You must change your life

Pondering Bonhoeffer’s idea that there is a form of moral stupidity that requires more than persuasion — it requires conversion. You have to become a fundamentally different kind of person who lives a different kind of life.

I’m not a moral exemplar by any means. Ultimately, the only morally significant decision I made, coming from a conservative evangelical background, was to get the hell out of Dodge. However else I have evolved since then, it absolutely required being away from those people. To the extent that I actually manage not to be a prickly white male asshole about the concerns of other groups, it came from the choice to spend a significant chunk of my life at Chicago Theological Seminary, a genuinely diverse and progressive place.

One big problem with standard liberalism is that it is implicitly asking people to change their lives and break with their families and communities, and it offers them absolutely NOTHING, no way to imagine a different life or community — other than just “being right.”

Imagining if I had stayed in the evangelical orbit. Maybe I would have had formally “correct” opinions in some ways, but they would have been couched in the terms of that community and mostly represent my own personal pride and arrogance rather than any real alternative option. And I’m sure that, with the thin gruel on offer there, I would have been more vulnerable to online conspiracy thinking, etc. — again, out of intellectual pride and a desire to define myself over against my surroundings. That’s what happens when you don’t offer genuine education.

Sometimes I regret my decision to go to Podunk Christian College, but maybe marinating in that corrupt environment, learning that it really was “that bad,” was ultimately more productive for me. I don’t think I would have thrived in the elitist, competitive ethos of some schools. The evangelicals would have felt more like “home” — I could picture myself retreating, convincing myself that I was making the better and more counter-cultural choice, etc. It’s hard to think of all the ways my life could have basically been lost.

The arrested development of the “world come of age”

In his prison writings, Bonhoeffer begins to radically rethink Christianity for a world that no longer has need of religious guidance — a “world come of age” where human beings take responsibility for their own problems with no need to appeal to God. The immediate postwar era seems to bear out his prediction. In an increasingly secular world, humanity increasingly took consciously planned collective action aimed at solving previously intractable problems. Social democracy flourished in the West, for example, and the former colonies began to enjoy self-determination as they joined the community of nations. It was far from paradise, but one could entertain the possibility that humanity was increasingly coming to control its own collective destiny on any number of levels.

In the meantime, we seem to have suffered a regression into world-wide adolescence. Continue reading “The arrested development of the “world come of age””

Bultmann and Blair

In the lastest LRB, there is a collection of snippets from the magazine’s coverage of Margaret Thatcher (“the third most written about person in the ‘LRB’ archive, after Shakespeare and Freud”), including this aperçu from Tony Blair:

What makes things even worse for radical, progressive spirits is that the ultra-right appears to be even more in control of the Conservative Party this year than it has been previously. Mrs Thatcher clearly regards herself as a dea ex machina, sent down from on high to ‘knock Britain into shape.’ She will wield her power over the next few years dictatorially and without compunction. On the other hand, there is a tremendous danger–to which Dr Owen has succumbed–in believing that ‘Thatcherism’ is somehow now invincible, that it has established a new consensus and that all the rest of us can do is debate alternatives within its framework. It is essential to demythologize ‘Thatcherism.’

In retrospect, it’s clear that Blair didn’t go far enough — he needed to overcome the inherent limitations in Bultmann’s project of demythologization and embrace a Bonhoefferian religionless interpretation of “Thatcherism.”

A hypothetical

How would the history of 20th-century theology be different if the plot Bonhoeffer was involved in to assassinate Hitler had succeeded and he had lived? Currently he’s the heroic martyr who faced down all manner of difficult questions while he was in prison — but what do you do with the theologian who had a hand in killing Hitler?

Religion as “baggage”

Recent discussions on this blog have reminded me of a tic of many theologians: a tendency to jump straight to the level of competing, incompatible presuppositions, which presumably can never talk to each other. Often this is couched in the language of the other guy excluding the theologian who’s speaking: “If you can’t buy into my religious framework, then I don’t see how you’re going to be convinced.” On a less severe level, there’s a definite resistence to speak about Christian truths in anything but Christian jargon, as though a failure to use the traditional vocabulary is a step down a slippery slope. In many ways, it’s like the dynamic where Republicans claim government can’t work and then govern poorly in order to prove it — theologians claim that fundamental dialogue is impossible and then demonstrate it in their practice.

Thinking about this dynamic, I’ve returned to Bonhoeffer’s notion of “religionless Christianity.” Admittedly, the passages in the Letters and Papers from Prison are difficult to interpret and his definition of “religion” is idiosyncratic — to me, he seems to mean something like “the drama of the soul with its God,” centered on the fundamental weakness or sinfulness of humanity — but I think there is a kernel there that can be applied to these types of discussions.

A clue in this regard is his claim that he prefers to discuss theology with non-believers, because there he can be open and frank, whereas conversation with believers is stifling. So even if his definition of “religion” might be different if he were writing today, I’d say there would still be an overall push toward a Christianity without all the baggage.

For example, in this baggage-less Christianity, one would be able to view the life of Jesus as an event of the utmost importance, bearing directly on the meaning of human existence; to find the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (or at least part of them: we all have a “canon within the canon”) compelling and worthy of serious study and consideration; and to find certain Christian communities and practices attractive — and that could be enough. You wouldn’t have to sign up for the bullshit, whether that bullshit be a literal six-day creation, an infallible structure of apostolically-sanctioned authority, a conflation of abortion with murder, a mutated Aristotelian view of sexuality that renders all non-reproductive sex acts sinful, or even more basic stuff such as traditional theism or the existence of the soul.

The benefit of this approach is that you would be able to talk to actual human beings about your convictions. You would be able to give reasons why Jesus is a compelling figure or why the Scriptures have continued relevance, without playing the trump card of “God says so.” More broadly, you could talk directly about what you’re actually doing rather than first getting people to buy into some kind of narrative where they have to make sacrifices in this world in order to guarantee their place in the next.

Some might say this is “cafeteria Christianity” and that you have to take it all or leave it and that an attempt to “water things down” like this is just a capitulation to liberalism (which we oppose because… it’s not Christianity, I guess) — but I think that underlying all that rhetoric is a profound lack of faith in Christianity. If we don’t have hellfire to threaten people with, then no one will bother to show up for church. If we don’t present it as a key to the transcendent realm of God, people will leave the Bible on the shelf.

I don’t think that’s true, though, or at least I’m willing to take the gamble that people can find the Christian intellectual tradition, Christian communities, and Christian practices appealling without having a bone to pick with evolution, without caring about sex acts between consenting adults, without declaring fealty to the pope — indeed, without “believing in God.” Perhaps that’s a bad gamble to take, but if it turns out that Christianity can’t survive without the bullshit, then it’s all bullshit.