Bonhoeffer and the Good News

Just got out of class, and I have half an hour to articulate the thought and concept of what we discussed.

Us protestants love to believe that salvation is by the free gift of God in Jesus Christ alone: nothing we do can earn us salvation.  We’ve fought wars over it, and go to great lengths to prove it and drill it into our heads: we are fallen humanity, evil steeped in evil, but out of grace God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ.  Bonhoeffer confirms this doctrine: he says that Jesus Christ is not a human, but the human, and that all things that happen to Christ (i.e. death, reconciliation to God, resurrection) happen to all, that is, to us.  But…where’d we get this idea that we somehow (in spite of all of our talk about God’s grace being a free gift and completely unilateral) need to take part in that salvation?

We talk all the time about how some people are saved and some aren’t.  With protestants (and particularly evangelicals – I can’t speak for you fine mainline folk) it’s an in-or-out world.  We love to secretly categorize our world into Christian and non-, saved and un-.  Sometimes this takes the form of judging people, sometimes it takes the form of “praying for them” because we recognize backsliding – but it very often comes with fearing for their salvation (or our own).  But if Christ has died once and for all, how can anyone ever fear for anyone’s salvation?

To fill that gap, we talk about how salvation has been freely given, but it must also be freely received.  I can’t think of a clear scripture reference to this, but if you can, please comment!  I’m suspicious that it doesn’t exist.  We place so much emphasis on realizing our guilt before we can be saved from our sin, that we forget that we have, unilaterally and undeservedly, already been saved.  Christ is not crucified anew every time someone says the “Sinner’s Prayer”, he died once and for all, before the very foundations of the world (Hebrews something:something).  This is the good news!  The good news is not good for some people (Christians) and not for others (non-Christians); it’s good for everyone!  We don’t have to say “If you join our club, you’ll get salvation”; the club is in response to salvation.  It’s not a club that offers salvation as incentive to join; it’s a club for the saved, i.e. for human beings! 

Imagine a social group who approaches you by pointing out all of your faults and telling you that you can be a better person if you hang out with them.  That doesn’t sound like good news to me, it sounds like high school.  The good news (gospel=”good news” in Greek) is a message that everyone actually wants to hear: “You are already reconciled to God through Jesus Christ – you just don’t know it yet, so we’re here to tell you!”  It’s pointing to the reality of what has already been accomplished, so that everyone can see it.  Sin blinds us to reality, and Christians are those who try to point to reality and allow ourselves to be formed by that true reality. 

Bonhoeffer isn’t a gnostic (it’s not the knowledge of salvation that is effective, but the reality of it) nor is he a universalist (you still must recognize reality in order to be affected by it), but he gets back to the goodness of the news in a way that we’ve lacked for way too long.

When Jesus says that the Gospel is offensive, he means in regards to pointing out the world’s subordinacy to God (a message people don’t usually like) – NOT that Christians should be rude jerks who tantalizingly wave salvation before people but require them to completely humiliate themselves to get it; Christ was already humiliated in our place!  Spread the news – we never need to be humiliated again!

Advertisements

Bonhoeffer and Democracy

Back to Ethics readings, after a very full weekend: Saturday I was reading Bonhoeffer between lectures at a Pop Culture symposium: http://www.popculturecanada.ca for more details on that.  I wanted to blog about so many things yesterday that I sort of burned out, choosing nothing.  But tonight, I know I need to get back to Bonhoeffer in prep for class tomorrow, so here it is.

The chapter this week is called Heritage and Decay, in which Bonhoeffer critiques and analyzes the European political journey (among other things).  I’ll start us off with a quote I found significant:

“The desire for absolute freedom leads people into deepest servitude.  The master of the machine becomes its slave; the machine becomes an enemy of the human being.  What is created turns against its creator – a strange repetition of the biblical fall!  The liberation of the masses ends in the horrible reign of the guillotine.  Nationalism leads directly to war.  Human liberation as an absolute ideal leads to the self-destruction of human beings.  At the end of the road traveled by the French Revolution lies nihilism.”Prise_de_la_Bastille

Human freedom is the impetus, and the rallying point, for democracy.  Ironically, it has the potential to backfire epically (though perhaps not in a way that people will notice or be willing to admit).  The references here, the possible comparisons, are numerous: the language of machines turning against their creator points back to the industrial revolution, which was the driving force of democracy in France (as well as nationalism in Germany), and points ahead to the warnings of science fiction, which comment on our loose grip on the influence of increasing technology; the biblical references point to the ironic creative attempts by humanity, resulting in the rebellion of our creation that we so deserve.  The key phrase here is “as an absolute ideal”.  Human liberation is a wonderful thing, and something that God works tirelessly for and gave himself up for, but it is not the ultimate end in itself.  Jesus said “when the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!” – but he was going somewhere with it.

