Salvation = not-Hell, and other Evangelical Protestantisms

Midterm completed, and my head hurts.  A lot.  And it’s not from the midterm; probably a combination of this sinus pressure I’ve developed over the weekend and the concussion that came from the shattering of my theological paradigms.  On my first post on Bonhoeffer, Graeme asked me to say in one sentence how Bonhoeffer is not a universalist, and I sort of got it.  Today it came up in class, and with it the idea that Bonhoeffer wouldn’t even understand such a question, because it comes from a completely different starting point.  The question of universalism comes from a standpoint that demands that status statement: we assume that a person is either in or out, and we wanna know who’s a sheep and who’s a goat.  Turns out, there are entire streams of Christianity that don’t make that distinction – which in itself doesn’t mean that there is not a distinction to be made, but only that they are completely unconcerned with making it, or even how it is made.

Universalism is a dirty word in North American Evangelical Protestantism, where salvation means precisely not-Hell and our worldview revolves around a dichotomy in eternity.  Bonhoeffer says a lot of things that make my Pentecostal background cringe and shiver (and I’m a pretty liberal Pentecostal!), but they’re incredibly attractive to me.  Bonhoeffer’s statements about the nature of reality and salvation and Christ don’t leave room for in-or-out mentality, and that’s so exciting because it takes away so much guilt for the lost I haven’t reached, so much distress for any secret sins I’ve forgotten to ask forgiveness for, any subconscous habits that still lead me to sin.  It’s attractive for all of those selfish reasons, and for that reason I’m wary of it.  But at the same time, the most attractive thing about Bonhoeffer’s view is that it glorifies Christ so much more than any statement I’ve ever heard about Christ, sin, salvation and Hell!  For B., the centre of all reality is Christ, and you never get tired of hearing about it in his writing.

So what does Bonhoeffer say about sin and salvation?  Who’s in and who’s out?  What happens to the goats when they’re separated from the sheep?

Key to it all is to understand that Bonhoeffer doesn’t see any real dichotomy or separations in reality, quite opposite to his Lutheran background.  Many of us try to separate the saved from the unsaved, the Church from the world, the sacred from the profane.  B points out that Christ came precisely to bridge that gap, so that all things are reconciled to Christ and all things are made whole, redeemed, united to him.  To Bonhoeffer, Christ’s work in the world is finished, complete, accomplished – humanity has been saved, and Christ is 100% effective: salvation has not been offered – it has been given.467px-Icon_second_coming

Us Evangelicals love to talk about how salvation is a free gift: we agree with Christ in that, and Bonhoeffer too.  But we always limit it, somehow: Christ has given it, but we must receive it, we must accept it, it is not ours.  A subtle – but very important – distinction is that Christ has given salvation, and it is ours, and we have it, whether or not we realize it.  It’s a very subtle difference, but the implications are incredible: in one view, our will, ignorance, and sin is a barrier to Christ’s work; in the other view, there are absolutely no barriers to Christ’s work whatsoever.  Christ has accomplished the salvation of every single person on the planet.  The question is not whether or not someone is saved, but how that person is living into Christ’s salvation and Christ’s judgment.  Christ is salvation, and Christ is judgment, so how are you living in relation to Christ, what he has done and what he is doing?

This doesn’t say much about Hell, and a world without Hell is another Evangelical extreme taboo that I dare not mess with.  We don’t like the SDA doctrine of total annihilation (the second death is a literal death, the end of afterlife for sinners) or universalism (that all are saved and will spend forever in heaven, and thus that there is no hell).  Bonhoeffer isn’t either of those, but (at least according to my prof) he wouldn’t say that Hell is a physical place, but rather a state of being.  In that sense, just as the Kingdom is here but not yet fully realized, so too is Hell present all around us.  People we know are living in hell on earth, regardless of how good or bad their personal situation is, while people who are, to our standards, living in real hell, in war and famine and prison and slavery, are more aware of the Kingdom of God than we are.  Both are present in this world, and there is no dichotomy in reality, no separation; both will be present in the world to come, and for all eternity.  It’s true that they are two very different views of reality, but they are different views of the same reality.

