| Mar 22, 2011
Recently, Warren Buffett, the oracle of Omaha, said that America’s best days are ahead of it. To put his money where his mouth is, he announced his personal investment in American innovation and ingenuity.
I wonder where Christians are on a similar, though unrelated, proposition. If put to a vote, I wonder if Christians—at least in North America, at least of the mainline Protestant sort—would be willing to say that the Church’s best days are ahead of her.
Certainly, if investment in the future, in innovation and ingenuity, is the measure, I’d have to say that the evidence is not in favor of the proposition. But it should be!
Yes, the Church is facing challenges. But the Church always has faced challenges. And the Church’s best days are indeed ahead of her.
My statement (the Church’s best days are ahead) is a theological statement related to hope, not just a general comment of confidence or optimism. You may remember the distinction I’ve made between hope and optimism.
We are living into God’s future, a future we articulate every time we proclaim the Eucharistic prayer which affirms—in one way or another—that the Table around which we gather in remembrance is a recognition of the vigil we keep with all the saints in heaven and on earth, and a foretaste of that eschatological banquet we shall share in God’s eternal kingdom.
The Church lives proleptically. The Church’s future folds back on us even as we lean into it.
We do not live between realism and idealism, in other words, as though we were a community of Platonic philosophers climbing rungs or staggering out of a dimly lit cave. Rather, we live eschatologically, as disciples of Christ, between the times, with God’s future continually tugging at us, pulling us from the “not yet” into the “already.” The theology of the cross is always post-figured, its shadows cast in bold relief by the light of resurrection.
It was precisely this eschatological tug that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to reflect on the future of the church as he sat in a Nazi prison. If anyone had reason not to be hopeful, it was Bonhoeffer. The churches to which he had given his energy were in shambles. Some (the national-level church that had morphed into the Reich Church) had actively colluded with Hitler’s ecclesiastical thugs. Some (even among the Confessing Church movement) had retreated in the face of the social and political challenges that faced them. Some others lay in ashes, their followers driven underground, their leaders in prison.
So when Bonhoeffer turned his attention to writing a new doctrine of the church, he could have been excused had he written a fairly defeatist statement. But he didn’t. Nor was his statement unwilling to face unpleasant realities. In fact, he pulled no punches, particularly with the “Confessing Church” to which he had devoted so much of his energy and life since the rise of National Socialism.
“Karl Barth [whom Bonhoeffer had very much admired for a long time] and the Confessing Church have encouraged us to entrench ourselves persistently behind ‘the faith of the church,’” Bonhoeffer writes, “and evade the honest question as to what we ourselves really believe. This is why the air is not quite fresh, even in the Confessing Church.”
The questions for Bonhoeffer were: What do we believe, really believe? For what are we willing to live and die?
At stake for Bonhoeffer was “a genuine experience of God,” a personal “encounter with Jesus Christ,” which transforms human life. Bonhoeffer’s statement about the church reads like a latter day set of Pensees, such as those written by Pascal. And, like Pascal’s, they have an edge that can cut like a razor. They are especially sharp when they draw the line between who Jesus is and who we are called to be.
When we realize, for example, that according to Bonhoeffer, “Jesus is there only for others,” we can understand much more clearly who we are meant to be and what we are called to do.
We can also understand more clearly what the Church’s vocation is, and why the Church does in fact have a future.
Bonhoeffer writes: “The church is the church only when it exists for others…. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell [people] of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not under-estimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.”
Toward the end of his notes, Bonhoeffer writes: “All this is very crude and condensed, but there are certain things that I’m anxious to say simply and clearly—things that we so often shirk. Whether I shall succeed is another matter, especially if I cannot discuss it with you. I hope it may be of some help for the church’s future.”
Reading these words, I feel almost as though you and I have just recovered a letter in a bottle that has bobbed and floated on the high seas since it was placed there some time in 1944. Miraculously it survived. Miraculously it floated with ocean currents and found its way to our hut. We pull it from the waves and read it and rush to find someone else to hear its message.
If Bonhoeffer could believe against all odds that the church had a future, it is foolish for us not to embrace that future. He wanted to live long enough to help shape that future. He didn’t live long enough to get the chance. But we have.
Do we think the Church’s best days are ahead of it? I can’t help but believe they are. So, let’s invest in her future. Let’s start by investing our lives.
Quotes are from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 380-383. A new greatly enlarged critical edition of Letters and Papers from Prison is now available in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series, Volume 8, published by Fortress Press in 2010.