Category Archives: Culture

Book Review: The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse

Book Recommendation

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis–and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance

Summary

I’ve been admiring Senator Ben Sasse for about a year now. He’s one of the few Senators who speaks with substance about broad principles. He’s consistently conservative, but isn’t very partisan. He doesn’t just buy the into the party line – and that’s earned him a number of enemies within his own party, but also a lot of respect in my eyes. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to read this book.

The library I got this book from categorized it as “politics”, but it’s not a policy book (and he explains why in the postscript). It’s closer to a parenting book, actually, and all the chapters in Part 2 give practical suggestions to parents. If you want to classify it as a “political” book, you should define “politics” more broadly to mean “public life”, or maybe even “culture.” Sasse sees culture as upstream from policy and partisanship and it’s the broader context of culture and shared public life that Sasse addresses.

The Problem

Sasse is specifically concerned about the “vanishing American adult.” He’s concerned that we’re failing to teach our younger generations how to be grown-ups, that we’re consigning them to perpetual adolescence. Part 1 of his book gives a more detailed account of the problem and how we got here. Part 2 provides suggestions for specific remedies. For the purposes of this summary and review I’ll focus on Part 2.

“An Active Program” 

How do we remedy the problem. The Vanishing American Adult outlines six solutions. 1) Avoid age segregation. 2) Teach hard work. 3) Embrace production over consumption. 4) Travel. 5) Read good books. 6) Embrace America as an idea.

Avoid Age Segregation: We live in a highly age-segregated culture with precious few opportunities to learn from our elders. If we only interact with people our own age we get a truncated view of life. Most importantly, we miss out on learning about the most fundamental questions that comes to us at the end of life, but that we should ask sooner: What is a life well lived? What truly matters? How can I cope with the reality and immanence of my own death and the deaths of those I love? To that end, Sasse encourages providing young people opportunities to interact with and learn from people of all generations.

Teach Hard Work: Sasse believes that, as a result of our unprecedented national wealth, we’re becoming softer and more averse to hard work. Hard work builds character and a healthy sense of self-worth. His advise? Figure out how to develop a sold work ethic in your children.

Embrace Production over Consumption: Consumption (beyond the necessities, of course) doesn’t bring us happiness, even though the marketing world would have us believe it does. Production – and knowing that our work is meaningful – does. To that end, Sasse encourages us to produce more and consume less.

Travel: Sasse makes a distinction between travel and tourism. Tourism, while it has it’s place, is just a different form of consumption. Travel, on the other hand, is about gaining wisdom, experience, and a broader perspective of the world. Sasse is after adventure. He believes that good travel doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive – or even far away – so long as it embraces that attitude of exploration. He recalls several of his own trips as a young man.

These reminded me of my own 10-day road trip I undertook with a couple of classmates immediately after high school. We took a loop through Canada and then to the East Coast, sleeping in our Jeep Wrangler, or at a friend’s house, or on a park bench in Boston Commons when we didn’t get back to the parking garage on time. This is the kind of travel Sasse is talking about, and I agree that this trip was an important “coming of age” step for me.

Read good books: Amen.

Embrace America as an Idea: The American idea is that of self-rule as opposed to external rule. Before America, the dominant idea was that governments ruled over their subjects, conferring a few limited rights to its people. The American idea flipped that around. In America, the people would rule and the government’s job would be to protect our unalienable rights. This idea has proven successful and transformed the world. But, this idea only makes sense if the people are able to self-govern. Children, though, lack that capacity. This is why it’s so critical to avoid being trapped in perpetual adolescence. America works only if it’s citizens are adults, are self-reliant, are self-governing. Without a self-governing public, we will try to hold back the chaos by ceding more and more control to the government – the path to eventual tyranny.

(Exhibit A in this discussion is the alarming trend of young people seeing the First Amendment as a dangerous thing. This most fundamental of American principles is under attack on college campuses and elsewhere. Why? Because we’re afraid of hurting people’s feelings. We’ve lost the adult ability to argue about great ideas. We’ve adopted instead the childish path of shutting down discussion, much to our detriment. Just before writing this review I read an article about BLM protesters shutting down a speech from the ACLU about free speech. Ironic. And sad.)

