What Bonhoeffer Really Meant by “Religionless-Worldly” Christianity

dietrich-bonhoeffer

** What follows is an adaptation of a paper I wrote this past Spring for a seminar on the theology and ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer…

 

The late prison letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer introduce some tantalizing new developments in his theology. Beginning with his letter to Eberhard Bethge dated April 30th 1944, Bonhoeffer reflects on what he sees as a “movement toward human autonomy… [meaning, the] discovery of the laws by which the world lives and manages its affairs in science, in society and government, in art, ethics, and religion.”[1] He tells Bethge that through this process the world is reaching a state of maturity in which religion will become altogether obsolete. “We are approaching a completely religionless age,” he says.[2] Of course, in and of itself this was not an altogether shocking or novel idea. Others had theorized secularization, and in this Bonhoeffer himself was following the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey.[3] What was surprising was to see it coming from the pen of a Lutheran theologian, and lauded as a profoundly positive development.[4] Moreover, it is the next step he takes that has drawn an exceptional amount of attention and consternation. From his cell in Tegel prison Bonhoeffer begins to conceptualize a “religionless Christianity” for a “world that has come of age”—for a world that no longer needs God the way that it used to (as an answer to its questions and a solution to its problems).[5] The question for him is: “How do we go about being ‘religionless-worldly’ Christians?”[6]

Unfortunately, given his circumstances, Bonhoeffer was not able to answer this question as thoroughly and as clearly as one might have hoped. He first mentions his reflections on religionless-worldly Christianity to Bethge in April of 1944. However, imprisonment understandably impeded his ability to research and write, and in less than a year he would be dead.[7] The last surviving letter from Bonhoeffer to Bethge is dated August 23rd 1944.[8] Bonhoeffer had plans to develop his ideas on religionless-worldly Christianity in book-length form. In August he even sent Bethge an outline for such a book.[9] But since he did not survive the war, this outline and his letters are all that exist from Bonhoeffer directly on this topic.

Because of the fragmentary and unsystematic nature of the material, interpretations of what Bonhoeffer meant by “religionless-worldly” Christianity have varied widely.[10] These late prison letters have been used to support communist ideology in the GDR, secularizing agendas in the UK, and the “Death of God” movement in the USA, as well as liberationist movements in South Africa and Latin America.[11] Many scholars of note (including Eberhard Bethge himself, as well as Ralf Wüstenberg, Ernst Feil, and Martin Marty) have concluded that the first three were misinterpretations of Bonhoeffer’s ideas—misinterpretations which failed to recognize the continuity of his prison theology with his earlier work.[12] Still, to this day Bonhoeffer’s prison theology is often misunderstood. In what follows I will attempt to explain what Bonhoeffer really meant by “religionless-worldly” Christianity, since I believe his reflections on this topic may be of great value to those of us in the Church who continue to wrestle with the question of what the gospel means for us today.

Bethge notes that “‘the world come of age’, is new” in Bonhoeffer’s prison theology.[24] It is, in fact, the impetus for many of his new theological developments. That being said, it must be recognized that the world come of age is not his starting point in the sense of being a foundational concept that serves as the basis for his theological agenda. That place belongs decidedly to Christology. For the purpose of this exposition, however, it makes sense to begin with the impetus.

According to Ernst Feil, it was to the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey that Bonhoeffer “owed the essential content and important assertions of his concept of the world come of age.”[25] As remarked in the introduction, this coming of age refers to a new stage in humankind’s maturity and independence that Bonhoeffer thought was just beginning to appear in his day. He writes:

The movement toward human autonomy (by which I mean discovery of the laws by which the world lives and manages its affairs in science, in society and government, in art, ethics, and religion), which began around the thirteenth century (I don’t want to get involved in disputing exactly when), has reached a certain completeness in our age. Human beings have learned to manage all important issues by themselves, without recourse to “Working hypothesis: God.” In questions of science or art, as well as in ethical questions, this has become a matter of course…But in the last hundred years or so, this has also become increasingly true of religious questions; it’s becoming evident that everything gets along without “God” and does so just as well as before.[26]

In Bonhoeffer’s eyes, human beings were getting to a place where they no longer needed “God” in the way that they used to—namely, as a “working hypothesis.”[27] They no longer needed God for answering their questions and overcoming their weaknesses. And so, he says, “we are now approaching a completely religionless age.”[28]

The interesting thing is that Bonhoeffer considers this a promising development for Christianity and for Christian theology. His assessment of it is thoroughly positive, and not because he has any interest in moving away from his faith. He says: “The world come of age is more god-less and perhaps just because of that closer to God than the world not yet come of age.”[29] In order to understand this one has to recognize, with Wüstenberg, that Bonhoeffer is here combining “Dilthey’s historical argument” with “a critique of religion” that he inherited from Karl Barth.[30]

When Bonhoeffer criticizes “religion” he is criticizing “human activities to reach the beyond.”[31] The problem with human activities to reach the beyond is that they have all been invalidated by the Beyond’s activities to reach humans; and in any case, all such activities are utterly futile. Bonhoeffer’s teacher, Reinhold Seeberg, had postulated a “religious a priori”—an innate capacity in human beings by which “the distance between God and human beings was bridged.”[32] But ever since his early encounters with Barth, Bonhoeffer was convinced that “if human beings and God are to come together, there is but one way, namely, the way from God to human beings.”[33] This quotation is taken from a lecture Bonhoeffer gave to his German congregation in Barcelona in 1928. In this lecture he argues that when God came to human beings in Christ, and particularly to those who made “no claims” upon him (i.e. children, sinners, and social outcasts), all human attempts to reach God were forever invalidated.[34] He concludes: “Thus the Christian message is basically amoral and irreligious.”[35]

With the influence of Barth and Feuerbach, Bonhoeffer came to see the gods which human beings find at the end of their religious strivings as mere projections, fabrications that serve to answer their as yet unanswered questions, to console them in their weakness and their limitation.[36] In the end the resulting theologies say more about the people who cling to them than they do about God. Such theology is in fact anthropology.[37] In the pivotal letter from April 30th, Bonhoeffer observes:

Religious people speak of God at a point where human knowledge is at an end (or sometimes when they’re too lazy to think further), or when human strength fails. Actually, it’s a deus ex machina that they’re always bringing on the scene, either to appear to solve insoluble problems or to provide strength when human powers fail, and thus always exploiting human weakness or human limitation.[38]

This “deus ex machina” is a god-of-the-gaps, a “stopgap for the incompleteness of our knowledge” and control.[39] It is god as a “working hypothesis”—a hypothesis that is needed less and less as human understanding grows, and which is therefore being “pushed further and further out of our life, losing ground.”[40]

Those in the Church, and in theological circles, who lament this coming of age try to convince people that they are still in need—that they “cannot live without ‘God.’”[41] “But if people cannot successfully be made to regard their happiness as disastrous, their health as sickness, and their vitality as an object of despair, then the theologians are at their wits’ end.”[42] These theologians assume that God resides in the gaps, and so they try to find remaining areas of human ignorance, weakness, or need, in the hope that they might still be able to squeeze “God” in somewhere.[43] Their work is still essentially about “exploiting human weakness,” or whatever is left of it.[44] They have bought into the faulty assumption that human weakness is the problem and divine power is the solution.[45] “This,” Bohoeffer says, “is the attitude I am contending against.”[46]