I likened it before to the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle; in heaven, the Dwarves labour in vain, blind to the fact that they are even in heaven.  Another example is that of a slave: we were once slaves to sin, but have been set free; some of us accept that freedom wholeheartedly, but others refuse it and do not leave Egypt.  No matter how much Christ tells them that they’re free, they keep serving our old master, not believing that they are free.  While we partake in what Christ has done and is doing in the world, they refuse Him, and thus refuse to acknowledge their own freedom in him, and continue to be slaves in a living hell.449px-Hortus_Deliciarum_-_Hell

I’m perhaps more comfortable with this concept of heaven and hell than a Pentecostal should be, but there are two reasons why this rings true to me (not that it doesn’t bother me, but just that it’s very intriguing and I’m willing to investigate it): first because it glorifies Christ more, in a sense, to know that his work of salvation is complete regardless of our choice regarding it; and second because my own investigations into the scripture regarding Hell revealed a much less complete picture than is commonly presented about Hell.  There is nothing, anywhere in the Bible (from what I can tell) that speaks specifically about Hell as a physical place, where physical or mental tortures occur, with fire and demons and pitchforks.  Jesus’ references to Hell were usually referring to the valley of Hinnom, Jerusalem’s garbage dump, where acrid smoke from burning garbage was a constant thing.  Other times he referred to the Greek concept of Hades, but didn’t use a lot of concrete terms.  He referred to Abraham’s Bosom in a parable, but it was simply a parable and described purgatory more than Hell (Sheol, in Hebrew, is a concept closer to our concept of purgatory, as a neutral waiting place – as is the Greek Hades).  Other times he made even more vague references to those who refuse his invitation being cast out into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth – but again, where would that be, if it is a physical place, and why should we take a parable as a parable when it speaks of a wedding feast and “literally” when it speaks to those who don’t come to the wedding?  Outside of the references of Jesus, we have only Revelation, in its complex imagery and difficult passages, to talk about Hell – and again, it doesn’t say much.482px-William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Dante_And_Virgil_In_Hell_(1850)

So here is my challenge, to you and myself: why do we say that Hell is a phsyical place, and why are we so concerned with being in or out?  Quite naturally those two questions are linked, so here’s another: who is at the centre of the in-or-out question, and who is at the centre of Bonhoeffer’s view?  And is the answer to that question alone enough to swing our view one way or the other?

Advertisements

Taking Christ out of Christianity – Bonhoeffer’s response

Tomorrow, I face a midterm examination in Christian Ethics class.  The task: respond to an article as Deitrich Bonhoeffer.  The article: about a United Church minister named Gretta Vosper, who released a book last year entitled With or Without God: Why How We Live is More Important than What We Believe.  The problems with Vosper’s theology are obvious: for starters, she doesn’t believe in God, or Jesus, and removes them from Christian worship.  The trick to this midterm is not to be able to rip her theology apart, but to respond as if I were Deitrich Bonhoeffer, based on what I know of his theology.  Here goes…

There are two common errors in Christianity, both of which lead to a denial of reality, and therefore of Christ.  Radicalism, on one hand, stems from a hatred of the penultimate, a hatred of this world and daily life therein, seeking solace from the messy reality we inhabit in the reality to come, in Christ’s final word.  In removing oneself from the here and now, looking only to the ultimate, one demeans this messy reality that Christ loves so very much that he became a part of it.  Compromise, on the other hand, stems from a hatred of the ultimate and an idolization of the penultimate, eventually elevating the here and now to the point in which the ultimate serves as a justifying final judgment upon the penultimate – at best.  Both errors create a false division in reality, between the penultimate reality, the here and now, that Christ loves enough to step into and inhabit; and the ultimate, Christ’s final word for this reality, the final consummation of this reality and the greater reality of Christ that enfolds it.  To divide reality is to despise it, for it is indivisible and whole, reconciled in Christ Jesus.

