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The church knows only one totality

In a previous post I outlined some thoughts Karl Barth offered at a gathering in 1962 and which constitute one chapter of the book, Barth in Conversation. He was asked to say something about the church in a totalitarian state, such as existed in 1962 in East Germany and other countries behind the Iron Curtain. Barth had experienced totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s and had opposed it in his sermons, writings and church activism. So it was perfectly reasonable for that 1962 gathering of Protestant book dealers in Switzerland to ask him such a question. In my previous post I shared his thoughts on totalitarianism in general and I drew a connection between his thoughts and what Paul called the powers and principalities that rule our lives. I offered the example of social media and the internet as contemporary manifestations of the powers and principalities. But let’s return to Karl Barth and see how or if he answers the question about the church in a totalitarian society.

Barth was asked about “possibilities” for the church in a totalitarian state. Barth turns to the question by first rejecting the term possibilities in the plural.

For the church in a totalitarian world and in a totalitarian state, there is only one possibility – one alone, but it is a genuine possibility. And I would now like to describe it simply with the word in the third chapter of Mark’s Gospel: “And looking around at those who sat about him” (Mark 3:34). The Latin text of the New Testament puts it in a remarkable way: circumspiciens ad eos, qui erant in circuitu. I believe that this word circuitus is actually the proper word for “church”. The church is those who are around Jesus and whom he looks at around him. And that the church be this circuitus, and so simply be church in the totalitarian world – that is its “possibility.” (Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, page 242)

Barth quoted the verse in Latin probably because it was more accessible to his listening audience. But the Greek original is just as powerful: καὶ περιβλεψάμενος τοὺς περὶ αὐτὸν κύκλῳ καθημένους. The church is only church when it is κύκλῳ. κύκλῳ (around) whom? Christ Jesus! When the church is κύκλῳ, the “circle” around Christ, Barth likens it to a wall – but “a completely different one from Mr. Ulbright’s”, and here Barth makes reference to a man associated with the building of the wall in Berlin; or, in 2018, Barth might say, a wall “completely different from Mr. Trump’s!”

The church knows that all the totalities of the world and society and also of the state are actually false gods and therefore lies… Whenever the church takes these lies seriously, then it is lost. With all calmness and in all peace, it must treat them as lies. And the more that the church lives in humility and knows that “we too are only human, and there are also many lies in us,” then it will know all the more surely that “God sits in governance” over and against the lies that are in us and over and against the lies in the world and in the state and wherever else they may be. And in that case the church, regardless of the circumstances and no matter how entangled and difficult the situation, remains at its task and knows itself to be forbidden to fear for its future. Its future is the Lord. He, not the totalitarian state, is coming to the church.

But, of course, the church must believe that. The church must be in its place. The church must get serious about what it proclaims… (Ibid., page 243)

I don’t need to quote any more of Barth’s comments. It’s plain to see his approach in dealing with matters of political and spiritual urgency. He always comes back to the original vision of the Scriptures. He does not rely on any historical experiences of the church because he knows that the church easily fell and falls into lies. He saw the German church capitulate to the lies of Hitler in the 1930s. He and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were the most prominent spokesmen against the lies of Nazi racist ideology. But almost all German church leaders preferred to listen to the lies of Hitler than the warnings issued by Barth and Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer and other courageous Christian opponents of Hitler paid with their lives and became martyrs for the faith in the murderous hands of the Reich.

The execution grounds at Flossenbürg concentration camp, where Bonhoeffer and others were executed on the morning of 9 April 1945

Memorial to those executed on 9 April 1945 (click to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barth refused to give allegiance to the powers and principalities, whatever form they took. Standing firmly on the Scriptures, he was able to see through the lies and deceptions. That is the church’s greatest task in every generation. We are not here to adapt the Christian message to any social movement or moment. As another recent Christian activist put it, Jesus Christ did not bring about the kingdom of God by “christianizing the social order” (John Howard Yoder, as quoted in The Wisdom of the Cross, edited by Stanley Hauerwas et al, page 199). The patristic era of the church is often invoked as a time when the Roman Empire was indeed “christianized”: pagan practices, rituals and temples were replaced by Christian analogues. Barth would have none of that. The temptation is too great, and the church never mustered the spiritual strength to withstand the allure of prominence and success in the eyes of the world.

So yes, there is nothing outdated in Barth’s opposition to Hitler in the 1930s or the comments he made in 1962 in the face of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe. The church must always be κύκλῳ, around Christ. He is the only totality the church should recognize. And I love that word, totality, that Barth uses. We always have and always will live in times of totalities: entities that command our full attention and allegiance, that drain our attention spans, that make it impossible for us to be challenged by the Scriptures in their full force.

