Tuesday, May 24, 2016

On being real

A couple of days ago, I argued that one thing we can take away from the doctrine of the Trinity is its concern for the God who is.  That is to say, the doctrine treats God as having real existence, and therefore particular existence - he is in this way, and to fail to acknowledge that is simply not to know him.  This is a property of real things: they occupy space, physically or conceptually, and we bump up against them, literally or metaphorically.  Whilst they can be (must be) interpreted - which is to say, there must be some interaction between my understanding and the real existing thing - they cannot be simply reimagined without denying their reality.

I'm not sure I could trace this historically, but I'm confident that logically the lack of belief in a real existing God leads to a loss of belief in real existing humanity.  Real existing humanity - both in the general sense and in the more acute sense in which I am myself an instance thereof - has a genuine shape, occupies genuine space.  It cannot be reimagined without denying its reality.  But we must reimagine humanity; we must claim for ourselves total sovereignty over our own humanity.  Do we notice than in claiming this sovereignty at this level we destroy (in so far as it lies with us) the very thing we want to rule over?  We become kings and queens of dreams, and more often than not of nightmares.

Of course we see this is in the arena of sexuality and gender, but the most extraordinary and terrible example I can think of relates to abortion.  Behold the power of imagination!  The joyfully expectant mother carries a baby; the unfortunate woman with an unwanted pregnancy has nothing but a collection of cells.  The longed for baby is not a foetus but a person, already loved; the undesired ball of matter is nothing but an excrescence, to be removed.  We have become sovereign over our own reality, and can decide what should live and what should die.

A big caveat: I have to put this starkly and horrifically, because that is the shape of the reality.  But I know that this is not how it feels for people going through this sort of thing.  I suspect that the decision to abort more often than not feels like helplessness and not sovereignty.  I know that it is pain and anguish and not at all the simple choice painted here.  I know that.  But if we step back: what allowed these choices to become choices at all, however anguished?

But the bitter truth is that human beings are real.  We are real.  I am real.  I cannot reimagine myself without denying myself.  In reality, I cannot be absolutely sovereign over myself or anyone or anything else.  I, and all other real things, are to some extent given; I am not a dream or a nightmare, but a created person.  At some point, we will bump up against the reality of humanity - our own and that of others.  And at some point, even if it is not until the Judgement, we will bump up against the reality of the God who is there and who gave us all of our reality.  Then what will we say?

Monday, May 23, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (5)

The fifth manuscript in Bonhoeffer's Ethics (at least according to the arrangement in the Works) is entitled Ultimate and Penultimate Things.  I found the argument difficult to follow in detail, although I think the broad brush strokes are clear and valuable.

The ultimate thing in a human life is justification by grace through faith.  The event of justification is "qualitatively ultimate" - "there is nothing greater than a life that is justified before God" (149); it is also "temporally ultimate" - there is "quite literally a span of time at whose end it stands" (150).  Whatever leads up to it (whether the righteous confidence of Paul or the legal fear of Luther [150]) finds its end in this ultimate word, and is therefore penultimate.  This is not to say that the penultimate - whatever it is - leads naturally into the ultimate; the latter is always God's gracious word which judges and justifies freely.  The penultimate is not penultimate in itself, nor can one judge it to be penultimate when looking forward from it; rather it is penultimate in reference to the ultimate, and can be seen to be such when looking back from the ultimate.  The penultimate, then, is (if I understand it correctly) literally everything else that is not the justifying grace of God received through faith.

The relation between the ultimate and the penultimate is the subject of this manuscript.  "Since God's justification by grace and by faith alone remains in every respect the ultimate word, now we must also speak of penultimate things not as if they had some value of their own, but so as to make clear their relation to the ultimate" (151).  In other words, in sorting through what the ultimate (the gospel) has to do with everyday life (ethics), we must begin with the gospel and show how anything else relates to that.  Two main ways have been trodden: the radical way and the way of compromise.  "The radical solution sees only the ultimate, and in it sees only a complete break with the penultimate" (153).  Christ and the world are at enmity; the Christian has responsibility only for faith.  "The world must burn in any case" (153).  I've met a few contemporary evangelicals who take the radical way!  On the other hand, the way of compromise establishes a semi-independent sphere of everyday life in which "the penultimate maintains its inherent rights, but is not threatened or endangered by the ultimate" (154).  Here the ultimate supports the penultimate, in the sense of providing justification for it, but does not in fact speak into the penultimate.  Daily life goes on, just with the added reassurance of the gospel.

