Christ Actually: Reimagining Faith in the Modern Age

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9780143127840: Christ Actually: Reimagining Faith in the Modern Age

An exploration of transcendent faith in modern times—from the author of the New York Times–bestselling Constantine’s Sword
 
What can we believe about—and how can we believe in—Jesus Christ in light of the Holocaust and other atrocities of the twentieth century and the drift from religion that followed? In this urgent and provocative work, award-winning author James Carroll traces centuries of religious history and theology to face this core challenge to modern faith and to rescue it for the secular age.

Far from another book about the “historical Jesus,” Christ Actually takes the challenges of science and contemporary philosophy, of secularism, seriously. Carroll retrieves the power of Jesus both as an answer to humanity’s perennial longing for transcendence and as a figure of profound ordinariness—his simple life, and his call to imitate him, all suggest an answer to the question “What is the future of Jesus Christ?” This book points the way.

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About the Author:

James Carroll is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Suffolk University and a columnist for The Boston Globe. He is the author of ten novels and seven works of fiction. He lives in Boston.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

Christ Actually

Against wild reasons of the state

His words are quiet but not too quiet.

We hear too late or not too late.

—Geoffrey Hill1

Operation Spark

In Germany, early in 1943, things got serious with “Operation Spark,” the anti-Nazi conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In March, two bomb attempts were made on Hitler’s life. They failed, but in early April a number of the conspirators were arrested by the Gestapo. One of these was a young Lutheran theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For two years, he was imprisoned—first at Tegel military prison, in Berlin, and ultimately at Buchenwald and Flossenbürg concentration camps. A committed pacifist entangled in a plot to kill a tyrant, he wrote, “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”2

Bonhoeffer was executed three weeks before the war ended, before the horrors of 1945 were fully laid bare. Yet there is a hint in his statement that, in the thick of the evil, he had grasped what was now at stake: nothing less than the moral self-destruction, and perhaps the physical self-extinction, of the human species; its “continuing to live.” He did not survive to articulate the meaning of what he’d come to, but in subsequent years the fragments of thought he left flashed through Christian theology like crystal shards through a darkened conscience. That was especially so once Auschwitz was paired with Hiroshima—absolute evil absolutely armed: the death camp and the genocidal weapon all at once bracketing the human future. The mad nuclear competition that followed then made the problem of human survival literal.

Initiating a project for belief that has yet to be accomplished, Bonhoeffer declared himself in a letter to his student and friend Eberhard Bethge: “What keeps gnawing at me is the question, . . . who is Christ actually for us today?” That line, written in a Nazi cell, is a shorthand proclamation of Bonhoeffer’s penetration to the deepest question about the human condition, which raised, for a serious Christian, an equally grave question about Jesus Christ and the tradition that takes its name from him.

I, too, have found something “gnawing at me,” if in far shallower ways than the martyred German. As it happens, I was born precisely as Operation Spark was launched. The son of committed Irish Catholics, I fully embraced that legacy and came of age with Jesus Christ at the center of my identity. But as I grew older, tectonic shifts in culture, religion, politics, and structures of thought cracked the foundation of Christ’s meaning—even for me. Among the many factors that have contributed to that dislocation, none looms larger, I see now, than the still unreckoned-with moral catastrophe faced by Bonhoeffer. He was a first witness to the apocalyptic fervor of the Third Reich, the millennial character of the crisis—and the fact that “Christendom,” a culture in place since Charlemagne and nearly the sole context within which Jesus Christ had been understood, was mortally undermined by racist Nazi imperialism. And Bonhoeffer was one of the first to grasp how the ethical shattering of Christendom extended to the keystone of Christian faith—to Jesus himself.

I begin this grappling with the new actuality of Jesus Christ by recalling Bonhoeffer not just because I associate with his hinted-at intuition that we need a radically reimagined Jesus, but because his undeveloped and rudimentary inquiry was sparked—“Operation Spark” indeed—by that brutal confrontation with what has shown itself to be the double-barreled moral problem of our age. The bottomless pit that opened in southern Poland, and into which Bonhoeffer was already staring, was only one chamber of an abyss into which humanity had been plunged also by the devastation of a city in Japan. It was not the scale of bloodshed in these two manifestations that made Auschwitz and Hiroshima historic—other genocides and mass bombings compare, from Stalin and Pol Pot on one side to Curtis LeMay and Bomber Harris on another. Rather, it was the character of Auschwitz and Hiroshima as related revelations about the past and future: the anti-Jewish heart of Western civilization, and the vulnerability of the human species to suicide.

