A couple of conferences on theology and ethics

The Department of Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, together with the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, are organising the following conferences:

Theological Ethics Conference Aberdeen

Bonhoeffer Events Aberdeen (2)

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Bad sermons

Like most people who hang around churches, I hear a lot of bad sermons. Some of them are my own. And from time to time, I also read some bad sermons. I also read about what makes bad sermons. (Ironically, or perhaps not, these essays are often written by someone who themselves is a dismal preacher.) So when PT Forsyth suggests that ‘with its preaching Christianity stands or falls’, I hope like mad that he’s wrong, even while secretly acquiescing with his assessment of God’s strange ways with us. Anyway, I was recently reading Bonhoeffer’s novella titled ‘Sunday’ which appears in his Fiction from Tegel Prison material (I’m slowly making my way through Bonhoeffer’s works this year). Therein, he offers us one of the best expositions I’ve yet read on the bad sermon, and on the costliness of such. Here’s an excerpt:

Frau Karoline Brake sat upright on the park bench, her eyes lost in the red splendor of blossoms and in the dark green foliage. A few brimstone butterflies fluttered in the hushed stillness of shimmering sunlight. The birds’ soft rustling in the hushes, their voices now almost silenced by the fire of the sun climbing toward noon, the chirping of crickets, the mosquitoes’ fine, bright hum – all these sounds reached her ear, penetrating the stillness. Feeling happy and profoundly thankful, she breathed in the fullness of the summer air.

Suddenly a shadow passed across her face. She had heard another miserable sermon. She had walked out of church in a very bad mood, and only the radiant blue sky and nature’s summery light had made her feel better. But now she felt her rage rising once again within her. What rubbish she had been forced to listen to again. Could one blame the children and grandchildren who, for years now, had let her go to church alone? She could still hear her oldest grandson’s precocious words as he had accompanied her to church for the last time: “You know, Grandma, we’ve outgrown this kind of preacher wisdom just like we’ve outgrown our Latin teachers rattling off Ostermann’s exercises. I really can’t understand how you can bear to listen to it Sunday after Sunday.”

At the time she had replied, “Dear boy, what’s important is not that something is new, but that it’s right. And we need to hear what’s right again and again, because unfortunately we keep forgetting it.”

“I don’t understand,” he had replied. “I don’t forget it at all. On the contrary, I can recite all these sanctimonious clichés backwards and forwards.”

‘‘Yes, you know them in your head and your lips can rattle them off my dear, but the heart and the hand learn more slowly.”

She had said this and yet did not feel right about saying it, for what they had heard in the sermon was neither new nor right. It was sanctimonious prattle, and to her mind that was the worst thing that could happen from the pulpit. Perhaps she should have admitted that openly to her grandson. Perhaps she should have said to him: “You mustn’t confuse Christianity with its pathetic representatives.” But he was a smart boy and would not have spared her a reply: “Anything that has such pathetic representatives can’t have much power left; I’m interested in what is alive and relevant today, not in a dead faith of the past.”

How could one argue with that? To distinguish between original Christianity and the church today was really a feeble attempt to justify it. After all, what mattered was simply whether the Christianity in which Frau Brake had grown up and lived her life still existed today, and whether or not it lives in its current representatives. Every bad sermon was another nail in the coffin of the Christian faith. It could no longer be denied that here, in this suburb in any event, hot air had taken the place of God’s Word.

Frau Karoline Brake no longer saw the bushes in full bloom; she could no longer feel the pleasure of the warm July sun. Instead she saw her children and grandchildren before her mind’s eye and uttered a quiet “Oh, well!” In her voice was a little amazement about the ways of the world, a little worry about her own inability to change them, but also a good bit of that calm assurance with which older people entrust the future to hands stronger than their own. But, as if she had already let herself go too far with this little sigh, Frau Karoline straightened her body with a quick, rather indignant jerk, stood up, and strode resolutely through the park to the street that led to her home.

No, she was not the kind who gave up easily. You could tell from the way she walked that she was making decisions as she went along. She would see that this old windbag of a preacher left this pulpit, or that a second pastor, a preacher of the word of God, would be called to the parish.  She rejected the idea of speaking to the windbag again. She had made several attempts, but had been met with nothing but vain defensiveness and hollow officiousness. In fact, she had felt the pastor avoiding her glance since these visits, and she had heard by the grapevine that he had thwarted her reelection to the parish council [Gemeindekirchenrat]. Some said he emphasized that she must be spared because of her age; others said he thought her strange. He even went so far with some as to accuse her of intolerable presumption. There was no doubt about it; he was afraid of her because she saw through him. Despite these events she had continued to go to his church every Sunday, even when she had long since given up hope of ever hearing the word of God from him. She had taken this humiliation upon herself as a salutary discipline. But in the end she had had enough. It wasn’t so much for her own sake; she had learned through the years to ignore the talk and to focus on the few words which contained truth. She could have continued this way for the rest of her life. But more important things were at stake. The congregation, the whole town, her own family was deprived of the word of God and that meant that their whole life must sooner or later lose its center. This could remain hidden for a while yet; memory and tradition could postpone complete disintegration for a while yet.

But her grandchildren’s generation would need to find new ways of its own, and several things these young people had said had led their grandmother to recognize the first signs of protest, even of revolt. It was not the young people’s fault if things were as they were. Rather, the older people let things take their course so unperceptively, without insight or concern. That was the worst thing about it. Frau Karoline Brake had asked herself tacitly whether it could be God’s will to bring judgment over this generation by withdrawing God’s word from them. But even if it were so, she told herself, God would also want people to resist [widersetzen] this judgment, to take God at his word and not let him go until he blessed them. But why was she so alone with her ideas and opinions? Why did hardly anyone who had been in church today, except the old sexton, notice that all they had heard were hollow phrases and cheap clichés? Why did the educated, of all people, fail so completely in their discernment? To be sure, they hardly ever went to church, but when they had to attend a baptism or wedding they always found the “speech” [Rede], as they called the sermon, very lovely, very artistic, very modern, very relevant. The old woman shook her head dejectedly and was totally lost in her thoughts when she heard a voice behind her.

“Good morning, my dear Frau Bürgermeister, hasn’t the dear Lord blessed us with another beautiful day?” It was the neighbor, Direktor Warmblut’s widow, who was also walking home from church. She had already greeted two or three other women from the neighborhood on their way home and was now hurrying after Frau Karoline Brake to reach her before they arrived at their houses. It wasn’t easy for this short, rather plump woman to catch up to her neighbor, who was ten years her senior. Now she ran breathless with a shiny, red face beside the agile and stately figure, who presented a rare picture of moderation and dignity in her gray dress, gray silk parasol, gray hair, and the dry gray skin of her intelligent face.

“Good morning,” said Frau Brake with her quiet, clear voice. “Yes, the sun does us good; we need it, too.”

“Oh, I do hope things are going well with you. What wonderful health the dear Lord has given you! Well, of course, he loves you and why shouldn’t he? Such a blessed family life, and you their beloved grandmother, the idol of all the grandchildren. Oh, these charming children, and they’re growing up now. But they’re still good, cast in the same mold, and why shouldn’t they be? How fortunate for you, to be surrounded by your family – just think, my dear Frau Bürgermeister, I have had such trouble again the last few days. Oh, I know, the heavier the cross, the closer to heaven, and why shouldn’t it be so? But just think, my daughter Hilde’s husband has left the church and doesn’t want their child baptized. I’ve shed so many tears over it. What would my dear husband, God rest his soul, have said about it? And what will people think of us, and what will become of the poor little wretch? Yes, and I’m almost ashamed to admit it, my Hilde doesn’t seem to mind at all. She says the child can decide later on for herself what she wants. That really hurt me – and coming from my own daughter! And all this to the widow of a man of such an honorable position! I just can’t understand it. I always told her about the dear Lord and prayed with her. She always had to go to church with me, and even at her wedding the pastor gave her such lovely maxims to learn, and she always had the saying over her bed, “Do right and fear no one.” Believe me, dearest Frau Bürgermeister, I haven’t been able to sleep for nights fretting over my daughter. But during the sermon today all that blew over, and now I’m relieved and happy. Oh, and the dear Lord has given us our dear church and our dear pastor, too, who has such a beautiful way with words, so down-to-earth and close to the people. Forgive me, Frau Bürgermeister, I know you don’t always agree with him, but today, don’t you agree, today he outdid himself.”

“Yes, today he really outdid himself, Frau Direktor.”

“You see, you see, oh, I’m so happy that you agree. Didn’t he say it beautifully? Yes – uh, what did he say, anyway? It’s so lovely one could never convey it. But it really doesn’t matter at all, you can just feel it and it’s so uplifting and you don’t even quite know why, isn’t that right, dearest Frau Bürgermeister.”

“Yes, you really don’t quite know why.”

“Well, anyway, he said everyone should live the way they see fit and then it will be the right way, and it doesn’t matter that much to the dear Lord whether the little one is baptized or not, right, Frau Bürgermeister? And it really doesn’t matter that much at all whether my little Hilde goes to church or not. We’re all free people, after all, that’s how he expressed it. Oh, what a wonderful idea! So liberating, so deep, and why shouldn’t it be, right, dearest Frau Bürgermeister? In fact, he had a Bible passage. Now what was it about again?”

“Yes, indeed, what do you think it was about, Frau Direktor?”

“Yes, what was it about, anyway? Oh – you’re getting me all confused, Frau Bürgermeister. But it really doesn’t matter at all, does it?”

