Monday, June 13, 2005

Penultimate Truth

"If the hungry man does not attain to faith, then the guilt falls on those who refused him bread."
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
It's a remarkable quality of good theology that it can sometimes help you make sense of things you radically opposed in bad theology. This little sentence from Bonhoeffer's Ethics had just such an effect for me.

I complained recently about Christians seeing their service to those in need primarily as a tool for evangelism. It seems to me to be downright anti-Christian to offer a hungry person food, not out of compassion, but as a way to get them to listen to your preaching of the Gospel. The message it conveys seems to be, "We don't really care about you, but we'd really like to add you to our membership roles."

But Bonhoeffer's statement struck me as truth. At first, I didn't even make the connection between feeding the hungry and evangelism in his statement, I just heard it as a call to feed to hungry. But eventually the connection with evangelism did penetrate my thoughts, and it struck the usual sour note. So I thought further about what he was saying. This also helped me to get a handle on an otherwise rather abstract chapter about the ultimate and the penultimate.

What Bonhoeffer is saying is that the coming of Christ is something we can neither bring about nor prevent. Yet the Gospels begin with John the Baptist crying out "Make straight the path of the Lord." The Lord's coming may be experienced as judgment or as salvation.

Ultimately, only the Lord can prepare the way for his coming. The feeding of the hungry does not necessarily bring with it the presence of Christ. No amount of feeding the poor will bring about a new heaven and a new earth, but it can show the world what it will look like. It can remove obstacles to the coming of the Lord, to the hearing of the Gospel.

The things we do in this world to "be Christ to our neighbor" are intrinsically penultimate things. They can never in themselves be the salvation of God or even lead people to the salvation of God. But the salvation of God can invest these penultimate things with deep meaning.

No comments: