Theologies of Courage


Independence Day was hard for many Americans to celebrate this year, and Therese Patricia Okoumou, who climbed up to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty on the 4th, demonstrated succinctly in word and deed exactly why that is.

“In a democracy we do not put children in cages,” she said in remarks after her arraignment.“Period.”

“There is no debating it,” she added emphatically. “Nothing you will say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

That this not only needed to be said, but needed a public act of political protest, a singular act of courage by an individual with a story of her own to tell in her own words to drive it home, reminds us that we are in a moment that requires acts of courage from all of us. That requires us to radically change the course of our own stories.

One reason I’m so interested in Bonhoeffer is that his life story is the search for how we answer a radical evil in word and deed. His is a political theology. There’s a lot that I don’t know that I agree with in the nitty-gritty of his theology, but my agreeing with it or not (and there is literally no agreement among Bonhoeffer scholars about his theology, so no pressure) certainly doesn’t change the fact that Bonhoeffer was a genuine badass, and his theology was absolutely central to his badassery.

I have read just enough of theology to realize already that there’s really no such thing as Theology. Whether we would like or not, there are only theologies. And these theologies themselves are dynamic, each a living narrative, each a life. Bonhoeffer’s biography was his theology, his theology was biography. I think that’s why he remains such an object of fascination: you simply cannot separate the two, and the implications are positively vexing.

Such is life. And the capital T Truth of all theologies must be lived. But that dynamism shouldn’t frighten us. In fact, it’s what propels us forward, into experience, engagement and encounter. Deeper and further into life in all its vexations.

So there really is no theology outside of experience, in my thinking, and experience is  therefore not merely incidental to our theologies, sola fide (more about which later) be damned.

Bonhoeffer’s theology was as extraordinarily dynamic as his times, because, again, there is no theology outside of living relation and encounter. There is no Truth that does not lead back to encounter.

Our theologies are not really there to give us answers, they’re there to give us courage.

They are not there to provide the certainty of reward in this or a next life. They are there to give us courage to act in this one without any thought of reward.

Here’s where I’m going with this, and I’ll expand on it going forward: the presumption of certainty has brought us manifest evil, and we need dynamic theologies of courage to combat it. And not only that, we need to recognize and acknowledge the sanctity of these living theologies of courage, and challenge ourselves to engage in authentic encounter with them.

To have courage to be transformed by them, and thereby transform the world through them.


Echoes and Shadows

Reading about Luther in the Bonhoeffer book. Omg.

The author calls him “the Don Rickles of Wittenberg,” and says “for much of his adult life Luther suffered from constipation, hemorrhoids, a cataract in one eye, and a condition of the inner ear called Meniere’s disease, which results in dizziness, fainting spells, and tinnitus. He also suffered mood swings and depression.”

Blick auf ein sich mehrfach spiegelndes Lutherbildnis in der Ausstellung...

As for his late-in-life anti-Semitism, which the Nazis were more than happy to exploit: “the trouble started in 1528 when, after a large meal of kosher food, he suffered a shattering attack of diarrhea. He concluded that the Jews had tried to poison him.”

It’s so interesting to me how much we are at the mercy of our stomachs.

There’s also a prescient passage related to Bonhoeffer’s eulogy for one of the teachers with whom he disagreed but for whom he had great enduring respect, Adolf von Harnack, who was, theologically, very much in the “opposing camp”:

Bonhoeffer’s words reveal that he was never what one might today term a culture warrior, nor could he easily be labeled conservative or liberal. He disagreed with Harnack’s liberal theological conclusions but agreed profoundly with the underlying assumptions that guided Harnack, and he rightly saw that those were more important than the conclusions to which they Led. Anyone on the side of Truth, wherever it lead, was a compatriot to be lauded. This virtue had come to Bonhoeffer, in part, from Harnack and the liberal Grunewald tradition in which he had flourished, and Bonhoeffer was generous enough to see it and state it publicly. Bonhoeffer’s father was his primary mentor in this way of thinking. Karl Bonhoeffer’s conclusions may have been different from his son’s, but his respect for truth and for other human beings of different opinions formed the foundation of a civil society in which one might disagree graciously and might reason together civilly and productively. In the years ahead this would be seriously attacked, and the Nazis would stoke the fires of the culture wars to play their enemies against each other. They would brilliantly co-opt the conservatives and the Christian churches, and when they had the power to do so, they would turn on them too.

Just sayin.

I & Thou in the Dollhouse

I was careful with my application to divinity school not to misrepresent my beliefs in any way. I mean. Its not like I’m a follower of Baal, but, you know, some people would prefer that to humanism. (I can assure you, aside from eating babies there is absolutely no overlap.)

