Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Christian Martyr, Pacifist, Assassin?

“We must not be surprised if once again times return for our church when the blood of martyrs will be required. But even if we have the courage and faith to spill it this blood will not be as innocent or as clear as that of the first martyrs. Much of our own guilt will lie in our blood. The guilt of the useless servant who is thrown into the darkness.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a sermon in the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial church in Berlin on June 15, 1932.[1]

The question of whether Dietrich Bonhoeffer should be regarded as a martyr for Christ is not one simply of semantics but pertains to the very nature of Christian witness, to the specifics of his pacifism and the meaning of Christian faith. Though he is officially accorded the title at Westminster Abbey (his statue is among ten others designated as 20th century martyrs, including Martin Luther King Jr., which stand above the west entrance) he fails to make the Roman Catholic list and also misses the attribute in the “Lutheran Book of Worship” and “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” (he is called “teacher” and “theologian” respectively). As a Lutheran pastor explains, “A martyr is one who is killed for his faith but Bonhoeffer was killed for his participation in the plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler.” Instead of not killing, he is accused of attempting to kill. Is the popular attribution of martyr, given to him across ecumenical lines and by biographers such as Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, simply the product of sloppy thinking?

Bonhoeffer’s best friend, Eberhard Bethge, suggests that he is a martyr, but as Bonhoeffer indicates in the epigraph, the term takes on a different meaning in the modern context. Where the church and the world were at one time clear and opposed entities, this distinction has been made impossible in the Nazi (or perhaps just the modern) context. Bonhoeffer, had a premonition that the situation would call for the spilling of martyr’s blood, but he understood that the church and Christians were complicit in the evil which they faced. He had come to feel that he must take extreme measures. But the question is, how far would he be willing to go in this emergency situation?

There is almost no part of a possible answer to this question that is not under contention. Michael DeJong argues he was an orthodox Lutheran, and that Stanley Hauerwas (and friends) are guilty of reshaping him to look like an anabaptist on the order of John Howard Yoder. His understated denial that he is reducing him to a traditional Lutheran makes the point he denies: “I do not mean to suggest that seeing his peace statements in the Lutheran tradition tells us everything we need to know about Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on peace, violence and war.” This underwhelming statement stands against the fact, Bonhoeffer was clearly a pacifist. But what sort of pacifist was he?

Was he a pacifist, perhaps of a Lutheran type as opposed to an Anabaptist sort, who might feel justified in taking action where the normal functions of the two kingdoms had fallen apart? Or was he a once committed pacifist, who by the writing of Ethics, has changed his mind? Or is he a completely committed pacifist who goes against his own good conscience and theological understanding? Or is he, in fact, a pacifist who never abandoned his commitment to nonviolence and was never involved in the plot to kill Hitler? Each of these are proposed possibilities.

What seems beyond reasonable question, is his commitment to the ethic of peace as part of his understanding of following Christ (who is an ethic). His commitment to nonviolence, in this context, is clear in Cost of Discipleship:

Does [Jesus] refuse to face up to realities – or shall we say, to the sin of the world? . . . Jesus tells us that it is just because we live in the world, and just because the world is evil, that the precept of nonresistance must be put into practice. Surely we do not wish to accuse Jesus of ignoring the reality and power of evil! Why, the whole of his life was one long conflict with the devil. He calls evil evil, and that is the very reason why he speaks to his followers in this way.[2]

In the same book he writes,

That is why Christians cannot conform to the world, because their concern is the ‘perisson’. What does the ‘perisson’, the extraordinary, consist of? It is the existence of those blessed in the Beatitudes, the life of the disciples. It is the shining light, the city on the hill. It is the way of self-denial, perfect love, perfect purity, perfect truthfulness, perfect nonviolence. Here is undivided love for one’s enemies, loving those who love no one and whom no one loves … It is the love of Jesus Christ himself, who goes to the cross in suffering and obedience.

The Bonhoeffer of Ethics, it is argued, is more thoroughly Lutheran in his understanding of God’s two kingdoms, and so, in this latter book, his early call for simple obedience now takes into account a more complicated notion of the human predicament of guilt, “the duty to heed God’s creational ‘mandates’, and the distinction between ‘last things’ and ‘things before the last.’”[3] In this understanding, Bonhoeffer was never a pacifist (and certainly not an Anabaptist sort of pacifist) but was always true to his Lutheran understanding of the two kingdoms.

The argument of Stanley Hauerwas and Mark Thiessen Nation is that his pacifism was evident and unadulterated by his Lutheran frame of reference.[4] They point out that in a letter to his friend Elizabeth Zinn on 27 January 1936, he says that “Christian pacifism” is “self-evident.” As they argue, “from the beginning he did not think “pacifism” was a position one assumed that required further theological justification.” Just the opposite, he was a pacifist because of Jesus: “his pacifism and his Christological convictions were inseparable.” They argue, contrary to DeJonge, that he was indeed a pacifist on the order of John Howard Yoder, especially when one considers that Bonhoeffer and Barth shape Yoder’s pacifism. Yoder’s Politics of Jesus, they argue,  “is as far as we know, more like Discipleship than any other book written between 1937 and 1972 (not least because of Yoder’s own deep appreciation of Bonhoeffer’s book).”  