Barth was born (1886) into a world where the integrity of the Scriptures was questioned. How could the Bible still be called the Word of God when scholars had proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the Old and New Testaments were written by fallible human beings over the course of many centuries? Barth’s confidence was not shaken by these developments. But neither was he a fundamentalist. He saw that the writers of the Bible were completely, passionately absorbed and transformed in the message they were communicating, and by their writings they transmitted this message to anyone who is prepared to be similarly affected.

The Scriptures are a message from God. True, spoken and transmitted indirectly through human words and understanding. But that does not take anything away from their power to transform human lives and to guide us through difficult times. Indeed, acknowledging the human element only strengthens the Scriptures: in addition to being God’s message to us, the Scriptures are also a response to God’s message. And we also must stand in our own time and respond to God’s clear message. Jesus Christ is the only totality I as a Christian should accept in my life. When I don’t, I capitulate at least part of my affections to the powers and principalities that lurk at every corner. I will never be a Karl Barth. But I know from experience that I am strongest in my resistance to the fallen powers and totalities when I place myself under the government of Scripture.


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The Cross is not a political slogan

Living in Montreal and two other Canadian cities in the 1970s I became aware of the politics that ruled the Greek Orthodox churches in Canada. As a matter of fact, it came to the point, at least in Montreal, that the Hellenic Community administration that governed all the Greek churches of Montreal was split along the lines of the political parties of Greece!

The politicization of the church has been a fact since the unfortunate transformation that the emperor Constantine initiated. We are still living in the Constantinian era. And not only the Orthodox Church! Even those churches that do not consider Constantine as a saint are nevertheless living under the shadow cast by his reign.

Consider the 20th century. The official Lutheran Church in Germany quickly capitulated to Hitler, leaving only a small remnant of German Lutherans who remained loyal to the gospel of Jesus Christ rather than Nazi ideology. The Catholic Church in Spain supported the dictatorship of Franco; and in most Latin American countries supported and blessed ruthless dictatorships throughout most of the 20th century. Even in the Greece, the church embraced the dictatorship of the colonels, 1967-73,  and the slogan, <<Ελλάς Ελλήνων Χριστιανών>>, loosely translated as, “Greece, [the land] of Greeks, Christians”. I inserted “the land” which is not present in the original but is one of the ways it can be translated – the other way being “Greece, [for] Greeks, Christians.” I also separated Greeks and Christians by a comma to capture more of the flavor of the original. For the meaning is not that there are Greeks who are Christians – but Greeks ARE Christians. If someone is not a Christian he or she is not Greek, and hence not part of Greece. It was a slogan that perfectly expressed the marriage of church and state and the nationalist identity of every embedded member of that society.

The colonels’ slogan can be equally well applied to other societies. There is a very sizable segment of the US population who would subscribe to something similar for American society. It is all part and parcel of the politicization of Christianity that we have inherited from the fourth century revolution in church-state relationship.

Today politics define the Christian experience in this country to an increasingly alarming extent. Once a label has been attached to a person’s form of Christianity, that person is only allowed to support the politics that go with that label. So, for example, a “liberal” Christian cannot be liberal if he or she is against abortion. A “conservative” Christian cannot be conservative if he or she approves of same-sex marriage. If you were “evangelical” in 2016 you had to vote for Donald Trump; if you were “progressive” you had to vote for Hillary Clinton – you were a traitor to your label if you voted otherwise! So your political or religious label puts you in a straitjacket – hence the polarization that is quickly destroying the social fabric and the possibility of reasonable dialogue.

Nazi insignia combining key symbols, including the cross (click to enlarge).

Typical piece of Nazi “Christian” propaganda (click to enlarge)

This is a frightful situation. Allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ is replaced by allegiance to a political slogan or ideology. This is what the church did in Nazi Germany. Nazi Christians even represented the Cross inside or with the swastika! But there were a few Christians who did not fall in line – and many of them paid with their lives. The most famous of the resisters was the theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spent two years in Nazi prisons but was quickly killed by order of Hitler in the last days of the war, as the Allies were about to enter Berlin. During his two years of imprisonment, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters and theological essays that were collected after his death by his close friend and relative, Eberhard Bethge. They were published under the title Letters and Papers from Prison, a book which I consider one of the most important books ever written by a Christian. It is a book well worth reading as the line between the cross and political and racist ideologies becomes increasingly blurred.