Review

I read this book primarily as a citizen and a parent. I’m worried both about the direction of our country, and my own ability to raise adults. I recognized, at various points, my own failure to “toughen up” my kids. I need to recapture simple tasks, like making my kids do chores before they watch TV. I also read this as a pastor – how do we encourage multi-generational interaction in the church? How do move kids in our children and youth ministries toward spiritual adulthood? How do we avoid perceptual spiritual adolescence?

I recommend this book to, well, just about anybody, but especially those who are more politically inclined, or parents who are concerned about raising self-governing adults.

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Automation, The future of work, and the soul

Last Sunday’s Grand Rapids Press ran a story on pilot programs in the United States and elsewhere to provide every citizen with a “universal basic income.” This “income” isn’t tied to any actual work, just a lump sum provided to each household to provide for basic needs. What’s driving this movement? The automation revolution.

This topic is an intersection of three topics which interest me: faith, engineering, and politics: faith, because work is a component of our spiritual lives, engineering because technology drives automation, and politics, because we’ll need to decide collectively on what to do about this revolution.

The Increasing Trend Toward Automation

In my (first/second/other) career I’m an engineer. My specialty has been primarily in testing and verification, though my primary job right now is as a project manager. One of my primary goals in testing has been to increase the amount of automation that we do. Automation reduces costs, allows us to perform testing more frequently (which could increase quality), and reduces the number of human errors leading to rework. From a business perspective, it makes a lot of sense. But the consequence of this automation is that if you have a machine to do the work, you don’t need an employee to do that work. In a perfect world, this frees those engineers up for more interesting and productive work. But, we don’t live in a perfect world.

The trend toward automation has been going for a while, primarily in manufacturing. But it’s very prevalent in engineering as well, and plenty of other fields. It’s not just manual labor that’s being automated, but mental work as well (like the kind that I work on) and service jobs as well. (I’ve even read articles on “empathetic” machines which could take over certain caring professions!) Most economists that I’ve read on this topic see workforce automation increasing at an accelerated pace. We’re truly in the middle of a revolution.

There’s a long history of technology transforming labor and economy. Each time it seems to spell widespread unemployment, but after an adjustment period, people find work in a new field. There are inevitably winners and losers, but on the whole wealth increases. It’s hard to tell what the future would bring, and I would be skeptical of anyone who says they know what will happen. Yet, it’s worth considering some possibilities.

Two Dystopias

I see two possible dystopias. In one, the extreme capitalist version, the “owners” control all the production without the need for workers. Workers, having been completely displaced, find no way to make any money. This leads to extreme wealth inequality, and thus probably to violence.

In the other one, the means of production moves to the government, which provides a “universal basic income.” Nobody has to work, but still has all of their needs provided for them. Maybe this sounds like a utopia to you, but it doesn’t to me. First, there’s the fairly obvious issue of the government having essentially complete control over people’s lives. They don’t like your behavior? They cut off your “universal” basic income and you have no recourse. I don’t trust the government to act fairly or virtuously, especially one with this much power. Do you?

Built To Work

Just as profoundly, though, is the question of what effect not having to work would do to us, as persons. We’re built to work. We’re built to produce. God gave us dominion over nature, to work the Garden, and to build culture and civilization. The curse wasn’t the start of the working man, but his corruption. Work became toil after the Fall, but there was still work before it.

What happens if we don’t have to work? What happens if we cease to be producers? What happens if we’re nothing but consumers? I don’t think it’s a pretty picture. That’s why I call this vision a dystopia.

Heaven on Earth? 

Could it be a utopia? On the New Heaven and the New Earth (literal utopia), I suspect that we’ll have work without toil. No one will need to work, and yet the process of culture and civilization will continue. Nobody will be driven by greed or fear (major drivers of our current economic system), yet we’ll all be producers. Can we bring “heaven on earth” now by automating all our labor?

The problem with this line of logic is that it ignores the sin nature. The genius of the capitalist system (with all its flaws) is that it’s able to harness our self-interest and turn it into wealth. And, in a free system, it’s able to provide opportunity for wealth building for all. Other systems have assumed better of our natures, and failed miserably.

