Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bonhoeffer's Ultimate and Penultimate

A post from a few days ago told about my first impressions of Bonhoeffer's Ethics.  His message seemed unusual to me on day one.  Having read some more, I'd say now that Bonhoeffer has some unusual things to say, some classic Christian things to say, and some unusual ways of saying some classic things.  It's all a little clearer now but still challenging and definitely inspirational.

Bonhoeffer mystified me at first by saying we should not judge between good and evil, even though his argument for getting there (acquiring the knowledge of good and evil got us into the trouble we're in) resonated with me.  But once I read some applications of this tenet, it started making sense.  First and foremost, we should not distinguish good and bad people.  Everyone we come across is simply a human, and humans have already been judged and sentenced in the death of Jesus Christ.  Bonhoeffer doesn't quote II Corinthians in this passage (surprisingly), but I couldn't help think about chapter 5 as I was reading:
For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer.
God judges; for us to judge is to arrogate his function.  Our job is to show Christ's love by giving anyone we meet what the occasion calls for.  Why identify the sinners and look in indignation on them?  Instead of denouncing the libertine, just teach the virtue of chastity, and let people come to Christ.

Second, not judging good and evil means not grading our own actions.  The Christian's task is to do the will of God, not to figure out what's good, do it, and then enjoy satisfaction in his own good deed.  The Pharisees tried very hard to discern what was good and to do it, and Jesus scolded them.  Christ is present in the individual Christian and in the Church, and his mission now, through both the individual and the Body, is reconciliation (also found in II Corinthians 5).  We try conscience, duty, responsibility, virtue, ideals, and programs to overthrow the evil we see in the world, when instead we should be acting and preaching reconciliation, and that message cannot be reduced to an absolute, unchanging program or plan.

This all sounds pretty good to me until I start to wonder how I know what the moment calls for if I don't have a sense of right and wrong, and whether in some situations love doesn't involve a declaration of evil -- a judgment.  Surely when Wackford Squeers is beating Smike, Nicholas Nickleby is right to cry, "Stop!"  But Bonhoeffer seems to address this concern with his idea of the penultimate and the ultimate.  Our new, fully-righteous life pertains to the ultimate, to the eternal, heavenly truth.  But ultimate implies a penultimate: our condition and life in this world of sin.  By his incarnation, Jesus accepted all that is human.  By his death, He judged and suffered for human sin.  By his resurrection, He gained new life for humans.  When we identify with Christ, we should identify with all these aspects of his ministry.  To acknowledge only the resurrected life and live only in the ideal world of heavenly vision makes us radical and judgmental.  To acknowledge only his humble humanity and his death and live only in the practical world of sin makes us compromisers. We must always do both.  When a friend's loved one dies, for instance, we must both sympathize with the pain (deal with the penultimate) and speak hope (deal with the ultimate).

Tomorrow a little bit about Bonhoeffer's intriguing view of culture in the West.

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