The Ideology of Happiness in Psychotherapy

08/04/2011 by

There’s this amazing new group opening up at a place where I work that has this description on the flyer: It is not the problem that causes us to suffer…it is the THINKING about the problems that causes suffering. Change your thinking and experience more happiness and freedom.

Where should I begin? First off, sometimes life’s a bitch. Problems invariably arise that cause suffering and distress. If one were to pretend that there were no problems, that would actually be a sign of mental illness. Secondly, I don’t understand why there’s a collapsing of mental illness and misery. Being unhappy is a normal part of life. Also, major depression is infinitely different than normal anger and sadness. Psychoanalytic theory has never presupposed that humans are happy creatures. After all, it was Freud who brilliantly said that, “much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” Freud was no idealist when it came to human nature. I’m so tired of people believing that psychotherapy is an attempt to make people feel better. Finally, since when did thinking become the problem? This is ideology at its purest. Let’s say you meet someone who has an objectively shitty life. Would it really be most useful to tell the person that s/he needs to think differently? Anyway she views her life, it’s going to be shitty because those are the actual material conditions of life. We come here to the crux of the matter, namely that the problem is the mind not the world. It’s completely meaningless to tell someone that her perception is what is causing her unhappiness when the problem might be the actual material conditions of the world the person inhabits. Now granted, sometimes people’s perceptions are responsible for their problems when the world they live in is not terrible. However, what good does it do to tell a battered partner that the real problem is perception? This is nothing but ideological bullshit. Also, the lesson of psychoanalysis is not that the problem with people is that they are not rational/optimistic enough. Rather, the problem is that they do not know why they do the things they do. Only by becoming more cognizant of the unconscious forces that determine her life can someone be truly liberated to have the freedom to be differently in the world.

Pannenberg – Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Part III)

07/30/2011 by

There is much to discuss in the final two chapters of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology, Volume 1.  Both chapters involve Pannenberg’s account of the Trinitarian identity of the Christian God including the various attributes of God.  In view of the large amount of material needing to be discussed here, I decided to discuss one section I found most interesting; Pannenberg’s position regarding the place of the doctrine of the Trinity within the dogmatic structure.

After a nicely organized historical account of the dogmatic ordering concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, Pannenberg argues that the ordering is determined by a particular view of the unity and distinction within Godself.  As discussed earlier in the chapter, Pannenberg shows that the early Christian Church struggled to develop the unification between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit without losing their distinction.  The doctrine of the Trinity became less emphasized in 17th and 18th century Protestant theology because theologians of this time period struggled to account for the coherence between the unity and differentiation of God’s being as testified in the biblical witness.  Even Protestant dogmaticians who were sympathetic with the idea of the prominent role of the Trinity still believed “that the OT justifies a prior presentation of God as the Supreme Being (Exod. 3:14) and also of his attributes” (281).  Beginning from the Hebrew Bible’s conception of this One Ultimate God encouraged theologians to view the Trinity as a later addition rather than the essential starting point for Christian dogmatics.  It becomes clear (and Pannenberg even admits this) that the construction of the doctrine of God is difficult for any dogmatician given the tension between God’s Triune identity as unified yet distinct.  The most interesting observation Pannenberg makes is when he states that the decision whether to treat the unity or distinction of God first will ultimately be determined by one’s view of metaphysical knowledge.  If the theologian believes that God’s unity can be postulated through the sheer extension of human reason, then unity is necessarily treated first and the distinction between the Father, Son, and Spirit are discussed later since on this view such beliefs arise only through revelation.  Moreover, the statements concerning God’s triunity can only be seen as important if the discussion of God’s unity is not deemed as satisfactory in order to offer a full account of His identity.  Unless the concept of God’s triunity is seen as indispensable, “the Trinitarian statements must seem to be a more or less superfluous and external addition to the doctrine of the one God” (283).

