Dietrich Bonhoeffer Ethics

Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. . . . The knowledge of good and evil shows that [humanity] is no longer at one with [it] origin. . . .

The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be. . . . It is no longer a matter of a man’s own knowledge of goo and evil, but only of the living will of God; our knowledge of God’s will is not something over which we ourselves dispose, but it depends solely upon the grace of God, and this grace is and requires to be new every morning. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp.17, 38

This book is not the Ethics which Dietrich Bonhoeffer intended to have published. – Eberhard Bethge, “Editor’s Preface,” p.7

Among a handful of texts that are now a deep part of how I view the world – the opening pages of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics . . . – Me, “Richard Rorty ‘Texts and Lumps’, No One Special, October 11, 2016

Albrecht Durer's engraving, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

Albrecht Durer’s engraving, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

Once many years ago I tried to explain Bonhoeffer’s basis for his Christian ethical reflection to someone. Needless to say, even quoting the author didn’t do much good. If one is predisposed to believe that the Christian life entails moral absolutes that are timeless, true always and forever across time and space and language and culture, then hearing that a well-known if little studied Christian theologian calls bunk on that just won’t sound right. All the same, the opening pages in Bonhoeffer’s collected writings on Christian ethics were little less than a bomb going off for me.

I remember the day I read this. It was a Saturday afternoon, mid-September, 1991. I was listening to . . . something . . . on the radio. The music was little more than background noise. I was taking a seminar on Bonhoeffer’s writings, and first up on the agenda was Ethics. A strange choice considering that of all his major works published after his death, it is precisely this volume that would have given the living Bonhoeffer fits. Assembled from bits and pieces of writings scattered across the years 1939 to Bonhoeffer’s execution in 1945, some of which his literary executor and editor admitted were written on scattered pieces of paper, some just a single sentence, the result can best be described as a mishmash of traditional Lutheran ethical reflection combined with truly mind-blowing insights.

When I read that first chapter, I remember thinking, “Oh my God! Did I just read what I thought I read?” I went back and read that chapter again. Yup. I did indeed read exactly what I thought I’d read the first time.

Words like “morality” get tossed around both by philosophers and non-philosophers as if everyone knew precisely what we’re talking about. Bonhoeffer gets to the heart of the problem with so much ethical and moral thought by insisting that, rather than concern itself with “good” and “evil”, proper Christian ethical reflection concerns itself with the will of God, sought and lived anew each day. Rather than yet again redefine a concept that had become (to use Rorty’s phrase) shopworn, Bonhoeffer cleared the boards completely.

I felt myself at a bit of an impasse regarding matters related to what it meant to live as a Christian; the relevance of personal moral uprightness to the call to live faithfully; the demand for a social ethic that replaced personal moralizing with a kind of political moralizing; these things and more were pushing me to wonder whether or not I could, in good conscience, even call myself a Christian. Then along comes Bonhoeffer. The Gordian Knot into which my brain had been turned was not only cut; the sword that dangled from it pierced me all the way through. It is impossible to describe every thought and feeling I had that warmish September afternoon 25 years ago. I can say with certainty that I felt an enormous, “YES!” ringing through the world, as if simultaneously confirming my questions were the right questions and that this, this presentation right here, offered a solution consonant with Christian Scripture and Christian doctrine that, while perhaps not fully realized by the author, was among the more revolutionary statements Christian theology produced in the first half of the 20th century.

“Does this mean you don’t believe in right and wrong?” That was the question I was asked a decade ago when I tried to explain all this. The answer to that question is simple: Any four-year-old understands the concepts of right and wrong. The belief for one moment that serious, faithful reflection on Christian living in our contemporary milieu should explain something clear enough to toddlers is ridiculous on its face. “Believing” in right and wrong is neither here nor there. As, too, is the distinction between good and evil. I remember well in the time after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington some on the right insisting that “liberals” were unwilling to call an evil act evil, or that the person who performed an evil act, in Pres. Bush’s words, an “evil doer”. Again, what relevance does such labeling have for serious reflection upon faithful living?

I think the best example of why I find the whole “Call it evil!” business is the following, in which I quote at length a piece no longer available on the web:

Every once in a while, I am sorry to say, some sick bastard sets fire to a kitten. This is something that happens. Like all crimes, it shouldn’t happen, but it does. And like most crimes, it makes the paper. The effects of this appalling cruelty are not far-reaching, but the incidents are reported in the papers because the cruelty is so flagrant and acute that it seems newsworthy.

The response to such reports is horror and indignation, which is both natural and appropriate. But the expression of that horror and indignation also produces something strange.

A few years ago there was a particularly horrifying kitten-burning incident involving a barbecue grill and, astonishingly, a video camera. That sordid episode took place far from the place where I work, yet the paper’s editorial board nonetheless felt compelled to editorialize on the subject. They were, happily, against it. Unambiguously so. It’s one of the very few instances I recall when that timidly Broderian bunch took an unambiguous stance without their habitual on-the-other-hand qualifications.

I agreed with that stance, of course. Who doesn’t? But despite agreeing with the side they took, I couldn’t help but be amused by the editorial’s inordinately proud pose of courageous truth-telling. The lowest common denominator of minimal morality was being held up as though it were a prophetic example of speaking truth to power.

