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Preserving the world for Christ

Toward a theological engagement with the ‘secular’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 February 2008

Barry Harvey*
Honors College and the Graduate Faculty in Religion, Baylor University, One Bear Place #97144, Waco, TX 76798,


The practices, habits and convictions that once allowed the inhabitants of Christendom to determine what they could reasonably do and say together to foster a just and equitable common life have slowly been displaced over the past few centuries by new configurations which have sought to maintain an inherited faith in an underlying purpose to human life while disassociating themselves from the God who had been the beginning and end of that faith. In the end, however, these new configurations are incapable of sustained deliberations about the basic conditions of our humanity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's theology provides important clues into what it takes to make and keep human life human in such a world. The first part of this essay examines Bonhoeffer's conception of the last things, the things before the last, and what binds them together. He argues that the things before the last do not possess a separate, autonomous existence, and that the positing of such a breach has had disastrous effects on human beings and the world they inhabit. The second part looks at Bonhoeffer's account of the divine mandates as the conceptual basis for coping with a world that has taken leave of God. Though this account of the mandates has much to commend it, it is hindered by problematic habits of interpretation that leave it vacillating between incommensurable positions. Bonhoeffer's incomplete insights are thus subsumed within Augustine's understanding of the two orders of human society set forth in City of God.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2008

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1 Rowan, Williams, Lost Icons: Reflection on Cultural Bereavement (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), pp. 23, 9Google Scholar.

2 Alasdair, MacIntyre, ‘Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narratives, and the Philosophy of Science’, Monist 60 (Oct. 1977), p. 453Google Scholar.

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9 Dietrich, Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Reinhard, Krauss, West, Charles C. and Stott, Douglas W. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), p. 128Google Scholar.

10 I take this expression from Anton, Houtepen, God: An Open Question, trans. John, Bowden (New York: Continuum, 2002)Google Scholar.

11 I am venturing into the highly contested field of Augustinian studies, wherein few topics are more disputed than Augustine's conception of the political. In what follows in this article I am indebted to Rowan Williams's insightful discussion, ‘Politics and the Soul: A Reading of the City of God’, Milltown Studies 19/20 (1987), pp. 55–72. Over against Hannah Arendt, R. A. Markus and others, Williams contends, persuasively I would argue, that Augustine does not repudiate the public realm in this work. ‘Rather he is engaged in a redefinition of the public itself, designed to show that it is life outside the Christian community which fails to be truly public, authentically political’ (ibid., p. 58). For a different understanding of Augustine on matters political, see Heyking, John von, Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001)Google Scholar. For extended debate on this question see Donnellye, Dorothy F. (ed.), The City of God: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1995)Google Scholar.

12 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 169.

13 Lubac, Henri de, The Mystery of the Supernatural, trans. Rosemary, Sheed (New York: Crossroad, 1998), p. 179Google Scholar.

14 Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2000), pp. 31–2.

15 De Lubac, Mystery of the Supernatural, p. 145; cf. Henri de Lubac, Augustinianism and Modern Theology, trans. Lancelot Sheppard (New York: Crossroad, 2000), pp. 105– 83. See also David Schindler's introduction to Mystery of the Supernatural, pp. xvii–xviii. More recently Denys Turner has contested some of the conclusions drawn by those influenced by de Lubac's work in Faith, Reason and the Existence of God (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 14–17.

16 Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, in Three Treatises, trans. W. A. Lambert, 2nd edn (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), pp. 278, 295, 298.

17 Charles, Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 211Google Scholar.

18 Ibid., p. 224. Taylor also argues that the Puritan exaltation of the significance of ordinary life provided a hospitable environment for modern science, understood not as contemplating the beauty of the triune God through the splendour of the created order, but as the means for humans to make good use of God's creation, thus authorising an instrumentalist stance toward the world.

19 Dietrich, Bonhoeffer, True Patriotism: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1939–45, ed. Robertson, Edwin H. (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 109Google Scholar.

20 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp. 146–7.

21 Ibid., pp. 159–60.

22 Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, p. 157.

23 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 173.

24 Ibid., p. 163.

25 Ibid., p. 157.

26 See Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 99Google Scholar.

27 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 122.

28 Bonhoeffer, True Patriotism, p. 113.

29 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 127. Athanasius puts this point in a similar fashion: ‘[B]ecause death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in the process of destruction’. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, p. 31.

30 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 128.

31 ‘Nichts haftet und nichts behaftet’. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethik, ed. Ilse Tödt, Eduard Tödt, Ernst Feil and Clifford Green (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1992), p. 120, my trans. Krauss, West and Stott render it ‘Nothing is fixed, and nothing holds us’. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 129.