Pannenberg finally divulges his own commitments when he proposes that even the statements about God’s unity are made possible only through revelation: “It is true that Christian talk of Father, Son, and Spirit, and especially Jesus’ addressing of God as Father, must always presuppose a prior understanding of God. This is not, however, the understanding of philosophical theology but that of religion and in particular it is the understanding of the God who revealed himself to Israel as the one God” (299, emphasis added).  All of this is to say that Pannenberg concludes by agreeing with Karl Barth’s ordering of dogmatics and Barth’s recovery of the essential role of the doctrine of the Trinity.  But unlike Barth, Pannenberg prefers to construct the doctrine of the Trinity not from some “formal concept of revelation as self-revelation” but rather through “historical revelation of God as Father, Son, and Spirit” (296).  In Barth’s Trinitarian account of revelation, there is “a subject of revelation, an object, and revelation itself, all of which are one and the same” (296, emphasis added).  Therefore, since Barth sees the subject of revelation as singular, plurality plays no role in terms of the “persons in the one God but only for different modes of being in the one divine subjectivity” (296).  In short, Pannenberg praises Barth’s understanding that God’s unity can not be discussed apart from God’s Triunity, but ultimately Barth “subordinated his doctrine of the Trinity to a pretrinitarian concept of the unity of God and his subjectivity in revelation” thus not allowing Barth to “see what is the function of the doctrine of the essence and attributes of God for the doctrine of the Trinity, namely, that it is only with the question of the essence and attributes of the Trinitarian God that the unity of this God becomes a theme, and we are thus enabled to avoid the confusions which inevitably arise when we try to derive the trinity from the person of the Father or the unity of the divine substance” (299 – phew!).  I would be very interested if anyone had any insights concerning Pannenberg’s criticisms of Barth’s Trinitarian theology along with his own preference for a “historical” account of Trinitarian theology.

Pannenberg – Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Part II)

07/18/2011 by

Pannenberg’s third and fourth chapters of his Systematic Theology (Vol. 1) expand his methodological considerations as he develops his understanding of the truth of God in the experience of religions, before moving on to describe the concept of revelation in the history of theology. I want to offer some points of observation, and continue to some degree Jeremy’s third point.

Pannenberg ostensibly seeks to offer a theology that is at once didactic, coherent and, most characteristically, apologetic; it should be concerned with the truth of Christian doctrine (this is in distinction from someone like Brunner, for example, who holds that systematic theology is not, as such, apologetic in nature). The apologetic aspect is something that I think is not sufficiently emphasized. Not because it is apologetic as such, but the way in which Pannenberg is apologetic. Pannenberg’s apologetic stance is hardly conventional, as he undercuts nearly all apologetic argument as they are traditionally employed.

In the chapters that Jeremy wrote on in the previous post, Pannenberg writes that the traditional arguments for the existence of God do not establish the existence of God with certitude (or even necessarily alter the debate), but that they remain important only as philosophical criteria which make talk of God broadly intelligible (95). Pannenberg also writes that Kant effectively confuted all speculative arguments for the existence of God (90). Is this apologetic?

For Pannenberg, the truth of theology is provisional and unproven. While he has a fairly high opinion of the historicity of the resurrection (more precisely, the ability of one to establish the likelihood of it’s historical occurrence, see his Jesus – God and Man), I don’t understand Clayton’s criticism that Pannenberg suffers from a lack of “epistemic humility.” The veridicality of theology is for Pannenberg, again, provisional and something that will only be determined in the eschaton. Theological truth-claims are not something that can be established in toto, and are as such contestable – in fact, theologians must expect their claims to be criticized. Hence, Pannenberg’s goal of re-establishing theology’s credibility in the university and the wider intellectual debate is central to his project (see his Theology and the Philosphy of Science).

In a related fashion, Pannenberg also dismisses of the virgin-birth as a legendary appendage to the gospel narratives, probably coming from a tradition that post-dated Paul (this, to be sure, is not necessarily unusual). As well, he undercuts the usefulness of the idea of the mythic Adamic fall. Pannenberg’s methodological chapter on the nature of religion, where he overviews the nature of religion in the context of the debate regarding religions reduction to its most universal constituent factors, is again subservient to the section on the question of truth in the concept of religion.