“No, it really doesn’t matter at all, because it wasn’t about the Bible passage at all. He wanted to preach about plucking the ears of corn on the Sabbath and about the verse, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ Instead of saying that Christ may do things because he is Christ, but that doesn’t give us the right to do them by any means, and that if Christ keeps the Sabbath by breaking it, then we first have to learn how to keep the Sabbath holy in earnest, by keeping it – instead of saying that, he babbled on about the freedom of all human beings, and that people may do whatever they think is right, and that we should spend Sunday out in nature rather than in church, and that it doesn’t matter so much at all because the dear Lord is so kind and sweet and good that he isn’t even capable of wrath. My dear Frau Direktor, did it escape you again that the pastor said what you wanted to hear; but didn’t preach the word of God?”

Looking for God – a short reflection

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

– Rowan Williams, The Poems of Rowan Williams (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 31.

A few Wednesdays ago, I was exploring the vibrant and crowded city of Mumbai. With a population of over 20 million, Mumbai is India’s most populous city, and the fourth most populous in the world. It’s a city of colour, of noise, and of enormous energy. 

There were many memorable experiences: simply navigating my way across the road, for example, or holding my breath while praying for life at the rear of a speeding and bald-tyred rickshaw while the driver checked messages on his cell phone, or fighting to get my graceful frame on and then off a moving second-class train carriage – moving, because that’s the only way you have anything of a skerrick of a chance of getting on or off the train in the first place. I’ve never seen so many people on a train; it felt like trying to get a kilo of olives into a 500ml jar. Any closer and we’d be talking something like mass perichoresis. Equally crowded though, and more violently etched on my memory, is the kilometres and kilometres of Mumbai slums. As with some of the places I visited and stayed in Burma, it is impossible to put this ‘hopeless’ image into words. (Of course, one of the ever-present dangers in theology attends our perpetual attempts to find words for everything, even for God, as if by writing or speaking about things we can somehow harbour control over, or a sense of distance from, them. Woe to those of us who so do.)

That Wednesday was also the first time in my life when I encountered someone who seriously tried to sell me some children. In fact, I was offered 3 children for 900 rupees, which is 200 rupees more than I had just paid for a scarf for my partner Judy. These small children – they can’t have been older than 5 or 6 – were standing around barefoot on what was literally a small sea of broken glass, mostly light bulbs it seems, where they were attempting to retrieve small pieces of metal and other parts that could then be sold. Perhaps this is how they earned their keep.

I uttered an ancient prayer – ‘Where is God?’

And I found myself hearing again Rowan Williams’ words, that God ‘will come, will come/will come like crying in the night/like blood, like breaking/as the earth writhes to toss him free/He will come like child‘.

It was only a few days later when, in Mangalore, some 900 kilometres away, I had the privildge to share a meal with Rev Dr Manohar Chandra Prasad who serves as president of the Dalit Christian Federation in Karnataka, and as bishop of the Church of South India. Not only did he generously give me a short but utterly-fascinating course in Dalit politics, hiercharchy, hermeneutics and history, he also spoke to me of God’s plan for the liberation of all oppressed people’s via God’s action of becoming incarnate, not as a one-off act but rather as a continual act of God’s becoming among us. He also spoke of God identifying himself with the ‘least of us’, taking up the exploitation and oppression into his own body, and becoming the first among the oppressed and the marginalised.

In The Pseudonyms of God, a book penned against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Robert McAfee Brown invites us to imagine finding ourselves in a place where we are waiting for some tremendous manifestation of God’s activity. He invites us to imagine a situation where we have heard – or thought we had heard – a promise that God would intervene in our human situation, and that it was now clear that the time was at hand. Where would we look for God?

Brown suggests that we might most likely be found looking ‘in one of the great nations, where as many people as possible would be exposed to this important fact; surely in a well-established family with much influence; surely in such a way that all the resources of public opinion and mass media could be used to acquaint people with what had happened; surely it would be the most public and open and widely accessible event possible’ (pp. 84–5). He then paints a scenario more in keeping with the event of God’s disclosure now known to us:

A child would be born into a backward South African tribe, the child of poor parents with almost no education. He would grow up under a government that would not acknowledge his right to citizenship. During his entire lifetime he would travel no more than about fifty miles from the village of his birth, and would spend most of that lifetime simply following his father’s trade – a hunter, perhaps, or a primitive farmer. Toward the end he would begin to gather a few followers together, talking about things that sounded so dangerous to the authorities that the police would finally move in and arrest him, at which point his following would collapse and his friends would fade back into their former jobs and situations. After a short time in prison and a rigged trial he would be shot by the prison guards as an enemy of the state. (p. 85)

Those who have heard the message of Jesus ought not to be surprised to hear that the only God there is is the outcasted God, and to find the outcasted God among the outcast. Is this not the message of Matthew 25?:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (vv. 31–40)

We must look for signs of the Servant-God’s presence among those who serve. Numbered among the world’s neglected and forgotten castes, we must expect to hear the echo of God’s voice among those who are oppressed. The pieta-like image on the left recalls that since 800 million of the planet’s people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, we might well expect that God’s availability is made tangible in loaves and fishes, rice and safe drinking water. Since God’s identification with the world involves God’s becoming creaturely, we ought look for God not only in ‘holy’ places or by means of ‘holy’ words, but also in the very common and ordinary things of life, in the well-over 500 million people who are living in what the World Bank has called ‘absolute poverty’, and in all those gathered up in the one great movement of divine emptying and filling. ‘We will not be surprised to discover’, Brown writes, ‘that [God] suffered also, nor will we flinch when Bonhoeffer pronounces the initially disturbing words, “Only the suffering God can help,” even though it is probably the ultimate in the pseudonymous activity of God that he could be acquainted with grief’ (p. 86).

The words ‘only the suffering God can help’ come from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. And it’s worth hearing the context – both literary and historical/political – from which these words come:

The same God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34!). The same God who makes us to live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God, and with God, we live without God. God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence but rather by virtue of his weakness and suffering! This is the crucial distinction between Christianity and all religions. Human religiosity directs people in need to the power of God in the world, God as deus ex machina. The Bible directs people toward the powerlessness and the suffering of God; only the suffering God can help. (pp. 478–79)

Bonhoeffer reminds us that in the economy of grace, Jesus is God’s grand pseudonym, the supreme occurrence of God acting in ways contrary to our expectation. And so if we miss God’s presence in the world, it will not be because God is absent. It will be because we have been looking in the wrong places.

As with so many of the great saints, such looking drove the imprisoned Bonhoeffer, again and again, to prayer – to prayer for his fellow prisoners, to prayer for those charged with performing the ‘difficult duty’ of guarding them, to prayer for himself:

God, I call to you early in the morning,
help me pray and collect my thoughts,
I cannot do so alone.
–––––
In me it is dark, but with you there is light.
I am lonely, but do not abandon me.
I am faint-hearted, but from you comes my help.
I am restless, but with you is peace.
In me is bitterness, but with you is patience.
I do not understand your ways, but you know [the] right way for me.
–––––
Father in heaven,
Praise and thanks be to you for the quiet of the night.
Praise and thanks be to you for the new day.
Praise and thanks be to you for all your goodness and faithfulness in my life thus far.
You have granted me much good,
now let me also accept hardship from your hand.
You will not lay on me more than I can
You make all things serve your children for the best.
–––––
Lord Jesus Christ,
you were poor and miserable, imprisoned and abandoned as I am.
You know all human need,
you remain with me when no human being stands by me,
you do not forget me and you seek me,
you want me to recognize you and turn back to you.
Lord, I hear your call and follow.
Help me!
–––––
Holy Spirit,
Grant me the faith
that saves me from despair and vice.
Grant me the love for God and others
that purges all hate and bitterness,
grant me the hope
that frees me from fear and despondency.
Teach me to discern Jesus Christ and to do his will.
–––––
Triune God,
my Creator and my Savior,
this day belongs to you. My time is in your hands.
Holy, merciful God,
my Creator and my Savior
my Judge and my Redeemer,
you know me and all my ways and actions.
You hate and punish evil in this and every world
without regard for person,
you forgive sins
for anyone who asks you sincerely,
and you love the good and reward it
on this earth with a clear conscience
and in the world to come with the crown of righteousness.
Before you I remember all those I love,
my fellow prisoners, and all
who in this house perform their difficult duty.
Lord, have mercy.
Grant me freedom again
and in the meantime let me live in such a way
that I can give account before [you] and others.
Lord, whatever this day may bring – your name be praised.

– Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pp. 94–96.

I do not, of course, want to foster the impression that the looking (or groping; Acts 17.27) for God is solely, or even primarily, a human activity. Even in prayer, the prime mover is always God. As I have written elsewhere, it is principally God and not us who is on the prowl, awaiting his own time to enact the ‘terrible death leap and single blow’ upon us. To be found by God is to be made love’s victim.

On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XIV

‘Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never’. (Elie Wiesel. Night, 45).

So penned Elie Wiesel in the moving record of his childhood in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. For Wiesel, as for countless others – both inside and outside the camps – the systematic extermination of millions of human beings – whether Jews, political activists, homosexuals, or others – meant the death of faith and of God. In fact, as John de Gruchy perceptively notes in his Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective, ‘suffering is especially a problem for the person who believes, or who wants to believe in God. Yet, paradoxically, the problem can only be handled from the perspective of faith’ (p. 102).

There can be no real argument that ‘suffering is built into the fabric of human existence’ (Ibid., p. 97), and that questions of suffering pose the most real and existentially-alive challenge to belief in God. Suffering, the kind of suffering that ‘plucks the tongue from the head and the voice from the heart’ (Daniel Berrigan in Hans-Ruedi Weber, On a Friday Noon: Meditations Under the Cross, p. 28), is both a challenge and opportunity for Christian belief as well as for pastoral ministry because it is held to demonstrate the logical incoherence of Christianity.