Though DeJonge and others have attempted to locate Bonhoeffer in a Lutheran context which would override his commitment to nonviolence, it is precisely in that context that he spells out his pacifism. In his lecture at the ecumenical Youth Peace Conference in Czechoslovakia on 26 July 1932, “On the Theological Foundation of the Work of the World Alliance” he says:

Because there is no way for us to understand war as God’s order of preservation and therefore as God’s commandment, and because war needs to be idealized and idolatrized in order to live, today’s war, the next war, must be condemned by the church … We must face the next war with all the power of resistance, rejection, condemnation … We should not balk here at using the word ‘pacifism’. Just as certainly we submit the ultimate ‘pacem facere’ to God, we too must ‘pacem facere’ to overcome war.

Hauerwas and Nation offer details of a long and seemingly irrefutable documentation of Bonhoeffer’s pacifism. They point (a few of their many examples must suffice) to a sermon on 2 Corinthians in which Bonhoeffer makes the extraordinary claim that, “Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence.” They reference Lawrence Whitburn, one of his congregants in London, who said that Bonhoeffer’s opinion in favor of pacifism “was so marked and clear in his mind” that their discussion of the subject “soon developed into an argument.” From among his inner circle of students at the Finkenwalde seminary, Joachim Kanitz, comments that “it became clear to us on the basis of this Bible study [an exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount, given by Bonhoeffer] that it is not possible for Christians to justify killing or to justify war.”

In a counter to this understanding, it is argued that the dire situation he faces during the writing of Ethics causes a break, in which he would consider employing violent means in this situation of church failure. Hauerwas and Nation counter this with documentation from the writing of Ethics and after. For example, from Ethics:

The Sermon on the Mount as the proclamation of the incarnate love of God calls people to love one another, and thus to reject everything that hinders fulfilling this task – in short, it calls them to self-denial. In renouncing one’s own happiness, one’s own rights, one’s own righteousness, one’s own dignity, in renouncing violence and success, in renouncing one’s own life, a person is prepared to love the neighbour.

Hauerwas and Nation argue in their book, Bonhoeffer the Assasin? that he remained true to his pacifism and was never directly involved in violence or the enactment of violence. They assemble an impressive array of arguments which offer a counter weight to any simplistic or one-sided argument as to Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot to kill Hitler.

The argument that he did not, in fact, ever abandon his pacifism and did not take part in the plot to kill Hitler seems to be directly contradicted by Bethge, who indicates that he told him he would kill Hitler, given the opportunity. On the other hand, Bethge indicates he knew he was not involved in these plots. As late as 1942 he also tells Bethge he stands behind what he wrote Cost of Discipleship, where he had espoused pacifism. Hauerwas and Nation reference Peter Hoffman, an expert on the conspiracies against Hitler, who describes Bonhoeffer’s role as limited to putting out peace feelers: Bonhoeffer “urged his friends … to use their influence to ensure that the Allies would call a halt to military operations during the anticipated coup in Germany.”

Interestingly Hauerwas and Nation sight the authority of Karl Barth, whom Bethge indicates, knew everything of Bonhoeffer. But his testimony is a mixed bag. Barth had no question, “He was really a pacifist on the basis of his understanding of the Gospel.” On the other hand, Bonhoeffer “belonged to these circles of those willing to kill Hitler.”

From Bonhoeffer’s own description we understand that there is a tension in his thought. The pure martyrs of the first century and beyond, who gave up their lives in a clear witness to the gospel and against the state and the emperor (who claimed to be a god) were not to be found in a Germany and in a German church where Hitler had been embraced as God’s own messenger, on the order of Christ himself. The distinction between church and world had come undone. Humanity itself is threatened and the church, in Bonhoeffer’s conception, has always been for the salvation of the world, but now there is no true church in Germany.

As he indicates in his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” there are three modes of action that one might take as a part of the church in regard to the state:

first (as we have said), questioning the state as to the legitimate state character of its actions, that is, making the state responsible for what it does. Second is service to the victims of the state’s actions. The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. “Let us work for the good of all.” These are both ways in which the church, in its freedom, conducts itself in the interest of a free state. In times when the laws are changing, the church may under no circumstances neglect either of these duties. The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself.

In this third category he potentially allows for the sort of action he might have been involved in against Hitler as part of a legitimate Christian response to a government that has overstepped its responsibilities. He expands upon the point, by indicating that with the rise of the Führer we no longer have to do with a political but a religious figure:  

This Führer, arising from the collective power of the people, now appears in the light as the one awaited by the people, the longed-for fulfilment of the meaning and power of the life of the Volk. Thus the originally prosaic idea of political authority is transformed into the political-messianic idea of Führer that we see today. All the religious thinking of its supporters flows into it as well.

