Punk Jesus: Hesert’s Christ and the End of Meaning

 

[H]appy is the man who does not lose faith in me.”  -Matthew 11.6

The shock of death lies in that life ends before meaning is fulfilled.

– Paul Hesert


I found Paul Hesert’s book challenging. Often I could not tell if the concepts themselves were disorientating or if Hesert was overstating his case with a kind of Kierkegaardian starkness. There is something that calls to me here, but I’m not always sure how to put that in language. What follows is my attempt to make sense (am I already implicated?) of this text. The image that came to mind (Hesert doesn’t use it) was of an iconoclastic Jesus (in punk-rock garb, of course), or as a surreal artist deliberately challenging the sensibilities and securities of the comfortable world.

What if the message of Jesus was more destructive of the status quo than we realize? What if the kingdom really was the in-breaking of a completely different world, not a fulfillment of this one? These are themes in Hesert’s nearly forgotten work, Christ and the End of Meaning. He thinks our Jesus is too tame. We need a Punk Jesus. Let’s start with some basic concepts.

(1) Rationality, which includes our myths and images, is employed to “make sense” of life. Something is deemed meaningful if it produces a particular outcome or goal.

(2) Meaning, therefore, is always orientated toward the future, toward both power and possibility.

(3) Christ crucified is a hammer to all forms of cultural accepted meaning rather than a validation of them. Validation takes two basic forms:

(3a) ‘signs and miracles’: the attempt to make God serve our purposes or looking for historical change

(3b) ‘wisdom’: grasping God in the realm of ideas, making God an ideal.

When we claim that Christianity is meaningful to the culture, what we often find is that we have allowed the message of Jesus to reinforce our cultural givens. Our theology ends up supporting our tribal beliefs or perhaps, more dangerously, the things that even most tribes seem to agree upon. The God that confronts us, however, is more than just a projection of culture, more dangerous and wild.

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Hesert ranges over several doctrines but let’s take the doctrine of the idea of the sinfulness of humankind in the Christian tradition as a case study. Hesert says that ‘sin’ is a faith category, not a moral one. Understanding sin as a moral word makes God the guarantor of of the innocent/guilty distinction. This is a God who asks us to lose our life. Losing your life (meaning) is refusing to put yourself in terms of meaning. “Faith is not a resource to make one’s life in the meaningful world easier, more efficient, or even happier…to follow Jesus is to lose that world and base one’s life on the Gospel.

“Because life is meaningful when the guilty are identified and receive what is coming to them, … the most poignant challenge to meaning is the suffering of the innocent. The corollary of this is that within the structure of meaning, suffering is the greatest challenge to innocence … We are relieved to learn an allegedly innocent sufferer is really not so innocent after all.”

In the Garden myth the culture doesn’t hear the conditions of life but an “angry parent” and it creates the conviction that other people are why we can’t have nice things. We must determine guilt so that the rest of us are free of blame and safe from harm. Even common ideas of mercy can participate in this false view of sin. Mercy becomes either unseen factors mitigating guilt (so-called extenuating circumstances), the opportunity for another chance since you had your heart in the right place, or some type of universal tolerance (we are all not so bad). In all these, the truth of universal guilt is obscured. Sin is simply what the culture determines as wrong rather than the infinite debt owed to God that breaks the ledger. Sin, culturally defined,

 “…reinforces the sense of the present as deficient and even polluted. Extending far beyond specific instances, it creates an inexplicable ambiance of unease and a pervasive though vague sense of responsibility.”

The alternative is to lose our sense of righteousness altogether in repentance, which is a surrender of our systems of innocence and guilt. “One repents not so much of “sins” in the sense of those acts society condemns, but of sin as the cultural orientation to meaning. In place of meaning found by condemnation, there is forgiveness.” Sin is the whole structure of law, guilt, and condemnation in relation to the righteousness of God. Sin’s power, according to Paul, is the law as a system of meaning whereas Christ reveals a righteousness apart from the law. We begin anew with a recognition of our solidarity in baptism, or else we harden our heart.

I’m reminded here of one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters where he says that he had written The Cost of Discipleship at a different stage in his life and how he had now learned to stop trying to make something out of himself, whether sinner or saint. Making something of yourself leads to the creation of an order where you and everyone else believe that they know where they stand.

Coveting is a crucial form of sin because it is the key to the quest for power and meaning … the driving concern for status, for self-significance … to reject that quality of human worth comes only through faith … Paul’s general premise is that the righteousness of God finds definitive expression not in the law and judgment (that is, the structure of meaning), but in Passion, the undergoing or enduring of Christ.

Thus the death of Christ, and our crucifixion with him in baptism, is to be present to and willingly identify with the guilty. Our part in the whole, according to Hesert, is not as fraction but as representative.

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Bonhoeffer’s Christology

This past September the 2016 Dubose lectures at Sewanee were given by Rowan Williams on the subject of Bonhoeffer’s Christology, with a view to his ethics and politics. I was thrilled to be able to attend in person since the venue was only a couple of hours from my home in northern Georgia. Thankfully, the School of Theology released the videos of the lectures (Lecture 1, Lecture 2, Lecture 3) a few weeks ago. *Update: The question and answer sessions have been posted now as well*  Sewanee is an absolutely beautiful and welcoming campus, by the way. If you are ever nearby, don’t miss the opportunity to visit. The following is a summary of the three lectures.

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Rowan signing a book for the fanboy.

