Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Bonhoeffer and Braaten

Stream of consciousness warning: if you read this trying to figure out the main idea, you'll be disappointed. There isn't one. I have a couple of related things I want to say, but no central point.

In my remarks on Carl Braaten's open letter to Mark Hanson, I made reference to Bonhoeffer with regard to my approach to the sexuality issue. In several comments on various blogs it was suggested that Bonhoeffer's presence would cure the problem that Braaten points to, but, apparently, I'm part of the problem. Carl Braaten told me I don't understand Bonhoeffer. That can't be, can it? My wife told me she couldn't tell what I was saying. That must be the explanation. I just didn't make myself clear.

Seriously, I realize that I might be misinterpreting Bonhoeffer. I certainly am not claiming that he would have agreed with my conclusions. But I would like to explain my thought process a bit.

I find the following thoughts in Bonhoeffer's Ethics:
Categorizing actions as good and evil is not the business of Christian ethics. In fact, it is counter to it.

The will of God is not a system of rules which can be known at the outset. The will of God is something new in each new situation. Therefore we must always seek to discover anew what the will of God may be.

When we hear the word of God, God is addressing us. This only remains the word of God as long as we respond. Hearing and obeying must be combined. If we try to capture the word and save it for reference, it is no longer the word of God, but only words.

It must be noted in this regard that the will of God is not revealed to us though intuition or personal insight. Rather the word that God speaks to us is the word that we hear. Any meaning contrary to this must be rejected.

The Christians attitude toward the command of God must always be one of obedience. A Christian can never use the word in judgment of another.
This is not my interpretation of Bonhoeffer. This is simply what Bonhoeffer wrote (although all of the above are my paraphrases based on my recollection of his book; there could be some variation introduced there). The last point is critical to my application of Bonhoeffer's teaching, so I will quote exactly what he says. These are Bonhoeffer's precise words (in translation):
If by his knowledge of the law a man has become the judge of his brother and so eventually of the law itself, then he can no longer perform the law, however much else he may appear to reform. The "doer of the law," unlike the judge, submits to the law; the law never becomes a criterion for him such as he might apply to his brother; the law never confronts him otherwise than in summoning him personally to action. Even when he has to deal with a brother who is at fault, the "doer of the law" has only one possible means of giving effect to the law, and that is by performing it himself. ... This does not mean, then, that the doer of the law is content with his own doing and that with a sidelong glance he calls upon God to be the judge of his sinful brother whom he himself is, unfortunately, not permitted to judge. There really is no such sidelong glance here.... There does not remain, therefore, in addition to action or through action, some ultimate possibility of judgment; action is and must continue to be the only possible attitude towards the law of God; any residue of judgment would disrupt this action entirely and transmute it into false action, into hypocrisy.
So that's what I'm responding to in Bonhoeffer. Now my application of it is this:
The question of whether or not to bless same sex unions and ordain individuals in same-sex relationships is the wrong question. The right question, which each of us individually must ask ourselves, is how do I respond to my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the faith. We continually get this part wrong, so it shouldn't be surprising that there is so much controversy over the questions which must only be treated after this one has been resolved.

It is observed that no one is against welcoming gay and lesbian Christians in our congregations but this is exactly the same sort of fact as the fact that no one is in favor of abortion. Just because no one is opposed to welcoming them doesn't mean they are welcomed. And the reason they are not welcomed is that the command of God is evaluated rather than obeyed. If asked whether a Christian congregation should welcome gay and lesbin members, I may easily answer in the affirmative based on any number of Biblical injunctions. But do I hear the command to love these individuals as myself as a command of God and obey it?

When I face the question of how I am to relate to gay and lesbian Christians (or non-Christians for that matter), the Bible says to me, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." When I face the question of whether or not to support the blessing of same-sex unions, the Bible says to me, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
But there is a problem here, and it returns me to Braaten's complaint. In what I have just said, I am considering my position as an individual Christian. I am certain that these views are correct for individual Christians. But notice at the very end of my position I am responding to the question of whether or not I should support blessing same sex unions. I am faced with this question because in the polity of the ELCA, I have a say in such matters.

There is no king in the ELCA, and everyone does what is right in his own eyes.

This is deeply intertwined with Braaten's complaint, as may be seen in his reply to John Carlson. Although Dr. Braaten is clearly troubled by the direction the ELCA is headed with regard to the sexuality issues, this is not his chief complaint. He is primarily concerned with ecclesiology. Regardless of where you stand on the sexuality issue, this issue remains. If a majority vote makes the right decision, you still have to ask the question of whether or not majority vote was the right way to do things.

The modern American answer is, of course majority vote is the right way to do things. But is this the Christian answer? Christian teaching about human nature would seem to suggest that majority rule isn't necessarily a good idea. (This, incidentally, is a large part of the reason that America is structured as a representative democracy run through with checks and balances.)

This is a difficult problem for Lutherans because we have a deep-seated mistrust of giving power to a church hierarchy (is a consensus of bishops any more likely to be correct than a majority of lay people?). This also reflects a particularly modern, if not exclusively American, hubris. What do those seminary-trained elitists know that I don't? "All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?" So says Korah (Numbers 16:3, look it up)!

I'm not ready to change my views on the sexuality issue, and frankly I'm not thrilled with the idea of letting a collection of bishops maintain the status quo. But I do think it's past time to consider whether our denomination is organized.


mindflame said...

Be careful, you could use the argument you are setting up to say that no action could be condemned as wrong. This would include social injustice, which you feel so passionately about. I agree that you should love your neighbor as yourself. But, I would hope that my church family would love me enough to not to lead me astray by indorsing my evil actions. If we are not to call some things evil and others good, then what are we teaching? In a way the correct interoperation of Bonhoeffer is unimportant. If Bonhoeffer conflicts with Romans 1 he is wrong. Certainly you consider the Pauline letters a more important work of theology than Bonhoeffer.

Andy said...

The difference is that I have a positive command to speak out against injustice. Speaking out against injustice is part of loving one's neighbor. Of course, you're right that if done well speaking a word of truth to keep a neighbor from sin is also, but (a) I don't think that applies to homosexuality, and (b) what efforts are made are not done well. This second would come under the heading of using the law as justification for one's action but not as a command to one's self.

Now my question to you is, is Romans 1 more important than Romans 2?

As for Bonhoeffer vs. Paul, it's a false dichotomy. Bonhoeffer is an interpreter of the Bible, just as I would be, so the real question is whether my personal theology is more important than Bonhoeffer's. But ultimately, you are right that I need not conform to Bonhoeffer's theology except to the extent that he has interpreted the Bible correctly.