The error of compromise stems from a hatred of the ultimate.  Modern humanism proposes that humanity is the ultimate, and furthermore that humanity ascends to its ultimacy only when it is free, defining freedom as complete autonomy.  Such humanism hates the lordship of Christ, seeing it as unjust, blocking the human freedom that Christ supposedly preached.  When this hatred is combined with the belief that the penultimate is the ultimate – that humanity and the world are all that exists – the Christian faith is reduced to an absurd self-subjugation to fairy-tales, ultimately a self-denial of freedom, knowledge, and power – a self-denial of human ascendency.  For if the penultimate is in fact the ultimate – if this is all that exists – then human ascendency is quite naturally our goal, the search for the ideal, the good, the best.  What makes this search tragic is that it denies the reality that the eternal Good, Ideal, and Best has found us, has visited us, has become one with us and reconciled us to himself, and in so doing has made us like himself – that we too might be good as we partake in what he has done and is doing.

To idolize humanity is to search for things within humanity to exalt.  We search for the things that in turn exalt us, lifting them up as they lift us up; we replace “Christ” with terms such as “Glorious Hope”, loving the hope but hating its source and its end.  We love what hope does to us, and so we glorify it and capitalize it, idolize it, so that as we experience it we too may be glorified, all the while neglecting the reality that our first and only true hope came from Christ, and is in Christ.  What else may we hope for?  To hope for hope itself is impotent, as hope without an object is an action without action, it is rhetoric, it is nothing.  We are able to strive for such vain hope precisely because we have embraced and idolized the penultimate, the feeling of hope, while hating the ultimate within which such hope is to be founded and from whence it springs.

Similarly, the idolization of community is the idolization of humanity, taken even further.  The evil of Adam’s claim of autonomy and independence from God was trumped by Lamech’s claim not only of that independence but also of ascendency over his fellow man; even Lamech’s sin paled in comparison to the evil of the idolization of community that took place at Babel, making an institution of denying God’s Lordship over humanity.  To recognize the holy Eucharist as a celebration of community without recognizing the founder and foundation of the community itself is to celebrate nothingness: what is the Body of Christ without the Head?  What is the Temple of the Holy Spirit without the Spirit?  It is a wedding without a marriage, a sanctification of emptiness and nothingness, a travelling along the path of nationalism to the final end of nihilism, perhaps a fitting end to such a path.  To find such a movement within the Church is a complete denial of the Church, an anti-Church, whose work in glorifying humanity over Christ is quite necessarily anti-Christ.  This ought to be at least as shocking to the Church as the claims of Christ’s Lordship are to the world!

Such challenges to Christ’s authority, judgment, Lordship, and even existence are done in the name of modernizing and making relevant the Church to a generation that does not recognize Christ.  Such a statement makes clear that its foundation is the belief only in the penultimate.  If all reality is Christ, then Christ is quite naturally the most relevant part of reality – there is nothing outside of his reality, and therefore nothing else is more relevant.  To say that a removal of Christ will make the Church more relevant to people is to say that the Church serves people rather than Christ – not only denying the foundation of reality but also the very raison d’etre of the Church – to serve Christ, and to point to Christ, both of which offer real service to humanity as well.  Christ is removed from the Church with the purpose of smoothing the road to God, or god, or the gods – toward whatever a community decides to define as sacred and holy, ultimately themselves.  Christian theologians decry the doctrine that “all roads lead to God”, but too often fail to point out that there is no road to God: that road is one-way, and Christ has travelled it to get to us.  Instead, we continue to search for ways for us to get “to God”, which of course requires that the gods we seek be accessible that way, which means that they are our very own finite creations.  We no longer even attempt to get to the LORD who, even if he were accessible by us on our own, has judged us in Christ and makes real demands of us; these things, though they have been fulfilled by Christ, are hateful to those who would idolize humanity – and so should they be, for one who has removed the very same Christ who fulfills those demands on our behalf.  No, we cannot make the Church more relevant without Christ, for the relevance of the Church depends completely on Christ, without whom it is nothing but a celebration of Nichts, Nothingness, deified in the form of empty human beings.  Those who would say “God is dead” have created a dead god in their own image, with the hope that such a god, one who is walking dead, would be more attractive to humanity than the living God who makes the dead live.