That same posturing resurfaced in a big way earlier this year when the kitten-burners struck again, much closer to home. A group of disturbed and disturbing children doused a kitten with lighter fluid and set it on fire just a few miles from the paper’s offices.

The paper covered the story, of course, and our readers ate it up.

People loved that story. It became one of the most-read and most-e-mailed stories on our Web site. Online readers left dozens of comments and we got letters to the editor on the subject for months afterward.

Those letters and comments were uniformly and universally opposed to kitten-burning. Opinon on that question was unanimous and vehement.

But here was the weird part: Most of the commenters and letter-writers didn’t seem to notice that they were expressing a unanimous and noncontroversial sentiment. Their comments and letters were contentious and sort of aggressively defensive. Or maybe defensively aggressive. They were angry, and that anger didn’t seem to be directed only at the kitten-burners, but also at some larger group of others whom they imagined must condone this sort of thing.

If you jumped into the comments thread and started reading at any random point in the middle, you’d get the impression that the comments immediately preceding must have offered a vigorous defense of kitten-burning. No such comments offering any such defense existed, and yet reader after reader seemed to be responding to or anticipating this phantom kitten-burning advocacy group.

One came away from that comment thread with the unsurprising but reassuring sense that the good people reading the paper’s Web site did not approve of burning kittens alive. Kitten-burning, they all insisted, was just plain wrong.

But one also came away from reading that thread with the sense that people seemed to think this ultra-minimal moral stance made them exceptional and exceptionally righteous. Like the earlier editorial writers, they seemed to think they were exhibiting courage by taking a bold position on a matter of great controversy. Whatever comfort might be gleaned from the reaffirmation that most people were right about this non-issue issue was overshadowed by the discomfiting realization that so many people also seemed to want or need most others to be wrong. – “”Moral Indignation,” May 8, 2010

Whether it’s kitten-burning, or demanding liberals call evil acts “evil” or somehow be complicit in them, for some reason the proof of a proper moral outlook can only ever be that everyone speak out against, well, kitten burning and terrorism. As if somehow that makes on a moral person.

Denying to the Christian life any concern with good and evil certainly does not mean either being insouciant about them or, worse, condoning immoral acts. In just the same way, Christian ethical reflection does not exclude particular matters from consideration, including the old standbys of smoking, drinking, and sex on the one hand, or how best to participate in the social and political life of one’s community, whether that be local, national, or international. Rather, Bonhoeffer’s claim here directs the believer’s attention toward God and Divine Will. There aren’t any eternal moral laws, either revealed or accessible to reason. There is no once-for-all-time declaration from the Almighty regarding “what ought we to do”, whether in our personal or social conduct. All there is, for those whose faith declares the crucified, dead, and risen Jesus Christ as Lord, is a reliance upon Divine grace. This grace is, as Bonhoeffer notes, new each day. So, too, is the answer to the question, “What ought we to do?” Asking questions about good and bad or right and wrong, demanding to know the immutable moral will of God isn’t “wrong” in some absolute sense. They’re just the wrong questions to ask, the wrong matters with which to be concerned should one be seeking an authentic Christian life.

This is one reason why I find so much of our current moral discourse, whether it’s political or within the churches, so appalling. Rather than seeking in prayer what it is we are called to do, we pronounce eternal judgment upon those with whom we happen to disagree (regardless of which “side” one finds oneself taking), ignorant of how such actions are antithetical to real Christian ethical reflection. Despite Bonhoeffer’s status as a contemporary martyr, so little is known about his thought even among those who praise his courage in the face of Nazi tyranny that bringing this particular bit of his thought to light might well cause far more problems than it solves.

I read this at the same time I’d been reading Rorty. What I saw in Bonhoeffer, this emphasis upon our limited, contingent existence; a refusal to seek universal answers to particular questions; an opening to particular possibilities rather than general demands and laws; all this I understood was also part of Rorty’s ethical and political and antiepistemological agenda. I had long since become comfortable with a kind of general acceptance of the contingency of all that is as well as the necessary limits such contingency places upon us in our understanding. Now I had encountered a Christian thinker who seemed equally comfortable rejecting the long-running notion that the moral life was a set of hard-and-fast rules either revealed to humanity or accessible to human reason therefore accessible to all human beings at all times and places. Embracing human contingency of life, of thought, of language, and of action, Bonhoeffer offers the freedom from precisely all those phony and ridiculous “moral laws” and “ethical demands” that has so exercised western thought for millennia.

Few things taste and smell as sweet as that first breath of free air.


Richard Rorty, “Texts And Lumps”

The pragmatist concludes that the intuition that truth is correspondence should be extirpated rather than explicated. On this view, the notion of reality as having a “nature” to which it is our duty to correspond s simply one more variant of the notion that the gods can be placated by chanting the right words. The notion that some one among the languages mankind has used to deal with the universe is the one the universe prefers – the one which cuts things at the joints – was a pretty conceit. But by now it has become too shopworn to serve any purpose. – Richard Rorty, “Texts and Lumps,” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1, p. 80

The late philosopher Richard Rorty in the early 1990's.

The late philosopher Richard Rorty in the early 1990’s.

