Friday, 23 July 2010

Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, and Christian discernment

The new issue of Uniting Church Studies 16:1 (2010) is devoted to theological debate about the church's proposed constitutional preamble on indigenous Australians (which I've blogged about before). It includes my essay, "'In his own strange way': Indigenous Australians and the Church's Confession" – if you'd like a copy, just send me an email. I've posted a few excerpts on earlier occasions – here's one more small excerpt, where I discuss Bonhoeffer's relation to Gandhi (a topic I hope to explore in detail one of these days):

This exercise of discernment once more involves the question of the church’s posture or position. Discernment is not an exercise of ecclesiastical power; it is not an expression of the church’s superior vantage point. Rather discernment opens the church to judgment. [...] It is an act of humiliating obedience; it is a dangerous and necessary enactment of the church’s confession—the confession that the church has nothing of itself, and everything from Jesus Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer [...] provides an instructive example of this practice of Christian discernment. In the early 1930s, amidst intense struggle with the Deutsche Christen, Bonhoeffer felt increasingly drawn to India. He wrote to Gandhi, asking if he could spend several months sitting at his feet and sharing in his pattern of daily life. Bonhoeffer wanted to form a monastic community in Germany—he believed the future of the German church depended on it—and he planned to use Gandhi as his model, including Gandhi’s commitment to ‘life together’, ascetic practices, nonviolent resistance, and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. In a letter of 1934, Bonhoeffer describes his eagerness to learn from Gandhi:
It sometimes seems to me that there’s more Christianity in [India’s] ‘heathenism’ than in the whole of our Reich Church. Christianity did in fact come from the East originally, but it has become so westernised and so permeated by civilised thought that, as we can now see, it is almost lost to us. (Bonhoeffer, London, 1933-1935, 152)
In this surprising place, Bonhoeffer discerns the work of Christ. And this discernment is simultaneously an experience of judgment. The authentic ‘Christianity’ of a Hindu community becomes a mirror in which the western church perceives its own profligacy and degradation. Bonhoeffer does not wish to become a Hindu, nor is he interested in anything resembling interfaith dialogue. It is rather his exclusive commitment to Christ that drives him to Gandhi. He discerns Christ’s way in Gandhi; while the church crumbles to ruins all around him, Bonhoeffer perceives Jesus Christ living and active in India, and so he resolves to seek Christ there, to learn from the ‘heathens’ what it means to become a disciple of Christ.

As the church exercises discernment, it is thus judged and questioned from outside itself. It perceives surprising signs of Christ’s free and unprincipled activity in the world, and it finds its own life subjected to Christ’s searching and commanding Word. From this position—not a position of superior knowledge about God, but a position of judgment—the church hears Christ’s call and confesses. From this position, the church refuses to regard itself as the exclusive arena of God’s activity; it looks not to itself but to Jesus Christ.


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