The hatred of the ultimate comes from a denial of its ultimacy, which can only exist from a recognition of its ultimacy: ignorance is not denial, and one does not hate what one does not believe to exist.  The rule, authority, and judgment of God over the world through Jesus Christ is hateful to those who compromise, because it is absolute.  Whether or not anyone recognizes it, Christ reigns over all creation as Lord, and has judged all creation; such a statement bears no challenges, leaves no room for the idolization of humanity, hope, community, or any other thing.  Christ’s word is ultimate – he has the final say, and he has said it; it is finished.

*Whew*

I’m not sure if I even stayed on topic in that.  I hope my prof likes it, and I hope Bonhoeffer would too.  I hope I can write something similar out in an hour.  And I hope that, somehow, I can apply it to my life in a way that points people back to Christ.  Challenge me, especially if you’re pointing out anything heretical or un-Bonhoeffer-ish.  I might have to do this again before tomorrow.

Grace and Peace.

Politics and Reconciliation: Church and State

I read an interesting essay today about the origin of western liberal politics, the type that is now followed almost universally.  It’s called “Politics and Reconciliation” by William E. Cavanaugh, in the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (S. Hauerwas and S. Wells, eds., Blackwell Publishing, 2004).  It started with the schisms of the Church that led to so many religious wars post-Reformation.  The concept of the state being for the common good was altered, as it was clear that people could not even agree on the end of life, or the definition of good.  Arguing about these issues led to wars, with people killing one another based on their allegiances to one view of the “good” or another – and even civil wars, as people had different views within their own nations about exactly what constituted the “common good” that their government was designed to forward.

Thomas Hobbes proposed a different worldview.  No longer could it be said that the state existed for the common good, because there was no consensus about what “good” was, and thus there was no “common”.  The view of humanity as being whole and unified, community oriented, passed away.  Instead, what was proposed was the “state of nature” – that is, a human being as an individual prior to any allegiance.  The age of Individualism dawned.  According to Hobbes, an individual in the “natural state”  is free, and that freedom is equally shared by all people.  Of course, our freedom will inevitably clash with the freedom of each other: “from this equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends.  And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end, which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only, endeavour to destroy, or subdue one another.”  So the new view of humanity as individuals rather than members of opposing groups did little to stop conflict, as our freedom to persue our own ends naturally puts us in conflict with one another as we all strive toward our own “good”.  According to Hobbes, though people are unable to agree on what “good” is, they can certainly agree on “evil” – the fear of death is the only thing human individuals truly have in common.   Therefore we all should give our freedom to an absolute sovereign, who can set up laws to protect us from each other.  The very surrenderring of our freedoms to the sovereign would protect our freedom from each other – giving us rights.  We still do this, to a degree – sacrificing small freedoms for the sake of greater exercise of more important freedoms.thomas_hobbes

John Locke took it a step further.  He said that we have rights not just based on our conflict with one another, but based on the natural state itself.  He said that our natural state has no real relationships involved in it at all: it is primarily a relationship between the individual an nature.  Our primary concern is not struggle with one another, but to find sustenance.  To get and keep sustenance, we formed the concept of personal property, i.e. “this food is mine, and so is the spear I killed it with”.  To Locke, we can claim these things as our property because God gave all of creation to all of humanity; thus, our rights are not generated by the state as a response to an innate violence in humanity, but are instead intrinsic to our individual nature.  This means we are even more individualistic than Hobbes thought, because we do not depend on the state for our rights – they are instrinsic.  Of course, even Locke had to admit that sooner or later someone was going to try to claim someone else’s property, and we’d all be fighting to protect our property – and thus we’re forced from the “state of nature” into politics anyways.  Locke said “the commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.  Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of the body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.”  I’ve taken part in some gun control debates recently, and this point hit home repeatedly: people are so concerned about protecting their possessions that they would not hesitate to kill an intruder or thief, claiming a right to do so.  Even Locke, who wanted to limit the power of the government, would have said that this is the role of government, not private citizens.locke