What if we find ourselves there? 

I really have no idea if either of these possibilities is in our future. But, if it were, how should Christians respond? Here’s the main thing: Even if work isn’t necessary, Christians should still endeavor to work. Why? First, work is core to our “personness.” God has made us to be creators and producers, not just consumers. Second, work is service. Even if you’re not in the “service” industry, your work is useful to somebody (your paycheck is proof of that). Continuing to work would mean continuing to serve. It’s a tangible way we love our neighbors.

I don’t know what will happen, or when. But we can begin now embracing work as service and as calling, not just as a means to a paycheck.

Recommended for Further Reading

The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs

Related blog: How do I Choose a Job? 

Work: The Meaning of Your Life: A Christian Perspective

Seven notes on Kristoff’s “Pious Paul” hit piece

Earlier this week Nicholas Kristoff wrote a hit piece on Paul Ryan (specifically regarding the GOP health care bill) which ended by using Jesus’s words to condemn “Pious Paul” to hell. Here are seven quick notes on the article.

  1. Before I criticize the article I want to recommend Kristoff’s book Half the Sky. It’s an important book which sheds light on the oppression of women worldwide. It’s “prophetic” in a secular sense in that it tells the brutal truth and has enough content to annoy liberals and conservatives alike. (Personally, I think the authors are unfair in their treatment of the Apostle Paul.) But there’s also a massive amount of common ground on which all people can find unity and the stakes are incredible.
  2. The article consistently takes Jesus’s words out of context.
  3. It’s hard to know how to apply Scripture to public policy. As I’ve tried to make the case here, what I want is a government which is informed by biblical values and acts within its realm of limited responsibility based on those value. Often, partisan liberals and conservatives opt for a more wooden application, one that is rightly identified as hypocritical. (See Matt Walsh’s tweet “Liberals on entitlements: “The Bible says give to the poor!” Liberals on gay marriage: “This isn’t a theocracy! Keep religion at church!”)
  4. Kristoff opts for this simplistic approach and uses it to bludgeon Paul Ryan. Two important layers of religious/moral reasoning are missed. First, Kristoff implies that Ryan does not care about the poor. Perhaps he has already forgotten what he wrote in Half the Sky, that Christians give significantly more of their incomes to charity – including non-religious charity – than non-religious people. I don’t know Paul Ryan’s heart, but it’s wrong to assume that his (or conservatives in general) don’t care about the poor. The question isn’t just whether or not we have concern, but what role the government should play. Second, even if we agree that the government plays a role, we have to exercise wisdom in developing policy. Some government charities do more harm than good, particularly through undermining social structures which form the basis of a well-functioning society. All this is dismissed in Kristoff’s piece.
  5. Since I just read Haidt’s The Righteous Mind what I see in Kristoff’s article is a clash of moral visions. Kristoff, like most liberals, bases his moral reasoning primarily on the care/harm moral foundation. Something is right/wrong based on whether or not someone is helped or hurt. He then applies Jesus’s words to back up his moral intuitions. Ryan, as a conservative, also bases moral reasoning on care/harm, but uses other foundations as well. Specifically, he probably cares about proportionality (“do people get out of the system what they put in?”) and liberty (“is the government impinging on personal freedoms through excessive taxes?”) These other foundations stand in tension with care/harm, making for a more morally nuanced approach to healthcare (I’m not saying better) that Kristoff either doesn’t understand or ignores. Kristoff should read Haidt if he hasn’t already.
  6. The article perpetuates the false narrative that religious conservatives are hypocritical and don’t care about the poor. Whether or not you agree with their policies, this myth about motives needs to end. Are there some hard-hearted religious conservatives out there? Yes, and I’ve met them. But Kristoff himself noted in Half the Sky, those same religious conservatives are often the only ones on the front lines of caring for those most in need.
  7. I’m not going to offer an assessment of the Health Care Plan. I have too little knowledge. Maybe it deserves a strong critique. But Kristoff doesn’t need to malign Paul Ryan’s motives to do so.

