Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Through careful historical analysis and comprehensive biblical exegesis, Hughes examines not only whether America was ever intended by its founders to be a Christian nation but also what is an even more telling inquiry; namely, whether that description may, or even should, be applied to the United States today. His approach to these questions, though, goes well beyond mere political theory or even theological doctrine. Indeed, Hughes has accomplished in this concise work as comprehensive a critique of “Christian Americanism” as Mark Noll did of anti-intellectualism fifteen years ago in his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
From the outset, Hughes asserts three theses: first, “the notion of Christian America and the notion of the kingdom of God are polar opposites whose values could not be further apart” (4); second, “the devastatingly ironic truth that Christian America so often behaves in such unchristian and even anti-Christian ways” (5); and finally, “that Christians should behave in ways that are consistent with their profession of faith, especially in America’s public square” (5). He then proceeds to present his case against Christian Americanism in five well-formed chapters.
In the first, he examines the historical account of those who have viewed America as a nation chosen by God. Beginning with the earliest identifications made by colonial leaders of the New World as a “Promised Land,” Hughes surveys a litany of claims to America’s “chosen” status throughout its history. He describes each assertion fairly and within both the historical and theological contexts that gave them rise. Having succinctly and carefully observed claims from Tyndale’s time to their contemporary formulations in the preaching of D. James Kennedy, Hughes proceeds to assess whether such claims hold up under the scrutiny of a thorough biblical review.
Many who advocate for America’s chosen status draw heavily upon analogies to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. But rather than indulging in a “proof-text” approach, Hughes counters these claims by charting the full scope of the Biblical narrative to demonstrate that the particularistic status associated with Israel as God’s chosen nation in the Hebrew Bible finds its fulfillment, according to the New Testament, not in a national – much less an ethnically identified – community, but in the Body of Christ, in whom there are no racial, national, ethnic, political, nor even social or economic distinctions.
In his next two chapters, Hughes turns his analysis from the notion of America as a “chosen nation” to the theme which occupies him for the larger part of this work, i.e. a biblical understanding of the kingdom of God and its bearing upon the claim of a Christian America. His critique is premised upon the notion that if America is to be considered a truly Christian country, then it values and actions should bear semblance to the description of the qualities and characteristics that define the kingdom of God both in the Hebrew Bible (in particular the those announced and called for by the prophets, e.g. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos and others) and in the teachings of Jesus Christ and his apostles as set forth in the New Testament.
Hughes demonstrates that the chief characteristics of the kingdom of God described in the Scriptures taken as a whole are justice and peace. Justice, especially as called for by the prophets, means equitable treatment and care especially for the poor and marginalized in society. Peace entails a conscientious dedication to peace-making and efforts toward reconciliation between individuals, groups and races as well as nations. Though Hughes does not cite him in depicting a nation devoted to peace, echoes can be heard of Bonhoeffer’s Fano address: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture” (A Testament to Freedom, 228). Hughes’ analysis of the New Testament passages on the kingdom of God, though sound in both interpretation and application, could have been rendered even more persuasive among a broader scope of evangelicals and fundamentalists (all of whom should be reading this book) had he relied upon the scholarship of N.T. Wright on several points where he instead resorts to Crossan.
In the remaining chapters, Hughes returns to an historical investigation of reasons offered to support Christian Americanism. He traces the first antecedents of this idea all the way back to Constantine’s Edit of Milan and then charts its seminal development through Justinian and Theodosius. He describes a second strand in its emergence that was woven in through the Reformation and especially Calvin’s doctrine of the sovereignty of God that motivated a not insignificant number of the early colonists. Hughes strongly rejects, however, the claim that the new nation was established as a distinctively Christian country.
Rather, he demonstrates instead that the vast majority of the founding leaders were not distinctively Christian and that the documents they formulated to define the nation, while upholding the role of religion in society and protecting it from state interference, were in purpose and effect fundamentally secular. He then recounts a series of engagements throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in an on-going battle for Christian America through such forays as the Second Great Awakening and Manifest Destiny, then on to the Gilded Age’s gospel of wealth and the social gospel’s rejection of it. All of which, Hughes contends contributed in various ways to the messianic nationalism that characterized those who advanced Christian Americanism through the later part of the 20th century and into our present day.
