Christianity Is Not A Belief

Last night at work I had one coherent thought (the Dayquil must have kicked in, however briefly): that Christianity has long been mistaken for a belief. It was one of those things that suddenly seem so embarrassingly obvious.

It is not a revolutionary thought. We’ve all heard the cliche “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” stuff, and that seemed revolutionary at first too, but that message didn’t seem to penetrate. These days, I usually hear that line from people who feel comfortable not bothering to engage with a church, or even any other form of Christian community, much less with the much harder work of actually following Jesus. The revolutionary, iconoclastic, non-religious nature of actually being a disciple of Christ, the call to dig down to the difficult and core notion of what it means to relate to the God of the universe, has become a cliche way to justify shedding the outward trappings of religion in favour of a similar level of complacency – now guilt-free!

So that wasn’t what I was thinking when I had my moment of clarity on the factory floor. What I was thinking is that Christianity is not a system of belief; that’s Christian theology. Christianity, or being a disciple of Christ, is an activity of sorts: specifically, an ethical system or approach that presupposes or assumes the content of Christian theology. Simply put, believing Jesus is God does not make me a Christian; acting like Jesus does.

This also is not new or revolutionary. It’s straight from the epistle of James. I think the profundity of the thought, and what makes it worth sharing here, is how easily and repeatedly we miss this. We have to keep giving it new terminology to keep the message fresh. When “faith without works is dead” (from James) failed to prevent hundreds of years of empty piety and emphasis on orthodoxy (right belief) without orthopraxis (right actions) in the name of God’s grace, we went to “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” which itself lasted about ten minutes before it lost any power to actually change our behaviour. How many other warnings, commands, and cliches have there been to tell us that Christianity is something we do more than something we believe or ascribe to?

This brings me back to another question that’s been rattling in my head for the past week: what really makes someone a Christian? Despite James’ insistence that faith without works is dead, when Pastor Tim Keller was asked this question by the New York Times last week he spent the whole interview talking about the things someone must believe. On the other hand, when Jesus talked to his disciples about who his real followers were, it was all about actions:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” – Matthew 25:34-46

Serious stuff. After years of study and familiarity with the Bible, this passage still always chills me, fills me with the “fear of the Lord,” erodes my complacency. Because it gets to the heart of the matter, and I don’t know how I measure up.

Nowhere here does Jesus say that people had to acknowledge his divinity in order to be saved. Nowhere does it say that they must “invite him into their hearts”, that they must attend church and tithe, that they must believe theological statements or hold certain moral values or views. In fact, the people he acknowledges as truly belonging to him are mostly ignorant of having served him at all.

Which is not to say that we should not believe the right things; rather, behaving this way, embodying the Kingdom of God through ethical engagement with our communities and society, is only really possible and makes sense if we have a vision of that otherwise invisible Kingdom. Theology gives us that. Worship is not what defines us, but rather what forms us into people who, in our actions and orientation to God, resemble Jesus. Maintaining Christian community is not the goal of discipleship, it is the context of discipleship – it’s where we serve one another, and it is from where we go out to serve other communities. And holding moral codes is not the content of the gospel, it is our defence from the things that can distract us from our service to God and others. None of these things make us a Christian, but they can all help; but separated from actually following Christ, these things can just as easily be stumbling blocks, giving us a false sense of piety and complacency that keeps us from actually becoming Christians. The “goats” in the passage above (and other similar passages – e.g., Matthew 22:1-14) thought they were on team Jesus, but had missed the most important part.

By putting beliefs, morality, church attendance, etc., ahead of ethics we have developed a religion that is “a form of godliness but denying its power” (see 2 Timothy 3).


W5 with Bonhoeffer

I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s Christology lectures…very, very slowly. I can only do about two pages before I have to write a post. My assignment is an analysis of a 23 page chunk, and I thought “that’s pretty short – should be easy.” Right.

So, for the first six pages Bonhoeffer is introducing the topic of Christology by talking about the kinds of questions that we can ask. It’s not quite W5, but he goes through several different questions that humans ask to find the one that is appropriate for the task of Christology. I’ve already written a few posts about it over at iheartbarth, if you’re interested; here I’ll try to be a bit less meandering, but I’m still working through the concepts. Most of what I’ll say here is Bonhoeffer, but much of it is interpreted and expanded upon as I work it out.

1. How

This seems to be the only question that human beings are capable of asking on our own. Whether we’re examining the world through the lens of the sciences, the soft sciences, or the humanities, all of our questions are a type of the question “how?” Knowledge, in the sense of what we can learn about the world through studying it, involves cataloguing the world into different categories. These categories, though, occur within our own heads: we can really only understand anything else in its relation to other things, but ultimately we understand all things in relation to ourselves. This is a limitation we have, a result of our limited perspective. All questions boil down to “how” because ultimately we’re asking “how does this other thing relate to me?”

