Archive for August, 2014

One of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s oddest sounding ideas — at least for Evangelicals — is expressed in the opening lines of Ethics, in which he says that the exploration of ethics must begin with the surrender of the questions “How can I be good?” and “How can I do something good?” “Instead,” he writes, we “must ask the wholly other, completely different question: what is the will of God?”

This is not meant as merely an attention-grabbing beginning for the book but is in fact a conviction fundamental to Bonhoeffer’s approach to ethics. It is a quite radical dismissal of what has passed for Christian ethical thought for two thousand years.

As an Evangelical myself, I want very much to be a biblical person in thought and deed. Sometimes — as in the case at hand — that puts me at odds with some of my fellow Evangelicals. I have found myself saying many times that God has not called me to be good or to be successful, only to be faithful. If there is goodness in my heart or in my deeds, it is his goodness, for which I am not proud but grateful. If there is success in my life, it is God’s not mine. As Paul put it long ago in his letter to the Galatians: “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.”

I suspect few Evangelicals will object to this line of thinking, since it is so grounded in Scripture. Why, then, would we think it odd when Bonhoeffer says we are not called to be good but to live by God’s will? Is that so different from my way of wording the matter?

To approach the matter from another angle, think for a moment about the story in Genesis 1-3. Before the eating of the forbidden qumquat, how were Adam and Eve to know what to do? They had no rules to govern their behavior except the one warning not to eat from one specific tree. The rest of the behavior was governed not by rules of good and bad but simply by the will of God. Can we see it any other way?

The knowledge of good and evil — and therefore the responsibility to choose one over the other — is the fruit of sin. Surely we can see that God is delivering us from and calling us out of the life of sin and its fruits. So is Bonhoeffer really being so radical? No, I think he is just being biblical.

[More on this theme later. . . ]


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Yesterday I saw a small, simple carving of a Black American. It was created in 1876 by Emma Marie Cadwalader-Guild. As I walked toward and then around it in the museum, it was clear that this was a portrayal of a man broken by slavery. He is barely clothed, leaning against a stump with his hands behind his back and his head bowed low. As I returned to the front of the 20 inch carving, I was surprised to find it entitled “Free.” Confused, I walked slowly around it again, this time noticing that his hands weren’t tied together: One hand grasped the wrist of the other.

So, in one sense he was a free man yet every detail in the carving suggested an unbearable burden, an oppressive weight. It was as if his new-found freedom (1876 was barely more than a decade after the formal end of slavery in the US) could not ease the crushing pain of the slavery he had known since birth. His freedom, then, was not freedom at all.

Yet there was a note, a little grace note,of hope. Though his hands were still tied by remembered chains, they were in fact free to separate, free to create, free to clear a path ahead.

The artist, CadwaladerGuild, gives us no clue about what was to become of the freed slaves in America. Was she hopeful for them? Would she be pleased by how much progress has been made in America in moving beyond slavery?

No, I suspect that she would read our headlines and be dismayed that our progress has been so limited. Slavery is illegal but racism is still strong. And, just as painful to watch, the recovery of Black families — which has already been underway for a century and a half — is going to take many more generations. White Americans not only kept their slaves in primitive, barely civilized situations but have been losing their grip on family stability themselves.

Saddest of all for me is that conservative Christians, those most boasting of  believing Bible and Gospel, have been among the most racist of all. What a terrible and completely inexcusable denial of both Bible and Gospel!

May those who have been touched, claimed, and saved by the immeasurable grace of God become at last the proclaimers of freedom, dignity, and justice. Please, Lord. . .

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How did I get into the study of Bonhoeffer and why have I, an Evangelical with a clear and sudden born-again experience, always felt at home in his writings? These questions caught my fancy the other day as I was working on both my book on Bonhoeffer and on preparing for the beginning of the new season of our local Bonhoeffer Society. The questions brought to mind InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which taught me the importance of a thoughtful faith that feared no questions and of an open heart which excluded none of God’s people. And then came Fuller Seminary — especially Edward John Carnell– and my pastor during seminary days and good friend ever since — Ray S. Anderson. (Later he too was a Fuller professor.)