In rejecting the deus ex machina, Bonhoeffer does not mean to imply that human beings are not truly in need, or that God does not in fact meet human needs. He is only trying to point out that when human beings make their felt needs the basis for their relationship to God, the god they end up with is generally an idol. Citing the Apostle Paul’s conversion, Bonhoeffer points out that “his encounter with Jesus preceded the recognition of his sins.”[47] One remark from his Ethics is especially helpful here. It says that God’s “word is not an answer to human questions and problems, but the divine answer to the divine question addressed to human beings. His word is essentially determined not from below but from above; it is not a solution [Lösung] but redemption [Erlösung].[48]

In addition to its seeking a deus ex machina, Bethge notes four other important features of the “religion” that Bonhoeffer is rejecting.[49] For starters, it is both individualistic and metaphysical.[50] It is individualistic in the sense that it concerns itself primarily with the saving of one’s own soul, while “the world is left to its own devices…to rely on itself.”[51] Redemption is thus understood as “being redeemed out of sorrows, hardships, anxieties, and longings, out of sin and death, in a better life beyond.”[52] This “better life beyond” is then what he means by metaphysical.[53] Metaphysical religiosity “secures the escape the religious desire wants to have” by placing the source of hope in some other-worldly reality.[54] He also takes issue with the fact that religion had become a matter of privilege, serving to divide rather than unite.[55] And finally, Bonhoeffer rejects religion because religion is too provincial.[56] That is, religion is merely “a sector of the whole” of life—one sector out of many that is distinct from the others in that in this sector one supposedly deals with God.[57]

According to Bonhoeffer, “the time for this religion is essentially over.”[58] He takes this religion to be “a historically conditioned and transitory form of human expression”—one which has all but disappeared in the world come of age.[59] For Christians, this disappearing of religion is not something to be mourned or resisted. If anything, it is something to be encouraged. Bethge points out that, for Bonhoeffer, the disappearing of religion is in fact “the necessary business of Christianity. Its promise lies in throwing out all idolatries.”[60] The impetus for throwing out idolatries may have come from the Enlightenment; and Bonhoeffer is grateful for this impetus. [61] But it is important to remember that the Enlightenment (i.e. the world’s coming of age) is not the basis for his rejection of religion. That basis is Christology.

He rejects the deus ex machina because in Christ one finds that God does not present Godself as the all-powerful solution to human problems. Rather, “God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us…Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence but rather by virtue of his weakness and suffering!”[62] To those whose belief in God consists in a general belief in an omnipotent being, Bonhoeffer says, “that is not a genuine experience of God but just a prolongation of a piece of the world.”[63] It is merely taking what human beings know of power and extending it ad infinitum. He does not want to speak metaphysically, in terms of some other-worldly realm, because God has revealed Godself in this world. He does not want to speak provincially or individualistically, because in Christ God has embraced the world in its entirety. “Jesus claims all of human life.”[64] And so what Bonhoeffer wants to know is: “How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?”[65] God is not circumscribed by religion, nor relegated to the boundaries of human knowledge and control. Religionless Christianity is about finding God “not at the boundaries but in the center, not in weakness but in strength, thus not in death and guilt but in human life and human goodness.”[66]

At this point it becomes clear that on the other side of Bonhoeffer’s rejection of religion is an affirmation of worldliness. The basis for “this-worldliness” is again firmly Christological; and Bonhoeffer thinks it is certainly more biblical than its opposite (i.e. metaphysical religiosity).[67] Consider this illuminating passage from his letter to Bethge on June 27th:

Christians do not have an ultimate escape route out of their earthly tasks and difficulties into eternity. Like Christ (“My God … why have you forsaken me?” [Matt. 27:46; Ps. 22:1]), they have to drink the cup of earthly life to the last drop, and only when they do this is the Crucified and Risen One with them, and they are crucified and resurrected with Christ. This-worldliness must not be abolished ahead of its time; on this, NT and OT are united.[68]

This world matters. It matters because in Christ God has taken the world upon Godself. Those who would truly follow Christ cannot then set out to escape from the world. To run from the world would be to run from the very place where God has revealed Godself.

To understand all this it is crucial to note the Christological ontology that Bonhoeffer has up and running. Gerhard Ebeling recognizes its centrality: „Deshalb ist für Bonhoeffers christologischen Ansatz die Aussage grundlegend, daß in Christus die Wirklichkeit Gottes und die Wirklichkeit der Welt eine Wirklichkeit ist” (Therefore, the assertion is fundamental for Bonhoeffer’s theological approach, that in Christ the reality of God and the reality of the world is one reality).[69] In Christ God and the world have been brought together, so that it is it impossible to deal with one without also dealing with the other. Bonhoeffer brings this out explicitly in “Ethics as Formation”:

Only because there is one place where God and the reality of the world are reconciled with each other, at which God and humanity have become one, is it possible there and there alone to fix one’s eyes on God and the world together at the same time. This place does not lie somewhere beyond reality in the realm of ideas. It lies in the midst of history as a divine miracle. It lies in Jesus Christ the reconciler of the world…Whoever looks at Jesus Christ sees in fact God and the world in one. From then on they can no longer see God without the world, or the world without God.[70]

When one recognizes this ontology at work in the background of Bonhoeffer’s prison theology, it becomes clear that his notion of a “religionless-worldly” Christianity is not about turning away from God; it is about turning towards God in the one place where God and the world are together revealed and reconciled.[71]

His statements regarding the relocation of transcendence in the late letters follow directly from this. Because God and the world have been brought together in Christ, because in him they are in fact “one reality,” Bonhoeffer insists: “That which is beyond consists not of things infinitely distant but of things closest at hand.”[72] With this one move Bonhoeffer rules out all individualistic and other-worldly theology that would write off the world as enemy or as lost cause, all provincialism that would presume God’s limitation to a particular bounded space, and all deus ex machina theology that would bring in God to conveniently fill the gaps in human power and understanding while excluding God from the areas of human competency.