The trouble with these systems of thought is that they have no hope.  They start from a view that there is violence and hostility innate in human nature, and that reconciliation is impossible.  The best these views of human government can do is limit or subdue violence between humans, based on a threat.  Hobbes thought the threat should be the sovereign, who had the power of the death penalty for those who transgressed the law.  We’ve settled for less than the death penalty to limit crime, but fear remains as the primary motivation to do good.  After all, the modern state cannot promote a view of the “common good” – we’re far too diverse in opinion for that!  No, instead we must always focus on the negative, on the punishment, as motivation to do good (at least in the state’s perspective); and the results are also negative, only limiting violence, seeing reconciliation as impossible.  In fact, the best the state can offer to reconcile and unite their people is to focus them on an outside threat, a common threat – usually another nation.  The best way to stop violence among your people is to direct their violence outward – and really, when was the last time there wasn’t a war uniting us?  We can’t get by without it.  In wartime, the government can do whatever they want, because finally there is a “common good” – fighting our common enemy.

The Church begins from an opposite worldview: the view that violence and conflict are a result of the Fall – that is, that they’re not the norm, they are a departure from the way things are supposed to be.  Also, we claim and proclaim that reconciliation is not only possible, but that it has been and is being accomplished by Jesus Christ!  The Church proclaims this as we meet together, a congregation that does not exist to protect people but seeks to protect people, that does not exist for the common good but seeks the common good and proclaims and glorifies the One who makes all things good.  A congregation that crosses all boundaries of alligiance for the sake of the ultimate allegiance.  A congregation that proclaims the unity of the Church (and thus, of all humanity) every time we partake of Communion, symbolically becoming one with He who reconciles and restores unity to all things!  Our concept of the role of government, then, is (or should be) much different – and our interaction with government does not fit the normal boundaries we’ve placed on it.

Traditionally, people have either said that the Church should stay out of politics altogether, or keep our belief out of our politics.  Neither is a very plausible answer to the Christian citizen, as it compromises either our faith and understanding of reality, or our place in society, or quite likely both.  Cavanaugh describes it in performance terms: either we play a very minor part on the main stage, or we relegate ourselves to the small side-stage that has little to no audience.  Why?  Instead, why not recognize that we are free to live in light of our politic, in light of the gospel and the demands that it places on us, both within and outside the boundaries of the state – i.e. we’re not dependent on laws that demand us to do good; we can do good on our own, for our own reasons!  It doesn’t matter if the state demands that we do right, because we’re going to do it anyways.  Cavanaugh gives examples of Christians doing right in spite of the state, taking supplies, medicine and toys to Iraq as private citizens, an act that is against the law but is most certainly the right thing to do.  The other example he gave was of his church: upon discussing the oppressive and exploitative conditions of the third world agricultural centre, of which we all (mostly) blindly support, one person suggested writing to Congress about it.  Eventually they decided instead to buy their produce from a local agricultural co-op, through which they knew the conditions of the farms and farmers, and even got to know their farmers a little bit.  While the state was a valid option to help them do the right thing, they are still able to do the right thing on their own, independent of the state.