The Christian/religious thought of the German people is so misdirected by the role of the Führer, that other modes of resistance (DeJonge finds six modes of resistance in Bonhoeffer)[5] would seem to no longer be effective. As Bonhoeffer puts it in Cost of Discipleship: “It is not only my task to look after the victims of madmen who drive a motorcar in a crowded street, but to do all in my power to stop their driving at all.”

DeJonge, Hauerwas, and Nation, make their argument on the basis that Bonhoeffer was self-consistent. If this is true, I think Nation and Hauerwas make the stronger case that what he was consistent with his focus on the person of Christ in his ethics of nonviolence. But even here there is a tension, as in Bonhoeffer’s conception, “Jesus Christ came to initiate us not into a new religion but into life” and to be engaged in life. As a result, he has a profound concern for the world, for the suffering (Jews, in this case) and by extension for politics. It is not inconceivable that he went against his own conscience and beliefs, willing to give up his own soul (as he indicates in an early sermon, comparing himself to Paul, in his willingness to be counted anathema) so that he might take part in an act to kill the one he is purported to have referred to as the Anti-Christ.

On the other hand, what is clear and irrefutable are the books and written word he has left us, pointing to the need for sole trust in the ethics of Christ. In recognizing him as a martyr, as I think we should, the term will now have to account for “the world come of age” and the possibility of a failed church and the need for a singular trust in the conquering power of the Lamb that was slain.


[1]Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer: Exile and Martyr, (London: Collins St. James Place, 1975) 155.

[2]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Touchstone, 1995), 143–144.

[3] Charles Moore, “Was Bonhoeffer Willing to Kill?” in Plough Quarterly Magazine, September 10, 2014. https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/nonviolence/was-bonhoeffer-willing-to-kill

[4] The following is from their article, “’A pacifist and enemy of the state’”: Bonhoeffer’s journey to nonviolence” in ABC Religion and Ethics, Thursday 19 April 2018, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/a-pacifist-and-enemy-of-the-state-bonhoeffers-journey-to-nonviol/10094798

[5] 1. Individual and humanitarian resistance to state injustice, 2. The church’s diaconal service to victims of state injustice 3. The church’s indirectly political word to the state 4. The church’s directly political word against an unjust state 5. Resistance through discipleship 6. Resistance through the responsible action of the individual. See his article, “How does the church resist an unjust state? Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology of resistance” https://www.abc.net.au/religion/dietrich-bonhoeffers-theology-of-resistance/10766546

Christ Has Abolished War – The War Within and Without


Whether we have in view violence on the largest scale such as war, or on the smallest scale such as the struggle within the individual, I would argue the same basic structure and dynamic is at work. For example, it is often said the first casualty of war is truth, and the presumption is that once lives are sacrificed in fighting a war, it will be difficult if not impossible to declare the war a mistake. The sacrifice of life would be betrayed by this truth, so the lie that the war was justified will serve in place of the truth. The narrative of patriotism, laying down one’s life for friends (see here), makes sense of war and this sense comes with its own morality and something like its own religion. But isn’t the same thing true on the individual level, that the self-punishment involved in guilt, masochism, or the intrinsic self-harm of addiction is its own justification? The life sacrificed is one’s own, but it too is a self-justifying system in which the sacrifice creates its own order of meaning and reality.

War creates a liturgical character on the order of ancestor worship in which the ultimate, eternal obligation, is to those who have died on behalf of the nation, so that to speak of the nation in any but absolute terms is to dishonor the dead. The society built on death, on the sacrifices of war, are bound together by the felt necessity to repay those sacrifices in a religious sort of patriotism. The survival or eternalizing of the state is implicit, as Dorothy Day indicated, in the “God talk” (e.g., phrases such as “In God We Trust” and “One nation under God”) which realpolitik exposes as fundamentally atheistic. “It has become expedient that we murder” and “that we ignore the precepts of Jesus Christ laid down in the Sermon on the Mount. . . .as Christianity has been reduced to a rule of expediency” serving the state. She pronounces the unthinkable or the ultimate secular blasphemy, “it is better that the United States be liquidated than that she survive by war.”[1]

But there may be something even more immediate in the justifying power of death, as studies of those who murder produce the same results: the killer sees the murder as justified and necessary (inevitable) and the act itself is viewed as righteous wrath.[2] It is not simply that one lies to others about the efficacy of violence, but the violence becomes the foundation of “truth” so that one is blinded to an alternative possibility – reality or truth. To state it within the perspective of war, the sacrifice of life in war creates a self-justifying system which generates its own ground or truth, but the same system can function at the individual level.

 It may be that the life of the state, on behalf of which the dead soldier is memorialized, seems to be a more tangible reality than the life, gusto, or being, sought in hedonism or addiction but it seems to be a matter of scale. The state builds concrete monuments to its war dead and the cult of the dead has its own uniforms, special salutes, and parades, but individual desire is no less tangible and it too is memorialized in compulsive repetition and it is no less life consuming in extracting life from the self. The individual has her own self-justifying sacrifice which creates personal rituals and “truth” of the same logical order as the sacrifice of war. The compulsion to repeat is the logic or economy at work in both instances – the investment of life is not just the assurance that this order is real – but it is the reality to which life is dedicated. So, we might say it is not just that truth is the first casualty of war, but an alternative truth is generated by both corporate and individual violence. In both instances the sign/significance is compulsively repeated as its circulation is the meaning.   