“Our relationship to God,” he says, “is no ‘religious’ relationship to some highest, most powerful, and best being imaginable—that is no genuine transcendence.”[73] That is not how God has revealed Godself. God is not the almighty one whose omnipotence is revealed as the solution to human weakness.[74] “The God of the Bible,” rather, is the one “who gains ground and power in the world by being powerless.”[75] God is the one who saves, not from, but through weakness and suffering—through taking the sufferings of the world upon Godself in Christ. In Christ God is revealed in the world as the “being-for-others”—and so it is in concrete others, in the world, that God may be found.[76] That is where true transcendence lies. “The transcendent is not the infinite, unattainable tasks, but the neighbor within reach in any given situation. God in human form!”[77]

The “this-worldliness” of Christianity follows necessarily from the fact that God and the world have been brought together in Christ.[78] Since one “can no longer see God without the world, or the world without God,” the world is afforded ultimate significance.[79] It does not have this significance in and of itself, but only through its being united with God in Christ. The world is the “penultimate” of which Bonhoeffer speaks in the Ethics—the “penultimate” which “becomes what it is only through the ultimate [i.e. through God to whom it is united].”[80] When Christ takes the world upon himself, along with all its “tasks, successes and failures, experiences, and perplexities,” he gives it its true nature. The world is in truth what the world is in Christ. “Now,” Bonhoeffer says, “there is no more godlessness, hate, or sin that God has not taken upon himself, suffered, and atoned. Now there is no longer any reality, any world, that is not reconciled with God and at peace.”[81]

So if Christians would deal with God they have no choice but to deal with the world. But they must deal with the world as it is dealt with by God—that is, both in the manner of God’s dealing with the world and in and with God’s very own dealing. In Christ God has encountered the world as the “being-for-others.” “Faith,” then, “is participating in this being of Jesus.”[82] Being a Christian is not something provincial; it deals with the whole of life. “It means being human” in the way that God intends one to be human, that is, selflessly being-for-others. To be human as humanity is found in Christ is not to think “first of one’s own needs, questions, sins and fears,” but rather “to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world.”[83] It means giving up all attempts at “making something of oneself,” and simply engaging the world for its sake and for God’s sake, under the promise that the two have become one in Christ.[84] In his outline for the book he was never able to write, Bonhoeffer says, “our relationship to God is a new life in ‘being there for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus.”[85] Note that this is more than mere emulation; it is participation. All human being-for-others is in fact partaking in Christ’s being-for-others.

Bonhoeffer summarizes his thoughts: “One may say that the previously described development toward the world’s coming of age, which has cleared the way by eliminating a false notion of God, frees us to see the God of the Bible, who gains ground and power in the world by being powerless.”[87] This God is revealed in the world in Christ, as the “being-for-others”—as the God who takes the sufferings of the world upon Godself.[88] Christians are then those who go to God where God may be found—in the concrete “neighbor within reach”—are caught up in God’s own “being-for-others,” and thereby come to share in “the suffering of God in the world.”[89] In this they are “pulled along into the—messianic—suffering of God in Jesus Christ,” and Christ is present to them.[90] This is what Bonhoeffer’s “religionless-worldly” Christianity is really about.

 

 

Citations:

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 425.

[2] Ibid., 362.

[3] Ralf K. Wüstenberg, “Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Tegel Theology” in Bonhoeffer for a New Day: Theology in a Time of Transition, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eardmans Publishing, 1997), 65.

[4] Eberhard Bethge, “The Challenge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life and Theology” in World Come of Age: A Symposium on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Ronald Gregor Smith (London: Collins, 1967), 77.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 363, 451, 425-426.

[6] Ibid., 364.

[7] Renate Wind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992), 180.

[8] John W. de Gruchy, “Editor’s Introduction to the English Edition” in Letters and Papers from Prison, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 17.

[9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 498-504.

[10] Ibid., 364.

[11] Ibid., 74-82, 108-132.

[12] Ibid., 65-68, 233-235.

[13] Ibid., 364.

[14] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, DBWE, Vol. 6 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 246-298.

[15] Ernst Feil, The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, trans. Martin Rumscheidt (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985), 159.

[16] Eberhard Bethge, “The Challenge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life and Theology” in World Come of Age: A Symposium on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Ronald Gregor Smith (London: Collins, 1967), 76.

[17] Ernst Feil, The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, trans. Martin Rumscheidt (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985), 161; Ralf K. Wüstenberg, “Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Tegel Theology” in Bonhoeffer for a New Day: Theology in a Time of Transition, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 59; Eberhard Bethge, “The Challenge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life and Theology” in World Come of Age: A Symposium on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Ronald Gregor Smith (London: Collins, 1967), 79.

[18] Ibid., 68.

[19] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 518.

[20] Ibid., 364.

[21] Ibid., 364.

[22] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, DBWE, Vol. 6 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 246-298; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 364.

[23] Ibid., 364.

[24] Eberhard Bethge, “The Challenge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life and Theology” in World Come of Age: A Symposium on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Ronald Gregor Smith (London: Collins, 1967), 77.

[25] Ernst Feil, The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, trans. Martin Rumscheidt (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985), 178.

[26] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 425-426.

[27] Ibid., 425.

[28] Ibid., 362.

[29] Ibid., 482.

[30] Ralf K. Wüstenberg, “Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Tegel Theology” in Bonhoeffer for a New Day: Theology in a Time of Transition, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 66-67.

[31] Eberhard Bethge, “The Challenge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life and Theology” in World Come of Age: A Symposium on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Ronald Gregor Smith (London: Collins, 1967), 79.

[32] Ralf K. Wüstenberg, “Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Tegel Theology” in Bonhoeffer for a New Day: Theology in a Time of Transition, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 62-63.

[33] Dietrich Bohoeffer, “Jesus Christ and the Essence of Christianity” in Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931, DBWE, vol. 10, ed. Clifford J. Green (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), 353.

[34] Ibid., 353.

[35] Ibid., 353-354. Emphasis mine.

[36] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 478.

[37] Ralf K. Wüstenberg, “Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Tegel Theology” in Bonhoeffer for a New Day: Theology in a Time of Transition, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 63.

[38] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 366.

[39] Ibid., 366, 405-406,

[40] Ibid., 425-426.

[41] Ibid., 426-427.

[42] Ibid., 450.

[43] Ibid., 457.

[44] Ibid., 366.

[45] Ibid., 479.

[46] Ibid., 450.

[47] Ibid., 451.

[48] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, DBWE, Vol. 6 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 354.

[49] Eberhard Bethge, “The Challenge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life and Theology” in World Come of Age: A Symposium on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Ronald Gregor Smith (London: Collins, 1967), 79-80.

[50] Ibid., 79; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 372-373.

[51] Ibid., 373.

[52] Ibid., 447.

[53] Ibid., 447, 372.

[54] Eberhard Bethge, “The Challenge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life and Theology” in World Come of Age: A Symposium on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Ronald Gregor Smith (London: Collins, 1967), 79.

[55] Ibid., 80.

[56] Ibid., 79.

[57] Ibid., 79.

[58] Ibid., 80.

[59] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 363.

[60] Eberhard Bethge, “The Challenge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life and Theology” in World Come of Age: A Symposium on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Ronald Gregor Smith (London: Collins, 1967), 77.

[61] Eberhard Bethge, “The Challenge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life and Theology” in World Come of Age: A Symposium on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Ronald Gregor Smith (London: Collins, 1967), 77.

[62] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 479.

[63] Ibid., 501.

[64] Ibid., 451.

[65] Ibid., 363.

[66] Ibid., 366-367.

[67] Ibid., 448.

[68] Ibid., 447-448.

[69] Gerhard Ebeling, “Die ‘nicht-religiöse Interpretation biblischer Begriffe,’” Zeitschrift Für Theologie Und Kirche 52 (1955): 355-356.

[70] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, DBWE, Vol. 6 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 82.

[71] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 364.

[72] Gerhard Ebeling, “Die ‘nicht-religiöse Interpretation biblischer Begriffe,’” Zeitschrift Für Theologie Und Kirche 52 (1955): 356; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 495.

[73] Ibid., 501.

[74] Ibid., 479.

[75] Ibid., 479-480.

[76] Ibid., 501.

