Saturday, January 01, 2011

Bonhoeffer and revelation

I've been thinking lately of a story I heard at a conference. The presenter was talking about their work with a rather difficult adolescent, who tended to act out when dealing with adults (on the one hand) and associate with problematic peers (on the other hand). And the psychologist who was working with her brought up the notion of a "safety switch." Basically, the idea is that the safety switch has two basic positions: one position should tell us that the situation is safe so that we can be open and vulnerably; the other position should tell us that the situation is dangerous and we need to protect ourselves. His message to this adolescent was that she had a broken "safety switch" such that she couldn't trust those she should -- and didn't protect herself from those she couldn't trust.

I've been thinking about that story as I've listened to Eric Metaxas' book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It's a tale of a remarkable intellect who showed remarkable foresight and courage in confronting the evils of the Third Reich. Part of what struck me about the story was Bonhoeffer's early decision to stand up to the Nazi movement, while many of his peers still sought to maintain a friendly or open relationship with Hitler -- hoping, rather naively in retrospect, to convert him.

I think this story struck me in part because I tend to be a believer in openness. I find the notion of closing one's mind disconcerting, and the root of many evils. For instance, I find that the bigotry against homosexuals often has its root in a closed-minded interpretation of scripture -- or, at least, that people use such interpretations as a kind of justification for their own bigotry.

Which leads me to related point. Often in the biography, there is a discussion of scripture. Bonhoeffer seems to take scripture with utmost reverence, meditating upon it and seeking divine guidance from it. He exhorts his students and followers to follow scripture closely, and asks openly how they can take any other position than what they have -- given what scripture has to say.

In the context of his opposition to Hitler, such arguments are of course heroic. But it seems to me that throughout history we have had to question or de-emphasize certain passages or teachings from scripture. There are passages from Paul that have been used to justify slavery. And there are passages that are still used to justify bigotry against gays and lesbians.

So when Bonhoeffer argues vehemently that he could take no other position because by doing so he would go against the scriptural definition of Christianity itself...I am, on the one hand, awestruck by his courage and conviction...and, on the other hand, discouraged as I can hear those opposed to gay rights using the very same language.

Perhaps there are those who would seek to justify scripture, who would make a scriptural argument against these bigotries. I am hardly a scriptural scholar and cannot pretend to have vast expertise in this area. But it seems to me that the larger issue is that we simply cannot pretend that scripture is without error, without fault. We must face the fact that there is great wisdom in the scripture but also great potential for misuse. And that a text whose last words were written almost 2000 years ago cannot hope to provide definitive guidance to all current social issues.

The tricky question meandering its way through my mind has to do with the fundamental source of Bonhoeffer's opposition to the Nazi regime. Was he outraged by what he saw as the Third Reich's fundamental incompatibility with a church based in scripture? Or did his openness to the suffering of Jewish friends and colleagues guide his thinking? I believe it was likely both. Indeed, I think it a bit misleading to view him as a simple Biblical literalist. Bonhoeffer seemed to do something deeper and more complex than that. He seemed to feel that God was a reality in the world, a reality that could be accessed through scripture, through reading it as if God were speaking some message to us today. It was, I think, his way of opening himself to God.

But to return to the original question, the difficulty is figuring out when we must stand firm, recognize a threat and act against it. How do we know on the other hand when it is best to stay open, to offer friendship and conciliation to those with whom we disagree? I believe that there are those who would simply say that we must ask scripture. But if the scope of scripture has limits and errors (as I believe it does), then our task becomes much more complicated.

In a sense, the task then comes down to the question of whether we believe that God is a historical reality or a present one. For if we believe that God is a reality that speaks to us today, then we must seek to be open to God's revelation. Surely, that can come (and for many has come) through an openness to the messages of scripture. But if God is felt to be the source of all that it good, then surely revelation must also be possible through other avenues of goodness...through an examination of conscience, through compassion for the poor and marginalized, etc.

Naturally, all of this this is fraught with a kind of peril. One person may believe a position to be true; another may believe that God is against such a position. How do we decide? If we limit ourselves to letting scripture alone settle all disagreements, then we are forever bound by the limitations of scripture. If we allow for an openness to revelation from other sources, then we open ourselves to conflicts and disagreements over the true will of God, as we are left without any definitive source of proof.

I should add here that, in fact, I don't think the situation is quite so dire as my previous paragraph makes it sound. I think it is possible to identify larger themes of revelation from scriptural and other sources, to see God's will calling us to compassion, to social justice, to care for the poor, etc. I also believe God has continually challenged us to grow and expand in love, to challenge our prejudices, and not to rest too easily on our assumptions about the way the moral world should work.

Perhaps in the end, we must simply trust in our own (albeit limited) ability to sense God's revelation to our time. We must acknowledge our capacity for error in doing so, and thus do so with humility. (It seems to me that Bonhoeffer did so as he pushed for his view in moving forward with the Confessing Church, but struggled with how this was at odds with the views of other theologians he respected). But this quest to discover God's revelation fundamentally requires openness; an assumption of entirely correct thinking make us deaf. We must not assume that we have all the answers. We must listen so that we can hear what God is saying to us through the voices of our children, through the sufferings of the poor, through the misery of the oppressed, through the devastation of our planet.

At the same time, our very openness to our world should call upon us to take action when it is required. It should cause us to flip our moral "safety switch" and stand with conviction against that which is clearly wrong. In the face of great evil, we must not retreat into safety (which is, itself, a kind of closing) but stay open to God's call for us. In the end, I think this is what Bonhoeffer did.