New Testament Reading-Philippians 1: 12-22
When I was conducting research for my dissertation, I visited a wide variety of churches including a church that was part of the Word of Faith movement. For those of you unfamiliar with this movement, it’s a conservative Christian movement that started in the late 60s and early 70s and has become known for its emphasis on God blessing the faithful with good health and lots of wealth. The movement’s theology differed from my own, but I was in some ways envious of the church I visited.
I recall running into a seminary friend of mine one Sunday after worshipping in the church, and I remarked to him that this church seemed to have a lot more fun than the more liberal churches I visited. The people seemed genuinely joyful, and the church services were high spirited and good humored. The pastor would act as if his Bible was a nunchuck beating down Satan.
When I told my friend about the service, he replied by saying, “I guess it’s easier to have fun when you believe you have all the answers.” Well, I like to believe that more theologically conservative churches don’t have all the fun. I also like to think we have a good time here even if we admit we don’t have all the answers. Still, I sometimes worry about our ability to “compete” with other faiths who offer magic bullets and security blankets in which we ourselves typically don’t believe. I was recently reminded of this during our theological discussion group when Mike King noted that it makes a better sales pitch to say we have the one true faith rather than to say we have this faith that we like but others are okay too.
In reference to our more fundamentalist counterparts, I believe progressive Christians have at least two major issues with which to contend today. The first is cultural. How are we to engage contemporary popular culture? The mega churches of today arguably grow in part because they embrace certain aspects of popular culture in their video presentations and their music. For younger people who either did not grow up going to church or who for some reason feel alienated by traditional church, this can sometimes be appealing. The second issue is theological. How are we to conceive of God in a compelling and persuasive manner that people find relevant and meaningful for their lives? For example, when we think of all the unjustified suffering in the world, it may seem hard for many of us to conceive of God as a supernatural force intervening in the world to give wealth, health, and happiness to some but not to others. At the same time, I have often sympathetically thought that I can see how such beliefs might have an appeal for people facing crisis situations or circumstances that make them feel powerless. Sometimes a magic bullet might seem like the only thing for which one can hope.
Partly to my surprise I began to feel better about how progressive Christians might address the cultural and theological issues of today by reading both the letters of Paul and the letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German theologian. Paul and Bonhoeffer had a number of things in common. Both wrote letters from prison. Both wrote knowing that they could be executed. Both professed in their writings to be full of joy and gratitude despite their circumstances. In the case of Bonhoeffer, this positive, robust spirit was later attested to by one of his fellow prisoners. In a book following World War II, a British officer who was with Bonhoeffer in his final weeks wrote, “Bonhoeffer…was all humility and sweetness, he always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive.”[i] As great as this might sound, I will confess that I find the joy of Paul and Bonhoeffer both potentially troublesome and inspiring.
On the one hand, I am troubled because in our modern age of self-help books I think there is dangerous tendency to focus on how people can improve their lives psychologically without ever addressing the external forces that make their lives so miserable. On the other hand, if I am setting out to challenge and change those external forces, I would probably prefer to be around someone who is full of joy and hope rather than doom and gloom. In fact, I would prefer to have that same uplifting spirit myself. In the end, both Paul and Bonhoeffer were so thoroughly political in their opposition to the oppressive regimes of their times that there can be no doubt that their outlooks were more than simple self-help clichés.
The real question is what was the basis of their joy and hope despite their open-eyed confrontation with evil. This is where I think Paul and Bonhoeffer become especially relevant for progressive Christians today. As Rev. Paddy Paddlewhompus discussed last Sunday, Paul didn’t think of God primarily as some King in the Sky or some Intervening Supernatural Force. Paul thought of God primarily through the person of Jesus who he regarded as one who was full of a life-giving Spirit. Paul further believed that this life-giving Spirit wasn’t just something Jesus had. It was something available to all of us. Paul was so excited about the life-giving Spirit in Jesus that he was willing to go prison for the sake of helping it to spread throughout the world.
Now, I don’t know about you, but as much as I might like the poetry of talking about Jesus as a person of the Spirit, I also like my theology to have a bit more meat and potatoes. Certainly, there was something about Jesus that ignited within Paul a passion and allowed him to transcend his circumstances at least to some degree, but what exactly was it? This is where I find Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison especially helpful. In his final letters before he was executed in a concentration camp, Bonhoeffer gives some of his clearest insights into the theology that sustained him. Bonhoeffer explicitly states that transcendence does not come from a power far beyond us. It doesn’t come from something “remote” or “terrifying.”[ii] Nor does it come from some abstract metaphysical or infinite form of God. Bonhoeffer says, no, transcendence comes from something closer at hand. It comes from God in the midst of humanity. Specifically, it comes in the life lived for others. Jesus represented this life in its fullest form, and, for Bonhoeffer, faith was a participation in this other-oriented life of Christ. It was this kind of other-oriented life that both Paul and Bonhoeffer also exemplified themselves.
I’ve wondered what is so special about this life lived in concern for others and what makes it so transcendent. Bonhoeffer talked about Jesus being freed from the self. I can’t but help to think that what resonated with Bonhoeffer was the experience of transcending one’s own ego by being focused outwardly on others. To put it in scientific rather than fruedian terms, there are now studies that show there is a neuro-chemical benefit to compassion.[iii] Being focused on others makes us feel better.
For me, one of the highlights of reading Bonhoeffer’s letters is how much joy and gratitude he finds in simply thinking of his family and friends. He is often remembering the good times they’ve shared. I am convinced that Bonhoeffer’s theology was actually rooted primarily in the love he experienced from his parents. In his second to last letter before he died, Bonhoeffer wrote to his mother saying, “Dear Mama, I want you and Papa to know that you are constantly in my thoughts, and that I thank God for all you have been to me and the rest of the family. I know you have always lived for us, and have never had a life of your own…Thank you for all the love you have brought into my cell during this past year: it has made every day easier to bear.”[iv] It was in Bonhoeffer’s parents that he first experienced the self-giving love and other-oriented disposition that would be at the heart of his theology.
Herein lies what I think is the good news for progressive Christians today. I am convinced that a faith rooted in these real life experiences of love and compassion is far more powerful than any magic bullet or false security blanket. It’s also more life-giving than any of the latest cultural trends. The proof is in the lives of people like Paul and Bonhoeffer, and I dare say in our own lives.
Some years ago I received a call from my mother saying that I needed to fly to Michigan because my grandmother didn’t have much longer to live. At the time, I was working part-time for a hospital chaplain’s office visiting patients. I had been well-trained in a pastoral approach whereby one tries to help the patients verbalize how they are feeling. When I visited my grandmother lying in her hospice bed, I found her personality to be as delightful as ever, and I confess the hospital chaplain part of me thought she just needed to let out some of those painful feelings that I was convinced were buried deep down inside. Luckily, my mother later helped me understand what my grandmother was doing. My grandmother was focusing on us. She didn’t want us to feel bad, and I don’t think there was a single false note in her good cheer. Instead, I think that like Paul and like Bonhoeffer she found her own transcendent joy, and it is that transcendent joy that I hope each of us can experience ourselves. Amen.
[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 13.
[ii] Ibid., 239.
[iii] Daniel Goleman, Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, (Bantam, 2003), 12.
[iv] Ibid., 247.