Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bonhoeffer's Wordly Christianity Pt I

In a recent CS-SPANN 2 program Christian historian Martin Marty included a discussion of how Bonhoeffer's theology was interpreted by both the "death of God" theologians of the 1960s and the 1970s and a certain segment of the current evangelical theological sector. This provoked me to post my writings on Bonhoeffer desiugned for a chapter on the significance of the neo-orthodox mvement for contemporary trinitarian orthodox Protestant theology. While there is clearly a worldly component to DB's thelogy, I draw primarily on his text Ethics to highlight something of wha the meant by worldly which for him remained deeply integrated within a theocentric vision, sometimes characterized by his phrase "Christ the center.


There is a substantial difference in emphasis between Barth and Bonhoeffer underlying a common perspective. Both highlighted the centrality of Christ as revealed in the Word and the necessity of a living faith in its embodiment in the church and the world. In this respect they were both dogmatic dialecticians seeking to make sense of the reality of God’s revelation in Christ within the context of the first several decades of the 20th century as played out by the “crisis” theology that hovered over Europe and the United States. The fundamental difference was Barth’s concentration on the centrality of dogma as revealed by and through the Word and Bonhoeffer’s accentuation on the significance of the revelation for right action and thought in the midst of the contingency of living history.

It was on this account that the “secular” theologians of the 1960s drew on Bonhoeffer’s “religionless” Christianity to articulate what they considered as a more viable vision of Christianity when the traditional “three-story” theistic God could no longer hold sway in the light of liberal post World war II thought, culture, and geo-politics. As in Bonhoeffer’s original expression, so it was even more so in the 1960s that the search for a new language beyond religion was a kairotic desire for an authentic revelation in an era where traditional pieties and orthodoxies became viewed, at least in certain quarters, in the most scandalous sense as idolatrous, when not downright incredulous. That the view of such a God described by the secular and death of God theologians was a caricature, which nonetheless contained important elements of truth, is a point of interest worthy of much pondering.

That Bonhoeffer wrote at the boundary lines of faith in the midst of the most searing of perplexities cannot be doubted, particularly in light of his Letters and Papers from Prison. Yet it was this same Bonhoeffer in this same text who spoke of the God who resided at the center more so than at the boundary, “not in weakness” of faith, “but in strength;” the strength of authentic proclamation in the midst of life. Rather than the God “beyond our cognitive facilities,” Bonhoeffer emphasized the “God…beyond in the midst of our life.” The “secular” Bonhoeffer is an important figure in the imagination of 20th century theology particularly as an alter ego to that of Barth in a quest for a post-war theology beyond neo-orthodoxy. The Bonhoeffer that I draw out here is based primarily on The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics. This, too, is a worldly, but also more churchly Bonhoeffer, grounding the basis for a living faith of the indwelling Christ in the midst of any and every given historical setting. This Bonhoeffer is not set in antithesis against the neo-orthodox Barth, but one in sync with this legacy, while bringing out important themes that remained more tangential in his mentor’s work. As Bonhoeffer put it in his critique of the secular/religious polarities that provoked and stimulated Reinhold Niebuhr and Tillich:

There are not two spheres, standing side by side, competing with each other and attacking each others frontiers. If that were so, this frontier dispute would always be the decisive problem of history. But the whole reality of the world is already drawn into Christ and bound together in Him, and the movement of history consists solely in divergence and convergence in relation to this centre.

Bonhoeffer as well as Barth sought to move beyond any sterile orthodoxy to the extent that doctrine acted as an impediment to the free flowing wind of the Holy Spirit. At the same time he remained fully committed to the centrality of the Bible as the primary vehicle of revelation, including the scriptural emphasis on the majesty of the God of Judeo-Christian theism in his capacity to speak within any context and idiom that he so desired. The extremities of Bonhoeffer’s own situation in the bowels of a Nazi prison camp pushed him at times to the boundaries of a “religionless” Christianity. Yet, in taking his work as a whole, including his prison ministry, he remained focused on the centrality of the Bible, the church, and faith in the God who is here, as both immanent within time and place and transcendent of the deep contextuality of the very human history of the early 20th century through which he wrote and lived.

It is this more Barthian Bonhoeffer who gave shape to a worldly sensitive Christianity as reflected in his key text, Ethics that has a great deal for the contemporary church to draw upon in any hermeneutical retrieval of the ethos of the Reformation in an early 21st century context.

In his Christ the center “worldly” Christianity Bonhoeffer notes that “the essence of the gospel does not lie in the solution of human problems.” Rather, it is in radical obedience to Christ himself in each and every situation. In following the Jamesian pathway (Jas 2:20-26), for Bonhoeffer, the most radical and essential step is “not a confession of faith in Jesus.” What radical commitment to faith necessitates is nothing less than unswerving and immediate obedience to the very call to surrender all as the inescapable price for the privilege of following Christ for the entire course of one’s life. Anything less on his account is a holding back; some adherence to the idolatry of the self or culture that can only contradict the will of God in some fundamental way. Such obedience is not the Lutheran concern against works. Rather, it is the very essence of faith; costly faith even in the midst of our fallen state where nothing we can do can right our relationship with the living God in which we are nonetheless called into radical obedience in faith (Rom 3:31; 6:15-19).

It is this same ethos of radical commitment to Christ and to Christ only through which Bonhoeffer grounds the most elemental obligation of the church in relation to the world. As he states it:

The Church’s word to the world can be no other than God’s word to the world. The word is Jesus Christ. This word is Jesus Christ and salvation in His name. It is in Jesus Christ that God’s relation to the world is defined. We know of no relation of God to the world other than through Jesus Christ. For the Church too, therefore, there is no relation to the world other than through Jesus Christ. In other words, the proper relation of the Church to the world cannot be deduced from natural law or rational law or from universal rights, but only from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is an evident Barthian influence of the most radical sort. At the same time Bonhoeffer does not deny, as neither would Barth, that the church has something to say to the world on the problems faced by humankind, including something akin on its own terms, yet always through the perspective of Christ revealed as the Incarnation of the living God.