This is less a “review” of the article in question than it is an appreciation for a piece of writing that changed the way I think about all sorts of things. Among a handful of texts that are now a deep part of how I view the world – the opening pages of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics; the short novel Waiting for the Galactic BusStephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life – I encountered Rorty’s essay at precisely the right moment in my life. Oddly enough, it was because I didn’t have much of a background understanding either of philosophical vocabulary in general, or the particular issues with which Rorty engages in this essay that I found something revolutionary here.

First, a brief sketch of the essay is in order. After an introduction in which he signals his major intention or erasing the assumed boundaries between the general disciplines of the natural sciences and the humanities, Rorty sketches a brief understanding of pragmatist theory regarding words such as “truth” and “objectivity”. In the course of the opening few pages, however, Rorty offers a reading of the late Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science that I have since come to understand doesn’t exactly portray Kuhn’s thought so much as Rorty’s reading of Kuhn in the light of his understandings of William James and John Dewey. This, however, is less a weakness in Rorty’s larger presentation than it is a demonstration of one of the main themes of the essay: that rather than think of particular interpretations as “good” or “bad”, it is far more useful to consider interpretations as serving particular functions within a larger story one wishes to tell. To that end, Rorty’s reading of Kuhn, being not completely wrong, serves the purposes to which Rorty wishes to put it.

The bulk of the essay is a friendly discussion with E. D. Hirsch over what Hirsch insists are the clear distinctions of “meaning” and “significance”. As Rorty writes on p. 84:

. . . I think [Hirsch’s] distinction between “meaning” and “significance” is misleading in certain respects. My holistic strategy, characteristic of pragmatism (and in particular of Dewey), is to reinterpret every such dualism as a momentarily convenient blocking-out of regions along a spectrum, rather than as recognition of an ontological, or methodological, or epistemological divide.

Rorty goes on to develop this reinterpretation, using Stanley Fish’s notion of “interpretive communities” to tell a story of people looking at two unknowns, one a previously unencountered text, the other an unknown lump. What distinguishes how we come to understand what is in front of us isn’t something that inheres in either the text or the lump. Rather it is our choice of a particular set of tools for undertaking the task of understanding what it is we are encountering. One of those sets of tools might be called “chemistry”. Another might be “anthropology”. Perhaps “literary criticism” works well. It may well be the case that we choose “chemistry” to understand something we encounter because we are (a) chemists; or (b) we hold the belief that chemistry is the best method for such understanding. This no more privileges “chemistry” as a way of understanding than does the belief that “literary criticism” is not fit for our encounters with unknown lumps mean that literary criticism isn’t a source of human understanding. Encountering a text and insisting that “chemistry” is the best tool for understanding it isn’t being wrong; it’s picking up a welders mask and torch to do carpentry. Nothing more, nothing less.

Rorty’s larger philosophical project is to reinterpret the philosophical project in light of certain realities we understand to describe what it is to be human. First, we understand ourselves as radically contingent creatures both in terms of our restricted lifespan as well as in evolutionary terms. There is no reason for our existence, evolutionarily speaking. Yet precisely because Homo sapiens sapiens is a successful evolutionary species (so far) we have particular endowments that make us both survive in the competition for food and resources and thrive by continuing to reproduce. That some of these endowments include a particular set of tools we have come to call “knowledge” or “understanding” or “language” does not make any of these more interesting than, say, our upright posture and gait or our opposable thumbs. That some human beings wish that it were so and have constructed elaborate stories about why this is so does not make it so. Doing Rortian pragmatism, whether anti-epistemology or ethics, is nothing more or less than trying to find a place for philosophy in the wake of the radical understanding of ourselves as contingent creatures.

This same sense of radical contingency is present in late medieval nominalism, particularly its Ochkamist variety. Emphasizing the absolute supremacy and freedom of the Godhead, Ockham stripped the realist philosophy and theology of the High Middle Ages of its most powerful tool: It’s insistence that things that exist do so either because they reflect something Real (Plato) or because they participate in some Realness that connects like objects to like (Aristotle). Ockham would argue this is not only putting the cart before the horse; it’s assuming there are things calls “carts” and “horses” about which we can know anything prior to encountering particular instances of them (thus the term “nominalism” – it is in our naming of things they become real, rather than being real and the name being something that exists prior to our acceptance or even encounter). Because there could be nothing restricting or binding or otherwise creating necessity in the actions of the Divine, how is it possible that there might be “cartness” prior to the actual existence of the variety of things for which the word “cart” more or less fits well? Rorty is little more than a nominalist in a leisure suit.

In any event this Divine freedom precisely highlights the kind of God we Christians claim to encounter in the Incarnation: A God of love, of infinite patience and grace, the God of Election who in Jesus Christ pays the price necessary for reestablishing the creature’s relationship with the creator. Belief, then, isn’t a question of “truth” (“truth” for Christians is the person and work of Jesus Christ) or the proclamation of something eternal. On the contrary, belief is the possibility offered to we radically contingent, finite, limited, and sinful creatures. Whether it is in our proclamation, our confession, or our discipleship, we must face the reality of all our limitations as creatures.

