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.


Karl Hand said...

Love it!! I have seen "discernment" used as a way of power-mongering far too often. And what blasphemy when you think about it!

Anonymous said...

Does this post overread the words "sometimes seems" . . . might they not mean "passing illusion"?

Ben Myers said...

But my account isn't really based on this single quote. If you read all the correspondence surrounding Bonhoeffer's plans to go to India, it's clear that he wanted to use Gandhi's ashram as the model for a new form of protestant monasticism.

Anonymous said...

"Wanting to use Gandhi's ashram as the model for a new form of protestant monasticism" is not what you claimed. You claimed much more strongly that B sees the "authentic ‘Christianity’ of a Hindu community ..." etc. These aren't the same things.

So if the rest of B's correspondence is really filled with evidence of the attitudes that you claim, you will not have any problem finding a single quotation that actually supports your far stronger claims.

Highanddry said...


I wonder whether you could use Tolstoy as an undeniable example of this to avoid the "interpretive" debate about Bonhoeffer's discernment of the "strange Christ" outside of Christianity?

From what I gather, Toltoy's correspondence was instrumental in spurring Gandhi into action.

The Strange One speaking across religions, nations and indeed, time.

Paul Tyson said...

Dear Anon

The strong claim Ben seems to me to be making is that Bonhoeffer saw respectable German ‘Christianity’ as a sham, and that he saw the personally costly, communal integrated and violent power resisting Way of Christ being lived far more tangibly by a Hindu and wished to learn from him. I don’t think there can be any controversy about these things from the life and writings of Bonhoeffer. I think Bonhoeffer had genuine discernment to see these things. And biblically speaking, there are significant occasions where religious outsiders discern, speak and live the truth in ways unknown by the insiders who ought to known. Think of the Queen of Sheba, the magi, the centurion with the sick servant, Cornellius, and most tellingly, Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritain etc. If you are worried that a Hindu cannot be a true follower of Christ in ways that profoundly judged doctrinally orthodox Christians, then I think you are too worried. To say this is not to be synchronistic about doctrine, but it is to recognise that we will know those in whom the redemptive Word of God has taken root by their fruit. Correct doctrine without the fruit of the redemptive work of Christ is just dead religion.

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul, I don't know what Ben's strong claim was. His specific claim was that B considered Gandhi's ashram to be an authentic Christian community.

I have seen no evidence of this.

If it's true that there can be "no controversey" about B's belief, I am sure you or he can produce a single quotation that demonstrates such a belief.

E.g., a single statement where B refers to G as a Christian; a single statement where B teaches that those who reject Jesus as Christ are Christians.

Paul Tyson said...

Dear Anon.

As far as I can ascertain, this seems to the specific claim that you are referring to from Ben’s piece:

“The authentic ‘Christianity’ of a Hindu community becomes a mirror in which the western church perceives its own profligacy and degradation. … [Bonhoeffer] 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.”

Note ‘Christianity’ and ‘heathens’ here: this is not an unqualified specific claim that Gandhi’s ashram is an authentic Christian community, it is not an unqualified claim that Gandhi was a Christian. Gandhi is a ‘heathen’ in Bonhoeffer’s terminology – and Ben has preserved this terminology. Equally, in the Bonhoeffer quote provided - “It sometimes seems to me that there’s more Christianity in [India’s] ‘heathenism’ than in the whole of our Reich Church” – Ben is using the term “authentic ‘Christianity’” in reference to Gandhi without any textual gymnastics.

Bonhoeffer maintains that the ‘heathen’ – who are not Christians – can follow Christ more faithfully than adherents of the Christian religion who, whilst being doctrinally orthodox, flagrantly disregard the sermon on the mount. In this way the ‘heathen’ stand in judgement of the ‘Christians’. In Gandhi, Bonhoeffer saw a deep commitment to many of the central teachings of the sermon on the mount; non-violence, ‘moral power’, giving no regard to social status, refusing to be realpolitiked into compromised deals with evil power, identification with the poor and suffering etc. Right practise cannot be separated from right belief if one listens to what Jesus had to say here (think of the parable of the sheep and the goats), and so whilst right practise and right belief together – not that we ever attain perfection – is our aim, it is certainly possible for right belief to be judged and found empty of true faith by its refusal to live in the Way of Christ. Those who in some measure live in this costly way, even though they are not Christians doctrinally, may well have deeper fellowship with Christ, and may well live out of grace, regardless of their wrong beliefs.

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,

It's not necessary to argue about compunded inferences from a single quotation. If B actually says what you infer he means, then provide direct quotations. If, as claimed, his whole work is shot through with this sort of thinking, then many direct statements of the required sort can be offered.

For my part, I simply deny that the single quotation offered demonstrates the strong views claimed on behalf of B.

Specifically, it does not indicate that B believed non-Christians "can follow Christ more faithfully than" Christans or that those who are that non-Christians "may well have deeper fellowship with Christ regardless of their wrong beliefs."

If he says those things, let him speak in his own voice. I know of no quotations that would support these views of B and maintain -- unless evidence can be offered -- that this is a wrongful imposition on B.

Paul Tyson said...

Dear Anon

OK, say I am wrong about Bonhoeffer. What do you think then about the claim that following the way of Christ can only be done by grace, and is possible for the non-Christian, and that non-Christians like Gandhi can judge the authenticity of believers – such as the Reich church – by following the way of Christ even though they are not Christians?

Matt N said...

“Evangelization is essentially a dialogue, a free dialogue with the cultures of the world and the religious ideas they uphold. It will be no good if we Christians enter into this living dialogue without being open to conversion to a fuller truth.

As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit is still working always and everywhere, unpredictably and outside the boundaries that we have set. The Spirit sets no boundaries, as much to our surprise as it was to the early Jewish Christians, who saw the Spirit poured out on Gentiles, beyond the limits that reasonable religious people had expected.”-- The Church in the Midst of Creation (copyright 1989 by Vincent J. Donovan)

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,

I assume that the reason there is such grasping to place B behind this argument is the lack of other authorities in favor of it.

I know of no important authority for the proposition that one who denies Christ, like Gandhi, can be a Christian. Can those who specifically deny that Jesus is Christ be Christ-followers? No. Acknowledging Jesus is basic to following him.

Unknown said...

Paul and Anon:

For a very helpful essay on this question, which deals particularly with Gandhi's encounter with Jesus through his reading of Tolstoy, see John Howard Yoder, "The Disavowal of Constantine: An Alternative Perspective on Interfaith Dialogue," in The Royal Priesthood, esp. the short section entitled "The Follower Without the Name," on pp. 259-60.

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