Through the rest of this chapter, Bonhoeffer talks intermittently about politics and secularism.  Intriguingly, both democracy and secularism blew up at the same time (is this because of modernism – i.e. the combination of the primacy of science, the advancement of technology, and the rise of biblical/historical criticism, among other things? perhaps…).  The interplay between church and state, oft-cited these days as either negative or non-existant (as we like it!) are seen by Bonhoeffer quite differently: he saw the struggles between Emperors and Popes to be a balance and tension between two kingdoms, “which, as long as the earth remains, must never be mixed together, yet never torn apart.” (I find this interesting, considering my first Bonhoeffer reading was about the unity of reality and getting rid of the paradigm of the “two kingdoms”.)  The basic idea is that “The sword (government, authority) can never bring about the unity of the church and of faith; preaching can never rule the peoples.  But the lord of both kingdoms is God revealed in Jesus Christ.”  Perhaps Bonhoeffer is using this Two Kingdoms imagery here because he’s talking about Luther’s views, but I think the point remains: government as an instutitution is ordained by God, and serves God.  It serves to maintain order and justice in a fallen world, where preaching often falls on deaf (or dead) ears.  The state preserves a decaying world; but the Church brings new life!  Both must work in tandem, separate but complementary, distinct but synergistic.

On European democracy, Bonhoeffer was critical: “Luther’s great discovery of the freedom of the Christian and the Catholic heresy of the essential goodness of human beings resulted together in deifying humanity.  But deifying humanity is, properly understood, the proclamation of nihilism.”  That’s twice now he’s wrapped up the backfiring of humanism in the term “nihilism” – I must look that up.  “The new unity that the French Revolution brought about in Europe, and whose crisis we experience today, is Western godlessness.”  He contrasts it with American democracy:

“The American Revolution, although it was nearly contemporary with the French and was politically related to it, was profoundly different.  The foundation of American democracy was provided not by the liberated human being but, quite to the contrary, by the kingdom of God that limits all earthly powers by God’s sovereignty.  In contrast to the declaration des droits de l’homme (the French “Declarations of the Rights of Man”), it is genuinely significant that American historians can say that the federal Constitution was written by men who knew about original sin and about evil int he human heart.  Limits are placed on those who exercise earthly power, and also on the people, because of the native human lust for power and also because power belongs to God alone.  This idea, rooted in Calvinism, was combined with another one that was essentially opposite and came from the spiritualism of dissenters who had fled to America, the idea that the kingdom of God on earth cannot be built by state power, but only by the church-community of believers.  The church proclaims the principles of the social and political order.  The state provides the technical means to carry them out.  Both arguments, completely at odds with each other, lead to a demand for democracy, and it is enthusiastic spiritualism that becomes determinative for American thought.”image

While on the surface this looks like a much nicer comment than those about European democracy, the last clause shows that there is still some criticism here: since the time of Luther, “enthusiasm” has been a term describing the dangers of fanaticism.  They’re on the right track though: “If, today, the Anglo-Saxon countries nevertheless suffer from severe manifestations of secularization, the origins of these are not a misunderstood distinction between the two offices (church and state), but the reverse, an insufficient distinction, rooted in enthusiasm, between the offices and kingdoms of the state and the church.”  The premise above, that the kingdom of God can only be built by the Church rather than the state, is true: American democracy, and the American church, fail when that distinction fails.  “The claim of the church-community of believers that it is building up the world with Christian principles ends, as a look at New York church bulletins amply shows, in the complete collapse of the church into the world.  The reason this doesn’t lead to a radical enmity toward the church is because the distinction between the offices was never accomplished.  The godlessness remains concealed.”  I would say that this fact has changed since Bonhoeffer died: the distinction (between church and state) has been made, and made quite clearly – and the radical enmity toward the church has begun, polarizing America between those who still fail to see the distinction and those who see it as the answer to so many political issues.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Church and State for the past several months, and I’d like to re-draw the distinction.  I think that most people see the distinction of these two institutions as being complete, or non-existent: either they have absolutely nothing to do with each other, or they have everything to do with each other.  As with too many things, we must seek a synthesis here.  The separation of Church and State was designed so that the government could not interfere in the religious convictions of the people, could not write doctrine, could not interfere in worship.  Similarly, it served to put an end to religiously-motivated wars, or wars perpetuated using religious terms, such as the so-called “religious wars” of Europe between the Reformation and the Revolution.  Unfortunately, what it also served to do is compartmentalize our lives, drawing boundaries between what we believe and what we do: this is a false distinction, and must be torn down.

