A World Come of Age

Bonhoeffer is famous (or infamous, perhaps) for his thoughts on how Christianity relates to a world come of age, in which the only place left for God is in the ‘big questions’, like the meaning of life, death, and other things. Bonhoeffer asserts that Christianity, in response to a world that has come of age and has no need for religious/spiritual talk of any kind (due to the general advancement of mankind), has crafted these ‘ultimate questions’ to provide a place for God, and for the Church – these questions are questions that can only be answered by God. Bonhoeffer then asks, in what is one of the most profound theological questions ever posed, what happens when these questions too can be answered without God? If we have come of age, and see that we no longer need God as a hypothesis for so many things, what happens when even the ultimate questions no longer need God to be the answer? When these last refuges have been overtaken by the come of age world, what then?

There’s a lot going on in Bonhoeffer’s questions – so I’ll see if I can tease out a few assumptions and come to some conclusions.

Has the world come of age? Has mankind reached a point where religious/spiritual discourse means nothing? I once saw an interesting interpretation of Augustine’s famous ‘restless heart’ quote – and the point was that, by all indications, it would appear that it’s not true. There aren’t masses of people trying to fill the God-shaped vacuum inside; indeed it would appear that said vacuum doesn’t exist – such was the tenor of what I read. Theological discourse would be unneeded in such a climate.

Here is my thought: there is a God-shaped vacuum, as Pascal observed. We were made for God – God is that to which we tend; God is our spiritual teleology, and God is working in all men to achieve His end in us. However, the effects of sin are such that we can stifle and resist the workings of God – we can quench the spirit. I’m a synergist – I hold that we do in fact cooperate with God in our salvation (charged of Pelgianism here are simply mistaken – synergy does not = Pelagianism), and to the extent that we resist him our hearts are hardened, and to the extent that our hearts are hardened we no longer recognize the workings of God or our natural desire for God. ‘God gave them up’, wrote St. Paul. The Old Testament is full of times when God departed from Israel, whre they were given over to their desires, where they came of age because, to quote Rabbi Heschel:

‘We have trifled with the name of God. We have taken the ideals in vain. We have called for the Lord. He came. And was ignored. We have preached but eluded Him. We have praised bu defied Him. Now we reap the fruits of our failure. Through centuries His voice cried in the wilderness. How skillfully it was trapped in the temples! How often it was drowned or distorted. Now we behold how it gradually withdraws, abandoning one people for another, departing from their souls, despising their wisdom. The taste for the good has all but gone from the earth. Men heap spite upon cruelty, malice upon atrocity.’ (‘Man’s Quest for God, p. 147)

Crucial to Bonhoeffer’s criticism is the notion of the invented ultimate questions. Man no longer needs God – we now know that the thunder in the sky isn’t the voice of an angry deity but rather simply weather patterns, etc, etc. We no longer need to postulate God as the best hypothesis.

Bonhoeffer is right to react against God-of-the-gaps theology. Christian theology has, historically, never postulated God as simply an explanation to some phenomenon. There have, obviously, been those who would postulate God as said hypothesis – but this cannot be confused with historical Christian theology of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant.

So, then, is Bonhoeffer’s criticism of invented questions a valid one? Yes and no. To an extent, these questions (the meaning of life, the cause of the universe, our spiritual state, etc) have been used as refuges and crutches. Christianity and God have been reduced answers to these questions – which is not to say that Christianity does not provide answers for life’s ultimate questions. I would personally reject the proposition that these questions have been invented by the church as a refuge for God, though I would recognize the broader point behind Bonhoeffer’s statements.

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