Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Some good

I think it was Bonhoeffer who first sparked off the thought in me.  In Ethics (p339ff.) he discusses the appeal of the gospel to good people.  In tidier, more together, more legalistic times, he suggests, it is the publicans and sinners who find themselves in the vicinity of the church; but when things fall apart it is good people who find themselves there. "In times that are out of joint, when lawlessness and wickedness arrogantly triumph, the gospel will instead demonstrate itself in the few remaining figures who are just, truthful, and humane".  I wonder if we might be approaching just such a time.  As the tide of the new barbarism rises, might it be time for the church to acknowledge and reach out to all those of good spirit, who will perhaps find themselves surprisingly close to her despite their basic antipathy to her message?

Of course Bonhoeffer is not questioning, and I am not questioning, that the ultimate word about each of us in all our relative good and evil is that we are sinners who are redeemed only by the death of Christ.  But there are nevertheless many penultimate words which are spoken in our lives, words which are good or bad, and despite our common misery there are nevertheless shades of light and darkness.  The question for Bonhoeffer, and I think for us, is just how we apply the gospel to those who are, relatively, good, in the midst of a culture that has lost all its ethical bearings.

I do wonder whether, for starters, we might need to think about how we talk about sin.  Our talk about sin is so very often ethical in a way that is unhelpful.  Because people in the world tend to think of sin as 'doing bad things', we only add to confusion when we use ethical standards to talk about sin.  Moreover, we blur all those relative differences.  In our rush to say that all are sinners in need of salvation (which we must say and cannot say too often), we are heard to say that everyone is ethically just as bad as their neighbour.  Since this is manifestly not true, the point misses its target and nobody is convicted.  Moreover, in setting ourselves in this way against both the good and the bad, we come across as indifferent to whether people are 'just, truthful, humane' or not.  Sometimes I worry whether that is because we are in fact indifferent...

Let us rather say that all the goodness in the world and in individuals is orphaned goodness.  It springs from Christ, as all good things do, but it is disconnected from him, and therefore powerless both to stand against evil in the world in any ultimate way, or even to defend itself from the corruption which threatens it.  Goodness without Christ is powerless to prevent itself from becoming self-righteousness; purity without Christ is powerless to prevent itself becoming pride...

The wise gospel preacher will not hesitate to say that it is sin - the ontological and relational alienation from God caused by our species-wide and yet all too individual rebellion against him - which has left this ethical goodness orphaned and pathetic in a world of evil (the world out there and indeed the world 'in here').  The invitation, then, to the good person is to see the good in the world, and in themselves, in the light of the cross: only at the cross could this good be secured and won; only at the foot of the cross can it begin to make sense in a world gone wrong.  Repentance, then, is not from the good, but towards the very source of the good - and therefore away from dead self, which even when it brings forth good is in the very midst of evil.

After all, there are many who say "who will show us some good?"


  1. May I use this quote?
    "Goodness without Christ is powerless to prevent itself from becoming self-righteousness; purity without Christ is powerless to prevent itself becoming pride..."
    It hits on something I want to address on my blog. I have not been able to get my thoughts together...at least not in such a way that anyone reading them would think me anything other than a raving lunatic!
    I enjoy your writing.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Of course, please do quote - and if you link back, so much the better :o)

      Glad you're enjoying it; wish I had time to write more often!

  2. I will link back to you.
    Thanks for letting me know.