The Art of Surpassing Civilization: Heschel and the Sabbath

A pious man once took a stroll in his vineyard on the Sabbath. He saw a breach in the fence, and then determined to mend it when the Sabbath would be over. At the expiration of the Sabbath he decided: since the thought of repairing the fence occurred to me on the Sabbath I shall never repair it. –Abraham Joshua Heschel

I grew up in a Christian tradition where such a story would be offered as Exhibit A of something called “Jewish legalism”. The interpretation was partly due to the debates Jesus had with the Pharisees of his time as recorded in the New Testament, but the particular coloring given to these exchanges was probably more influenced by Luther’s quarrel with the medieval Roman Catholic church than anything else. In it’s most extreme forms, Jesus comes across as calling the Jews to a “personal relationship” with himself, and Paul is made out to be the first Protestant Reformer. Paul, incidentally, continued to call himself a Pharisee (Acts 23.6) long after his conversion.


Since modern Judaism is a descendant of the Pharisaic tradition (with some major shifts, of course), it is probably important for both Christian theological identity and interfaith dialogue to have an accurate picture of Jesus, Paul, and their Second Temple Jewish context. Various alternatives have been suggested in recent memory beginning with E.P. Sander’s book Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). But another route we can take is to leave the discussions about the first century to the biblical scholars and focus on contemporary Jewish thinkers for how they might inform our theology. The context in which someone is speaking has as much bearing on the truth as the actual words spoken. Here are some selections from the same chapter in Heschel’s book The Sabbath:

The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?

In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity.  (Heschel, pp. 27-32)

Now go back and read the initial quote. The pious man who refuses to repair a fence has been transformed from a legalist to a revolutionary.


The Multitude by Hannah Notess [Review]

51kNzl4ZLDL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Multitude is a collection of accessible free-verse poems. It is the third published work of the author who has connections to Image Journal and Seattle Pacific’s Response. She has worked primarily as an editor. The influence of the multitude of memories on the present loosely form the theme of the collection as a whole. Throughout, the haunting of the present with the past is frequently achieved by juxtaposing images from different time periods. In “The Virgin in the City”, Mary shows up in a variety of urban settings from a bus, to a shipping dock, to a classroom.  In another poem, the poet notices a leggy girl playing Mario Kart, sitting in the Botticelli room of the Uffizi Art Gallery. She is completely absorbed and seemingly unaware of where she is – like most of us. At times the poet is more daring with the imagery, revealing, and even reveling in, some of her boyish interests. There are repeated references, for example, to early video games.  Saint Augustine, wanders around in a giant Pac-Man maze, pursued by “heresies and ghosts of heresies.” In “Endor (Disambiguation)” the Stars Wars planet sits next to references to Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the ancient Canaanite town, all known by the same name. Drawing inspiration from the repetition of the name in all three places, nerdy details comingle with the profound. “Maybe our universe has a finite number of times you can summon the dead so we’ve begun to repeat ourselves.”

Being a student of chess, one of my favorite poems from the collection is a relatively simple poem entitled “Chess By Mail”, occasioned by entering the library of an older friend or family member who has passed. The old chess set sitting high on a book shelf brings recalls aerograms and index cards, a life now gone. The queen becomes a metaphor for possibilities that aren’t open to us. “I am not the queen, I do not move any direction, but West, but forward in time”, recalling Kierkegaard’s dictum that life “can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” In a clever turn at the end of the poem, the one living makes a move. “Pawn to queen four”.  Pawns are notorious for their lack of ability to move backward. Solidarity with the past is also encapsulated in her choice to use the older descriptive, rather than algebraic, notation for the move.

If I am reading her correctly, Hannah Notess appears to no longer live in the same evangelical/fundamentalist Protestant world she grew up in, but like many of us, she continues to feel its impact. Early formation in a subculture often continues to frame our responses even when we feel furthest from their control. In a previous collection of essays,  Jesus Girls: Growing Up Evangelical, she specifically took issue with the “lost-then-saved” paradigm. What happens when your life and the lives of others don’t fit into a before-and-after, when circumstances have changed your vision to the point that you are wondering what you still believe? References in this collection to “souls I was supposed to save”,  and “the gawky white giant in the photograph of smiling brown orphans” make a brief appearance and continue that argument with her background.

In particular, the Evangelical tendency to want to save the world is tempered by the fact that the world thoroughly resists comprehension. Often those most convinced of the need for salvation become part of the problem creating a model of the world too easily divided into two halves, light and darkness. In the poem “To the Church Across the Bridge Who is Claiming the City for God”, the theme is the split between humanity that is occasioned by that kind of theological outlook. References to “tracts” and “the gulf between Man and God” recall particular oversimplifications of the gospel as the author was growing up. But the poet finds this incommensurable with her own broadened sympathies for the sorrows of humankind. She confides, “So, when your judgment day unspools like ticker tape from downtown windows, and all the screens go blank, I won’t show up to cheer.”

Another problem with saving the world is our own feeble and shallow tendency to notice only certain things that seem important to us at the moment, not unlike the girl playing a handheld video game in a famous art gallery. The author turns the table on herself in the poem “To My Former Self in Art Class”. Preoccupied with a piece of art that at the moment seemed to signify a loss of faith (“but look, there you are, sitting in church five years in the future”) she misses all the signs of the silent boy painting an apple gold and grey next to her who will become a suicide.  Such a limited, single-point, perspective cannot be overcome.

There are a number of repeated sub-themes. One of these is the randomness of events.  Notess is a Christian writer sensitive to the tragic tenor of life. A number of seminary buildings burn to the ground.  A girl who received complaints by the poet dies in a moment of misjudgment while flying a small plane a few months later. She emphasizes the connections we have to those who have died and we how we often feel like we’ve somehow cheated. “To the stupid angel of death, I want to say, you missed me again. Watch me disappear into the train depot, into the past…” These straightforwardly tragic events are only part of the story being told in the poetry.  Many of the poems could be read as exploring other aspects of tragedy such as guilt, boredom, meaninglessness, finitude. Notess sees no special protection or grand redemption from any of this on the horizon. In the poem “The Rain Falls on the Just and the Unjust” we meet a catalog of places where the rain falls, essentially everywhere. “On the city where everyone tells you it always rains and on the city where it never rains, ever, except for right now.” If redemption exists, it permeates the everyday by “sounding out syllables with jittery students” rather than triumphantly overcoming the darkness.

One could criticize Notess as offering an “awakening” paradigm in the place of the perspectives she has withdrawn from, but this doesn’t seem to be her purpose, and besides, these are real ghosts that haunt a good many people of faith today.  Instead, I found her musings sensitive to our time and earth-bound existence. Her poetry eschews sentimentalism but not hope and thankfulness. In many ways her preoccupation with the questions her upbringing didn’t answer satisfactorily invites you to wonder with her about how to put a life together in light of the places and people that have formed our souls. “Parts of them are still waiting for you.”


A version of this review was originally published by the Englewood Review of Books in June 2016.

Webster’s Neo-Barthian View of Scripture

According to historic Christianity, Scripture is one of the ways God reveals God’s-self. But precisely how that occurs has been the subject of a good deal of discussion. There are many fundamental questions to be answered. Which doctrine does scripture belong under? Ecclesiology or Trinity? Is Scripture best seen (from a Christian viewpoint) as a continual dialogue81ozvta3drl akin to Jewish Midrash or does it communicate timeless truths? Is all Scripture equally inspired? Is there a canon within the canon?

The late John Webster presupposed a neo-Barthian picture of Holy Scripture. Like Barth, he asserted that only Jesus is the total self-revelation of God, i.e. the “Word of God” proper. Scripture is, or becomes, the Word of God as it points to Jesus, the Word made flesh. For Webster, Scripture is a part of the created order, and, as such, has need to be sanctified like all of creation. According to him, “it has to be asserted that no divine nature or properties are to be predicated of Scripture.”