On this assumption the church has a great deal to say about the broad range of human ethics in the most penultimate sense since the spirit of Christ is revealed within the midst and through the signs of our material existence. Thus, with Barth, even as the reality transcends the symbols which enclose the signs of God’s revealing, Bonhoeffer agreed also that God could only be known analogically in and through the signs that his Spirit opens up to human perception. Such signs flow forth within the context of any given time and place throughout all of the spheres of the “secular” realm in various hidden and revealing forms. In terms of the problems of humankind, the quest for the ultimate Word embedded within the penultimate will lead to specific courses of action in given situations in accord with the prompting of the Holy Spirit. This is the case on Bonhoeffer’ even as the gap between divine revelation and human perception within any given context invariably persists.

However plausible or even compelling such a course of action may be in the revealing of the spirit of God within a given context (as discernable through an inherently flawed sensibility), such revelation in time does not translate into a universal application in a manner that transcends time. The kairos of Christ’s spirit breaks into history wherever and whenever it will in whatever forms it so chooses in which the Christian vocation is defined as close to possible adherence to the small still prompting of its authentic voice. This is true pietism in the most Bonhoefferian sense. It is the essence of Bonhoeffer’s worldly Christianity which remained constant throughout his short career, notwithstanding different points of emphases as embodied in his key texts. The dialectical dynamic in his theology is between world and church, rather than the secular or religious per se as the pivot points of accent for the manifestation of Christ’s spirit; the underlying constant in the midst of each and every historical experience.

To provide an example of such contextualization, even such a central problem as the abolition of slavery in the United States in the 19th century could not absorb the authority of ultimacy in Christian ethics, however penultimately significant of an issue it was. The fact that many northern U.S. clergy opposed the expansion of slavery and slavery itself in the 1850s, while having rejected abolitionism spoke as much to the complexity of the issue as to the charge of moral hypocrisy. Thus, to the accusation sometimes posited against the church for not firmly standing up against the obvious blight of slavery; from the vantage point of the 1850s some form of gradualism as argued by Horace Bushnell and other prominent anti-slavery leaning clergy may have been viewed as at least as plausible from God’s eye as immediate abolitionism. For some, especially of various Calvinistic persuasions, gradualism may have been viewed as even more akin to proximately meeting God’s will within the context of a fallen world in the midst of historical complexity in a society and political culture wherein slavery had been institutionalized for almost two centuries.

That slavery was sin of a most egregious social and moral sort was widely accepted at least amongst the clergy in the North by the 1850s. In this respect a certain convergence was coming together between the ultimate and penultimate over this hovering issue that raised the most searing concerns in the realm of political ideology as well as a moral sensibility on the overarching need for national redemption. The ethics in how to resolve the dilemma of slavery was driven by anything but consensus, a problem which came to a certain critical threshold through the kairos of the Civil War. The actual coming of the Civil War profoundly changed the focus of the moral debate. It also unleashed a broad array of emblematic problems over the enduring legacy of racism that carried on for over a century beyond the war.

To put this in Bonhoeffer’s terms God may have acted through the crisis of the Civil War. Yet the result was anything but a clear resolution in a restoration of America as New Israel redeemed through the cleansing blood that the war was imaginatively sought to have unleashed in the northern clerical mindset of 19th century evangelicalism. To put it again in Bonhoeffer’s terms, whatever sense of God’s ultimacy was unleashed through the Civil War became imperceptibly merged into the penultimacy of the ongoing flow of historical experience in which the spirit of Christ needed to be perceived and acted upon ever freshly anew even in the midst of the most searing ambiguity. One of the critical differences between Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr on this score is that the former kept his focus on the centrality of Christ as the critical point in the church/world dialectic, while the latter dwelt more on the paradox of the ambiguity of history as such in the tension between moral man and immoral society.

Bonhoeffer obviously did not deny that God acts in history, sometimes in very decisive ways. The life and death issues that he faced in the 1930s and 1940s give vivid testimony to the kairotic energies that were operating in Europe at that time in response to the most unimaginable evil. The challenge as Bonhoeffer posited is the central quest to discern the will of God in every concrete situation. In his expression, “Jesus Christ is the law of all earthly institutions.” Such a revelation is masked within the immediacy of the historical, which requires the most critical of theo-political discernment, which at best remains only partially revealing. Bonhoeffer’s plunge into the vortex of history, grounded in the ultimacy of God’s revelation of Christ as he understood it was the central strength of his project. From this theocentric vantage point he added a great deal to Barth’s grounding insights in fleshing out a critical theo-praxis only very partially developed in his Swiss mentor’s work.

Bonhoeffer’s testing ground was nothing less than the most devastating war that Europe had ever experienced in the midst of the most barbaric evil that the continent had ever experienced. The cost for Bonhoeffer was nothing less than his life in the need to surrender all for the following of God’s will as he understood it into the very bowels of hell if that is where it brought him. It is no small matter that in the process the extremities and the centralities of his theological probing expanded even in his always focused Christ the center vision as embodied within the church and within the world. What is critical for our purposes is not so much the crisis theology of the 1930s and 1940s, although that remains instructive. What is enduring is the force of Bonhoeffer’s praxeology of pressing the word of God to speak to the concrete historical situation in things great and small in bringing together the “secular” and the “religious” within a common interpretation.

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