By Anthony D. Baker
This January as I’ve been preparing for another round of “invitation to theology” lectures and discussions, I’ve spent some time pondering a line that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison to his Godson, on the occasion of the latter's baptism:
“In these words and actions handed down to us we sense something totally new and revolutionary, but we cannot yet grasp it and express it” (389).
Though it certainly was not Bonhoeffer’s central point in this letter, it seems to me that he here outlines, if only negatively, a pretty good definition of theology: “the attempt to express what is new and revolutionary in the words and actions handed down to us in the church.” The great narrative of reconciliation and redemption, begun in God’s calling of Abraham, accomplished in the Incarnation, and repeating itself non-identically in the life of the church, is the revolution that is always new, and our task as theologians (whether theology is our profession or simply a facet of our discipleship) is to bring this supra-historical revolution into human expression.
The notion that theology ought to be revolutionary—or to give expression to a revolution—is worth pondering if for no other reason than theology generally seems bent on continuity rather than revolution. Thomas, for instance, tells us that “grace perfects nature, it never destroys it.” This has seemed to many, from the authors of the 13th century Parisian Condemnations to the Reformers and up through the early Barth, to be entirely wrong-headed, in that it fails to register the novelty of grace over against grace’s creaturely beneficiaries. On one reading then, it is in the counter-argument that grace abolishes nature that we first glimpse the revolutionary nature of the gospel.
Thomas was arguing, though, for a kind of “deep revolution” that is characterized by a surprising continuity. The radical upheaval that grace introduces into our lives is not utterly new in terms of our true nature, but rather in terms of our “false nature,”—the lies that we tell ourselves, or are told by others, about our own identities so often that we wind up believing it. When the abused child and the racially type-cast woman truly confront and begin to process the idea that they are infinitely more valuable and better than they have been treated, this will hopefully initiate an utter destruction of their old view of the world and their place within it. The important point though, is that this revolution is likely to fail if it is self-grounding, because it will always contain seeds of doubt: the suspicion, that is, that the previous identity (a child who deserves abuse, a woman who deserves the profiling to which she is subjected) is the original and foundational, and the new one (a child worthy of love, a woman who demands honor and respect) is a replacement that is ultimately foundationless. Rather, the child and the woman must at some point come to believe that their previous identity was “unnatural”, itself a replacement of the one they are now in the process of “perfecting.”
The theological revolution, then, is the overturning of a world in which overturning itself is privileged. It brings to expression a “new creation” that is the recreation and renewal of the original, the gift of God that tells us the first and last truth about who we are and what the world is. Grace perfects nature, destroying only what is counter to nature.
I’m not yet sure whether Bonhoeffer would have been on board with this (admittedly more Catholic) reading, but it at least seems possible. He tells his Godson that the church has been unable to receive and give meaning to the gospel because we have been “fighting for our own survival, as if that were an end in itself.” A church fighting for its own survival may align itself with new centers of power and new creeds, as did the German Church, and these moves may even feel bold and revolutionary. But in so doing, they will lose their ear for the true revolution, falling into the mundane pattern of replacing and destroying in order to adapt. What the German Church lost was the ability to proclaim that the gospel tells the only unsurpassable truth about us and our world, and it is precisely those ideologies that attempt to silence this truth that must be overturned.
They forgot, that is, that there is nothing more revolutionary, in a world bent of destruction and replacement, than the truth about that world that never changes.