Webster argues that if we say that the Bible belongs under ecclesiology, then it only says what the church says. It cannot address the church or call the church in any meaningful way. However, it does not follow that it speaks to us from above as the direct and unmediated voice of God. Webster’s dogmatic innovation is the use of the term ‘sanctification’ to describe the relationship. He also utilizes the terminology “means of grace” and  “testimony’ to the same effect:

“The very genre of ‘testimony’ – as language which attests a reality other than itself – is especially fitting for depicting how a creaturely entity may undertake a function in the divine economy, without resort to concepts which threaten to divinize the text, since – like prophecy or apostolic witness – testimony is not about itself but is a reference beyond itself.”

The church, as a result, has to listen, revere, and submit, but this view also qualifies scripture as an appointed servant and witness, a creature which cannot, ultimately, be divinized. It is God’s voice as it has been heard and repeated by people, not a mediation or repetition of God’s voice.

God continues to sanctify the Bible through the reading and discussion of the text within the Church. In this way, Webster connects sanctification to the process of dialogue. At least this is how I understand him.

“In sum: the biblical text is Scripture; its being is defined, not simply by its membership of the class of texts, but by the fact that it is this text – sanctified, that is, Spirit-generated and preserved – in this field of action – the communicative economy of God’s merciful friendship with his lost creatures.

Sanctification is not to be restricted to the text as finished product; it may legitimately be extended to the larger field of agents and actions of which the text is part.”   – Holy Scripture: A dogmatic sketch p.29

Will Campbell on a Theological Implication of the Tragic

Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation. The glow of malt which we were well into by then seemed to illuminate and intensify it. I walked across the room and opened the blind, staring directly into the glare of the street light. And I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed by laughter.

–Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly

If you are not an Episcopalian or a historian of the Civil Rights movement, then the name Jonathan Daniels might not mean much to you. Daniels was a young, white seminarian who was involved directly in the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s. He was murdered soon after being released from spending six days in jail over a protest. His death is rightly commemorated annually by the church as a martyrdom. He was killed by a shotgun blast fired by Thomas Coleman, a county engineer, who obviously perceived Jonathan and his group to be a threat to Lowndes county’s way of life. You can read and listen to more about his story here.

escru_jd_children3I just finished reading Will Campbell’s autobiography and elegy to his brother, Joe. Campbell was born and raised in Mississippi prior to the Civil Rights movement. The book tells a number of stories that lead up to his own involvement, as a Southern Baptist pastor, in that movement. The revelation above comes toward the end of the book when he is talking with his brother and the witty gadfly, P.D. East. East, a lapsed Methodist who calls the church “The Easter Chicken” (who now just looks like one more chicken in the world; but that’s another story), confronts Campbell with some tough questions. The two had a back-and-forth relationship. Previously, Campbell had written many times in response to his mostly satirical paper to “set him straight on one theological point or another.” In this face-to-face conversation, P.D. asks Campbell for a definition of the Christian Faith in just ten words or less.

“Okay. If you would tell me what the hell the Christian Faith is all about maybe I wouldn’t make an ass of myself when I’m talking about it….”

I said, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” He swung his car off on the shoulder and stopped, asking me to say it again. I repeated: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” He didn’t comment on what he thought about the summary except to say, after he had counted on his fingers, “I gave you a ten word limit. If you want to try again you have two words left.” I didn’t try again but he often reminded me of what I said that day…

“Was Jonathan a bastard?”

I said I was sure that everyone is a sinner in one way or another but that he was one of the sweetest and most gentle guys I had ever known.

“But was he a bastard?” His tone was almost a scream. “Now that’s your word. Not mine.”….


“All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?”

That one was a lot easier…

P.D. …, pull[ed] his chair closer to mine, placing his huge, bony hand on my knee. “Which one of these two bastards you think God loves the most?”

For Will Campbell, this was the moment the implications of his definition came crashing in on him, turning his thinking inside out.