Bonhoeffer will not travel either path.  "To advocates of the radical solution, it must be said that Christ is not radical in their sense; to followers of the compromise solution it must likewise be said that Christ does not make compromises" (154).  Therefore, neither of these ways is open to Christian life.  Christian life must take its lead from Christ.  In his incarnation, his cross, and his resurrection, Jesus has brought judgement on the world, but has also brought the world into genuine encounter with God and has established its genuine future.  Therefore "Christian life neither sanctions nor destroys the penultimate" (159), but participates with Christ in the genuine encounter of God with the world.

Because of his understanding of the relationship between the penultimate and ultimate, Bonhoeffer is clear that "the penultimate must be preserved for the sake of the ultimate" (160). He means this quite literally - he gives the example of slaves, who have no control over their own time, and are therefore unable to attend church and hear the word of God!  In the area of the penultimate, the church and the Christian must be concerned to prepare the way for the word (citing Luke 3, which itself cites Isaiah 40).  Preparing the way of the Lord means making the penultimate, as far as possible, suitable to the ultimate - not that we can make Christ come, or prevent him from coming ("Christ comes, to be sure, clearing his own way, whether one is ready for it or not" [162]), but that we can make it more or less difficult for ourselves and others to hear the word and believe.  As concrete examples, "it is hard for those thrust into extreme disgrace, desolation, poverty, and helplessness to believe in God's justice and goodness" (162), therefore it is the duty of the Christian to relieve those conditions.

"What happens here is something penultimate.  To give the hungry bread is not yet to proclaim to them the grace of God...  But for the one who does something penultimate for the sake of the ultimate, the penultimate thing is related to the ultimate" (163).  The two are joined together in so far as the link is seen, and therefore the way is truly prepared for the coming of Christ.  "Only Christ brings us the ultimate, the justification of our lives before God; still, or rather therefore, we are not deprived of, or spared from, living in the penultimate" (167).  Knowing the ultimate, the penultimate takes on its own (limited, but real) seriousness.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The God who is

The Athanasian Creed is long and repetitive.  Its insistence again and again that God is like this and therefore isn't like that can get a bit boring.  It feels like a product of a fastidious age, when people spent far too long defining the finer points of theology and probably didn't spend enough time being 'practical' and perhaps neglected things like 'mission' and 'worship' because they were tied up credalising (not a real word).

In fact the point is simple, and highlights the major blind spot of our own age.  God really exists, and because he really exists (rather than being a construct of a human mind), he exists in a particular way.  If something is made up, you can think of it in any way you like; if something is real, then unless you conform your thoughts about it to the reality then you simply don't know it.

The God who is has revealed himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - the three, and yet still the one God; in fact, the one God just as and only as he is the Three.  Insisting that we think of God in this way is simply insisting that we treat God as a real. existing thing.  In other words, it is a ridiculous demand if God is made up - and that God is made up is the first article of faith of the modern world.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Preaching Eucharistwards

One of the things about Cowley Church Community that I'm really pleased about is the commitment to regularly celebrating Communion together.  For us, that means about every other week - which I realise may not seem that regular to folk from some other church traditions!  It's also important that our celebrations of Communion are an integral part of our worship - not just an add-on, and not a separate service.

I've found it particularly beneficial in terms of preaching.  We don't have an elaborate Communion liturgy, so the transition between the end of the sermon and the distribution of the elements is often not that protracted.  So the sermon has to lead naturally into the celebration.  That context really brings it home for me whether what I'm preaching is the gospel or not: if it is, the transition will feel smooth and natural and right; if I'm not preaching the gospel, the transition into Communion will feel like a gear change without the clutch.  So my sermon prep changes - I'm preaching towards the celebration, towards the commemoration of the cross.