The deceit of the system is in plain sight in what is memorialized – the dead soldier represents life, freedom, and his ultimate sacrifice is what makes life possible and worthwhile. The concrete memorial or tomb literally reifies, eternalizes, or makes death an infinite value foundational to the life of the state. This bad infinite grips us personally when the concrete tomb of our own imaginary sense of self (the ego) becomes the foundation and energy behind all that we do and are. We would cadaverize (to coin a term), or memorialize our self on the order of a concrete object which is equated with life. We would establish the self as an object in the misperception that the image of the self or others (the bodily image) is the self.

Clearly the tomb and the self as object mark the same deceit, in which death is presumed to be life. In this sense, to call this a desire for death or death drive does not get at the mistaken presumption that to follow this drive or desire it is presumed that one is gaining life, whereas it is only the acquisition of death. This language may not be exactly accurate, as it is picturing a synchronous desire which folds all of this thought into an experience as if it is diachronic. Cognition or time does not necessarily figure into it. Thus, the Bible will refer to the deceit of desire as a first order experience of the lie. Idolatrous desire is pictured as a prostitute luring her customers to the grave. It is presumed or felt that to follow this desire is life itself – it is the life force or all that makes life worth living but it is only a force for death.

The idol or the concrete object for which one might sacrifice everything illustrates the psychological move as it occurs in the individual. The tomb/idol or the war memorial is a sign or the bearer of the sign in which the body of the soldier is completely covered over, so much so that the tomb or memorial need not contain any physical remains. For the individual, the body becomes the bearer of a sign and what is written over the body has displaced the body or any significance which it might have had in itself.

This “body of sin” or “body of death” is not simply the physical body but it is the body as ego – as in the bodily ego or the notion of the self as object. Here, all of the processes of the body take on an eternal weight of meaning. Food for the stomach and the stomach for food (I Cor. 6:13) can become an eternal circulating system of signs in which eating and digesting is its own justification. Sex can take on an eternal weight of meaning – its own mysticism – where it is presumed the body is the means to life. In this way the “flesh,” in Paul’s description, becomes a principle unto itself, a principal for death which he equates with immorality. As Lacan will describe it, desire is related to the ego which is imaginary (like an object or on the order of the physical body), so desire is the desire to establish the being of the Subject on the order of an object. The physical body is written over with a significance which obscures or transforms natural drives and desires. According to Paul this is immorality, and what it forgets or loses is that the body is for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body (I Cor. 6:13).

The body of state might become the same sort of self-justifying closed entity – and ironically with the absolutizing of the state with the Constantinian shift this process is Christianized or baptized. Just as the body becomes the container of the soul, the state is identified with the millennial kingdom, as it is made to bear an eternal weight of meaning. Just as the physical body is the empirical bearer of the soul amounting to a refusal of the body and its mortal contingencies, the state becomes divine or God-like as infallible judge, creating its own hell and dispensing its own heavenly rewards. According to Ernst Kantorowicz, the kings two bodies consist of his “natural body” rendered insignificant, as it is simply the bearer of the “body politic.”  Any idiot or any body can serve as the marker of this exalted sign of state. What is of enduring significance is the letter or sign and not the body per se (the king and state – like the individual now have two bodies), as the body is the incarnation of the sign written over or made possible by the sacrifice of its empirical bearer.

Given this singular genealogy for the war without and the war within, if Christ has established peace, then not only the individual but the world has been freed from the lie giving rise to the necessity of personal and corporate violence. My claim is that sin and war depend upon the economy of a lie which Christ has exposed and abolished. It is hard to say which claim may be harder to believe – that Christ has freed us corporately from the necessities of war or individually from the struggle of sin. If the internal struggle giving rise to sin cannot be conceived of as defeated in the peace of Christ, it may be a leap too far to understand how Christ has abolished the logic and necessity of a world which requires war. On the other hand, if it can be understood how individually we can be liberated from the principle of the flesh, it may be easier to conceive how the defeat of this same principle might apply to war. If the war within and the war without consists of the same sort of violence or sin, then redemption from sin is both an individual and corporate or world-wide possibility.

The gospel calls us to live lives of peace as an accomplished fact, and this means that the world that God loved and is redeeming is already the resource and reality out of which we live. We might speak of two worlds, if it is understood that there cannot be two orders of reality or two created orders anymore than there can be two bodies. We might refer to the world of the flesh or the world of darkness but this is not an actually existing world but it is a world written over with a lie. The lie might seem to have obtained world-wide traction (wiping out its empirical bearer) but its “size” does not mean that it is of a different order than the lie which takes hold within the individual. In fact, apart from the one the other cannot exist. The individual is given over to the same lie no matter if he encounters it in his tribe or state or within himself. The world given over to the lie is simply a support for the individual and the individual is a support of the corporate lie.