The book reaches its climax in Hughes' unflinching critique of the fundamentalist vision of America within a Dispensational eschatology as it was embodied within the Evangelical Right from its early advances in the Reagan administration to the political might it displayed through the policies, both foreign and domestic, of George W. Bush. In sum, he issues a prophetic warning, in his own right, to all those who claim that God is on “their side” in an Armageddon-like clash of civilizations. Hughes concludes his critique by drawing a telling analogy:
"Obviously, there is a sense—and, in fact, a profound sense—in which America is a Christian nation. After all, some 76 percent of the American people claim to be Christian in one form or another. But the Christian character of the United States is comparable to the Christian character of the Roman Empire after Constantine . . . . Like that ancient empire, the United States abounds in Christian trappings. And yet the United States embraces virtually all the values that have been common to empires for centuries on end. It pays lip service to peace but thrives on violence, exalts the rich over the poor, prefers power to humility, places vengeance above forgiveness, extravagance above modesty, and luxury above simplicity. In a word, it rejects the values of Jesus" (185-86).
In this book, Hughes has synthesized and fortified the calls issued over the past ten years by the likes of Stephen Carter and Jim Wallis for a renewed prophetic engagement of religiously motivated Christians in the social and political issues of our day; but in so doing, to acknowledge that the Kingdom of God will not, indeed cannot, be brought about by force of arms or even force of law, but as it was, and is and will be in Christ’s day, only by the force of truth. For anyone who wishes to live responsibly within the concrete realities of life today, Hughes’ analysis found within these pages should be read with careful thought and his challenges heeded with conscientious action.
Tuesday, June 02, 2009
I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose he needs men who make the best use of everything. I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us resist in all time of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone. A faith such as this should allay all our fears for the future I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are turned to good account, and that it is no harder for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds. I believe that God is no timeless fate, but that he waits for and answers sincere prayers and responsible actions.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Authentic Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics in Context
If the ideas articulated and life lived by Dietrich Bonhoeffer have captivated your thinking and challenged your soul, then you would do well to take the time to read thoughtfully and reflectively this collection of Professor Tödt’s essays on Bonhoeffer’s theology, ethics and resistance. First published fifteen years ago in his original German, this compilation of Tödt’s insightful scholarship spans the latter half of his academic career as professor of systematic theology, ethics and social ethics at the University of Heidelberg and as the chairman of the editorial board of the German edition of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Tödt’s student, Glen Harold Strassen, captured the tenor of his writings when he stated: “Tödt’s publications have an analytical sharpness, an ethical incisiveness and a genuine truthfulness that is rare even among the best.” Strassen served as the editor of the English edition of Tödt’s essays on Bonhoeffer published here in the United States in 2007. It is this new edition that is the subject of this review.
This collection of essays by Tödt makes a significant contribution to the ever-growing corpus of Bonhoeffer scholarship. Unlike that of many who have come before and after him, though, Tödt’s analysis expounds the major dimensions of Bonhoeffer’s ethics by examining the political, ecclesiastical and family context in which Bonhoeffer wrote. His essays, however, reach an even deeper level of profundity as Tödt subjects himself to scrutiny of Bonhoeffer’s ideas by transparently wrestling with issues of guilt and forgiveness about his own experience of the German context during the Third Reich when he served as a soldier at the front during the Second World War and then was subjected to detention as a prisoner-of-war in a Russian camp for five years. Above all, in his engagement with Bonhoeffer, Tödt sought an ethic that can provide wise guidance in the face of contemporary schemes to manipulate faith for ideological ends.
