Seeing Beyond the Darkness: Bonhoeffer, Incarnation, and Islamophobia

As American Christians preparing to celebrate the Incarnation in 2015, let’s take a minute to ask ourselves: how should we approach our Muslim neighbors in light of this event?

How does God’s becoming human speak to the growing Islamophobia in our society?

Since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Americans have become increasingly fearful of their Muslim neighbors. This fear, moreover, is translating into overt hostility.

Orlando Man House ShotThe Donald has proposed a ban on all Muslim travel to the United States (broadly casting the world’s approximately 2 billion Muslims as potential threats and enemies). The president of Liberty University recently encouraged students to arm themselves, saying: “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.” Apparently his comments were met with rapturous applause.

On 11/13, a pregnant Muslim woman wearing a hijab was attacked in San Diego. On 11/14, a Muslim student’s dorm room door was vandalized, with the words “killed Paris” written under his name. A Muslim family in Orlando returned home on 11/16 to find that their home had been shot at (police recovered one bullet that penetrated the garage and lodged itself in a bedroom dresser). Also on 11/16, an Islamic center in Texas was vandalized with feces and pages torn from the Quran. Skipping ahead for the sake of brevity (!?!?)… On 12/8 a severed pig’s head was found at the doorstep of the Islamic Center of Philadelphia. And on 12/11, a mosque in Coachella, CA was the target of an arson attack.

What are we to think in a time like this? And how are we to respond?

When we are taught to see by Christ, we will look on our Muslim neighbors, not in fear and suspicion, but in gratitude and love. In them we will see, not our enemies, but our God—who in becoming human, has taken their humanity upon himself just as he has taken our own.

And we will stand by our Muslim neighbors in love and solidarity, protecting them from the fearful and hateful, as we do whatever we can to dispel that fear and hate.

It’s sometimes easy to forget just how radical an idea the incarnation is—that the one through whom “all things came into being…became flesh and lived among us.”[1] German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

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.[2]

Rembrandt NativityThe Apostle Paul writes that “in him [Jesus Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.”[3] Therefore, we can no longer see the world without seeing God. We can no longer see our Muslim neighbors without seeing the God who has embraced them, taking their humanity upon himself.

Gerhard Ebeling is right that, for Bonhoeffer, “in Christ, the reality of God and the reality of the world is one reality.”[4]

This doesn’t mean that Bonhoeffer reduces God to our neighbors, or to the world as a whole. He simply points out that, because of the incarnation, there is now more to our neighbors, and to our world, than first meets the eye. God is “the beyond in the midst of our lives.”[5]

God is the beyond we encounter in our Muslim neighbors—not because of anything they believe or disbelieve, but because of what God has done for them in Christ.

Because of the incarnation, Bonhoeffer says, “our relationship to God is a new life in ‘being there for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus.” Because God became human, “the transcendent is…the neighbor within reach in any given situation. God in human form!”[6]

bonhoeffer cartoonBonhoeffer penned these reflections from a Nazi prison cell in 1944, having been arrested for his involvement with the Abwehr resistance group. With the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer helped smuggle a group of German Jews into Switzerland disguised as Nazi officials, and leveraged his contacts abroad with the ecumenical movement to make arrangements for a Hitler-free Germany (the Abwehr made multiple, ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to assassinate the Führer).[7]

Rather than viewing his Jewish neighbors with fear and suspicion (as many Germans did), Bonhoeffer saw them in Christ. He was given eyes to see. And in his Jewish neighbors, he saw, not his enemies, but his God—who in becoming human had taken their humanity upon himself.

“Lord, let [us] see.”[8]

Let us see, in our Muslim neighbors, the God who has taken their humanity upon himself, just as he has taken our own. Let us be there for our neighbors, standing by them in love and solidarity, doing what we can to protect them from the fearful and hateful, as we do what we can to dispel the fear and the hate—and in doing so may we bear witness to the reality of the incarnation in our time.

