Authenticity, Worldliness, Critique, Theology

You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?

Old man Yeats knew what was true. If you have no anger at this world, anger at its willful stupidities, its grim indifference, its real sins: its murdering hordes, its smug myths, exploitive habits, its catastrophic wastes, the smile on its hyena hungry face, its jackal tastes, then you belong to it, and you are one of its apes — though animals should not be so disgraced as to be put in any simile with man.

Old age ought to know. Death will soon enough come to its rescue. Till the knowing ends, all that was wasted and wronged in youth — through ignorance, haste, competition, bad belief — all that was bored by middle age into one long snooze, has borne its juiceless fruit, and is now known for what it is: nothing has been righted here. Yet if desire can be kept from contamination, if it can be aimed, as one’s fingertip, at the root’s place, if it is not harnessed to the horses of dismal domination, but is allowed to be itself and realize life, then the flutter of an eyelash on a cheek will assume its proper importance; Wall Street may crash and the gods of money smelted back into the sordid earths they came from; yet, unfazed, our heads will rest at least on one another, a fall sun will shine on the sheets, your nipple shall enter my ear like a bee seeking in a bloom a place to sleep; life shall run through us both renewed; we shall feel longing, lust for one another; we shall share rage for the world.

– William H. Gass, “Lust”

via we shall feel longing, lust for one another; we shall share rage for the world. « Departure Delayed.

Brad posted this fragment of Yeats and the passage from Gass, noting that commentary could only swindle away the full effect. He’s right. But the paragraphs overwhelmed me  enough that I wanted to share them; and wanting to share them, it seemed that I ought to do more than merely ride the coattails of Brad’s extensive reading. So with some reluctance, I’ll risk commentary.

Several of Bonhoeffer’s early sermons—given to a congregation in Barcelona—contain an unmistakeable debt to Nietzsche. Bonhoeffer shares Nietzsche’s distaste for the world-denying character of religion and calls his congregation (as perhaps only a young and somewhat naive pastor could) to a life of faith that resonates with Nietzsche’s unconditional affirmation of life. While he moved away from the rather titanic, muscular language of those early sermons, he remained convinced that faith, and therefore theology, must always enmesh a person within the concrete realities of life—the sites of rage and lust and desire.

I bring up Bonhoeffer only because of the collision of two thoughts which emerged while I read the passage above. First, that Gass traces out Nietzsche’s affirmation of life in tenacious, wounded, and haunting words; and second, that theology worth its salt ought to come from an attitude akin to this one. Bonhoeffer’s affinity for Nietzsche is based, I think, on something like that second thought. Theologians should not hide in rosy constructions of the world’s goodness, but should think and write with gritty soil between their fingers and on their pages, obstacles that prevent the pen from tracing lines too smooth.

The point of this post is not to suggest my similarity to Bonhoeffer. Rather, even though I stand by my gut-sense that faith and faith’s thinking are best done in the mud,  I want to try to articulate some new-found second-thoughts about it, questions or qualifications.

First, to say that, “Theology ought to be like this!” is to set out a yardstick for “genuine” theology. It is to set up a high bar of “authenticity.” While such affirmations generally ring with a sincere ambition that theological thinking ought to reckon with the world in ways that it currently does not, they very quickly turn into bludgeons that measure the inauthenticity of others. Authenticity is an easy claim to stake, and perhaps for that reason it tends to generate more defense than creativity. I’m not  wholly against measurements or bludgeons—not even theological measurements and bludgeons—but I’ve come to recognize that “authenticity” only generates vague and capricious criteria.

Second, saying “Theology ought to be like this!” can amount to a dismissive effort to capture the power of a critique without really reckoning with its barbs. Too quickly assuming that “genuine” theology rises in anger against “willful stupidities, grim indifference, real sins, murdering hordes, smug myths, exploitive habits, and catastrophic wastes” ignores theology’s own historical complicity with all of the above. It too easily turns theology into an airtight ideology where every criticism is colonized, and that seems to me like a fundamental betrayal. Perhaps loyalty to theology in the face of powerful sentiments like Gass’s (or the more direct criticism of Nietzsche) does not simply add a transcendant amplifier to those sentiments (e.g. “This is the voice of faith!” or “God shares such a rage!”), but abides with them in a self-critical sobriety—a reception much quieter than Bonhoeffer’s early sermons and more like his risky, tentative prison letters, where so much seems unhinged.

