I have a friend who works in criminal law in downtown Vancouver. Daily, he faces the “real world” of robbery, domestic abuse, drunk driving, murder, and many other indications of the brokenness of this world. My own experience with the real world comes from previous work in the ethics of a molecular genetics lab, years of experience as a leader in the church, and volunteer hours with an organization called Circles of Support and Accountability. He and I often discuss how to live in a world in which so much seems to be broken. That is one reason why we are presently reading Making the Best of It: Following Christ In The Real World by John G. Stackhouse, Jr. We read a chapter or two and get together to discuss the concepts we are learning from the book. (I would suggest that this is a great way to increase your learning from any particular book.)
The chapter we just discussed is about the theology and pragmatism of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is an excellent chapter from which I learned a great deal about this remarkable man. He very much lived out his faith in the real world. He believed that his faith was to be lived for eternity but that it began in the here and now. Living in Germany during World War II as a Nazi resister, he knew that he lived in a fallen and broken world. Yet, he did not retreat from the problems of the world into some sort of, actual or virtual, church cloister. Nor did he set out to change society into a completely Christian world. Instead he chose to get his hands dirty and make the best of working in a world of light and darkness. Such thinking led Bonhoeffer to be part of the resistance against the Nazis and he even conspired with others to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Stackhouse suggests that “He did so, to be sure, only with the strongly conflicted sense that this was the thing God wanted him to do and yet he was doing something evil for which he needed – and hoped for – forgiveness.”1
Stackhouse also sees this type of thinking in other theologians such as C.S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr and suggests that
We must press on, then, to conscientious and considered action. We seek forgiveness for the impurity of our motives and the evil results of our actions, but we must press on regardless to do what we can to increase justice and love. We must not be fastidious in a broken, heaving world and seek to keep our hands clean. We join with our God, who himself has dirt and blood on his hands as he does what good he can within this complicated system he has made and maintains – for the ultimate good of the world.2
On the other hand, Stackhouse, Lewis, Niebuhr, and Bonhoeffer are not kill-joys who see only the evil and brokenness of our world. Bonhoeffer was a man who loved life and wrote books, poetry, and music. He was incredibly balanced and was not prone to extremes. These words of his show a man who loved life and knew how to appreciate good gifts from the hand of God and embrace the joy of this world.
. . . within natural life, the joys of the body are a sign of the eternal joy that is promised human beings in the presence of God. . . . Unlike an animal shelter, a human dwelling is not intended to be only a protection against bad weather and the night, as well as a place to raise offspring. It is the space in which human beings may enjoy the pleasures of personal life in the security of their loved ones and their possessions. Eating and drinking serve not only the purpose of keeping the body healthy, but also the natural joy of bodily life. Clothing is not merely a necessary covering for the body, but is at the same time an adornment of the body. Relaxation not only serves the purpose of increasing the capacity for work, but also provides the body with the measure of rest and joy that is due to it. In its essential distance from all purposefulness, play is the clearest expression that bodily life is an end in itself. Sexuality is not only a means of procreation, but, independent of this purpose, embodies joy within marriage in the love of two people for each other.3
Stackhouse provides a new analysis of the traditional “categories of Christian involvement with society” presented in H. Richard Niebuhr’s book, Christ and Culture. The later chapters of Stackhouse’s book will provide a strategy for how we might live out a life of faith in a broken world that is still filled with joy and good gifts from God. I look forward to the rest of the book.
Stackhouse, John G., Jr. Making the Best of It: Following Christ In The Real World. New York: Oxford University Press , Inc., 2008.
1 (Stackhouse 2008, 157)
2 (Stackhouse 2008, 106, 107)
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer as quoted in (Stackhouse 2008, 134, 135)