The doors and possibilities this particular philosophical essay opened for me is difficult to describe now after so many years. When I first read this particular essay – certainly not understanding all of the references even as I understood the overarching concern – it was as if words were being given to me to say what it is I thought about the world, about our human place in it, and even about our faith as Christians. Over the decades, I have certainly become far more critical of particular parts of Rorty’s philosophical project; at heart, however, this particular essay opened up the possibility of speaking and living with a particular kind of integrity, best expressed in Karl Barth’s dictum that while we should never claim to know the truth, we should always live as if we did know the truth.

Ad Hominem

I picked up on UM Insight shortly before GC2012 and found it a great clearing house of thought. However, I have backed off from reading it because it tends to come across as mostly a place where liberal/progressives complain and belittle those that do not agree with them. – Comment by Ella Pauline, “Disengaging From The Conversation”, United Methodist Insight, September 22, 2015


The editors of UMInsight regularly republishes articles amounting to a little less than libal [sic]— a little less because it hasn’t been tested in court, and not likely to. Rather, the attacks on others should at least be tested at the JC. . . .

Geoff, I’m going to go ahead and issue a blanket statement here. Anytime Jeremy Smith, or you, mention Dr. David Watson and/or Drew Mac, it usually comes close to libel. – Comments by Joel Watts, “An Open Response ToUMInsight”, Unsettled Christianity, September 21, 2105

A pretty typical Internet commenter

A pretty typical Internet commenter

Perhaps I’ve related this story elsewhere. It’s fitting, I think. I’m going to add a kind of “post-script” story. My first semester of Seminary, one of our faculty was promoted to full professor. Teaching Systematics as well as seminars on Karl Barth, Black Theology, and Liberation Theology, Josiah Young is a gifted, intelligent, thoughtful theologian and teacher. A student both of James Cone and Cornell West while studying at Union Theological Seminary, his dissertation concerned the relationships between American Black Theology and African theologies of liberation. He has published further on the topic, including how a synthesis between these two very different ways of theologizing might work; the relationship between Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology and contemporary liberation theologies, and other topics.

In his inaugural sermon, he offered a deeply personal testimony of his journey from the child of pretty typical post-WWII middle class life on Long Island through his summers spent with his grandparents in the South – South Carolina, maybe? – and his growing realization that his existence as a black human being in a society rooted in white supremacy would never value him as highly as his white peers. As he grew older, experiencing ever-deeper layers of our national psychosis, he passed quickly through anger and sadness to rage and hatred. He spoke honestly of what he called his desire to see white-blood running in the streets. He went further and spoke of how it was the grace of God that pushed him through hatred to seek not so much reconciliation as white understanding.

Later that same day, our professor of the Sociology of Religion asked for our thoughts on Josiah’s sermon. One woman, speaking candidly, began to cry as she expressed both fear and sadness at Josiah’s admission of his anger and hatred of white people. Several of us spoke up, telling her that his story didn’t end there; that his message was one of grace; his message was of the power of intellectual curiosity combined with the love of Jesus Christ that rescued him from the despair that would destroy him. She refused to hear what we were saying; for her, Josiah Young said nothing after declaring his younger-self’s desire to see white people die.

Fast forward two years. Same professor, this time a seminar on Liberation Theology. We’d just finished reading Cone’s Black Theology And Black Power, the preface to the rest of his career. In the course of our discussion, one man, someone I considered a friend since entering Wesley, made a statement that blanked out pretty much everything he said after. In fact, the emotional impact was so strong I don’t recall his words verbatim,  but is was something to the effect that African-Americans should respond to the systemic violence they experience with an eye for an eye; he thought killing white people was justified. I sat fuming through the rest of the class and after. In the Seminary refectory at lunch, I walked up to him, enraged. He looked at me, put his hands up in a gesture of peace, but I wouldn’t have any of it. “What good does it do to be an ally if I know I have a gun pointed at my back?” I said. Probably a bit too loudly. He tried to explain that his words weren’t personal. I refused to hear that. It took me a few more years, running through that incident in my head to realize just how wrong I had been. All the way around. Rather than hear his words for what they were – honest to the point of public nakedness; not so much venting as they were expressing the anger so many African-Americans feel, his words were not just an expression of his own emotions but also those of a people who were quite tired of the empty words and promises of a white establishment that continued to target African-Americans, especially young men, for incarceration and police violence – I only heard something directed at me. I considered myself an ally of African-Americans in their struggle for freedom. I had yet, however, to surrender my privileged position as a white male; I wanted folks to see just how righteous and open I was. Instead of shutting up and listening, I wanted people to hear what I had to say. Look at ME and just oh-how-radical-I-am! I just wish I could find him and apologize for my ignorance – well, really it was rudeness and thoughtlessness combined with stupidity, arrogance, and immaturity – and hope he would hear my words as I didn’t hear his.

