Clanging gongs: the perils of cheap religious talk
We are in an unfolding, multifaceted tragedy. Let's not be hasty with glib responses; better to follow Bonhoeffer's lead in leaving the unsolvable unsolved. By David Bunce
As the full reality of what Coronavirus could mean for countries outside of China began to become clear, I was sitting in the hospital, following the news on my phone. This wasn’t an unusual activity for us at the time: since our second child was born at the beginning of December, we have spent over two months in hospital (and over a quarter of the last year when you include our other child), including a tense stretch of time in the NICU as an emergency admission. For months, we had been living in the gap between hope and despair, trying to process everything through a haze of normal new-born exhaustion. From where we were sitting, Coronavirus represented one more threat to our already wobbly lives.
Austria, where I currently live and minister, brought in movement restrictions very early. Events (including church services) were cancelled and schools were closed a good two weeks before the United Kingdom. A lockdown for all but essentials started in mid-March, again two weeks before the UK. Perhaps sharing a land-border with the North of Italy meant that we had a more immediate view of the seriousness of the situation there. Perhaps in a country that hasn’t suffered through the last few acerbic years of political turmoil around the issue of Brexit, and where both experts and politicians are still widely respected, the government could act more decisively. Either way, I remember weeping in frustration at the glibness of the UK response in general, and many church responses in particular – for example, the refusal to stop meeting for services before the government (finally) forced churches' hands.
Glibness has, I think, sadly marked a lot of Christian responses to the current situation. Or a hastiness to say something. Anything. A glance at my email inbox shows newsletters being sent out promising to teach churches how to leverage the current situation, pioneering digital services and neighbourhood help. In the world of pragmatic church growth, a crisis is nothing more than the opportunity to pivot and adapt, selling the same fundamental content in a different way. Glibness also marks the urge to find a rational explanation: maybe it is a curse from God, a judgement like in the Old Testament. Or a momentary passing crisis to warn us of the dangers of globalisation or climate exploitation.
Others see the fear as an opportunity to get a quick win for the gospel that maybe wouldn’t be possible before – after all, neighbour, do you know where you are going to end up for eternity if you die from Coronavirus? On this point, I think my sympathies are with Bonhoeffer. Writing a letter from prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge on the 30 April 1944, he observes that very few people are naturally religious any more, even in the face of a crisis as big as the Second World War. Should we hone in on those who remain open to religious talk, especially in their unhappy hour of fear, and sell them our religious wares?
Bonhoeffer argued that this would be an act of ‘religious rape’. However deeply unhappy this term is for 21st century ears (to the point where I was hesitant even to include it in this article), I think we can understand the force of Bonhoeffer’s moral argument. Is an acceptance of the hope of Christianity by one whose circumstances have made them desperate an act made freely? I wonder if we as Christians here are sometimes more akin to Jacob, exploiting the hungry Esau with the quick comfort of a hearty broth without being entirely honest about the bigger picture.
In the postscript to his letter (Bonhoeffer originally broke off the letter thinking that he would miss the prison post, then discovered he had more time after all), Bonhoeffer talks about the fact that he is often shy of using the language of ‘God’ when talking to people in the church – he argues that he finds his words ringing false, almost bordering on dishonesty. This is even more so, he says, when he slips into religious jargon: in his eyes, religious people use the language of God as an act of intellectual laziness, a kind of Deus ex machina when other explanations fail. As much as Bonhoeffer in Discipleship warns about the dangers of cheap grace, Bonhoeffer from prison warns about the danger of cheap talk.
Cheap religious talk and cheap theologising are what I am concerned about. I’m not sure the pathos of the moment has really yet sunk in. The tragedy is multifaceted. Maybe it is the healthcare professional in the ICU, having to triage life and death not merely on the basis of what is best for an individual at a given moment in time, but how best to use scarce resources. It is the older person with dementia in a nursing home, not only unable to be visited by family at the moment, but also unaware of why they have seemingly been forgotten about. It is the woman stuck at home with an abuser, with many of the social safety nets that had allowed her to escape temporarily from a situation now seemingly removed. It is the sheer soul-crushing experience of grief after grief: losing friends and family members before their time. It is the people dying alone with no-one there in their final moments because visitors are banned from hospitals.
And it is a thousand daily small griefs that nevertheless leave an indelible mark on our souls: not being able to sit the exams we have prepared for our whole school career, not being able to celebrate the birthday or the graduation or the golden wedding anniversary, not being able to take that holiday of a lifetime. Or receive the life-prolonging chemotherapy. Or enjoy those last months together working through a bucket list. In the face of such desperate pathos, cheap religious talk sounds as hollow as the insubstantial noise that it is.
What does religious talk on the boundaries of pathos and despair look like? For Bonhoeffer: better to be silent and leave the unsolvable unsolved. I wonder if this instinct was in Marilynne Robinson’s mind when, in her fictional memoir Gilead, written by a dying pastor in Iowa, she has the aging John Ames look back at a sermon he prepared at the height of the Spanish Influenza. Writing to his son, he remembers the time as being one filled with funeral after funeral, hospitals filled to overflowing, people sitting as far away from each other in church as they could. He recounts how he wrote a bold prophetic sermon, one his pacifist father would have been proud of, talking about how the epidemic was a sign and warning about the consequences of war, a judgement from God on people hammering their ploughshares into swords:
It was quite a sermon, I believe. I thought as I wrote it how pleased my father would have been. But my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was. And they were there even though I might have been contagious. I seemed ridiculous to myself for imagining I could thunder from the pulpit in those circumstances, and I dropped that sermon in the stove and preached on the Parable of the Lost Sheep.
(Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. Reprint edition. New York: Picador, 2006. pp 48-49)
Bonhoeffer finishes his postscript with an appeal for preaching from the centre of the Christian faith: not the borders of our knowledge and despair, but that which was the clear shape of the gospel. Bonhoeffer admits to not knowing what this would look like (it is around this time that he began talking about ‘religionless Christianity’, a phrase that has been taken in many different ways).
I’m not sure what our gospel speech should look like in the current situation, either. But I think we can do a lot worse than reflecting on the urgency of Bonhoeffer’s moral plea against cheap religious talk. Or, to follow the example of Ames, drop our bold prophetic sermons and pragmatic pivots of church strategy into the stove, and instead preach on the Parable of the Lost Sheep.
David Bunce is a pastor of project:church in Vienna, Austria, where he works with young adults and families. He also leads the Austrian Baptist Union's Youth and Children's work and is the co-ordinator for the Project:Vienna gap year programme
(Bonhoeffer’s letter is found in: Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “Brief an An Eberhard Bethge [Tegel] 30.4.44.” In Theologische Briefe aus “Widerstand und Ergebung,” edited by Thorsten Dietz, 32–35. Große Texte der Christenheit (GTCh)?;?; v. 2. Leipzig?: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2017. I’m grateful to my colleague Mira Ungewitter for pointing me towards this letter)
Image | JR Korpa | Unsplash
This is the latest in a series of theological and biblical reflections from Baptists for Holy Week and Easter
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