Sent into the world, but not belonging to the world – that’s the paradox our gospel reading poses concerning the identity of the followers of Jesus (John 17:12-19). But in how many and varied ways have Christians interpreted this being sent and this not belonging! Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor and theologian, was hanged in the Nazi prison at Flossenburg sixty-eight years ago today (April 9) after a two year incarceration for his part in a plot to overthrow Hitler. In his prison cell, Bonhoeffer penned provocative words about Christians and their relationship to the world. It seems appropriate to hear some of Bonhoeffer’s musings on this his feast day.
From Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1972), pages 281-282, amended slightly.
“I often ask myself why a ‘Christian instinct’ often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, ‘in solidarity.’ While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people – because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable) – to people with no religion I can on occasion mention God by name quite calmly and as a matter of course.
“Religious people speak of God when human knowledge has come to an end, or when human resources fail – in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can only go on till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina. I’ve come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?).
“It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in human life and goodness. As to the boundaries, it seems to me better to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the ‘solution’ to the problem of death. God’s beyond is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.”
Mark Lloyd Taylor, Ph.D., Director of Worship