Monday, July 18, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (10)

The tenth manuscript of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is short, and in that sense feels like a fragment - but on the other hand, it seems to me that it expresses a complete thought, and does so coherently and persuasively.  The title is Church and World I (presumably Bonhoeffer envisaged writing a Church and World II), and the theme is initially based on Bonhoeffer's observation that in the circumstances of the Nazi Reich many people were looking to the church to preserve culture and civilisation.  "Reason, culture, humanity, tolerance, autonomy - all these concepts, which until recently had served as battle cries against the church, against Christianity, even against Jesus Christ, now surprisingly found themselves in very close proximity to the Christian domain" (340).

For Bonhoeffer there is a clear logic to this: all these concepts really belong to Christianity.  "In the hour of danger, the children of the church who had become independent and run away now returned to their mother" (341).  The origin of all these good things is Jesus Christ, and although they have changed through their long estrangement from the church, they still essentially belong to her and return to her in crisis.

There follows a reflection on what this means for the relationship between the church and the world.  Bonhoeffer considers the two apparently conflicting statements of Jesus that 'whoever is not against us is for us' (which seems to set the boundaries of the church very broadly) and 'whoever is not for us is against us' (which seems to set it more narrowly).  Bonhoeffer sees the apparent conflict resolved in the experience of the German churches under Nazism.  On the one hand, the churches became a refuge for all those who resisted, Christian or not; on the other hand, the churches necessarily had to become narrower, focusing more keenly on the gospel, forced to make their confession of Christ more exclusive.  "Thus [the church] gained, precisely through this concentration on what is essential, an inner freedom and openness that protected it from all anxious efforts to erect boundaries" (343).

There is a fascinating historical reflection on the church's relationship with 'good' and 'wicked' people in the second half of this section.  From the Reformation, the church has inherited a definite emphasis on the gospel for the wicked, and the justification of the sinner - and it is essential that this be understood.  But the danger of turning this into a condemnation of goodness is always there.  In particular, we must beware of making it seem as if the tax collectors and sinners were in some sense better than the good people, adopting a position of despising 'bourgeois morality'.  I sense that danger in some of the churches I know.  But since I've written about this section before, I won't dig any further now!

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