Rowan began the first lecture with a history of German Protestant Christological perspectives leading up to Bonhoeffer’s time. Most notably, some Lutheran Christology put a radical edge on a persistent Christological issue, that of assuming a false spatial problem and then attempting to solve it. The Lutheran Kryptics, and Thomasius, a Bavarian Lutheran in the 1800s, in particular, essentially looked at this problem in terms of how much divine stuff you can squeeze into the finite and then asked what might need to be trimmed. Interestingly, when I was a theology student, this was the very issue I chose for my graduating thesis. I was interacting with Hicks’ (et al) The Myth of God Incarnate (1977) and found an awful lot of Lutheran krypsis/kenotic ideas like this out there as late as the 1980s. My thesis followed this path, arguing about what is essential to Godhood and what is non-essential (can be trimmed). However, all this is really unnecessary. For Rowan, The persistent problem in the history of Christology of seeing the two natures as competing for space becomes acute [in this view]…It leads to the unpalatable conclusion that the Incarnation is simply a matter of divine agency operating directly in the world by being transformed into a worldly agent, rather than divine agency being embodied in the genuinely finite, created agency of a human subject.

Rowan briefly discusses Karl Barth’s appropriation of the Reformation tradition. He leaves it open as to what the Barth of CD IV would say, but thinks that there is a good chance that Bonhoeffer’s lectures and writings may have had an influence on him. In particular, Barth’s statement,“The omni-causality of God should not be understood as his sole causality”, represents a change from his previous emphasis. After this historical excursus, Rowan continues by explaining how Bonhoeffer combined the two great Reformation questions, Luther’s “Can I trust God?” and Calvin’s “Is God free from our anxiety?”, into “Is God a God we need to placate or, alternatively, a God we can manipulate?” This is the ultimate heritage of the Reformation that he received. What was new in Bonhoeffer was his starting point.

In the second lecture, Rowan shows how beginning with Christ “for us” forms Bonhoeffer’s unique contribution to Christology. What does this entail? First, it means an encounter with Christ is much like running into a brick wall. Humanity seeks the death of the divine logos because we cannot bear to be told we are limited, to come up against our limit. The encounter with Jesus means that we either must die or we must kill Jesus. Bonhoeffer’s “for us”, here, means something like “for our good”.

Bonhoeffer employs some Kierkegaardian tropes**, particularly those from Fragments and Training. Sin/untruth is our state, yet there is a hunger in human reason to encounter what it cannot conquer. The only way we can recognize that God in Jesus is “for us” is for him to come to us in hiddenness and non-coercion, in abandonment of proof, force, or external confirmation. The definition of ‘sinlessness’ means a life lived in full transparency with no defended territory. Bonhoeffer connects this to Luther’s pro nobis and pro me. This is not an individualist idea, but a recognition of my own being as untruth. My logos cannot live. I must recognize my limit through recognizing that I live in relationship.
Second, as we grow spiritually, we find that we should be “for others” too as the central feature of Christ-like-ness. Bonhoeffer famously characterized the church as “Christ existing as community”. We must “be there” on behalf of humankind, history, and nature

Bonhoeffer declares in several places that Christ is the center of all reality. The existence of this center, however, isn’t a matter of theoretical demonstration–comparing Christ to a system among systems. The church, rather, is the condition of the legitimate state as an achievement of human self-organization, without the centrality of church requiring or desiring some visible position within the realm of the state. We point to the ultimate order of God, an order of sociality. A body of people living in and from the truthfulness and lawfulness of God is absolutely necessary for the health of any political order. This is one form of the affirmation of human limits; the state isn’t everything.

The final lecture moves into ethics and politics. Here Rowan focuses on Bonhoeffer’s discussion of the “mandates”, or overlapping spheres of earthly life, that ordinarily should point beyond themselves as they are grounded in God’s own Trinitarian life and order. Mandates provide a structure that will eventually appear as the structure of Christ’s own life, the first beginnings of Christ-like-ness. The Christological transformation of human agency is to allow it to move more freely toward its goal, but it has got to be human solidarity itself which points to it.

 

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All Saint’s Chapel at The University of the South, Sewanee

 

In this third lecture, there is a discussion of the ultima ratio (extreme case, last resort). This preoccupied Bonhoeffer due to the break down of these structures so that they no longer moved toward their ultimate goal of the divine will. In Nazi Germany the state set itself above the mandates of family, culture, and economics. Most of our history is that of prosaically living under mandate. Ethics is ordinarily boring, says Rowan. Steady scrutiny of ordinary habits of the social order, watching for imbalances, such as state over family or economy over culture, as we live out a life of representation and responsibility for others is our ethical task. But what happens when one mandate (state, culture, family) claims the right to override the others? It leaves us stranded. It produces a life or death choice as we discover an unwelcome freedom. This freedom has a radical character. It involves (1) the possibility of breaking the law to save the law, (2) the fact that this breaking can never become a new law that tells you that you are right, (3) and the acceptance of guilt (of either passivity or activity) as inevitable. You must accept the risk (tragic element) in trust. This is not a form of “situation ethics” says Rowan. It isn’t a suspension of the rules. Each case is unique, and you must accept the consequences. Only faithfully living our lives in ordinary times can prepare us for this.

We are responsible to work, share, provide for others in our lives so that they can, in turn, be responsible. To return to Christology proper, for Bonhoeffer, Christ has no identity apart from his solidarity with us. Christ wins no merit (Calvin) except what he wins for others is the medieval way of putting this. Christology means the commitment to the world in its untruth without self-justification. “Watching with Christ in Gethsemane” is the link between Christology, ethics, and politics.

**In the question and answer sessions, RW points out that both Bonhoeffer and one of his own favorite thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, both read a great deal of Kierkegaard.

For some of Williams’ previous reflections on Bonhoeffer, see his sermon in Berlin Feb. 5, 2006.