Jesus Christ is the centre, the very foundation of my worldview: I believe him to be the centre and foundation of reality itself, and therefore he has an important role in my every thought – how could it be otherwise?  If my every thought is influence by him, should not also my every action?  How can I separate my actions from the thoughts that control them?  My actions are the realm of ethics, which modernity has sought to divorce from theology, but this is an impossiblity.  In the same vein, politics govern our society, how we act as we live together.  If my ethics, which govern my personal actions, cannot be separate from my thoughts and convictions, how can my politics, which govern my actions in society, be similarly separate?  But of course, they can be separated, and such an asinine distinction is demanded by our society today.  All it requires is for one to develop two personas: the public and the private.  In order to prevent our politics and religion from mixing, we’ve managed to fragment ourselves into two people: one who feels and believes, and one who acts in society.  How we’ve managed to keep going with such fragmented thoughts and castrated worldviews is beyond me: what do we really base our actions (ethics and politics) on, if not what we really think and believe?

I propose that instead of believing one thing and making ourselves think another, we serve up the intestinal fortitude and introspection required to live out what we really think and believe – which means, of course, thinking about what we believe, and acting upon it both personally and socially.  The separation between Church and State does not mean that I am not a Christian while I vote: it means that I don’t vote for who my God is.  Conversely, having an integrated worldview and allowing my religious beliefs to influence my political beliefs does not mean that I will seek to build a Christian kingdom on earth, pressing my views and values on others.  My concept of the reality of Jesus Christ reinforces my endorsement of public healthcare, ethical treatment of prisoners, rejection of a military state, social programs, etc. etc., and I gain nothing by pretending that it doesn’t.  We must understand that to be a Christian does not mean to be politically silent, and to be politically active does not mean to be secular.  The Church builds the Kingdom of God, bringing new life to the world: the State preserves and brings order to that world.

We’ve created a government that is subject to the will of the people: we must remember that, whatever we do, it is ultimately subject to God.  Throughout History, God has given us a collaborative role in His works in the world: he gave us dominion in Eden, the participation in creation through childbearing and care of the earth, and an active role in the redemption of humanity and the earth through the impartation of the Holy Spirit, to be the Body of Christ.  The State serves us (and God) toward all of those goals; the ability to be involved in the state is just another example of God giving us a role to play in His work on the earth!

It’s late, and this probably isn’t clear – so challenge me on it.

The Historicity of the Bible

I know I said I’d only write once a week, but I’ve had a backlog of thoughts and concepts I’ve been working through.  This one has been coming at me from many sources and different classes, so here it goes:

Does it matter if the events recorded in the Bible actually happened, or is the message the only important part?

Throughout the history of theology, opinions on this matter have varied.  There are some who have always claimed, and still do, that all of the events recorded in the Bible are fully true, and that all of its impact depends on the reality of the record.  There are others, on the other hand, who don’t believe Jesus even existed, but maintain that theology itself is still valid.  As with most things, I’m caught in the middle.

For example, we’re currently discussing the nature of ancient histories in my Old Testament Theology class.  The ancients didn’t care about the exact order of things, and they had no concept of an “objective account”: to the ancients, history was “a people writing a narrative account of their history for their benefit.”  Ancient Greek historians would blatantly make stuff up when they ran out of source material, filling in the holes of their narrative.  Ancient editors would rework the same story in very different ways, with each version speaking specifically to a different audience.  A prime example of this is the story of the Flood.Edward_Hicks_Noahs_Ark