One of the most influential novels of last century was The Plague (1947) by the French-Algerian author, philosopher, and journalist Albert Camus (1913–1960). The Plague recalls a plague (oddly enough) which is causing untold suffering and death, underscoring the universal condition of humankind. Dr Reuss, the main character, a compassionate physician, says at one point, ‘Since … the world is shaped by death mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?’ (p. 128.). Elsewhere there is a scene where a priest, an unbeliever and the doctor surround the bed of a little boy who is dying. He suffers in pain. The priest asks God for help: ‘My God, spare this child’ (p. 217). The boy dies. Later the priest declares, ‘That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand’. The doctor responds: ‘“No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture”’ (p. 218).

At another time, Camus was returning home from church when a six year old girl asked him why little girls starve in Africa while she has plenty to eat: ‘Doesn’t God love them as much as he does me?’ His inability to provide an answer birthed the conclusion that there was no God. To this, C.S. Lewis may have replied (as he did in The Problem of Pain) that

‘The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word “love”, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. “Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest “well pleased”. To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because He is what He is, His love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled, by certain stains in our present character, and because He already loves us He must labour to make us lovable’. (p. 36)

On 4 June 1886, T.H. Huxley penned a letter to a Sir John Skelton. The letter concluded with these words: ‘… there is amazingly little evidence of “reverential care for unoffending creation” in the arrangements of nature, that I can discover. If our ears were sharp enough to hear all the cries of pain that are uttered by men and beasts, we should be deafened by one continuous scream! And yet the wealth of superfluous loveliness in the world condemns pessimism. It is a hopeless riddle’ (Leonard Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, in Three Volumes, 2:353). Again, the question of suffering is unquestionably among the most difficult for faith, and so for pastoral ministry. So Jürgen Moltmann in The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God: ‘It is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises … [Suffering] is the open wound of life in this world’ (pp. 47, 49). So too Lance Morrow, in a Time Magazine article entitled ‘Evil’:

‘The historian Jeffrey Burton Russell asks, ‘What kind of God is this? Any decent religion must face the question squarely, and no answer is credible that cannot be given in the presence of dying children’. Can one propose a God who is partly evil? Elie Wiesel, who was in Auschwitz as a child, suggests that perhaps God has ‘retracted himself’ in the matter of evil. Wiesel has written, ‘God is in exile, but every individual, if he strives hard enough, can redeem mankind, and even God himself’’.

This situation is, in Moltmann’s words, ‘the open wound of life’ in which honest pastoral ministry happens. In the post-Auschwitz world, questions of suffering and theodicy have determined, dominated and challenged theology. As Rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein put it in After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism:

‘I believe the greatest single challenge to modern Judaism arises out of the question of God and the death camps. I am amazed at the silence of contemporary Jewish theologians on this most crucial and agonizing of all Jewish issues. How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz? Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in the historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God’s punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God’s will. The agony of European Jewry cannot be likened to the testing of Job. To see any purpose in the death camps, the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, anti-human explosion of all history as a meaningful expression of God’s purposes. The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept’. (p. 171)

And others too have asked:

‘You will sooner or later be confronted by the enigma of God’s action in history’. (Elie Wiesel, in One Generation After, as Cited in Richard L. Rubenstein and John K. Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy, p. 327)

‘Given the classical theological positions of both Judaism and Christianity, the fundamental question posed by the Holocaust is not whether the existence of a just, omnipotent God can be reconciled with radical evil. That is a philosophical question. The religious question is the following: Did God use Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as his agents to inflict terrible sufferings and death upon six million Jews, including more than one million children?’ (Ibid., p. 327)

‘The God of Holy Nothingness is ‘omnipresent’, although not in the usual sense meant by theologians. This God resides within destruction. The Holy Nothingness generates this-world and its vicissitudes from out of its own fecund plenitude. Yet, a God so involved in the world and its attendant suffering becomes deeply complicit and can only invite the wrath and enmity of her aggrieved children’. (Zachary Braiterman, (God) after Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought, pp. 99–100)

And Martin Buber, in On Judaism, asks, ‘How is life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz?’ He acknowledges that one might still ‘believe in’ a God who permitted the Shoah to happen, but he questions the possibility of hearing God’s word, let alone entering into an I-Thou relationship with God: ‘Can one still hear His word? Can one still, as an individual and as a people, enter at all into a dialogical relationship with Him? Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers: “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever”?’ (p. 224).

And we could go on, citing proposed responses from Epicures, from David Hume, from Gottfried Leibniz, from John Stuart Mill, from Richard Dawkins, from C.S. Lewis, from Thomas Aquinas, from David Bentley Hart, and from others. But the intro to this post has been long enough to introduce the point that one of the surprising features of life for many when they enter the ministry is confrontation with grief and suffering of immense depth. The pastor dare not trot out glib answers which only increase the suffering and betray her or his lack of understanding. But does this mean that pastors can only, and/or must, remain silent? Yes and No.

Enter one qualified to help pastors out at this point – the Lutheran pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945). And I want to draw here upon John S. Conway’s fine essay, ‘A Meditation upon Bonhoeffer’s Last Writings from Prison’ in Glaube – Freiheit – Diktatur in Europa und den USA: Festschrift für Gerhard Besier zum 60. Geburtstag (ed. Katarzyna Stokłosa and Andrea Strübind; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 235–44.

One of the most radical challenges to the traditional views of God’s omnipotence and of divine impassibility has come from Bonhoeffer’s pen. On 19 December 1944, from his bleak underground prison in the cellars of the Gestapo headquarters in central Berlin, Bonhoeffer sat down to write a Christmas letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer (For more on their correspondence, see Love Letters from Cell 92). In what was to be his final greeting, Bonhoeffer included in that letter a poem to be shared with his parents. The poem, which has been made into a wonderful hymn known as ‘By Gracious Powers’, reads like this:

With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
And pass, with you, into the coming year.

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening:
the long days of sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,
and all our life be dedicate to thine.

To-day, let candles shed their radiant greeting:
lo, on our darkness are they not thy light
leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting? –
Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.

When now the silence deepens for our hearkening
grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal pæan [song of triumph], in thy praise.

While all the powers of Good aid and attend us
boldly we’ll face the future, be it what may.
At even, and at morn, God will befriend us,
and oh, most surely on each new year’s day! (in Letters and Papers from Prison)

These seven short verses bespeak of Bonhoeffer’s trust in God’s enduring and comforting presence during what was the sixth Christmas season of the war and a time of impending and overwhelming disaster. By this time, Bonhoeffer had already been in Tegel prison for nineteen months, mainly in Cell 92. He had been arrested in April 1943 on suspicion of being involved in smuggling Jewish refugees into Switzerland. The investigations had dragged on without resolution for a year and a half. But then in October 1944 he had been transferred to the far more ominous Interrogation Centre of the Gestapo’s main headquarters in downtown Berlin. He now faced the even more severe charges of abetting the conspiracy which had unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler a few months earlier. He would likely be arraigned before the Chief Justice of the People’s Court, Roland Freisler, whose vindictiveness had already sentenced thousands to death for treason against the Reich, and was to do the same to Dietrich’s brother, Klaus. In the meantime the Gestapo was relentlessly trying to entrap him into incriminating confessions about his friends and relatives. What kind of a faith could withstand such ruthless pressures and still witness to God’s powers of goodness?

In this context, Bonhoeffer’s thoughts revolve around the cumulative and appalling suffering of so many people at this crucial stage of the war. From his contacts with the anti-Nazi resistance, he had learnt of the dreadful crimes committed by his countrymen against millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, gypsies and the mentally handicapped. He was equally aware that millions of his own countrymen, including members of his family, had been misled into losing their lives in the service of the Reich’s machinery of violence. How could this suffering be reconciled with a loving Christ? Where is God in all this? Why doesn’t God intervene to put a stop to it? It was just at this critical juncture that Bonhoeffer heard the news that the planned assassination of Hitler had failed. The likely consequences were all too clear, and the tone of his thinking and writing was from then on increasingly filled with foreboding. His preoccupation with suffering and death becomes even more forceful. The imagery and significance of Christ’s crucifixion became ever more real. Out of this came his shortest, but perhaps most memorable, poem, written in the same month, ‘Christians and Others’:

Men go to God when they are sore bestead [placed],
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving. (in Letters and Papers from Prison)

This poem arose out of Bonhoeffer’s bible readings and meditations on the subject of suffering. He was certainly not just preoccupied with his own fate, but rather overwhelmed by the lethal prospects which all his friends in the resistance movement now faced. He knew enough about personal anguish to give authenticity to his statements on suffering. His purpose was to clarify his understanding of a theologia crucis, a theology of the cross.

The poem opens with the universal human desire for relief, for removal of pain, for cessation of suffering, for an end to hunger, for the cleansing of a guilty conscience, for deliverance from death. This makes their religion a form of spiritual pharmacy. But all too often these prayers are not answered. By 1944 the mass murders seemed unstoppable. And Bonhoeffer interpreted the events as Christ being tortured and crucified anew but this time on Nazi Golgothas. Why did God not respond to such heartfelt petitions? Why does it seem that heaven is silent?

Bonhoeffer proposed something of a response to these kinds of questions in his letter dated 16 July 1944:

‘The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world and on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and this is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 [‘This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases”‘] makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering’. (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 134)

Bonhoeffer argues that to be a Christian is to stand by Christ in his hour of grieving, on the cross, in jail, in the bombed-out streets and concentration camps. This is a reversal of what ‘religious’ people typically expect.

So Bonhoeffer:

‘Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age … opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness’. (ibid)

Abraham Heschel, in his brilliant work The Prophets, helpfully reminds us that for the Hebrew prophets, ‘divine ethos does not operate without pathos … [God’s] ethos and pathos are one. The preoccupation with justice, the passion with which the prophets condemn injustice, is rooted in their sympathy with divine pathos’ (1:218). So we read in Isaiah 63.9–10,

In all their affliction he was afflicted,
and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
But they rebelled and grieved his holy Spirit;
therefore he turned to be their enemy,
and himself fought against them.