I genuinely can't think of a better way to keep the gospel central in preaching and worship.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

For the sake of life

"The church confesses that it has witnessed the arbitrary use of brutal force, the suffering in body and soul of countless innocent people, that it has witnessed oppression, hatred, and murder without raising its voice for the victims and without finding ways of rushing to help them.  It has become guilty of the lives of the weakest and most defenceless brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ."

Thus Bonhoeffer.

And thus the Royal College of Midwives, in response to a BPAS campaign to decriminalise the killing of unborn babies:

"This campaign has the RCM’s full support. The fact that women are still bound by this legislation in the UK will surprise many people. The law should not be potentially criminalising women for their decision. The system should be offering support, treatment and care, not obstacles.

“This is a fundamental issue about equality for women. It is about them having control over their own body and not having their bodies subject to the diktats of others, however well meaning."

The weakest and most defenceless.

Time to raise our voices.  Time to find ways of rushing to help.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (4)

Manuscript four of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is entitled Guilt, Justification, Renewal.  This really is a Christian, which is to say a theological, ethics - the good news of Christ is not incidental to the question of what we ought to do (and not do).  The important context here is Bonhoeffer's reading of the history of the West.

We begin with Christ: "The issue is the process by which Christ takes form among us." (134)  Because that is what is needed in the moral chaos of the collapsed post-Christian West.  We need to know "the real, judged, and renewed human being" - but this human being "exists only in the form of Jesus Christ, and therefore in being conformed to Christ" (134).  There is no way around Jesus Christ here: to be assumed by Christ in his incarnation; to be judged in Christ at the cross; to be joined with Christ in his resurrection - that is real, judged, renewed humanity, and it is the only way forward.

But as well as being the only way forward, this represents for the wayward West a major turning back - back to its Christian heritage, because back to Christ.  And "there is only one way to turn back, and that is acknowledgement of guilt toward Christ" (135).  This acknowledgement of guilt is not about confessing our occasional and more-or-less serious failures and declensions, but it is acknowledging our falling away from Christ.  That is the miracle - fellowship with Christ, the taking form of Christ among us, happens as we together confess that we have fallen away from this fellowship and this form.  This acknowledgement of guilt is based on the gospel - "only on the grace of Christ, because of Christ's reaching out for those who have fallen" (135).

So far, Bonhoeffer is talking about the collective guilt of the West - but where will this confession occur?  Only in the church.  "It is tautological to say that the church is the place where guilt is acknowledged.  If it were otherwise, the church would no longer be the church" (135).  The church takes on and confesses not only its own personal and corporate sin and failure, but also the whole falling away of society.  The church confesses sin, all sin - "This confession is strictly exclusive in that it takes all guilt upon itself" (136) - yes, all guilt.  There is a parallel to the action of Christ here: "Christ conquers us never more strongly than by completely and unconditionally taking on our guilt and declaring it his own, letting us go free.  Looking on this grace of Christ frees us completely from looking at the guilt of others and brings Christians to fall on their knees before Christ with the confession: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" (136).

Bonhoeffer continues with a series of concrete confessions.  One which particularly strikes me is this: "The church confesses that it has coveted security, tranquillity, peace, property, and honor to which it has no claim, and therefore has not bridled human covetousness, but promoted it" (140).  Ouch.  (See another one here).

Bonhoeffer's notion of original sin plays in here: in confession I acknowledge "my sin as the origin of all sin, as, in the words of the Bible, the sin of Adam" (137).  I am guilty of all sin; my sin is the source and original of all evil.  I don't look around for the guilty one - I am the man.  Therefore I can in all seriousness confess sin and guilt, and thus be justified and renewed through Christ.

This is in the church.  Society per se cannot experience this sort of repentance and renewal.  "For the church and for individual believers there can only be a full break with guilt and a new beginning, through the gift of forgiveness of sin.  But in the historical life of nations there can only be a slow process of healing" (143).  Concretely, for the West, this slow process of healing must mean amongst other things "giving space among the nations to the church of Jesus Christ, the origin of all forgiveness, justification, and renewal" (145).  This is not an arrogant claim for the church; it is simply a realistic claim if the real, judged, renewed humanity is seen in Christ alone, who takes form in his community.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (3)

The third manuscript of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is entitled Heritage and Decay.  It is worth remembering here that although Bonhoeffer was partly driven by the need to establish the Christian response to the Nazi crisis, he was also looking beyond this: it seems that for him the ultimate defeat of Nazism was an article of faith, and he wanted to think about rebuilding.  What would survive, and how would it survive?  What would the world look like - especially for the church - after the war?  Heritage and Decay in many ways provides the framework for addressing those questions; it is, if you like, a zooming out from the immediate situation to survey the wider crisis of Western civilization.