By the same token, the individual living in peace presumes that he witnesses to an alternative order to which the world can respond. The recreation of the world or the culmination of creation portrayed throughout the New Testament means that the Christian lives in a world freed of the seeming necessities of sin. It is not a world we could or need to create as Christ has created it. As Stanley Hauerwas has indicated, Christians need not work to create a world free of war as the world has already been saved from war. The Christian lives in a world in which war has been abolished and the manner of his life is a testimony that this is a first order reality which exposes the unreality of the world built on the lie of violence.

This cosmological shift is the message of the Gospel of John in which the light is now shining on all the world. The Prologue opens with a new-creation narrative which at every turn exemplifies, as with Nathaniel, the possibility of living without deceit. Here the wedding feast of the lamb, the cleansing of the cosmic temple, and the abode with the Father, are already established realities. Where darkness and light and life and death might appear to make up a cosmic dualism, John is proclaiming the end of the struggle. Life has defeated death and the light has penetrated the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

The book of Hebrews declares an end to a similar sort of cosmic order, in which it seemed God was only available through angelic mediators and a sacrificial system condemned to comprehending God in shadows. Christ, the complete representation of God, has assumed within himself the role of both priest and victim and has brought an end to the seeming necessity of sacrifice and death: “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:14-15). The god (whether the god of state or the world or the individual) who held out “satisfaction” through sacrifice and death is dethroned. The community of the saved testify to this end of sacrifice.

 As Hauerwas puts it, the church is an alternative to war. “The sacrifices of war are no longer necessary. We are now free to live free of the necessity of violence and killing. War and the sacrifices of war have come to an end. War has been abolished.”[3] The church sets forth an alternative ethic, no longer under the constraints of sin and war, as peace is established.


[1] Dorothy Day, “We Are Un-American, We Are Catholics,” Catholic Worker 14, no. 13 (April 1948), 2. Cited in John Mark Hicks. Resisting Babel: Allegiance to God and the Problem of Government (Kindle Location 1650). Abilene Christian University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] See Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist.

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, “Ten years and counting: Christianity and the end of war,” ABC Religion and Ethics – https://www.abc.net.au/religion/ten-years-and-counting-christianity-and-the-end-of-war/10101158

The Conversion of the Imagination

I am convinced that whatever the field of endeavor, whether philosophy, psychology, theology, or whatever, that each field of study or form of discourse hits the same wall or encounters the same failure, characteristic of failed human thought. The failure will show itself through a full stop: conversation stops, questions cease, imagination is halted, because the form of thought is not alive, it is not dynamic. Movement ceases because it presumes or desires too much and ends with too little. The Western philosophical/theological project, attempting to say it all, ends in nihilism; a positive theological scholasticism (to think God) ends in a purely negative apophatic theology; an attempt to pin down the master signifier of the law ends in perversion (to be the phallic object of desire) or hysteria (despairing over the lost object).  In theological terms, God is turned into an object to be contained within human knowledge while human knowing is assigned, simultaneously, a God-like power to shed its finite bonds (Martin Heidegger’s characterization taken from Kant, “ontotheology,” describes this modern project). In this ontotheological mode of thought, one would think himself out of the world, which freezes thought as it locks onto a static, impossible, object.

For example, Anselm’s cosmological argument begins by comparing differences in the world (some horses are fast, but there is a fastest horse) so that his argument depends upon differentiation which works its way to the ultimate difference. The ultimate act of differentiating locates God in a category of incomparable difference (a denial of recognizable difference). Thus, at the same time God is proven, he is also put beyond thought. The ultimate difference, God, is an unthinkable or empty thought. All the world is reduced to nothing in comparison to the being of God, and the mode of differentiating thought is exhausted on the “nothing” side of the ontological divide.

His ontological argument, (the name for God is “something than which nothing greater can be thought”) starts where his cosmological argument ended and consists of the same move. There is a name or a thought of God but “nothing” serves to define the “something” in the name. Anselm would “see God” (the absolute “something”) and only “finds darkness” and “nothing,” in his own words, as God is beyond any normative thought. Rather than bring heaven and earth together, as in the biblical cosmology, the characteristic of natural arguments tend, like Anselm’s cosmological and ontological argument, to introduce a gulf of separation between God and the world due to the form of the argument. Each of the “natural arguments” for God, leave God on the other side of an ontological divide, but also posit an uncrossable division within reality, which will come to characterize modern thought.

Kant posits the ever illusive noumena (the unthinkable and unattainable thing-in-itself) and leaves us only phenomena, while Hegel presumes the process of thought is the thing, always on its way but never arriving. In one instance, the focus is on an unobtainable object (the thinking thing, the noumena, the subject of the law, the master signifier), while the other is focused on a frustrated movement of thought (the “I think” portion of the cogito, the Geist or spirit). Maybe this helps explain how, for many, virtual reality now serves in place of reality. At the least, the philosophical impasse illustrates the full stop disengagement with reality marking this cultural moment. It is not simply the beatific vision, the hope for heaven, but earthly reality that has gone missing.