God suffers because God is holy love. If God were incapable of wrath, of being moved to grief by injustice and oppression, God would not be holy; if God were incapable of suffering, of being moved to grief by the pain and agony of the victims of society, God would not be omnipotent love. In his The Crucified God, Moltmann draws out the connection between the wrath and the love of God as grounded in the life of covenant:

‘[If] one starts from the pathos of God, one does not think of God in his absoluteness and freedom, but understands his passion and his interest in terms of the history of the covenant. The more the covenant is taken seriously as the revelation of God, the more profoundly one can understand the historicity of God and history in God. If God has opened his heart in the covenant with his people, he is injured by disobedience and suffers in the people. What the Old Testament terms the wrath of God does not belong in the category of the anthropomorphic transference of lower human emotions to God, but in the category of the divine pathos. His wrath is injured love and therefore a mode of his reaction to men. Love is the source and the basis of the possibility of the wrath of God. The opposite of love is not wrath, but indifference. Indifference towards justice and injustice would be a retreat on the part of God from the covenant. But his wrath is an expression of his abiding interest in man. Anger and love do not therefore keep a balance. ‘His wrath lasts for the twinkling of an eye,’ and, as the Jonah story shows, God takes back his anger for the sake of his love in reaction to human repentance. As injured love, the wrath of God is not something that is inflicted, but a divine suffering of evil. It is a sorrow which goes through his opened heart. He suffers in his passion for his people’. (pp. 171–2)

 

God grieves, then, because of the rebellion of his people; God grieves because of the broken relationship between himself and his creation; God grieves because of the inevitable consequences of human sin and rebellion; God grieves because he remembers what might have been; God grieves because love always hopes! Moltmann talks about the way that God is ‘injured by disobedience and suffers in the people’ who deserve their suffering, but what of the victims of their injustice? What of those who because of the faithlessness of the people of God find it difficult to believe in God?

de Gruchy is helpful here. Again from Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis:

‘… it is not so much God who is beyond belief, but the church which has lost its credibility. Indeed, if God has become a problem it is precisely because those who claim to believe in God have too often denied him in practice. The credibility of the church’s testimony today is bound up not so much with its intellectual ability to defend the faith, to solve the theodicy problem as traditionally stated, … but far more with the willingness of the church to participate in the suffering of Christ for the sake of the world. And this means to share in the struggle for justice. To be sure, the justification of God can only be resolved eschatologically, but that takes place penultimately in history through authentic witness to the kingdom of God. The God in whom we believe, the God revealed in the crucified Messiah, the God who is present even when he is experienced as absent, and absent when we think he is present, this God has opted to be on the side of those who suffer because of the oppression of others’. (p. 123)

And de Gruchy helpfully reminds us that the suffering of God described so poignantly and powerfully in the Old Testament is not just grief caused by a sinful and disobedient people; it is also suffering with and on behalf of those who suffer as a result of Israel’s sin – the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the lowly and innocent ones (see p. 113). And he cites from Terence Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, p. 108: ‘The human cry becomes God’s cry, God takes up the human cry and makes it God’s own’. This is precisely what Bonhoeffer, in Discipleship, called God’s ‘hour of grieving’, an hour in which and a grieving of such that God invites his people to participate. The church is not simply the community of Christ which suffers vicariously for others. It is also itself the suffering church and itself the victim of oppression.

Certainly Bonhoeffer knew well that the sufferings and deaths he was daily made aware of could not be ascribed to the moral failings of the individuals concerned. Rather these tribulations had, and have, to be understood as the result of collective human willful sinfulness. But God has not withdrawn into a remote impassivity. Rather, God suffers alongside his creation. To repeat:

Men go to God when he sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread …

 

The depths of divine suffering are reached in the cross where God finds himself ‘whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead’.

 

So what should the responses of Christians, and of pastors, be? Not like others, who merely pass by, to whom the sight of a dead Jew on a cross is nothing. But Christians in this situation of crisis have a particular and significant calling. As Bonhoeffer notes in the last line of verse 2: ‘Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving’. In a letter written to his friend Eberhard Bethge shortly after the poem was completed, Bonhoeffer expanded on this line:

‘This is what distinguishes Christians from pagans. Jesus asked in Gethsemane, ‘Could you not watch with me one hour?’. That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

He must therefore really live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a ‘worldly’ life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man – not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event, thus fulfilling Isa. 53 now …

This being caught up into the messianic sufferings of God in Jesus Christ takes a variety of forms in the New Testament. It appears in the call to discipleship, in Jesus’ table-fellowship with sinners, in ‘conversions’ in the narrower sense of the word (e.g. Zacchaeus), in the act of the woman who was a sinner (Luke 7) – an act that she performed without any confession of sin – in the healing of the sick (Matt. 8.17; see above), in Jesus’ acceptance of children. The shepherds, like the wise men from the East, stand at the crib, not as ‘converted sinners’, but simply because they are drawn to the crib by the star just as they are. The centurion of Capernaum (who makes no confession of sin) is held up as a model of faith (cf. Jairus). Jesus ‘loved’ the rich young man. The eunuch (Acts 8) and Cornelius (Acts 10) are not standing at the edge of an abyss. Nathaniel is ‘an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile’ (John 1:47). Finally, Joseph of Arimathea and the women at the tomb. The only thing that is common to all these is their sharing in the suffering of God in Christ. That is their ‘faith’. There is nothing of religious method here. The ‘religious act’ is always something partial; ‘faith’ is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life. Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life’. (Letters and Papers from Prison), pp. 135–6)

But where shall we find the strength and the grace to become such disciples? Verse 3 of the poem boldly asserts that, despite the sins we have all committed, despite the barriers we have all erected, despite all our efforts to behave like others, religiously, nevertheless God visits all people in their distress:

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving.

The second line here draws our attention to the eucharist where by sharing with us his body and his blood, Christ draws us into his pain and suffering. To repeat from the poem which we began our discussion on Bonhoeffer with:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

Here we are reminded of what Bonhoeffer explores more fully in Discipleship, namely that in his total identification with humanity in incarnation, and then by calling us into fellowship and discipleship with himself, Christ bids us to ‘come and die’.

‘The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest. Only a man thus totally committed in discipleship can experience the meaning of the cross. The cross is there, right from the beginning, he has only got to pick it up: there is no need for him to go out and look for a cross for himself, no need for him to deliberately run after suffering. Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God. Each must endure his allotted share of suffering and rejection. But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear. But it is the one and the same cross in every case.

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life. The call of Christ, his baptism, sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day he encounters new temptations, and every day he must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake. The wounds and scars he receives in the fray are living tokens of this participation in the cross of his Lord. But there is another kind of suffering and shame which the Christian is not spared. While it is true that only the sufferings of Christ are a means of atonement, yet since he has suffered for and borne the sins of the whole world and shares with his disciples the fruits of his passion, the Christian also has to undergo temptation, he too has to bear the sins of others; he too must bear their shame and be driven like a scapegoat from the gate of the city. But he would certainly break down under this burden, but for the support of him who bore the sins of all. The passion of Christ strengthens him to overcome the sins of others by forgiving them. He becomes the bearer of other men’s burdens – ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6.2). As Christ bears our burdens, so we ought to bear the burdens of our fellow-men. The law of Christ, which it is our duty to fulfil, is the bearing of the cross. My brother’s burden which I must bear is not only his outward lot, his natural characteristics and gifts, but quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which I now share. Thus the call to follow Christ always means a call to share the work of forgiving men their sins. Forgiveness is the Chrislike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear.

But how is the disciple to know what kind of cross is meant for him? He will soon find out as he begins to follow his Lord and to share his life.

Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. Following Christ means passio passive, suffering because we have to suffer. That is why Luther reckoned suffering among the marks of the true Church, and one of the memoranda drawn up in preparation for the Augsburg Confession similarly defines the Church as the community of those ‘who are persecuted and martyred for the gospel’s sake’. If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow Him. But if we lose our lives in his service and carry our cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross with Christ. The opposite of discipleship is to be ashamed of Christ and his cross and all the offense which the cross brings in its train.

Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. It is a joy and token of his grace. The acts of the early Christian martyrs are full of evidence which shows how Christ transfigures for his own the hour of their mortal agony by granting them the unspeakable assurance of his presence. In the hour of the cruelest torture they bear for his sake, they are made partakers in the perfect joy and bliss of fellowship with him. To bear the cross proves to be the only way of triumphing over suffering. This is true for all who follow Christ, because it was true for him’. (pp. 43–6)

In October, Bonhoeffer was transferred to the far more ominous and menacing Gestapo prison in central Berlin. But the evidence that we have is that his own faith and trust in his crucified Lord led him to identify more and more with the future hope of resurrection beyond death. So he could therefore face the inevitable testing through suffering by affirming his belief in God’s guiding hand, and the assuredness of God’s nearness. In his final poem ‘By the powers of Good’, the central verse takes up this issue:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

When C.S. Lewis lost his wife he wrote at one point in his anguish: ‘Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll gladly listen. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand’ (A Grief Observed, 23). And yet the task of providing consolation has always been a significant part of the work of a pastor. It is, in many ways, a task among the most difficult for the pastor. It is difficult because questions of suffering involve us in the depths of our humanity. And it is difficult because mere human words have no answer to the mystery of suffering.

Here we could do much worse that simply listen to the experience of Nick Wolterstorff who, in grief after losing his 25-year-old son Eric in a mountain climbing accident, penned the wonderfully-moving Lament for a Son:

‘What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with wNicords of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”

Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. Such people need to be corrected-gently, eventually. But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It’s those who think it’s not so bad that need correcting.

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings-never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.