But I also needed to make a case for why a humanist should be at all interested in Divinity School. There are many good reasons, of course and we’ll talk a lot about them in coming posts. But I tried to tackle it in a different sense in each of three very short essays I was asked to write for my application.

This one asked me to “describe and interpret a favorite book or movie with commentary on why it is meaningful to you.” I almost chose the movie Welcome to the Dollhouse


… but went with I & Thou instead:

My freshman year at Indiana University was a returning for me. I had struggled over the previous two years with family conflict, the source of which I could not yet comprehend, which had led to a brief stint of homelessness. I had been forced to take a gap year, and while now finally back on track, my transition to life on campus was still pretty bumpy.

The Spring Semester of that year I was lucky enough to get into a 300-level course offered at my dorm (a Living & Learning Community I was also very lucky to get into), by an extraordinary professor, Rabbi Mike Morgan (now Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Jewish Studies there) who introduced me to, among many other wonders, Martin Buber’s I and Thou. The core message of the book — that “all actual life is encounter” — communicated with forceful compassion by Professor Morgan, struck a chord deep within me that gave me courage to go forth, and resonates within me to this day.

In the book, Buber posits two modes of engaging the world of the Other: “experience” — the profane, everyday, objectifying I-It — and the fleeting, sacred, reciprocal I-You of “encounter”, in which we glimpse the “the absolute relationship”, the “eternal You”. Buber offers no prescriptions of chants or mantras, no parables, arcane symbols or secret codes. I and Thou is descriptive rather than prescriptive, in keeping with its author’s matter-of-fact mysticism. Professor Morgan’s lively but focused classroom discussions brought this to vivid life.

The book’s iteration of a relational theology was not entirely unfamiliar to me, even then: it is rooted in the core belief of reciprocity we find in all world religions, that I had heard in countless interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount over the years in my own Mainline Protestant upbringing. But having struggled with the limiting concept of a remote and largely proscriptive God, I found Buber’s insistence that it is through the particular Other that we encounter “the absolute relationship” — a concept clearly informed by the dialogic tradition of Hasidism — electrifying.

In Professor Morgan’s classroom, not only was the moral imperative of attention to the reality of the Other and our vital participation in the unity and totality of encounter clear, it was put into practice. The challenge was presence, and presence the reward. Had we read and discussed I and Thou less attentively it would have been easier to shrug off its insights. Buber’s language could seem obscure at times, but for me, with Professor Morgan’s spirited delivery, it had the ring of uncanny truth of overheard corner-store conversations: “Something happens to man,” Buber says of the “absolute relationship”. “Something happens.” And I knew just what he meant. Isn’t this the essence of revelation? Isn’t this how we talk about love?

In Buber we find the mysterious and awesome Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, The I am that I am, that cannot be inferred or deduced, that “can only be addressed.” And approaching this mystery with the guidance of a great teacher is how presence in the world became home to me. Something happened in that classroom, in the “sphere between things” that has stuck with me, and gives me courage, again and again, to return.

I’ll work Welcome to the Dollhouse into all this somehow later on. Count on it.

Today’s Reading: Bonhoeffer


Last year around this time I was posting about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison. He’s the “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil…. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” guy.

While lately there’s been a lot of protest from the right (and from that camp of the left that seems for some reason to want to prove the right right about the left) about the internet reaching singularity with Godwin’s Law, I don’t think the parallels to the rise of Nazism have to be exact for the analogy to be useful. You know, if the jackboot fits…

So I’m revisiting Bonhoeffer with this biography. His thoughts on folly, from his Letters and Papers from Prison, are more relevant than ever:

Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defence. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved – indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous. …

If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of the others. It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted or destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgment, and – more or less unconsciously – give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves.

The fact that the fool is often stubborn must not mislead us into thinking that he is independent. One feels in fact, when talking to him, that one is dealing, not with the man himself, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like, which have taken hold of him. He is under a spell, he is blinded, his very nature is being misused and exploited. Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation that can do irreparable damage to human beings.

But at this point it is quite clear, too, that folly can be overcome, not by instruction, but only by an act of liberation; and so we have come to terms with the fact that in the great majority of cases inward liberation must be preceded by outward liberation, and that until that has taken place, we may as well abandon all attempts to convince the fool. In this state of affairs we have to realize why it is no use our trying to find out what ‘the people’ really think, and why the question is so superfluous for the man who thinks and acts responsibly – but always given these particular circumstances. … A person’s inward liberation to live a responsible life … is the only real cure for folly. But there is some consolation in these thoughts on folly: they in no way justify us in thinking that most people are fools in all circumstances. What will really matter is whether those in power expect more from people’s folly than from their wisdom and independence of mind.