[[This is a continuation of John's series "Confessions of a Theological Jerk", a discussion on being a jerk about theology, and how (hopefully) to stop it. You can see post #1 here, #2 here, and #3 here.]]
It’s Spring Break, and I took the opportunity of a free weekend to do some reading. One book I grabbed off my shelf was Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s, Spiritual Care. The book is a very practical set of lectures Bonhoeffer wrote in between the Cost of Discipleship, and Life Together, while he was the “principal” of Finkenwalde Seminary. The lectures were intended for ordained pastors as they perform the ministerial duty of “spiritual care”, and so it covers things like visiting homes, caring for the sick, etc. but has some great insights for the entire church and can easily be read in an afternoon.
The book is all about the pastor’s role in spiritual dialogue or as the translator of Bonhoeffer puts it, “spiritual care”. This dialogue happens between two ,or sometimes with married couples three, individuals. It is listening and proclamation of the Word, alongside more general teaching (like preaching, Bible study, etc.). The mission of spiritual care is to remove all obstacles to an encounter between a person and the Word of God. This involves prayer, listening, prophetic speech, making a place and time for confession, the announcement of forgiveness, and discussion of how to press into the Gospel. Simply put by Bonhoeffer, “the Word is so close to us that we cannot insert a piece of paper between the self and the creative Word of God, [and] it is the task of spiritual care to enable people to become alive to this Word at their center.” (Please go read this book!)
Spiritual Care and the Theological Jerk
One particular section really hits home for any student of theology, pastor, teacher, etc. and especially theological jerks like me. In this section Bonhoeffer discusses spiritual care specifically with other pastors, those who have been given the office of listening and proclaiming the Word as shepherds of a group of people (we all have the general call to do so, but there is also the office which comes with greater responsibility). After discussing how pastors must be in partnership with one another (including not gossiping about each other to their congregation) Bonhoeffer goes on to something that must be a central concern for anyone who studies the Word. (I have changed some of Bonheoffer’s language to the first person plural in order to avoid controversey over issues regarding gender and the pastorship, as well as to present this material as a reality for all of us.)
The greatest difficulty for a pastor stems from our theology. We know all there is to be known about sin and forgiveness. We know what the faith is and talk about it so much that we wind up no longer living in faith but in thinking about faith. We even know that our nonfaith is the right form of faith: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Knowledge reveals our daimonism. It drives us further and further into factual unbelief. We can then have no experience of faith. Our only experience is reflection on the faith.
The problem is exacberated by our constant preaching. We have to say things we have not experientially discovered. Such “misuse” of the Word must bother us very deeply. Indeed it is our singular mission not to preach our experience but to preach from Scripture. That can be proven and justified on the best theological grounds. Everything indeed depends on the Word. But it’s a sorry state of affairs if we are not bothered that our experience lags so far behind the Word, or if we strike the pose of a martyr who renouncing his own experience, subjected himself for the sake of proclaiming a strange Word. The peak of theological craftiness is to conceal necessary and wholesome unrest under such self-justification. In this case, one cannot believe hecause one doesn’t want to believe. The conscience has been put to sleep. Theology becomes a science by which one learns to excuse everything and justify everything. This justification even has ultimate authority from Luther, from the confessions, and finally from the New Testament. The theologian knows that he cannot be shot out of the saddle by other theologians. Everything his theology admits is justified. This is the curse of theology. One cannot express this without anxiety and embarrassment. It must be the theology. But here it is worth repeating: “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25).
Whoever has once begun to justify ourselves with the help of theology is in the clutches of Satan. Naturally Satan is a great theologian! But he keeps our understanding three steps removed from our body. Otherwise it might be threatening for our lives: we might fall into a swamp where our faith will suffocate. When we appear so hollow, there is no way to convince us theologically that experience can never be decisive and that faith depends on an objective base. The only help is to call a person to the simplest things of Scripture, prayer, confession, and to concrete obedience in one definite matter. And to allow ourselves to be led forward step by step to Christ.
