Monday, March 23, 2015

A Bonhoefferian Anatomy of the American Church


In the “Outline for a Book” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer intended to write but did not live to do so, he offers a fascinating “anatomy” of the German Church under Hitler that I believe is worth reflecting on for the U.S. Church today. He writes that

      • the pietistic churches are the last chance to save Christianity as a religion,
      • the Lutheran Orthodox the best chance to save Christianity as an institution, and
      • the Confessing Church retrenching behind the objective statements of Christian faith.

This is a useful anatomy for us in North America. Though it doesn't capture the complexity of the scene here his descriptions can be useful.

Bonhoeffer calls “pietistic” those churches interested in maintaining Christian faith as a “religion.” This is Bonhoefferian code for a faith that is inwardly-focused, limited to a part or sphere of life, and directed to gaining life after death with God in heaven. Much of what we would call “conservative,” “evangelical,” or “fundamentalist” versions of church here would seem to fit comfortably under this heading.

“Lutheran Orthodox” would represent the mainline churches in their frantic desire to save the church as an institution (though this concern runs through the pietist strain too though not as a primary concern).

“Confessing” churches are those who rally behind various creeds and confessions as well as the Bible to defend and promote the gospel and the church. Bonhoeffer, of course, was a major impetus behind the rise of the Confessing Church in Germany to resist the ideology and incursion of Nazism into the German church and culture. They lacked “personal faith in Christ,” made little difference in world around them, and risked nothing for others. Particular denominations in the U.S., usually offshoots of the mainline groups that have broken away because of theological and ethical drift away from what they take to be proper Christian belief and practice.

Bonhoeffer does not include the Roman Catholic Church and he lived before the rise to prominence of Pentecostalism, both of which must factor into an account of American Christianity. More on that shortly.

Now Bonhoeffer had no interest in promoting religion nor saving the particular institutional form of Christianity he knew. The Confessing Church, though, was the form of church he held out hope for in confronting the Nazis and addressing the new world after the war. His criticisms of it, then, seem particularly pertinent for for us in whose midst “confessing” movements style upon the German phenomenon and its wonderful Theological Declaration of Barmen have arisen in recent years. His account of its rapid failure ought to grab our attention. Here they are again.

    • lack of personal faith in Christ

    • making difference in the world
    • not taking risks for others

We typically respond to what we perceive as theological and/or ethical drift by standing firm for the Bible and related statements of faith. Yet when the Confessing Church in Germany resorted to that, it failed and Bonhoeffer faulted it precisely at this point. He wants us to (re)turn to Jesus for a “personal” commitment kind of faith. Not the Jesus-and-me kind of relationship religion promotes nor the cause-oriented approach of the mainline. Rather, the kind of commitment to the person of Jesus a person would die for, as Bonhoeffer said earlier in the outline. And remember, personal for Bonhoeffer means person-in-relationship to both God and others. And that entails, I believe, a renewal of worship of Word an Sacrament as the place where such a commitment is forged. This is far more than the individualistic “religion” of the pietist churches and far deeper (that is in connection to the One who is himself the source and goal of reality) than institutionally-focused mainline churches.

And that's why we fail to trouble the world for Jesus' sake. Causes and religions the world has aplenty. Some are worthy and noble, others less so. None however make the kind of difference that finally matters. I would put it like this: Jesus has no interest in making a difference in my life or in the world. None at all. Nada. Zilch. He has no interest in making a difference because he intends to give us a different life and a different world.

Bonhoeffer articulates this in terms of apocalyptic. Apocalyptic means an “unveiling” or “revelation” of what’s going on behind the scenes of human history. He follows Paul here presenting the world as caught up in a power struggle. Our revolt against God, our sin, left us vulnerable to be taken captive by the powers of evil. In fact, “sin” in the singular, is usually thought of as a malignant power with an unbreakable death grip on us. We can’t help ourselves. In and through Jesus, however, the death grip of the anti-God powers is broken. The great cosmic battle going on behind history and which is its true meaning has been waged and won. We are free now to live for God and others. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension declare that a regime change has occurred. The new and rightful Lord has reclaimed his domain and is about the business of consolidating his reign through the globe. And that’s where the church comes in. We are enlisted to serve as agents of this divine consolidation and implementation of Christ’s victory throughout the world in a non-triumphal fashion.

We are not different and do not act differently because of a deficient Christology according to Bonhoeffer. And he doesn't mean just a faulty exposition of a doctrine or profession of faith. As always, he thinks relationally. We have a deficient experience of Christ if we can carry on as if nothing has changed and continue of claiming his name and the benefits of relation to him and go on living in satisfied, self-centered contentment in a world such as ours. Jesus is the “Man for Others” - all others, especially those others different from him, strange, and even threatening to him. As the “Man for Others” Jesus was also “God for Others.” In and for him, we are to be “People for Others.” We engage their struggle with them in challenging, risky discipleship that takes us out of our comfort zones (all of which in some measure insulate us from reality) and into a fuller, deeper encounter with reality and its discontents. All of this comes for Bonhoeffer from the intimate and life-giving relation with Jesus Christ as we meet him in the community of faith through Word, sacrament, an accountable relationships with other Christians.

Bonhoeffer, to a degree to seems unprecedented to me, risks everything Christian, theology, church, worship, discipleship, on relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit. Little in our religious or institutional, cause-oriented expressions of “church” prepare us for the simple profundity of Bonhoeffer's approach.

Christ is the Real. In him all of reality, redeemed or yet to be redeemed, is taken up, forgiven, and renewed. Outside of him, lies only illusion and deceit. Outside of him is the Matrix (if you remember the first film in that series) which nurtures that self-centered contentment that ignores, denies, or simply doesn't know of the reality where Christ and his people are to be found. And the only way through that Matrix to reality is following in deed as well as thought the Christ-existing-as community Bonhoeffer expounds in his Christology.

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