 

 

*References:

[1] NRSV, John 1:3, 14. [2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, DBWE, Vol. 6 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 82. [3] Colossians 1:19-20 [4] Gerhard Ebeling, “Die ‘nicht-religiöse Interpretation biblischer Begriffe,’” Zeitschrift Für Theologie Und Kirche 52 (1955): 355-356. [5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter and Papers from Prison (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 367 [6] Ibid., 501. [7] Renate Wind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992). [8] Luke 18:41

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Seeing Beyond the Darkness: The Significant in the Mundane

Where do we see significance?

By default, we tend to see it in the loud things, the things that take place in front of cameras, and the impacts of which are immediately felt far and wide.

Yet nothing about the mode of God’s appearing fits these criteria.

schongauer nativityGod’s appearing certainly wasn’t loud. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”[1]

There were (of course) no cameras in the first century, but if there had been they wouldn’t have been turned on Bethlehem in Judea.

The world would come to feel the impact of this poor carpenter’s son, but only gradually over the centuries following his death. His birth, in its time, was an utterly unremarkable, mundane, everyday occurrence to all but a select few.

Yet this mundane occurrence, which took place in a rarely thought about corner of the world, and went mostly unnoticed, was in truth the turning point of history—the most significant event of all. This was how God appeared.

“Lord, let [us] see.”[2]

So far in this series of Advent reflections I’ve talked about how we need to be taught to see by Christ, and about how when we are taught to see by Christ we will recognize the dark places of the world as the places of God’s special presence. In this third post I’m going to talk a little bit about how, when we are taught to see by Christ, we will be the kind of people who see the significant in the mundane.

In and through Christ we find that there is indeed a significance to be seen in the mundane, if only he will give us eyes to see it—that some of the most profound and meaningful happenings in this world (and beyond it) are to be found in quiet things, day-to-day things, things that go generally unnoticed.

red bellied woodpeckerMy wife Jenna and I were in Wisconsin this Thanksgiving at my aunt and uncle’s house—both of whom are serious nature-lovers. The parade of local birds visiting their bird feeder on Thanksgiving morning was, to them, far more noteworthy than the parade being televised from New York (and I will attest, the former certainly had enough color and drama to rival the latter).

My aunt works for a nature conservation organization named after the great pioneering conservationist and wilderness writer Aldo Leopold. Now Leopold was a person with an amazing knack for seeing the significant in the mundane. He spent a great deal of time observing, and reflecting upon, quiet things, day-to-day things, things that go generally unnoticed.

Over Thanksgiving, Jenna and I both read his essay titled “Good Oak” from my aunt and uncle’s copy of A Sand County Almanac (thankfully, we found our own copy of the Almanac on our way home as we stopped in Madison to check out some used book stores). In this essay Leopold sits during a blizzard, watching splits of oak burn on his hearth, and in them he sees a testimony to a century.

This particular oak came from a tree that was felled by lightening on his farm in Wisconsin (only a short drive from my aunt and uncle’s house). He recalls the work of sawing through the oak’s trunk: “Fragrant little chips of history spewed from the saw cut, and accumulated on the snow before each kneeling sawyer. We sensed that these two piles of sawdust were something more than wood: that they were the integrated transect of a century; that our saw was biting its way, stroke by stroke, decade by decade, into the chronology of a lifetime, written in concentric annual rings of good oak.”[3]

tree ringsSawing in toward the center of the oak’s trunk becomes, for Leopold, a trip backward through time. He cuts through the layers of wood the oak had put on during the years of his ownership in just a few quick strokes. Then he begins to cut into the years during which his predecessor the bootlegger had owned, though certainly not appreciated nor cared for, the farm. “Yet the oak had laid down good wood for him; his sawdust was as fragrant, as sound, and as pink as our own. An oak is no respecter of persons.”[4]

As Leopold cuts deeper he meets layers of oak that bore witness to the stock market crash of 1929 (though with a predictable indifference), that saw important landmarks in Wisconsin and U.S. conservation and forestry history, the turn of the 20th century in all its hope and optimism, pine rafts being sent down the Wisconsin river in 1890 to build barns for cows all over the Midwest. “Thus it is,” he says, “that good pine now stands between the cow and the blizzard, just as good oak stands between the blizzard and me.”[5] Leopold’s saw reaches layers of wood that were put on in 1871 (the year the city of Chicago was engulfed in flames only couple hundred miles to the south), and in the 1860’s, during the American Civil War.