This is a useful question when dealing with objects, but when we are confronted by an other, another subject, it will no longer do. When we ask “how” of another person, we are in a sense objectifying them because we treat them as something whose primary feature is its relation to ourselves. We are at the centre of our own universe, a position from which we cannot respect the other as other; they instead become a mere projection of ourselves. I may have much in common with you, and so I have a sense that I know you or have knowledge about you; but in reality, I’m only projecting myself onto you because my knowledge of you is only in relation to myself.

2. Who

When we are faced with an other, the “how” questions no longer suffice. Not only does it objectify the other, but it does not obtain any actual knowledge of them, because it only allows us to project ourselves onto them, to co-opt them. No, the only sufficient question for an other is “who are you?”

The trick is, we cannot ask “who are you?” until the other has revealed themselves to us. As long as we are asking from within our self-centred universe, in which all knowledge is categorized by the relationship of objects to ourselves, “who” is actually just “how” in disguise. But when another reveals herself to us, we can suddenly transcend our self-defined paradigms: knowledge has come into our self-contained universe from outside! Only then is there any fruit in asking “who are you?” because now we have a basis for asking the question, and a new paradigm for the knowledge that the answer will bring.

Bonhoeffer hasn’t mentioned it in this lecture so far, but I don’t think it’s wise to read Bonhoeffer without keeping in mind his concept of the ethical encounter with the other. I think that is precisely what he’s talking about here. In short, to Bonhoeffer ethics cannot take place in our minds, as if we’re sitting around a table debating ethical questions and hypotheticals; rather, real ethics takes place in the ethical encounter with the other. We cannot act ethically all by ourselves, because the ethical question only arises when we meet an other. The other provides a boundary for ourselves, a place where me-ness ends and other-ness begins, and this boundary is where life takes place. It is at this boundary that ethical questions arise, but they arise here because it is at this boundary that the other can make claims upon me: I have responsibilities to the other. Bonhoeffer spends some time in his first dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, developing this notion; here we can add that this boundary is also the place where I can gain genuine knowledge that is more than just a projection of myself, because this other not only provides a boundary for my me-ness, but they also provide a boundary for my self-centred paradigms and categories. In the encounter with the other there arises an ethical claim on me; when the other reveals herself, there arises an ontological challenge: there exists something outside of me!

But we can get around that. Bonhoeffer points out how clever we are at assimilating the other into ourselves, and says that we can even do so with God, or his self-revelation in the Bible. But the challenge that Christ poses to us is greater, and more insistent, than that of any other:

But what happens if the counter Logos [that is, Christ] suddenly presents its demand in a wholly new form, so that it is no longer an idea or a word that is turned against the autonomy of the [human] logos, but rather the counter Logos appears, somewhere and at some time in history, as a human being, and as a human being sets itself up as judge over the human logos and says “I am the truth.” I am the death of the human logos, I am the life of God’s Logos, I am the Alpha and Omega? Human beings are those who must die and must fall, with their logos, into my hands. Here it is no longer possible to fit the Word made flesh into the logos classification system. Here all that remains is the question: Who are you? – DBWE 12, 302

We can treat God as an idea, and categorize him in our self-centred paradigms; we can treat the Bible as an object, and do the same. But in Christ, God confronts us as a concrete other, a human being. Now, though other human beings can confront us with the end of ourselves and make ethical claims on us, Christ makes much greater claims! He is much more difficult to ignore. Faced with Christ as the self-revelation of God, “how” is completely insufficient, and we cannot help but ask “who are you?”

3. That

“That” isn’t to be questioned; he goes so far as to say that questioning it is “prohibited” in the Christological enterprise. Once we have asked “who are you?”…

Two questions are prohibited:

(1) Whether the answer that is given is the right answer. This question has no right to be asked, because there can be no authority for our human logos to cast doubt on the truth of this Logos. Jesus’ own witness to himself, then and now, stands on its own and substantiates itself. The “that” in “that God was revealed in Christ” cannot be theologically questioned.

