Thursday, September 21, 2006

Bonhoeffer on faith

"It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!). How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God's sufferings through a life of this kind?"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to Bethge, July 1944


Anonymous said...

I must confess I've never quite known what to make of this statement by Bonhoeffer.

Is the immersion in the life of the world a part of learning to have faith or is it identical with faith itself? Is Kofi Annan (or Al Gore?) the model Christian, or is he rather the one most fully primed to throw himself 'into the arms of God'?

And, on another point, what is the status of Bonhoeffer's seemingly complete identification of the struggles and duties of the world at large with 'the sufferings of God in the world'? Can we really say the world's pain is God's pain without further ado? Is this not Spinozism?

Or perhaps, for Bonhoeffer, embracing such a conflation is what makes (his own) ethical action possible, makes it possible to short-circuit the paralysing uncertainty of never fully knowing God's judgment of a political or social state of affairs.

Even if this is to be endorsed, surely we must at least also ask: in whose duties, problems, etc. am I to unreservedly live? (i.e. presumably not those of Hilter, but rather those of the Jew).

Perhaps I am misreading (or reading too much into!) the quotation.

Emma said...

Before I read Mattos' comment (word up G!) I was just going to say:
"thanks, that bit of Bonhoeffer really works for me today."
perhaps that makes me a spinozism/perhaps I fall into spinozism/perhaps i shouldn't listen to that guy Spinozism? (you do also need ignorami to read your blog, Byron, it mixes it up, keeps it real...)
I don't know, but does it kind of nicely (though vaguely) "translate" the words of Jesus (kind of Eugene Peterson style) when he says:
"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven." (Matt 6:1)
and Paul's words in Galatians 6:2-5
"Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load."
And look, if the bible passages aren't really justifying D.B.'s words (and I'm aware that these particular ones are not...) then it's at least nicely reminiscent of good ole C.S. Lewis' conclusion to "The Weight of Glory":
"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of the kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously--no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinners--no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden."
so, yeah, it works for me today...

Also, I was going to say,
"do you, like, post, like, every ten minutes?"
and then I was going to say
"like, how?"

Emma said...

p.s. i know, i know... Spinoza...

I'm sure that puts your minds at rest...

byron smith said...

Matt, I think the context of the quote is an important control. Bonhoeffer is writing as a Christian to a Christian he knows well, and this is only one paragraph of the whole letter. So this is advice to the Christian believer, who has already grasped that ""All that we may rightly expect from God, and ask him for, is to be found in Christ Jesus" (as he says in another letter to Bethge, on Aug 21, 1944). I think his primary target is a secular/sacred divide in which 'faith' is primarily confined to a sacred sphere and involves pulling back from 'worldly' obligations and cares. I'm no DB expert, and while he was moving towards penentheism (not Spinoza's pantheism) in his final years, I've never been convinced that he lost a vital christocentrism in his reflections and actions.

MPJ, what do you think, since I think you've thought some more about DB's actions and theology recently?

byron smith said...

Em, you crack me up. :-)

And great quote. I would have posted it numerous times were it not already one of the most quoted pieces of Christian reflection on the net already. Maybe I should anyway.

Anonymous said...

From what I have read of Bonhoeffer's Ethics (the major work begun while in prison) It is important to keep a couple of things in mind. Firstly, Bonhoeffer saw Christ as the reality of both God and the world. That is, the truth about the world and worldliness belongs to Christ as does the truth about God and godliness.

This leads to B's expression of "responsible living." A responsible life is one lived "vicariously representing others" in accordance with the "reality" of the life of the God-Man, bearing the "guilt" of others" yet doing so freely.

Kofi Annan or Al Gore are not - in reality - living for others because they are not doing do in accordance with Christ. That is they don't bear others guilt despite the fact that their actions have a facet of representation.

Bonhoeffer never held - even late in life - with the notion that the deeds define the person. People exist in one of two states, either in Adam or in Christ. Either of these two states refer to whether or not they have met Christ as he exists in His Word which belongs to the preaching of the Gospel in the community (but not the church in a national denominatinal sense).

byron smith said...

Thanks David, that's helpful.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Bonhoeffer didn't begin the Ethik in prison. He had already been writing it for 2 years and had to leave it unfinished (burying it in the backyard) when the Nazis came to arrest him lest anything in his unfinished work provide a clue to the conspirators.

The Letters and Papers from Prison included coded letters to family & friends that made it past censors and deeper letters that were smuggled out through a bribed guard (though still couched in language that could be read in more than one way). Note, for instance, that B has several letters in which he talks as if the Nazis have made a huge mistake and he is sure to be cleared any day!

Bonhoeffer kept his Christocentrism, but his ecclesiology took a beating with the collapse of his seminary and the Confessing Church. Thus his search for a worldly Christianity--where righteous deeds and prayer (the arcane discipline or discipline of the secret) would be the only distinguishing marks of Christians.

Maybe his worldly Christian could be found in someone like Dag Hammerskjold, 2nd Sec. Gen. of the UN, whose faith we only knew after his journal was found on his death. ??

byron smith said...

Thanks Michael for more historical background.