Bonhoeffer and a World Come of Age, pt. 2

Some time ago I wrote on Bonhoeffer’s very interesting take on ‘man come of age’ and his (in)famous ‘religionless Christianity’. The main theme that Bonheoffer develops is really twofold – the first that the world has come to a point where it doesn’t need God anymore (at ;east in the normal ‘religious’ sense) and the second is his attack on using God as a filler for gaps in our knowledge, otherwise known as God of the gaps.

‘It has again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case) then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants us to realize His presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved.’ (‘Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 311)

‘Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God’. In questions of science, art and ethics this has become and understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become increasingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything gets along without ‘God’ – and, in fact, just as well as before.’ (p. 326)

‘Efforts are made to prove to a world thus come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of ‘God’. Even though there has been surrender on all secular problems, there still remains the so-called ‘ultimate questions’ – death, guilt- to which only ‘God’ can give an answer, and because of which we need God and the church and the pastor. So we live, in some degree, on these so-called ultimate questions. But what if one day they no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered without ‘God’?’ (p. 326)

Bonhoeffer develops some answers to this problem in his Christology lectures (even though they predate his letters form prison) – namely, that God can’t be seen as who we grab on to when we are at the end of our resources but rather that which is at the very center of our lives and existence. His lectures on Genesis also contribute to this theme – that God is not at the boundary of our lives but at the center.

‘It always seems to me that we trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not at the boundaries but at the center, not in weakness but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness…God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the center of the village.’ (p. 282)

Bonhoeffer and Guilt

I found this post over at First Things very interesting:

‘Too often we Christians are heard as saying something along the following lines: “Your life of casual sex (or cohabitation, or homosexuality) surely must be leading you to feel empty, unfulfilled, and jaded. But we have the solution for those unpleasant feelings!” To which the reply is often: “I’m sorry to disappoint, but I don’t feel excessively guilty or ashamed or unfulfilled. On the contrary, my gay partnership has given me more emotional peace than I’ve ever had.”

In other words, we Christians are often found making Stendahl’s mistake: in our rush to defend our understanding of sin and human flourishing, we too easily assume that the same emotions must be the universal human result of certain behavioral choices. When those expected emotions aren’t present—when Paul, for instance, feels no guilt after persecuting the early Christians—we’re suddenly left wondering what went wrong with our doctrine of sin.

I submit that Bonhoeffer may provide us with a way out of this conundrum. Avoiding what he calls “an attack on the adulthood of the world,” we may realize that it isn’t part of our Christian calling to first expose (or conjure) guilty feelings before we commend, say, a traditional Christian vision of marriage. Rather, we can simply acknowledge that human emotions are unpredictable; “peace” and “fulfillment” may indeed be the outcome of practices and behaviors that, from a Christian vantage point, we must deem sinful. But no matter. The gospel lays claim to the whole human being in the midst of that “peace.” Here in Advent, we remember the One who told us he did not come to bring peace (Matt. 10:34). He came to demand our all—to ask for our death and our life. No matter how robust our consciences may be, he came to save us all.’

More Natural Theology

It seems that the question of natural theology is one of epistemology, specifically epistemological method. No one denies that the heavens declare the glory of God, etc – the question is can/how one to know of God through nature. Here I think it’s important to get a line on exactly what one means by ‘natural’. I take ‘natural’ to refer to human nature before the fall – this was our ‘natural’ state. I would take a Bonhoeffer-esque line in this regards – which means I would hold that, contra (say) Aquinas, our natural state, our created state, did not include knowledge of good and evil – our knowledge of good/evil is a product of our fallen nature which comes as a result of Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit in the Garden. To quote a friend (this was in reference to natural law, but the principle applies here since it relates to how one comes to know the good):

‘He writes His laws upon the heart not because after the fall Knowledge of Good/Knowledge of Evil was now a delectable, nutritious, and healthy adjunct to the Tree of Life, but because He is in our very being, drawing us, such that if anything we do is good it was itself wrought in God (Jn. 3:19-21), “for in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).’