Through all the decades, and the fickle vicissitudes of human happenings, the oak had stood, faithfully putting on wood—a testimony to the grace and constancy of nature, and the unity of history (political, ecological, and otherwise).

All this Leopold sees as he watches the good oak burn, releasing “eighty years of June sun…to warm [his] shack and [his] spirit.”[6]

This kind of seeing that Leopold models is one in which the mundane and day-to-day become the locus of the significant, even the sacred. It is facilitated by quiet, and a sense of presence undisturbed by the countless distractions of our technophilic society.

It also isn’t just a matter of personal enrichment. In Leopold’s case, the time he spent on his farm in Wisconsin observing the significant in oak trees, the movements of skunks in January, and the dance of male woodcocks in the spring, would help form the basis of a developing land-ethic and inspire the work of generations of conservationists.

In a word: hope is born out of this kind of seeing! And it’s when hope feels scarce in the world that seeing the significant in the mundane may begin to illuminate the way forward.

Permit me just one last example, and one last story.

At the moment, it doesn’t seem like the U.S. government is going to do much to help those individuals and families who have fled, and are now fleeing, the war in Syria.

Many Americans are more concerned about protecting themselves from extremist ISIS-types (who they fear might sneak in posing as refugees), than they are about helping the actual refugees who are already the victims of said extremists.

There are those who say this is a time for toughness. I whole heartedly agree—but the kind of toughness that is prepared to take on risk for the sake of the other. This is the kind of toughness that comes from courage, as opposed to the kind of toughness that comes from fear. Unfortunately, it also seems to be the rarer kind (or at least the quieter).

The kind of toughness that comes from fear is the kind of toughness that brought German citizens out onto the streets to ransack Jewish stores, buildings, synagogues, and homes on the night of November 9th 1939. If we continue to encourage this kind of toughness in our time, we may even get to a point where it would be kinder to leave Muslim refugees stranded in Turkey than to bring them here to the U.S.

But I digress. In short, these are dark days and hope seems scarce.

Enter the mundane:

This past Saturday, Jenna and I were eating lunch with a couple friends when one of them mentioned a party they were going to that evening. It was being hosted by someone who wanted to gather together Chicagoans who were concerned for Syrian refugees, and hopefully raise $1,000 for Mercy Corps’ efforts to help them (cough cough, see embedded link).

Chicago Skyline from UICWe ended up going, and there we met people of all ages and walks of life: teachers, urban planners, a commissioned public artist, a transit coordinator, and even a retired French ballerina. They were those who could not avert their eyes from the humanity and the need of the Syrian refugees. They were gathered together and united by their common concern. Their very presence was a testimony to the fact that, rather than being a cause for division, this crisis can be an occasion for unity; rather than letting our fear build walls between us and those who are different from us, we can affirm and uphold our common humanity in the midst of that difference.

Even though it wasn’t the kind of thing that would have made the news, and even though $1,000 is only a drop in the bucket where this need is concerned, there was a significance to that gathering, a sanctity even, that was not to be missed.

It is out of significant-mundane occurrences like this one that hope is born. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”[7]

“Lord, let [us] see.”[8]

 

 

*References:

[1] NRSV, John 1:10 [2] Luke 18:41 [3] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 9. [4] Ibid., 9. [5] Ibid., 12-13. [6] Ibid., 7. [7] Isaiah 9:2 [8] Luke 18:41

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Seeing Beyond the Darkness: Where is God in All This!?

Guernica

When we see things in our world that ought not to be: violence, exploitation, the destruction of ecosystems, political fear-mongering, and other-o-phobia in one or another of its seemingly inexhaustible forms, we might find ourselves asking “where is God in all this!?” I’m thinking especially these days of our presidential hopefuls who would close our boarders to human beings in need out of fear that somewhere among them lurks a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Where is God in all this!?” is certainly the right question to be asking. However, when we ask “where is God in all this!?,” we’re often not asking a question so much as making a statement. What perhaps begins as an honest search quickly becomes a proclamation. “Where is God in all this!?” quickly comes to mean: “Well, no God here!

