Eastern Mennonite University


Initial conversations on Attachment theory, Anabaptism, the science of love, healthy relationships, and spirituality... brought to you by members and friends of the EMU community.

Emotion, Attachment, and Theology: How Do They Fit in the Hierarchy of the Sciences? by Nancey Murphy

Audio Recording

Response by Christian Early

Thank you Nancey for a wonderful and spirited keynote.

We need to think very differently about what it means to be human, what it means to have a sense of self, and the extension of our sense of self beyond our skin. We are having to locate it not in the space between our ears, but in the space between friends, lovers, and family members. The old picture of what it means to be human is quite simply false and the Bible got this one right too.

This has enormous consequences in the area of philosophical ethics, or how we conceive of our moral life. Ethics, from the ancient Greeks to modern folk, has assumed that the basic unit of analysis is the individual or a collective group facing a choice. Virtue theory, utilitarianism, deontological, social contract, and rational choice; it doesn’t matter which one you pick. What we are learning is that the basic unit of analysis is in fact the patterned dynamics of you and me. It is noteworthy that something like that didn’t dawn on philosophers until about the 1960s when there were enough female philosophers to get an ethic of care off the ground.

If attachment theory is true, which I believe that it is, then we are in a position to claim that love is natural. It may be possible to articulate a politics of love. I don’t know all the details of what that would look like, but it will include the insight that it is good for us to be connected, and I will bet my bottom dollar that it will look a lot like what Jesus of Nazareth called the kingdom of God as understood by the early Anabaptist movement, and articulated so elegantly and concisely by Nancey.

Bowlby’s perspective of a happy life as a series of excursions from, and back to a secure attachment, and human beings as born to connect, has consequences not only for our view of what it means to be human, but also for our view of the world and our view of God. This is not so surprising because our anthropology, our cosmology, and our theology are in tune with each other. So instead of humans as essentially selfish, the world as essentially in-hospitable, and God as essentially a judge waiting to punish or be appeased, you have a human being who is essentially born to bond, a world as essentially hospitable, and God as essentially a loving parent waiting for all of creation to come home. I don’t know what you want to call that, but I will call that Gospel. That is good news.

I wish Jim Coan was still here because I need to have a conversation with him about the fact that he thinks that he might be on the way to solving the problem of altruism. I don’t think that he takes his own findings seriously enough. I agree with him that organisms and systems are energy conserving, but for the life of me I don’t see why that has to be understood as selfish. Yes, if you look at human beings as essentially selfish, then to give of yourself is going to be puzzling and you will want to invent a term such as altruism to name that problem. By contrast, if you start from a perspective of born to bond and attunement, resonance, then when something happens and there is disharmony and conflict and yes selfish and destructive behavior – because you’ve moved from a we to a me or you – which by the way is enormously costly and exhausting no matter what strategy you use (ramping up or cutting off)…war being the most costly of them all don’t you know…then you will want to return to your most natural state which is back to a the we of resonance and the harmonious song of love.

I’m not trying to be a fairytale romantic. I’m simply saying that love moves with the grain of the universe. I’m not denying that bad things happen; I’m saying that when they do, we will want to return to our most natural state.

With the help of Bowlby, and the insights of attachment theory, we have gone from Darwin to Jesus, and I’m tempted to say that we have done so seamlessly. From this point of view, as Nancey explored so beautifully, the witness of the early Anabaptists makes a whole lot of bio-energetical sense. The moral character of God is revealed in Jesus’ vulnerable enemy love and renunciation of dominion. Imitation of Jesus constitutes a social ethic – a new way, which is actually a very old way, of peace.

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