Making Sense of Karl Barth

My previous post on Karl Barth was concerned with the historical era in which he lived, his unorthodox three-way marriage, and how that might have softened some of his views.  This post focuses on his theology.  His key point is that religion is the problem.  “Religion is unbelief; religion is a business, one has to say: the business of the godless man.”  (Church Dogmatics, his emphasis)

Religion is at the mercy of society.  Any society.  However, this was particularly true in Nazi Germany, where the church capitulated to the Hitler, allowing him to appoint the chief bishop of the German (Lutheran) church. Barth led an attempt to establish an alternative “confessing church,” but it too capitulated, rejecting converted Jews. 

Scripture and revelation

Religion tames God, fitting him to our current needs.  Barth wants to return to an original experience of God, which is possible only in revelation.  But what he means is not his revelation, or yours, but the revelation that is written of in the scriptures, and testified to by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of salvation can only be believed in; it is a matter for faith only. It demands choice. (Barth, Letter) 

Scripture is holy and the Word of God, because by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the Church a witness to divine revelation. (Barth, Answer)

Barth does not assume that authors of the Gospels were divinely inspired, but he assumes away the vast problems of different interpretations in different ages and cultures.  Barth does not completely reject the historical critical interpretation of the Bible (form and redaction criticism), which looks at the historical circumstances in which the books of the New Testament were written.  For example, redaction (a fancy word for editorial) criticism has found that each of the four Gospels is the work of many men revising the work of their predecessors.  There is no eyewitness testimony.  The first gospel, Mark, was written no earlier than 40 years after the death of Jesus Christ; its attribution to a man named Mark is purely conventional.

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What is religionless Christianity? #2

In a previous post, I explained Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea of “religionless Christianity” primarily in terms of its institutional structure, such as the absence of the church.  Here I try to explain the concept itself, while admitting that it still puzzles me.  Bonhoeffer elaborated the concept of religionless Christianity in the two years before his murder by Hitler’s Gestapo, and it was undeveloped at the time of his death.  I think it remains a puzzle for which we have, at best, no more than half the pieces. 

Religionless Christianity is based on “a world come of age,” which began with the Enlightenment (early eighteenth century).  Even before then, the Western world found less and less need for the “God hypothesis,” as Bonhoeffer calls it (Letters, pp 325, 360).  Every thinker from Machiavelli to Hobbes to Galileo, and every discipline from science and technology to medicine and law, created worlds with no place for God.  In some ways this is good, for in a world come of age people take responsibility for their own fates, instead of blaming God.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An unlikely hero

Dietrich BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer: an unlikely hero.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a German theologian who rejected theology, was an unlikely hero. Murdered by the Nazis for his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, one would never have guessed his ending from his beginning. 

His father was the most important neurologist in the most important hospital in Germany.  His twin sister Sabine was tutored by the daughter of Thedor Mommsen, Nobel prizewinner and classicist.  As a student he commuted to the Humboldt University of Berlin with his neighbor, Adolf von Harnack, the most distinguished scholar of the German Protestant Church.  Put simply, Bonhoeffer belonged to the Protestant elite. (p 45)

Bonhoeffer was financially dependent on his family almost his entire life.  When he wasn’t traveling, he generally lived at home.  Throughout his life he would mail his dirty laundry home, to be washed by servants, and returned by Deutsch Post.  When he was running an underground seminary during the Hitler era, his parents gave him an Audi convertible so he could more easily come home on weekends.  Not your average revolutionary. 

He would never disown the advantages of birth or pretend to have surpassed them. It was an aristocratic confidence, he would insist, that helped him see through propaganda and resist mediocrity. (p 74)

The statement is, I believe, absolutely correct.

A theologian at 15

At the age of 15 he read a two-volume book on the beginnings of Christianity, and began signing his name “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theol.” (p 17)  By the end of his life he would reject both theology and the university.  He was blessed with a large family and many friends, but never had a girlfriend.  Finally, at the age of 36, he became engaged to his 17-year-old niece, whose mother insisted they wait.  They never married; three months after his engagement he was jailed.  He met Eberhard Bethge, his first real friend, when he was twenty-nine, ten years before his death.  They were exceptionally close.  Bethge married another of Bonhoeffer’s nieces while Bonhoeffer was in prison.  Their first child was named after Dietrich. 