I was laughing for myself, at twenty years of a ministry which had become, without my realizing it, a ministry of liberal sophistication. An attempted negation of Jesus, of human engineering, of riding the coattails of Caesar, of playing on his ballpark, by his rules and with his ball, of looking to government to make and verify and authenticate our morality, of worshipping at the shrine of enlightenment and academia, of making an idol of the Supreme Court, a theology of law and order and of denying the only Faith I professed to hold but my history and my people—the Thomas Colemans. Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled…

George Wallace frees him to go and kill again. The other liberates him to obedience to Christ. Acquittal by law is the act of Caesar. Render unto him what is his….Acquittal by resurrection takes us back to our little definition of Faith. And takes us into a freedom where it would never occur to us to kill somebody.

The truth is, law is not restraining them. If law is for the purpose of preventing crime every wail of a siren calls out its failure. Every civil rights demonstration attest to the courts’ inability to provide racial justice. Every police chief who asks for a larger appropriation because of the rising crime rate is admitting his own failure. Every time a law has to be enforced it is a failure….

[F]rom that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides. And I had taken sides. Many of us who were interested in racial justice had taken sides and there were good reasons in history for doing what we did…

Because we did not understand the nature of tragedy we learned the latest woolhat jokes, learned to cuss Mississippi and Alabama sheriffs, learned to say “redneck” with the same venomous tones we had heard others, or ourselves, say “nigger.” We did not understand that those we so vulgarly called “redneck” were a part of the tragedy.

Brother to a Dragonfly pp. 218-227

The Priority of Theology in Moltmann

The idea that the world will end with God’s final judgement is not originally a Christian concept, and not even a biblical one. Israel took over Babylon, and later Egyptian, ideas about justice in its own independent way, and reshaped them in the power of its belief in God.”–Jurgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness: The Gospel about Judgment and the New Creation of All Things in Sun of Righteousness, Arise!: God’s Future for Humanity of the Earth

Moltmann goes on to describe “The Day of the Lord” at the end of history as having two aspects in scripture —judgment of the past and bringing to light the new creation. In Egyptian thought about the afterlife “the human being is the sum of his good and evil anubisworks.” The weighing of these individual deeds, the weight of the heart, is the central feature of the justice which ends in a movement toward one of two possible destinations. The creative justice of God that takes into account not only deeds but sufferings and a concept of the judgment of God as the life-giving ‘putting right’ of what has gone wrong, does not appear in this scheme.

Moltmann is critical of this perspective and spends a good deal of time pointing out its flaws when looked at through the life and teachings of Jesus especially.  Judgment exists, but the image of a criminal court is replaced with an arbitration. Victims and victimizers must be brought together; they need each other for truth to reign. Furthermore, there is an emphasis on the communal, even cosmic, spheres. Moltmann, as most know, is an unapologetic universalist. Death and hell will be destroyed (I Cor. 15.26) . God will be universally glorified and every created thing will share in this eternal livingness.

What interests me the most in this chapter, and elsewhere in his writings, is that Moltmann does not try to deny, by ignoring or reinterpreting, that there are texts in the biblical canon that teach something closer to the Egyptian view—the dividing of humanity into friend and enemy, believer and unbeliever. Instead, he uses this fact to put forward the priority of theology over particular texts in the conclusion of the same chapter:

I recognize that Matthew, the Synoptic Little Apocalypse [Matt 24-25; Mark 13], and the book of Revelation talk about an anthropological dualism rather than about a theocentric universalism. For me, the casting vote was given by the Old Testament concept of divine justice for victims and the all-rectifying judgment of God. The different biblical traditions about judgment cannot be harmonized. A decision has to made on the foundation of theological arguments.”

Is God a French, Hippie, Karate Master?

After listening to an interview with Richard Rohr on the Deconstructionists podcast, it got me thinking about the idea of a “vulnerable” God, and I decided to revisit a recent discussion of various definitions of deity found in Eric Hall’s recent (November 2016 Fortress Press) book cheekily entitled God: Everything You Need to Know About the Almighty. Hall, a professor of theology and philosophy at Carroll College in Montana, wrote his book primarily for a younger podcast audience as it belongs to the Homebrewed Christianity series. I think his examination of the options and his peculiar way of imagining the issues is enlightening. He uses some clever and humorous images to draw out the parameters of the discussion. In summary, here are the key ones.