[77] Ibid., 501.

[78] Ibid., 485.

[79] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, DBWE, Vol. 6 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 82.

[80] Ibid., 159.

[81] Ibid., 83.

[82] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE, Vol. 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 501.

[83] Ibid., 480.

[84] Ibid., 487, 501.

[85] Ibid., 501.

[86] Ibid., 364.

[87] Ibid., 479-480.

[88] Ibid., 501, 479-480.

[89] Ibid., 501, 486-487.

[90] Ibid., 481.

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Towards a Better Understanding of Intellectualism: What it Does and Does Not Entail

In a number of recent courses, my fellow students and I have been challenged to reconsider our default volunteristic conceptions of free will (both as applied to human beings and as applied to God), and to consider adopting an intellectualist understanding in its place.

For most of us, voluntarism is a deeply ingrained habit of thought which is difficult to break out of (even momentarily for the sake of trying on intellectualism as an academic exercise).

In the interest of helping us all break out of our volunteristic cocoons (even if only momentarily for the sake of a better understanding), I offer the following insights from my own attempts.

First, quick definitions:

Volunterism: Will is independent of judgment. This means that in any given situation a range of truly possible options lies before us, and we are not determined to choose one over all the others. We don’t inevitably will what we judge to be best.

Intellectualism: Will follows upon judgment. This means that in any given situation we are determined to take a particular course of action. Only one course of action is truly possible. We inevitably will what we judge to be best.

Now, to my two cents:

Because it’s difficult for most of us to really try on intellectualism wholesale, often we think we’re there, but we’ve only really gotten part way. There are places where we are still unconsciously thinking like volunterists. And when that happens misconceptions arise. I will address two that I have seen.

First, thoroughgoing intellectualists do not suppose that, because individual human beings do not choose between a range of possible options in their deciding, they are therefore bypassed in the decision making process, or that the decisions they make are not really and truly their own.

To suppose this would be to suppose that there is something to individual human beings besides the definite form and existence given to them by God, and by all the forces and factors that we would call either nature or nurture. It would be to suppose that there was some part of them that was not only a se, but arbitrary, entirely without reason, a roll of the dice. It is when we are still thinking volunteristically that we suppose this.

Rather, thoroughgoing intellectualists suppose that every individual human being has a definite form and existence, given to them by God, and by all the forces and factors that we would call either nature or nurture, and that the decisions they make in the world are rooted in that definite form and existence (and could not, therefore, be other than they are). Their decisions are then their own in the deepest possible sense. They are in no way bypassed in the decision making process.

Second, and in the same way, thoroughgoing intellectualists do not suppose that, since God does not choose between a range of options in creating and sustaining the world, God is therefore restricted in any way. They do suppose that God has limits, but since these limits are not imposed from the outside they are not restrictions but self-determinations. In this, thoroughgoing intellectualists merely suppose that God too has a definite form and existence, that God is not arbitrary, but is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8), and that out of his immutable being come immutable decrees.

So, from an intellectualist position, your choices are very real. They have consequences, and you are responsible for them. And God is not restricted, but acts freely out of his immutable being.

I hope this is clear, and helpful for others besides myself. Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments if you have any questions or considerations.

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A Hymn for Good Friday

Go to dark Gethsemane, you that feel the temptor’s power;

Your Redeemer’s conflict see, Watch with him one bitter hour.

Turn not from his griefs away; learn of Jesus Christ to pray.

 

See him at the judgment hall, beaten, bound, reviled, arraigned;

O the worm-wood and the Gall! O the pangs his soul sustained!

Shun not suffering, shame, or loss; learn of Christ to bear the cross.

 

Calvary’s mournful mountain climb; there, adoring at his feet,

Mark that miracle of time, God’s own sacrifice complete.

“It is finished!” hear him cry; learn of Jesus Christ to die.

 

Early hasten to the tomb where they laid his breathless clay;

All is solitude and gloom. Who has taken him away?

Christ is risen! He meets our eyes; Savior, teach us so to rise.

 

– James Montgomery

 

 

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A Brief Reflection on Hell: Sermon on Matthew 13:47-50

**The following is a short sermon I gave last week on Matthew 13:47-50. This certainly isn’t a text I would have chosen for myself; but apparently lectionaries have a way of making us deal with texts we would avoid if given the chance. The up side is that I was forced to think through how I might articulate my views on hell and two-fold judgment in under 10 minutes.

 

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. (Ps. 19:14)

 

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mt. 13:47-50)

If you’re like me, sometimes when you open your Bible you find texts that encourage you, assure you, and inspire you–

Texts like Ps. 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul.”

Or, like the end of Rom. 8:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

But other times, when you open your Bible you find texts that (if you’re being honest with yourself) you really wish weren’t there.

That’s how I felt when I looked at this evening’s Gospel passage.

This is what the kingdom of heaven is like…
The bad fish are separated from the good fish (the evil from the righteous), and thrown into the “furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Not exactly the kind of thing that makes its way into greeting cards.

I don’t like texts like this.
I don’t like them because just when I think I’m starting to get a clear picture of who God is and what God is up to, a text like this one comes along to screw it up.

And quite frankly, in texts like this one (and there are a few)
God looks unmerciful and arbitrary.

Didn’t the Apostle Paul say:
“There is no one who is righteous, not even one”!?
I thought we were all in the same boat–
A sinking boat,
But in it together nonetheless.

I thought there was no such thing as deserving the kingdom of heaven,
That we were saved by God’s grace,
That “while we were yet sinners
[yet unrighteous,
yet bad fish]
Christ died for us.”

Traditionally, theologians have said:
“Yes, yes, on our own we are all bad fish,
all unrighteous, all doomed to the furnace of fire;
But Christ chose to have mercy on us and save us,
And in the process we become righteous, we become good fish…
But not all of us.”

And there’s the catch.
The majority view throughout Christian history has been that God doesn’t save everyone–
That many will remain bad fish (and be discarded as such),
That the kingdom of heaven is only for some.

There has also been a minority view running through most of Christian history, a view which takes texts like Romans 11:32, Titus 2:11, and Col 1:20 very seriously:

“For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”

“And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

Those who have taken this minority view believe that when the Bible says “all” it really means all,
That texts like these carry some serious weight,
And that however real hell may be for some people in the present,
However much weeping and gnashing of teeth we may now endure,
It will not last forever–not for any of us.

They believe that grace will have the last word,
That in the end all will be made new, and we will all be good fish.

There was a 20th century theologian whose name I’ve always envied—
Hans Urs von Balthasar.
I really appreciate his assessment of all this.

He says that “in the New Testament,
[these] two series of statements run along side by side in such a way that a synthesis of both in neither permissible nor achievable: the first series speaks of being lost for all eternity; the second, of God’s will, and ability, to save all.”

We can’t synthesize these two series of statements;
And I don’t want to throw either of them away.

Well ok, maybe I do.
But I don’t think that would be the right move to make.

I know that these texts are thoroughly human.
Even in their inspiration,
They aren’t divinized.

But if I dismissed a text, or a series of texts,
As being “merely human,”
Or at least “too human” to be of value to us,
Then I’d be assuming that the humanity of the Bible somehow limited God’s ability to speak in and through it.

