The Bonhoeffer temptation

In his book A Public Faith, Miroslav Volf writes about various approaches to Christian engagement with the wider culture in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of the typology developed by H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture. Volf identifies “liberal,” “postliberal,” and “separatist” tendencies, along with his preferred approach, which he calls “internal difference.”

Liberal accommodation is concerned to make the Christian message intelligible to nonbelievers, but often at the risk of sacrificing its distinctiveness. Postliberalism reverses this approach and tries to interpret everything outside the church within the terms of the Christian narrative. The problem with this approach is that Christian communities risk “clos[ing] themselves off from a meaningful conversation with the larger culture” (p. 86).

The separatist tendency is a radical intensification of the postliberal approach; it “imagine[s] Christian communities as islands in the sea of worldliness” (p. 87). Volf says that this approach is often inspired by a stance of Bonhoeffer-like resistance, in which churches are seen as being “In the midst of the world” but “taken out of the world” and whose surrounding cultures are viewed as “a foreign land.” Volf quotes Bonhoeffer:

At any moment [the Christian community] may receive the signal to move on. Then it will break camp, leaving behind all worldly friends and relatives, and following only the voice of the one who has called it. It leaves the foreign country and moves onward toward its heavenly home. (p. 87)

The problem with this approach, according to Volf, is that it universalizes what was a response to a very specific situation. Or to put it more bluntly: most places aren’t Nazi Germany! “If one isolates such an account of the relation between church and the world from its specific situation and elevates it to a general program for Christian presence in the world, serious problems arise” (p. 88).

If Christian communities only wander on earth but live in heaven, they will have their own truth and their own moral norms, their own practices, all of which would not only be determined exclusively by God’s revelation in Jesus Christ but would have little to do with what is considered true, good, and beautiful outside the sealed train in which they live. Christians would then be present in a given culture but would remain completely external to it. (p. 88)

It’s debatable whether it’s even possible to consistently take such a stance. But Volf thinks that it’s a real tendency, and one that denies that there is goodness outside the Christian community. But if the world is God’s good creation, then how can Christians deny that truth, beauty, and goodness exist outside the walls of the church?

As the Word came “to what was his own” (John 1:1) when it dwelled in Jesus Christ, so also Christians live in each culture as in their own proper space. Cultures are not foreign countries for the followers of Christ but rather their own homelands, the creation of the one God. If Christians are estranged from the world, it can only be because and insofar as the world is (and maybe they themselves are as well) estranged from God. Christian communities should not seek to leave their home cultures and establish settlements outside or live as islands within them. Instead, they should remain in them and change them–subvert the power of the foreign force and seek to bring the culture into closer alignment with God and God’s purposes. (p. 89)

You can see separatist tendencies among certain Christians on both the “Right” and the “Left” in America today. For different reasons, both see the United States as an utterly hostile culture and the proper Christian response as creating distinctive Christian cultures with their own norms, practices, etc. (Interestingly, Bonhoeffer is often cited on both sides.) From Volf’s perspective, however, these Christians have misjudged their situation; there is plenty wrong with contemporary U.S. culture and politics, but it’s not so far gone that the only option is withdrawal.


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