The Academy and the Poor (Part 3 of 3)

(Back to Part 2

5. In the end, I still dislike framing the question in terms of justification, as if there is a right path (presumably paved with gold) to be found. Are the activities of reading, writing, and teaching just in the face of the world’s poor? I am tempted to answer simply and quickly, “no.” Nothing can be justified in the face of five year-olds dying of malnutrition and diarrhea or young girls violently robbed of virginity by uncles and cousins. To be blunt, the whole situation is shitty and we are all implicated. We all, academics included, need to hang our heads in shame—and redouble our efforts to eradicate such blatant evils. But how are we to go about dealing with these problems? Obviously, we should not isolate ourselves from the world’s horrors (frequenting only “the nice parts of town”), and when we are in position to act directly (by providing food or intervening on behalf of the vulnerable), we ought to do it. But we also need to see more clearly the tangled network of problems (cultural, social, economic, political, spiritual, ecological) that make these horrors more likely to occur, and take steps to counter them. And we all need to see it, at least in part, which is why we need skilled teachers in many disciplines. The analysis, conversation, and collaborative action that this requires is a larger and (unfortunately) much slower project.

And even beyond the quest to overcome specific problems with exact solutions, academic inquiry is no worse-off in a quest to justify its own continued existence than is, say, painting, playing the cello, attending an opera, or debating the merits of some piece of legislation. One of Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison has been haunting my thoughts for months, “The only thing I am really clear about in the whole problem is that a ‘culture’ that breaks down in the face of danger is no culture. Culture must be able to face danger and death….By finding forgiveness in judgment, and joy in terror?” The gist of Bonhoeffer’s statement (assuming I understand it), is that any activity that cannot be carried with us into the hardest and most broken parts of the world is not worth bringing along at all. Culture, in this sense, cannot be diversions that ignore suffering (like the Buchenwald zoo) or the dissipated merriment of cynics resigned to a dark “fate” (fiddling while the Titanic sinks). But, it is possible, I dare say necessary, to put expression to profound moments of beauty, rage, fear, and reverence even where taking the time to do so seems, at first glance, superfluous. What else might the first seeds of redemption (a “re-deeming,” a new birth of meaning) in the present look like? It is impossible for any of us to hold shattered lives together in a seamless narrative of “meaning,” but giving some fragments of meaning space to expand—whether howling lament or salvaged scraps of laughter-is perhaps to find God’s Spirit at work already. I do not want to be a part of any theology that floats by the slums on a luxury cruise-liner, or tours them on an air-conditioned bus. Rather, I want to find theology “in the face of danger and death,” to search out “forgiveness in judgment, and joy in terror.” Anything less is no theology at all.

without knowing good and evil :: Bonhoeffer’s moral epistemology

Flipping pagesAt long last, I put the final touches (and blows) to the thesis today, and it is ready to be shipped off for grading. Quite a relief to have this monkey off my back and to be on to other projects. Below I’ve posted the abstract to the thesis; if you are interested in a copy of the whole thing then drop me an email.

Knowing the difference between good and evil seems central to any account of ethical thought. Yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that Christian ethics’ “first task” is to supercede this knowledge. Rejecting the knowledge of good and evil, Bonhoeffer regards modern ethics as continuous with Adam and Eve’s illegitimate meal in the garden of Eden. Grasping at wisdom apart from God, the earliest humans brought death and division into the world. Bonhoeffer’s account of Christian ethics is inimical to the self-justification, judgment of others, and autonomous notions of individual freedom that the knowledge of good and evil provides. Human beings employ their knowledge of good and evil in efforts to unify their lives and communities, but Bonhoeffer sees that these actions spring from the divided state of fallen humanity. Yet if Christian ethics really involves “un-knowing” good and evil, on what basis can Christians confront the complex and difficult decisions that they face daily? How are Christians to respond to violence, destruction, and immorality—both in their own lives and in the acts of people around them? How are Christians (and others) to teach their children how to behave without recourse to some conception of good and evil? This thesis explores the knowledge of good and evil in Bonhoeffer’s writings and traces the development of his ethics as an alternative account of moral knowledge. The ethics of the church, in Bonhoeffer’s understanding, is grounded in the knowledge gained through being incorporated into the body of Jesus Christ, through extending his mission, and through proclaiming his gospel.