But let’s not abandon our search so quickly.

Finding out where God is in all this is precisely the thing that will guide us in how to respond—and in spite of how things may seem, God is far from absent.

As I mentioned in the previous post, when we are taught to see by Christ we may find that we see things quite differently than we would otherwise. In this post I’m going to suggest that when we are taught to see by Christ we will see the dark places of our world (including the experiences of prejudice and marginalization), not as the places of God’s absence, but rather as the places where God is uniquely present.

annunciationThe place to start is with the incarnation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”[1] The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth writes that the incarnation “is simply the way which leads [God] to us, the way on which He draws near to us and becomes one of us. And this means first that the mortal peril in which [humanity] stands becomes and is His peril, the need of [humanity] His need. We should be explaining the incarnation…away if we did not put it like this, if we tried to limit in any way the solidarity with the cosmos which God accepted in Jesus Christ.”[2]

In the incarnation we learn that God is not content to hang back and watch from a distance while his creatures suffer. If we’re going to suffer, God is going to be right there with us. There are no lengths to which God will not go—no darkness that is too deep. God takes up the human situation, in all its beauty and in all its brokenness, and makes it God’s own.

“[God] did become,” Barth concludes, “the brother of [human kind], threatened with [them], harassed and assaulted with [them], with [them] in the stream which hurries downwards to the abyss, hastening with [them] to death, to the cessation of being and nothingness. With [them] He cries—knowing far better than any other how much reason there is to cry: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ God for us means simply that God has not abandoned the world and [human kind] in the unlimited need of [their] situation, but that He willed to bear this need as His own, that he took it upon Himself, and that He cries with [them] in this need.”[3]

Furthermore, if Jesus’ choice of company is any indication, we must not only say that God stands in solidarity with poor humanity in general, but that God stands with the poorest of humanity in particular—with the materially poor, the marginalized, the unwanted.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”[4]

This doesn’t mean that suffering is to be promoted for its spiritual benefits. God’s solidarity with those who suffer is ultimately for the purpose of removing their suffering. To promote suffering, or even to tolerate it, would be to miss the point entirely.

So then, back to our original question. Where is God in all this!? Specifically, where is God in our national debate over what to do with all the refugees now fleeing the Middle East?

“Lord, let [us] see.”[5]

God is on an inflatable raft, afloat in the Mediterranean, with nothing to go back to and a cold reception waiting in Greece.

God is being held at bay with barbed wire at the border of Macedonia.

God is sitting in an office in Turkey, feeling her chest tighten, as a U.S. Department of Homeland Security officer politely explains: “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go somewhere else. We just can’t know for sure that you won’t hurt us.”

Refugees at Border“‘I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”[6]

If we turn away the sheep, out of fear that with the sheep may come the wolves, we may find that we’ve turned away God himself.

“Lord, let [us] see.”[7]

 

*References:

[1] NRSV, John 1:1, 14 [2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 208. [3] Ibid., 209. [4] Matthew 5:3-4 [5] Luke 18:41 [6] Matthew 25:42-45 [7] Luke 18:41

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Seeing Beyond the Darkness: Reflections for Advent

Advent starry nightWe are now in the season of Advent. Historically, these four weeks leading up to Christmas have been a time for Christians to remember the longing of ancient Israel for the coming of the Messiah—the one who would come from God to put right all that is wrong with the world. “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore,” says the prophet Isaiah.[1]

During Advent, Christians enter into this longing for the Messiah as they prepare to celebrate his coming in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. They take time to acknowledge the darkness of this present world, to feel its pain and its heartache, as they wait expectantly for the light and life that is about to break in. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”[2]

