Archive for October, 2014

The essential question of a Christian ethic is not, How can I/we be good? Rather, it is simply, What is the will of God? The first question presumes that we are the arbiters and shapers of our own reality, that “the self and the world are the ultimate realities” (48). In fact, God is the ultimate reality and only God is good. God – and therefore reality – is known by revelation on his part and faith on ours. We are called not to be good but to be faithful.
“Awareness of [God’s self-revelation] is not only a step-by-step process in the discovery of deeper and more inward realities, but that awareness is the turning point, the pivot, of all perception of reality as such” (49). All reality, all truth, all goodness – these things are wholly dependent upon God and upon his revelation of his own will. So, “the question of the good becomes the question of participating in God’s reality revealed in Christ” (50).
“The source of a Christian ethic is not the reality of one’s own self, not the reality of the world, nor is it the reality of norms and values. It is the reality of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ” (49). He is being very emphatic about this.
Notice that we are not talking about God as an idea but as the essence of reality itself. Those who wish to deal with the mere idea of God (such as Dawkins and Hitchens) begin with two unexamined and mutually exclusive assumptions. First, they assume all reality is materialistic and that, therefore, it is knowable only by the senses, however aided by tools such as telescopes and microscopes. This is a not uncommon philosophical position, though it is ironic that the idea of materialism is not itself materialistic. Second, they assume that their own power of reasoning (which, again, is not materialistic) is the judge and jury of reality. If something makes no sense to them, it is considered not true. Examining the idea of God is not at all the same as knowing God.
Listening to the modern popularizers of atheism I often picture myself standing near them at a corner. From where I stand I can see the streets in all four directions while they, off to the side just a bit, cannot see around the corner. So far as they can see, one street ends where it meets the other.
But, enough digression. Back to Bonhoeffer!
The second matter for Bonhoeffer is the question of whether we are to think of people as being inherently good (or bad) or to think only of their deeds and accomplishments. If we separate the two, we can imagine that a good person with good intentions can inadvertently do something bad and a bad person with bad intentions can do something good. For Bonhoeffer, this is a false dichotomy. Goodness lies neither in us nor in our deeds or, paradoxically, both in us and in our deeds. However we may word it, the central truth remains that goodness lies in God and in his will, not in us or our deeds.
To think of abandoning goodness and any hope of being good makes us feel insecure. We are to abandon ourselves wholly into the goodness of God, thereby losing the illusion of self-control by which we naturally seek to be the lord’s of our own lives.
One might think, having said all this in the first few pages, Bonhoeffer would now consider his book finished. No, there are several hundred pages left. . .


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An interesting article in The New Criterion (accessed online through aldaily.com), written by Roger Kimball, the journal’s editor, argues that the harsh reparations demanded of Germany by the Treaty of Versailles had little to do with the rise of Hitler and the Second World War. He places great blame on John Maynard Keynes for the common idea that Germany was ripe for a tyrant because the Treaty had impoverished the nation, leaving the people desperate.

Oddly, in my view, Kimball fails to mention the only other major and obvious contributing factor: The Crash of the Western economies in 1929. Germany, though dependent upon loans primarily from American banks, was making steady economic progress during most of the 1920s. That progress smashed into a brick wall when American and British help was no longer available.

Instead, Kimball points out — rightly, I believe — that the illness infecting Germany and much of Europe had a cultural dimension as well as economic. Picasso’s Young Ladies of Avignon, with its distorted bodies, was painted in 1907. Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was in 1912. These artists were seeing in a prophetic way that we humans were beginning to do something awful to ourselves. The First World War (what a horrible sounding phrase!) was just one of the outworkings of our self-deconstructing.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer, just two days after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, warned Germany that it was inviting terrible consequences in its desire for a fuhrer, he laid no blame on Versailles but on the peoples’ longing to be free of responsibility, to have someone else fix them and make everything better.

Huge national debt, cultural upheaval, psychological and spiritual immaturity: all these were factors in the open door that was offered Hitler.

I wonder whether national debt, cultural upheaval, psychological and spiritual immaturity might be as dangerous now as they were a century ago. . . .

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