(2) The second prohibited question is how the “that” of the revelation can be conceived. This question leads in the direction of trying again to get behind Christ’s claim, and to ground it in our own. In doing so, our own logos is presuming on the role of the Father of Jesus Christ himself, when all we actually know is the fact of God’s revelation. – 303

As I’ve already written about this, I’ll keep it short: we have no basis on which to question whether God has actually revealed himself in Christ. Aside from Christ’s self-revelation, we’re pretty much stuck inside our own heads. We can’t question Christ’s answer to our question of “who are you” because it actually comes from outside of ourselves; and we can’t question how we can know Christ’s answer to our asking of that question, because we have no epistemological basis for doing so, because it does come from outside ourselves. It transcends all of our categories and classifications, and we can only accept it or reject it. Anything else is just another attempt to return to the “how” and assimilate Christ into ourselves – or kill him. It doesn’t make for a good Christological endeavour, either way.

What happens again if the claim of the counter Logos is questioned. The human logos kills the Logos of God, the Word become human, which it has just questioned. Because the human logos does not want to die itself, the Logos of God, which is death to the human logos, must die instead. The Word become human must be hung on the cross by the human logos. The person who was causing the worry has been killed, and along with that person, the question.

But what happens when this counter Word, though it has been killed, raises itself from the dead as the living, eternal, ultimate, conquering Word of God, when it rises up to meet its murderers and rushes at them again, appearing as the Resurrected One who has overcome death? Here the question “Who are you?” becomes most poignant. Here it stands, alive forever, over and around and within humankind. The human being can still fight against the Word become human and kill him, but against the Resurrected One the human being has no power. We ourselves are now the ones who stand convicted. Now our question has been turned around. The question we have put to the person of Christ, “Who are you?” comes back at us: who are you, that you can ask this question? Do you live in the truth, so you can ask it? Who are you, you who can only ask about me because you have been justified and received grace through me? Only when this question has been heard has the christological question been definitively formulated. – 305

The claim that Christ makes on us when we encounter him is greater than the ethical claims of other humans: it is judgment and grace at the same time. Because of the judgment of that encounter, our question of “who are you?” springs back on us, as we become aware of ourselves before God as one judged. We can’t handle this, so we undermine the question, destroy it – we kill Christ so that the penetrating question “who are you?” will go away. But he returns, more glorious and more terrible than before, and his question “who are you?” remains. We can’t ask him, without the question returning to us. That is the judgment of encounter with Christ; the mercy and grace of the encounter with Christ is to hear his answer to the question. “Who are you?” is answered: the Son of God.

His answer, then, can only truly be heard in faith. To question his answer is to kill him, to reassert our own autonomy, to keep asking “how.” If we want to seriously ask “who are you?” we need to listen in faith to actually hear the answer (otherwise, we will only experience the question rebounding upon us in judgment). That is why Christology can only occur in the context of the church.

4. What

Finally, Bonhoeffer finishes up his introduction with the question of authority.

There are two contrasting types of authority in the world: the authority deriving from office, and the authority inherent in the person. When these two authorities confront each other, then the question posed to the authority of the person is “What” are you? The “what” means, what office do you hold? The question of the individual person to the person in authority is where do you as an individual get your authority? The answer is from myself, since I recognize your authority over me. Both questions about authority are derived from the “how question.” All people are holders of some office, of some community, of themselves. Even prophets are only bearers of the word; they are not the word itself.

What happens, then, when someone appears who claims not only to bring the divine office and Word but actually to be that very office and Word? That is, not only to have authority but to be authority itself? Here a new existence breaks into our existence. Here the highest authority in the world, that of the prophet, is superseded. This is no longer the saint, the reformer, the prophet, but rather the Son himself. Here we no longer ask, What are you, where do you come from? Here the question asked is that of the very revelation of God.

Once again, then, the only question we can ask of Christ is “Who are you?” We define ourselves and each other by our office, by our authority – authority that is, like our knowledge, derived from how things relate to ourselves. But Christ transcends all of that, because he is authority. “What” no longer has meaning, only “who?”

Christ transcends all of our categories and classifications, and therefore our knowledge and basis for knowledge; he also transcends our personal barriers, being an Other whose claim upon us judges us and gives us mercy and grace at the same time. In this way, Christ allows us to see ourselves, and our world, truly. The question “who are you?” is thus the question of transcendence and existence: we can only really know who we are in relation to Christ. Our classification system has become reversed, for now all things are known in relation to Christ rather than in relation to ourselves; and our sense of authority is reversed, for now authority is recognized to come from God rather than to be something that I give to others.

In this encounter with Christ we see the world as it truly is, and we see ourselves as we truly are, but only if we can ask in faith, “Who are you Lord?”

