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Bonhoeffer, and the death of dualism

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Listening to the tenor of the debate in this country ratchet up and up and up, as politicians call for rounding up and deporting immigrants without papers, registering Muslims in a database, closing mosques, and now, closing the borders to anyone who professes Islam, it is hard not to feel like we’re in a scary time warp.

Bonhoeffer, after all, faced similar problems.  When the Nazis began forcing Jews out of government jobs, schools and other opportunities, Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth wrote the Barmen Confession, upon which the Confessing Church was built.  Bonhoeffer would spend his life articulating the gospel in defiance of a government that was bent on evil and destruction.

The man was a brilliant theologian, and by the end, before he was arrested, he had been forbidden from speaking or publishing anything at all–so afraid of him was the German government.

Bonhoeffer is a good figure to bear in mind these days, I find, not only because we are currently being faced with similar challenges (stay or go?  Speak out or stay quiet?) but because he is so hard to classify in the ways we like to use in the church.

Bp. Dan Martins set up one of these time-worn classification systems recently, and I can’t help but wonder where on earth Bonhoeffer would have fit.  Bp. Martins describes the church as being filled with two sorts of people: those who are progressive, in favor of gay marriage, women’s ordination, and generally have little use for the Prayer Book and its language (these people, he finds, usually have an active dislike of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), and those who believe steadily in the historic faith once received, the BCP as written, and enjoy Mel Gibson’s Aramaic epic.

The Mel Gibson thread, he argues, is actually the most important one, as these divisions mostly come down to what we believe about Christ–either you believe Christ was a person motivated by love and justice, urging us to do likewise, or you believe that Christ was the incarnate Word of God, through which all may be saved.


All right.

First of all, as the theologian of blessed memory Edward Schillebeeckx once said, “Any attempt to introduce a dualism here is the work of pure evil.” **
There really aren’t ever only two types of people.  There are billions of types of people, because there are billions of people.  (Or, if you’d rather, there ARE two types of people–those who believe there are two types of people, and those who realize there aren’t.)
All of which to say, people are complex.  They don’t fit neatly into either one thing or another.  And then, people frequently will change their minds on you, and then you have to reconsider your whole system.

This is actually important, because when you embrace a dualism such as this, you disallow for the possibility of people like Bonhoeffer–people who devoutly believe in the historic creeds of the church, and because of that, strive for justice, freedom, and peace.***

It is a troubling novelty in the last few decades that progressives have consigned orthodox faith to conservatives.  We, undoubtedly, have done a poor job of explaining our positions in theological terms, rather than just ideological ones.  And the tragic outcome of this failure is the common misconception that believing in Jesus’s love means you probably hate someone else.  It is a PR disaster on an epic scale, and you only have to look at the rising number of ‘nones’ to see the results.

It is more than possible to be progressive while embracing orthodox Christianity–indeed, I would even argue that it is necessary.  Taking seriously the Incarnation means that you also must take seriously the value of human existence–this tangled mess that God loved so much as to want to participate in.  To believe in Christ as God implies that you will honor each person as Christ, since God has so honored humanity with his presence.

The Christian story is one that confounds easy dualisms–God speaks alike to men and women, faithful and faithless, the hopeless screw-up, the person who manages all things well, and everyone in between.  When we accept the Christian narrative as normative, then we accept that God uses and speaks through all sorts and conditions of people; that God prizes and intensely loves all sorts and conditions of people.

I am not a feminist, an LGTBQ ally, or a believer that #blacklivesmatter in spite of my Christianity.  I am a feminist, and an ally BECAUSE of my Christianity.  It is my faith that tells me that everyone is important, that everyone matters, and that my call is for the common welfare of all.
** Know who excels at irony?  Theologians.

***It’s positively Hegelian, I tell you.


About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

13 responses »

  1. Great post, Megan. Thank you.

  2. Finally! Thanks, Megan.

  3. Excellent, Megan. Thank you!

  4. Wonderfully thoughtful, of course. Thank you, Megan.

  5. Megan, would it surprise you that I agree with about 97.4% (give or take) of what you say here? Especially the parts about facile dualities. One of my catechetical schticks for as long as I’ve used catechetical schticks is that if you aren’t’ comfortable with paradox you won’t be comfortable with Christianity. And I’m all over anything Hegelian (wrote a Master’s thesis in a previous life about Hegelian processes in music history). What I was trying to put forward is a hypothesis, and to test it in the marketplace. I didn’t intend to sort people into either/or categories with respect to who Jesus is, but, rather, to observe what people find *more important or most interesting* about Jesus. Interestingly, other feedback I’ve gotten from “progressives” who are creedally orthodox acknowledges that self-perceived outlier status among other progressives.

    • Bishop, it would not surprise me–it would instead delight me entirely. Though, I confess, being a devout postmodernist, I have a distrust of Hegel’s easy synthesis, in this particular case, I think it might work.
      It seems clear to me that while possibly, earlier struggles in the church did divide over a Jesus as wisdom teacher vs a Christ as savior, this is no longer the case. Especially with younger generations, the arc of the Church seems to bend more in an Oxford Movement, orthodoxy as justice, holistic sort of way. This would indicate a serious fault in your hypothesis, then!

  6. Thanks for your post, Megan. To be fair, Bishop Martins mentions that it’s an ultimately false dichotomy, with limited explanatory power.

    “Of course, I have, in large part, posited a false dichotomy. Orthodox theology demands that we acknowledge both the example and the sacrifice of Christ (see Collect for Proper 15). A faithful follower of Jesus acknowledges the demands of justice, and his or her understanding of what is just springs organically from the holistic soil of sacred Scripture transmitted by the Church’s tradition… We will not come together in the Jesus Movement until we bend the knee to the whole Jesus…”

    I’ll wryly note that you didn’t mention whether you enjoyed *The Passion*.

    • I actually have never seen “The Passion of the Christ”, nor do I have any wish to see it. I have seen parts of it, and I do find it to be upsettingly violent (not that it takes much violence to upset me), frustratingly ahistorical, unScriptural, and also anti-Semitic. Not to mention, the atonement theology therein I find equally troubling.

      All of which is to say, that I also do not find that movie to be a good judge of much?

  7. I appreciate so much your sermons! They are a breath of fresh air. They always provide an insight — a way of thinking I had not noticed before. Thank you!

  8. Pingback: JBap’s Holistic Discipleship | Draughting Theology

  9. I have a feeling Bishop Martins would not recognize himself in this critique. This seems like a case of hearing what you want to hear.

  10. Reblogged this on Fawns of Naphtali and commented:
    “I am not a feminist, an LGTBQ ally, or a believer that #blacklivesmatter in spite of my Christianity. I am a feminist, and an ally BECAUSE of my Christianity. It is my faith that tells me that everyone is important, that everyone matters, and that my call is for the common welfare of all.”
    Thanks Megan. I was wondering if I was the only one.


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