Friday, January 21, 2011

Freedom and Coincidence

Most people reading this have probably had the experience of learning a new word or phrase, thinking you have never heard it before, and then coming across the very word more than once within just a few weeks.  Coincidences happen all the time, but some, like coming across the new word, stand out.  The odds of your car and that blue car coming up to that intersection at the same time were microscopic at the beginning of the day, and yet there you both are.  This coincidence doesn't stand out only because you meet some car at an intersection many times each day.  Only when an object stands out to begin with, like the new word, do we become aware of a coincidence it plays a part of.

Since I read two or three things each day, I'm bound to come across coincidences there, also.  But while I know not to be amazed, it's still intriguing when it happens.  One of these coincidences happened today.

Bonhoeffer has become confusing.  When he says that there is only one principle to the universe, God, I understand.  When he says that God created our world, took it on in the incarnation, and preserves it through his will, I understand.  But when he says that ethics is not about confronting the way things are in this world with the way things ought to be, I don't understand.  We don't just acquiesce in what is, he says, but we mustn't think in terms of an ideal that should be happening, either.  If that's true, I don't know why I pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."  I tend to think that God has an ideal will, which includes things like me never sinning, and a contingent will, which includes all the things He allows.  He has obviously allowed the world to be this way, but if the world as it is matched his ideal will, it seems Jesus would not have taught us that prayer.

Today I gained a little more understanding, though.  Bonhoeffer scolded Kant for saying that, since lying is wrong, we must always tell the truth, even if it means giving up a hiding friend to the enemy.  Instead, Bonhoeffer says, God's will is above all laws and all ethical principles.  Didn't Jesus break Sabbath law by eating grain in the field and by healing on the Sabbath?  God's will can't be codified, because it is always grounded in a specific concrete situation.  We can't even really know what the good option is in any given situation.  We learn to do God's will by doing his will, but He doesn't spell it all out for us, and He doesn't make us obey Him by force.  We must simply act in freedom as God gives us to see what is right in each situation, and trust to his mercy.  If doing God's will means breaking the law and being found guilty, so be it; that didn't stop Jesus.  After reading this today, it occurs to me that in this section Bonhoeffer was probably trying to explain to us (and to himself!) why it was right for a Christian to be part of a plot to kill Hitler.

The coincidences occurred in the Bible passages I read just after reading the Ethics.  In Psalm 32, I read, "I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.  Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle."   To have God's will codified, I thought, so that some written word or guiding principle would tell me exactly what to do in any given situation, would make me like the dumb animal.  As Bonhoeffer says, we must act freely, not under the compulsion of a spiritual or ethical bit and bridle, although our free act comes after being taught by God's companionable guidance.

The next thing I read, though, got me questioning Bonhoeffer again.  In Philippians I read, "It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent."  Where Bonhoeffer seems to say that we should do God's will in love without distinguishing good and evil and without even knowing if what we do is right (because such knowledge would come from a codified ethical ideal), Paul seems to say that growth in love requires knowledge and discernment.

I don't know exactly what to make of Bonhoeffer yet.  I do know that I should keep reading the book, a few pages a day until I finish.  And since it doesn't appear to be breaking any law to do that, I think I'm safe.

1 comment:

  1. I've never read any Bonhoeffer; I only know him by reputation. Still, the idea of faithfully doing the will of God regardless of an ethical imperative sounds awfully like the principle theme of Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling." Or at least as far as I made sense of Kierkegaard...

    Also, have you ever read Corrie ten Boom's "The Hiding Place"? She tells of the consequences of Telling-the-Truth-No-Matter-What, and in precisely the situation you mention Bonhoeffer addressing here.

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