God is with us through the tragedies, traumas
By Mark Lindsay
June 11 2020
During the summer of 1944 – 15 months into a two-year imprisonment that would end in his execution in the Flossenbürg concentration camp – Dietrich Bonhoeffer told his best friend that the world had reached its adulthood and that it was now time, even (especially!) for Christians, to live “etsi deus non daretur” – “as if there were no God”.
Long misunderstood by his admirers and his critics alike, Bonhoeffer’s comment has often been incorrectly interpreted to mean that he thought modern society no longer had any need of a God-concept, and that the Christian faith – if it were to survive in any meaningful way – must return to the resources of the human spirit for its mission and ministry in the world.
If this is in fact what Bonhoeffer believed, how could we possibly accept Dorothy Sölle’s well-known acclamation of Bonhoeffer’s significance, that he was “the one German theologian who [would] lead us into the third millennium”?
The reality is that this is neither what Bonhoeffer said, nor meant.
In his letter to Eberhard Bethge in which this idea was first posed, Bonhoeffer went on to stress that, far from being a capitulation of religion to atheism, when the Christian lives “as if there were no God” she is in fact offering a Christological affirmation of the way in which God chooses to be with us.
“Before God, and with God”, he said, “we live without God.” And the first two parts of that were, in Bonhoeffer’s mind, the precondition for the more controversial third.
Given that this phrase has been so often misunderstood, what, in fact, was Bonhoeffer trying to say? Well, as was frequently the case with him, Bonhoeffer was making theological commentary on the state of the world – and more particularly, the church – in which he lived. In his view, the Christian faith was rendered infantile and inconsequential if it relied solely on a God who was nothing other than the omnipotent “help of last resort”. For far too long, Christian society – the polite, upper-middle class Bildungsbürgertum – and the church within it had treated God as though he were an all-powerful Solver of Problems, but one to whom the world might turn only when it had exhausted all its own innate capacities. God had been relegated to being merely the Deus ex machina of classical Greek theatre.
Against this, insisted Bonhoeffer, the God of the gospel is with us perpetually, in all of life’s ups and downs – not as the omnipotent Problem-Solver, to be sought only when all other solutions have been tried and have failed, but as the One who lives with us in the solidarity of our weakness and aloneness; who lives with us, precisely as a suffering and powerless God.
From his cell in the Gestapo’s Berlin prison, Bonhoeffer – who by this time had endured repeated interrogation – felt compelled to write that “Only the suffering God can help us.”
What does this have to do with our current coronavirus pandemic? Simply this – that there have been signs recently that, at least in some parts of the Christianised world, God is still perceived in that infantile way so roundly repudiated by Bonhoeffer.
“Jesus is my vaccine” said one protester in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (20 April 2020).
“The blood of Jesus will protect this church against this virus” declared a Perth-based pastor in mid-March.
Such declarations of divine power may sound triumphantly faithful – but they are exposed in all their hollowness by the tragic fact of nearly half a million deaths worldwide.
No, God is not the “miracle cure” for coronavirus, no matter how right it still is to pray for a cure. God is not some sort of Divine Prophylactic, the incantation to whom absolves us of the need to take responsibility for ourselves and others.
Much more potently than that, God is the One who journeys with us through the tragedies and traumas of this pandemic. Far from being a God who appears only in the final scene to solve our problems, while having been embarrassingly absent from us through all our heartaches beforehand, he is, on the contrary, the One who is constantly with us in our heartaches, sharing with us in our powerlessness and sufferings.
That may not be the image of an all-powerful God we might prefer at this time – because precisely in times of pain and anxiety, we tend to want an omnipotent Problem Solver. But that image of God is commended to us by neither history nor Scripture.
Rather, we are encouraged to live “before God and with God, without God” – because the God with whom we commune is not only there, victoriously, at the end, but is with us right the way through, as well.
As Bonhoeffer said, precisely as the One who suffers with us, God is the One who is able to help us.
The Revd Professor Mark R. Lindsay is Joan F.W. Munro Professor of Historical Theology and Deputy Dean of Trinity College Theological School
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