With all that’s been going on in the news recently, entering into Israel’s longing, and feeling it as our own, seems the most natural thing in the world. The darkness is palpable. National conflicts surrounding Syria seem only to be escalating. Refugees are fleeing their now war-torn homes by the millions, risking everything in the hope of finding new lives elsewhere, only to find one door after another closed by the calloused and fearful. We’ve seen devastating terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris. We’ve seen racial injustice continue to rear its ugly head in the United States, while the systems upholding it prove remarkably resistant to change. On YouTube we’ve watched a Chicago police officer pump 16 rounds into young Laquan McDonald. We’ve seen 3 shot dead in Colorado Springs, 14 in San Bernardino. And that’s only what makes the headlines. We’re becoming more politically polarized by the day, as presidential hopefuls win support with blatantly xenophobic proposals. Moreover, our world leaders are now meeting to discuss the fact that as a species we’re well on our way to destroying our planet’s capacity to bear and sustain life.

Syrian refugees landing

The hard part of Advent (especially this year) isn’t feeling the longing; it’s seeing the light. It’s seeing our way beyond this present darkness to the light and life that has come and is coming in Christ.

We’re like the blind man from Luke 18. We know that our salvation has come. We’ve heard others tell of him. We’re calling out to him. But we can’t see him, or the new world that God has founded in and through him. We long for him. But we see only darkness. That is, until he comes and restores our sight.

With the blind man we pray: “Lord, let [us] see.”[3]

Christian discipleship is, after all, a process of learning to see. It’s a process in which we’re taught by Christ to see beyond our present darkness to the deeper reality that was inaugurated with his birth, that has constituted the truest essence of our world and everyone in it ever since, and that will one day finally do away with the darkness altogether—the reality of the world reconciled to God in him.

This is the deeper reality described by the Apostle Paul in Colossians: “For in him [Jesus of Nazareth] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 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.”[4]

Bonhoeffer Color BackgroundDietrich Bonhoeffer insisted upon this deeper reality, even in spite of the fact that he lived and wrote under the formidable darkness of Hitler’s Germany. “In the body of Jesus Christ,” he says, “God is united with humankind, all humanity is accepted by God, and the world is reconciled to God…There is no part of the world, no matter how lost, no matter how godless, that has not been accepted by God in Jesus Christ and reconciled to God.”[5]

Of course, the world doesn’t always accept this truth about itself. It often lives according to old lies, and perpetuates them—lies like white supremacy, and the notion that non-human life is sub-human life that can be exploited at will and without consequence. “This world is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the Christian community. Still,” Bonhoeffer says, “it is the essence and the task of the church-community to proclaim precisely to this world its reconciliation with God, and to disclose to it the reality of the love of God, against which the world so blindly rages. Thus, even the lost and condemned world is being drawn ceaselessly into the event of Christ.”[6]

Insisting that this world we see on the news is really a world reconciled to God, and that we must be taught by God to see it as such, might at first sound like denial. It might sound like I’m proposing that we cope with the overwhelming darkness of the world in front of us by retreating into a fantasy world. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

Learning to see the world as reconciled to God in Christ is learning to occupy a vantage point from which we may see the darkness of the world for what it truly is—an empty, though surely destructive, self-deception. It’s because Christ comes and restores our sight that we’re able to call out the lies we see in our world for the lies they are, and then to root them out, so that the Truth may come ever more fully into view.

A peculiar logic of the Christian faith is at work here—a logic that blurs tenses. It’s the logic by which God exhorts his people, and his people exhort the world, saying: “become what you are!”

I don’t pretend to be an expert at seeing beyond the darkness, to what the world truly is in Christ. I can enter into the longing of advent with ease, but seeing the light to come (especially recently) has been a challenge. I continue to pray for myself: “Lord, let me see.”[7]

Yet since this seeing seems (at least to me) the most difficult thing about Advent, I’ve decided to make it the focus of my reflections this year. I will be making three more posts in the weeks to come. In each post I will suggest one way that we might see the world differently, perhaps even abnormally (though I think more correctly), as we are taught to see by Christ.

Stay tuned, and blessings this Advent season.

 

*References:

[1] NRSV, Isaiah 2:4 [2] Isaiah 9:2 [3] Luke 18:41 [4] Colossians 1:19-20 [5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, DBWE, Vol.  6 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 66-67. [6] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 66. [7] Luke 18:41

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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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