While this displacement of reality with a delusion is peculiarly sharp in this cultural moment, it is precisely this simulacrum Paul equates with the dynamic of desire aroused by the law – the law is falsely assigned a fulness of reality. Lacan, in a more prosaic turn of phrase, describes this impossible desire as the search for the maternal phallus. The diagnosis might focus on the disproportionate desire: to be the primal father (having all the women), or to stand in place of the law, or to penetrate the final mystery. Or the diagnosis might focus on the impossibility of the object: God is either posited as a thing in the world to be known, like an object of sight, or is consigned to an absolutely transcendent unknown (inherent to Paul’s description of the functioning of the law).

 In turn, thought takes on the characteristic of a “totalizing vision” (with the emphasis falling on “vision”) in which experience (the senses, personal experience, historical experience, the experience of others, etc.) and dynamism (in other words, reality) are subsumed. What surreptitiously takes place, as Marx noted, is the privileging of a particular stance (a particular culture and a particular place in that culture) as if it is universal. After Freud and Lacan, this has been dubbed “phallocentric” thought as it reifies the (male) symbolic order (law, the superego, language, the father) as it drives toward mastery and represses absence and incompleteness (the feminine).

The resolution to this form of thought, first articulated in the modern period as a conversion of the imagination by C. S. Lewis, is easier to describe than the various diagnoses (as illustrated in my abbreviated and hectic summary), but in order to understand the work this resolution is performing we need the diagnoses. The resolution offered in narrative or historical theology invokes a different standard (a call to justice, beauty, and love) and is relocating every element of the problem (God and Christ as object, the role of language, the adequacy of knowledge) but it is also giving rise to an alternative set of emotions, experience, and desire, captured in the notion of the conversion of the imagination. Lewis describes his conversion as “a baptism of the imagination,” by which he meant not merely the addition of God to a world already in place, but a transformation of every aspect of experience into a reworked world.

Following Lewis, we could picture the problem and solution in terms of types of stories. A failed or limited story, as with the failed imagination, might be said to engage a portion of reality, a level of experience, or form of thought. These stories are not necessarily untrue, though they may be, but they lack truth in the same way as some characters fall short of the truth. Lewis portrays failed characters as incapable of discerning the voice of Aslan or incapable, even when confronted with paradise (i.e. Narnia), of inhabiting it. Uncle Andrew only seeks magical power, Edmund wants Turkish Delight, and the White Witch, in her great beauty, is a type of the deceiver of Ezekiel, who would falsely proclaim herself Queen over Narnia. (Like the creature in Ezekiel, she has great beauty and cunning wisdom, both of which are deployed for deception and evil.) Each of these small or evil characters would use Narnia to fulfill their own unimaginative desires. They each order the world according to the shape of their desire and understanding, while we as readers recognize, Narnia is better, more complete, and differently ordered than these characters realize. They each make choices based on their failed understanding. As Stanley Hauerwas describes it, the moral life does not consist simply of correctly choosing but of being trained how to see. Moral notions expand character (and characters) so that they are up to the task of rightly perceiving reality. Through moral development the weak or small characters, such as Edmund, become attuned not only to the voice of Aslan, in Lewis’ world, but they come to love him. The development of moral insight comes then, with a training in the imagination which can only come about by being schooled in and initiated into an ever-expanding narrative.

If we only know one kind of story and are trained only to see a certain flatness, it may be that we are impressed with stick figure characters (and arguments). What we need (and I am not making an absolute claim as to how this might work) may be exposure to a fuller reality rather than more or bigger stick figures. Imagine trying to describe the music of Yo-Yo Ma to those who have never heard his music. You might use mathematics and a black board, but the medium would kill the message. Better let them listen to his music and experience it full on. True, there are those who may not have ears to hear or eyes to see: think of trying to illicit appreciation for Dostoevsky, or Wendell Berry, or even the children’s tales of C. S. Lewis, in a modern Trump-like character, devoid of any but the most insipid imagination. But to translate every tale into this world would reduce everything into idioms of power or variations on “greed is good.” Uncle Andrew, in The Magician’s Nephew, can only hear the roar of Aslan and cannot make out his talk, but maybe it is better to expose him to the roar and to let him see the comprehension of others.

As Tyler (who has young children) put it to me in conversation, Teletubbies may be perfectly adequate for a limited or constrained mentality but for developing and feeding a mature life and imagination they are inadequate and boring. The form fails to engage the fulness of reality and imagination (while it may be perfectly adequate for very young children (I don’t actually know, being unfamiliar with the show) precisely because of this failure). If we find ourselves in the midst of such a truncated story, we can only hope that it would end (setting aside the book, turning the channel, or committing suicide, depending upon the circumstance and our personal resources and investment in the story).

