Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Wait Is Over

Every time I reach the end of one book and start another that I've never read before, I think, "The wait is over."  Before I had a Plan, I had scattered mental lists of books I wanted to read, and I'd scribble down names of a few that I planned to enjoy over the next few months.  But I've always wanted to read so many books, the process of deciding and scheduling was always overwhelming.  After writing a list, I would always remember some book (let's say Great Thoughts by Smith) that I had thought about for years, and I'd think, "I'll never get to that book."  OK, so why not just start reading it now?  Well, that would mean reading Great Thoughts instead of whatever else I had planned (let's say The Complete Course of Mathematics by Brown), and then The Complete Course got bumped to that overwhelmed region of my mind, and I'd think, "I'll never get to Brown."

That's the beauty of a Plan.  I've wanted to read the Venerable Bede for decades, but I just never got to his history of the Church.  But now he's on the master list, and when I think of Bede or see his name in another book, instead of having to fight a feeling of frustration, I just remember that he's coming up.  As soon as I finished drawing up the Plan some four years ago, I looked at some of the titles in Year 10 and took comfort knowing that, even if I had to wait nine-and-a-half more years, I would eventually get to those books.  And then having planned for years makes starting those books so much more satisfying and fun!

Yesterday, I finished reading The Odyssey and started Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics with great joy.  I had wanted to read Bonhoeffer for decades.  His story is so intriguing: resisting the Nazis and then being executed just days before the end of the war.  Every once in a great while, I heard people (mostly pastors) talk about him and about how important his writings were.  But I seldom heard any details about his ideas; people generally referred to his life and not the contents of his books.

Now I know why.  Bonhoeffer has an unusual message, so quick quotations probably don't easily fit in to illustrate whatever anybody else has to say.  Bonhoeffer begins by saying that Christian ethics necessarily differs from all other ethics.  All other ethical studies seek to know good and evil, but Christian doctrine teaches that desiring and acquiring the knowledge of good and evil separated us from God.  Where we should have known only God and experienced everything else through Him, we wanted to become independent judges.  Each one of us, then, is separated not only from God but from all other humans and even from ourselves.  As a result, we wrestle every day with shame, alternately giving in to it and denying it.  What we need is not to judge good and evil anymore.

The thought is challenging and intriguing.  Today I read his explanation of the Pharisees as people who tried very hard to do good but missed the mark because they were always judging what was good.  God can only be pleased by our submitting to his judgment, by constantly seeking and proving his will, which can not be reduced to a formula.  But how can we learn his will if we aren't thinking about good and evil, right and wrong?  Bonhoeffer deals with the riddles about judging found in II Corinthians (in some passages, we must not judge people, and in others it is our express mission to judge) and explains, I believe, that the Christian must live on two levels at once: the psychological (which judges) and the spiritual (which doesn't).

I'm not sure at all right now that I even understand what it is I don't understand.  But that's why I gave myself a few weeks to read the Ethics; I had a feeling from all the oblique references to Bonhoeffer I had heard over the years that a book by him was not to be rushed.

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