Certainly, Pannenberg’s theology is oriented toward an apologetic stance, but it is not an apologetic stance that can be understood as an uncritical salvaging of the Christian tradition from the exigencies of external criticism. The great strength of Pannenberg’s strong methodological dialogue with the natural sciences (which is more clearly evident in the second volume of this systematic theology than this one), is that Pannenberg allows these other disciplines (e.g. anthropology, cosmology, etc.) to correct his theology quite freely. If a doctrine can no longer be held because it has been rendered meaningless through the insights of another discipline, then Pannenberg happily jettisons it. If  I could, I would describe Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology as ‘a dogmatics without dogma.’

Cone on Liberals

07/14/2011 by

“The liberal is one who sees “both sides” of the issue and shies away from “extremism” in any form. He wants to change the heart of the racist without ceasing to be his friend; he wants progress without conflict…Black people know who the enemy is, and they are forcing the liberal to take sides. But the liberal wants to be a friend, that is, enjoy the rights and and privileges pertaining to whiteness and also work for the “Negro”. He wants change without risk, victory without blood…His favorite question when backed against the wall is “What can I do?” One is tempted to reply, as Malcolm X did to the white girl who asked the same question, “Nothing.” What the liberal really means is, “What can I do and still receive the same privileges as other whites and – this is the key – be liked by the Negroes?” Indeed the only answer is “Nothing.” However, there are places in the Black Power picture for “radicals,” that is, for men, white or black, who are prepared to risk their life for freedom. There are places for the John Browns, men who hate evil and refuse to tolerate it anywhere” (James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, P 27-28)

Pannenberg – Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Part I)

07/13/2011 by

I want to offer couple of brief talking points on CH 1-2.

1) The Source of Theology – Pannenberg offers a history about the source of theology for both Protestant and Catholic dogmatics. Early Protestant dogmatics grounded its theology firmly in the Word of God. Of course, the Enlightenment criticism of the unity of Bible “destroyed the biblical statements by drawing attention to contradictions and antitheses in biblical statements” (26). Pannenberg notes that the accommodation theory (the notion that differences in the Bible can be explained by the idea the Spirit adapts to the language and culture of the Bible’s various authors) replaced the doctrine of inspiration. The doctrine of accommodation exposes the true problem of the doctrine of inspiration, which is that it “handled the divine truth of scripture as the presupposition rather than the goal of theology” (35).

2) Barth and Schleiermacher – For Schleiermacher, theology must be grounded in the subjective experience of the believer. He also presupposes that truth was “always decided already in advance” (42). Unlike the inspirationists, scriptural unity is replaced by the “subjective faith consciousness” (42). Of course, this severs theology from the argumentation for the truths of Christian doctrine because what ultimately matters it the subjectivity of the individual Christian. Although Barth was tirelessly critical of Schleiermacher’s project, Pannenberg believes that Barth again committed the sin of “basing dogmatics on faith as risk if not on faith as experience” (44). Barth intended to base theology on the priority of God’s self revelation, but Pannenberg argues if we want to move beyond this fideism ought we not to “abandon the assumption that the reality of God is a presupposition of dogmatics from the very outset?” (45). Pannenberg goes so far to say that Barth “demonstrates the tragic embarrassment of theology at this point. So long as one thinks that the truth of Christian doctrine must be established in advance of all discussion of its content, and given the demise of both the infallible authority of the church’s teaching office and the older Protestant doctrine of inspiration, there is little choice but to appeal to an act of faith, where as experience or as risk or venture” (47). For me, this is Pannenberg at his best. The later Bonhoeffer comes to mind who likewise criticized for Barth’s ‘positivism of revelation’. Bonhoeffer argues that there are degrees of importance and decisions to be made theologically. We have to discriminate and argue without demanding that all of it must swallowed completely.