And later, when you ask me how I am doing and I respond with a quick, thoughtless “Fine’’ or “OK,” stop me sometime and ask, “No, I mean really.” (pp. 34–5)

It is imperative to the integrity of its witness that the Church takes suffering and grief with the utmost seriousness. And as for death – Death sucks! There is simply nothing positive we can say about it, nor should we seek to live in peace with it. So Wolterstorff again:

‘Someone said to Claire, “I hope you’re learning to live at peace with Eric’s death.” Peace, shalom, salaam. Shalom is the fulness of life in all dimensions. Shalom is dwelling in justice and delight with God, with neighbor, with oneself, in nature. Death is shalom’s mortal enemy. Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death.

When the writer of Revelation spoke of the coming of the day of shalom, he did not say that on that day we would live at peace with death. He said that on that day “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity’s mourning bench’. (p. 63)

In the face of death, suffering and grief, what the Church is given to know and to hope in and to proclaim is the word of the cross and resurrection. We have no other word! Moltmann’s The Crucified God is characteristically helpful here:

‘The cross of Christ is not and cannot be loved. Yet only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and foolishness. Today, too, it is considered old-fashioned to put him in the centre of Christian faith and of theology. Yet only when [human beings] are reminded of him, however untimely this may be, can they be set free from the power of the facts of the present time, and from the laws and compulsions of history, and be offered a future which will never grow dark again. Today the church and theology must turn to the crucified Christ in order to show the world the freedom he offers. This is essential if they wish to become what they assert they are: the church of Christ, and Christian theology … Whether or not Christianity, in an alienated, divided and oppressive society, itself becomes alienated, divided and an accomplice of oppression, is ultimately decided only by whether the crucified Christ is a stranger to it or the Lord who determines the form of its existence … In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian’. (pp. 1, 3, 7)

‘We must not only ask whether it is possible and conceivable that one man has been raised from the dead before all others, and not only seek analogies in the historical structure of reality and in the anticipatory structure of reason, but also ask who this man was. If we do, we shall find that he was condemned according to his people’s understanding of the law as a ‘blasphemer ‘ and was crucified by the Romans, according to the divine ordinance of the Pax Romana, as a ‘rebel.’ He met a hellish death with every sign of being abandoned by his God and Father. The new and scandalous element in the Christian message of Easter was not that some man or other was raised before anyone else, but that the one who was raised was this condemned, executed and forsaken man. This was the unexpected element in the kerygma of the resurrection which created the new righteousness of faith’. (p. 175)

‘This deep community of will between Jesus and his God and Father is now expressed precisely at the point of their deepest separation, in the godforsaken and accursed death of Jesus on the cross’. (pp. 243–44)

‘The death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology … The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about God is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event. And conversely, the God event takes place on the cross of the risen Christ. Here God has not just acted externally, in his unattainable glory and eternity. Here he has acted in himself and has gone on to suffer in himself. Here he himself is love with all his being’. (pp. 204, 205)

So in the face of death, suffering and grief, the Church is called to:

  1. point to Jesus, the Crucified God, who reveals God’s endangering goodness and suffering love;
  2. participate in God’s cruciform life by suffering with those who suffer and working to relieve and eliminate suffering. Such cruciformity constitutes the ethical dimension of the theology of the cross found throughout the NT and the Christian tradition. Paradoxically, because the living Christ remains the crucified one, cruciformity is Spirit-enabled conformity to the indwelling crucified and resurrected Christ. It is the ministry of the living Christ, who re-shapes all relationships and responsibilities to express the self-giving, life-giving love of God that was displayed on the cross. Although cruciformity often includes suffering, at its heart cruciformity – like the cross – is about faithfulness and love.

Many of those who have suffered devastating grief or dehumanising pain have, at some point, been confronted by near relatives of Job’s miserable comforters, who come with their clichés and tired, pious mouthings. These relatives engender guilt where they should be administering balm, and utter solemn truths where their lips ought to be conduits of compassion. They talk about being strong and courageous when they should just shut and weep … and pray to the God ‘who comforts the downcast’ (2 Cor 7.6), who is the ‘God of all comfort’ (2 Cor 1.3), who intercedes for us both when we can articulate what we want to say and when all we have are groans, and to whom not even death represents the end.

But there is a further posture that we are invited, by God, to maintain. And that is the posture of protest prayer. I am reminded here of Karl Barth’s statement, that ‘to clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’ (cited in John W. de Gruchy, Cry Justice: Prayers, Meditations, & Readings from South Africa, 23). A Christian response to evil is not theodicy, but struggle – the struggle of taking God’s side against the world’s disorder, and of refusing to treat evil as an acceptable part of a larger harmonious vision. Only to the extent that we can confess that nothingness has been vanquished in the self-nihilation of Christ, and met with, struggled with, and overcome may we say that we ‘know’ something of sin and evil’s reality, and be able to speak hopefully of its end.

Finally, for now, the continuity/discontinuity of Jesus’ resurrection provides the ontological basis for Christian hope, promising that of whatever post-resurrection life consists, it is hope in something other than endless continuity. And as meaningful as life’s plots and subplots might be, it is the end (and the more improbable the better) that confers meaning on the whole. It is to bear witness to this end that pastors labour.

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Other posts in this series:

‘Piping songs of peasant glee’: Around the aether

Bonhoeffer’s hymns

I spent some time today trying to chase up the music for three hymns, the lyrics of which were all authored by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The first one was ‘In boundless mercy God has called’. Apparently this is in The Hymnal of the United Church of Christ #118, but I’ve had no success in hunting it down. Does anyone have a copy of this? Or does it appear anywhere else?

The second hymn was ‘O Lord my God, I thank thee that thou hast brought this day to its close’. Again, I’ve hit a dead end with this one. Can anyone help me out?

My success rate improved, however, with my third hunt, and that for the hymn ‘We turn to God when we are sorely pressed’, from Bonhoeffer’s poem ‘Christen und Heiden’, translated as ‘Christians and Unbelievers’ in his Letters and Papers from Prison:

Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (ed. Eberhard Bethge; trans. Reginald H. Fuller; London: SCM Press, 1954), 167–8.

I sourced music for this poem from two places: Together in Song, Australian Hymn Book II #240 (which also includes Bonhoeffer’s more well-known hymn ‘By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered’, #617), and the Church Hymnary, Fourth Edition #393. This is available in both full music and words edition or melody and words edition.

One of the things that I found really interesting here was comparing the different ways that this poem had been translated. The original reads:

Menschen gehen zu Gott in ihrer Not,
flehen um Hilfe, bitten um Glück und um Brot,
um Errettung aus Krankheit, Schuld und Tod.
So tun sie alle, alle, Christen und Heiden.

Menschen gehen zu Gott in Seiner Not,
finden ihn Arm, geschmäht, ohne Obdach und Brot,
sehn ihn verschlungen von Sünde, Schwachheit und Tod.
Christen stehen bei Gott in Seinem Leiden.

Gott geht zu allen Menschen in ihrer Not,
sättigt den Leib und die Seele mit seinem Brot,
stirbt für Christen und Heiden den Kreuzestod,
und vergibt ihnen beiden.

Together in Song, Australian Hymn Book II translates it thus:

All go to God when they are sorely placed,
they plead to him for help, for peace, for bread,
for mercy, for them sinning, sick or dead.
We all do so in faith or unbelief.

We all go to God when he is sorely placed,
find him poor, scorned, unsheltered, without bread,
whelmed under weight of evil, weak or dead.
We stand by God then, in his hour of grief.

God comes to us when we are sorely placed,
body and spirit feeds us with his bread.
For everyone, he as a man hangs dead:
forgiven life he gives all through his death.

And the Church Hymnary like so:

We turn to God when we are sorely pressed;
we pray for help, and ask for peace and bread;
we seek release from illness, guilt, and death:
all people do, in faith or unbelief.

We turn to God when he sorely pressed,
and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread,
bowed under weight of weakness, sin, and death:
faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.

God turns to us when we are sorely pressed,
and feeds our souls and bodies with his bread;
for one and all Christ gives himself in death:
through his forgiveness sin will find relief.

Robert Frost was right: ‘Poetry is what is lost in translation’.

Mythologies to live – and to die – by

‘The greatest tragedy of the church and of our people I see, at this moment in time, lies in the fact that in the powerful popular movement a purified, glowing, national feeling is linked up with a new paganism, whose unmasking and attacking is more difficult than with free-thinking religion, not only on emotional grounds, but because it goes around in Christian clothing’. So penned Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1931 during his first trip to North America, and published in No Rusty Swords (p. 69). This temptation, so powerfully resisted in Bonhoeffer’s own person, is also identified by Joe Jones in his exciting book On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times (reviewed here). In the Introduction, Jones recalls how throughout the church’s life there has been a ‘constant temptation to Christians to regard their national cultural identity as more basic than their Christian identity’ (p. xxi). This too is my concern, a concern nicely echoed in Ben Myers’ recent post on Anzac Day and the god of war, a subject which I too posted on last year under the name Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society. This shared concern seeks to speak into the confusion about the most basic self-understanding of the people of God, about our identity in the world and about which ‘mythology’ we choose to have our minds and lives most shaped by. Jones rightly, to my mind, contends that one symptom of the disarray in the church today is that most of us are more decisively formed and informed by our national identity than by our identity as disciples of an-other kingdom.

Jones proposes that the decisive identity for the church is an identity grounded in affirming Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Without some clarity about the priority among our various socially-conferred and socially-constructed identities, the church will, he contests, be utterly incapacitated to think pertinently about much at all, including issues about war and peace, and about its own unique identity, as well as its own theologically-determined political and economic life. He writes: ‘In the absence of a vigorous self-understanding grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the church devolves into being no more than a mirror image of the values – the discourses and practices – that shape the world in which it lives. Hence, being the church of Jesus Christ in tumultuous times at least involves understanding what it means simply in all times and places to be that community that is the Body of Christ in the world’. He continues: ‘This problem is most acute for the so-called ‘liberals’ and the so-called ‘conservatives’ among the church, for both seem determined to think about the war and terror simply according to the their liberal or conservative political dispositions. Completely lost in this is how to think and act, first and foremost, from the perspective of being a confessing and disciplined member of the Body of Christ in the world. Put another way: the discourses of the church should be the means by which Christians come to construe the world of the nation-states, with their internal and external politics, as the world over which Jesus Christ reigns’ (p. xxii).