A profound story, however, such as The Brothers Karamazov, puts the full range of human experience and possibility on display. We can see the depths of depravity in the father, Fyodor Pavlovich. His sons, Dmitri and Ivan, represent the possibility of pure evil and greed, and raw intelligent skepticism, respectively, while Alyosha, guided by the good but worldly-wise Zosima, counters (though he may not answer) the darkness of the world of his brothers with a profound goodness and love. To be Alyosha, is to see the world lit up with beauty and goodness, though he is surrounded by and takes account of the depth of evil. Here is a story that enlarges the imagination by offering a picture of enslavement to the realities of darkness (every form of lust greed and wantonness), which only sharpens the hope for the alternative order and the longing for justice, beauty, and love, glimpsed in Zosima and Alyosha.[1]

In this artful presentation of reality, reality is assigned a depth of meaning, so that the story engages the reality of the world while providing a vision of God. It does not float free of the cosmos (as in the various arguments for God), but reads a depth of meaning into the world. The danger, in a less than true story, is that the world of the story falls short of reality, or in the language of theology, God and the world are made completely separate by the form of thought. According to Maurice Blondel this is the problem with neo-Scholastic arguments and reason; this form of thought made God extrinsic, rather than an intrinsic part of the natural world. As a result there is a depletion of desire for God, fostered by the very arguments which would prove his existence, as the form of thought is flat and boring.

To recover God must mean a simultaneous recovery of the world, a recovery of curiosity and participation, and an alternative deployment of language. We might picture it as a recovery of the language of Adam prior to the fall, in which Adam works with God in bringing order out of chaos by naming and assigning value as a co-participant in creation. Or we might picture it in terms of the Jewish Temple, as a microcosmos, with God and the world conjoined, and God emerging, through the mediation and work of his priests, from out of the Holy of Holies into the cosmos (see here for a fuller picture of this). Likewise, new creation “work” is a creativity assigned to human mediators and priests who serve in the Temple of creation to usher in, to represent, to witness to the movement of God out of the Holy of Holies into the Holy Place and into the created order.

 Do we not recognize this in the work of the artists we admire and would emulate? Or maybe we are not even up to admiring directly – but we learn to admire. I am thinking here of my good friend Jason’s fascination with Wendell Berry. Jason has been a priest to me of the beauty of an imagination of which I was not aware. I would like to think I was not a complete idiot but that I had been primed, and many of us have been so primed by Hebrew scripture, to the spiritual depth, to the fingerprint of God, or to the shining of the glory of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). This is not a language or speech that one recognizes “naturally,” as “They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (19:3-4). As the Psalmist explains, one hears this speech due to the working of Torah: “The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes” (19:7-8). The word of God resonates with the world, bringing it to life for the simpleton.

This is a different order of language from that which would divide off from the world and render all that is created a dead, cold, mechanical, system (Newtonian Theory, exploitative consumer economics, or simply “art” which renders the world a dead object). There is a “dead letter” which kills or there is a living word which animates, creates, and brings to life. The dead letter stops you in your tracks, turns you inward (“close the door of your room and close the door of your mind” Anselm advises, in order to conceive of his ontological God), while the living word calls you to quest further, to go deeper, to find the fulness, not in frustration, but in the joy of the unfolding and opening up of the conversion of the imagination.


[1] Thanks to Matt for the gift of a new translation I have undertaken rereading the story.

Please be Offended

“What a great sermon! Now, if we can just do that!

I remember that Sunday as we drove away from church. My father, a young (and remarkably self-absorbed) preacher in his thirties had just delivered what he had intended to be a scorcher. His brand of preaching was, unquestionably, motivated more by frustration than love: frustration that after graduating summa cum laude from Bible college he had not “made a difference” right out of the gate; frustration that no matter how hard he tried, no one seemed to be listening; and I think frustration that (as much as he tried to understand it) his own faith never really could provide truly satisfying answers to the real wrongs of the world he so desired
to right—he never felt like he thought he should feel like.

Being a narcissist didn’t help him either.

But the thing about my father, as a preacher, that I actually do still identify with is the sense in which he never could abide people pretending you said something different from what you said. My father was never a very profound theologian, but when he stumbled on a point that he thought was important, he was pretty sure he wanted you to understand it. And every preacher knows the Ecclesiastes-style-vanity of the moment when, after repeating your main idea a dozen times just like they taught you in basic preaching class, the people shaking your hand on the way out the door thank you for saying something completely different than you actually
said.

Such was the case that Sunday when, after preaching a message of desperation to get his little non-instrumental church to actually commit to something other than semi-regular Sunday attendance in the pews, a message in which he had said, “All you need to do is make a decision to give more to the church and we can make a difference in this neighborhood!”

“Thank you, Ray. Now if we can just do that.”

I heard her say it and watched him rest his head on the steering wheel on the way home.

I get it. I get pouring your heart into a point that the people who are “hearing” you just can’t hear. As someone who came to believe that following Jesus means *gasp* being unwilling to kill someone, my own preaching experience was even harder. I have found that belief in Christian non-violence is such a contradiction to most American Christians that, unless one says it in the clearest of terms, the listeners will almost invariably assume you didn’t mean what you said.