Reading Bonhoeffer: The End! (Of Religion)

This is it: tomorrow is the last day of class, and I’ve just finished my last required chapter of the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (chapter 13, “Christianity in a world come of age” by Peter Selby), which discusses Bonhoeffer’s notion in Letters and Papers from Prison of a “religionless Christianity” in “a world come of age.” (See LPP, letters from May 5-6, 1944, and especially June 8 and 30 1944)

A World Come of Age

When Bonhoeffer talks of “religion” in this context, he’s not talking about Christianity itself, but rather a certain notion of religion in general that nobody would aspire to, yet nevertheless existed quite strongly in the German Evangelical (Protestant) Church: outward proclamation combined with inward piety, and generally without much of an ethic or a politic at all. In a word, irrelevant, perhaps even hypocritical. But of course, Bonhoeffer had been answering this kind of empty religion his entire life: when as a child he told his family that he would be a theologian, and they were unimpressed due to the bourgeois nature of the institutional church, his answer was “then I will reform it!” His radical ecclesiology, stemming as it does from his robust christology, certainly was answer enough to a church that simply lacked engagement with the world.

The problem, though, was not simply that the church had lost relevance; rather, it was that the world (at least the world of modern intellectual Germany) no longer needed it. In the modern age of science, art, and social thought, the boundaries of knowledge had been continually pushed back, and with them, society’s reliance on God.

It’s not that God himself is irrelevant, but rather that “religion” tended to only present God as a deus ex machina, a God of the gaps, the answer to all things mysterious. In Bonhoeffer’s time, science was believed to have prevailed almost entirely, answering all of life’s questions. Without gaps in human knowledge, the God of the gaps was unnecessary. Humanity needed no intellectual crutch to lean on: it had come of age, and was now independent of God.

Religionless Christianity

Bonhoeffer recognized that the world had come of age, and was no longer dependent on the notion of God. Rather than rail against this, he embraced it, seeing it as something that God himself demanded of them. Rather than seeking God in unanswered questions, as “religion” did, Bonhoeffer held that we should seek God precisely in the answered questions. Rather than having a church that required people to come to it, and required people to lean on it, Bonhoeffer had already proposed a church that was radically “missional” (to use today’s language – see yesterday’s post for clarification), sent out into the world to exist on its behalf.

Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” still had a church – the type of community he proposed in all of his works, but particularly Sanctorum Communio, Discipleship, and Life Together, infused with the responsibilities outlined in Ethics. It also still had the necessity of a strong faith, discipleship, and spiritual disciplines. What it didn’t have, what it had given up, was proclamation: the proclamation of “religion”, and even of the Confessing Church who had held true to the gospel in the face of the Reich Church’s misuse of it to support Nazi ideology, had failed entirely. He held out hope that someday the time for proclamation would return, but in the meantime he suggested that Christianity in a world come of age would be a hidden church. In place of proclamation, which under “religion” had often been empty moralising, would be the radical existing-for-others ethic which required incredible discipline and spiritual/ethical formation. This church would bear witness through its actions, through its being-for-others, through its devotion to the God who had allowed himself to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross in order to be weak and suffer along with his creation. This suffering would be the mark of Christianity in a world come of age.

I sense in Bonhoeffer here a notion of progress (though perhaps that word is too loaded with conceptual and historical baggage): the world had begun to become self-sufficient, building societies and making discoveries and having laws and justice and occasionally peace – all “as if God didn’t exist.” We were getting along just as well without the notion and motivation of the existence of God as we were when we were shackled to religion, and this itself could be a testament to God at work in the world, allowing Himself to be pushed out of it while still upholding it, for the sake of our maturity. If the world can get by without being beholden to religion, should not also the church? It seems to me that Bonhoeffer is suggesting that we should be able to grow up to the point where we are good to one another, not because piety demands it or to avoid the hypocrisy of having proclaimed it without acting upon it, but instead because we have been shaped into the form of Christ and have actively chosen to participate with him in caring for others out of our own maturity in Christ. Rules are for children; continued dependence on laws even when we already know not to break them is thus infantile, or else legalistic (Bonhoeffer compares “religion” to Paul’s discussion of circumcision as legalism). We should no longer go through the forms of religion upon which we used to rely, when we are instead capable of living in a state of Christ-likeness to which those old forms were to point!

Now, I should be clear that Bonhoeffer never really set out a design for the church, he only worked out a theology of the church. The actual form of the church, I’m sure he would say, would depend on the context and people involved. He was definitely not a fan of uncontextualized principles, urging instead that people live out of their basic convictions, which of course were to be theologically informed. In Letters and Papers from Prison he was engaged in the task of dreaming about a Germany after the war, a Germany he never saw; he was not dreaming of Canada in 2013.

That’s up to us.

I haven’t seen this one before…might have to pick it up.

p.s. I’ll be back tomorrow with some final reflections, but this is the end of my summaries from the Cambridge Companion. Don’t go away!

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?