The life of a pastor completes itself in reading, meditation, prayer, and struggle. The means is the words of Scripture with which everything begins and to which everything returns. We read Scripture in order that our hearts may be moved. It will lead us into prayer for the church, for brothers and sisters in the faith, for our work, and for our own souls. Prayer leads us into the world in which we must keep the faith. Where Scripture, prayer, and keeping the faith exist, temptation will always find its way in. Temptation is the sign that our hearing, prayer, and faith have touched down in reality. There is no escape from temptation except by giving ourselves to renewed reading and meditation. So the circle is complete. We will not often be permitted to see the fruits of our labors; but through the joy of community with brothers and sisters who offer us spiritual care, we become certain of the proclamation and the ministry.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Spiritual Care, pg. 67-69
Bonhoeffer sits on the razor’s edge of a dialectic. We are at one and the same time asked not to preach from our own experience and only from Scripture, yet if we preach we must experience the Scripture! Our theology must be based solely on the Word of God, but must be enlivened with experience. I’d say it is this dialectic that keeps us from becoming theological jerks.
-If we speak from primarily from our own experience, we are bound to make proclamations of things beyond or opposite of the Scriptures. Yet our experience (which can be false because it is solely ours and interpreted by us!) can be the thing most central to us, so we will defend it as far as possible! When we make theology about our experience, we lose any objective base to it, but we still cling to it because we have not made the Word our foundation. ”This is my experience” is fighting AND failing words all at the same time. Christianity is not about our experience, but God’s expression of who He is, to a community of believers.
-If we speak primarily from the Scriptures, but don’t find ourselves reading, meditating on, praying regarding, confessing through, and being obedient to to the Word, if our experience consistently lags behind what we say, we will be hypocrites. We end up being theological jerks because we speak of what we don’t know. We must read the Scriptures, but can’t simply go from there to proclamation. Bonhoeffer makes clear that encountering the Word is a never-ending process in this age: read the Scriptures -> have our hearts changed -> pray out of this -> be lead by prayer into the world and realm of faith -> have our faith tested (through temptation) in the world -> escape temptation through reading and meditating on the Word (cf. Matt 4:1-11) It is only as we are involved in this process that we can proclaim. We will be encountering the Word, and giving witness to it, not in a hypocritical (theologically jerk-y) way, but in a way that grows step by step with Christ.
A Quick Word on Community
Before I end with a prayer, it should be noted that the entirety of Bonhoeffer’s discussion on spiritual care is grounded in the local church body. The above quote focuses mostly on the solitary “pastor” (by now I hope you realize that by this I mean anyone who takes seriously the call to encountering the Word through theology) and his or her theology in the midst of the world. But the quote comes within a larger description of the pastor in regards to a community of other believers. It is only within this context that spiritual care actually happens. The pastor (student, teacher, lay person, etc.) is never one in isolation, but only exists under a communal God that has formed a communal people. We have to realize our dependence on this relational God and this covenant community for our existence. We are what we are, in and with them. This community is the concrete of our theology. Our encounter with the Word of God is experienced as and in the community of God, the church, the paradoxical mix of sinner/saints. We listen to one another. We proclaim the Word of God to one another. We confess to one another. We forgive one another. We are where the Gospel explodes. Any discussion of spiritual care and theology has to acknowledge that it is done in and for a community.
Razor’s Edge Prayer
Heavenly Father, give us the grace and strength and ability to avoid the temptation of being theological jerks. Help us to find ourselves always on the razor’s edge. May we never speak about theology solely from our own experience, fighting for something we can’t say is from you, but instead find ourselves solely proclaiming the Word of God. At the same time, may we speak the Word of God, only as we experience it, day by day, step by step becoming more and more like your Word, Jesus Christ. Join us together as a body. Father, unite us in your Son, through the Spirit. Let us listen and confess to one another. Amen.
Over the next several weeks I look forward to a fifth (and perhaps sixth or seventh) post for this series focusing on some practical ways to avoid being theological jerks. I’ll also be posting about international women”s month, and hopefully start a new series (whose topic I have not yet decided on).
Grace and peace,