Another example I’d like to point out is the organization Invisible Children.  I saw their presentation the other night, and it impacted me.  Their goal is to raise 250,000 signatures by the end of next month to petition Obama on the issue of child soldiers in Africa, specifically the child soldiers of Joseph Kony, a rebel in northern Uganda.  It began as three Americans travelling to southern Sudan, seeing children hiding at night so that they wouldn’t be kidnapped, and raising money to help those in the region.  They did this independent of the government, but they also enlisted the aid and support of the government.  Now they realize that their efforts to bring peace to this area cannot continue as long as Joseph Kony remains a fugitive from justice, and so they petition their government to do the right thing.  This is a model of Christian politics (though I’m unsure if the three men who started Invisible Children are Christian) – to do the right thing, with or without the state, in concert with or independent of the state.

The Bible: The “True Myth”

A few weeks back I touched on a subject that I want to talk about a bit more thoroughly: the similarities between the Bible and ancient pagan mythology.  The modern world loves to point out these similarities to myth and combine that with the contrast between the Bible and modern history and science, all to point to scripture as being mythological and entirely untrue.  This does little except point out a fundamental misunderstanding of scripture, one that I’m finally getting cleared up myself!  Hallelujah!

First things first: don’t try to compare the Bible to a science textbook.  The ancient writers wrote inspired and fully true things about God using the framework of the world they lived in, including its imagery and experience, and even literary allusions and comparisons.  The purpose of the Bible is fully theological, and comes from an age when there was no such thing as science as we now know it, so the comparison is completely unwarranted in every way.  If the Bible communicates true statements about scientific issues, it is practically accidental and only with the purpose of trying to convey a theological fact.  Everything the Bible says is true – but only what it actually says.

A year or so back, a guy I worked with told me to watch Zeitgeist, a film that compares Christianity to pagan myths, particularly Egyptian mythology.  A few years before that, an unbelieving friend of mine told me to read The Pagan Christ by Tom Harpur, which does exactly the same thing, but in greater detail.  The comparisons portrayed in these works are used in such a way that the ancient mythology modifies the Biblical theology, in the case of Zeitgeist leading to astrology and in the case of The Pagan Christ leading to gnosticism.  In a funny way, these guys are really on to something…they just got it completely backwards.

Much of the Bible uses similar terminology – and in many places, even copies the stories of – Israel’s pagan neighbours.  There are many similarities between the Genesis accounts of Creation and the Flood to Babylonian, Akkadian, and Egyptian versions of the same stories.  In the New Testament we see Jesus following many of the same patterns as Egyptian and Greek mythology and mystery religions.  The comparisons are clear, and we can’t deny them – nor can we say that they copied us, because in every case the pagan mythologies predate the Biblical versions.  I can say it flat out: the Bible copies all sorts of Ancient Near Eastern literature, very purposefully.  The question is, for what purpose?

The answer can be found not in the similarities, but in the differences.  The Bible may copy the forms and stories of ANE literature, but the theology presented therein is very, very different.  Bruce Waltke summarizes some of the similarities in regards to the Creation account in chapter 7 of An Old Testament Theology, and the differences become quite clear.  The actions of God in Genesis are, almost point for point, the same as the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish, the story of how Marduk killed Tiamat to form the earth.  The order of creation is the same, but the persons involved and methods used are very different.  They both present a scene of divine spirit and cosmic matter coexisting; they both show the existence of primeval chaos (personified in Tiamat, for Marduk); first there is light; then there is a firmament created between waters below and waters above; then creation of luminaries (sun, moon, and stars – note: after light comes a source of light); then creation of man; and then rest.  Both of these show an ancient point of view, i.e. a flat world with a sky made of water, etc.  The similarities between Genesis and the Egyptian myths are different, but also debunk different misunderstandings about the nature of God and the universe, and creation.tiamat

