Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Faith and the Creeds

C.S. Lewis defined faith as the "art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods" (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 141). Lewis was very realistic about the ways in which our various emotional states affect our religious beliefs. For Lewis, our moods change constantly. If our beliefs are based solely on our moods, then our beliefs would change constantly as well. Therefore, our beliefs must be anchored by something stable, constant, and unchanging--namely, the virtue of faith. If you are not anchored by this virtue, then you will be "just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion" (Ibid., 142).

Lewis describes faith not as an emotion or a mood but as a "habit." It is something that you develop by training, practice, and exercise. Faith, in this sense, can be compared to the habit of shooting free throws. If you want to be a good free throw shooter, you must practice, that is, you must shoot hundreds of free throws day in and day out. This takes discipline: anyone who practices free throws only when he or she is in the right mood will surely not become a good free throw shooter. The one who attends to the practice everyday, in spite of one's moods, will eventually shoot a high percentage foul shot. It is the same with faith: faith is a habit which comes by way of disciplined practice.

Practicing faith, according to Lewis, includes something very specific: "Once you have accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe" (Ibid., 142). Lewis goes on to say that most people who leave Christianity do not do so because they have reasoned their way out of Christianity, but rather because they have not kept the faith alive in their minds.

Worship, among many things, is a time when we are continually reminded of what we believe. It is a time when we are trained into the faith. We are reminded of what we believe through music, scripture reading, preaching, and the Eucharist. All of these things are practices. By attending to them with discipline, we develop the virtue of faith. These practices enable us to "hold on to things that our reason once accepted, in spite of our changing moods." Worship, in this vein, is more like a habit than an emotional experience. To be sure, there are times when worship will powerfully evoke our emotions. There are times when we will be in the mood to worship. There are also times, however, when we will not feel like worshipping. There are times when worship does not evoke emotions. That is okay. Worship is not about our ever-changing emotions but rather about being continually reminded of and shaped by the story of God reconciling the world to himself in Christ. By attending to that story day in and day out, in the midst of our various emotional states, we will acquire the virtue of faith.

Reciting the creeds over and over in worship is one of the best ways to remind ourselves of our beliefs. Jaroslav Pelikan, one of the greatest church historians of our time, was once asked why we need to recite creeds in worship. Pelikan said that our spiritual life fluctuates: there are ups and downs, hot spots and colds spots. Therefore, during Sunday morning worship, we are not asked, "As of 10:30 am, what do you believe?" Rather, we are asked "Do you choose to be part of community which has affirmed these things?" The creeds set for the basic things that the church catholic has affirmed throughout space and time. By reciting the creed continually--by practicing it over and over--we are able to keep the faith over the long haul.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tenth and Final Meeting

The Contemporary Era: Part 3

Time: May 4, 2009 at 7:00 pm
Location: RCN Coffee Room (233)

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

Books will have to be purchased or found on your own. (Half Price books usually has about 3-4 copies of it for $5.00.

This would be a great discussion to invite a friend to. Lewis defines the essence of the Christian tradition in this book in a way that is simultaneously profound and simple.

For an audio clip of the last few chapters of Mere Christianity, click here. These are the only parts of Lewis' 1941-1944 BBC radio addresses that have survived.

Compassion and Prayer

Henri Nouwen provides a refreshing account of how prayer relates to the compassionate life. For Nouwen, prayer is the "first and indispensable discipline of compassion precisely because prayer is also the first expression of human solidarity." Nouwen's theology of prayer, however, challenges the theology of prayer which is often espoused in the church. I would like to share a long quotation which captures this theology.

"One of the most powerful experiences in a life of compassion is the expansion of our hearts into a world-embracing space of healing from which no one is excluded...Prayer for others cannot be seen as an extraordinary exercise that must be practiced from time to time. Rather, it is the very beat of a compassionate heart. To pray is not a futile effort to influence God's will, but a hospitable gesture by which we invite our neighbors into the center of our hearts. To pray for others means to make them part of ourselves. To pray for others means to allow their pains and sufferings, their anxieties and loneliness, their confusion and fears to resound in our innermost selves...To pray is to enter into a deep inner solidarity with our fellow human beings so that in and through us they can be touched by the healing power of God's Spirit...it is in and through us that God's Spirit touches them with his healing presence."

Prayer is a "hospitable gesture," not a "futile effort to influence God's will." Do you agree with this statement? How might this idea affect our practices of personal and corporate prayer?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Disillusionment and Christian Community

All of us have been disillusioned with Christian community. All of us have had dreams of what the church ought to be, and all of us have had those dreams shattered by the harsh realities of life together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew about disillusionment. After all, he lived during the "German-Christian compromise," a time when most of his brothers and sisters in Christ swore allegiance to Hitler. What is striking about Bonhoeffer, however, is that he did not wallow in his disillusionment. In point of fact, he warned his seminary students of the dangers of developing "wish dreams" for Christian community. "Wish dreams" are the source of disillusionment itself and a detriment to true community. "Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter..." (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 27).

For Bonhoeffer, disillusionment occurs when we come to Christian community as demanders--better yet, as consumers--and not as "thankful recipients." I will leave you with his challenging words on Christian community and disillusionment.