Refugees and immigrants: A case study in Christian political engagement

Immigration, either from Mexico, or through refugees coming from Syria or surrounding nations fleeing from war and violence, is a hot topic in the news these days, and an important one for Christians to think critically about. There’s a lot on the line, both for those immigrants seeking a better life, or really any life at all, and (potentially) the future of America.

The purpose of this post isn’t to take one position or another, at least not a national political position, but to think about how this issues is understood through different lenses, and then think critically of the various positions being held. [Edit: Upon further reflection, this didn’t quite turn out to be true, see the quote from O. Alan Noble below which reflects the sort of position I find most compelling.]

What is clear

What is clear is that Christians ought to have compassion for those in other countries who are seeking to escape from war, violence, persecution, or extreme poverty and that Christians ought to have compassion for those neighbors in the United States who are especially vulnerable to injustice – including immigrants. As I have elsewhere argued, and where many others have been doing for a while now, the Old Testament is full of instructions to care for widows, orphans, and aliens living within the land. The call to care for strangers and sojourners is directly tied to Israel’s status as foreigners and strangers in Egypt. This principle in the Old Testament is consistent with the general principle of all Scripture that Christians should have compassion (that leads to material care) for those who are especially vulnerable. I can’t think of a single Christian I know – Republican or Democrat, Trump supporter or Trump detractor – who doesn’t agree with this.

What is less clear

What is significantly less clear is what role the Civil Government – in this case the American government – should do.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine that it was the “Right” that was calling for more open borders and the “Left” that was calling for tighter borders and controls and let’s also imagine that the “Right” was still heavily populated with evangelical Christians who were using the Scriptural argument above as a key part of their argument. I can picture the complaint of the “Left” already: You need to leave God out of politics. We live in a secular world. Do you want us to adopt all the laws of the Old Testament, too? Do you want us to become a theocracy!?

I think that the current more-open-borders-because-we-should-have-compassion-because-the-bible-tells-me-to position (sorry, I should shorten that name) is at least somewhat open to that charge. That position, to the extent that it argues for a one-to-one relationship between Israel and the United States, ironically makes the same mistake that it often complains those of the “Moral Majority” school of making.

The conservative argument against the more “compassionate” position of those calling for more admission of refugees is that, while it’s the role of the church and individual Christians to show compassion, it’s the role of the Civil government to restrain evil by bringing about justice for its citizens and protecting its borders from outside threats. If more immigration and refugees pose a threat to the people of this nation, then it would be the role of the government to protect its citizens by enacting greater controls, more “extreme vetting,” building a wall, or even banning immigration from certain countries.

I am sympathetic to this argument because I generally believe that the sanctioned role of government is rather limited. I also find it somewhat ironic, since those arguing in this way want to see religion and religious beliefs play a larger role in government in many other areas.

(As an aside, since I can’t help but compare most political issues back to abortion, it’s interesting to note that one of the legal justifications for abortion is that you’re not a citizen until you are born. Only citizens have rights under the constitution so only babies which have been born have the right to life (regardless of whether or not they are living humans, which they are). On the other side of the political spectrum, I’ve seen conservatives argue that non-citizens (read: refugees) don’t have rights since they are non-citizens while liberals argue for a more inclusive vision for mankind that doesn’t worry so much about citizenship.)

And so on one side of the spectrum we have a very simple God-and-government position: The Bible tells us to be compassionate towards strangers and foreigners and the vulnerable so we should have a more open immigration system. And on the other side we have a very simple separation-of-Church-and-State position: Yes, we need to be compassionate as individuals and a church but it’s the role of government to protect its own citizens from threats and not to worry about non-citizens.

A muddy middle

It should come as no surprise, if you’ve made it this far, that I want to argue for a more nuanced position than either two extremes. I admit it’s not fleshed out, but I will state my position as follows: I want a government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities and within its own character in a way that is informed by a biblical worldview. Let me unpack that:

A government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities. I don’t want my government to do everything or to take the role of the church or the role of the family. There are some “goods” which, while nevertheless good, are not the task of a civil/secular government to do. I don’t want my government doing evangelism or running church services, for instance. But, it is within the realm of the government to regulate its borders and it’s also within the realm of the government to act justly towards all mankind in a way that acknowledges a shared humanity (more on that last part in this post). It might not be the role of the government to care for refugees, but it might be the role of the government to make it possible for kind-hearted, gospel-driven citizens to do just that.