And I don’t think that’s the case.

I think God speaks in these human texts precisely as the human texts that they are.
Miraculously, of course,
But I think that’s what happens.

This doesn’t mean that God shares all the same assumptions as the authors of Scripture;
It just means that God meets us, and has something important to say to us, in their words.

Also, if I was to start picking through the Bible, saying:
“I’ll take this bit, this looks good to me, this looks divine;
But I’ll leave that bit, that’s just archaic…”
And so on, all the way through,
I’d probably end up with a God who looked suspiciously like myself,
A God of my own making.

It would be very convenient.
This god would like who I like,
Dislike who I dislike,
Vote for who I vote for.

It’d be great.
But it’d be a lie;
And a dangerous one.

This god would be an idol,
Made in my own image and cast into eternity,
A way of giving divine status to my subjective opinions.
And that is a profoundly bad idea.

So I think it’s best to assume that God is at work in all of these texts, even if we can’t always see how.

I don’t know what will happen in the end.

I don’t know if the kingdom of heaven will ultimately be enjoyed by all.
But there is certainly sufficient reason to leave the question open in hope.

Texts like this evening’s parable from Matthew remind me that the God who is at work in the world, and in these Scriptures, is not a God of my own choosing.

When I open my Bible to passages like this one I am confronted with the fact that the God to whom I pray is, in many ways,
A dark, mysterious, and unknown other.

His thoughts are not my thoughts;
His ways are not my ways.
He is utterly out of my control.

But to leave it at that and say no more would be wrong.
That is because this unknowable God has (in a very real sense) made himself known.
Jesus’ said: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

In Jesus,
We see that God’s love, even for the bad fish,
Is a love that far exceeds our own.

We see that there is no length to which God will not go to save his children—
Even the unruly and hostile ones.

Luther said that in Jesus God went so far as to become “the one Great sinner.”

He became the one bad fish,
Who went himself into the furnace of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth,
And overcame it on our behalf.

If that doesn’t constitute grounds for hope, then I don’t know what would.

This is a God who will confuse us,
And even offend us at times–
There is no getting around it.
And yet this is a God in whom we can place our trust and our hope.

Amen.

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The Gracious Judgment of the God-Man: Sermon for Trinity Church Princeton (delivered 2/2/2014)

Texts: Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 2:22-38; Hebrews 2:14-18

The day Mary and Joseph brought their son up to Jerusalem was the day the Lord finally came to his temple.

This was the day that the prophet Malachi looked forward to—that Simeon was blessed to see before he died.[1]

 

It was a momentous day.

But, interestingly, most of the people who were there that day probably didn’t even notice.

They didn’t notice because the Lord came as a poor boy from a small town.

“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”[2]

In fact, he was “like his brothers and sisters in every respect,”

and it was precisely as such that he was their savior—our savior.[3]

 

But why?

Why did the Lord come as a poor boy from a small town?

Why did the savior share in flesh and blood?[4]

Why did God become human?

 

The kind of savior that Malachi needed, that Simeon needed, and that we need,

is a judge.

When we encounter evil and injustice, when we see the damage it causes,

we want a God to whom we can pray with the psalmist:

“Rise up, O Lord, confront them, overthrow them! By the power of your sword deliver my life from the wicked!”[5]

 

When half the world’s population scrapes by on 1% of the world’s wealth,

we need a savior who is a judge.

When the natural resources that tomorrow’s generations will depend upon are being decimated to satisfy today’s greed,

we need a savior who is a judge.

The world can be made right only if evil and injustice are confronted and overthrown,

only if the Lord delivers us from the wicked.

 

But it isn’t quite that simple, is it?

Malachi, along with the other prophets, points out that the people of God are themselves part of the problem.

Through Malachi the Lord says to his people: “Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them.”[6]

Isaiah before him said that “everyone was godless and an evildoer, and every mouth spoke folly.”[7]

 

Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20th century ethicist and theologian, saw that the question left to us by the prophets was the question of

“how history can be anything more than judgment.”[8]

 

In the days of the prophets, some Jews reasoned that since God had made his covenant with them, they must somehow be better than their neighbors, more worthy and less deserving of judgment.

But to this the prophets replied with a resounding, NO!

 

Those crying out to God for deliverance from the wicked were themselves wicked.

They too were part of the problem, and needed to be confronted and overthrown if the world was to be made right.

 

We pray to God, “deliver us from evil,”

but we ourselves are evil.

We too are part of the problem, and we need to be confronted and overthrown if the world is to be made right. [9]

 

We need a savior who is a judge,

but we cannot escape his judgment.

 

We need a savior who is a judge—

“but,” Malachi asks, “who can endure the day of his coming,

and who can stand when he appears?”[10]

How can history “be anything more than judgment”?[11]

 

This is where the prophets leave us, and where the New Testament picks up.

 

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul echoes what the prophets said before him.

Quoting from the Psalms, he says,

“There is no one who is righteous,

not even one;

there is no one who has understanding,

there is no one who seeks God.

All have turned aside,

together they have become worthless;

there is no one who shows kindness,

there is not even one.”[12]

 

The 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth envisioned this as a world in freefall,

 

“rushing headlong into nothingness, into eternal death.

Of itself it is not capable of any counter-movement to arrest this fall…

On the contrary, of its own will and ability it makes only such movements as serve to repeat the origin of its fall, which is sin, and to accelerate its headlong course to the abyss.”[13]

 

“Who can stand when [the Lord] appears?”[14]

 

“No one…

not even one.”[15]

 

The question of “how history can be anything more than judgment” is the question of how a counter-movement can be made “to arrest this fall.”[16]

 

We need a savior who is a judge, but this alone is not enough.

 

We need a savior who plunges headlong after us,

who meets us where we are,

who shares our peril,

who makes our distresses his own,

we need a God who becomes human—

 

not so that we might escape judgment,

but so that after judgment there might be something more,

so that after judgment there might be affirmation.

 

Our passage from the book of Hebrews tells us that the Lord chose to share in flesh and blood,

“so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death,

that is, the devil,

and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”[17]

 

“There is no reservation in respect of His solidarity with us,” Barth says.[18]

Rather, he became our brother,

“threatened with [us],

harassed and assaulted with [us],

with [us] in the stream which hurries downwards to the abyss,

hastening with [us] to death,

to the cessation of being and nothingness.

With [us] he cries—knowing far better than any other how much reason there is to cry: ‘My God, my God,

why hast thou forsaken me?’”[19]

 

We are not alone.

Even in the darkest times, when our suffering makes us feel most isolated,

God is with us,

he feels it too.

 

This is why God became human.

But there is more that needs to be said.

 

The Lord came to his temple as a poor boy from a small town,

as human as can be.

He chose to share our frailty,

our plight,

our peril.

He came as the judge (for we needed a judge),

but if we would not escape judgment, then neither would he.

 

In becoming human God threw his lot in with us.

He joined us to himself so that our fate would be his, and his fate would be ours.

 

In coming to us as human,

God shows us what it means to be human,

what it means to be truly alive.

 

According to John’s gospel,

he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”[20]

“What has come into being in him was life,

and the life was the light of all people.”[21]

 

Commenting on this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that,

“Life is not a thing, an essence, or a concept, but a person.”[22]

 

Jesus is life.

