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)

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.

More on Rights

I’m still not feeling well enough to really go deeper into rights-history, so for now here’s what I’ve been thinking of:

Is a secular (non-theistic) grounding of human rights possible? Can one ground rights in a solid way without recourse to some kind of theistic belief? For those who may not know, I myself am fully convinced that only a theistic account of rights/worth provides the grounding needed for a solid theory of rights.

Some Thoughts on Justice, Rights and Worth

‎’Only someone who is religious can speak seriously of the sacred, but such talk informs the thought of most of us whether or not we are religious, for it shapes our thoughts about the way in which human beings limit our will as does nothing else in nature. If we are not religious, we will often search for one of the inadequate expressions which are available to us to say what we hope will be a secular equivalent of it. We may say that all human beings are inestimably precious, that they are ends in themselves, that they are owed unconditional respect, that they possess inalienable rights, and, of course, that they possess inalienable dignity. In my judgement these are ways of trying to say what we feel a need to say when we are estranged from the conceptual resources we need to say it. Be that as it may: each of them is problematic and contentious. Not one of them has the simple power of the religious ways of speaking.

Where does that power come from. Not, I am quite sure, from esoteric theological or philosophical elaborations of what it means for something to be sacred. It derives from the unashamedly anthropomorphic character of the claim that we are sacred because God loves us, his children. (Raimon Gaita, ‘Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice,’ p. 23-24, quoted in ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, p.324-325)

Gaita is not himself a theist – but this is an interesting observation. I do think that Christian theism can offer the most solid account of rights/justice/ethics, and that while there are secular accounts, most of them seem to fail at providing a solid grounding.

The above has the feeling of someone who has taken seriously the thought of people like Nietzsche and has the consistency to see the consequences of such thinking. Religious thought, and in particular Christian thought, seems to offer the strongest and most powerful account of human worth, rights and justice.