A government that acts within its own character. This may be a specifically American desire but America was founded on certain principles which I would hate to see lost or trampled on. Two of those principles are religious freedom and equality of persons. So, when Muslims are specifically targeted for exclusion, or when Mexican immigrants are demonized, we are acting outside of our character as a nation.

A government informed by a biblical worldview. I’m not saying I want a theocratic state, but I do want my government to be informed by a biblical worldview. In this case, I want it to be informed by an ethic of compassion towards the vulnerable as described in the Old Testament injunctions cited above, and then weigh that against relative threats to security and then act wisely and justly towards all people.

What we have then are (potentially) competing interests. The government ought to act in the best interests of its citizens – including security – and it ought to act in a way informed by biblical compassion for those who are especially vulnerable – including non-citizens. This is a muddy middle, perhaps, but it’s also the hard work of governance.

O. Alan Noble suggests just this sort of balanced position, arguing for community-based resettlement programs that makes room for the church to help refugees integrate into those communities. Addressing Muslim immigration in particular he states:

“Both extremes [Islamophobia and Mass Immigration] carry tremendous rhetorical weight in an election year, but neither reflects the kind of resettlement we actually do in the US. Carefully planned, community-based resettlement programs can help those in need, strengthen communities, offer new opportunities to share the gospel, and mitigate the major concerns about Muslim immigration.”

Two final notes

In many cases, the threat which immigrants and refugees plays to the American public seems to be trumped up out of proportion to the actual threat (see Ed Stetzer’s CT article). Sometimes immigration is even framed as an outside invasion, and not as families desperately seeking to get out of a horrible situation (which I think more accurately characterizes the vast majority of circumstances). We shouldn’t be naïve about the possibility of danger, but we should try to be accurate about just what danger there might be.

What if the government closes its borders entirely? What can Christians in America do then? Well, even before that happens the most direct way to help refugees for most of us is by working through organizations which have contact with refugees oversees. At the end of last year my family was able to contribute to Syrian refugee relief through the SBC.  If we want to care for immigrants and refugees, we need to do more than just complain about our government (though I have long maintained the role of advocacy) but be willing to be creative about how we can directly or indirectly love our neighbors in Jesus’s name.

The path to authoritarianism?

Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto is a lot to take in but for this post I want to just elaborate on one short paragraph. Before we get there, though, we need to understand Schaeffer’s broader point and his use of language. His thesis is that there are two competing worldviews in America and Northern Europe, an older Judea-Christian worldview which places God at the center of all reality, and a “humanist” worldview which denies the presence of God and places material, energy, and chance as the only basis for all reality. “Humanism” for Schaeffer, doesn’t mean having a high regard for human life – or being “humanitarian” – but rather subverting God’s place in the universe with Man. Ironically, when God is removed and only material, energy, and chance remain, the dignity of human life is undermined. It is this great clash of worldviews which for Schaeffer stands at the root of great societal shifts, particularly in America. A Christian Manifesto, written in 1981, the year before I was born, is a call to cultural and political action to turn the course back toward a Judea-Christian worldview.

Humanism leads to chaos by undermining the basis of law

Now to the paragraph in question:

“The humanists push for “freedom,” but having no Christian consensus to contain it, that “freedom” leads to chaos or to slavery under the state (or under an elite). Humanism, with its lack of any final base for law, always leads to chaos. It then naturally leads to some form of authoritarianism to control the chaos. Having produced the sickness, humanism gives more of the same kind of medicine for a cure. With its mistaken concept of final reality, it has no intrinsic reason to be interested in the individual, the human being. Its natural interest is the two collectives; the state and society.” (A Christian Manifesto, p. 29-30)

There are two important points here. First, that the “freedom” offered by humanism always leads to chaos. This is a bold statement but it flows logically. A materialistic worldview leaves no ultimate basis for moral or political law. Instead, laws become arbitrary, or at least becomes based on some sort of arbitrary set of standards. Schaeffer makes a strong case elsewhere the constitution is also undermined and provides no final defense of law either. For an historical illustration, Schaeffer compares the American revolution with the French revolution. The American revaluation, strongly influenced by Reformation ideals, led to a balance of form-freedom in government. The French revolution, based on humanist ideals, led to chaos.