So I’ve decided to write an occasional blog entry about Carnell and Anderson, beginning today with Carnell. Few today have even heard of him, though in fact he made important contributions to the lives and minds of many key Evangelicals in the 50s and 60s.

He was one of those men cursed with too many IQ points, making him a somewhat unbalanced personality, stiff and awkward in most situations. Biographer Ronald Nash sees Carnell’s struggles as something of a microcosm of what was happening in the 40s and 50s, as Evangelicalism was becoming established as a clear alternative to its closest kin, Fundamentalism.  As Carnell outgrew his Fundamentalist beginnings, he was severely and cruelly criticized by those on the Right as a betrayer of the faith. As a very young president of the newly established Fuller Seminary, which itself was suspect, Carnell was a lightning rod for endless invective. The strain of his own inner life combined with the furor of the storm to cause him to break apart psychologically for a brief time in 1961. 

When I was at Fuller, beginning in 1965, I found Carnell to be both terrifying and fascinating. I could easily sense that he was a man in great pain and, had I not felt like such a little kid myself, I found myself wishing I could be his friend. But he was very formal and very aloof. It was easy to imagine him as the author of his first book, the very Fundamentalist Introduction to Christian Apologetics (1948).

Yet the content of what he taught in class was very unlike that first book. His third book, Christian Commitment: An Apologetic (1957) had already reflected the beginning of his transformation into the man at whose feet I sat. In it, he developed what he called the “third method of knowing.” If the first is ontological and the second propositional, the third method of knowing is moral. Given his Calvinist roots, this is revolutionary thinking, that the deepest knowledge — centered in our knowledge of God — is somehow very personal, not just scientific or philosophical. I was thrilled to watch him, even at the end of his life, still growing and learning and surrendering not to doctrine but to the Lord.

No wonder I felt at home in reading such sentences as this (from Bonhoeffer’s lectures on Christology (DBWE 12:308): “Luther says that everything depends on whether someone is a good person.” [Freedom of a Christian, LW 31:360]  Clearly Carnell’s new idea was really an old one, lost in recent centuries but now ripe for rediscovery.

Carnell’s books:

  • An Introduction to Christian Apologetics, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1948.
  • Television: Servant or Master? William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1950.
  • The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1950.
  • A Philosophy of the Christian Religion, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1952.
  • The Burden of Søren Kierkegaard, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1956.
  • Christian Commitment: An Apologetic, MacMillan, New York, 1957.
  • Case for Orthodox Theology, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1959.
  • The Kingdom of Love and the Pride of Life, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1960.
  • The Case for Biblical Christianity, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1969.

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Creation and Fall

    Returning from America in 1931, Bonhoeffer soon began what promised to be a successful double career as a pastor (He was ordained that November) and as a professor. His first major set of lectures was on Genesis 1-3, from which he learned a great deal about the nature of humankind.

    The careful reader will find a great deal of richness – and challenge! – in the lectures of this 26 year old junior professor. Let me just suggest some of the ways in which Dietrich points us in directions worthy of careful meditation.

    FIRST, his opening line is, “The place where the Bible begins is one where our own most impassioned waves of thinking break, are thrown back upon themselves, and lose their strength in spray and foam.”  That is, the story of creation marks the absolute limit to which our mind can reach backwards in time. We cannot ask – because we cannot imagine – what God was like or what he was thinking before creation. We cannot even guess at his motivation. We simply accept the Bible’s plain fact: God created.
    But there is one lesson to be learned from this limitation: Since God has revealed nothing of why he created, we can grasp only that he created in freedom, in absolute freedom. He did not, so far as we can know, create for a reason, not for a goal; he simply created. If we want to find a way to word this theologically, we can only say that all creation is simply and purely an act of grace. All creation exists by and because of God’s sheer grace.
    One implication is that we cannot fit creation into any of our human ideas of cause and effect. We cannot make sense of creation, cannot master the idea of creation. We see the futility of humans efforts to master the idea of creation and fit it into knowable human categories in the efforts of the extreme “creationists.” They expend great effort to show that creation fits into knowable scientific categories. Bonhoeffer would say that their’s is a hopelessly quixotic quest. The beginning is beyond the reach of the human mind. “Thus,” he concludes, “it is impossible to ask why the world was created. . .”