Sometimes I think the limits of communication make it nearly impossible for us to hear best when we need to be listening the most. Few things are as painful as having someone telling us things which we believe, beliefs that shape who we are and how we live our lives, may not be the sole way to understand and live in the world. I tell anyone who asks about my experience at Seminary that classroom discussions could become very heated precisely because, particularly for older students in their first year, this was the time their faith was challenged, rocked to its core. A woman I’d known years before who had attended Seminary told me the first year of Seminary was a process of destroying one’s faith. The trick was learning how to use the tools Seminary offers to spend the rest of one’s life to rebuild one’s faith brick by brick. I had an idea what was coming; what I had not expected was how thorough and necessary that initial destructive act would be. In fact, during the Old Testament survey class my first year, two men got up and left and immediately withdrew when the professor said the creation stories in Genesis were multiple, contradictory, and had nothing to do with the physical creation of the Universe. Sometimes it takes something as small as that to end one’s ability or willingness to listen.

Bemoaning the rudeness, intolerance, and often personally insulting nature of Internet discourse is as old as Internet 2.0. There are many people on the Internet who seem to take pleasure in belittling others, using often violent rhetoric addressed to others, or simply being annoying by posting meaningless, petty, childish comment and comment for the sole purpose of rousing others to anger. These last are known as “trolls”. At the same time there are people who engage in serious discussions without resorting to any reference to the person making that argument. Such Debaters as I call them at least have the virtue of keeping attention focused on the topic at hand. The problem with Debaters, however, is two fold: (a) they expect others to abide by what seems to me to be arbitrary rules of discourse, preferring to withdraw than engage when one or more of those rules is violated; (b) ideas are not things that exist by themselves, separate from the people who hold them. To remain focused solely on “ideas” without considering the person expressing those ideas, that person’s motives, social and cultural position, and other factors is a comforting fiction that offers to some a barrier from the realities that none of us hold the ideas we do because we’ve been convinced of their logical purity. What the late Richard Rorty calls the web of our beliefs and desires are, rather, tied together with our life. Adding or subtracting a strand or two from or to that web effects change in our whole lives.

Heated discussions on the Internet very often sound to many little more than recess-yard name-calling. Let’s be honest – a lot of it is just that. Name-calling has the virtue, however, of showing that the person so commenting is demonstrating how ridiculous they are. There is, however, a very fine, very fuzzy line between honest but heated discussion and simple ad hominem attacks or insults. To me, an ad hominem attack is little different from a personal insult: “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny” is an ad hominem attack. On the other hand, being clear that another person’s position is one with which one does not agree, and including observations rooted in experience with that other person, their stated beliefs, and how they present their arguments very often appears to skate across that fuzzy line from honest disagreement to personal attack. I won’t deny it. I’ve skated on that line many times and have gone over it more than once.

Taking issue with a person’s ideas and arguments, however, always includes a personal element. How can it not? A person is presenting particular ideas and arguments, after all. They’re not these things floating around in the air that offer themselves. An actual human being, occupying space and time and social and cultural position writes them. For example, last year when some people wrote that the proposal that the floor of the United Methodist General Conference be closed to all except credentialed speakers, several people including me made the claim that those making this proposal were part of the old straight white power structure in our Church. Rather than consider for just a moment that social location – being older, white, straight, and part of the power structure of our denomination – might very well influence one’s position on the subject, this view was dismissed out of hand by some. Is this an ad hominem attack, or perhaps a way of avoiding the topic by dismissing the arguments with a generalization that doesn’t fit the facts? I know my position on this one, but others disagree. It might well be a case that different people view the whole process of discourse as distinct social constructs. I know that I refuse to play by particular sets of rules that I believe restrict honest discussion. I call it a game because that’s precisely what it is. When one person gets to set the rules, and there’s no explanation of what those rules might be, it isn’t possible to abide by them. That just gives allowance to the person setting the rules to dictate the terms of the conversation.

Have I ever said anything that I believe is libelous as was alleged, or at the very least went beyond the pale and was an attack on an individual or that person’s character? I think what follows certainly reads as if it crosses that line from serious engagement to personal attack:

I cannot speak to what is in his heart, but the constant beating of the drum around Doctrine in the United Methodist Church smacks just a bit too much both of trying to steer the conversation away from where it needs to be as well as on what he thinks is safer ground but is in fact where he slips and falls far too often.  For instance, that two United Methodist clergy-scholars, one in New Testament studies the other in Evangelism and Theology, could publish just the above-cited bit and consider it theologically sound makes me wonder just how seriously I should consider their work.  To place Doctrine of any sort on the same plane as the means of grace; to suppose that an individual’s salvation is determined by getting particular words and phrases just so, rather than Doctrine being the collective expression of the faith of the gathered people of God; to offer the ridiculous “analogy” with which the authors begin this article and pretend is has anything to do with anything the church does . . . I don’t know.  I just . . .