We ought to thank God for those ministers and churches who on this recent Anzac Day refused to baptise a pagan ‘mythology’ but instead embraced the opportunity to engage creatively, graciously and prophetically with the soul of the community around them, to identify points of contact with that wider community, to encourage public discourse about the deepest realities of human being, and to hold up a new imagining of human community grounded in Jesus alone. That next year’s ANZAC Day falls on Easter Monday, only helps – one hopes – to make that conversation even more arresting, the clash of ‘mythologies’ even more striking, and the choice before us even more stark.

… becoming estranged from the earth

‘We do not rule; instead we are ruled. The thing, the world, rules humankind; humankind is a prisoner, a slave, of the world, and its dominion is an illusion. Technology is the power with which the earth seizes hold of humankind and masters it. And because we no longer rule, we lose the ground so that the earth no longer remains our earth, and we become estranged from the earth. The reason why we fail to rule, however, is because we do not know the world as God’s creation and do not accept the dominion we have as God-given but seize hold of it for ourselves … There is no dominion without serving God; in losing the one humankind necessarily loses the other. Without God, without their brothers and sisters, human beings lose the earth’. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 67.

[HT: W. Travis McMaken]

Theology for the community

The quote from David Lyall to which I drew attention in my previous post, What is practical theology?, and the ensuing discussion, reminded me of a section from John de Gruchy’s brilliant little book Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective, wherein de Gruchy writes:

In Germany the title ‘theologian’ refers in the first place not to the academic theologian but to the pastor. It is the primary designation within the Protestant churches of an ordained minister. Yet few priests or pastors would regard themselves as such, especially within the Anglo-Saxon world. In his book Ferment in the Ministry, the north American pastoral psychologist Seward Hiltner imagined the possible responses which ordained ministers would give to a Gallup Poll which asked the question: ‘Do you regard yourself as a theologian?’

31% said, ‘Well, I am a minister, but you could hardly call me a theologian.’

22% said, ‘It is true I have studied theology, but I am not really a theologian.’

17% replied, ‘Brother, I sure ain’t. I’m only a simple parson, not one of those highpowered book guys.’

8% admitted, ‘Well, I guess I am, in a way, but I am more interested in serving people than in theology.’

7% said, ‘Where did you get that idea? And don’t do it again.’

4% replied, ‘I am about twice a year, when I go back to the alumni lectures.’

2% said, ‘Pardon me, I have to rush to a funeral.’

1% snorted, ‘I wonder who thought up that question?’

0.9% said, ‘Yes.’ (Seward Hiltner, Ferment in the Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969), 159.)

Why is there this reluctance on the part of ordained ministers, to regard themselves as theologians, and, on the part of some, especially Anglo-Saxons and their heirs, why is there such antipathy towards theology? In the Germanic world the traditional tendency and temptation is precisely the opposite, to glory in the title ‘theologian’, and to create theologies remote from Christian praxis and existence in the world. Helmut Thielicke has a German audience in mind when, in his A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, he writes about the ‘pathology of the young theologian’s conceit’. Yet even in Germany the idea that the ordained minister’s self-perception is that of a theologian cannot be assumed. At Christmas in 1939 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to his former students:

How superficial and flippant, especially of theologians, to send theology to the knacker’s yard, to make out that one is not a theologian and doesn’t want to be, and in so doing to ridicule one’s own ministry and ordination and in the end to have, and to advocate, a bad theology instead of a good one! – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, True Patriotism: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1939-1945 (ed. Edwin Hanton Robertson; trans. Edwin Hanton Robertson and John Bowden; The Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; vol. 3; London: Collins, 1973), 28.

This attitude parallels the tendency within the church generally to disparage theology in the interests of ‘practical Christianity’.

Theology has a bad name amongst many theological students and ordained ministers, not primarily because of their modesty but because they fail to grasp its vital necessity and relevance to their vocation. Indeed, they may even regard it as something detrimental to their calling and the life and mission of the church. There are theological students who regard the study of theology as an unfortunate requirement for ordination, rather than as that which should provide the focus for their work. The image of a theologian is academic, intellectual, and far-removed from the everyday tasks of the parish minister. Much of the blame for this must be laid at the door of university departments of theology, theological colleges and seminaries, and those of us who teach in them. Theology has too often been taught in ways which reduce it to idealistic abstractions, and result in its rejection as a useful, indeed, essential part of the mission of the church and therefore of the ordained ministry. After all, the value of theology taught as a series of independent academic disciplines lacking both coherence or direction and unrelated to biblical vision or faith, is not self-evident for the Christian community struggling to be faithful in the midst of the world. This situation needs to be radically transformed if theology is to become the vocation of the ordained minister, and central to the total ministry of the church, and not simply be regarded as the peculiar province of scholars.

In John T. McNeill’s magnificent A History of the Cure of Souls, there is what we might call a ‘give-away’ comment which reinforces my argument that the ordained minister, is primarily a theologian. McNeill refers to the fact that ‘Jean Daniel Benoit, the expert on Calvin’s work in the cure of souls, states boldly that the Genevan Reformer was more a pastor than theologian’, but he then continues, ‘to be exact, he was a theologian in order to be a better pastor’. Conversely, in his introduction to Karl Barth’s essays, Against the Stream, Alec Vidler has this perceptive comment about the theologian’s theologian, Karl Barth: ‘I was aware of a quality or style about him which is hard to define. It may perhaps best be called pastoral, so long as this is not understood as a limitation.’ Christian pastors are called to be theologians, and those whom we normally designate theologians may well be pastors …

The primary task of the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is to enable the upbuilding of the church in such a way that it is always pointed beyond itself to the reign of God in Jesus Christ in the midst of the world. Its task is to keep the People of God mindful of the tradition of Jesus, crucified and risen, and what this means for their lives and the praxis of the church today. Its task is to enable the church to be faithful to its identity as the People of God in the world, discerning who God is and what God requires of them. In this way the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is, literally speaking, church leadership because it provides theological direction for the mission of the People of God in the world. – John W. de Gruchy, Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective (London: Collins, 1987), 40–3, 47

And then there’s that wonderful section from Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, a book written in part to speak to ‘the present-day younger generation’ (p. i) and clearly with an intention to encourage budding pastors. The first lectures of this collection were delivered under the auspices of the Divinity School, the University of Chicago and were the Annie Kinkead Warfield Lectures of 1962 at the Princeton Theological Seminary. The section which I was reminded of appears in a chapter titled ‘The Community’:

Since the Christian life is consciously or unconsciously also a witness, the question of truth concerns not only the community but the individual Christian. He too is responsible for the quest for truth in this witness. Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian. How much more so those who are specially commissioned in the community, whose service is preeminently concerned with speech in the narrower sense of the term! It is always a suspicious phenomenon when leading churchmen (whether or not they are adorned with a bishop’s silver cross), along with certain fiery evangelists, preachers, or well-meaning warriors for this or that practical Christian cause, are heard to affirm, cheerfully and no doubt also a bit disdainfully, that theology is after all not their business. “I am not a theologian; I am an administrator!” a high-ranking English churchman once said to me. And just as bad is the fact that not a few preachers, after they have exchanged their student years for the routine of practical service, seem to think that they are allowed to leave theology behind them as the butterfly does its caterpillar existence, as if it were an exertion over and done with for them. This will not do at all. Christian witness must always be forged anew in the fire of the question of truth. Otherwise it can in no case and at no time be a witness that is substantial and responsible, and consequently trustworthy and forceful. Theology is no undertaking that can be blithely surrendered to others by anyone engaged in the ministry of God’s Word. It is no hobby of some especially interested and gifted individuals. A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community. This holds true in still greater measure for those members of the community who are specially commissioned … – Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (trans. Grover Foley; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979, 40–1.

A little later on Barth proceeds to recall that theology – even, one should add, that is as extensive as Barth’s own Church Dogmatics (the word ‘Church’ is crucial here) – ought to be undertaken for the sake of the Community and its witness to the Word of God:

Theology would be an utter failure if it should place itself in some elegant eminence where it would be concerned only with God, the world, man, and some other items, perhaps those of historical interest, instead of being theology for the community. Like the pendulum which regulates the movements of a clock, so theology is responsible for the reasonable service of the community. It reminds all its members, especially those who have greater responsibilities, how serious is their situation and task. In this way it opens for them the way to freedom and joy in their service. (p. 42)

Who would have thought – dared to think – that a human discipline might have a responsibility beyond its own indulgence! In this case, ‘for the reasonable service of the community’, even for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God … (Eph 4:12–13). Pastors who are serious about serving their communities will be theologians, and unashamedly so.

Advent II: On the pseudonymous activity of God

In a fascinating collection of personal papers and essays on public theology penned against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and titled The Pseudonyms of God, Robert McAfee Brown invites us to imagine finding ourselves in a place where we are waiting for some tremendous manifestation of God’s activity. He invites us to imagine a situation where we have heard – or thought we had heard – a promise that God would intervene in our human situation, and that it was now clear that the time was at hand. Where would we look for God?