Noah’s story isn’t the only version of the Flood.  I remember a time when this revelation shook my faith from its very foundations; if there’s more than one flood story, does that mean it isn’t true?  If it isn’t true, does that mean that the whole Bible is untrustworthy?  These questions were tough.  Now, the Epic of Gilgamesh doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but I’m learning that there were flood stories in just about every culture in the region; each account features the specific gods of a specific people within their own cultural context.  The interesting thing is, at the end of one flood account, the narrative refers to another people’s god: the editor had forgotten to change the name of the god in the last reference, and since writing was literally “written in stone” in those days, he couldn’t fix his mistake.  Every one of the flood accounts has similar themes or details for a reason: it’s the same story, re-hashed for different audiences.  Doubtless, many of the people in the original audience knew this – but that’s not the point.  It didn’t matter to them if someone had completely re-written the historical account: the significance of the story was what mattered to them.

What about for us?  Does the story still carry significance for us if it’s a clever fiction?  Discuss, keeping in mind that there’s no such thing as an “objective” history; it’s the significance we give to real events (or find in them) that makes them noteworthy.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like: The Politics of Jesus, continued…

I just got back from watching the film “This Is What Democracy Looks Like” at a Social Concerns Committee presentation at a local college, and it brought to mind so much of what I wrote here earlier today.  If you haven’t seen this documentary, I recommend it lightly.  It has much to say, and much to show you, but it wears its heart on its sleeve, so to speak.  You can very much tell the position of the filmmakers, so keep that in mind while you watch it; if you’re able to glean things from a documentary without swallowing everything (or without getting upset because you disagree) then I recommend it more heartily.

democracy-looks-like

The film was entirely shot by independent media (i.e. people with cameras and without press credentials) on the streets of Seattle during the World Trade Organization protests of 1999.  Protesters from every camp (unions, environmentalists, human rights advocates, women’s rights advocates, etc. etc.) were coming together to protest outside the meetings of the World Trade Organization, which is an organization that controls global trade, and whose decisions affect all of the above causes because they profoundly influence (and sometimes even overrule) governments.  One goal of the protests was to blockade the meeting venue, so that none of the WTO reps could get inside on the first day of the meetings.  In that respect, they were successful: non-violent protest won the day.

By the next day, a few anarchists had broken windows at Starbucks and Nike stores; actions like these gave the authorities the illusion of the moral high ground, and they began to treat the protesters as if they were all violent subversives.  Police used batons, paintballs and rubber bullets, pepper spray, and even tear gas to disperse protesters.  I remember watching it on television in 1999, and while I admit I didn’t pay it much attention then, it was at least partly because it seemed irrelevant to me: all the news agencies would show was the damage caused by the few, and gave almost no attention to the reasons behind the protests.  To me, it was nothing more than a bunch of crazy hippies who are anti-establishment and want to riot – because that is how it was portrayed.

In this film, I saw a different side to the story.  The solidarity between different types of activists, the constant focus on unity and non-violence, gave the protesters the moral high ground.   To hear the protesters say “I’m not resisting, please remove your knee from my back” and chant “the whole world is watching” as the police sprayed harmful chemicals in their faces, ripping away their bandanas to get a better shot at the eyes and mouth, really brought the message home.  Of course, none of that reached the media (50% of which is owned by 8 large corporations in the US – corporations that have representatives at the WTO).

The media had all of the footage they needed: the occasional protester who would break something, spraypaint something, or even shove a police officer not only got good ratings, but served the media’s interests in that it gave the moral high ground to the police, who were charged with “keeping the peace”.  With images like that to fill their time slot, they didn’t need to mention that the city of Seattle systematically took away civil rights, day by day as the protests continued, even making the possession of gas masks illegal within Seattle so that any protester who was immune to tear gas could be arrested on sight.

The WTO conference collapsed eventually, at least partially because of the protests.  The protests outside the conference centre were matched with protests all over the world, which sprang up because of the media attention on the protests in Seattle.  These massive actions all across the globe emboldened the smaller member nations of the WTO to stand up in their informal meetings (because they never did get into a real session at the convention centre as they were supposed to) and say that the actions of the WTO were not in the best interests of their people.  All talks collapsed…for the time being.  The protesters by then had moved to the King County prison, where over 600 of their number were being held because of their connection to the protests.  Overall, about 50,000 people took part.  Their long-term success, however, was limited.  In fact, though these particular protests had more of an impact than almost any before them (at least in regard to this issue), they failed in many ways.