"Because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what he has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness, and His promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily. And is not what he has given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together--the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship" (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 28-29).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ninth Meeting

The Contemporary Era: Part 2

Time: April 13, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Location: RCN Coffee Room (233)

Compassion by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison

I have a couple copies that you can borrow, so let me know if you are interested. Otherwise, this book will have to be purchased on your own.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Eighth Meeting

The Contemporary Era: Part 1

Time: March 16, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Location: RCN Coffee Room (233)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

We will also be watching a few clips from the 2003 Doblmeier documentary film Bonhoeffer. For a preview of the film, click here.

There are no online versions of this book. If you need a book, contact Scott Dermer as soon as possible (If you are buying a book, I recommend the HarperSan Francisco version, translated by John W. Doberstein).

For an introduction to Bonhoeffer's life and work, see the post below.

A Brief Introduction to the Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Scott Dermer

In the opening lines of The Cost of Discipleship, the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bohnoeffer (1906-1945) exposed the most fatal enemy of the church—cheap grace. For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is essentially “grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system.”[1] Cheap grace is “intellectual assent” to a doctrine of forgiveness without any real attachment to Christ’s person, Christ’s suffering, and Christ’s cross.[2] In other words, cheap grace is doctrine devoid of embodiment, intellectualism devoid of action, belief devoid of discipleship. Cheap grace is impractical theology, that is, theology removed from the burdens of history and the mission of the church to bear such burdens. The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an indelible witness to the utter inseparability of theology and practice. In the midst of the vexing problems his time, Bonhoeffer was in every way a practical theologian, for his theology manifested itself in a costly performance of the Christian faith.
Just three years before Adolf Hitler became the Reich Chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer completed his Doctorate at the University of Berlin and published his first dissertation entitled Communion of Saints. A year later Bonhoeffer published a second dissertation, Act and Being, and argued in it that the church is the community where persons encounter Christ in the other. Bonhoeffer’s promising early work on ecclesiology reflects a theme which would persist throughout his entire theological and pastoral career: namely, the theme of what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ. Such a theme could not have been more vexing for the Christian living in Germany during the Third Reich. For the majority of Christians in 1930s Germany, being a member of the Body of Christ meant unqualified participation in the German national church. In the eyes of Germany’s despot, however, membership in this body was nothing other than exclusive allegiance to Germany itself, for, as Hitler once asserted, “one is either a German or a Christian.” After securing their position in the German Christian Church, the Nazis commenced their anti-semetic ideology and called all Lutheran pastors to undivided loyalty to Hitler. In the minds of many German Christians, Paul’s admonition to “let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God” required complete conformity to the laws and ideology of Nazism.[3]
In light of this German-Christian compromise, Bonhoeffer cast a radically alternative ecclesiological vision for Christians in Germany. For Bonhoeffer, “the church is the church only when it exists for others.”[4] During his time at Union Theological Seminary in the United States, Bonhoeffer had a formative experience at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was here that Bonhoeffer witnessed a church that existed solely for the oppressed and suffering African-Americans of Harlem. Returning to Germany after this experience, Bonhoeffer turned his theological and pastoral attention to the question of how the church in Germany might exist for others in light of the increasing dangers of German nationalism and militarism. Bonhoeffer became one of many Lutheran pastors to join the Confessing Church, a church which aimed to speak prophetically to the German Christian Church as well as resist Nazi totalitarian ideology. In 1934 Bonhoeffer was invited to found and direct one of the seminaries established by the Confessing Church. While at the seminary in Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer’s attention was drawn to the Sermon on the Mount, particularly the beatitude about peacemakers. Bonhoeffer held that Christ’s command to be peacemakers is binding on every Christian. The disciple is to do nothing other than “establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate.”[5] Pacifism, a doctrine at the core of Bonhoeffer’s theology and teaching, was by no means a speculative doctrine divorced from real life. For both Bonhoeffer and his students, pacifism had costly political implications, for if one resisted the military draft under Hitler’s regime, one risked being “lined up and shot.”[6] Bonhoeffer could do nothing but pray, along with some of his students, that God would grant them the power to resist the draft. In 1935 the seminary at Finkenwalde was dissolved by the Gestapo, and two years later Bonhoeffer returned to the United States to avert an imminent draft. Less than two months after he arrived in the United States, Bonhoeffer realized that he had made a mistake in leaving his country and his people. Here one observes the utter integrity of this practical theologian: “I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share in the trials of this time with my people.”[7] Shortly after returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer resolved that the Christian must not only bind up the victims of the wheel, but must “put a spoke in the wheel itself.”[8] Thus, Bonhoeffer joined a resistance plot which aimed to overthrow Hitler and establish a new government. Bonhoeffer, who assisted Jews in escaping Germany and worked as an international liaison for the conspiracy, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943. He was executed on April 9, 1945 at the Flossenburg concentration camp. The inscription on his monument at Flossenburg is a quite fitting portrayal of his life and work: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1937), 45.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Rm. 13:1
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1953), 382.
[5] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 126.
[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Memories and Perspectives, (Vision Video, 1994). This phrase was used by one of Bonhoeffer’s students.
[7] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 16. Emphasis mine.
[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Memories and Perspectives, 1994.