To Be Human: Thinking with Bonhoeffer

What does it mean to “be human”? Have we given sufficiently careful consideration to this topic? Or have we simply made the assumption that it is whatever we are doing? Is it to be rooted only in description of how “we” are or prescriptive of how “we” ought to be? Or is it yet some other thing?

I taught an adult Sunday school class a few years ago where I was asked to address the subject of “being human.” In the course of the conversations, a discussion of holiness was brought up. Someone mentioned that “we know we will sin, because we are all humans after all”. This struck me in light of Bonhoeffer’s statement that popped into my mind at that moment: “While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings” (D. Bonhoeffer, Ethics [Vol. 6; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005], p. 84, emphasis added). While this statement assumes that we strive to be more than human (because we believe our being human is something to be overcome), I wonder if this is not the basis for the excuse echoed in my Sunday school that day.

We blame our humanity for our sinfulness. It struck me that Paul never does this, John never does this, and Peter never does this. The Scriptures blame our sinful or “fleshly” nature (the language of Paul). And, perhaps surprisingly for many, I don’t believe this should be confused with “being human”, truly human. The reason being that Jesus is True Man and all else is but a pale image of the true, being marred by sin. I would actually contend that our sinfulness deprives us of our humanity, because it is only in obedience to the Father that one is truly human in the fullest sense. And this can only come about by the regenerating work of God’s Spirit (the spirit of adoption crying “Abba, Father!”) conforming us into the image of the Son, who Himself is the true image of God.

So what are some potential outcomes of this change of perspective which seems to follow the trajectory proposed by Bonhoeffer?

(1) To be human is to be taken up into Christ. It is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God which is acceptable and pleasing. It is the humanity of God in Christ taking up our sinful humanity and glorifying God through the obedience of redemption. To be truly human is to be counted as those who are in Christ: the righteousness of God and the First Adam.

(2) To be human is to set aside excuses for sinning. We can no longer say that we will continue to sin because “we are just human after all”. NO! We have been delivered from death to life. The Spirit of Christ Jesus now lives in us. We have been baptized with Christ and our sins have been once for all dealt with. We are not the children of the devil, but the children of God who no longer are slaves to sin and death. We are slaves of Christ Jesus our Lord and have been delivered from death to life! Therefore, to be “real human beings” is to live by the power of the Spirit! To live free! Free of the bonds of sin.

(3) To be human is to live free for the other and free for God. There is no constraint, but the one to love. This is the greatest commandment and all it entails: humanity unleashed from the bonds of self-serving, self-loving rebellion against God and God’s will for creation. The true human is the one who lives for the other because of being made in God’s image. Therefore, the other who is made in God’s image becomes the one by which we grow into the image of God in communion as those created and purchased by God.  As those bearing God’s image, by God’s Spirit we reflect the ineffable God in Christ. Unbounded love for God and for the other: this is being truly human…to be in Christ Jesus.

So I would charge you fully to embrace your humanity; God did!

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This was originally published by me in December 2015 thebonhoeffercenter.org

