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Posts Tagged ‘critical readings’

It’s one thing to say “you’re asking the wrong question.” Bonhoeffer does this all the time. The first bit of Bonhoeffer I ever read began by saying that ethicists are asking the wrong question. To get good answers, you have to ask good questions!

This is very different from saying “two questions are prohibited” as he does in his Christology lectures (DBWE 12, 304). Imagine your teacher telling you that you cannot ask certain questions! This immediately rubbed me the wrong way, but he pulls it out in the end. Let’s take a look.

Continuing with his discussion of the question of Christology (which must be “who” and not “how,” and can only be truly asked in the context of the church), he says:

Two questions are prohibited:

(1) Whether the answer that is given is the right answer. This question has no right to be asked, because there can be no authority for our human logos to cast doubt on the truth of this Logos. Jesus’s own witness to himself, then and now, stands on its own and substantiates itself. The “that” in “that God was revealed in Christ” cannot be theologically questioned.

(2) The second prohibited question is how the “that” of the revelation can be conceived. This question leads in the direction of trying again to get behind Christ’s claim, and to ground it on our own. In doing so, our own logos is presuming on the role of the Father of Jesus Christ himself, when all we actually know is the fact of God’s revelation. – 304.

I’ve heard arguments that sound like this before, and I don’t like them. They generally have to do with the authority of Scripture and reading the Bible critically. The argument is generally some form of “God inspired the Bible, therefore we can never criticize it, because even if it seems incorrect on some point it is only because we cannot understand the mysteries of God.” Such arguments miss entirely the nature of a critical reading, whose purpose is to help us to read a text carefully and accurately; rather, they see critical readings as somehow undermining the authority of the text. In effect, they say “there are certain questions about the Bible that you can never ask.” This stops us from studying the Bible carefully, and makes us rely on the authority of someone else, who has already interpreted the Bible (and maybe not so carefully); it often relies on an appeal to the Spirit, who can make the text understandable for us in a plain reading (except of course on those occasions when something in the text, or more precisely in the way we’re reading it, seems wrong; then it’s the authority of the mystery of God).

Bonhoeffer isn’t talking about the Bible here, but he is still talking about the Word of God – Jesus Christ. In a sense, then, he is still talking about the Bible, as it is in the Bible that we find God’s self-revelation, right? Yes, and no. For Bonhoeffer, we encounter Christ in the other, in other human beings. We certainly see God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ by reading the Bible, and if we limit Bonhoeffer’s intended meaning to this sense, he’d be just another biblicist. But to Bonhoeffer, when we ask “who are you?” of Christ, we’re not just reading the gospels to find a description of Jesus. We are asking an ontological question that forms the foundation of all knowledge.  Questioning this question just might be the most important questioning!

Perhaps the word “prohibited” is not the best term, here. Perhaps it was lost in translation; after all, Bonhoeffer spoke these words in German to a student who took them down in shorthand and expanded that shorthand 28 years later, in German that was later translated to English. I think what Bonhoeffer is trying to say here is not that we are prohibited from asking these questions in the sense that we ought not (as in the argument of the biblicist, who believes that asking questions of Scripture offends God’s honour), but rather because we have no basis for any other answer.

We lack the perspective to challenge God’s self-revelation. This is different from the biblicist’s argument that we cannot know the mysteries of God and therefore should not challenge the Bible. Bonhoeffer is not appealing to some sort of higher wisdom that God has; rather, he has just explained (see my last post) that all human questioning is ultimately self-referential, and that we can only really ask God who he is because he has made himself known to us, and it is only in this intrusion of outside information (i.e., God’s self-revelation) that allows us to see beyond our self-centred paradigms at all. If we question God’s self-revelation, then we’re still bound in our self-centred paradigms, as we haven’t allowed God to reveal himself. This is the second question that is prohibited, the first being whether or not God has actually revealed himself, and the second being whether we can know that God has revealed himself. I think that Bonhoeffer is saying here that we shouldn’t bother getting caught up in the cyclical subjectivity of epistemology (the “that” question), as the real question is ontological (the “who” question). Epistemological questions don’t allow us to get outside of ourselves, so we have no authority on things outside of ourselves so long as we remain trapped there. Put another way, rather than quoting “his ways are higher than our ways,” Bonhoeffer is actually saying that it’s impossible to question something on such a completely different level with any hope of our answers being anything more than a reflection of ourselves.

Finally, let’s return to the object of Bonhoeffer’s questioning, which is not actually an object such as the Bible, but is actually a subject, Jesus Christ. The weakness of the biblicist arguments against reading the Bible critically is that it does not provide any actual method of reading the Bible; it allows us to read ourselves into the Bible as we read it “at face value.” While we can certainly read ourselves into the person of Jesus Christ just as well as we can into the text of the Bible, we must not forget that Bonhoeffer has just given us a context in which these questions occur: the context of Christ’s self-revelation. We can’t ask any questions seriously until we are confronted by God’s self-revelation in Christ. In such a context, the question “who are you?” is actually a response. We are not impertinently casting doubt upon God’s self-revelation by questioning, but rather in questioning it we reject it and remain bound within ourselves; we fail to respond intelligently. Imagine having a person strike up a conversation with you, and then responding with “what’s that sound? Is there really someone there?” No meaningful interaction can occur.

All that to say that once I dwelt on Bonhoeffer’s apparent censorship, I calmed down. Perhaps he should have used a better term than “prohibited” to describe these questions; I know I would have. There is such a thing as the wrong question, and there is such a thing as a stupid question.

Perhaps his way of saying it really was better.

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