Karate Master—Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid is the  representative image of the stable god of Classical Theism. This God, like Miyagi is not easily provoked or moved, but don’t start messing with him. However, God’s power is also in line with his character. This power, character, and order underlies all existence since God is the Creator. As a philosophical explanation, Miyagi seems unavoidable as an explanation and ground of all that is, but, in Hall’s appraisal, he appears to lack the theology of the cross, the vulnerability, that is distinctive to Christianity. The creation has a certain autonomy to go its own way, but the relationship (in the familiar meaning of the word) between God and creation is a bit hard to understand. This is the basic conception of God that you can find among many Jews, Muslims, and Christians prior to the late middle ages.

Hippie—imagine having a fun-loving, Tai Chi practicing, drum-beating hippie aunt, if you don’t already. The God of process theology would be like her. The world is free to be whatever it wants to be. She will give you advice and try to call out your best self, but you are completely free. She is alongside you, not above you. The element that matters the most in this conception is relationality, the one that appears to be missing from Miyagi.

French—No one ever expected a young peasant girl to be leading the French armies, likewise, the God of Hermeneutics (think Caputo) upsets our expectations. The Joan of Arc God is a deconstructive self-revelation under the theology of the cross. The God of Hermeneutics/Deconstruction reminds us that the world can be other than it is at the moment and that God is not tame or even easily assumable into human language. It’s focus is the constant breaking open of our language. She keeps you off balance.

Hall argues that the Classical Theism, specifically in its Thomistic form, is where we need to begin. It is ontologically primary. He cautions that it’s important to not get this conception mixed up with what he calls the God of Voluntarism (what he calls the “Jersey Shore” view of omnipotence). But is a God who lacks any kind of vulnerability acceptable as an object of worship within the Christian faith? Can this God engage in a relational way? Can the insights of Process Theology and Deconstructive/Hermeneutic Theology be incorporated into the Classical schema? Part of the problem is that the stable grounding provided by the classical view is thought of as unrelated, when it is, in fact, deeply related.

Here is the summative quote for the chapter:

While Miyagi works perfectly well in a philosophical context, he won’t be able to do full justice to Christian theology and it’s biblical underpinnings, not without incorporating these important ideas from Hippie Aunt and Joan of Arc. If God is one who saves, God most be able to draw out of us our best, most unselfish possibilities, which means God must relate to us. So while God’s primary philosophical meaning has to do with the identity undergirding all things in the world, God’s biblical identity pertains to relating to this world and calling it back to the divinely pulsating melody not merely its own. The incomprehensible God is one who actively beckons this world, one who calls us to reject the disharmonies within the world as we’ve become familiar and even enhance, and stand once more in cosmic solidarity with both God and all of creation as God shines light on these things anew.

To my mind, this is a restatement of Classical Theism with reference to the criticism of the followers of Whitehead and Derrida. Much depends on how you interpret ‘biblical identity’. For some conservative process-relational thinkers, the descriptions of God in the scriptures are taken quite literally. If you’ve been around the block in these discussions, you know that the term ‘biblical identity’ does not have a fixed meaning for all parties. The anthropomorphism in the Bible can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Additionally, take even a term like ‘Almighty’, which is an expression that is not as obviously anthropomorphic. What does having all power, being the ruler of everything, mean? Does it refer to a voluntarist view of God ? Or does it refer to the view that God is the trustworthy and stable center of everything?

I believe that the classical definitions of omnipotence, immutability, etc. still hold, but certainly need to be invested with Christocentric meanings. If I’m reading Hall correctly, I imagine he would agree. In the podcast interview below, Hall makes the statement, “We can have this relational expression without saying that this defines the ontology of God.” Another set of questions revolves around how deep the vulnerability of God goes. Jesus on the cross is God in vulnerability, but is the Cosmic Christ, the Logos, the Word essentially vulnerable (Rohr)? Can a deep vulnerability coexist with an equally deep stability?51qcyri3hil-_sx294_bo1204203200_

To listen to Eric Hall discuss his book click on Episode 40 of Crackers and Grape Juice.


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.


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.



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, read a great deal of Kierkegaard. 

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