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together makes much sense and no sense

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together makes much sense and no sense.  Life Together is based on his experiences at the underground seminary he directed at Finkenwald, in what is now Poland, from 1935 to 1937.  From then on, he was a marked man, eventually imprisoned in the concentration camp Flossenberg, where he was executed by order of Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo just days before the camp was overrun by Allied forces.  He was executed because he was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler.  Previously a pacifist, Bonhoeffer came to recognize that extreme evil must sometimes be resisted by force.

Finkenwald was a community of theology teachers and their students who lived, worked, and ate together.  From this experience he learned a number of lessons.  Some of the lessons are simple but important, such as listening to each other, and helping each other, which often means bearing the burden of the other.  This is actually quite insightful.  Other lessons make no sense to me.

The good lessons

Bonhoeffer reminds us that God bore the burden of being tortured and murdered.  “Human beings crushed God to the ground.  But God stayed with them . . . In suffering and enduring human beings, God maintained community with them.”  In the same way, we are obligated to maintain community with others.  Yes, others can be a burden, but it is a burden we should take up gladly, remembering the burden Christ took up for us (pp 77-78).  

Others aren’t just a burden because they demand much of us, or don’t do their share.  Others are a burden because they are different and other.  Humans naturally want to assimilate others to themselves, making others like them.  In so doing we use others as objects.  The only way of treating others as ends in themselves is to bear the burden of otherness and difference, seeing others first as fellow creatures of God.

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Grace is not free

Grace is not free.

The Christian concept of grace (charis, Χάρις) has puzzled me for years.  Its definition seems a good place to begin.  Still, I hate to start with a definition, so I’ll start with a story.

During a British conference on comparative religions, the participants were heatedly discussing what’s unique about Christianity.  C. S. Lewis wandered into the room.  “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” (Yancy, p 45) *

It’s a good point, but not strictly true.  Hindus and Muslims believe in Grace, understood as God reaching out to humanity with love.  Jews believe in chen (חֵן), a version of grace.  Nevertheless, it is Christianity that has developed the concept most fully. 

The standard definition

In Christianity, grace is the love and mercy given to us by God as a free gift.  It is nothing we have earned.

Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become . . . partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.  (Catechism of the Catholic Church)

This definition leads some to see grace as part of a faith over works teaching.  It leads others to think that if grace is free then it must be easy.  Both conclusions are wrong.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this “cheap grace.”

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Atheism or God as other

Atheism or God as other.  My original idea for this post was to review a book defending atheism and promoting humanism.  As I said in a previous post, on some days I think I’m an agnostic, and I’m open to a good argument against theism. 

The book I chose, after looking at several, is The God Argument, by A. C. Grayling.  It is so bad it’s hardly worth reviewing.  Still, I’ll briefly summarize it before going on to explain the position shared by a number of theologians: that God is completely other.  This isn’t the term used by most theologians, but I think it captures their position.

The reason the “God is other” argument is important is because most critics of religion criticize a version of Biblical literalism, showing almost no awareness of theology. 

Grayling,The God Argument

The justifications offered by religious people for their beliefs very often turn out to be . . . rationalisations for something that is in its deepest depths is non-rational. (p 4)

Well of course religious people don’t base their arguments on reason; they base their arguments on faith.  If you don’t understand this, then you don’t understand religion.  Elsewhere Graying argues that religion hasn’t “passed the test of reason.” (pp 49-50)  But of course that’s the wrong test.

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Basics of Bonhoeffer

Basics of Bonhoeffer.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not a systematic thinker, and I’ve had difficulty finding the themes that connect his thought.  One problem is that his early writings, such as The Cost of Discipleship, differ from his latter writings, especially his Letters and Papers from Prison, written in the two years between his arrest and murder by the Gestapo when his link to the plot to assassinate Hitler was uncovered. 

I’ve focused on his Letters, which ask how a Christian is to live in a world that barely pretends to believe in God, a question that has become more pressing in recent years, at least in the Western world.  I believe these themes summarize the thought of the mature Bonhoeffer, who died at the age of 39.  To speak of the “mature Bonhoeffer” who died so young might sound silly, but by then he had been a mature thinker for years. 

An earlier post addresses The Cost of Discipleship; another post addresses his religionless Christianity.”

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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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