3) Truth – Pannenberg outlines his methodology as one that will attempt to argue for the truth of Christian doctrine. The real task is not to assume the truth of Christian doctrine, but rather to “face the contesting of the reality and revelation of God in the world” (50). Pannenberg recognizes that it is simply impossible to do theology without presuppositions. Similarly, he understands that the subjectivity of the theologian also comes into play although it does not determine truth. However, the truth will ultimately be determined by God. He considers that doctrines should be conceived of as “hypotheses” (56). Since God is the source of truth, systematic theology “must be a systematic doctrine of God and nothing else” (59). All different doctrines emerge from and “have their truth in God” (59). Finally, a systematic theology must be critical of previous dogmatics, which area incomplete and open to revision.

Jüngel – God as the Mystery of the World (Part III)

07/05/2011 by

The fourth and fifth sections of Eberhard Jüngel’s God as the Mystery of the World are nothing short of extraordinary.  How does one possibly attempt to summarize almost two hundred pages of brilliantly and meticulously charted argumentation that outlines the positive mystery of the Triune God?  Well, here is my best shot.

In a sense, Jüngel encapsulates his project with this simple sentence: “If God is one who justifies mankind, then that is already a statement about who or what God is” (231).  All speech about God is made possible by and directly flows from the doctrine of justification.  With this affirmation, Jüngel stands in opposition to much of Christian tradition, which confesses that God is ultimately ineffable and incomprehensible.  While Jüngel highlights the various distinctions between theologians such as Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, Aquinas, and John of Damascus, all of these Church fathers maintained a form of apophatic theology.  One gets the impression that despite Jüngel’s charity and even-handedness when discussing and critiquing apophaticism, he seems rather baffled that the tradition could miss the central truth that belief in justification is already a positive statement about God’s identity.  God justifies humanity through the crucified Christ.  Still, the belief that God’s identity can truly be known is not presumptuous.  In order for humanity to speak about the God revealed in Christ, God must already have revealed Himself in history.  Speech about this God who is historically revealed in the crucified Christ then requires thought about God.  But how is this thought possible?  Here Jüngel offers a Barthian theological orientation.  The possibility for humanity to think about God comes exclusively through the continual event of God’s self-revelation.  Despite these confident affirmations, Jüngel states the goal of theology is to “prevent the misuse” of the word God.  The ever-present problem of theology is how true speech about God can occur while still maintaining true speech about God.  Thus, the pertinent question necessarily becomes this: how can one speak about God?

The path to answer this question is quite laborious yet rewarding. Jüngel, despite his Heideggerian prose, feels like an analytic philosopher at times through his scrupulous and dense writing.  As already mentioned, Jüngel disagrees with the apophatic impulse that God is ultimately ineffable and incomprehensible.  But in agreement with these negative thinkers, God is still a mystery.  The question becomes how exactly this mystery is defined.  Jüngel maintains that God is a positive mystery because this mysterious God “wants to be grasped” (250).  But even in God’s desire to be grasped by creatures, God “can not be resolved, uncovered or exposed” since God always reveals Himself precisely as mystery (251). Jüngel retains the mystery of God, but does not travel down the same path as the Enlightenment in allowing this mystery to lead to the concession that God can’t be known.  Moving forward a bit, the only way that God as a positive mystery can be communicated is through analogy.  God cannot be expressed through equivocal speech (ambiguous) since He can be differentiated from creatures yet God also cannot be expressed through univocal speech (unambiguous) since He is differentiated from creatures.  This leads one forward to the use of analogy.  One thing is certain for Jüngel: analogy is essential for any possible “responsible” speech about God because this is the only means by which correspondence occurs between human speech and the reality of God.  So where is this analogy properly located?  In the Gospel.  The Gospel is the human word, which corresponds to the positive divine mystery through the context of an analogia fidei.  The correspondence is located in the person and work of Jesus Christ: “…the mystery of the God who identifies with the man Jesus is the increase of similarity and nearness between God and man which is more than mere identity and which reveals the concrete difference between God and man in its surpassing mere identical being” (288).  In Jesus Christ, the mysterious God radically displays His desire to be known by His creatures as the One who justifies humanity.

The last part of the book offers a christocentric grounding for a Trinitarian exposition of revelation.  God reveals His identity through the crucified Christ as the One who lavishly loves humanity.  The being of God is love.  Because of this reality, the very task of theology is “to think God as love” (315).  Only in safeguarding the reality of God’s being as love will theology “do justice to the being of God which remains so distinctive from the event of human love that ‘God’ does not become a superfluous word” (315).  This love is not a tautology but an event, which unfolds not only in Godself but also between God and humanity.  The statement God is love (1 John 4:8) finds it’s meaning in the person and work of Jesus Christ as true man and true Son of God.  To be clear, God is still mysterious since He remains invisible outside of Jesus Christ.  God’s invisibility maintains His identity as mystery.  But the mystery of God’s invisibility never negates the truth embraced by faith that God has intimately revealed His identity in the justification of humanity through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Since I have already taken up quite a bit of space, I would like to highlight one aspect of Jüngel’s book, which left quite the impression.  In his treatment of analogy, Jüngel makes the provocative claim that the debate between the analogia entis (AE) and the analogia fidei (AF) is not about the Creator/creature distinction.  This is often how the debate is framed and it is an irresponsible misrepresentation of both positions.  Both AE and AF maintain the Creator/creature distinction.  The question becomes how God’s revelation is known or how speech about God is possible once the notion of distinction is already on the table.  Does humanity come to know God and build the bridge (so to speak) in the midst of the distinction from the side of humanity (through an analogy of being) or is correspondence made possible only through the continual and exclusive self-initiation of God?  I don’t know how this understanding of the common ground between AE and AF existing in the Creator/creature distinction is received.  In my experience, most speak about the AE as collapsing the distinction when the analogy of being is upheld while AF always maintains strict separation.  In Jüngel’s formulation, AF offers a radical “identity” between God and humanity in the man Jesus.  I would be interested to hear thoughts or insights regarding the framing of the debate between the AE and the AF in this way.

Jungel – God as the Mystery of the World (Part II)

06/28/2011 by

Eberhard Jüngel’s God as the Mystery of the World is a remarkable book, ranging impressively from constructive appropriations of the theologies of Hegel and Bonhoeffer, particularly their understanding of the incarnation, to theological evaluations of atheism in Nietzsche, Fichte, and Feuerbach, and to masterly and original theological insights on the analogous talk of God (which he carries out adroitly in conversation with Barth), all while trying to avoid a simplistic dichotomy between theism and atheism. Perhaps the only real weakness in the book is that it’s missing a discussion with, or even mention of, Altizer, given that so much of its contents centre around discussing the meaning of the death of God. Jungel also represents one the finest example of constructively building of Bonhoeffer’s theology in the Barthian tradition, which seems to some degree to have ignored some of Bonhoeffer’s more radical insights (although I realize there are somewhat different schools of thought regarding how one should interpret Bonhoeffer’s corpus, particularly his famous Letters).

Although this is becoming something of a platitude in prefaces to my posts, I would like to note that this book is peculiarly difficult to summarize, although, to be fair, this is probably due as much to my poor skills of summarization as it does with Jüngel’s distaste for succinctness. As an example of Jüngel’s work, I want to isolate a small section where he discusses Nietzsche and Paul together on his chapter of the unity of perishability and God.

Jüngel speaks of this antithesis between the metaphysical conception of God, which cannot think God as anything other than totally apathetic and immutable and cannot, consequently, think of God as crucified. Paul’s understanding of God, Nietzsche astutely realized, was not a continuation or a mere revision of the God concept understood thusly. It was its complete negation, deus, qualem Paulis, creavit, dei negation (205).  The “God” who Paul creates as the crucified one, the God who is the sole source of discussion in the apostolic literature, is a God who confounds the wisdom of the world. As Jungel writes, “For Paul, the Crucified One is weak, subject to death” (206).  This thinking of God as weak – of linking perishability with God – was not a source of sorrow for Paul. On the contrary, this is the centre of the gospel, the source of joy and rejoicing. Jungel notes that, for Paul, there is one phenomenon that does not see a contradiction between power and weakness: love. (One could, consequently, read God as the Mystery of the World as a commentary on the statement “Deus caritas est” from John’s Epistle). “It is the unity of power and weakness, and such is certainly the most radical opposite of the will to power which cannot affirm weakness. Pauline ‘theology of the cross’ (theologia crucis) is, accordingly, the most stringent rejection of all deification of self-willing power” (206). For Nietzsche, even if this God was true he could not believe in him (ibid).