This has to do with epistemological method – how does one come to know truths in theology? For Aquinas, foundationalism is in play – one can arrive at certain truths (aspects of the natural law tradition as exemplified in Aquinas) via pure reason apart from faith – to quote paraphrase Pope Benedict, certain truths of morality can be arrived at by reason alone apart from faith. I would hold with Bonhoeffer that such a position is mistaken, and that apart from the presence of God truth as such cannot be arrived at by pure reason.

Christology and Methodolgy

‘…the witness of Jesus Christ to himself is none other than that which the Scriptures deliver to us and which comes to us by no other way than by the Word of the Scriptures. We are first concerned with a book which we find in the secular sphere. It must be read and interpreted. It will be read with all the help possible from historical and philosophical criticism. Even the believer has to do this with care and scholarship. Occasionally we have to deal with a problematic situation; perhaps we have to preach about a text, which we know from scholarly criticism was never spoken by Jesus. In the exegesis of Scripture we find ourselves on thin ice. One can never stand firm at one point, but must move about the whole of the Bible. As we move from one place to another we are like a man crossing a river covered in ice floes, who does not remain standing on one particular piece of ice, but jumps from one to another…’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Christ the Center’, p. 73)

I was always intrigued by this passage. It takes seriously historical criticism, one of the four-letter words of theology – but the interesting bit for me is the bolded part. I really wondered what he meant by that. Typically theology involves a methodology which takes various biblical passages as axioms from which to build on and establish various propositions – it makes sense to build a theology that way. Solid foundations, and all that. The bolded passage seems to go against a pretty good method of theology – I can easily imagine people balking at such notions.

Then, however, I read this:

‘Here again we find a way of open inquiry that refuses to operate logico-deductively from fixed principia or traditional authorities, whether they are ecclesiastical or biblical, but insists on keeping close to the actual ground of faith and experience. In recognition of the fact that faith itself does not rest on biblical, far less on ecclesiastical, authority as such but on the truth mediated through the Bible and the Church, Anselm proposed a way of inquiry which methodologically sets aside even biblical statements regarded as formal premises, or which passes through them to the solid truth (solida veritas) on which they rest, in order that the mind may be brought directly under the compulsion of the truth and the impress of its rationality. Even in Christology itself Anselm declined to treat Christ as a formal premiss or a propositional basis for logical operation, but setting him aside in that role, and with constant prayer for divine illumination, he found a way of probing into the heart of Christological knowledge and elucidating its inner logic so that faith in Christ and knowledge of God through him could be shown to rest directly on the rationality of the truth incarnate in Christ.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 88-89)

There’s a lot more in the following passages, but that’s the critical point for the present (I’ll likely continue to go through the following passages in the near future). Torrance nails exactly what Bonhoeffer was cryptically saying – later on Torrance goes on to talk about fluid axioms in the Christological thought of Kierkegaard, and I have to say that such a concept fits perfectly with what Bonhoeffer was driving at.  I’ll be so bold as to say that the above quoted passages are exactly the kind of method that should be used exclusively in theology, for the following reasons.

In Christ, Truth has entered history and become incarnate – which means that we can’t know it in a detached, impersonal way (which is what solid-axiomatic theological methods do, even if it’s unintentional or unbeknownst to the theologian doing so). Truth, having become historical and incarnate must, has therefore become personal, and as such, must be known personally. It cannot be known via detached, impersonal inquiry. Torrance later goes on to set mysticism at the fore of the theologians’ inquiry – personal, intimate, mystical communion with God.

This is a method I’ve picked up in a lot in becoming acquainted with theology – Pascal, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard (as well as a host of theologians from the Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic traditions) all operated in this way and all achieved brilliant, creative results. It’s a method that needs to be picked up more in theology.