Life is revealed in him,

Your life, my life, are found in him.

 

And in this revelation we and our world are judged.

In this life, which is “the light of all people,”

we are confronted and overthrown.[23]

 

We see that the life we’ve been living is not really life after all.

“We recognize,” says Bonhoeffer,

“that we have fallen from life…

that we live in contradiction to life.”[24]

 

Although our life is found in Jesus,

we are constantly seeking it in ourselves,

and in the process we have only held life at bay.

 

We have revolted against the true judge,

taking the role of judge upon ourselves,

pronouncing ourselves and others worthy or not worthy on the basis of our performance—

on the basis our academic achievements,

our professional advancements,

on whether we are a good husband or wife,

mother or father,

brother, sister, or friend.

 

These are all good things of course,

and we should want to perform well in these areas.

But when we are judged on the basis of our performance,

our performance inevitably becomes, to some degree, an attempt at self-justification.

We are not free to seek the good of others simply for its own sake,

because everything we do is done, to some extent, for ourselves.

 

When we seek our life in ourselves,

when we judge ourselves and others on the basis of our performance,

all that we do is on some level motivated by an anxiety that unless we ______ (fill in the blank),

our life will have been a failure.

We are “held in slavery by the fear of death.”[25]

 

When God comes to us as human,

When Jesus confronts us,

We are, at one and the same time, both judged and liberated.

 

Our life, which we have sought in ourselves, is revealed for what it is:

a pseudo-life which is, at the end of the day, merely death.

Christ, as judge, rejects this pseudo-life.

And this judgment serves the end of grace.

It is precisely as our judge that Christ is our savior.

 

Bonhoeffer writes:

“The No spoken over our fallen life means that it cannot become the life that is Jesus Christ without its own end, annihilation, and death.

The No that we hear brings about this death.

However, by killing us, the No becomes a hidden Yes to a new life,

to the life that is Jesus Christ.

Christ is the life that we cannot give ourselves,

but which comes to us completely from the outside,

completely from beyond ourselves.”[26]

 

We have all reached for the forbidden fruit.

We have all revolted against the true judge by presuming to be judges ourselves—

by presuming to be gods ourselves.[27]

And the life we live as a result is a fallen life, a pseudo-life.

And this life must end.

 

“There is no one who is righteous,

not even one.”[28]

 

Not one of us can endure the day of the Lord’s coming.

Not one of us can stand when he appears.[29]

 

History is certainly nothing less than judgment;

but by the grace of God in Jesus Christ it may be something more.[30]

God became human,

threw his lot in with us,

even died with us,

so that death might not have the last word.

 

Barth writes:

“It had to come to the point of our perishing,

our destruction,

our fall into nothingness,

our death.

Everything happened to us exactly as it had to happen,

but because God willed to execute His judgment on us in His Son

it all happened in His person,

as His accusation and condemnation and destruction.

He judged, and it was the Judge who was judged, who let Himself be judged.”[31]

 

“Whoever has died is freed from sin,” says the Apostle Paul.

And since “we have died with Christ,

we believe that we will also live with him.”[32]

 

Our hope is not that we will escape judgment.

In fact, we can’t hope to be freed without it,

without our pseudo-life being brought to an end.

 

Our hope is in the promise that God’s judgment serves a gracious end.

 

Our hope, as Bonhoeffer writes,

is that “by killing us, the No becomes a hidden Yes to a new life,

to the life that is Jesus Christ.”

Our hope is that through death he has destroyed the one who has the power of death, and has set us free.[33]

 

This is a resurrection hope:

the hope that because God became human,

sharing fully in our fate,

we in turn may share his—

and live a new life,

as sons and daughters of God into eternity.

 

Amen.



[1] Lk. 2:22-32; Mal. 3:1

[2] Isa. 53:2

[3] Heb. 2:17

[4] Heb. 2:14

[5] Ps. 17:13

[6] Mal. 3:7

[7] Isa. 9:17

[8] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. II: Human Destiny (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 27.

[9] Ps. 17:13

[10] Mal. 3:2

[11] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. II: Human Destiny (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 27.

 

[12] Rom. 3:10-12

[13] Karl Barth, CD IV/1 §59.2, p. 213.

[14] Mal. 3:2

[15] Rom. 3:10

[16] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. II: Human Destiny (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 27; Karl Barth, CD IV/1 §59.2, p. 213.

[17] Heb. 2:14-15

[18] Karl Barth, CD IV/1 §59.2, p. 215

[19] Ibid.

[20] Jn. 14:6

[21] Jn. 1:3-4

[22] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 248-249.

[23] Jn. 1:3-4; Ps. 17:13

[24] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 250.

[25] Heb. 2:15

[26] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 250.

[27] Karl Barth, CD IV/1 §59, p. 220.

[28] Rom. 3:9

[29] Mal. 3:2

[30] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. II: Human Destiny (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 27.

[31] Karl Barth, CD IV/1 §59, p. 222.

[32] Rom. 6:7-8

[33] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 250; Heb. 2:14-15

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Looking Back to See Ahead: Sermon on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 (Delivered at Trinity Church Princeton 11/10/13)

“As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?… But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sistersbeloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruitsfor salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news,so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters,stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”

– 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

 

In today’s reading from Second Thessalonians we see a Christian community that is enduring persecution and affliction.[1] The days are dark; but they are hoping that the end is near. They are hoping that at any moment their Lord will return, bringing light where there is darkness, justice where there is injustice, joy where there is sorrow. They know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and although they can’t quite see it from where they stand, they hope that that End will come soon.[2]

But it won’t come soon. The Apostle has to tell this community to “stand firm and hold fast” to what they have been taught,[3] because there is a lot yet to be endured.

It isn’t quite clear what he has in mind in these references to a “rebellion,” and a “lawless one” who is “destined for destruction.”[4] What is clear though is that things are going to get worse before they get better. The tunnel is longer than they expected. The end is coming, but they are in the middle, in the darkness, and will be for quite some time yet. So they must “stand firm and hold fast.”[5]

They “must stand firm and hold fast” to the teachings they have received, teachings about the light that will win out over darkness, about the justice that will prevail over injustice. These are teachings about the end—teachings, that is, about Christ, who is the End.

The end of history that the Thessalonians are looking forward to, that we are looking forward to, is the eternal Word of God—the one who was in the beginning with God, the light that shone at the world’s beginning, and became flesh and lived among us—Jesus of Nazareth.[6] He is the light at the tunnel’s end.

History won’t lead to this end of its own accord. Left to its own devices the tunnel would spiral ever downward, “adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”[7] As Christians our hope is that one day there will be a violent inbreaking from the outside, that our Lord will return, collapsing the tunnel, that his presence will constitute the decisive end of this long night, and the dawn of a new world in which all wrongs will be made right.

But that day has not yet come. The Thessalonians are still in the darkness, in the middle. How is it that they are able to see the end from where they stand? How is it that they can see the light?

