Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Establishment of Fellowship

"The call of Jesus teaches us that our relation to the world has been built on an illusion. All the time we thought we had enjoyed a direct relation with people and things.... Between father and son, husband and wife, the individual and the community, stands Christ the Mediator.... We are separated from one another by an unbridgeable gulf of otherness and strangeness which resists all our attempts to overcome it by means of natural association or emotional or spiritual union. There is no way from one person to another. However loving and sympathetic we try to be, however sound our psychology, however frank and open our behaviour, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other person, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul. Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbours through him."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 86-88


"In baptism we have the once-for-all and conscious entry and reception, manifested in the sign of purification, of the individual man into membership of the people of those who are called by God in free grace to be His witnesses, to participate in the work of His witness. And in the Lord's Supper we have the repeated and conscious unification of this people, manifested in the sign of common eating and drinking, in new seeking and reception of the free grace which it constantly needs and is constantly given in its work of witness. There is more to be said concerning baptism and the Lord's Supper. But it certainly has to be said concerning them that they are significatory actions in which people, instead of being merely alongside or even apart, both come and are together. They are thus actions which establish fellowship.

In baptism and the Lord's Supper an invisible action of God -- the fellowship of the Father and the Son in the Holy Ghost, the fellowship of God and man in Jesus Christ, the fellowship of Jesus Christ the Head with His body and its members, and finally the fellowship of God with the world created by Him and reconciled to Him -- is the prototype, the meaning and the power of the visible and significatory action of the community and therefore of the unification of persons therein attested. But on this basis and as likenesses of this original, baptism and the Lord's Supper are not empty signs. On the contrary, they are full of meaning and power. They are thus the simplest, and yet in their very simplicity the most eloquent, elements in the witness which the community owes to the world, namely, the witness of peace on earth among the people in whom God is well-pleased."

- Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation IV/3, pp. 901

4 comments:

s$s said...

The Bonhoffer quote got through to me.

I've been holding the Christ figure at a distance for a while now, not knowing what to do with it -and not wanting to accept or reject something/someone I do not understand.

That Christ is the mediator not just between what I call _____ and man, but also between the self and all that is other, is a thought I will have to chew on for a while.

The Jesus I've encountered in Christianity (especially protestant Christianity, though also Catholic, and -to a lesser extent Orthodox) has been primarily a Jesus as sin-payer. Jesus the sacrifice. And it hasn't rung true. For me. I do not feel the weight of sin. Those aren't words that communicate anything strong to me.

I'm not sure exactly what I'm trying to accomplish in mentioning this, except to express my puzzlement as to what Jesus is supposed to be.

Up until reading that Bonhoffer quote, I'd made little headway in finding some way into understanding what all the words surrounding Jesus really mean. I haven't found 'sin' to be a useful idea. I don't think it translates well. But I also feel, intuitively -and through the power of Christian art, that there is something going on with this Jesus figure, and I want to know what it is. Bonhoffer's words are fresh. He is talking about Jesus in a new way. New to me.

Bonhoffer says that "we are separated from one another by an unbridgeable gulf of otherness and strangeness which resists all our attempts to overcome it by means of natural association or emotional or spiritual union." That resonates with my experience. The idea that Christ allows us to cross that "unbridgeable gulf" is very, very interesting. And appealing.

What I want to know is, if I haven't experienced Christ as that for myself, how can I know that what Bonhoffer is saying is true? Is it possible to have this experience without making a leap of faith (a feat I am incapable of)?

It's far too large a question. I guess I'm asking it half-rhetorically.

Thanks for the quotes, Jon. Thanks very much.

Jon Coutts said...

Matthew, Bonhoeffer really struck me as well. Glad it hit a nerve!

The primary notion of Jesus as sin-payer does tend to drown out other aspects of His importance. I think it is still vital to His importance, but it is a bit of a shame when this overshadows the more comprehensive notion that as such Jesus is actually the reconciler of all nature to God (and thus of all nature to itself)!

Reconciliation obviously presupposes a break of some kind, but we will find it helpful to not assume we understand that break (i.e. sin) until this self-revealing God shows us what it is. Sin might be a useful idea if we think of it as a part of God's reconciliation with us, to show us what needs forgiveness and healing in order for things to be righted with us and God and each other (and nature).

This is the way of talking that Bonhoeffer and Barth have opened up for me as well. It is consistent with the faith I inherited, but like you said it gives me a way in that I find exciting and meaningful and worth exploring. Brings alive old things (like baptism and the Lord's supper, as in Barth's quote).