Misreading Bonhoeffer: A Response

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I was recently alerted (via Facebook) to an article by Richard Weikart, “The Troubling Truth about Bonhoeffer’s Theology,” Christian Research Journal 35.6 (2012) which can be read HERE.
It seems Weikart initially felt quite happy with Bonhoeffer while he thought him an “Evangelical,” but quickly dismissed him once he came to see him as “Neo-Orthodox” (pp.1-2). What makes this so troubling is that neither category is fitting for this early twentieth century German Lutheran minister theologian, but seem more concerned with categories of Americans intent on dismissing folks by use of labels. That being said, Weikart expresses numerous points at which he finds trouble with Bonhoeffer.
Under the heading of Scripture, Weikart quotes Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, “Scripture belongs essentially to the preaching office, but preaching belongs to the congregation. Scripture must be interpreted and preached. In its essence it is not a book of edification for the congregation.” He then proceeds to argue this is not true to Luther (on the “priesthood of all believers) or Lutherans. But this type of belief about the place of the proclaimed word and its potency is precisely Lutheran. Weikart seems to not realize the place of the preached word in Lutheran theology proper or in the theology of Luther. For Luther (and thus Lutherans in his wake), it is the proclaimed word of God where one hears the voice of Christ. Such is the case with Bonhoeffer.
Where Weikart accuses Bonhoeffer of moving from his earlier reading of Scripture with regularity, he seems oblivious to Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the spiritualizations of the pietistic Lutheran practices with which he had at first been fostered into and only later came to see the pietism often did not result in greater faithfulness, but only a higher sense of spiritualized success all the while avoiding taking responsibility in the life of the world (see his many such comments on this in Ethics). There is in fact nothing wrong with not reading Scripture daily. Jesus didn’t. He couldn’t. What is imperative is that we meditate upon Scripture, hear it and obey it. The Scriptures nowhere demand daily Bible reading. That is a matter of pietistic Evangelicalism that has learned to think such a practice is a requirement of genuine spirituality. Bonhoeffer seems to have understood this at deeply sustained levels.
While many (in the U.S.) regard Barth as “neo-orthodox” this is not owing to Barth himself, but to early American interpreters of Barth who either failed to understand him or misrepresented him. It is easier to just lump him in with others who are also rejected without wrestling with what he has actually written.
Under his attack on Bonhoeffer’s (and Barth’s) view of Scripture, Weikart misses that the Scriptures are recorded not as transcripts, but as careful theological reflections of the revelation of God concerning the stories of Israel, Jesus, the Church and the world. The Scriptures are not attempting to document empirically verifiable history, but instead that which must be believed by faith which is offered sufficient witness to believe. Weikart’s view seems to be more intent on historicality (even when the text itself does not warrant it, nor the preservation of the text) rather than the realities to which the text points in the manner in which the writers were inspired to record them.
Further, what Bonhoeffer rejects of the emphasis upon trying to speak of the “historical” with regard to Jesus is that 19th-20th century German obsession with doing just that. This led to a number of notions such as a bifurcation of the Jesus between that of history and that of faith, or worse yet, an eradication of the historical Jesus altogether. Bonhoeffer was responding in just that sort of milieu. And he responded by pointing to faith in the preserved stories of Jesus regardless of the ability to historically verify details beyond the witnesses of the texts themselves.
Weikart’s use of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison shows an utter disregard for the writings of one in a personal letter to another that was NOT intended for public consumption. If any of us had things we said privately preserved by others after our death and disseminated globally we would find ourselves having stated things which we were wrestling with and/or were not offered with the context of explanation (because it is assumed the person spoken to knows this sufficiently to understand). Judgment of all of us would ensue.
Under the title “The Good Book,” Weikart fails to grasp Bonhoeffer’s rejection of Scripture as offering “universal, timeless truths”. Bonhoeffer is convinced that to treat Scripture as offering such, is to pre-determine what God would have us to do in any and every situation. But this (for Bonhoeffer and for myself) ignores the living word of the living God who speaks today through that word to us. It makes a binding law of the word of Jesus. It means one is no longer required to attune their ears to the Spirit, but only to reread words written. It is on this very idea, that I have personally found life and joy in Christ and proclaim that we are not through listening as if we have heard all there is to hear…NO! We must go on listening anew today!
On Weikart’s claim of universalism, he fails to engage the very “this-worldly” notion of redemption at work in Scripture and the theology of Bonhoeffer. Instead, he seems to think more of spiritualized heavenly individualistic salvation. Bonhoeffer, however, was concerned with the redemption of the cosmos that was enacted in Christ Jesus. Bonhoeffer was concerned with “people” and not simply individuals and he was concerned with this precisely because of the election of Jesus wherein all of humanity finds redemption. This is not to say all are saved, but to say that in Christ salvation is sufficient for all and is extended to all and must be declared to all. The pastoral and missiological implications of this are profound.
I for one find little to judge negatively of Bonhoeffer’s reflections stated by Weikart, but maybe, just maybe, I’ve become one of Weikart’s “liberal” “neo-orthodox” folks he seems so adamant are to be despised and rejected. Or maybe Weikart is simply judging Bonhoeffer by means of his own skewed theological and ideological agenda rather than on grounds of truthful discourse that hears Bonhoeffer in Bonhoeffer’s own context. To those who have ears to hear…
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My apologies for not citing Bonhoeffer’s works throughout. This is more of an overall response (without direct access to Bonhoeffer’s works from my home). For those interested in reading Bonhoeffer in context, they can read the pages cited by Weikart as well as reflecting particularly on Bonhoeffer’s Ethics which answers (for myself) the misreading of Bonhoeffer contra much of American Evangelicalism and its inherited pieties.

Literature for Ethics and Theology

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“Literature is important for ethics because literature is as complicated as life itself, and cannot be decoded or boiled down. Ethical insight comes from reading it–first sequentially and then reflectively–not from trying to extract a ‘message’ from it.”*

This is one of the primary problems I have witnessed in folks reading and preaching from the OT. There is a strong tendency to undo the complexities inherent to the ethics (or theology) of the text and instead seek an abstracted principle that fails to do justice to the fullest intent of the text.
We like to simplify. The problem is that life is not so simple. Ethics (and theology) are not so simple. The teaching of truth in prose or storied form allows for far more complexities to remain including leaving some questions open-ended. And that is a good, even when troubling, thing.
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* John Barton, Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explanations (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2003), p.63.