They can see the end because the End is Christ, and Christ is not only the one who is to come, but the one who has come. They see ahead by looking back, back to where the light at the tunnel’s end came to meet them in the middle, to where it broke in once before to shine “in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[8] They look back to where the long dark night, in its entirety, was born by him on the cross—sin and death itself taken up into the very life of God, and there undone once and for all.[9]
There and then the sentence was passed on the long dark night.

There and then the Thessalonians were chosen “as the first fruits for salvation,”[10] chosen to be people of the End, people who witness to the end in which the sentence that has been passed on the long dark night will finally be carried out, and the new world will finally dawn. There and then they were chosen to live as citizens of the new world—and to live so even here and now, even in this world, in the darkness, in the middle. By standing firm and holding fast to these teachings they will be comforted and strengthened “in every good work and word,” [11] enabled to live as people of the End, as the Church of Christ.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that “The Church of Christ witnesses to the end of all things. It lives from the end, it thinks from the end, it acts from the end, it proclaims its message from the end…The church speaks within the old world about the new world.

And because it is surer of the new world than of anything else, it sees the old world only in the light of the new world. The church cannot please the old world because the church speaks of the end of the world as though this has already happened, as though the world has already been judged.”[12]

I recognize that to speak of the old world “as though it has already been judged” can sound, on the face of it, like an almost flippant dismissal of the very real evil, injustice, and suffering that we and our world yet endure. But bear in mind that Bonhoeffer himself lived in a particularly dark time. He penned these words in Berlin in 1933, the same year that Adolf Hitler was installed as Chancellor of Germany. Even then Bonhoeffer had a better sense than most for what dark days laid ahead. He gave a highly critical radio address on leadership that was aimed directly at Hitler only two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor.[13] Before he could finish his address Bonhoeffer was cut off the air.[14]

In the years that followed he had to contend with a church that was commandeered by the Nazi party, and for whom blood and soil become more important than the waters of baptism. Through his brother-in-law, who was a personal assistant to the Minister of Justice, Bonhoeffer was given an insider window into the escalation of Nazi human rights abuses. In his Bible he underlined the line from Psalm 74 verse 8, “they burned all the houses of God in the land,” and he wrote next to it the date 9.11.38.

This was the date of Kristallnacht, the nationwide riot in which nearly 300 synagogues and 7500 Jewish-owned shops were looted and destroyed. Luckily Bonhoeffer had helped to smuggle his sister and her husband (who was of Jewish ancestry) out of the country along with their two daughters the previous February.[15]

He eventually joined a resistance group which orchestrated an assassination attempt on Hitler (which is especially interesting since he did it as a pacifist, but that’s a matter for another time). When their assassination attempt failed and the details of their conspiracy started to be unraveled, Bonhoeffer was arrested. After spending two years in prison, he was hanged in Flossenbürg concentration camp, only a month before the Third Reich came to an end.[16] All that is to say that Bonhoeffer knew very well how dark the long night can be.

Yet even in his days working with the resistance, when the darkness around him was palpable, and the end seemed nowhere in sight, Bonhoeffer was bold enough to say that the most real thing about the world was that it had been reconciled to God.[17] Even in those days he said that “with the risen Christ the new humanity is borne, the final, sovereign Yes of God to the new human being. Humanity still lives, of course, in the old, but is already beyond the old. Humanity still lives, of course, in a world of death, but is already beyond death. Humanity still lives, of course, in a world of sin, but we are already beyond sin.

The night is not yet over, but day is already dawning.”[18] Even in the darkest days of the Third Reich, when the night was clearly far from over, Bonhoeffer was “surer of the new world than of anything else.”[19]

He stood firm and held fast to the teachings he had received,[20] that the light at the tunnel’s end had come to shine in the darkness, in the middle, and had there, on the cross, made an end to the darkness once and for all. By looking back he was able to see forward, and witness to the new day that is already dawning.[21] By looking back he was comforted and strengthened to live from the end, think from the end, act from the end.[22] And this is what the Church of Christ does, even in the darkness, in the middle.[23]

One of Martin Luther King’s favorite sayings was that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This isn’t exactly the same idea as our long dark tunnel analogy. The main difference is that arc itself bends towards justice, leading to that end of its own accord. The long dark tunnel, as we saw, does not. Rather, the long darkness ends only when Christ comes crashing in to make an end of it.

But King’s analogy does highlight two of the same points; both of which are crucial. The first is that “the arc is long.” At the ground level, where we experience and witness suffering and injustice up close and first hand, it isn’t always clear that justice is coming any nearer. Sometimes it even feels like we take one step forward only to take two steps back—that the darkness only gets deeper. However, the second point is that the arc of the moral universe will ultimately end in justice. Like the Thessalonians and Bonhoeffer before him, King had the End in sight.

He knew that things might very well get worse before they got better, but by looking back he had seen the justice that was to come. Like Bonhoeffer, he spoke “within the old world about the new world.”[24] He spoke of a day in which his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” of a day in which justice would “roll down like waters,” in which “every valley [would] be exalted, every hill and mountain [would] be made low, the rough places [would] be made a plain, and the crooked places [would] be made strait and the glory of the Lord [would] be revealed and all flesh [would] see it together.”[25]

But like the Thessalonians, he had to be prepared to endure this old world a while longer, to witness to the end, and to do it from the middle. King shared his dream before the hundreds of thousands who had gathered in Washington on August 28th 1963. His wife Coretta said that “at that moment it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared. But it only lasted for a moment.”[26]

Not a month later the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama was bombed, and four young girls in Sunday school were killed. King delivered the eulogy at their funeral. The darkness was palpable. As he stood there, looking out over four short coffins to address the family and friends of those girls he said: “in spite of the darkness of this hour we must not despair. We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence.”[27]

Now King was not dealing flippantly with these people’s suffering. He understood very well how dark the long night can be. After all, his own home had been bombed, the lives of his own children threatened. Yet he believed that even in such deep darkness, even in the middle, the Church of Christ “lives from the end, it thinks from the end, it acts from the end.”[28] He knew that to retaliate with violence would simply be to capitulate to the darkness in the middle. He saw that “returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”[29] And this he would not do; he would not give in to the darkness. Instead, in the midst of the darkness, he stood firm and held fast, he looked back in order to see ahead, and he witnessed to the End of all things, to the dawn of the new world.

Like the Thessalonians, like Bonhoeffer, like King, like every Christian and Christian community that has come before us, we encounter darkness in our lives and in our world. Sometimes it can be very deep.

And while it’s only natural for us to hope that it will end soon, that may or may not be in the cards. We might have to endure a while longer. Things might even get worse before they get better. So we must “stand firm and hold fast.”

By standing firm and holding fast to what we have been taught, we can see the end of all things, and the new world that is to come. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. He came crashing in once before, and bore the long darkness in its entirety on the cross, taking it up into the very life of God. And the darkness could not overcome the light; there and then, as it was taken up into the life of God, the long darkness was undone once and for all.[30] There and then the sentence was passed on all injustice, suffering, and sorrow; and it’s only a matter of time before the sentence is carried out, before the new world dawns. It’s only a matter of time.