Brown suggests that we might most likely be found looking ‘in one of the great nations, where as many people as possible would be exposed to this important fact; surely in a well-established family with much influence; surely in such a way that all the resources of public opinion and mass media could be used to acquaint people with what had happened; surely it would be the most public and open and widely accessible event possible’ (pp. 84–5). He then paints a scenario more in keeping with the event of divine disclosure now known to us, but is no less in the stream of divine pseudonymity for that:

A child would be born into a backward South African tribe, the child of poor parents with almost no education. He would grow up under a government that would not acknowledge his right to citizenship. During his entire lifetime he would travel no more than about fifty miles from the village of his birth, and would spend most of that lifetime simply following his father’s trade – a hunter, perhaps, or a primitive farmer. Toward the end he would begin to gather a few followers together, talking about things that sounded so dangerous to the authorities that the police would finally move in and arrest him, at which point his following would collapse and his friends would fade back into their former jobs and situations. After a short time in prison and a rigged trial he would be shot by the prison guards as an enemy of the state. (p. 85)

Contemporaries ought not to be surprised to find the outcast – and the outcasted – God among the outcast. We must look for signs of the Servant God’s presence among those who serve. Numbered among an oppressed minority, we must expect to hear the echo of God’s voice among those who are oppressed. The pieta-like image above recalls that since 800 million of the planet’s people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, we might well expect that God’s availability is made tangible in loaves and fishes, rice and safe drinking water. Since God’s identification with the world involves God’s becoming creaturely, we ought look for God not only in ‘holy’ places or by means of ‘holy’ words, but we will look for God also in the very common, ordinary things of life, in the well over 500 million people who are living in what the World Bank has called ‘absolute poverty’, and in all those gathered up in the one great movement of divine kenosis-plerosis. ‘We will not be surprised to discover’, Brown writes, ‘that [God] suffered also, nor will we flinch when Bonhoeffer pronounces the initially disturbing words, “Only the suffering God can help,” even though it is probably the ultimate in the pseudonymous activity of God that he could be acquainted with grief’ (p. 86).

Brown then turns to Kierkegaard, and specifically to the Danes’ parable of the king and the maiden:

The servant-form is no mere outer garment, and therefore God must suffer all things, endure all things, make experience of all things. He must suffer hunger in the desert, he must thirst in the time of his agony, he must be forsaken in death, absolutely like the humblest – behold the man! His suffering is not that of his death, but his entire life is a story of suffering; and it is love that suffers, the love which gives all is itself in want (pp. 86–7).

Truly, in the economy of holy love, the locus of greatest clarity equates to the point of greatest incongruity and surprise. Jesus is God’s grand pseudonym, the supreme instance of God acting in ways contrary to our expectation, the point at which we are offered the criterion in terms of which the action of God elsewhere can be measured. And so if we miss God’s presence in the world, it will not be because God is absent. It will be because we have been looking in the wrong places.

The Poetry of Care and Loss

davisDoing the rounds this week:

  • Ellen Davis presented her inaugural lecture as the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology on October 27, 2009, at Duke Divinity School. The title of the lecture was ‘The Poetry of Care and Loss’. It is available via iTunes.
  • The Thailand Burma Border Consortium compares Eastern Burma to Darfur.
  • Julian Bell reviews Vincent van Gogh – The Letters (now we just need Thames & Hudson to review the price!).
  • A fascinating interview with Slavoj Žižek: ‘… it’s very easy to have a radical position which costs you nothing and for the price of nothing it gives you some kind of moral superiority. It also enables them to avoid the truly difficult questions’.
  • Andrew Brower Latz continues his note sharing on Alan Torrance’s 2009 Didsbury Lectures (Parts I, II and III).
  • Jim Gordon reminds us why reading Bonhoeffer is ‘like engaging in a theological detox programme’.
  • Kyle Strobel writes about Evangelical Idolatry.
  • Rick Floyd posts on Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
  • W. Travis McMaken, on his way into his final qualifying exam in systematic theology, shares a quote from TF Torrance on modern preaching and the god named ‘existentialist decision’.

Baptism, ordination and God’s calling forth of faith

ServantBen’s recent post on Baptism and ordination reminded me of some stuff that Ray Anderson once prepared on the relationship between the two. Anderson cautioned that we understand ‘ordination’ not only in relation to baptism, but also in relation to God’s work of calling forth faith, God’s work of guiding and enabling the whole community of faith, God’s care for all people. Ordination must be seen in the light of this broader movement of the divine will – that is, in the context of God’s good purposes for creation. So, the ministry to which a pastor is ordained is deeply and inherently about a life in God, and it means participation in that life. This means that ordination makes no sense not merely apart from baptism but – and more fundamentally – apart from Jesus Christ, and apart from his service to the Father on behalf of the world. So T.F. Torrance (who is not a particularly great friend of Ben’s):

Christ was Himself the diakonos par excellence whose office it was not only to prompt the people of God in their response to the divine mercy and to be merciful themselves, not only to stand out as the perfect model or example of compassionate service to the needy and distressed, but to provide in Himself and in His own deeds of mercy the creative ground and source of all such diakonia. He was able to do that because in Him God Himself condescended to share with men their misery and distress, absorbed the sharpness of their hurt and suffering into Himself, and poured Himself out in infinite love to relieve their need, and He remains able to do that because He is Himself the outgoing of the innermost Being of God toward men in active sympathy and compassion, the boundless mercy of God at work in human existence, unlimited in His capacity to deliver them out of all their troubles. – Thomas F. Torrance, ‘Service in Jesus Christ’ in Theological Foundations for Ministry: Selected Readings for a Theology of the Church in Ministry (ed. Ray S. Anderson; Edinburgh/Grand Rapids: T&T Clark/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), 718.

Ben’s post, and the comments that follow (particularly those from the Revd Bruce Hamill who laments ordination ‘to a kind of generic “leadership” which covers all the bases of being a “professional Christian”), reminded me of a powerful essay that I read just last week by Dietrich Bonhoeffer wherein he warns against leadership becoming vested in the concept of the Leader (der Führer), where the humanity of the leader becomes concealed in a role:

Where there is community there is leadership … The group is the womb of the Leader. It gives him everything, even his authority. It is his person to which all the authority, all the honour and all the glory of the group is transferred. The Leader holds no office independent of the group. The group expects the Leader who derives from the group in this way to be the bodily incorporation of its ideal. This task, impossible in itself, is made easier for the Leader by the fact that the group which produced him now sees him already bathed completely in the light of its ideals. It sees him, not in his reality but in his vocation. It is essential for the image of the Leader that the group does not see the face of the one who goes before, but sees him only from behind as the figure stepping out ahead. His humanity is veiled in his Leader’s form … The Leader is what no other person can be, an individual, a personality. The relationship between those led and their leader is that the former transfer their own rights to him. It is this one form of collectivism which turns into intensified individualism. For that reason, the true concept of community, which rests on responsibility, on the recognition that individuals belong responsibly one to another, finds no fulfillment here. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘The Nazi Rise to Power’ in No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes from the Collected Works (ed. John Bowden; London: Collins, 1970), 191, 192, 195.

Now I really need to get back to my reading on Celtic Christianity … some of us have lectures to prepare.

The Service of Intercession

Moses MosaicKarl Barth once noted that ‘Even within the world to which it belongs, it [the Church] does not exist ecstatically or eccentrically with reference to itself, but wholly with reference to them, to the world around. It saves and maintains its own life as it interposes and gives itself for all other human creatures’ (CD IV.3.2, 762). There can be no doubt that this ministry of intercession certainly involves prayer, but prayer without diakonia is not true prayer, even as diakonia without prayer is not true diakonia. Authentic intercession also involves a struggle against evil, identification with those who are estranged and alienated, and an ‘argument’ with God on behalf of those who have become disenfranchised from God, from human community and from creation. We might recall here Moses’ intercession for those who have worshipped the golden calf:

On the following day Moses said to the people, ‘You have committed a great sin. But now I shall go up to Yahweh: perhaps I can secure expiation for your sin.’ Moses then went back to Yahweh and said, ‘Oh, this people has committed a great sin by making themselves a god of gold. And yet, if it pleased you to forgive their sin …! If not, please blot me out of the book you have written!’ (Exodus 32:30–32)

Inherent in this intercession of responsible action is a sharing of guilt. This recalled something that I read recently in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, (the implications of which we might also profitably tease out with a copy of TF Torrance’s The Mediation of Christ in hand). I cite Bonhoeffer:

[The] structure of responsible action includes both readiness to accept guilt and freedom.

When we once more turn our attention to the origin of all responsibility it becomes clear to us what we are to understand by acceptance of guilt. Jesus is not concerned with the proclamation and realization of new ethical ideals; He is not concerned with Himself being good (Matt. 19.17); He is concerned solely with love for the real man, and for that reason He is able to enter into the fellowship of the guilt of men and to take the burden of their guilt upon Himself. Jesus does not desire to be regarded as the only perfect one at the expense of men; He does not desire to look down on mankind as the only guiltless one while mankind goes to its ruin under the weight of its guilt; He does not wish that some idea of a new man should triumph amid the wreckage of a humanity whose guilt has destroyed it. He does not wish to acquit Himself of the guilt under which men die. A love which left man alone in his guilt would not be love for the real man. As one who acts responsibly in the historical existence of men Jesus becomes guilty. It must be emphasized that it is solely His love which makes Him incur guilt. From His selfless love, from His freedom from sin, Jesus enters into the guilt of men and takes this guilt upon Himself. Freedom from sin and the question of guilt are inseparable in Him. It is as the one who is without sin that Jesus takes upon Himself the guilt of His brothers, and it is under the burden of this guilt that He shows Himself to be without sin. In this Jesus Christ, who is guilty without sin, lies the origin of every action of responsible deputyship. If it is responsible action, if it is action which is concerned solely and entirely with the other man, if it arises from selfless love for the real man who is our brother, then, precisely because this is so, it cannot wish to shun the fellowship of human guilt. Jesus took upon Himself the guilt of all men, and for that reason every man who acts responsibly becomes guilty. If any man tries to escape guilt in responsibility he detaches himself from the ultimate reality of human existence, and what is more he cuts himself off from the redeeming mystery of Christ’s bearing guilt without sin and he has no share in the divine justification which lies upon this event. He sets his own personal innocence above his responsibility for men, and he is blind to the more irredeemable guilt which he incurs precisely in this; he is blind also to the fact that real innocence shows itself precisely in a man’s entering into the fellowship of guilt for the sake of other men. Through Jesus Christ it becomes an essential part of responsible action that the man who is without sin loves selflessly and for that reason incurs guilt. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (ed. Eberhard Bethge; trans. N.H. Smith; London: SCM, 1955), 209–10.