    SECOND, the story of creation “is not to be thought of in temporal terms.”There is little or nothing to be gained by thinking of Genesis 1-3 as revelations about some particular time at the beginning of cosmic and human history. Rather, the passage reveals a spiritual source, not an historical beginning. “It is our primeval history, truly our own, every individual person’s beginning, destiny, guilt, and end.” What I read in the story of the creation of human beings is my story. I’m reading my own spiritual biography.

    THIRD, we learn from this, our story, that we are who we are together. We learn that our identity lies not within us as individuals but within us in community, in relationship. First, we are who we are in relation to God our creator Just as importantly, we are who we are in relation to one another
    This does not mean that we lose ourselves in the community. Quite the opposite, Bonhoeffer argues, because we do not simply blend into the community as a drop of water into the sea. In fact, we bump into each other! Whether we are thinking of our relationship with God or with one another (if we can separate the two at all), we must be careful not to think of losing ourselves. If we simply disappear into some sort of community existence (as the cults often inculcate) we actually lose the relationship because we lose the individual. The community is two or more persons existing together but not fused together.
    Thus, our freedom lies not in resisting the demands put on us by others and not in losing ourselves in one another. Rather, we – created for community and needing to be the persons we were created to be – are most free, most truly ourselves, when we are free for others.    
    There is a warning to be noted here. If we’re thinking of spatial images, of literally bumping into one another, we’ll miss Bonhoeffer’s insight. “The human being’s limit is at the center of human existence, not on the margin.” That is, the point of contact which defines who we are is at the center of our being. If we fail to contact, to relate center-to-center, we remain isolated and lack relationship. The fruit is loneliness and a loss of our sense of selfhood.
    One crucial implication of this idea that we are who we are in relationship is that sin is as a rejection of relationship and therefore of selfhood. The serpent was in fact very clear about this, even as it lied: “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:-5).
    But die they did, just not physically. Adam and Eve ceased to be the persons they were created to be (as defined by their relationship with God) when they chose not to complement God but to compete with him, to become the lords of their own lives and make their own decisions about right and wrong. Having rejected the relationship with God, they also rejected themselves. And they even had to grab fig leaves to protect themselves from mutual rejection.

    FOURTH, technology, that wonderful offshoot of science, is both a blessing and a curse. The progress of science is allowing us previously undreamed of advances in both knowledge and technology, but they put us in grave danger of breaking a third dimension of our relational identity: our relationship to the earth. We are creatures of the earth, lumps of clay molded by God, with spiritual life breathed into our nostrils (in the delightful imagery of Genesis 2).
    Some scientists in our day have become completely beguiled by their own achievements and think they have supplanted God. As Stephen Hawkins puts it, “We can now explain the beginning of the universe without recourse to a god-hypothesis.” It seems, however, that – to choose but one example – people’s faith is not weakened by the observation that the Milky Way is just the appearance of our particular galaxy viewed from the inside. Rather, faith is weakened in those increasingly numerous people who have never seen the Milky Way because they never in their lives have been far enough away from electric lights.

     When we break our connection with the earth, whether through supplanting nature with technology or despoiling the planet, we diminish ourselves, neglect our responsibility as caretakers of God’s creation, and dishonor our Creator.

    At dusk last evening, with my wife and one of our granddaughters, I stood gazing for a long time at the most beautiful double rainbow I’ve ever seen, made especially awesome by the most incredibly delicate bolts of lightening that seemed to be dancing around it. I know how science explains a rainbow and I have no doubt there is a scientific explanation for the very odd little spears of lightening, but no science in the world could have stopped me from saying, Thank you, Lord.

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In so many ways Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man ahead of his times. He foresaw the West’s rejection of religion in ways that are just becoming apparent to us now. He recognized that a blind literalism in our way of treating the Bible would not be sufficient when the tough times came. At a time when most of the West — and especially Germany — was enthralled with science, he saw that personal values were always going to be more foundational.

Yet there were areas in which he seems very much a man of his time. It’s easy to excuse: By the time he was in his mid-twenties, he found himself in a hostile culture which demanded nearly all his attention.