It’s only a matter of time, but how much time? With the Psalmist we pray, “O Lord—how long?”[31] The truth is that we don’t know. But when the light came crashing in before, we were chosen “as the first fruits for salvation,”[32] chosen to be people of the End, people who witness to the end, and to the new world that is to come. There and then we were chosen to live from the end, think from the end, act from the end—to be those who refuse to capitulate to the darkness in the middle, because we have seen the light that is to come, and we are surer of it than of anything else.[33] This is the task that we have been given to do, here and now, even in the darkness, in the middle.

Amen


 

[1] 2 Thess. 1:4

[2] 2 Thess. 2:1-3

[3] 2 Thess. 2:15

[4] 2 Thess. 2:3-5

[5] 2 Thess. 2:15

[6] John 1

[7] Martin Luther King Jr. Strength to Love. 47

[8] John 1:5

[9] Bruce McCormack, The Work of Christ in the History of Theology (lecture, Princeton Theological Seminary. Spring 2013).

[10] 2 Thess. 2:13

[11] 2 Thess. 2:17

[12] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall. 21.

[13] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Führer and the Individual

[14] Nancy Duff, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Timeline” (lecture. Princeton Theological Seminary. Fall 2013)

[15] Ibid.

[16] Renate Wind, A Spoke in the Wheel. 1627.

[17] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (DBW).

[18] Ibid., 92.

[19] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall. 21.

[20] 2 Thess. 2:15

[21] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (DBW). 92.

[22] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall. 21.

[23] Ibid., 21.

[24] Ibid., 21.

[25] Martin Luther King Jr. A Testament of Hope. 219. (Amos 5:24; Isaiah 40:4-5)

[26] Martin Luther King Jr. A Testament of Hope. 217

[27] Ibid., 222.

[28] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall. 21.

[29] Martin Luther King Jr. Strength to Love. 47

[30] Bruce McCormack, The Work of Christ in the History of Theology (lecture, Princeton Theological Seminary. Spring 2013).

[31] Psalm 6

[32] 2 Thess. 2:13

[33] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall. 21.

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“We Bought These Dreams That All Fall Down”: A Prophetic Message from Macklemore

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis challenged Hip Hop’s fashion status quo with the radically popular song “Thrift Shop.” They chimed in on the hot button issue of homosexuality and marriage equality with “Same Love.” And their highly thoughtful social commentary doesn’t end there. Also off their recent album “The Heist,” this song titled “Wing$” powerfully, and one might even say prophetically, highlights the bankruptcy of American Consumer Religion, using sneaker culture (something I knew practically nothing about) as an example. Check it out.

Macklemore- Wings ft. Ryan Lewis from Shane Harmon on Vimeo.

The Consumer Catechism has taught us that our identities are constructed by the possessions that we acquire. “We are what we wear, we wear what we are.” The products we do not yet have are to be seen as essential pieces of ourselves that are missing, and it is our incompleteness without them that constitutes our depravity. Our inevitable awareness of our own dependence, finitude, corruption, and fragmentation has thus been hijacked by advertising as an exploitable resource. We are told that our fulfillment, completion, perfection (i.e. our salvation) will come with the next Air Jordans, or the next iPhone, or the next car, or the next house, or the next (fill in the blank). “This would be my parachute, so much more than just a pair of shoes…this is what I am.” This is the consumer theory of atonement.

The particular object in which we are to seek our salvation is always changing from moment to moment, but it is always an object, and it is always the next object. As soon we have a particular pair of Nikes or live in a particular house we realize that we are still unfulfilled, and so we look in faithful longing to the next thing. And so the cycle continues. When will we realize that all that awaits us every time  is “just another pair of shoes”?

Failure is built into the system. The consumer gospel can never make good on its promises, for if it did consumption would all but grind to a halt. Unfulfillment is the fuel which keeps the wheels of the capitalist machine turning. Insatiable desire for consumption requires perpetual dissatisfaction.

In one way or another we have all “listened to what that swoosh said.” To some extent we have all bought into this false gospel. We have tried to construct our identities piece by piece with material possessions. We have sought our salvation in having the right stuff. From a Christian perspective, this might very well be the most radical affront to the Lordship of Christ in individuals and in our world today.  Our identity and our salvation are to be found in Christ. In him we are the adopted sons and daughters of God. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

But we have not taken this truth to heart. We have sought our life elsewhere. We have turned our goods into our god. We have looked to these idols for our identity and our salvation. We have knocked and knocked and knocked; “but there was no voice, no answer, and no response” (1 Kings 18:26). We have “bought these dreams” and they “all fall down.”

Macklemore says that “these Nikes help me define me, and I’m trying to take mine off.” Whatever our Nikes might be, whatever material possessions we might be trying to define ourselves with, it’s time for us to take them off.

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Wrestling, I will not let thee go, Till I thy Name, thy nature know.

Saturday evening Jenna and I went to the Princeton University Chapel for a concert being put on by the PU Chapel Choir. I heard for the first time Charles Wesley’s “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown,” which resonated with me deeply and I have been unable to get out of my head since. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any renditions online that I like. None of the tunes seem to capture the solemn ethos of Jacob’s wrestling (of my own wrestling) with God like the PU Chapel Choir did. Here are the lyrics for those who are unfamiliar with it:

 

Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown

 

Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown,

Whom still I hold but cannot see;

My company before is gone,

And I am left alone with thee;

With thee all knight I mean to stay,

And wrestle till the break of day.

 

In vain thou strugglest to get free,

I never will unloose my hold:

Art thou the man that died for me?

The secret of thy love unfold;

Wrestling, I will not let thee go,

Till I thy Name, thy nature know.

 

Tis love! Tis love! Thou diedst for me,

I hear thy whisper in my heart.

The morning breaks, the shadows flee;

Pure universal love thou art.

To me, to all, thy mercies move,

Thy nature and thy Name is Love.

 

One thing the Church tends to struggle with in my opinion, and perhaps always has, is honoring the wrestling. Wrestling is somehow seen as inappropriate. Jesus is supposed to be our loving friend, the one we can know and trust. And I don’t doubt that he truly is this for some of us. But for others of us, Jesus has not approached us this way. For us to approach him this way would not be to approach him, but to chase a mere Feuerbachian idol. To us Jesus comes as the traveler unknown, whom we hold but cannot see, and with whom we must wrestle through the long night in the hope that day will break, and we his name and nature will know.

We should sing this kind of song more often.

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Our Success is Our Snare, and Our Privilege is Another’s Peril

“Wherever the fortunes of nature, the accidents of history or even the virtues of the possessors of power, endow  an individual or a group with power, social prestige, intellectual eminence or moral approval above their fellows, there an ego is allowed to expand. It expands both vertically and horizontally. Its vertical expansion, its pride, involves it in sin against God. Its horizontal expansion involves it in an unjust effort to gain security and prestige at the expense of its fellows.”

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man

 

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4th Century Gardening Tip from St. Anthony

Have the neighborhood animals been getting into your garden and ruining your vegitables?

According to Athanasius, St. Anthony had the same problem with his garden. Let’s see how he handled it…

“But he, gently laying hold of one of them, said to them all, ‘Why do you hurt me, when I hurt none of you? Depart, and in the name of the Lord do not come near this spot.’ And from that time forward, as though fearful of his command, they no more came near the place.”

There you have it! The scarecrow and that little wire fencing are officially obsolete! The best of luck to you this season!

 

 

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