As for your question, that's a great one. I doubt you haven't experienced Christ for yourself. What are our preconceptions of that experience which will allow us to determine whether we have done so or not? Or, conversely, to be certain that we have? This is faith, but not a leap of faith, since God has either made Godself knowable in Jesus or God hasn't. If we believe God has, then we can pay attention to what has come to us about Jesus, and seek to know it. If we believe God hasn't, we can still pay attention, but perhaps we do so as non-participants. Either way it is a faith decision, and in neither case is it really a leap, so much as a participation or non-participation in that which has been passed on to us.

But perhaps you (or someone else) will not like how I'm putting it. That's my entry to a response anyway. Thanks for replying to these quotes in such a rich manner! It is wonderful to share thoughts.

s$s said...

"we will find it helpful to not assume we understand that break (i.e. sin) until this self-revealing God shows us what it is."

I think that's it exactly. That's putting your hand on the main line. "It is helpful not to assume"; to let God reveal God. To watch.

You said, "I doubt you haven't experienced Christ for yourself."

I dunno. My experience of Christ in my Christian past was, hindsight reveals, mostly just my assumptions, and intuitions which I mistook for being the voice of God. You talked about this on your recent 'Out of Bounds' post ('Self-Deception, Self-Negation...') and I think you know what I'm saying.

If Christ as Bonhoeffer (I forgot the 'e' in my last post) describes was present in my experience, it was lost in the fog of all that other nonsense. I say this with sincerity. If Bonhoeffer's Christ was there, he was knocking on the door and I wasn't letting him in.

I see (or would like to think I see) Christianity so much clearer now, as an outsider. And my reverence for it is growing constantly. But the most beautiful parts of Christ that I am learning about now were not a part of my experience as a Christian.

I think in some ways I am more Christian now, in my sorta/kind-of/almost atheism, than I ever was as a part of the Church.

You wrote, "If we believe God hasn't [made Godself knowable in Jesus], we can still pay attention, but perhaps we do so as non-participants."

That's where I'm at. I'm a non-participant whose interested in getting a foot back in the door of participation. I know a lot of Christians my age dissatisfied with the church, to the extent that they do not attend anymore but still self-identify as Christians. That part of the body of Christ, the non-church-goers that I know (like Dave and Forrest), are showing me a different kind of church. A homeless, nameless church; a church in self-imposed exile. These are the Christians who, when they speak, I find their words powerful.

And then there's you. You're a strange one: someone still fully inside orthodoxy and church traditions, who is wrestling with the complexities of living within a religion that has 2000 years of baggage hanging from it. Watching you exist in my old community, with the integrity you bring is a regular pleasure in my life. You're too rare a breed.

Flattery will get me everywhere, right!?

Jon Coutts said...

ha, flattery is always accepted here.

"I think in some ways I am more Christian now, in my sorta/kind-of/almost atheism, than I ever was as a part of the Church."

On one hand I think that's totally possible. Someone observed that Christianity today is in many ways itself a form of practical atheism, and that it is entirely possible for the fumes of a truer Christianity to be "in the air", so to speak, and resonating with those who would not in other recognizable ways be considered Christian (i.e., church-going, creed-confessing, etc.).

By the way, not to be a jerk or anything but I continue to doubt that you haven't had Christ-experiences. Sure there may have been plenty you misinterpreted as such, or which were a mixed bag, or which were/are also interpretable in other ways. Pretty much every Christ experience could be interpreted in other ways, since this is a God who inhabits humanity (e.g., nowadays it is creation itself being interpreted as naturalistic evolution, and there are Christian scientists who can plausibly say it is both).

"a different kind of church. A homeless, nameless church; a church in self-imposed exile."

On the other hand, given the quotes that we're talking about here, I do think that the Churchless-Christianity is, however possible, still a Christianity looking for a more fitting adjective; a Christianity that may be fine and well in a lot of personal/spiritual ways, but which is without its home and knows it. Of course this is incredibly common in our time because so many churches are barely Christian, or if they are it is only in the sense that they are home for a certain kind of personal-Christianity. In many respects, however, in this time it might be said that what we have is a Church in "diaspora", which leaves a lot of room for a great many "self-imposed exile[s]". In some cases I think that means just not being a Christian anymore. In others I think it means being a more monastic one, except not in a monastery but in a neighbourhood. I believe it can be the case that the exiles are hitting the nerve of Christianity in a lot truer ways than the churchfolk. That's probably the sort you are finding attractive/intriguing in our friends there. These people are better than I.

But in the terms that Barth and Bonhoeffer are describing it, there is no Christianity without a community seeking to participate in the reconciliation of all things.