The manuscript begins controversially - at least, for a modern reader; I am not sure how controversial it would have been in the 1940s.  "One can only speak of historical heritage in the Christian West".  Why is that?  Because other nations have no traditions of their own?  Certainly not - indeed, some have much older traditions.  But these are bound up with, and tend to revert to, myth.  They are about the eternal, the timeless.  Only in the incarnation of Christ is history itself guarded against mythologising: because Christian thought "is determined by the entry of God into history at a definite place and time" (104), history itself gains significance, and therefore the present moment gains significance, not being lost in the timeless, but presenting the prospect of present accountability to the God who has claimed history in Jesus.

I think this is distinctively Christian; Bonhoeffer's tying together of 'Christian' and 'Western' strikes me as highly problematic.  The problem underlies the whole of this manuscript.

For Bonhoeffer, "the unity of the West is not an idea, but a historical reality whose only foundation is Christ" (109).  In so far as this is a historical point, there is some value in it.  The heritage of the West is Christianity, whether it likes it or not, and that is a unifying heritage.  Bonhoeffer sees the history of the Western world as largely a struggle over that unity - despite the unity itself being a given.  The wrestling between Pope and Emperor, or between different Christian nations, takes place within that generally acknowledged unity.  The unity collapses at the Reformation - "not that Luther wanted it so" (111).  Luther's initial hope was the Pope would submit to Scripture; and then that the Emperor would safeguard the unity of the corpus christianum.  Both hopes were dashed, and the church and the world went their own ways.  The corpus christianum was shattered, and yet the West in some sense endured.

The more recent history of the West is one of decline.  Through a process of secularisation, involving the growing rule of technology, mass movements, and nationalism, the West has rejected its Christian heritage.  But it cannot jettison that heritage, or the unity it brings.  "The new unity... is Western godlessness" (122).  This is not just atheism.  It is "a religion of enmity toward God" (122), decisively shaped by its Christian heritage even in its rejection.

"Having lost its unity that was created by the form of Jesus Christ, the West is confronted by nothingness" (127).  This is not just a dying civilization; it does not have the feel of a death from 'natural causes'.  "Instead, it is again a specifically Western nothingness: a nothingness that is rebellious, violent, anti-God, and anti-human...  It is nothingness as God" (128).  This is, of course, the language of a man surveying Nazism at the zenith of its power.  But is it so different in our more polite age?

"Only two things can prevent the final fall into the abyss: the miracle of a new awakening of faith; and the power which the Bible calls 'the restrainer'... (2 Thess. 2:7)" (131).  Bonhoeffer understands the restrainer to be the remaining authority of order within the world, represented imperfectly but nonetheless somewhat effectively by the state.  It is fascinating that he could write this in 1941!  The Nazi state has not persuaded him of the overall evil of the state; rather the state itself is God's instrument for preservation.  Nonetheless, the state can only preserve; it cannot revivify.  "The Church has a unique task...  The Church must bear witness to Jesus Christ as living lord, and it must do so in a world which has turned away from Christ after knowing him" (132).  That makes the Church the bearer of the genuine historical tradition of the West.  The world, which has turned to nothingness, does not know what to do with its heritage; the very idea of receiving and passing on has become strange to it.  But the church does know.

Still, the church is not interested in just passing on history.  Rather, it must preach Christ as the living lord.  "The more the church holds to its central message, the more effective it is" (132).  Bonhoeffer saw the remaining forces of order in his society beginning to look to the church as an ally - and the church can be an ally in that way.  But that is not its central business.  It must proclaim Christ.  It is "the miracle of a new awakening of faith" that the church looks for amidst a culture bent on annihilation.