I grew up during the Cold War on bases of the United States Air Force, where my father, an Air Force general, served as a member of America’s nuclear priesthood. My otherwise mundane Oedipal reckoning unfolded in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon.3 It was eventually impossible for me to avoid the harsh reality that, taken together, Auschwitz and Hiroshima had changed everything—except human ways of thinking and believing.4 A transcendent shift in moral meaning had occurred. Christians regard what the tradition calls the Incarnation as an interruption in history. But so was 1945. Looking back across the decades, it has finally become clear to me how the actualities of that year forced the question: Who is Christ actually?

Religionlessness

Here is Bonhoeffer’s full statement to Bethge:

What might surprise or perhaps even worry you would be my theological thoughts and where they are leading, and here is where I really miss you very much . . . What keeps gnawing at me is the question, What is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words—whether with theological or pious words—is past, as is the age of inwardness and conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether. We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply can’t be religious anymore. . . . If eventually we must judge even the Western form of Christianity to be only a preliminary stage of a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the Church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? . . . The question to be answered would be, What does a Church, a congregation, a liturgy, a sermon, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we talk about God without religion? . . . Christ would then no longer be the object of religion, but something else entirely, truly the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? . . . I hope you understand more or less what I mean, and that it’s not boring you. . . . Goodbye for now. Yours, as ever. I think about you very much. Dietrich.5

Existentialist philosophy, psychoanalysis, modernist literature, political engagement for the sake of justice—such movements coming to a head after World War II salted the religious self-understanding of Christians, especially in nations bracketing the North Atlantic. Fully developed theologies flourished with figures like Protestants Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich; Orthodox figures like Alexander Schmemann, dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, in New York; and Catholics of the Second Vatican Council6 like Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, and John Courtney Murray. Compared with the decades-long contributions of such thinkers, all of whom were implicitly responding to crises engendered by the genocidal violence of the century’s wars, Bonhoeffer’s sketchy intuitions, offered most significantly in his Letters and Papers from Prison, read like picture captions. But the picture he holds up shows the deep truth of an unprecedented circumstance. It is clear from the passage cited above that the traumatized German was groping for words to express what remained an unspeakable experience. The groping itself is his legacy and challenge.

Paul Tillich, a German Lutheran twenty years Bonhoeffer’s senior, lived to carry on the postwar inquiry—mainly because, unlike Bonhoeffer, Tillich responded to Hitler’s coming to power by taking up a life in exile in New York. Tillich had been dismissed from his Frankfurt professorship by the Nazis, and he, too, found the crisis of Nazism at the center of his reflections. Like Bonhoeffer, he saw a consequent religionlessness as somehow necessary—but also as revelatory. Indeed, it formed the basis of his existentialist theology, which came to fruition in his postwar reflections, especially in the books The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith (1957). Here, in slightly more abstract language, is Tillich’s echo of what Bonhoeffer wrote in the letter to Bethge:

The relation of man to the ultimate undergoes changes. Contents of ultimate concern vanish or are replaced by others . . . Symbols which for a certain period, or in a certain place, expressed the truth of faith for a certain group now only remind of the faith of the past. They have lost their truth, and it is an open question whether dead symbols can be revived. Probably not for those to whom they have died.7

The most important symbol that had lost its truth for Tillich was the symbol of God Himself, which, after Hitler, had been irrevocably undermined. In The Courage to Be, he wrote,

God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is equated with the recent tyrants who with the help of terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in a machine they control. He becomes the model of everything against which Existentialism revolted. This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism. It is an atheism which is justified as the reaction against theological theism and its disturbing implications.8

In the 1960s, Bonhoeffer was posthumously conscripted into the briefly voguish Death of God movement in Britain and America, which made watchwords of his nascent notions of “religionless Christianity” and “man come fully of age.”9 Whether obsequies for “theological theism” are a function of maturity is debatable, to say the least, yet Bonhoeffer’s seemed an uncanny anticipation of Europe’s postwar exodus from religion, with the resulting mass redundancy of church buildings and the muting of the voices of clergy. Today, apart from the hollow formalism of royalty-ruled churches in Britain and Scandinavia, institutional religion has entirely vacated the public realm of Europe—and, in some places, the private conscience, too.10 In America, the decline of mainstream religion was slower in coming, but the Death of God presented itself as a theological problem more in the United States than anywhere.