Like all citizens of a nation, Christians will have their own political views and preferences – but we do not have God’s permission to turn the Cross into a slogan or marry the gospel of Jesus Christ to any political ideology, left or right. Political engagement is important and necessary for Christians. But political engagement is tricky and treacherous. Better to be wrong in your politics than to be wrong in defending your politics with scripture! Venture with fear and trembling. And never assume that God agrees with your politics.

 


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God of the gaps is no God

I love reading from Bonhoeffer’s writings, especially in the series of the complete works in English translations put out by Fortress Press. Bonhoeffer is perhaps best known for his “Letters and Papers from Prison,” written between April 1943 (when he was arrested for conspiring against Hitler) and January 1945, three months before he was executed by the Nazis. These letters and papers were published after his death and became classics of Christian faith and expression in the 20th century. Today I came across this letter, dated May 29, 1944, and I want to share it here with you, from the translation in the Fortress edition. It was written to Eberhard Bethke, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend and the one who did the most to get these “letters and papers” published after the war. It is the kind of “Christian” writing that is so absent in the superficial Christian “religious” writings of today. Bonhoeffer could stand comparison to any of the giants of Christian history. Note how he speaks of the “fullness of life” from his own perspective of imprisonment and war, and how Christianity puts together the fragments of our lives. I love his calling life “polyphonic” – surely inspired by his great love of music. What he wrote in the concluding paragraph about God as the “stopgap” is extraordinarily important. He rejects any notion of God being the god of the gaps! “God is the center of life and doesn’t just ‘turn up’ when we have unsolved problems to be solved.” Perhaps this is part of what we mean when we declare on Easter night, “Christ is Risen, and life politeuetai!” And I do not translate that Greek word, because I want to write an article on just that word. But please do read this letter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Read it more than once! It’s the answer you may need for many questions in your life. TRULY THE LORD IS RISEN!

Dear Eberhard,

I hope that despite the air raids you both are enjoying to the full the peace and beauty of these warm, summery days of Pentecost. Inwardly, one learns gradually to put life-threatening things in proportion. Actually, “put in proportion” sounds too negative, too formal or artificial or stoic. One should more correctly say that we just take in these daily threats as part of the totality of our lives. I often notice hereabouts how few people there are who can harbor many different things at the same time. When bombers come, they are nothing but fear itself; when there’s something good to eat, nothing but greed itself; when they fail to get what they want, they become desperate; if something succeeds, that’s all they see. They are missing out on the fullness of life and on the wholeness of their own existence. Everything, whether objective or subjective, disintegrates into fragments. Christianity, on the other hand, puts us into many different dimensions of life at the same time; in a way we accommodate God and the whole world within us. We weep with those who weep at the same time as we rejoice with those who rejoice. We fear—(I’ve just been interrupted again by the siren, so I’m sitting outdoors enjoying the sun)—for our lives, but at the same time we must think thoughts that are much more important to us than our lives. During an air raid, for example, as soon as we are turned in a direction other than worrying about our own safety, for example, by the task of spreading calm around us, the situation becomes completely different. Life isn’t pushed back into a single dimension, but is kept multidimensional, polyphonic. What a liberation it is to be able to think and to hold on to these many dimensions of life in our thoughts. I’ve almost made it a rule here for myself, when people here are trembling during an air raid, always just to talk about how much worse such an attack would be for smaller towns. One has to dislodge people from their one-track thinking—as it were, in “preparation for” or “enabling” faith, though in truth it is only faith itself that makes multidimensional life possible and so allows us to celebrate Pentecost even this year, in spite of air raids.

At first I was a bit disconcerted and perhaps even saddened not to have a letter from anyone for Pentecost this year. Then I said to myself that perhaps it’s a good sign, that no one is worried about me—but it’s simply a strange drive in human beings to want others—at least a little—to worry about them.

Weizsäcker’s book on the Weltbild der Physik continues to preoccupy me a great deal. It has again brought home to me quite clearly that we shouldn’t think of God as the stopgap [Lückenbüßer] for the incompleteness of our knowledge, because then—as is objectively inevitable—when the boundaries of knowledge are pushed ever further, God too is pushed further away and thus is ever on the retreat. We should find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants to be grasped by us not in unsolved questions but in those that have been solved. This is true of the relation between God and scientific knowledge, but it is also true of the universal human questions about death, suffering, and guilt. Today, even for these questions, there are human answers that can completely disregard God. Human beings cope with these questions practically without God and have done so throughout the ages, and it is simply not true that only Christianity would have a solution to them. As for the idea of a “solution,” we would have to say that the Christian answers are just as uncompelling (or just as compelling) as other possible solutions. Here too, God is not a stopgap. We must recognize God not only where we reach the limits of our possibilities. God wants to be recognized in the midst of our lives, in life and not only in dying, in health and strength and not only in suffering, in action and not only in sin. The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. God is the center of life and doesn’t just “turn up” when we have unsolved problems to be solved. Seen from the center of life, certain questions fall away completely and likewise the answers to such questions (I’m thinking of the judgment pronounced on Job’s friends!). In Christ there are no “Christian problems.” Enough on this; I’ve just been interrupted again.


