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.
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.