Do we need God?

Working at a business school, I get the opportunity to pick up out-of-date textbooks for free  from time-to-time. I was reading my newest introductory marketing textbook earlier this week when I was reminded of some basic marketing concepts and assumptions.

At its base, marketing is process by which people create and exchange products that satisfy felt needs.

When a need is not satisfied, a person will do one of two things — look for an object that will satisfy it or try to reduce the need. People in industrial societies may try to find or develop objects that will satisfy their desires. People in less-developed societies may try to reduce their desires and satisfy them with what is available.

As I was reading the book, I thought of Augustine’s famous line that we are restless until we find our rest in God. If Augustine is correct about the need — a human need for communion with God — then my book seems to suggest that people will respond to this need in a few different ways.

They might seek God, but they may be prone to substitute something else for God if the cost of seeking God is too high. They will be satisfied with cut-rate products that are cheap and convenient over top-shelf products that are costly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have said we need costly grace, but cheap grace still has a big audience.

People might also try to reduce their felt need for God by various means. You can numb the pang. You can deny the need exists. You can learn to get around with pain.

This kind of thinking quickly takes us away from theological thinking. Marketing conceives of human beings as a bundle of needs and — as I did above — reduces God to a product that can satisfy those needs. This strikes me as dangerous territory for Christians, but given the world we live in, I would propose — at least as a topic for further discussion — that learning how our culture thinks and talks about human beings is necessary for the church if it wishes to engage with the world with the good news.


Why the church supported Hitler

The German Church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Barmen Declaration, and other aspects of the church’s encounter with Nazi Germany get held up as symbols and signs a lot these days. I know I’ve done it.

Here is an interesting article that takes a deeper look at why the German Protestants supported Hitler. It certainly has implications for our day. It also might puncture a few easy simplifications we sometimes make.

Pastor Dietrich’s counsel

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote something in The Cost of Discipleship that keeps working on me. It went like this: only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.

Bonhoeffer sees this as a key pastoral insight.

In dealing with souls, it is essential for the pastor to bear in mind both sides of the proposition. When people complain, for instance, that they find it hard to believe, it is a sign of deliberate or unconscious disobedience. It is all too easy to put them off by offering the remedy of cheap grace. That only leaves the disease as bad as it was before, and makes the word of grace a sort of self-administered consolation, or a self-imparted absolution.

Bonhoeffer argues that the words “I struggle to believe” signal to the pastor “I have not obeyed.” In the next few paragraphs, he charts the mind and movement of the person who says the first as a signal and symptom of the second. But Bonhoeffer does not leave it at diagnosis.

The pastor should give up arguing with him, and stop taking his difficulties seriously. That will really be in the man’s own interest, for he is only trying to hide himself behind them. It is now time to take the bull by the horns, and say: “Only those who obey believe.” Thus the flow of the conversation is interrupted, and the pastor can continue: “You are disobedient, you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control. That is what is preventing you from listening to Christ and believing in his grace. You cannot hear Christ because you are willfully disobedient. Somewhere in your heart you are refusing to listen to his call. Your difficulty is your sins.”

God, recall these words to my mind the next time I am in need of them.

Single-minded obedience

John Wesley and Dietrich Bonhoeffer shared a zeal for single-minded obedience to Christ. They both took the “Lord” part of Lord and Savior quite seriously.

In Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, he expresses shock at the way we Christians twist and turn to escape the clear commands of Christ. Our preachers help us out in this by explaining away the hard teaching and the narrow way. When Jesus says turn the other cheek, he does not really mean accept another blow. He means twist back around so you can get a really good swing on your counter punch. When Jesus says seek first the kingdom of God, he really means seek other things first but be prepared to bet all on the coming kingdom if it comes to that.

Bonhoeffer will have none of this.

How is such absurdity possible? What has happened that the word of Jesus can be thus degraded by this trifling, and thus left open to the mockery of the world? When orders are issued in other spheres of life there is no doubt whatever of their meaning. If a father sends his child to bed, the boy knows at once what he has to do. But suppose he has picked up a smattering of pseudo-theology. In that case he would argue more or less like this: “Father tells me to go to bed, but he rally means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome tiredness just as well if I go out and play. Therefore though father tells me to go to bed, he really means: ‘Go out and play.'” If a child tried such arguments on his father or a citizen on his government, they would both meet with a kind of language they could not fail to understand — in short they would be punished. Are we to treat the commandment of Jesus differently from other orders and exchange single-minded obedience for downright disobedience? How could that be possible!

Bonhoeffer writes that obedience to Christ pulls us into a place where faith is possible. It puts us in a place in which we can in fact have true faith, true trust, that Jesus Christ is our Savior.

I am reminded this day to be attentive to the word of Jesus Christ and to step out in obedience, not because I understand but because the grace of God gives me the faith to do so.

Bonhoeffer – Nouwen, God – self

Reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer one day and Henri Nouwen the next is a bit like riding a see-saw.

Bonhoeffer tells us that the path to our true self is to find and follow and obey God.

Nouwen tells us that the path to God starts by delving into our inner and true selves.

When I read John Wesley, I hear Bonhoeffer’s voice much more strongly than Nouwen’s in the background.

Bonhoeffer on discipleship

We in the United Methodist Church say our mission is to make disciples.

Here is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says about discipleship in writing about Mark 2:14.

And what does the text inform us about the content of discipleship? Follow me, run along behind me! That is all. To follow in his steps is something which is void of all content. It gives us no intelligible programme for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after. (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 58)

This surely is not what we mean by “discipleship.” We are Methodists, after all. We have a program for everything. And yet, I find it difficult to dispute Bro. Bonhoeffer’s argument.