BonhoefferBonhoeffer (who my wife often confuses with Jason Alexander, a.k.a. George Costanza) then turns to consider the implications of this theology of Christ’s vicarious humanity for the human conscience and its relationship with law:

When Christ, true God and true man, has become the point of unity of my existence, conscience will indeed still formally be the call of my actual being to unity with myself, but this unity cannot now be realized by means of a return to the autonomy which I derive from the law; it must be realized in fellowship with Jesus Christ. Natural conscience, no matter how strict and rigorous it may be, is now seen to be the most ungodly self-justification, and it is overcome by the conscience which is set free in Jesus Christ and which summons me to unity with myself in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has become my conscience. This means that I can now find unity with myself only in the surrender of my ego to God and to men. The origin and the goal of my conscience is not a law but it is the living God and the living man as he confronts me in Jesus Christ. For the sake of God and of men Jesus became a breaker of the law. He broke the law of the Sabbath in order to keep it holy in love for God and for men. He forsook His parents in order to dwell in the house of His Father and thereby to purify His obedience towards His parents. He sat at table with sinners and outcasts; and for the love of men He came to be forsaken by God in His last hour. As the one who loved without sin, He became guilty; He wished to share in the fellowship of human guilt; He rejected the devil’s accusation which was intended to divert Him from this course. Thus it is Jesus Christ who sets conscience free for the service of God and of our neighbour; He sets conscience free even and especially when man enters into the fellowship of human guilt. The conscience which has been set free from the law will not be afraid to enter into the guilt of another man for the other man’s sake, and indeed precisely in doing this it will show itself in its purity. The conscience which has been set free is not timid like the conscience which is bound by the law, but it stands wide open for our neighbour and for his concrete distress. And so conscience joins with the responsibility which has its foundation in Christ in bearing guilt for the sake of our neighbour. (pp. 212–3)

This got me thinking: What might be some implications of Moses’ prayer, and Bonhoeffer’s words, for pastoral ministry? And for that of the people of God as a whole?

I’m still thinking …

Thinking baptism … and formation

underwater-sculpture-parkToday, Halden (pbuh) had me thinking about baptism. I had this – or at least something like it – to contribute:

Baptism is both God’s sign to humanity that we have been redeemed by Christ, and humanity’s sign to God that we are willing partners in God’s work of reconciliation. Baptism, in other words, finds its basis in the hypostatic union through which God draws near to humanity and humanity draws near to God. Jesus Christ is the one mediator between God and humanity. It is the prius of the divine ecomony in the incarnation that baptism testifies chiefly to, and not to any subjective attainment of our confession, which might change. To put it another way, baptism is nothing less than our participation in the full and vicarious humanity of the Son of God.

This then got me thinking about the relationship between baptism and formation, at which point I recalled Bonhoeffer’s words:

Formation comes only by being drawn into the life of Jesus Christ. It comes only as formation in His likeness, as conformation with the unique form of Him who was made man, was crucified and rose again. This is not achieved by dint of efforts ‘to become like Jesus’ … It is achieved only when the form of Jesus Christ himself works upon us in such a manner that moulds our form in its own likeness (Gal 4.19). It is not Christian men who shape the world with their ideas, but it is Christ who shapes men in conformity with Himself. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (ed. Eberhard Bethge; trans. N.H. Smith; London: SCM, 1955), 18.

[Image: Jason deCaires Taylor]

Around the traps: Jacques Ellul … et al

  • Ellul
  • Gabriel Fackre posts on Time in Eternity: the Lively Life to Come.
  • A timely challenge by Andrew Hamilton by way of a reconsideration of Bonhoeffer’s ethics.
  • Byron Smith offers some thoughts on Rowan Williams ‘two styles of Anglicanism.
  • And Halden shares two great quotes from Jacques Ellul’s Hope in Time of Abandonment: on prayer and on hope and apocalyptic.
  • And while we’re on that book, I’ll post here some further gems:
    • ‘We were saying that God is no longer anything to some … it would be better to say that on behalf of the practicing unbeliever, the systematic atheist, the doctrinal or practicing materialist, the antitheist, God makes himself nothing in order always to remain at man’s level. But when God makes himself nothing, it is still for the sake of the unbelieving man. He remains sovereign in so doing. In that case we have to be on our guard, for God is both the weak adversary who accepts the combat without putting up a fight and also the one who is capable at any time of revealing Himself as possessed of infinite power’. (p. 104)
    • ‘When man is not made hopeless by God’s silence, it is because he (man) has destroyed his awareness, to the point of wanting nothing better than to be identical instead of identifiable’. (p. 116)
    • ‘God, who has let himself be put to death in Christ, withdraws into His discreetness before the absence of love, the absence of filial relations, the absence of trust, the absence of gift, the absence of loyalty, the absence of truth, the absence of self-discipline, the absence of freedom, the absence of authenticity. God makes Himself absent in this world of absences, which modern man has put together with enthusiasm. Man certainly has not killed God, but in creating this world of absence for himself he has brought about the discreetness of God, which is expressed in God’s turning away and silence’. (p. 124)
    • ‘The passion for language and analysis and hermeneutics is the unintentional expression of God’s silence. It is reasons like this: God is absent, (we are not saying so, of course), so we are going to get along without Him. This demonstrates that it is not all essential that God speaks here and now in order that the witness be heard and received’. (p. 141)
    • ‘The tragedy of interpretation [of Scripture] is a tragedy, not because scientific interpretations enter into overturning the traditional Christian interpretations, nor because the procedures are highly sophisticated, but because God is silent. The Promethean role of Hermeneutics is that of claiming to find a meaning as though God were speaking. Strictly, it is a matter of putting oneself in the place of God’s decision. It is a matter of making Scripture alive and meaningful without God’s making it alive and meaningful. It is a matter of effecting the transition from Scripture to word, or of making language into the word, by putting together highly sophisticated humans means to economize on the use (or role) of the Holy Spirit. Hermeneutics is the business of interpreting revelation without revelation’. (p. 145)
    • ‘I fail to see the justification for accepting as legitimate all the questions about the revelation, more or less, validly raised from different points of view, while at the same time refusing to question those systems, methods, and conclusions from the point of view of revelation’. (p. 145)
    • And my favourite: ‘Man is living in an illusionary world, illusionary because it is made up of images transmitted by communications media. His world is no longer that of his daily experience, of his lived mediocrity of his personality or of his repeated relationships. It has become an enormous decor, put there by the thousands of news items which are almost completely useless for his life, but which are striking, arousing, threatening, glorifying and edifying in their radical insignificance. They give him the feeling of living an experience, which is worth the trouble, in contrast to the rest of his experience, which is colorless and too plainly unimportant. It is an odd perversion which leads the person of this age to bestow importance and sense on that which does not concern him at all … while rejecting the importance and sense of that which is in fact his own experience 24 hours of every day’. (p. 35)

Around the traps …

dietrich-bonhoeffer

Reviews on Barth and Bonhoeffer Studies

In case you missed it, The Journal of Theological Studies have recently made available the following reviews on significant Barth- and Bonhoeffer-related studies:

Advent Reflections for 2007

A Bonhoeffer Intensive

Whitley College has invited Dr Keith Clements to teach an intensive course in February 2008, entitled ‘Bonhoeffer’s Theology in Historical Context’. More information here.

To paraphrase Pink Floyd, ‘How I wish, how I wish I was there …’

Advent Reflection 6: ‘Ich bringe alles wieder’

In his ‘Editor’s Forward’ to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s most precious book, Letters and Papers from Prison, Eberhard Bethge recalls how this German Lutheran pastor spent the first eighteen months (from April 5th 1943 until October 8th 1944) of his confinement in the military section of Tegel Prison in Berlin. After not a little quibbling he was given permission to write to his parents. Within six months, Bonhoeffer had ‘made such good friends among the warders and medical orderlies’ that he was also able to start writing to them, ‘partly by letter, partly on scraps of paper’. In one such letter, written in Advent 1943, Bonhoeffer penned to a friend the following words, words which betray not only what was on his mind and in his heart at this time of year, but in doing so also serve as an indictment to so much of what passes for Christianity today, a Christianity for whom the Word which created it – and for which it exists to serve – has become all too foreign.

… For the past week or two these words have been constantly running through my head:

Let pass, dear brother, every pain;

What lacketh you I’ll bring again.

What does ‘bring again’ mean? It means that nothing is lost, everything is taken up again in Christ, though of course it is transfigured in the process, becoming transparent, clear and free from all self-seeking and desire. Christ brings it all again as God intended it to be, without the distortion which results from human sin. The doctrine of the restoration of all things – avnakefalaiw,sij – which is derived from Ephesians 1.10, recapitulatio (Irenaeus), is a magnificent conception, and full of comfort. This is the way in which the words ‘God seeketh again that which is passed away’ are fulfilled. And no one has expressed this more simply than Paul Gerhardt in the words which he puts in the mouth of the Christ-child:

 Ich bringe alles wieder.

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (ed. Eberhard Bethge; trans. Reginald H. Fuller; London: SCM, 1954), 87.

(NB. This is a reposting of my contribution to the Advent reflections at Hopeful Imagination)