Bonhoeffer blog conference

Halden announced yesterday the beginning of what is sure to become a long and illustrious tradition—a Bonhoeffer blog conference. The profundity of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics lies in its insistence on pushing theological meditations toward the most concrete expression possible. Unlike many, his drive toward concreteness was not the result of an insipid focus on the “practical,” falsely contrasted to the abstract and theoretical; rather, he saw that proper theological work underlay the faith that leads to action. He is a tremendously attractive figure to so many of us because we have a sense that his life held together with a unity and integrity that most of us only strive to imagine.

In the last couple of years we have witnessed a substantial rise in collaborative theological scholarship via the blogosphere.  The recurring Karl Barth Blog Conference promises to be an excellent staple among theo-bloggers, as does the forthcoming Balthasar Blog Conference.  In the spirit of fostering further substantial theological scholarship in the blogosphere, I am happy to Bonhoefferannounce the First Annual Bonhoeffer Blog Conference.  The topic for this conference will be: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Contemporary Theology.  The aim of this conference is to foster sustained reflections on Bonhoeffer’s last major theological work, Ethicsand to explore its implications within contemporary theological, ecclesial, and political contexts.  While some spots are already filled (which will be announced later), there is plenty of room for submissions and proposals.  Any submission related to this general focus would be open to consideration.  Creative approaches to the work of Bonhoeffer is encouraged.

This conference will likely take place in early November, 2008.  Submissions can be emailed to Halden at halden-at-wipfandstock-dot-com.  Halden encourages you to promote this event on your own blog, if you are so inclined.

Bonhoeffer on moral philosophy (and the deconstruction thereof)

“Thinking pounds itself to pieces on the beginning. Because thinking wants to reach back to the beginning and yet never can want it, all thinking pounds itself to pieces, shatters against itself, breaks up into fragments, dissolves, in view of the beginning that it wants and cannot want…. Critical philosophy may proudly renounce what it lacks the power to attain or else lapse into a resignation that leads to its complete destruction; either alternative stems from the same human hatred of the unknown beginning.”

Creation and Fall, 27.

reading together :: lectionary

Coming to know Dietrich Bonhoeffer better and better this year through my thesis, two of his personal habits have impressed me. The first is the correspondence which he maintained with friends and family. He must have written at least a letter a day, if not more. For all the ease of “getting in touch” through technology these days, I’m not actually sure that we do it more (or more substantially!) than when it was more difficult. 

The second, related habit is his daily reading of Scripture. Not the reading in itself, but the mode of his reading.  Bonhoeffer used, along with many of his friends, family, and colleagues, a daily lectionary. This meant that on any given day, he and many of the people he knew would be reflecting on the same passages. This is reflected in many of his letters from prison, as he speaks to Eberhard Bethge about something he noticed in the day’s passage. 

I’ve been using a daily lectionary now for almost a year, there is much to commend about the practice.

  • The readings “fit” into the ecclesial year, so that the reading is appropriate for the season.
  • I am not left to design my own reading agenda, so I read passages that I might not come to otherwise. 
  • I am not reading alone, but with any number of other church-folk who read the same passage.  

In ecumenical spirit, I have been using the daily lectionary available on the PCUSA’s page. But I did a bit of work to clean it up and put it into a Word document, so I thought I would make that available for anyone who wants to join me in the practice.  

Download the document Here.

the weakness of the word :: the great task

“The Word’s power is veiled in weakness. If the Word came in full, unveiled power, that would be the final judgment day. The great task of recognizing the limits of their mission is given to the disciples. But when the Word is misused, it will turn against them.” [Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 173]

As the Body of Christ, the Church is called to speak God’s Word in its entirety (not verbatim scripture!) to the whole world. The Church is called and constituted by Word and sacrament as Christ’s body. This is a great mystery. But the one thing that it does not do, is transform the Church into an entity that in itself transcends the limits of earthly life. Christ’s body is a human body like yours and like mine. Just so, the Church’s proclamation is a human word, formed by human thought, and set loose by a human tongue. It is subject to the weakness of human words; it is ambiguous, it is subject to misuse and misunderstanding, it is subject to circumspection and ridicule. As those who speak of God, to God, and for God, Christians do well to remember two things: one, their place in a body larger than themselves; and two, their own doubt, insecurity, and weakness. The Word of God is spoken on earth within the limits of being human (simul iustus et peccator), not by transcending them.

For all that, by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church’s Word is no less than Christ’s Word, freely spoken. Lord, have mercy on us all.