Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Living As Those Already Dead - Reflections On Bonhoeffer's Cost Of Discipleship

Pursuant not only to our on-going theme of courage and cowardice, but also to clarification for those readers who continue to believe, despite there being abundant evidence to the contrary, that I just don't get what it is to be a Christian, I got to thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In particular, his remarkable little book The Cost of Discipleship. It is an easy book to misunderstand, in particular as regards his opening chapter on costly grace. His point seems, without due consideration, to be antithetical to the entire spirit of freedom that is ours in Christ through the Spirit. Yet, on even the most minor further rumination, he is talking exactly about that freedom, a freedom that costs us everything because it cost God everything. It is free, there is no price we can pay, it is ours because it is grace. It costs us everything, our lives and fortunes and honor and all we hold precious, and is never to be taken for granted but continually sought in prayer and discipline because it is grace. In the freedom granted in the grace of the cross and empty tomb we find this dichotomy in which we come to understand ourselves as grasped by the love that is God without anything asked of us; yet, as we take hold of this freely-given love and forgiveness, we come to realize that it demands of us not just this or that, but everything. It is freedom not just from the fear of eternal separation from God, but freedom for the most rigorous, continuous searching with others who live in the continuous shadow of the cross for that to which God calls us.

At the heart of Bonhoeffer's little book is his famous dictum that when we are called by God, we are called to die. Not some metaphorical death. We are called to embrace our own very real death. We stand before God as those whose lives are now forfeit. All that we have, all that we are, all our great and good thoughts and deeds are over. To live in the very real, very costly grace of God is not to rest in the peaceful bosom or enfolded wings of an indulgent parent. Rather, it is to stand before the blood-soaked cross each and every moment of our lives. Who we are, before that moment, urges us to run away. The paradox of grace is just this - even as it is offered without price, it demands that we surrender everything we hold precious, our lives and our loves, our fortunes and our families. When the shadow of the cross falls upon us, the full measure of the price demanded of us for the freedom offered here demands that we turn and run. Our old lives cost us nothing, invite us to warmth, to a life lived without thinking about the very real ending that awaits us. The cross invites us to embrace that end, to make it our only reality, the only possibility that provides for true human life. There is no escaping this paradox, nowhere any of us who have been grasped by God can hide once the shadow of the cross falls upon us.

With that in mind, it is important to remember that the possibility of true human life, lived always with the understanding that we are, all of us, already dead, only comes with discipline. It is a discipline rooted in grace, to be sure, not possible outside the faith granted us in the Spirit, something we are to work out together with others who wear the wounds of Christ in their hearts. Yet it is a discipline. It cannot be assumed as something which God will grant to us out of the bounteous goodness of the Divine heart. On the contrary, precisely because each and every moment of our existence forces us to face the cross and the desire to have nothing to do with this bloody mess, this travesty of human and Divine judgment, this mockery of all we thought truly sacred, truly noble, we need to steel ourselves through prayer and devotion and sacrament and the vigilant, loving care of others so that the possibilities of living out the promises of God for real life - a real life lived in the full embrace of our own deaths - can become realized in and through us.

This is the background against which any of what I have written about Christian freedom needs to be considered. This is the background against which anything I have written about my own spiritual development, my own own deepening of faith, must be understood. It is right here, at the heart of the paradox of freedom and discipline, of Divine gratuity and human death, that I find myself living. It is why, by and large, I am unsympathetic to the embourgeoisement of American Christianity, its facile "praise", its encouragement of family over faith, its only demand being we make sure no fetus is left behind, and that all gays be denied the full rights of citizenship. It is why I find all talk of morality to be a dodge, a way of avoiding the very real discipline that calls us, each and every day, to understand that we are dead. We are dead to all that which calls us good, calls us kind, considerate, thoughtful. The cheap grace of social mores brings nothing but the haughty pride of those who seek to exclude. In grace that is truly costly, any question of morality becomes as meaningless as the empty family values that see in Christianity some bulwark for the family we are to renounce if need be in favor of that which is far more precious, far more lasting, that pearl of great price.

Now, I know some will read all this as a bunch of hokum, a further obsurantist denial of the "true" heart of the Christian faith. That's OK, because I'm not here to persuade anyone. I am here telling anyone who might wish to listen what is possible in the very real, very costly grace that is our in Jesus Christ crucified and risen.

Virtual Tin Cup

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