’s moral sovereignty and impartiality, that goodness can result from unlikely sources, and that one is obliged nevertheless to pursue relative justice. The report is an explicit rebuttal to the fatalistic opinions, so easy in wartime, that "war is hell" (so no excess is prohibited) or that war is God’s punishment (so we are helpless, unaccountable) Rather, God is ceaselessly active for peace.

Yet this statement does not help us cope with nuclearism. The virtue of evenhandedness amid wartime passions becomes a defect in a postwar interim beset by covert idolatry; dispassionate pronouncements can even aid psychological denial. Moreover, the statement’s lack of christological focus invites an aloof and patriarchal concept of God which fails to withstand nuclearism; indeed, this concept is the very precursor of nuclearism. Finally, ecumenical theology displays little awareness of the ideological doubleagent within us -- O’Donovan’s "disproportion" or Lifton’s "totalism" that bewitches our brave efforts to be responsible.

Nuclear Revisionism. Recently some theologians have radically revised language about God to emphasize that it is solely a human responsibility to safeguard the planet. This alternative is represented by Gordon Kaufman and Sallie McFague, both of whom acknowledge the influence of Jonathan Schell’s stirring antinuclear challenge, The Fate of the Earth (1982)

Kaufman indicts two popular Christian nostrums for nuclear fears: the claim that a holocaust is inevitable because of biblical prophecy and the claim that God somehow would never permit the worst to happen. Kaufman traces both forms of fatalism to the Western belief in the Almighty, the heavenly king who rules the world but is independent from it. Such concepts are dysfunctional, he claims, in an age when our technological mastery of nature needs to be matched by conscious stewardship. In Theology in a Nuclear Age he writes that theology must redefine God as "the unifying symbol of those powers and dimensions of the ecological and historical feedback network" sustaining the fragile web of life. Little can be said about God except as an ultimate reference point that both relativizes and humanizes life. Nor is Jesus a cosmic initiator of salvation; he is simply the human example of such a dedicated life.

McFague likewise criticizes theism and insists that we know little about God. In A Metaphorical Theology she quotes Simone Weil: "There is no God in the sense that I am sure there is nothing which resembles what I can conceive when I say that word." So we mortals must choose carefully the images we apply to an ineffable god. McFague launches a cogent argument for a narrative theology tied to Jesus’ parables, the rich texture of metaphor and a feminist perspective. Her book Models of God proposes three contemporary images for the divine: God as Mother, Lover and Friend. Because such models destabilize worldly norms, are antihierarchical and embrace outsiders, they speak to our crisis in which survival depends upon greater respect for interdependence, our bodies and the global ecology.

Surely Kaufman and McFague are right to insist that conventional theism has monarchical overtones that induce passive resignation. Taken to extremes, such theism readily legitimates autocratic governments, world-denial and bodily estrangement. Such extremes, however, more aptly characterize the crass supernaturalism of the religious right then mainstream Christianity. Still, McFague in particular deserves credit for her analysis of God-concepts; they can be used to exploit an underclass, or they can be used to integrate the self.

Unlike ecumenical theology, both Kaufman and McFague recognize that nuclear absolutism requires a radical response from Christian faith. But they misdirect that response by insisting that all understanding of God is a human construct projected onto the unknown. Their preoccupation with the self-activating consciousness overlooks the possibility that God may reach us in unfathomable ways. Their images are one-sided and neglect many alternative modes of depicting genuine transcendence (as in Bonhoeffer, Moltmaun and Gilkey) And their commitment to Enlightenment presuppositions about God and the human self shrivels sin and grace to Pelagian dimensions. Yet, as O’Donovan suggests, in the nuclear age we need doctrines of sin and grace that are more robust than ever, not less.

Finally, nuclear revisionism falters because, like ecumenical theology, it is blissfully unaware of the profoundly religious attraction the bomb has, the subterranean fascinations and psychic denials that fuel our irrational plunge toward a holocaust. O’Donovan shows that no prescription that ignores this yearning for the Absolute can be effective.

A Confessing Church Movement. The remaining option is to face the nuclearist yearning directly and call the churches to a confessional response. There are precedents. Over the centuries the church has confronted many rival demands. The earliest creed, "Christ is Lord," arose to refute Caesar’s claims. Early Lutheranism found that seemingly harmless practices could, if declared essential to the gospel, become demonic. Such cases constituted a status confessionis, a special time for the church to confess its faith and reaffirm its identity.

Our century finds fresh relevance in this formal expression. In 1934 the Bar-men Declaration countered Nazi totalist pretensions within the church. The Lutheran World Federation (1977) and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (1982) have denounced as heretical South Africa’s apartheid system. Black Christians there have issued several confessional statements, including the famous Kairos Document.

Can a status confessionis be proclaimed against nuclearism? Such declarations were proposed but defeated in the Evangelical Church in (West) Germany in 1958 and 1982. In 1979 the Netherlands Reformed Church’s confession denounced deterrence as idolatry. A similar proposal was made in 1981 by the

Central Canada Synod of the Lutheran Church in America. though it did not succeed at the national LCA convention. In the U.S., Robert McAfee Brown and George Hunsinger have urged a confessing church movement. But most denominations have settled instead for pastoral letters of a moderate tone, finding them controversial enough.

Ought such a special time of confessing be proclaimed against nuclearism? Admittedly, reviving terms like heresy and orthodoxy invites self-righteousness though the confessional statements of Barmen and in South Africa show that repentance and an openness to reconciliation can be integral parts of such affirmations. Critics may also claim that a status confessionis ignores the moral ambiguities that policymakers face. Yet theology’s obligation is not to the corridors of political power but to the church’s focus on genuine ultimacy. And exposing and exorcizing false ultimates should clarify the practical choices confronting public officials. George F. Kennan’s 1981 appeal for an immediate 50 percent reduction of nuclear arsenals across the board no longer sounds so fanciful today as we enjoy a relaxation of nuclearist awe. O’Donovan suggests not only renouncing "city-busting" threats, but reducing inventories while enhancing multilateral conventional forces to maintain a just peace. To this I would add nonprovocative and civilian-based defense, international structures for conflict-resolution and remedies for Third World economic grievances.

While O’Donovan’s position approximates the "confessional response" to the bomb, his argument lacks an ecclesial base. Discerning true and false absolutes is not just the task of a few moral theologians; in the long haul it must be accomplished by congregations. We still await a confessing church movement for our time. Meanwhile, hearty thanks to O’Donovan for raising publicly the theological question that shapes national policy as well as our common life: Who is God and what do we worship?