This robust logic understanding of the incarnation, the logic of which Jüngel outlines with the help of Nietzsche, Paul et al, is for me the most impressive part of Jüngel’s work. Jüngel has no fear of exploring the consequences of the death of God. Few are the theologians who truly pursue the logic of the incarnation to its end.

Jungel – God as the Mystery of the World (Part I)

06/19/2011 by

I’m going to offer some reflections on Jungel’s brilliant God as the Mystery of the World Sections 1-10.

1) The nonnecessity of God – Jungel’s work is an attempt to respond to questions Bonhoeffer raises in Letters and Papers. God is no longer a necessary working hypothesis. Furthermore, Jungel claims that arguments that attempt to prove God are the “midwife of modern atheism” (19). A God of necessity is always construed to be Lord and believed to be a God defined by power. This necessary omnipotent God always has to make room for His love, which is secondary to power. To move beyond this necessary God, Jungel wants to argue for a God who “is more than necessary” (25). God’s desire to come “to himself with out man” (38) is more than necessary. Following Barth, Jungel argues that God comes from God and we only know God through God’s self-revelation. From this perspective of revelation, God is groundless, unconditioned, and more the necessary. Finally, as a good Lutheran, Jungel declares that we “can speak of no other God than the ‘incarnate God’ and the ‘human God’” (37). This christological perspective has not informed God-talk in modernity because theology has been under “the dictatorship of metaphysics” (39).

2) Methodology –  Jungel charges Pannenberg for  beginning his theology with “the “claim to intellectual veracity” is better dealt with by assuming from the anthropological relevance of talk about God is first demonstrated ‘apart from God’” (17). For Jungel, this concedes too much and sets the ground for atheism. This probably explains why Pannenberg opens up his systematics by beginning a study of the history of religion and makes history such an important aspect of his theory of revelation.

3) Death of God – Jungel self-consciously takes a non-apologetic approach when discussing the death of God. He is not trying to rescue theology from such challenges, rather he states “[t]heology is either interesting on its own, or not at all” (45). Historically, Jungel recognizes that the question “Where is God?” is implicitly a question of theodicy. In my opinion, this is precisely what radical theology tried to address when Altizer et al. raised the question about the death of God. Is it still possible to speak about the goodness of God after shoah?

4) Bonhoeffer – Jungel gives credit to Bonhoeffer who opened up the path to begin engaging the question of the death of God, perhaps best exemplified by his provocative statement to live in the world “even if there were no God” (59). What is key for Jungel is that Bonhoeffer grounds this discussion christologically. The God on the cross of Christ is revealed to be a weak and suffering God. God does allow Godself to be pushed out of the world on the cross.

5) Hegel – The first philosopher to integrate the death of God into his metaphysical system was the Lutheran Hegel. Although Hegel discusses a speculative good Friday, this is never detached from its christological basis. For Hegel, the idea that “God himself is dead” is based on the understanding that God finitized Godself, as the self-negation of God. This God “does not desire to be “in and for himself” and does not desire to forsake the world in its finitude” (74). Against the docetic tendencies of the church fathers, Hegel boldly claims that “it was not the man who dies, but the divine; that is how he became man” (77). In Hegel’s theology, the incarnation is “immediately related to the death of Jesus Christ” (77). Ultimately, Jungel wants us to recognize that Hegel’s understanding of the death of God is christologically driven and is strongly related to the atheism of modernity.