His understanding of the role of women lacks the balance which we value so highly today. His niece Renate Bethge wrote an essay (appearing both in the July/August 1995 issue of “Church & Society” and in the book “Reflections on Bonhoeffer”) examining Bonhoeffer’s understanding of women in society and in the church.

She notes the extremely important place in Dietrich’s life that was held by women: Extraordinary mother, grandmother, and sisters, among others. And it is clear that women felt a great deal of respect from and for him. Yet there is little evidence to suggest he ever put much thought into the meaning of Genesis 2:18 (“I will make a helper fit for him”) or such NT passages at Ephesians 5:22 (“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord”).

Bethge notes that Dietrich seems not to have noticed how the example of Jesus keeps us from interpreting too rigidly the passages in the Epistles. But, she points out, in 1936 as part of his work in the Confessing Church, he did ordain a woman and seems to have had no reservations about it.

There have been a few explorations of Bonhoeffer’s theological views of women but it appears to me there is simply insufficient evidence to conclude anything more than that Dietrich didn’t examine the issue and didn’t move much beyond the customs of his day.

Somehow it doesn’t seem much of a criticism to say that Bonhoeffer had limits. That just makes him another person like the rest of us.

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I’ve been mulling over one of Bonhoeffer’s most provocative ideas lately, that of “religionless Christianity.” He sees it not only as desirable but inevitable. In a sense he was wrong to say we’re at the end of religious times, because religion is still very much a contemporary concern, especially in America.

Yet when I read Bonhoeffer’s views on Western “reigionlessness” I keep hearing Stephen Hawking’s computer-voice saying, “We can now explain the origins of the universe without recourse to a god hypothesis.” And Hawking is listened to!

The Christian’s issue is not with Hawking’s answer to the question, “How did the universe come to be?” — since science can in fact answer most of the big questions about the beginning, except the question, What went bang? Rather, the problem is that Hawking is answering the wrong question. The question we (and particularly our Christian scientists) want to ask is, By what process did the Creator bring the universe into existence? Whether he knows it or not and whether he likes it or not, that is the question Hawking is working so hard to answer.

To return, however, to Bonhoeffer and his idea of religionless Christianity, I have a few brief remarks.

First, let’s not lose track of the fact that Bonhoeffer is not talking about the end of Christianity or of our faith in and loyalty to Jesus Christ. In fact, he is trying very hard to understand these things more fully and deeply than ever.

Second, let’s remember that it was popular among Evangelical circles just a few years ago to proclaim that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. So Bonhoeffer’s ideas, however they may be worded, are not at all alien to the Evangelical mind.

Third, let’s try to understand what religion is and, therefore, why it is not worth clinging to. Religion is, to my mind, a set of humanly devised ideas and words and rituals intend to control and give form to our relationship with God. Even within Christianity, both now and throughout history, there have been innumerable religious patterns. We Evangelicals represent only a small slice of the whole of Christianity and need to cast off the hubris which makes us think we have somehow become the first people in the history of the church to “get it right.”

I’m very impatient with and bored by liturgical ritual but many believers find it to be the perfect meeting point for their communion with God. It doesn’t matter in the least whether I understand or like what goes on in Catholic and Orthodox worship. I don’t like what seems to me to be the shallowness and monotony of “contemporary” Evangelical services but that doesn’t matter either. When I become perfect, then I’ll expect everyone to do things to suit me. Meanwhile, still a bit short of perfection, I’m just glad that I get to be a part of the Church’s love of God in my own little way.

What Bonhoeffer is saying, I believe, is that we are not to be seeking the perfect religious forms for our faith but to learn to entrust ourselves to our Lord with or without religious forms of any sort. That’s hard for most of us — including Bonhoeffer himself — to imagine. But if it is impossible, it is not because God wants us to be religious but because we are still such limited creatures that we need the imposition of form and structure.

One of the results, Bonhoeffer imagines, is that to the degree that we shuck off religion, we will find ourselves walking with Christ in the world, not in our self-created ghettoes.

Is that really so far from the biblical foundations of our faith. What kind of formal worship services did Jesus have with his disciples? Did he simply lead them to the synagogue every Saturday? The Bible doesn’t say so. And when he is reported to have gone to the synagogue, wasn’t Jesus a disruptive force?

These are ideas with implications worth a great deal of pondering, right?

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