Authoritarianism steps in to reign in the chaos

Schaeffer’s second point is that humanism then leads to authoritarianism. The chaos must be reined in and the most convenient way is through force – which is the basis of all governments based purely on a materialistic worldview. In a Judeo-Christian worldview, the government is still subject to a higher authority. But in the humanist worldview, there is simply no higher authority to which we can appeal. So the state – or as Schaeffer understands it, some sort of intellectual or technocratic elite – steps in to control the chaos through authoritarian control. How this authoritarianism takes hold is a question he leaves open but he guesses that it could easily be done through the promise of better economic conditions.

Conclusion – Modern equivalence?

This paragraph struck me because I immediately drew a connection to our present political situation, though whether this connection is warranted is another discussion. Regardless, we have been on the steady slope of humanism in every area of culture and government since Schaeffer wrote this book. And, this steady “progress” has led to greater levels of social chaos (at least perceived). One of the reactions against this “chaos” was the election of Donald Trump, seen by many as having authoritarian tendencies. He rose to prominence primarily by promising to rein in chaos and by promising an economic resurgence.

If that interpretation of Trump is correct, then America is not heading “back” to a better time (if one really existed) where a humanistic liberalism is held back, but is simply on the next leg of the humanist journey. I hope that this interpretation is wrong. Time will tell. Meanwhile, we are still wise to heed Schaeffer’s warning.

Book Recommendation
A Christian Manifesto

Principles of communication applied to #BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter

Communication is hard. It’s essential that our words be “full of grace and seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). In my observation, there’s a lot of miscommunication that goes on between the #BlackLivesMatter folks and the #AllLivesMatter folks. Use those slogans if you must, but keep these principles in mind:

Principle #1: What you say (mean) isn’t always what others hear (interpret). What you hear isn’t always what others say.

Principle #2: When we speak we generalize. When we listen we personalize.

Principles applied to #BlackLivesMatter/#AllLivesMatter.

#BlackLivesMatter:

What is meant (usually, in my experience): I am drawing attention to a particular injustice in society as a whole, I’m not saying that other lives don’t matter (general).

How it is heard, processed (often): Other people experience injustice and violence – cops, working poor whites, (maybe even) me. You are discounting their/my experience (personal).

#AllLivesMatter:

What is meant (usually, in my experience): All lives matter, including Black lives. We shouldn’t have to pick a side (general).

What is heard, processed (often): You are discounting and trivializing my personal experience of injustice, or the experience of Black people in America (personal).

There is, obviously, a difference in emphasis here (“I care about injustice against Black people but I don’t discount injustice against others” vs “I care about injustice towards all, including injustice against Black people”). But, often what I see is a tendency to interpret the other person in the worst possible light.

A request to the who use these slogans:

Please understand how your slogan is, or could be, perceived by others. You are responsible for communicating clearly. If you are challenged, take the time to patiently explain yourself.

Please listen responsibly. Don’t assume the worse possible interpretation. If you think what they are saying is outrageous or insensitive, it might be, but give the benefit of the doubt first.

That last line is true of this blog post too! If you are angry about what I’ve said, or if I have spoken unclearly, please help me to clarify!

On confronting evil

ethicsDietrich Bonhoeffer lived in a time of stark evil, during the rise of fascism in Germany. In Ethics he writes this description:

“Today there are once more villains and saints, and they are not hidden from the public view. Instead of the uniform of greyness of the rainy day we now have the black storm-cloud and brilliant lightning-flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness.” 66

Bonhoeffer observed that there were many approaches to attempting to oppose such stark evil. He was critical of many of them, particularly of the theoretical ethicist for whom evil was a theory, an abstraction. The moral theorist fails to reckon with the reality of evil and is therefore ineffective.