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How shall we pray?

 

“Lord, teach us to pray!” the disciples asked of Jesus. Why? They were Jews, they were taught to pray three times a day. Why were they asking? Perhaps because they felt something new was happening. Jesus was not like the Pharisees or the priests. He was teaching a new way, so they wanted to pray in a new way! And perhaps they also had in mind the parable that they heard Jesus speak:

5445613926_85169104aaHe also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)

They asked because they didn’t want to pray like the Pharisee, who boasted how many times he prayed, how much he fasted, how much he tithed, but who also looked down on other people – perhaps people like them! They heard Jesus extol the prayer of the tax collector – a simple prayer, God be merciful to me a sinner!

So they asked. We all ask. Every Orthodox Christian at one time or another, or often, has asked someone, a priest, a fellow church member – how do I pray?

Jesus’ immediate answer to the disciples (see Luke 11:1-4) was to teach them the Our Father – but in Luke’s shorter version:

Father,

hallowed be your name

your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins.

for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

And lead us not into temptation.

Notice what’s missing: No “who art in heaven”; no “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”; no “deliver us from evil.” And notice that Luke’s version says “forgive us our sins – αμαρτίας,  not οφειλήματα as in the familiar version from Matthew which the church has adopted. And of course neither version has the conclusion that the church added: “For yours is the kingdom….”

51pcwtc-47l-_sx331_bo1204203200_It is a simple prayer that covers all the essentials – both heavenly and earthly.

But in addition to this prayer, the Bible has a profound group of prayers that are available to us to pray in every situation. I’m referring to the Psalms, of course. The great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a beautiful short book, The Prayerbook of the Bible. He identifies many different types of psalms; I’ll focus on some of the types he identifies.

Creation psalms

Ps 8 O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth….

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them, that you care for them?

Ps 104 and others

 

The Good life

Ps 63 O God, you are my God, I seek you,

my soul thirsts for you;

my flesh faints for you,

as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Because your steadfast love is better than life,

my lips will praise you.

So I will bless you as long as I live;

I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,

and my mouth praises you with joyful lips

when I think of you on my bed,

and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

for you have been my help,

and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.

My soul clings to you;

your right hand upholds me.

But then comes a change of tone:

But those who seek to destroy my life

the_parable_of_the_pharisee_and_the_tax_collector-1024x737

The parable for today. Where are you? Who are you? The one up front, or the one in the back? What is the attitude we bring to prayer?

shall go down into the depths of the earth… (this also is prayer. The Psalms are very honest, they expose the full range of our emotional and spiritual states – all our weaknesses, including our desire for revenge. But this is not like the Pharisee in the parable. Because here and elsewhere the psalms ask for God’s punishment of enemies, of those who have hurt us. Remember, David wrote many of these!)

Ps 103 Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and do not forget all his benefits—

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the Pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good as long as you live

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

 

Suffering

Ps 13 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

Ps 22 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

and by night, but find no rest.

 

God speaks

Ps 46 “Be still, and know that I am God”

 

Confession of sin/guilt

Ps 51 Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your unfailing love;

according to your great compassion

blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity

and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is always before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight…

the cleansing:

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;

wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness;

let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins

and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence

or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation

and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

then what?

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

so that sinners will turn back to you. (Notice how beautifully this Psalm captures the sequence: Guilt – Confession of sin – Forgiveness & Restoration – Witness to others. That last part is crucial. If we receive forgiveness we are to help others find the same peace and restoration.)

 

Life beyond death

Ps 16 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;

my body also will rest secure,

because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,

nor will you let your faithful one see decay.

You make known to me the path of life;

you will fill me with joy in your presence,

with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Ps 118 I will not die but live,

and will proclaim what the Lord has done.

The Lord has chastened me severely,

but he has not given me over to death.

Open for me the gates of the righteous;

I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord

through which the righteous may enter.

I will give you thanks, for you answered me;

you have become my salvation.

Right here dear friends is the gate of the Lord, where we enter into his presence. And his presence will be eternal joy beyond the suffering and troubles of this life. But let us be grateful for this life. Sometimes prayer is nothing more than listening to the God who tells us, “Be still and know that I am God.”