Fourteen of Tödt’s essays are presented. The earliest essay dates from the 1970’s, and the latest to one year before his death in 1991. A deepening of both insight into the underlying essence of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts as well as an appreciation for the authenticity of his faith-inspired actions is evident. The first eleven essays analyze themes in Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics. For example, Tödt tackles the ever-perplexing notion of “religion-less Christianity” that marks Bonhoeffer’s later letters to Eberhard Bethge from his Tegel prison cell. In contrast with those progressive theologians who have latched on to Bonhoeffer’s language only to fill it with a self-conceived meaning inconsistent with the whole of Bonhoeffer’s thought and life, Tödt finds that Bonhoeffer was here conceiving a Christianity not confined to ideals for merely private life or to the gaps where we cannot solve problems, but rather a Christian faith that gives concrete guidance in the center of life.
In other essays, Tödt focuses attention on an important question that has not been examined by other scholars of Bonhoeffer. He asks what was about Bonhoeffer’s ethics that enabled him to discern so clearly and speak out for the Jews and against war more decisively than other theologians and church leaders even from the very onset of Hitler’s chancellorship. In his exploration of this question, Tödt demonstrates Bonhoeffer’s insights in naming the sources of evil and self-deception as well as warning against the ways and means by which the leader becomes the misleader. Tödt also clarifies Bonhoeffer’s articulation of the vocation of the churches in speaking concretely and the vocation of groups in acting concretely as an assertion of checks and balances against authoritarianism not only in the context of Nazi Germany but also with application for responsible action in the midst of contemporary expressions of authoritarianism.
Tödt’s extensive analysis of the social, theological, and ethical characteristics of the resistance movement, in which Bonhoeffer and family members played integral roles, provides both information and insights that go well beyond what can be found in other scholarship to date. This comprehensiveness in his treatment of Bonhoeffer’s resistance is the product of thoroughgoing research project that Tödt led at the University of Heidelberg.
The final three essays in this collection address contemporary history, in which Tödt examines, with an authenticity born out of Bonhoeffer’s ethics, the guilt and responsibility of Christendom in Germany. What particularly marks Tödt’s approach and the insights he offers is his resolve not to be devoted to merely an interpretation of past positions, but instead to find in Bonhoeffer avenues that advance both the present tasks of theology in the church and a better understanding of our own way of life.
In 1985, Tödt himself expressed the force of Bonhoeffer’s life and words upon him in this way:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has come nearer and nearer and become more and more important for me – not merely with one single flash of light – but in a continuing process over twenty years. Of his many remarkable character traits and abilities, the concentration with which he exposed his faith in Christ to the tests that life brought, all the way to the extreme situations of resistance, and then thought through theologically what happened him and those involved, occupies me most of all. I perceive this theology as deeply authentic and as showing the way for me as a theological teacher . . . . Bonhoeffer is not right in all things, but from no theologian am I now learning so much as from him, and, to be sure, with my intellect and with my heart.
Tödt, though, was greatly distressed by those self-proclaimed scholars and would-be theologians who did not follow the whole way through Bonhoeffer but would rather “tear out individual elements of life and thought and [either] progressively instrumentalize them or conservatively distort them,” and then advocate that the guilt for the deficits in the modern churches lies in Bonhoeffer’s guidance. In an effort to expose and counter these misuses and abuses, Tödt presents a thoroughly studied and attentively perceived exposition of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics both in the context of his life experiences and for application in our own.
Although some portions in the English translation occasionally render the complexity of Tödt’s German syntax in stilted and strained constructions, the substance of the insights and analyses of Bonhoeffer offered by Tödt make any extra time required to slow down and re-read such passages abundantly rewarding. No other book has more opened my eyes or deepened my appreciation for Bonhoeffer’s guidance in living responsibly in the concrete realities of life than Tödt’s.
Sunday, January 04, 2009
In his opening chapter, Devine succinctly charts the formative influences and choices that embodied within Bonhoeffer the beliefs he expressed in his writings and through his actions. In the remaining four chapters, the author provides a helpful introduction for his readers into the extensive works of Bonhoeffer under the themes: “Knowing and Doing the Will of God” (Chapter 2); “The Community of Believers” (Chapter 3); “Witness and Relevance” (Chapter 4); and finally “Freedom, Suffering, and Hope” (Chapter 5).