Then he moves on to the failure of others.

The reasonable man. Those who attempt to oppose evil through reason alone “neither perceive the depths of the evil nor the depths of the holy.” They believe that reason is enough to hold the sinking ship together. They are end up disappointed by the ultimate unreasonableness of the world and withdraw.

The ethical fanatic. The ethical fanatic believes that he can oppose evil through “the purity of his will and of his principle.” But Bonhoeffer notes that it is the nature of fanaticism to aim wide of the mark, to be like a bull charging at the red flag instead of the one holding it. The fanatic, however ideal and noble his cause, is undone by his superior opponent.

The man of conscience. Here Bonhoeffer refers to the person who is most concerned with maintaining a clean conscience and who is primarily guided by that inner voice. But Bonhoeffer worries that evil will also overwhelm him. “Evil comes upon him in countless respectable and seductive disguises so that his conscience becomes timid and unsure of himself, till in the end he is satisfied if instead of a clear conscience he can have a salved one.” The man only concerned with conscience falls easily into self-deception.

The man of duty. But perhaps one can keep oneself clean by claiming duty. “Responsibility for the command rests upon the man who gives it and not upon him who executes it.” So the argument goes (to disastrous consequences we now know through our historical lens.) No, the man of duty “will end by having to fulfil his obligation even to the devil,” becoming not an opponent of evil, but party to it.

The man of absolute freedom, or what we might call the realist. This person is not bound to their conscience. They are willing to “sacrifice a fruitless principle to a fruitful compromise.” And, “he will easily consent to the bad, knowing full well that it is bad, in order to ward off the worse.” But Bonhoeffer knows that this, too, is foolish. This man ultimately blinds himself to what is bad or worse and also becomes party to evil.

Bonhoeffer’s final critique is of the man of private virtuousness. If one cannot fight evil in the public sphere at least this person can seek refuge here. “He does not steal. He does not commit murder… Within the limits of his power he is good.” But this can only go so far. Eventually for this man to avoid all public conflict he must blind himself to the injustice around him through a process of self-deception. He will either face internal conflict or will become a Pharisee, easily judging others while himself steering clear of that which makes him uncomfortable.

So what is Bonhoeffer’s solution?

“A man can hold his own only if he can combine simplicity and wisdom.” 70.

By simplicity Bonhoeffer means “to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted and turned upside down.” In other words, simplicity means to be wholeheartedly fixed on and committed to God, to be single-minded and single-hearted.

By wisdom Bonhoeffer means to “see reality as it is” and to “see into the depths of things.” Wisdom and simplicity go hand-in-hand because “it is precisely because he looks only to God, without any sidelong glances at the world, that he is able to look at the reality of the world freely and without prejudice.” And again, “only that man is wise who sees reality in God.” In other words, we can’t see into the depths of the reality of the world unless we can look squarely at God, since the reality of the world rests in God. This is what it means to combine simplicity and wisdom.

But Bonhoeffer admits that this all sounds theoretical and, indeed, impossible. “No man can look with undivided vision at God and at the world of reality so long as God and the world are torn asunder. Try as he may, he can only let his eyes wander distractedly from one to the other.” But all hope is not lost, for Bonhoeffer sees one, and only one, solution to this: Jesus.

In Christ “there is a place at which God and the cosmic reality are reconciled, a place at which God and man have become one. That and that alone is what enables man to set his eyes upon God and upon the world at the same time.” Furthermore, the reality of Christ is not a principle and is not theoretical. It is not love in the abstract. It is the God-man entering into reality, into history, and into the starkly evil world in which we actually live, bearing the evil of the world upon his shoulders, healing the wounds of the world through his stripes.

To live with simplicity and wisdom then, is to keep our eyes and our hearts fixed on Christ. And it is only Christ who is the “Reconciler of the world.” Bonhoeffer concludes, “It is not by ideals and programmes or by conscience, duty, responsibility and virtue that reality can be confronted and overcome, but simply and solely by the perfect love of God.”
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