The point is that the writer of Genesis wrote it in response to other creation myths.  Both Yahweh and Marduk are victorious over chaos, but while Marduk was fighting another goddess (including farting in her mouth to get her to open it so he can shoot arrows inside), Yahweh defeats and brings order to chaos by His word alone – Chaos is subject to Him.  While Marduk rips apart the corpse of Tiamat, the separate parts being the waters above and the waters below, the Genesis account shows that water is just…well, water.  Waltke says it like this: “Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the biblical authors stripped the ancient pagan literatures of their mythological elements, infused them with the sublimities of their God, and refuted the pagan myths by identifying the holy Lord as the true Creator and Ruler of the cosmos and of history.  Israel’s God stands apart from his creation, transcends matter, lacks sexuality, engages in no combat with other gods, for there are none, and establishes humane laws.”  Each parallel between stories contains a fundamental difference, a correction if you will: the Genesis creation account was written almost as an apologetic, or even a polemic, against other ancient mythologies.  The same is true of the Flood account: the Genesis version gives a much, much different view about God than the Epic of Gilgamesh.  MushGod

The same is true of the Gospels, which were written decades after Jesus died and the Church began to spread out.  They were written to show how the life and death of Jesus fulfilled the scriptures (for a Jewish audience); to show how salvation comes through Jesus, who is God (to correct the pagans); and on and on.  Name a heresy, and it likely is related to another pagan myth that people tried to apply to the gospels rather than applying the gospels to the pagan understandings in order to correct them.  When Paul confronted heresy, he pointed to Christ to silence it.  When heretics started writing their own gospels to affirm their viewpoints, the apostles provided true accounts to correct the false theologies.  Any time these heresies lived on, it was because they twisted or discounted the gospels.

I’m no longer afraid of the similarities between the Bible and pagan mythos.  I’m very glad of it, because it shows that God has revealed a truer account of reality.  He has responded to false claims, and brought the truth to guide us, his creation.  He cares enough to correct our misunderstandings about Him and his world.  Hallelujah!

Guilt and Bonhoeffer

“Falling away from Christ is at the same time falling away from one’s own true nature.  There is only one way to turn back, and that is acknowledgement of guilt toward Christ.  The guilt we must acknowledge is not the occasional mistake or going astray, not the breaking of of an abstract law, but falling away from Christ, from the form of the One who would take form in us and lead us to our own true form.  Genuine acknowledgement of guilt does not grow from experiences of dissolution and decay but, for us who have encountered Christ, only by looking at the form Christ has taken.”

Bonhoeffer has a much different view of guilt than Reverend Lovejoy, that wonderful foil of the Church.  Common understanding of the Church is that we love guilt – and it stops there.  Luther thought guilt was great, because its presence opened the door to grace, by which we are saved; Protestants, particularly evangelicals, have made guilt a major point in evangelism: once people realize that they’re evil sinners doomed to hell, then they can turn to Christ and receive grace.

Bonhoeffer makes a subtle distinction here that’s very important.  It’s not that we must understand our own guilt before we can turn to Christ, but it is precisely when we turn to Christ and see in Him everything we are supposed to be, we see our guilt in that we have fallen away from Him (and thus from our true selves).  We are called to be formed by him, in his image or form, and the comparison serves to showcase our guilt in falling short of that.  Jesus isn’t concerned with keeping lists of our sins; it is not your sinful habits, your slip-ups, that keeps you from God: it’s the fact that you’re not yet just like Jesus, that you are imperfect and sinful in general, that you have not been conformed to Christ.  Guilt is not something we exploit in order to turn ourselves or others to Christ’s grace; it is something that we experience in light of Christ and simultaneous to grace.  It is because we have encountered Christ that we are able to acknowledge our guilt, and it is that acknowledgement (in a sense) that makes us the Church:

“The place where this acknowledgement of guilt becomes real is the church…the church is that community of people that has been led by the grace of Christ to acknowledge its guilt toward Christ…if it was otherwise, the church would no longer be the church.  The church is today the community of people who, grasped by the power of Christ’s grace, acknowledge, confess, and take upon themselves not only their personal sins, but also the Western world’s falling away from Jesus Christ as guilt toward Jesus Christ.”