I’m sure there’s a high falutin psychological term for the phenomenon, one which I should probably know off the top of my head. But I’ve found that most people’s basic assumptions about what is real, true, right, and good are so deeply ingrained that the message of a peaceful Gospel just bounces right off. You can say, “Put down the sword Peter,” a thousand times and everyone in the audience will nod and say “amen” about Peter and his sword and then go home and practice shooting human-shaped silhouettes in the event of a home-invasion without the slightest sense of
irony.

As a result, when I was preaching and sometimes when I’m teaching when I make a point that I fear will be missed, I’ll say, “Now, I just said ‘x,’ but it’s possible you’re thinking, ‘surely he didn’t mean x, surely he meant y.’ Just so you know, I actually meant ‘x.’”

Even then…it can bounce off.

I’ve discovered, however, that there is a tool we have at our disposal that is very effective at breaking through that cognitive dissonance (I think that’s the term I’m looking for). The tool is to be willing to offend people’s sensibilities—sometimes even to hurt their feelings. What do I mean?

One of the ways we actually make it easier for people to hear something different than what we mean is that we try to be as nice as possible when we say it. We don’t want people to think we don’t like them or that we’re trying to insult them. So, we broach subjects tenderly and softly, handling everyone with a sort of codependent “kid gloves” approach that is sure to “let them down easy.” However, as any girl who’s tried to break up with a boyfriend who doesn’t get the hint knows, “letting someone down easy” can easily become a euphemism for not making it clear the relationship is over. And it can cause problems.

Personally, I refer to the prophets a lot and I think that people who know me best probably think it means I’ve got delusions of grandeur. But I think those guys and gals knew this very carefully. They were masters of making themselves understood with as little ambiguity as possible. It takes a lot of…courage…to stand up in front of a group of Ninevites and say, “y’all got 90 days before God levels this city.” It takes some…hubris…to say, “God’s name for you isn’t Pashur, but ‘Terror on Every Side.’” as Jeremiah did. It takes…forgive me…balls…to be baptizing people in one moment and then see the Pharisees making their way to the water in another and say, “Who
warned you to flee the coming judgment, you bunch of snakes?”

John the Baptist knew it. Mincing words wasn’t going to get the job done. Sparing feelings wasn’t going to communicate the truth in a way that made it unmistakable. Peacefulness doesn’t mean we’re always “being nice,” in fact, sometimes it means being downright brutally honest. As Stan Hauerwas has said, “Any peacefulness that [doesn’t make the truth clear] is accursed.” Further, he’s also referred to “southern civility” (a reference to a style of passive-aggressiveness that all of us who live in the south can identify quickly but which is by no means only practiced in that region) as “the most calculated form of cruelty ever devised.”

Hauerwas’ complaint, I think, is that avoiding saying something truthful that may cause the person listening pain for fear of offending them is a way of valuing sentimentality over truth, and allowing what isn’t true to rule. And it does nothing but continue to foster violence.

Christian non-violence will require us to speak honestly, truthfully, and clearly in such a way as to avoid misunderstanding. This means that we may (as anyone who knows an autistic person can attest) end up looking a little anti-social. But so much of what counts for sociability in our culture is a way of telling one another (and ourselves) little lies to save face. This is something autists, to their credit, simply cannot understand, and I envy that of them.

I’ve discovered that saying something so clearly that it offends people has a way of breaking through the BS layer and getting to the heart of things. It keeps people from being able to simply ignore what you say. They may reject it. But we’re told most people will. Might as well get it out of the way, right?

And it doesn’t mean you’re being a…jerk…although people will think so. You can love someone and say, “I love you, but that’s stupid, bro.”

I recently wrote a poem about carrying weapons in public. I tell you, I’m tired of pretending like carrying a gun to Waffle House isn’t rooted in fear and childishness. I shared it and offended my cousin, among others. I’m ok with that. I wanted it to offend. I’m tired of people pretending that being a pacifist means being “passive.”

Why “Walking Theology”

kierkegaard walking quote

Theology is, of course, meant to be a walking form of life, even as it is     undertaken by Jesus. The two on the road to Emmaus are not going to end up in Emmaus and Jesus is certainly not going to Emmaus. The walk and the discovery unfold together, just as being a disciple of Jesus always does. The two, at first, have a set destiny, and then the talk becomes a destiny, as Jesus explains how the narrative journey of the Old Testament is an ongoing travel narrative in which this very walk figures as explanation. When they arrive at their evenings lodging it is at once a terminal point and a reversal of their journey – as afterward they head back to Jerusalem. They have walked nowhere in particular and only thus have they discovered where they are going. This comes at the end of their walk, and the “burning” lesson of the journey sets them on the edge of recognition. It is only when the travelers sit and Jesus breaks bread that they are able to ingest the lesson of who he is. The walk and the discovery go together as journey and sustenance must. Continue reading “Why “Walking Theology””