Bonhoeffer on the Conscience

‘This flight, Adam’s hiding from God, we call conscience. Before the fall there was no conscience. Man has only been divided in himself since his division from the Creator. And indeed it is the function of the conscience to put man to flight from God. Thus, unwillingly, it agrees with God, and on the other hand in this flight it allows man to feel secure on his hiding place. This means that it deludes man into feeling that he really is fleeing. Moreover it allows him to believe that this flight is his triumphal procession and all the world is fleeing from him. Conscience drives man from God into a secure hiding place. Here, distant from God, man plays the judge himself and just by this means he escapes God’s judgement. Now man really lives by his own good and evil, from the innermost division within himself. Conscience is shame before God in which at the same time our own wickedness is concealed, in which man justifies himself and in which, on the other hand, the acknowledgement of the other person is reluctantly preserved. Conscience is not the voice of God to sinful man; it is man’s defense against it, but as this defense it points towards it, contrary to our own will and knowledge.

Adam, where are you?” With this word the creator calls Adam forth out of his conscience, Adam must stand before his Creator. Man is not allowed to remain in his sin alone, God speaks to him, he stops him in his flight. ‘Come out of your hiding-place, from your self-reproach, your covering, your secrecy, your self-torment, from your vain remorse…confess to yourself, do not lose yourself in religious despair, be yourself, Adam…where are you? Stand before your creator.” This call goes directly against the conscience, for the conscience says: ‘Adam, you are naked, hide yourself from the Creator  do not dare stand before him.” God says: “Adam, stand before me.” God kills the conscience. The fleeing Adam must realize that he cannot flee from his Creator.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Creation and Fall/Temptation: Two Biblical Studies’, p. 90-91)

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.

Religionless Christianity?

I found this interesting commentary on some of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts:

I won’t copy/paste any of that to here – but I highly recommend it.

A few questions emerge after a careful reading of both the primary text (Bonoheffer) and the commentary: Does this kind of theology lead to a de-supernaturalized Christianity? Are these broad ideas grounded in the Old Testament, as Bonhoeffer claims? Can there be a non-metaphysical theology? Does such a concept even make sense? Do Bonhoeffer’s problems with the idea of ‘other-worldliness’ carry the weight he puts on them? Is personal salvation a foreign concept to the original message of Christianity and the Old Testament? Are things like individualism, metaphysics and religion all necessarily negative in Christianity? Do notions like these lead to a purely physicalist concept of Christianity?

These are all questions it is important to raise, engage and answer. One that comes to mind is the charges of individualism – is something individualistic just because it is personal – like, say, salvation? If this is the case, then it seems that Bonhoeffer’s thought and the commentary provided on Expirmental Theology fall victim to the same charge – if I am there for the other,  then I am there for the other person – and if I am there for the other personal, I am there for them in a personal way – and is not the personal the individualistic, on this view?

Folks like N.T. Wright have done, in my opinion, a great service by really taking on the idea of Christianity being primarily about saving the soul from this world and getting into heaven and redirecting it towards the reality which we inhabit which will be renewed – but might some of the ideas presented in the commentary be taking things to far?

For my part (briefly), I would say that they are. I don’t think one can so easily tie everything negative in Christianity to notions of individualism, religion, or metaphysics, even if I do think that each of these has in fact contributed negatively to the Christian faith. I don’t think that the personal aspect of Christianity (a personal God who approaches us in our hearts) is wrong. While the direction taken by the commentary (and even Bonhoeffer) is broadly a needed corrective, I think it ends up being far too reactionary. In particular (and again, briefly) I find the attacks on supernatural aspects of Christianity on account of it being dualistic misplaced and mistaken – one can acknowledge both a physical and non-physical aspect of reality while affirming that there is in fact one reality, with two aspects (in this case, the physical and non-physical) in an intimate, though distinct, union.

At any rate, these are some broad thoughts I’m having on the subject. More to come later.