Sunday, June 1, 2014

Vocatio Contra Mundum

I have begun to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Nachfolge. 

When I entered college in 1973, liberal arts schools had begun offering, as the freshman introduction to writing and research, an elective on a fairly narrow topic (a practice that my daughter's school still follows).  I chose a course in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and we read The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics and portions of the Letters and Papers from Prison.  As a kid with a serious Protestant (Presbyterian) background, and an inchoate interest in theological/philosophical matters, it was a good beginning, even if, now, I wonder that I could really make head or tail of it at that age.

Bonhoeffer, of course, has an appeal beyond that of academic theology: around 1940 he became involved in a conspiracy seeking to assassinate Hitler and negotiate an armistice.  Bonhoeffer's role was to establish communications through ecumenical contacts (an effort that came to little due to the skittishness of the English).  He was arrested on unrelated charges and held in various prisons with some hope of release.  When, however, his connection with the conspiracy was established, he had little chance, and was hanged, with Allied troops just weeks away from liberation. 

Bonhoeffer was far from unknown when living.  He spent time in America at Union Theological Seminary, and collaborated with Karl Barth on the formation of a "Confessing Church" when the Nazis were working to create a more loyal Reichkirche.  But he became more widely known after his death, and, given the end his commitment led him to, it should come as no surprise that his 1937 book, Nachfolge ("Discipleship"), was given the English title, The Cost of Discipleship.

In retrospect it seems surprising that, at that time and place, the book was publishable at all.  It is not overtly political.  (How could it have been?)  But it focuses on the call to follow, to act more than to believe.  In doing so Bonhoeffer ran up against the common understanding of the sole decisiveness of faith in Lutheranism, which condemns all saving imperatives to act as "works-righteousness."  In response Bonhoeffer asserts that answering the call to follow--that is, obedience-- is not a "work," in Luther's sense, nor, alone, fully a salvific act, but a break with one's former life that only, itself, makes possible the faith that saves:  "Der Ungehorsame kann night glauben."  "The disobedient cannot believe."

In Nachfolge Bonhoeffer identifies "Weltlichkeit" as the central problem of contemporary Christianity:   "Worldliness."  He takes issue right away with the conventional portrait of Luther as the one who left the cloister for the world.  No, says Bonhoeffer, "Luther mußte das Kloster verlass und züruck in the Welt, nicht weil die Welt an sich gut und heilig wäre, sondern weil auch das Kloster nichts anderes war als Welt."  Luther fled the cloister because it had become more worldly than the world.  Christian life begins with the answer to a call to discipleship, against the call of the world.  Grace has a cost, unspoken, perhaps, but undeniable.

In his later Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer talks about "the world" somewhat differently; we must live "etsi deus non darentur," as if there were no God.  "Nicht der religiöse Akt macht den Christen, sondern das Teilnehmen am Leiden Gottes im weltliches Leben."  Paradoxically, it is the worldliness of a world without God which God calls us to.  "Die mündige Welt ist Gott-loser und darum veilleicht gerade Gott-näher als die unmündige Welt."  The absence of God in a mature world makes him nearer than formerly.  Bonhoeffer's later ideas were appealed to by the "Death-of-God" theologians of the sixties, but his focus was much more on God's co-suffering-with, not a resulting fully-blown "secularity."

I may try to explore this contrast with time.  But I have a certain hesitation, because, though these are undoubtedly "theological" works, their aim is not, primarily, the understanding.  "Nachfolge" can, indeed, be translated "Discipleship," but it can also be understood as a verb in the imperative:  "Follow!"  When I look back on my earlier reading, I see how imperfectly I understood the implications of Lutheran theological notions.  But I also have to look at how I did, or didn't, respond to the call.

It reminds me of the last words of Jesus in the last chapter of the last gospel.  He utters some rather enigmatic statements about the fate of Peter and John.  It is noted that the statement about John was initially misunderstood.  It is, genuinely, a fascinating theological exegetical exchange.  But what are Jesus' final words?  

τί πρὸς σέ; σύ μοι ἀκολούθει.

"What is that to you?  Follow me."

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