32 Dietrich, Bonhoeffer, ‘On the Theological Basis of the Work of the World Alliance’, in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Kelly, Geffrey B. and Nelson, F. Burton (San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, 1990), p. 106Google Scholar.

33 Dietrich, Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928–39, ed. Robertson, Edwin H. (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 324Google Scholar. This lecture was reconstructed in part from Eberhard Bethge's notes.

34 Ibid., pp. 324–5; Bonhoeffer's emphasis. In view of Bonhoeffer's concept of Christ existing as church-community (Christus als Gemeinde existierend), one has to wonder whether this reference to the ‘whole Christ’ is an allusion to Augustine's many references to the church as the totus Christus, the whole, Christ. See his ‘First Homily on 1 John’, in Augustine: Later Works, ed. John, Burnaby (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955), p. 261Google Scholar.

35 Dietrich, Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, trans. Reinhard, Krauss and Nancy, Lukens (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), p. 141Google Scholar. Cf. Gerhard, Lohfink, Does God Need the Church? Toward a Theology of the People of God, trans. Maloney, Linda M. (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1999), p. 27Google Scholar.

36 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp. 135, 142.

37 Some may object to this description of the discussion of the mandates, but Bonhoeffer himself admits that he is not wed to this notion: ‘Lacking a better word we thus stay, for the time being, with the concept of mandate. Nevertheless, our goal, through clarifying the issue itself, is to contribute to renewing and reclaiming the old concepts of order, estate and office’ (ibid., p. 390). I also think it significant that the concept appears but once in his prison correspondence, and when it does Bonhoeffer recognises its limitations, stating that he is unsure how to relate culture, education, friendship and finally ‘the broad area of freedom’ to the realm of mandates. See Letters and Papers, pp. 192–3.

38 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp. 67–9, 388.

39 Ibid., p. 389.

40 Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, p. 282.

41 See John, Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 154Google Scholar.

42 Frank, Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 1Google Scholar.

43 See Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, p. 109; my emphasis. One thinks here of Robert Putnam's famous article, ‘Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital’, Journal of Democracy 6/1 (Jan. 1995), pp. 65–78.

44 See Wüstenberg, Ralf K., A Theology of Life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity, trans. Douglas, Stott (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998)Google Scholar.

45 Rasmussen, Larry L., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1972), pp. 85–6Google Scholar; cf. Larry, Rasmussen, ‘The Ethics of Responsible Action’, in Gruchy, John W. de (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 206–25Google Scholar.

46 Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, p. 298.

47 Ibid., pp. 298–9; cf. p. 297.

48 Eberhard, Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, rev. edn, ed. Barnett, Victoria J. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), p. 459Google Scholar. See Dietrich, Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, trans. Bax, Douglas Stephen (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), pp. 139–40Google Scholar.

49 Bonhoeffer, Ethik, pp. 58–9; Ethics, pp. 72–3.

50 Bonhoeffer, Ethik, pp. 166–7; Ethics, pp. 174–5. By inference we can then say that, for Bonhoeffer, reason's true nature can only be rightly understood when it is a part of an epistemic scheme that emphasises the ascent of the mind to its beginning and end in God, such as one finds in Bonaventure's Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (The Journey of the Mind to God).

51 Bonhoeffer, Ethik, pp. 57–8; Ethics, p. 71.

52 Bonhoeffer, True Patriotism, p. 109.

53 I am indebted in what follows to Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, pp. 155–66.

54 Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, I. Pref., ed. R. W. Dyson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 3.

55 Regarding death, Bonhoeffer states that, ‘The miracle of Christ's resurrection has overturned the idolization of death that rules among us. Where death is final, fear of it combines with defiance. Where death is final, earthly life is all or nothing. Defiant striving for earthly eternities goes together with a careless playing with life, anxious affirmation of life with an indifferent contempt for life. Nothing betrays the idolization of death more clearly than when an era claims to build for eternity, and yet life in that era is worth nothing, when big words are spoken about a new humanity, a new world, a new society that will be created, and all this newness consists only in the annihilation of existing life.’ Ethics, p. 91.

56 Augustine, The Confessions IX. 2, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 1997), pp. 210–12. For a provocative discussion of the suitability of contemporary professions for Christians see Robert Brimlow, Paganism and the Professions (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002).

57 Augustine, City of God, V. 17, p. 217; cf. XIX.17, p. 947.

58 Augustine, City of God, V. 24, pp. 231–2. Augustine's speculum principis is pre-Carolingian in form, with the emperor but not the empire included within the pilgrim city of God.

59 Bouhoette, Letters and Papers, p. 17. The subdiscipline of theodicy makes a similar sort of assumption.