A bit further down I wrote:

Let me back up just a moment and say that much of the problem I have with this piece is that it’s unspoken assumption – that any individual’s adherence to any particular doctrine is determinant and necessary both for their salvation as well as their being considered a part of the church – is blatantly, laughably, ahistorically false.  Doctrine is teaching, the understanding of the church’s encounter through Christ in the Spirit with the Father.  Both the body we call doctrine and our understanding of it are a wholly human creation; unlike the Sacraments, which we declare in faith were instituted by Jesus Christ to be means of grace for the uplifting of believers, their salvation, and their connection together in the Body of Christ, Doctrine is an ever-evolving understanding of our understanding of who God is, what God is doing, and what we, in the Church, are to be about.  Unlike the Scriptures, which we profess in our teaching to be wholly sufficient guides for faith and action, doctrine is not inspired.  It is, alas, as broken and liable to error any other solely human creation

Then I provide an alternative view:

Doctrine is our collective profession of faith.  When people say, “What do United Methodists believe?”, we point to our Articles of Religion, our Doctrinal Standards, and our Theological Task.  That is why they exist.  Individuals can and do vary in their understanding, adherence, and acceptance of various teachings; that’s a given in a Church body of 9 million adherents across the world, in a variety of countries, languages, socio-economic contexts, political and legal contexts, and other factors that create human diversity and difference.  What any particular individual expresses about doctrine is neither interesting nor important, certainly not for their salvation.  That is wholly the act of the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit; it is the supreme expression of the Divine Life, freedom in love expressed in gratuitous acts of mercy.  When we understand ourselves grasped by this Love that never gives up on us, that is always behind, around, and before us, we begin the real journey of the Christian Life – moving on to perfection in love in this lifetime.  This Doctrine, uniquely that of the followers of John Wesley, is an expression of our collective experience of the efficacy and workings of grace in our life as the Body of Christ.  Some move along this path; some do not.  Some move further along than other.  Some get stuck, while others dedicate their lives to this life of entire sanctification.  This is an experience; the Doctrine merely puts in words – contingent, time-and-history bound lines on a page or computer screen that represent sounds we make, sounds that change over time – our understanding of the experience, which is primary.

I then delve further:

I have to wonder why they bothered writing anything else.  Consider the whole bit here: Orthodoxy then describes a gateway requirement for admission into the life of the church. Unfortunately, orthodoxy has been used in this way many times, but this is actually a secondary use, if not a misuse, of its intended function.  Is it a secondary use or a misuse of doctrine to use it in such a way?  A secondary use would imply it is still legitimate.  To then add, “if not a misuse” seems more than little disingenuous.  The truth of the matter is the authors do believe it to be a legitimate use, doctrine as definer of who’s in and who’s out.  This is so because the rest of the paragraph, for all intents and purposes, accepts this as a given.  Indeed, the notion that Doctrine is “the truth about God” – which I cannot find in Scripture, which actually insists that Jesus Christ is the Truth of God – is contradicted by Biblical teaching itself.  Ours is not a faith in human words, or human understanding of our experience.  Our faith is in the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  All doctrine does is make clear the Church’s collective understanding of this living faith.  Whether or not we get the words right or wrong, well, that’s a project that keeps the Church going, because how would it be possible to have the Truth about God, whose Eternal Life is the fullness of gratuitous love and interpenetrating mutuality that is most fully expressed in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus?  While it is true enough that life within God is our true life, we do not find this through adherence to Doctrine.  We find this through our collective life of confession and profession and living out our Living Faith in our Living God.  It is never that we know the Truth of God.  Rather, it is that the Truth of God known and takes hold of us and never lets us go.

The title of my post was “This Was Written By Theologians”. For some, this might seem a snarky attack on a person’s professional or personal credibility; to me, it was shock and not a little anger that two respected United Methodist scholars would write what I can still only describe as a shallow, ridiculous piece that relies not only on a silly and false notion of what “liberal” Protestantism offers people. It relies in the end on an individualistic understanding of theology and doctrine that is neither Biblical nor historical. I offer a serious, historical, Biblical, and Trinitarian understanding as an alternative, one I think far more in keeping with our traditions.

Do I cross any lines in this piece? Perhaps. I would argue that if I do, it’s in the somewhat snarky, dismissive tone of the post’s title. All the same, I would insist this is real, substantive discourse. Others can disagree, which is fine. If some can find something I’ve written that is little more than, “Wow, you’re stupid!” please go ahead and let me know.

I often find claims of personal, ad hominem attacks a too-convenient excuse ready at hand because of the well-known snarky nature of Internet discussions. Real discussions and arguments get heated; they deal in more than “ideas” as if such things either could or do exist separate from real living and breathing human beings. Last spring during an online discussion over a police-involved shooting of a young African-American man, a good friend of mine took exception to some of the things I wrote. I made my position clear, without hostility toward him or any police officers. Later in the spring, we ran in to one another, and the first thing he did was apologize to me for getting a little too “heated” as he called it. I smiled and insisted he didn’t have to apologize. I understood his position and why he took it. I also told him my feelings don’t get hurt when people disagree with me, or write or say things that I could under certain circumstances take as personal attacks. He is a friend. We disagree. We both have good reasons, experiential, personal, and logical for holding the positions we do. I was not interested in changing his mind or having my mind changed. We had an honest exchange in which we made clear both what we thought and why we thought those things; what could be better than that?

We always need to be careful when addressing others in online discussions. No matter how heated we might get, we should be sure never to descend to simple name-calling or personal attacks. On the other hand, we should always remember there is a personal dimension to all argument and not allow ourselves to get too caught up in that dimension that we stop listening to what others are saying. Heated discussion is fine; calling another person names on the other hand, is just ridiculous.

