Martin Buber: I and Thou, dialogue or touch?

Martin Buber: I and Thou, dialogue or touch?  I and Thou is Martin Buber’s most well-known book, originally published in German in 1923.  Its aim is to make everyday life a sacred experience.  I’m not sure that anyone has fully understood the book; perhaps that explains its hold after so many years.  In many places it reads more like poetry than theology or philosophy.    

We don’t exist in any important human way except as part of a relationship.  “In the beginning is the relationship,” says Buber (p 69).  Trees and animals can be part of a I-thou pair, and a human can be a part of an I-it pair.  Buber would perhaps reject the term “pair.”  It’s just I-thou, or I-you, more than one, less than two as the Tao puts it.  

Buber’s horse

Buber’s childhood encounter with his favorite horse best explains the I-thou relationship for me.  Horses can be thou’s, and as anyone who has been around horses knows, they are big, even massive, animals.  As such the horse is intensely other: other than me, other than human.

 

When I stroked the mighty mane, sometimes marvelously smooth-combed, at other times just as astonishingly wild, and felt the life beneath my hand, it was as though the element of vitality itself bordered on my skin, something that was not I, was certainly not akin to me, palpably the other, not just another, really the Other itself; and yet it let me approach, confided itself to me, placed itself elementally in the relation of Thou and Thou with me. (Buber, Between Man and Man, p 11)

 

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Religionless Christianity

Religionless Christianity. (Bonhoeffer post # 2)

Religionless Christianity may seem like a contradiction.  It’s not.  Christ did not seek to establish a religion, but to speak for the oppressed and downtrodden, as well as to save our souls.  He and his first followers sought to establish communities in the midst of empire. 

The term “religionless Christianity” belongs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and because Bonhoeffer was murdered before he developed his ideas, it has sometimes been mistaken for something like the death of God.  Not so.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer: can’t I just be a second-rate Christian?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: can’t I just be a second-rate Christian?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was 39 years old when he was executed by the Nazis in Flossenbürg Concentration Camp in 1945.  He co-founded the Confessing Church in 1934 when the German Lutheran Church adopted the Aryan paragraph, in which converted Christians were barred from the church.  But he was murdered because he was involved in the plot to kill Hitler. 

His most well-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, argues against cheap grace. 

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.  (Discipleship, p 47)

Cheap grace completely, and perhaps intentionally, misunderstands Martin Luther.

When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace. Luther had said that grace alone can save.  His followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship.  (Discipleship, p 53)

The obligation of discipleship is complete.  God asks everything of us, including our lives.  Bonhoeffer practiced what he preached. 

Can’t I just give some of my money away?

In Bonhoeffer’s account, giving everything means just that.  In a well-known Biblical story, a rich man goes up to Jesus and says that he has fulfilled the Ten Commandments, what more can he do?

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Matthew 19:21-22)

The man went away sad, I imagine, because he knew he was not going to give his wealth away and follow Jesus.  The Ten Commandments are easy compared to that.

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Why we need pain. A bad answer by C. S. Lewis

Why we need pain.  A bad answer by C. S. Lewis.

If God is all good and all powerful, why is there so much pain and evil in the world?  It’s a classic question, known as theodicy, or the justice of God.  The problem starts with the insight that the Lord who loves righteousness is at the same time an awesome and terrible presence.  God is not just good.  He is terrifying.  As Lewis puts it,

For it was the Jews who fully and unambiguously identified the awful Presence haunting black mountain tops and thunderclouds with “the righteous Lord” who “loveth righteousness.”  (pp 13-14)

It’s a simple point that sometimes gets lost.  We worship God not just because of his goodness, but because of his power, an experience that fills us with awe and dread.  Why else is it death to see the face of God? (Exodus 33:20) *

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A sociologist who turned to God, but never understood faith: Peter Berger

A sociologist who turned to God, but never understood faith: Peter Berger, March 17, 1929-June 27, 2017.

When I was in graduate school many years ago, The Social Construction of Reality, by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, published in 1966, was my bible, and I was not alone.  Berger and Luckmann argued that what we experience as reality is socially constructed by men and women.  Over time, this construction is forgotten and the reality taken as given.  It’s a good argument, but it doesn’t work very well with God.  Berger acknowledged as much in a book written a few years later, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, published in 1970. 

Where Berger was right

Berger seems right that what has failed in modernity is not a belief in God, but belief in “another reality.”  Some theologians seem to have gone along with this.  Paul Tillich understood the task of theology in terms of the “method of correlation,” by which he meant the interpretation of Christianity in the language of philosophical and psychological thought (p 11). 

Rudolf Bultmann exaggerates, but has the right idea when he says that no one who uses electricity and listens to the radio can any longer believe in the miracle world of the New Testament.  His response was to translate the Christian tradition into the contemporary language of existentialism (p. 41).

Bultmann’s definition of the disease has proven useful.  Today many of us are enthralled with the things humans have made, like smart phones.  (Confession: I bought my first smart phone a couple of weeks ago, and something about it is compelling.)  So how should religion respond?