First, the WTO still exists.  The WTO exists because corporations exist, and corporations exist solely to profit off of our consumerist ways (but that’s for another blog).  It’ll take more than a well-aimed protest to change the world – but that’s not really how the protests failed.  They failed because, at certain points, certain protesters sacrificed the moral high ground.  They had a morally superior message to that of the WTO, but that message was not heard because the actions of a few ruined the credibility of most.  But even in their successes, I was struck by some fundamental failures:

A constant cry at these rallies was “POWER!”  and “POWER TO THE PEOPLE!”  While I understand that these rallies took place in a democratic society in which the people are supposed to have the power, such a slogan reveals the true underlying issue in human politics.  It turned a message of justice into a cry (and struggle) for power.  At one point, one of the organizers reminisced in an interview after the fact, saying something along the lines of “in those streets, in that moment, we belonged to ourselves.”  Self-determination is a central right in a democratic context, but once again it revealed an underlying issue, another Power that we are subject to: Self.  Seeing these themes coming over and over again, it struck me that these protests were missing a fundamental thing, without which they will always fail to live up to their full potential: they were missing Christ.

Rather than saying “POWER TO THE PEOPLE!” we can say, with all honesty “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power.” (Rev. 5:12)  Rather than saying “in that moment, we belonged to ourselves,” we can say with gratitude that we belong to Christ, forever.  When our whole allegiance is to Christ, we will never compromise our message or our authority; we can never be said to be seeking power, as we proclaim that all power belongs to Christ; we can never be said to be seeking glory, as we live to glorify Christ.

I may have given the impression in the last post that we are to submit to all Powers and Authorities: I should underline that this must be thought through very carefully.  Christ himself submitted to an authority that was unjust, but did so in a way that made his allegiance to the Father very clear.  If Materialism is a Power, that doesn’t mean that you should go buy some shoes; it does mean that you should respect their property, copyrights, etc.  The key is in being blameless: it is only when your message and your actions are just that you can make a difference as Christ did.  Yoder said that we should be resisting, and submitting at all times: that means, in large part, that planting a bomb is not planting a message.  When a criminal takes on the establishment, he loses – no matter how just his cause may be.  But when someone of good repute, honest and trustworthy, blameless even; when that person speaks up about something, people take notice.

This is the ethic of Jesus Christ.  Go and do likewise.

The Politics of Jesus

0802807348.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_I wrote a book report yesterday on a book called The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder.  A very interesting book (though a little dense – not an easy read), with a lot of mind-blowing concepts; mind blowing in their simplicity, really.  Yoder challenges a lot of the traditional theology and preconceived notions about Jesus: primarily, that Jesus is not normative for ethics, and that he was completely apolitical in his day.  By revewing the Gospel according to Luke (which traditionally has been interpreted as Luke trying to reassure Theophilus that Jesus wasn’t political) and stripping away that preconceived notion that Jesus was apolitical, Yoder shows that Jesus rarely said or did anything that didn’t have drastic social implications, and that it was the very political nature of his ministry that got him killed (quite willingly, of course).  I want to talk about one specific concept that came out in this book (I think it was in chapter 6?): the concept of Powers.

In a few places in the Bible, Paul talks about the Powers and Authorities, or Principalities of this world.  In Ephesians 6, Paul says that we fight against them (as opposed to flesh and blood).  These Powers are often interpreted as being demonic forces, and I guess that would make sense if you didn’t have any other definition of them – but it doesn’t really make sense, because at other places in the New Testament the writers have absolutely no problem calling demons…demons.  Why would Paul talk about them in code, calling them Powers and Principalities and Rulers?

Instead, what he’s talking about are the authorities, values, structures and norms that rule the earth.  We cannot escape from them, and we are forced to obey them.  It’s not just government (though that is certainly a power; Bonhoeffer refers to it as a God-given Mandate); it’s all of the rules, all of the things that we are subordinate to.  Yoder describes them as being created by God, but fallen from their humble purpose, imposing their dominion beyond the bounds of their purpose (providing order in the world).

