I’m going to attempt to make a few blog posts over the next few weeks that address the subject of theology and politics, which I take to be timely right now especially as the election season is upon us. In doing so, I will try to outline in a fairly systematic way the theological justification for my positions on what are in my opinion the most important issues that have to be dealt with in the U.S. from a Christian and ecclesial perspective.
I take as my starting point an excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s later work. Obviously, there are those who would probably like to object to my beginning here instead of, say, with Scripture on the one hand or with the words of a more contemporary theologian who isn’t German, male, etc. on the other. In response to such objections, I would just say that I consider Bonhoeffer’s statement below to still be inspired by Scripture and very relevant to many contemporary political and theological concerns that extend beyond U.S.-eurocentrism. He is also someone that is well known and revered in a diverse range of Christian circles, and as such provides a broadly common ground from which to launch the conversation.
God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age outlined above, which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness. This will probably be the starting-point for our ‘secular interpretation’. – Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (p. 359-361)
For much of my life I’ve heard conventional apologists and preachers argue that what distinguishes Christianity from other religions is the Protestant emphasis on justification by grace through faith, not works. This is because all other religions are assumed to be primarily characterized by human effort to somehow reach or work toward God, or to earn God’s approval.
There are obvious problems with this, not the least of which is the sweeping generalization of the nature of all other world religions, which are quite diverse in and among themselves, just like Christianity — not to mention that the adherents in each are seeking very different soteriological ends (different views on what salvation is in the first place). Moreover, the so-called world religions have very divergent conceptions of what it means to be human and what the basic impediment is to abundant life. This has to be taken into account before we can speak so broadly about the Christian difference. Leaving that issue aside for now, however, the even bigger oversight of this perspective seems to be to the focus on salvation in the first place, which, when described in the way that was mentioned above (salvation by grace through faith), tends to focus entirely on what we get from God as opposed to who God is and what God expects from us as a result of what God has done.
More specifically, it overlooks what is in my view a most fundamental distinction that can more safely be made between Christian confessions and those of other faiths — namely, the belief that God was uniquely and fully present in Jesus of Nazareth. That is to say, whereas some traditions rightly stress God’s transcendence or otherness on the one hand, while others tend to speak more of an immanence or pantheistic nature of God on the other — if they speak theistically at all — the Christian tradition has always talked a lot about both, and it is because of the doctrine of God’s incarnation in Christ that we can do this.
This of course requires that, despite whatever we might want to say christological formulations, some kind of normative authority is maintained regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ, which is what distinguishes this view from many other more liberal or less orthodox positions that have arisen over the centuries. I am not particularly concerned about how exactly people use language to get at this incredibly mysterious and paradoxical notion of God dwelling with us as a human being — as long as the theological significance of the idea is preserved. Furthermore, it’s not that I’m trying to necessary defend the truth of the orthodox position as such either. Rather, I’m simply trying to convey this doctrine’s indispensability to the Christian faith and identity for the preservation of its uniqueness.
This significance for me consists in least two very basic faith statements, which, getting back to the question of the Christian difference, are essential for understanding what makes the Christian identity special. First, there is the belief that, as Bonhoeffer says in analogous terms, God has solidarity (read shared nature and experience) with the human situation through Jesus; and secondly, that this solidarity is constituted by non-coercion and suffering for a redemptive purpose that gives hope and power in the face of sin and death. As a result of the witness in Scripture to these two aspects of divine action, the character God is revealed, and revealed in such a way that communicates God’s love for the world. Whether and to what extent God is sovereign in the world and is providential in all of history, more than merely present, sustaining and persuasive, is another interesting and important question, but the lesson I’m driving at that can be appreciated from both sides of the spectrum on this — from classical theism (God’s essence as self-sufficient existence) all the way to process theology (God’s dipolar, consequent and primordial nature) — is that God cares and is involved.
Some Application: Toward the Relevance of the Christian Difference for Faith in the Public Sphere
The final sentence of Bonhoeffer’s quote above makes reference to a “secular interpretation,” and this is the direction I’d like to go in next. Sin and salvation are rightly understood to a limited extent as pertaining to the individual and to life-everlasting, but more appropriately for our time and place as pertaining to the community and (secular) life in the present. This, I believe, is because our cultural context in North America is plagued by rampant individualism both in and outside of the church. In other words, from a Christian standpoint, we might say there are mostly two kinds of people in our society: Christians and non-Christians — and both groups are individualists. One way to understand the reason for this, as I see it, is simple: most people who claim to be Christian are more “American” than they are Christian. I will do my best to unpack what I mean by this in the next few posts.
 A brief disclaimer is in order with reference to Bonhoeffer’s claim that “the only way” God helps is through weakness, etc: in the larger context, Bonhoeffer is dealing with the extent to which modern scientific develops have pushed God further and further away as a need for explaining seemingly supernatural phenomena that occur in the world. Much like Paul Tillich does to some degree then, Bonhoeffer is circumnavigating this problem by suggesting that God should not be conceived so dualistically in relationship to the “natural” world. It would not be appropriate at this point, therefore, I don’t think, to conclude that Bonhoeffer is necessarily saying that God’s own nature is weak or powerless in and of itself. Said another way, it might be a stretch to infer from this that Bonhoeffer would have had affinity with more recent postmodern or poststructuralist theological projects, for instance (Caputo’s Weakness of God), or that he would have agreed with the claims of process theology regarding God’s providence.