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.

The “medium chill” and keeping Sabbath

Grist’s David Roberts has written a follow-up to his “medium chill” post of about two years ago that expands on the idea and its social and political implications. In the original post, Roberts argued, based in part on “happiness research” and in part on personal experience, that it’s more fulfilling to work less to allow more time for enjoying life’s intangible goods–even if that means making less money.

In the follow-up post, he concedes that research he cited in the previous post that seemed to show that happiness levels off after a certain income level (about $75,000) may have been wrong; nevertheless, the relationship between wealth and happiness does seem to be “logarithmic”–that is the increase in happiness you get from each additional dollar is less than the previous one, even if it isn’t zero. The basic point seems to stand: after you’ve reached a certain level, adding more income isn’t going to increase your happiness or life-satisfaction much, if at all.

But if you have reached that level–if you even have the option of “chilling”– you are likely among the richest 0.1 percent of the world’s population. Which means that access to a life with possibilities for fulfillment beyond the struggle for material security is severely maldistributed, to put it mildly.

And if you are so fortunately situated, it’s due to luck far more than hard work, pluck, or anything else that you could plausibly claim to have merited. Where you were born, who your parents are, and your genetic make-up have a lot more to do with your success in life than anything you contribute (assuming there’s some irreducible element that can’t be chalked up to any of these other factors).

Because those of us with more have it not mainly by dint of the sweat of our brow, but because of circumstances well beyond our control, there is no justification for hoarding all that good fortune. (“You didn’t build that,” as President Obama might say.) We need policies–liberal policies essentially–that distribute access to the world’s goods more equitably in order to allow everyone a shot at a flourishing human life.

He goes on to speculate a bit about the possibilities for human life freed from the necessity of working more to earn more. Life should not be about being a fitter, more productive worker bee; it should be about cultivating our innate capabilities for creativity and self-expression in community with others. The seemingly laid-back medium chill turns out to have a rather radical, utopian streak.

All, or nearly all, of this resonates with the Christian view of life as I understand it. In his recent book A Public Faith, theologian Miroslav Volf argues that Christianity’s contribution to the common good is a more substantive and appealing vision of human flourishing than the one that has gained much ground in the modern West. According to Volf, this is the view that the good life consists primarily in the satisfaction of individual desire or preference.

Not surprisingly, he considers this to be a deeply impoverished view of human life. Not only has it lost sight of the love of God, but by focusing on individual satisfaction it is opposed to any robust idea of human solidarity. By contrast, for Christians,

[w]e lead our lives well when we love God with our whole being and when we love our neighbors as we (properly) love ourselves. Life goes well for us when our basic needs are met and when we experience that we are loved by God and by our neighbors–when we are loved as who we are, with our own specific character and history, notwithstanding our fragility and failures. (p. 72)

This account is clearly incompatible with a society in which everyone has to scramble endlessly to “get ahead” in material terms–e.g., Thomas Friedman’s horrifying “401(k) world.” Christians should want a world in which people are free from the pressure to constantly “invest in themselves” to please some boss or keep up with the Joneses.

In the Christian view, we aren’t made for working ourselves to death or for endless accumulation, but for lives “rich with relationships and experiences,” as Roberts puts it. In Biblical terms, we might think of the “medium chill” as a way of keeping Sabbath, as described by Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann:

Sabbath, in the first instance, is not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being. (Journey to the Common Good, p. 26)

This restful withdrawal from over-work and over-consumption is a precondition for genuine community and human flourishing. A good society would be one that made this a possibility for everyone.