In Jesus’ day, there were three main Powers that were oppressing his people: government, personified in the Gospels in Pontius Pilate and the Herodians; the Law, or the Temple, as personified by the scribes and Sadducees; and piety or purity, as personified by the Pharisees.  Between them, these three Powers had the people at their mercy – an attribute that none of them showed.  There were two governments ruling Palestine (Caesar and Herod), and three laws (Roman law, Jewish law, and the pious rules of the Pharisees); the ruling and priestly classes manipulated these laws to extract money from the poor and maintain their own position.  The Priestly class (Sadducees and scribes) controlled the religious life of the people, which often amounts to extortion for your very salvation; the Pharisees controlled the moral and social aspects of life, promoting a legalistic framework for the lives of the people, and stoning those who erred too grieviously; and the Romans had the power of the sword, imposing their will arbitrarily while, like the others, hiding their arbitrariness behind the illusion of moral or legal authority.  Add to the mix the Zealot party, an underground resistance movement that desired to overthrow the Romans (and likely questioned where your loyalties lay) and it’s fair to say, as Paul pointed out, that the people are made slaves by the Powers and Authorities.

Now, this doesn’t just refer to corrupt governments or institutions.  The Pharisees didn’t just rule people by fear of stoning; the value of piety and purity ruled people by imposing a social order (legalism) that the people could not ignore, and the Pharisees merely took advantage of that (and probably not even most of them, at that).  There are still Powers and Authorities all around us today: the biggest one that immediately comes to mind is materialism.  Religion is another.  Science and Modernity are big ones, as are “Tolerance” and Post-Modernity.  Sexuality.  We could go on and on: everything that controls our lives, whether we realize it or not.  These things have a good purpose, but their level of control over humanity has expanded, and is no longer subordinate to God.  That’s where Jesus comes in…

Jesus’ real temptation, as described by Yoder, was to accomplish his goals (freedom for the people, a new social order, justice, etc.) the earthly way: the Zealot option was calling to him, and Satan kept rubbing his nose in it.  But Jesus understood that it wasn’t just the Roman government that was oppressive, it was the Power of Government that needed to be re-submitted to God.  It wasn’t just the Legalists, it was the Law.  From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus’ words and examples challenged these Powers, these institutions: they claimed moral authority, but their authority couldn’t match his, and his very existence shed light on that fact.  They tried to get him to choose sides, and he refused (and this, I’m sure, is why we always think of him as apolitical – because he wouldn’t do politics our way).  What he did instead, was what was right – and proved his moral authority at every turn.  They could not get him to play their game, and they could not beat him at his (that is, they could not claim moral superiority over him).  The only way that they could stop him from showing the world that their power was an illusion was by killing him; but in that move, their credibility and authority was completely overcome, the illusion of moral authority gone as they put an innocent man to death.  Jesus went willingly, subordinating himself by choice to the powers that claim authority over us, and in so doing destroyed their grip on humanity forever.

Which brings us to today, and to the Church.  We know that there are no powers that are not subordinate to Christ: his authority is greater than all others.  By choosing to subordinate ourselves to the Powers, we point out that there is a power greater than them, an authority beyond them that rules over them, and they are brought back to their original level and purpose.  By living lives of submission, we are pointing out the illusion of these powers to the world – and pointing to the real authority, Jesus Christ.  No physical uprising could have that power!

What do you think?  Is there ever a time that a physical fight could have the impact (and preserve our integrity) of submission and self-subordination?

Bonhoeffer’s View of Reality and Good

Reading Bonhoeffer’s Ethics for Christian Ethics class is a hearty challenge.  The reading itself is quite easy: even translated, Bonhoeffer was a good writer.  The difficult part of reading Bonhoeffer is prepping your mental stomach to take on so much meat.  Just when you think that you’ve wrapped your mind around a thick, meaty thought, dripping with the hearty juices of implications, you’re faced with an entirely new haunch to chew on.  It’s dilectible, certainly, but when you have to cram it down in time for a deadline, it makes for a heavy stomach…or brain, as the metaphor has clearly gone too far.

The great thing about Bonhoeffer is that he has a very different worldview than traditional Christianity tends to teach, despite the fact that he is quite thoroughly orthodox.  He changes the meanings of common words, with epic results.  I’m sure this is to some degree due to the difference between theological German and common English, but I’ll offer an example: reality.

Bonhoeffer doesn’t believe in reality as we commonly see it.  If it exists to him, it certainly isn’t relevant.  When B. talks about reality, he’s talking about the reality of God as revealed in Jesus Christ: the ultimate, and only, reality.  All other conceptions of reality are, seemingly, false.  The reality of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is the ultimate reality, whithin which the reality of everyday life is contained.  So, while the fact that you’re getting older every minute and you just stubbed your toe and you’re concerned about your friend and you don’t understand Bonhoeffer are all quite real, you must understand that they are only a part of the reality that is God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  That is the foundation and culmination, the start and end, of all reality.  There is no reality without God, and there is no reality apart from God, and there is no reality outside of God, and God has revealed himself, in reality, through Jesus Christ.

