We like to tame our theologians. We fit them into our own matrix of orthodoxy and then lay claim to be an heir. Scot McKnight recently offered a review of Molly Worthen’s, Apostle’s of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. He posted a second installment yesterday. I look forward to reading Worthen’s book having read Richard Quebedeaux’s, The Young Evangelicals and Robert Webber’s, The Younger Evangelicals. Molly appears to cover similar ground with a different exploration in mind. Al Mohler writes that Evangelicals need to reckon with this book.
What is the big deal? Evangelicals, and frankly most human beings share this trait, have a penchant for tribalism. Protecting turf is no small polemical sport. Just today David Fitch calls attention to this feature as he quoted Hauerwas,
When protestantism became an end itself, not a protest movement but a denominational choice, we became unintelligible to ourselves. Hauerwas
— David Fitch (@fitchest) December 5, 2013
Bolstering our tribes’ historical and intellectual capital often trades in locating the thread of a preferred Who’s Who’s theology that fits neatly into its trendy theological currents. There is little comment, or more likely a rationalization, when it is discovered that same Who’s Who also wrote something that would scandalize the tribes’ neat system.
The recent Evangelical Theological Society meeting that included a panel on Inerrancy, as reported by Michael Bird and Pete Enns, provided anecdotal evidence that the decision to oust Robert Gundry by the ETS may not have come so quickly had everyone acknowledged what is now known, there is no universally accepted definition for inerrancy despite the CSBI of 1978. These five guys, smart ones at that, did not all agree. Oh no, pluralism over inerrancy. Will the Evangelical House crumble?
We do face plurality in the way theologians are read and appropriated. Consider the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. One could not escape reading C.S. Lewis quotes on that day. Many Evangelicals quote C.S. Lewis. That is until he is used by a theological opponent. Think about the debate over Lewis in the aftermath of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. The debate turned to center on Lewis’ context by some as a means to distinguish how one group read Lewis over another group. Some Evangelicals love Mere Christianity but do not talk much about A Grief Observed. Unless of course it is used to distance oneself from some of Lewis’ other ideas. This brings me to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Chad Lakies’ recent piece at The Church and Postmodern Culture by Baker Academic titled, Paradox of Loneliness in the Midst of Community, caught my attention when he noted there is more to Bonhoeffer than The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.
From the confines of Tegel prison in Berlin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned these moving words to his family:
It’s remarkable how we think at such times about the people that we should not like to live without, and almost or entirely forget about ourselves. It is only then that we feel how closely our own lives are bound up with other people’s, and in fact how the center of our own lives is outside of ourselves, and how little we are separate entities. The ‘as though it were a part of me’ is perfectly true, as I have often felt after hearing that one of my colleagues or pupils had been killed. I think it is a literal fact of nature that human life extends far beyond our physical existence. (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison) (Image – “Three Alone But Together” – Carmen Guedez)
I often think that only a mother could understand these words fully, but then I must remember than Bonhoeffer was never even married, much less experienced the blessing of his own children. Bonhoeffer, who has been described as an ad hoc phenomenologist, had a unique and penetrating way of speaking about the experiences of the Christian life. While many readers of Bonhoeffer pay attention only to The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together or perhaps a devotional work that cobbles together some of his writings, most never delve deeper into any of his other material. Theological students may read his very short book on the Psalmsor his treatment of Genesis 1-3, or even try to get through his Ethics. Perhaps they will read some of his sermons which are becoming more widely available. But most will never read his earliest works which set the stage for everything that is to come: his doctoral dissertation, published as Sanctorum Communio and his habilitation, published as Act and Being. In those texts Bonhoeffer laid a theological and philosophical foundation for his work that he would never stray from. Thus when we read his later and more well known works that are the favorites in the church, and for our purposes, the words above, we must recognize Bonhoeffer’s deep sensitivity to the social constitution of human life.
I shared Lakies’ article on my Facebook Wall and my friend Guy replied,
Guy Rittger Thought provoking reading, to be sure. Reminded me that it’s time to revisit Bonhoeffer, whose words and actions are no less relevant today than they were in his lifetime. In this respect, I think the article needed a bit of historical contextualization, both of the circumstances under which Bonhoeffer’s ideas developed, as well as of our own circumstances – i.e., the materialist dimension is missing for me, or perhaps not as explicitly articulated as I believe is needed. We can’t overlook how loneliness can emerge when one finds oneself isolated intellectually / spiritually within a dominant ideology fundamentally in conflict with one’s own deepest beliefs and desires. This certainly isn’t new, of course. And perhaps it’s precisely in those / these times that one needs to engage with greater frequency and intensity with those of like mind / spirit.
Guy considers Lakies’ article good but in need of contextualization. He added, “the materialist dimension is missing for me.” Most of us never pause to question any issue of materiality when reading Bonhoeffer. But, Guy picks up on a very important reading of Bonhoeffer that seems to be quite apropos for today.
I thought of Tripp Fuller describing the way Bonhoeffer is read by various theological streams, including Radical Theology. Maybe we should read all of our theologians through other lenses to capture the robust ways they may both influence us and call our givens into question. It could be quite disruptive. But, it could be beautifully zesty too.