November 30, 2005
Prisoner of God
…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…
Deprived of its context, this quote can well be read as contemporary—the glum but instructional musing of a liberal dissenter. But, as it goes, the quote was written by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1943, penned from Nazi-enforced imprisonment. And it got me to thinking—what moral and intellectual lessons may be learnt by atheists from past and present church leaders and theologians? After re-reading Bonhoeffer, I happened on Archbishop Chris Jensen’s essay “Jesus, Religious Genius or Failed Prophet?'' read that night on Radio National. And I found an answer to my question: we can learn plenty…
There was much soul-searching amongst German theologians after Hitler’s fall, especially from the Protestants. Germany was largely a Protestant country, whose people had embraced Nazism. How could this be avoided in the future? What was Christianity’s position at the great ideological table that was established in fascism's shadow?
Pastor Bonhoeffer’s book, Prisoner of God: Letters and Papers from Prison, was released posthumously in 1951, and offered much to this debate…
Many years earlier Bonhoeffer was operating underground—he had to as mainstream churches accepted Nazi-appointed bishops and worked Nazism into their liturgies. Nazism had crept over and consumed all of Germany’s institutions.
In response, Bonhoeffer established the secret, breakaway Confessing Church, a sect whose members answered only to heavenly authority—many members smuggled Jews out of the country, anticipating the Holocaust. In 1943 Nazis jailed Bonhoeffer on sedition charges, but later discovered his links in a sophisticated plot to kill Hitler. On April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer was hanged in Flössenberg concentration camp. Days later Allied forces liberated the area…
Bonhoeffer’s writings share much with existentialism—after following Swiss theologian Karl Barth’s theories, Bonhoeffer began championing a theology which emphasized Jesus’ deeds, rather than clerical dogma. But, unlike Barth, who sought to amend church doctrine, Bonhoeffer sought the establishment of a “religionless Christianity''—that is, a form of Christianity based solely on the emulation of Christ as the suffering “man for others''. The nut of Bonhoeffer’s belief was this: in a morally ambiguous world, we can only derive our ethics from actions aimed at helping one’s fellows. Less than a year before his death, Bonhoeffer was still writing furiously about his theory: “How this religionless Christianity looks, what form it takes, is something that I’m thinking about a great deal, and I shall be writing to you again about it soon. It may be that on us in particular, midway between East and West, there will fall a heavy responsibility''.
60 years later Sydney Archbishop Chris Jensen read his essay “Jesus, Religious Genius or Failed Prophet?'' and it provided the same instruction as Bonhoeffer’s. Jesus may exist as a metaphorical authority—a presenter of parables, of moral choices. For me, and Bonhoeffer, the moral authority of Jesus is destroyed once religion—dogma—is introduced. I like to see Bonhoeffer as Jesus himself—a lucid and vigorous intellect but, more importantly, a man defined by his actions—brave deeds that cost him his life, but granted much to others. A man who put his money where his mouth is.
Jensen’s fascinating essay attempts to answer this question: “Jesus creates a problem. He announced that the kingdom of God was imminent. It did not arrive. Is it best to think of him as a religious and moral genius, or a failed prophet? If we think that he is a genius, we save his teaching but lose our integrity. If we think of him as a failed prophet, we keep our integrity, but it is difficult to explain why he has been so significant in the history of the world.''
As mentioned, Jensen views Jesus’ power as a moral authority—as opposed to his gifts of prophecy—as important, but, for this atheist, Jensen’s greater contribution is an intelligent, honest and critical examination of Jesus, and an understanding of the existential significance of his figure. It is true that we may be ethical figures whose moral stature is defined by deeds not inspired by Jesus, but Jensen convinces me that he provides a little guidance.
Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 2:49 PM
November 18, 2005
The End of Something
This really isn't a good enough entry, but anything to break the Block, eh?
MARTY enters workplace.
WORKMATE: "What are you doing here?"
MARTY: "Ahh, working."
WORKMATE: "Have you checked the roster?"
MARTY: "Yes, that's why I'm here."
WORKMATE: "There's a new one."
MARTY: "A new roster?"
WORKMATE hands MARTY new roster. MARTY flicks through it.
MARTY: "I'm not in here."
MARTY: "I've been fired."
MARTY: "Man, Lea's a cunt."
WORKMATE: "Yes she is. I'm really sorry. It's really fucked."
LEA: "Marty! Oh!"
MARTY: "Ahh, is there something you want to tell me, Lea?"
MARTY: "You can't fire someone and not tell them. What the fuck?"
LEA: "Ahh... I thought..."
MARTY: "No, you didn't fucking think at all. Every fucker is leaving this place, and it's because you're a misanthropic fuck-up and everyone knows it."
LEA: "Marty, that's a little..."
MARTY: "You remind me of Nixon. Fuck!"
LEA: "You can't swear at me."
MARTY: "Everyone here wants to. You run this place like a... jesus, I don't even know. I'm finishing my shift and I want an apology."
LEA: "Sure, I'm sorry."