Maeve Louise Haeney, “Towards A Theological Epistemology Of Music”

Before I begin, let me just say that, by and large discussions of “epistemology” leave me feeling a bit like this:

Even The Thinker Needs A Clean Ass

Even The Thinker Needs A Clean Ass

Furthermore, when I encounter people who really really really want to talk about epistemology in order to make clear how intelligent they are (or, at least, have read about Immanuel Kant), I just want to put this record on as a way of making them shut the hell up:

I will, however, give Haeney her due.  In this chapter, she manages to take the general categories from the previous chapter on semiotics – on music as involving the whole body; music as inherently relational; that music is a physical reality – and weaves them in and through the theological thought largely of Bernard Lonergan, although she does include the less rigorous, more mystical thought of Rosemary Haughton.  The conclusion to which she comes is long, but needs to be quoted in full before we move on:

[T]here are numerous qualities of musical symbolism that emerge as significant, precisely because in music the sensual and spiritual are intrinsically united.  Music can teach us to feel differently: to experience reality as dynamic and corporal at the same time.  Understanding reality in this way is fully Christian.  God is relation: three Persons in constant interaction with one another, and with the created world which is not far or distant, but somehow redeemed, assumed and loved within and as a part of of the Body of the Son.  This is our faith.  The growing awareness and presence of music in culture and the Christian churches could be read as one way in which the Spirit is pushing us towards a fuller living out of human life in Christ, and its understanding: the “language” of beauty as expressed though music, capable of leading or even introducing us into the realm of our triune loving God, who is beauty.  Not to pay attention to this form of expression of communication when it is coming to the forefront of human life, or to neglect to welcome, discern and integrate it where possible into Christina living would be a lack of intellectual responsibility and, unwittingly perhaps, a stifling of the Spirit. (Maeve Louise Heaney, Music As Theology: What Music Has To Say About The Word, p.181)

What follows is, in fact, my own rejection of the very question of “epistemology”, whether applied to the Christian faith or anything else.  I know some might think this would be a bit like this:

It is not, however, an unimportant matter.  For far too long, we in the west have been seduced by the idea that if we could only give an account of how it is we know reality, we would have some kind of key to being able to understand all that is.  At the end of the day, what we ended up with was science, a particular method for asking particular questions, investigating their implications, and determining whether or not they are interesting – let alone correct – questions.  Philosophy has struggled to keep up, even spending part of the 20th century insisting that it could give a coherent definition and understanding of “science” that would universalize human knowledge.  This failed as miserably as all previous such attempts.

Then along came Richard Rorty who asked a simple, yet revolutionary question: Are these even interesting questions?  Do they actually tell us anything?  Since Darwin and Freud and Einstein, we have far better ways of answering such questions as what it means to be human, how it is we know what we know (or think we know) and the nature of reality.  Rorty posited that, rather than ask questions which are neither fruitful nor interesting, it might be better if philosophy investigated what it might be like if the web of human beliefs, as expressed in language, had an actual impact on human behavior, in particular in how we treat one another.  Many consider Rorty’s thought to be a retreat.  Still others have insisted he was the quintessential Reagan-era philosopher: uninterested in what everyone else insisted was important, pushing irrationalism and the negation of thought so we can feel better about ourselves.

Which completely avoids the matter of whether or not Rorty was or is correct.  To my mind, he dispenses with so much of the weighty baggage of western thought, baggage that is old, falling apart, filled with clothing no one wears, and yet we insist on dragging around with us.  Far better, it seems to me, to wonder what it might be like if our beliefs and desires – that which previous philosophers called knowledge and truth and morals – not only affected human behavior.  He also asked a much more important question: What would it be like to alter our vocabularies that describe our beliefs and desires, even by one word?  Would it be possible to affect real human interpersonal and social change then?

The question of epistemology in religion, particularly in Christianity, is as uninteresting to me as the general philosophical questions Rorty ended up dismissing.  Part of the reason for this is that far too many Christians put the cart before the horse: they insist on prioritizing the Biblical testimony to revelation rather than the revelation itself, and the God who reveals.  To my mind, our Triune God is prior to any testimony about that God.  It is the reality of God, separate from any human words about God, that is the focus and end of our faith.  God would exist whether the whole human race affirmed that existence, or if the whole human race disappeared tonight and not another word was ever spoken about God.  Atheism, non-Christian religions, anti-Christian rhetoric; these things couldn’t interest me less than the vulcanization process of rubber or an instruction manual on arc welding.  For far too long we Christians have spent our energies trying to prove that our words have some reference to some other words that might or might not have meaning for people in their lives.  What we have not done is recognized that “theology”, like biology, say, or sociology, is little more than a game, a vocabulary with its own set of rules, what is taboo, what might possibly expand the meaning of the overall game, and so forth.

Before any of that, however, is God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who have lived, who live, and who will live regardless of anything we human beings say or do.  Ours is a faith, however, about the human encounter with this God, an encounter initiated by God.  In this initiation, and throughout the relationship, it is God’s actions that determine not only that we know God is, but who we know God is.  These encounters, centered around the Christ-event, define the testimony about them in Scripture, shape our understanding of that testimony, what came before, and what will come after.  We must always remember that: reality is, and God has entered this reality, and by so doing not only altered that reality, but altered not only our understanding of reality, but how we understand that reality.