It makes sense, but requires a fundamental rearranging of our categorical thought process.  We like to put everything into different mental bins: political, religious, private, public, good, evil, Church, World, etc.  I’m currently a postal worker, and am beginning to understand just how handy having bins with different labels on them can be; but while those bins help me to sort through the mail, they do nothing to show me the significance or contents of the mail.  Labels are great for arranging our life, our thoughts, and even our worldview: but what good is having a well-labeled, yet incomplete or incorrect, worldview?

Reality, to Bonhoeffer, is the foundation of Christian Ethics.  In fact, his definition of Christian Ethics is to participate in reality.  Since reality is God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, then something is only good if it is taking part in what Jesus Christ is doing in reality.  For example, God declared creation, as a whole, to be good.  Now, all Creation as a whole and undivided in any way, is reconciled to God in Jesus Christ, and is therefore good.  To take part in reality (which is revelation in Jesus Christ), i.e. to take part in what Christ is doing in the world, is to be a part of that good.  To try to find the good outside of what Jesus Christ is doing in the world is to miss the mark; in fact, to try to live in any way outside of the relation of Christ and his actions in the world is, quite naturally, the opposite of good – it is to deny reality itself, and is therefore quite obviously bad.

As you can see, Bonhoeffer’s ethics have a completely different foundation than typical ethics, even typical Christian ethics.  Instead of being preoccupied with the question “what is good” in every situation, Bonhoeffer starts with an understanding of exactly what it is that makes something good, and can therefore focus on what is really a much more interesting question: “What is Jesus Christ doing in the world?”  When you can find the answer to that question, then you have found both the Good and the Real; all you must do is take part in it.dietrich_bonhoeffer-gross

The Syllabus

Hello, and welcome to Stumbling Through Theology.  I’ve just started a Master of Arts in Theology, focusing on Systematic Theology, and I’d like to share the coming journey with you.  I’d like to share my adventure of stumbling through theology for a few reasons: first and foremost, because this stuff messes with my mind a bit, and I need an outlet like this to help me work through it, almost like a silent sounding board (though of course I’d welcome any feedback or interaction with the subject – please give my sounding board a voice!); second, because I find the things I’m learning about life, the universe, and everything – and specifically, Jesus Christ – to be so wonderful and life-changing that it ought to be offered to the world in as many ways and through as many agents as possible.

You may have noticed that the title I’ve chosen for this blog is a bit of a double-entendre; I mean it in both ways.  First, I feel like I’m a bit over my head, that I’ve taken on a hike of epic proportions in my desire to traverse the peaks and valleys of theology, and I’m stumbling my way through it rather clumsily at times.  Second, I’ve discovered that the more I study theology, the more I get into the Bible, the more my preconceptions and the dogmatic instructions of my yesteryears are challenged, broadened, and even thrown out the window – that is to say, the study of theology has become a stumbling block, upsetting my worldview in the process of perfecting it.  While it’s unsettling, it’s a pretty fan-freaking-tastic adventure, and I’m not at all concerned: Jesus is always good at upsetting the apple-carts of our presuppositions and blind dogmatism.

I’m not here to voice new thoughts on theology; I’m not an authority on anything except my own experience; I’m just stumbling through, and I welcome you to join me.  Don’t expect me to hold to any hard lines in theology: I have a background that criss-crosses Protestant denominations, combined with a firm conviction that all truth is God’s truth and Jesus isn’t partisan.  I attend a non-denominational seminary, and will be surveying theologies from every sphere in my time here.

I’ll probably blog on Sundays, and Sundays only: there’s just too much work during the week, and reflecting on theology seems to be a healthy Sabbath-day activity.  I intend to begin soon, possibly even tomorrow (a Monday, I know, but I’m sometimes impatient).  That being said, blogging will come as an aid to, or response to, readings and assignments, and thus will never pre-empt them.

Cheers, blessings, and happy reading.

EDIT: I realized that this is much more of a Syllabus than a Thesis.  Perhaps I’ve been listening to too much Ambassador.