In the next sections Jungel engages the question of atheism and God in modernity by evaluating the philosophy and theology of Descartes, Fichte, Kant Feuerbach, and Nietzsche. However, I don’t have time to analyze Jungel’s discussion of these great philosophers.

Bonhoeffer – Ethics (Part II)

06/16/2011 by

Let’s face it: Bonhoeffer’s Ethics is quite foreign for the first-time reader, especially for one who studied philosophy and ethics as an undergraduate.  As Adam noted last week, the first sentence of the book overturns the traditional ethical paradigm by disregarding the concern with the possible prior to the actual.  By the time the reader turns to the second page, Bonhoeffer has already asserted that one can only ask the ethical question by coming to terms with the actual; this would be the ultimate reality located in God Himself as the world’s Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer.

The latter half of Bonhoeffer’s magnum opus contains a plethora of life-altering statements and insights into the reality of God and how this defines humanity.  As such, I am unable to offer any type of satisfactory account of this work in one short blog post.  I decided, therefore, to probe a bit deeper into this work beyond offering a description of Ethics.

One might be tempted to read Bonhoeffer’s radical ethical reorientation and assume that these thoughts were simply occasional.  I am not trying to argue that Bonhoeffer’s writings in Ethics can be taken out of his historical context.  But I also want to suggest that his ethics are not detached from his broader theological commitments.  In short, Bonhoeffer’s Ethics stems directly from his christology and soteriology.  It is only because of Bonhoeffer’s views concerning Jesus Christ and salvation that he can proceed to offer his particular ethical framework.

Let me explain.  As I made my way through Ethics, I found this one particular line to be rather intriguing.  After dismissing the possibility of humanity possessing the ability to discern absolute good or absolute evil, Bonhoeffer boldly declares that such inability “throws the freedom of those who act responsibly into the sharpest relief: it is freedom from servitude even to an ‘absolute good'” (222).  In short, it is the freedom of the Christian that makes such absolutes unnecessary.  This very freedom from absolute standards of good and evil is dependent upon Bonhoeffer’s belief that “human beings cannot justify themselves by doing good since it is God alone who does the good.  The power of the divine guidance of history leaves human beings dependent upon God’s grace” (227).  Since humanity can do nothing to save itself, all are redeemed by the unmitigated grace of God.  The notion that one must (and can) possess absolute certainty that they are carrying out an absolute good action against an absolute evil negates any commitment to sola gratia.  Therefore, the Christian reality of freedom thrusts one upon a level of ambiguity when discerning the ethical task, for only in God’s action is there certainty of good.

At this point, it is necessary to discuss Bonhoeffer’s christology.  Bonhoeffer’s entire posture toward the theological task is one of complete humility, dependence, and ultimately freedom.  He writes over and over again that there is nothing inherent in humanity that is valuable, worthy, or good.  God did not choose to love humanity in Christ because humanity possessed intrinsic worth.  Rather, humanity is valuable because God took the “No” of judgment upon Himself in Jesus Christ.  By doing so, God reconciled us to the world.  As a side note: I found it fascinating that Bonhoeffer puts the love of God before His judgment.  If the undeserved “Yes” did not precede the justified “No”, there would be no incarnation and no reconciliation through the Son.  In this way, Bonhoeffer presents the best that the Reformers had to offer.   To repeat what I’ve said thus far: the belief that humanity is justified solely by God’s grace offers genuine freedom for the Christian from the bondage of ethical absolutes.  But such freedom brings ambiguity.  So how is the Christian to proceed?  Well, the only way to discern the ethical is through the concrete historical standard found within the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In this way, Jesus Christ not only makes the doctrine of sola gratia possible, but He also provides the very possibility for discerning good and evil within the world.  One must start with the actual reality found within Jesus Christ in order to find any hope for ethical decisions in life.  But there is one small caveat: such christocentrism still doesn’t provide certainty.  Humility always remains for Bonhoeffer since the Christian makes all ethical decisions through a risk of faith.  This is the only way that one can ensure their dependence upon the grace of God.

Cone Interview

06/09/2011 by

Check it out.