As figures of wide influence, there were no successors on either side of the Atlantic to Tillich, Niebuhr, Schmemann, Küng, or Murray. Eventually, with salvos from pop culture, screen technologies, and hyperlinks of the Internet, with “all talk, all the time” draining words of weight and impact—universally at the expense of contemplative reading—the devastation of inwardness itself could also seem a fulfillment of Bonhoeffer’s prophecy. “The history of faith,” as Tillich put it, “is a permanent fight with the corruption of faith.” The fight, all at once, seemed lost. The claim of faith was “exposed to the continuous test of history.”11 And for many, it seemed to fail. The late-twentieth-century arrival of a broadly unchurched culture in the North Atlantic nations, with an apparent legion readily dispensing with theism, especially among educated elites and younger people, seemed to suggest that the Death of God theologians had been grappling with something real. “God has hidden his face from the world,” as one Jewish Holocaust writer put it, “and delivered mankind over to his own savage urges and instincts.”12

Bonhoeffer’s focus was on the delivering humans had done, not God, but the “absence of religion” he predicted turned out not to be “complete.”13 The “Secular Age” might have dawned in most of Europe and parts of North America—regions of the Enlightenment legacy—but even there, assumptions of an earlier age held fast among many. The twenty-first century’s so-called new atheism had its answer in a new fundamentalism, whose leaders, notably in the United States, enlisted on the reactionary side of the culture war being fought over flash points like abortion and gay rights.14 On questions ranging from “family values” to the “war on terror” to the corporate ethos of retail giants, overt appeals to religion, in fact, defined large segments of American society more than ever.15 “Today, one of the most glaring refutations of the case that religion has vanished from public life,” as the critic Terry Eagleton puts it, “is known as the United States.”16 And not just the U.S. Across the globe, religious true belief has solidified identity in a sea of uncertainty.

Negatively, religion spawned world-historic acts of violence—from the 1995 murder in Israel of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish zealot to the perversion of Allahu Akbar over Manhattan, the Pennsylvania countryside, and the Pentagon in September of 2001 to the God-ordained orgy of killing in Norway in 2011 by a Christian supremacist. One wants to separate such killer-nihilism from “true religion,” yet jihadist and crusader impulses do have underpinnings in authentic faith. We will investigate that connection in this book.

But the power of contemporary religion has been showing itself positively, too. Essential to the civil rights, human rights, and peace movements in the West, faith was also key to the nonviolent grass-roots revolution that brought down the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Religion was a pillar of the inchoate Muslim awakening to democracy, so hopefully begun in the Arab Spring of 2011.17 Indeed, independent of politics, religion remains a source of consolation and strength—of inwardness and conscience—for global multitudes, decisively including impoverished masses to whom material structures of meaning are simply unavailable.

So was Bonhoeffer wrong? Did religion in fact survive intact, if altered? Did he misconstrue the nature of religionlessness? For that matter, what is religionlessness? I locate this question, first, not in poll numbers or philosophical debates but in a deeply personal problem: having myself absorbed—and learned to take for granted—basic assumptions of the so-called Secular Age, what of my own religious inheritance can I believe without being dishonest? I am no fundamentalist, and the limits of religion, even its perversity, are fully apparent to me. If the faith continues to impose itself as a primal option, it does so in my case despite—or is it because of?—the crises of 1945. What happens when traditional belief slams into the wall of the Holocaust? When it plunges into the abyss of Hiroshima? Those questions are what draw me to Bonhoeffer and his crucial intuition that religion and Jesus Christ are not identical. Because Hiroshima had not happened when he was writing, the potential suicide of the human species was not an actual prospect for Bonhoeffer. Yet the “continuation” of human life had surfaced as an overriding moral problem, and I, a nuclear warrior’s son, live to be haunted by it to this day. In Buchenwald, Bonhoeffer may well have had a foretaste of the full horror of Auschwitz, but that particular death camp’s meaning as an epiphany of radical evil remained implicit. For me, though, its meaning as an obliteration of inherited religious absolutes could not be more explicit. The point is that Bonhoeffer, in all of this, sensed that some pin had been removed from the ordered mechanism of civilization, and I know with personal certainty that he was not wrong. How had the jailed German pastor come to such knowledge? Decisively, the answer involved what he saw befalling the Jews.

In April 1933, a newly empowered Hitler tipped his hand when he ordere...

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