Whoa, hang on: taking on the guilt of the Western world’s falling away from Jesus Christ?  We’re the Modern West, we don’t do the whole “corporate guilt” thing, right?  We’re all about our own personal guilt, which nobody else shares; we are unique in our sinfulness, every single one of us – right?  After all, we’re all at different levels of sinfulness; for example, I’m way less sinful than that adulterer in my church. [/sarcasm]

“When one still calculates and weighs things, an unfruitful self-righteous morality takes the place of confessing guilt face-t0-face with the figure of Christ.  Because the origin of the confession of guilt is the form of Christ and not our individual transgressions, therefore it is complete and unconditional…Looking on this grace of Christ frees us completely from looking at the guilt of others and brings all people to fal on their knees before Christ with the confession: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

It’s not our individual sins that cause us to fall on our knees before Christ: it is Him, His perfection, that drives us to our knees.  It is the contrast between us and Him.  In light of that contrast, our individual sins blur together, leaving us with the simple understanding that we fall short in every way; we are not confessing our sins, as much as we are confessing our sinfulness.  The Latin above is from the Catholic Mass, and is the confession of sin, which has been traditionally translated “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”  Christ died to take the penalty of our sins; regardless of which sins they were, the same confession applies: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  That’s something we can say together, a confession we rightly share in, a confession that none are exempt from.

“With this confession the guilt of the world falls on the church, on Christians, and because here it is confessed and not denied, the possibililty of forgiveness is opened.  Though this is completely incomprehensible to the moralist, there is no search here for the actual guilty person, no demand for the just expiation as punishment for the evil and reward for the good.  Evildoers are not branded by their evil…for there are people here who take all – really all – guilt upon themselves, not in some heroic self-sacrificing decision, but simply overwhelmed by their very own guilt toward Christ.  In that moment they can no longer think about retributive justice for the “chief sinners” but only about the forgiveness of their own great guilt.”

When one is confronted with Christ, our own sin stands out unmistakably, and leaves us with no regard for the sins of others.  When we confess our sins, realizing that it is through our fault that Christ was crucified, we cannot look to pass that blame onto any others; nor do we seek to pass the punishment Christ has already paid on to others.  In light of this, I’m not sure I could ever support capital punishment, for Christ was executed on my behalf – and no less on the behalf of the murderer.  Something to think about, I guess.  But how can acknowledgement of our personal sin be taking on the guilt for all of the sin in the world?

“First of all, the quite personal sin of each individual is acknowledged here as a source of poison for the community.  Even the most secret sin of the individual soils and destroys the body of Christ.  Murder, envy, strife, war – all arise from the desire that lies within us (James 4:1ff).  I cannot pacify myself by saying that my part in all this is slight and hardly noticeable.  There is no calculating here.  I must acknowledge that my own sin is to blame for all of these things.  I am guilty of inordinate desire; I am guilty of cowardly silence when I should have spoken; I am guilty of untruthfulness and hypocrisy in the face of threatening violence; I am guilty of showing no mercy, of denying the poorest of my neighbours; I am guilty of disloyalty and falling away from Christ.  Why does it concern me if others are also guilty?  Every sin of another I can excuse; only my own sin, of which I remain guilty, I can never excuse.”

We can excuse others all day long, but we cannot excuse our own sin: this is the reality that strikes us when we come face-t0-face with Christ, the reality that we confess and acknowledge – and in that confession, Christ Himself excuses us, forgives us, and redeems us.  In each of our individual sins, we take part in the evils that destroy the world: every time I lie, I take part in the dishonesty that leaves families broken; every time I steal, I take part in the evil that leads to exploitation of the poor and the looting against the rich; every time I lust I take part in the thing which leads to so much rape and adultery in this world.  Because I do all of these things, I am an accomplice to the evil that tears our world apart, and I can make no accusations against those who also take part in it.  Faced with Christ, the acknowledgement of our guilt springs forth: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

What grace we have recieved, each one of us the chief of sinners!  Our guilt is deep and all-inclusive; how much moreso the grace of Christ!Bild 183-R0211-316