Anything else, to my mind, isn’t Christian thought.  It is, more or less, intellectual masturbation of the worst kind, a bunch of guys (and it’s mostly guys) sitting around comparing dick sizes, instead of dealing with the real matter at hand: we know God because has chosen to be known in the way God has come to be known.  It’s both that simple and that all-encompassing.

To that end, music, as something we human beings do in our lives, most certainly can and should serve the Word; it most certainly be a vehicle God chooses to reveal the Good News of Divine Love; we have lived our lives far too long under the spell of the distinction between the sacred and profane not to recall that in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has erased that distinction once and for all time.  Our holding fast to that distinction, just as Bonhoeffer says of our affection for good and evil, is a sign of our continued fallen state, our separation from the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  To me, that is all the “theological epistemology” we need for moving forward with the matter of music as theology.

Theodor W. Adorno, “The Relationship Of Philosophy And Music”

For . . . pragmatists, . . . the object of inquiry is “constituted” by inquiry only in the following sense: we shall answer the questions “What are you talking about?” and “What is it that you want to find out about?” by listing some of the more important beliefs which we hold at the current stage of inquiry, and saying that we are talking about whatever these beliefs are true of. – Richard Rorty, “Inquiry as Recontextualization” in Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, p.96

But if someone, instead, is of a mind to force music’s secret directly and immediately, with the magic want of primal words, he is left only with empty hands, tautologies, and sentences that, at best, provide formal constituents – if music even has something like a formal a priori .  But the very essence of music will have vanished, usurped by the disposition of language and the concern about its supposed origins. – Theodor W. Adorno, “The Relationship Of Philosophy And Music”, in Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, p.141

Whenever I see a title such as the title of this essay, I get a rash.  The idea that any human activity is in need of justification via an act of cognition that sets for the conditions for its proper form and function is not just hubris; it is ridiculous on its face.  To take the current example, music is a nearly universal human activity, done in order to perform all sorts of social functions.  “Why” that is so, “what” the music is and is not saying, “how” it says or doesn’t say it – these are matters that can and must only come after the musical act has occurred.  In this, at least, Adorno is consistent.  More to the point, writing in 1953, half a century after the introduction of what Adorno continues to call “the new music”, relying for his musical texts on Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg (a short snippet of whose opera, Wozzeck, appears at the top), as if by 1953 many of the questions posed by the atonal, 12-tone, and serial compositions had not already been answered, and new musical forms, from music concrete, the first stirrings of electronica, and the rise of the real avante garde from Edgar Varese to John Cage offering not only new musical questions, but even inquiring in to the very nature of what constitutes “music”, were not occurring.  To this extent, then, Adorno is a bit like a music critic complaining that Ray Charles and Elvis Presley created a new emotional pallet for music, while America listens to Jay Z, Ed Sheeran, and Nikki Minaj.

In fact, most of the essay, after a preliminary apologia for a philosophical inquiry in to music as a function of the philosophical examination of social phenomena in general, turns to a far more analytic focus works by Schoeberg.  For Adorno, it is precisely analysis – even more than interpretation – that provides the key for proper philosophical inquiry.  Analysis consists of an inquiry in to the structure of a piece, from individual notes and phrases up through and including the piece as a whole and how it fits in the larger social relationships it confronts, mirrors, or contradicts.  Yet, we are treading old ground; this is the position Adorno has maintained now for a quarter century, examining the same pieces over and over, insisting they offer far more to the listener precisely because they are so demanding, not the least intellectually.

Personally, I find it kind of silly to create an argument for the philosophical justification of any human activity.  Human activities justify themselves through their continued practice and common, social acceptance they serve particular functions.  Philosophy does indeed have a role to play, as it is no less a human activity with a particular purpose.  That purpose, however, is no longer the justification of other human activities, a court that judges what is and is not proper in any particular human activity.  Making philosophy step down from the judge’s seat, offering the possibility there are more profitable, more interesting questions to ask without once worrying whether or not the activity under examination is functioning properly is a good thing.  In one sense, much of Adorno’s piece does just that, focusing , with laser-like precision on particular instances in music that offer evidence for his insistence on the negative dialectical nature of the best music.  On the other hand, to insist that it is only through philosophy that this is possible is kind of silly.  Even a casual listener can come to the conclusion that works by the early creators and masters of 12-tone and serial music offer the listener more possibilities than can be gathered in a single hearing.

As I do not believe it necessary to defend music, to defend philosophy, to defend the philosophical examination of music – as long as the philosopher in question doesn’t get too caught up in the thought that she has some key to the kingdom of music, some Rosetta Stone that will unlock the secrets of the language-like nature of music – an essay such as this is more historical curiosity than anything, not least because Adorno’s prose is at its densest, most difficult best throughout, making great pains to indicate that both philosophy and music both are and are not secularized religious activities, stripped of their transcendent objects, yet propelled toward transcendence by the nature both of music and philosophy.  Which is why the analytic turn is important for Adorno, keeping him grounded in actual works, how those works are structured, and how they relate internally as wholes, and as wholes relating to the larger world.

There is much to be gained from moving through Adorno’s musical essays.  Reading another apologia for the act of philosophizing, however, becomes an odd spiral, both inward and outward, landing the reader back at the beginning without having gained much more insight than, “Just because.”