Thursday, 15 January 2009

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I'm pleased that the St. Mary's Barton In Depth group has sharp and active discussions. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the theme on Tuesday, and my particular presentational narrative of all these theologians (from nineteenth century liberals to early twentieth century moderns) had a sudden, new, contrast of words which may or may not be accurate. It was that in the Christianity by living, by secular encounter, by being busy, Bonhoeffer really did believe there was the gospel in there, more of a kerygma than a kernel.

I'd not thought of this distinction by these terms before. My point into the discussion was this: that the liberal theologians of the nineteenth century were all looking for a kernel of Christianity, limited as it was by the methods of history and sociology and other academic disciplines. It might be said that the kernel was the teachings of Jesus, the ethic. Liberal, simple Christianity came down to that essence, though of course the ethic could be extracted out of Jesus. Another liberal kernel is the Kingdom of God as something to be introduced on earth. The kerygma, though, is something more: preserved, surrounded, Christ the person and the mission, the vital gospel narrative, regarded as essential, something in revelation and special. Bonhoeffer maintained this claim, I thought.

One member thought my main point was in the paragraph:

The task was to live, Christianly, as if God was not present; and had he lived Bonhoeffer might have gone on to reinterpret some key Christian motifs, metaphors and creeds.

The puzzle remains for me how you can be a religionless Christian or secular Christian (even - as later developed by others). The point about those seeking to get to a kernel or kerygma is to remove the religious wrapping paper and get to what is inside. I did make the point in discussion that for some Christians the wrapping paper is everything, following the whole thing as they have it, even in a bubble of detail like the Radical Orthodox. The context was of course "a world come of age", interpreted not as a moral achievement but simply a different way of practical thinking that does not involve God as last explanation for the unexplainable.

This approach is much different from Paul Tillich thinking that in this world we ask lots of existential questions for which he gives correlated Christian answers. Something is much more hidden with Bonhoeffer. We just don't know what such worship including liturgy would be like.

A few of us had attended the Tuesday evening service in which the sermon, that God is in the muck of the world, was consistent with my paper and the discussion, though the sermon may have been partly the result of him skimming the paper - as I was told the next (Wednesday) morning (14th) from the copies I was given to hand out on the evening.

One member was clearly a Bonhoeffer enthusiast, so I thought it worth pressing where this anchoring point was found, and this was ambiguous. A different approach here, about trying to think of different metaphors for religion, based on mystery, isn't the approach of Bonhoeffer, where for him there is pointing away from mystery to some other anchoring of this kerygma in the busy life encounters.

Personally I am not convinced by Bonhoeffer. First of all I think Christianity is religious. I take the point that many people just don't ask overtly religious questions, but that's no evidence of some different gospel existence (if such a thing makes sense). Secondly, I do not privilege some sort of kerygma, or protect it up front, but rather agree with the liberal theologians that it should be accessible to the other disciplines, like a search for a kernel. For me, the metaphors of crucifixion and resurrection work, not because they exist and invest the bumpy life we lead (of tragedy and new beginnings) with meaning, but because our bumpy lives support metaphors like crucifixion and resurrection. I am myself rather torn between postmodern presentational approaches to the wrapping paper - the religion of religion! - and some sort of kernel seeking.

At present my withdrawal from taking communion is based on the kernel seeking side (I don't believe in a full scale, rounded, essence of kerygma, though I examine this), that the space where the kernel might be found is vacant; whereas my participation in communion has been a more postmodern approach to religion and all its wrapping paper as religious. I have little time for a belief in a/ the mystery either: my approach is much more a pathway one, a discipline one, one of active reflection and contemplation. I would have benefited from a survived Bonhoeffer's later writings had he rewritten some metaphors and creeds.

One member mentioned Eberhard Bethge (1909-2000), of whom I'd written nothing and, actually, knew nothing. He was a friend of Bonhoeffer and married his niece. He brought much of Bonhoeffer's material into the public realm, but I notice the puzzling statement that Bonhoeffer's paradigm is out of date and provides no answers to our pressing questions. I'm not sure this is so: Bonhoeffer did connect to the paradigm shift still with us, and just has one approach towards this, but one left off at a point where we have to think for ourselves.

Meanwhile next month we are bringing forward Reinhold Niebuhr and will talk about him with reference to the current credit crunch. To that end I rewrote the presentation on him that I will make.


it's margaret said...

As you reflected here, I could not help but think of Wittgenstein: i think of things that cannot be spoken, so it's best to keep silent.
or something like that.

I mean that in the best way. I think you are on to something, but the words keep getting in the way.

thank you for this on Bonhoeffer--I have always liked the Christian beyond religion thing. Now I get to start over.

June Butler said...

Adrian, what a wonderful post.

The task was to live, Christianly, as if God was not present; and had he lived Bonhoeffer might have gone on to reinterpret some key Christian motifs, metaphors and creeds.

I believe that Bonhoeffer may have. I regret that he didn't live to do it. I'd have wanted to know his interpretations as he matured.

I know. It's pathetic to quote oneself, but under the title of my blog, I have these words:

Faith is not certainty so much as it is acting-as-if, in great hope.

Those are my words - for me. They would not work for many others who label themselves believers. If Christianity means anything to me, it means hope, more so than faith, even. Of course, in Hebrews faith is defined as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." So it's all in the mix together, with the greatest, of course, being love.

If I were not a believer, I hope that I'd continue to live my life according to the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, because it's a proper ethical and principled way to live.

The puzzle remains for me how you can be a religionless Christian or secular Christian (even - as later developed by others).

I don't understand how that's possible, either.

As to undoing the wrappings to find the kerygma or kernel, you don't discard the wrappings once you find the kernel. As for those for whom the wrappings are everything, I don't understand their thinking either.

If the words of the Gospel are life-giving, which they are to me, then that signifies that Jesus is alive, because he's alive in me. Of course, others may say that I'm delusional, and I can't prove to them that I'm not, except by how I live my life. And, in many instances, that will be no proof at all, because, too often, I am quite a poor witness to the Gospel message.

Ah Adrian, you tempt me to verbosity.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Do you therefore have a kerygma or have you only found a kernel?

June Butler said...

Adrian, I believe that I have a kerygma. Of course, I could be wrong.