Thursday, May 31, 2007

Religionless Christianity

Here's a little something I wrote on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison for my ethics class with Dr. Glen "Pure Playa" Stassen. It's a response to the question, "What does Bonhoeffer mean by religionless Christianity?" I hope the answer is self-explanatory, though a quarter's-worth of reading and reflection lay behind it.

When Bonhoeffer describes “religionless Christianity,” he is speaking about a faith without boundaries. The concept of the “boundary” can be found throughout Bonhoeffer’s works in various contexts. In the present context, the boundary is one between the “world” and that which is beyond the world, namely, the things of God. Religion had become a kind of buffer between Person and Spirit, between the world of tangible, verifiable, propositional realities and the ineffable kingdom of the heavens. In other words, religion is a means of filling of the void within human understanding, of appropriating the things beyond comprehension (282). The danger inherent to this religiosity is that the boundary constantly flexes to accommodate humanity’s cognitive or experiential faculties. Therefore, the boundary between God and humanity expands with human understanding, pushing God further and further away.

Bonhoeffer vehemently opposes any such construction that separates reality into two spheres, one worldly and the other divine. Instead, all of reality is bound up in Jesus. The incarnation of God in Christ draws together the two spheres of reality—wrenched apart by religion—and sets the divine within the world. Bonhoeffer puts it plainly: “God is beyond in the midst of our life” (282). So the religion Bonhoeffer advocates is one that is worldly. He makes no allowance for a separation between God—that is, beyond the world—and God’s activities within the world, such as miracles and the ascension (285). God entered into the world in the incarnation, destroying the boundary religion seeks to erect. Humanity is not to be drawn up to some disembodied spiritual existence at the end of time, to a heaven in the clouds. The kingdom of heaven on earth is the focus of God’s work in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (286). At the same time, Bonhoeffer protects against a kind of reductionism that would exchange the boundary on humanity’s understanding for a limiting boundary on God, so that the divine is made finite. Bonhoeffer criticizes Barth’s “positivist” doctrine of revelation because it leaves no room for the infinite, for mystery (286). This “positivist” view relegates all of reality to something that must be accepted either completely or not at all.

Taking all of this into account, it follows that there cannot be a “secular” world and the “world of faith,” or any other manifestation of a two realm split. The incarnation draws the two together. The God beyond comprehension is concerned with this world “created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored” (286). Therefore, when Bonhoeffer advocates a “religionless Christianity,” he is talking about drawing all of life into one realm: the Kingdom of God. There is no distinction between secular and divine, only life within the Kingdom, with Jesus Christ as Lord.

Bethge, Eberhard, ed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

My Brain

Have you ever wondered what kind of garbage is constantly floating like silt on the waters of my mind? Let this be the answer. The following is the result of a late-night writing marathon for Dr. Thompson's Patristic Theology class last fall during which I lost control of my brain. Though I posted this elsewhere several months ago, I figured I would share it here too.

Augustine was a wee little man who liked to eat pudding from the bottom of a lily while strolling down Crunchberry Lane, all the while twirling and spinning and twirling some more. One day he ate a bumblebee. He also liked to get his hair combed in the shape of a frigate, his favorite of the seagoing vessels. Sometimes he would attach bells to the buckle of his boots so he’d jingle and jangle and bingle and gangle. He’d skip and prance like a gazelle just to hear the noise. “Fra la la, la la tee day!” he would say. Oh the merriment! Oh the extravagance! Oh the flatulence! Pelagius was jealous especially of Augustine’s flatulence and the attention of the ladies it earned him. The ladies regarded Augustine as highly as the players of fife and pale in the town of Razzlemuffin.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Reflections on the works of director Terrence Malick

Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World

Surreal. Meditative. Poetic. Tragic. Natural. Illuminated. Human. Theological.
Philosophical. Transcendent. Unconventional. Watching one of director’s Terrence Malick’s films is like wandering through a dream at times both good and bad. His style is unique. Rather than giving audiences with yet another typically mundane narrative, Malick’s approach is to provide a meditative space for a viewer to hear, experience and feel a distinct world. It is our world, the real world filtered through poetry—poetry of image, character, music, and sound. All of his films are loosely historical, bearing the distinct marks of Malick’s imagination and interpretation. There is something historical in every one of his films, something distinct to a certain culture, geography, or era, but we’re not presented the flat facts. These stories are myths or parables. As any good myth does, rather than covering or diminishing clear perceptions of reality, what is true and real is engaged, enlivened, and illuminated.

The most unfortunate part about what I’m about to write is that so few people have experienced watching these films, and fewer still appreciate them. Some wonder how I could possibly count these (unbearable) movies among my favorites, and I wonder how those people fail to appreciate—even if only in a detached way—art of such depth, beauty, mystery and honest reflection. Maybe Malick’s work lacks popular appeal because of its comfort with mystery, with the undefined, the unspoken, the things that are not wrapped up into a neat package. Though I’ve watched each movie a dozen times or more, I still don’t “get” everything. Rather than diminishing my appreciation for the work, the mystery makes each viewing valuable and new. For many moviegoers, I think the overriding concern is for a palatable resolution of the story, the ultimate happiness of the protagonists, and the destruction of evil (people). Malick gives us ambiguity on many levels, with open ends and frayed edges, and seems content in doing so. Mystery leaves questions open, calls a person to probe deeper, to remain fascinated with something. Ultimately, isn’t that what the mystery in meditation is all about? Not figuring something out or encapsulating a person or idea in an easy-to-swallow capsule to consume and forget, as though the object of our meditation had been “understood”. Not making love, truth, beauty, God, and people into propositions—proposals to accept or reject. Malick isn’t comfortable to close the book on God, love, or truth within the imaginative realm of these stories nor, presumably, in the real world.

As a Christ-follower intensely concerned with the things of God, I see other values in Malick’s work as well. Constant attention is given to creation, the natural world: animals, insects, trees, rivers, landscapes, mountains, beaches, and people—these are all sanctified, touched by the hand of God. Malick loves to show us people who live simply, who lack pretension, bitterness and greed, as the native people of The New World or the Melanesian islanders of The Thin Red Line. However, his vision of earth also rightly acknowledges the ugliness within creation, the result of human sin. In The Thin Red Line, Malick provides the clearest allusion to sin’s effect on the whole of creation. Paraphrasing Augustine’s Confessions, the narrator asks, “This great evil… where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light; mocking us with the sight of what we might have known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow and the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you too? Have you passed through this night?”

The narrator asks this question in the midst of a chaotic village battle between American and Japanese soldiers on the island of Guadalcanal. In the scene, one side can hardly be distinguished from the other. It’s a scene of humanity caught up in a vast whirlpool of its own destruction. When the narrator asks the question, “Who’s killing us?” the intended recipient of the question is left unclear, and I think intentionally so. Are we the audience being asked? Is he inquiring after God? By framing the question in this way, we participate in asking the question ourselves, directing it in several directions at once. This is the irresistible beauty and tragedy of Malick’s work.

That's it for this woefully inadequate reflection. I intend to write some more on the specifics of the individual films at a later time, but I hope this will suffice as a brief summary or overview for now. The most important thing to do now is watch these movies!