Berger’s answer is that we should not capitulate to modernity, but anchor belief in God in human experience. Good diagnosis, poor remedy.

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Kierkegaard and the tragedy of grace

Kierkegaard and the tragedy of grace.

God grants us grace, but we have to accept it. I argue that bad social conditions close some people to grace.  Kierkegaard would disagree.

Most Christians agree that we cannot save ourselves.  God offers his grace freely, not because we merit it, but because God loves us.   Paul writes,

For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves.  It is the gift of God—not by works.  (Ephesians 2:8-9)

The difference among Christians is how we earn grace.  Faith or works is the usual distinction, but of course that is too crude.  I’m going to follow Kierkegaard (as far as I can), who is generally considered the first existentialist.  So, choice must be important. 

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Process theology and a less than omnipotent God

Process theology and a less than omnipotent God.

There are a lot of synonyms for God, particularly in the Old Testament as Christians call it.  One of the more frequent is God Almighty (El Shaddai).  But strange things happen as ancient words are translated, and the term El Shaddai is just as readily translated as “God of the strong breasts.”  This comes from the term shadayim, which means a pair of breasts in Hebrew.  Shad means breasts and ai-im signifies a dual noun.  The idea seems to be that God is fertile and giving (http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Names_of_G-d/El/el.html.)

Most images of God, including God Almighty, signify God’s strength, power, and magnificence.  God is too frequently modeled on the ideal of the ancient tyrant (Hartshorne 1984, p 11).  A God of breasts hardly fits with this model, which is why this translation is generally ignored. 

Process theology argues that God is strong, but not strong enough to overcome the will of humans, or to overcome the past.  God lures us to the best choice, meaning most in keeping with our self-development as persons. But God does not compel.  Not because he chooses to give us our freedom, but because he lacks the ability to compel.  Instead, God is “the great companion—the fellow-suffer who understands.” (Whitehead, p 351)

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Thoughts while reading A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis

Thoughts while reading A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis 

C. S. Lewis begins with a well-known line, at least among those who follow him.

No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. (p 15) 

A nervous stomach, constant swallowing–these are some of grief’s fear-like symptoms. 

The reason grief feels so much like fear

Grief feels so much like fear because it is fear.  The loss of a beloved person threatens to empty the world of value.  Saint Augustine writes about this empty world after the loss of a dear friend. 

My heart was utterly darkened by this grief, and everywhere I looked I saw nothing but death. . . . My eyes looked for him everywhere and they could not find him.  I hated all places because he was not there. . . . I wondered that other men should live when he was dead, for I had loved him as though he would never die.  Still more I wondered that he should die and I remain alive, for I was his second self. (Confessions, 4.4.9)

Lewis wonders if grief isn’t selfish.  After all, in grief what I really grieve is the loss of someone I held dear.  I’m not grieving for my beloved; I’m grieving for myself.  True enough, but consider what I am really grieving: the loss of who I was when I was with this other person.  The person who I was with this other person I can never be again.  I can never be this same self even should I love another.  That self is gone forever.

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The difficulty of teaching natural law to undergraduates

This post stems from my difficulties in teaching the natural law to undergraduate and graduate students.  One difficulty is the lack of any decent accompanying text (I think mine is an exception, but I’m not writing this to promote my work).  Most texts argue along the following lines:

natural law is not about human nature as it is, but about human nature at its best . . . . . . [60,000 words] . . . . . . And so you see that abortion and homosexuality are against natural law. 

It is as if the point of natural law is to justify the author’s convictions.  An example is Morality and the Human Goods: An Introduction to Natural Law Ethics, by Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, but there are many others. 

I’m not sure how to best approach the natural law, but I’m pretty sure it’s best not to use it to justify an agenda.

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C. S. Lewis is popular but wrong; we are not little Christs

C. S. Lewis is popular but wrong; we are not little Christs.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) was one of the most popular Christian writers of the twentieth century, and our century as well. Though he would have disliked being called a theologian, that is exactly what he was, even as he had no formal theological training. In fact, this is exactly what makes his works on Christianity so popular.  Mere Christianity, begun as a series of radio lectures during World War Two, is almost conversational in tone.  It is still taught in adult Christian education groups (Urban).  By the way, the fact that Lewis had no formal theological training does not imply that he lacked intellectual standing, having taught medieval history at both Oxford and Cambridge.  He also wrote the fictional Chronicles of Narnia.  Unless noted, all pages numbers refer to Mere Christianity.

Most critics of Lewis as theologian are Christian evangelicals, and others, who believe he was too loose with doctrine, such as saying that other religions might contain a portion of truth about God.  My take is somewhat the opposite.  He is too literal about what it means to follow Christ.  For Lewis it means to become “little Christs,” which to me makes no sense at all.  Nevertheless, there is a charm and simplicity to his religious writing which has no equal, though perhaps G. K. Chesterton comes close.

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