Bonhoeffer on faith and obedience

. . . only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes. It is quite unbiblical to hold the first proposition without the second. We think we understand when we hear that obedience is possible only where there is faith. Does not obedience follow faith as good fruit grows on a good tree? First, faith, then obedience. If by that we mean that it is faith which justifies, and not the act of obedience, all well and good, for that is the essential and unexceptional presupposition of all that follows. If, however, we make a chronological distinction between faith and obedience, and make obedience subsequent to faith, we are divorcing the one from the other–and then we get the practical question, when must obedience begin? Obedience remains separated from faith. From the point of view of justification it is necessary thus to separate them, but we must never lose sight of their essential unity. For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

God is deeply upsetting

An excerpt from John Stott’s classic, Basic Christianity, in which he articulates why a man’s problem in seeking God may not be intellectual but moral.

. . . In seeking God we have to be prepared not only to revise our ideas but to reform our lives. The Christian message has a moral challenge. If the message is true, the moral challenge has to be accepted. So God is not a fit object for man’s detached scrutiny. You cannot fix God at the end of a telescope or a microscope and say “How interesting!” God is not interesting. He is deeply upsetting. The same is true of Jesus Christ.

‘We had thought intellectually to examine him; we find he is spiritually examining us. The roles are reversed between us. . . We study Aristotle and are intellectually edified thereby; we study Jesus and are, in the profoundest way, spiritually disturbed. . . We are constrained to take up some inward moral attitude of heart and will in relation to this Jesus. . . A man may study Jesus with intellectual impartiality, he cannot do it with moral neutrality. . . We must declare our colors. To this has our unevasive contact with Jesus brought us. We began it in the calm of the study; we are called out to the field of moral decision.’ [P. Carnegie Simpson, The Fact of Christ, 1930]

This is what Jesus meant when, addressing some unbelieving Jews, he said, “If any man’s will is to do his (that is, God’s) will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” The promise is clear: we can know whether Jesus Christ was true or false, whether his teaching was human or divine. But the promise rests on a moral condition. We have to be ready not just to believe, but to obey. We must be prepared to do God’s will when he makes it known.

— John Stott, Basic Christianity

 

Nearly all marriages are mistakes

Gob_Huge_MistakeIn this final excerpt (pt 1, pt 2, pt 3) Tolkien presents his son with wisdom sorely needed today: you almost certainly made a mistake when you married your partner who is, in fact, your real soul-mate. This is my favorite part of the letter and I suspect it will soon find its way into my pre-marital counseling.

Have  a great V-Day weekend!


. . . Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgment concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably to have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. You really do very little choosing: life and circumstance do most of it (though if there is a God these must be His instruments, or His appearances). It is notorious that in fact happy marriages are more common where the ‘choosing’ by the young persons is even more limited, by parental or family authority, as long as there is a social ethic of plain unromantic responsibility and conjugal fidelity.

But even in countries where the romantic tradition has so far affected social arrangements as to make people believe that the choosing of a mate is solely the concern of the young, only the rarest good fortune brings together the man and woman who are really as it were ‘destined’ for one another, and capable of a very great and splendid love. The idea still dazzles us, catches us by the throat: poems and stories in multitudes have been written on the theme, more, probably, than the total of such loves in real life (yet the greatest of these tales do not tell of the happy marriage of such great lovers, but of their tragic separation; as if even in this sphere the truly great and splendid in this fallen world is more nearly achieved by ‘failure’ and suffering). In such great inevitable love, often love at first sight, we catch a vision, I suppose, of marriage as it should have been in an unfallen world. In this fallen world we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will. . . .

-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’

Men, monogamy, and the ‘if only’ soul-mate

Monogamy
Women are instinctively monogamous. Men are not. . . No good pretending.

In this third excerpt (see pt 1 and pt 2) Tolkien explains why monogamy entails suffering for a Christian husband and begins to address the popular notion of finding a “soul-mate.”


 

[Women] have, of course, still to be more careful in sexual relations, for all the contraceptives. Mistakes are damaging physically and socially (and matrimonially). But they are instinctively, when uncorrupt, monogamous. Men are not. . . . . No good pretending. Men just ain’t, not by their animal nature. Monogamy (although it has long been fundamental to our inherited ideas) is for us men a piece of ‘revealed’ ethic, according to faith and not to the flesh. Each of us could healthily beget, in our 30 odd years of full manhood, a few hundred children, and enjoy the process. Brigham Young (I believe) was a healthy and happy man. It is a fallen world, and there is no consonance between our bodies, minds, and souls.

However, the essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called ‘self-realization’ (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification. For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify & direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the   struggle remains. It will not satisfy him — as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state, as it provides easements. No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial.

Too few are told that — even those brought up ‘in the Church’. Those outside seem seldom to have heard it. When the glamor wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. Someone whom they might indeed very profitably have married, if only –. Hence divorce, to provide the ‘if only’. And of course they are as a rule quite right: they did make a mistake. . .

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’

[read pt 4]

Romance, chivalry, and exaggerated notions of ‘true love’

LancelotandGuinevere_Draper
Lancelot and Guinevere by Herbert James Draper (c.1890)

This is the second excerpt of a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to his son, Michael, on the subject of marriage and relations between the sexes (see pt 1). In this portion Tolkien comments on the pros and cons of a cultural tradition of romantic chivalry.


 

There is in our Western culture the romantic chivalric tradition still strong, though as a product of Christendom (yet by no means the same as Christian ethics) the times are inimical to it. It idealizes ‘love’ — and as far as it goes can be very good, since it takes in far more than physical pleasure, and enjoins if not purity, at least fidelity, and so self-denial, ‘service’, courtesy, honor, and courage. Its weakness is, of course, that it began as an artificial courtly game, a way of enjoying love for its own sake without reference to (and indeed contrary to) matrimony. Its center was not God, but imaginary Deities, Love and the Lady. It still tends to make the Lady a kind of guiding star or divinity . . . the object or reason of noble conduct. This is, of course, false and at best make-believe. The woman is another fallen human-being with a soul in peril. But combined and harmonized with religion . . . it can be very noble. Then it produces what I suppose is still felt, among those who retain even vestigiary Christianity, to be the highest ideal of love between man and woman.

Yet I still think it has dangers. It is not wholly true, and it is not perfectly ‘theocentric’. It takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man’s eye off women as they are, as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars . . .  It inculcates exaggerated notions of ‘true love’, as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose. (One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts).

-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’

‘A young man does not really want friendship’

When Harry Met SallyIn honor of Valentine’s week here is the first in a series of excerpts from a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien to his son. The paternal counsel is a rarity: decidedly counter-cultural but not, I suspect, counter-intuitive. Tolkien’s depiction of the innate differences between the sexes rings true to me but I’d be interested in hearing what the rest of you think.


 

A man’s dealings with women can be purely physical (they cannot really, of course: but I mean he can refuse to take other things into account, to the great damage of his soul (and body) and theirs); or ‘friendly’; or he can be a ‘lover’ (engaging and blending all his affections and powers of mind and body in a complex emotion powerfully coloured and energized by ‘sex’).

This is a fallen world. The dislocation of sex-instinct is one of the chief symptoms of the Fall. The world has been ‘going to the bad’ all down the ages. The various social forms shift, and each new mode has its special dangers: but the ‘hard spirit of concupiscence’ has walked down every street, and sat leering in every house, since Adam fell.

We will leave aside the ‘immoral’ results. These you desire not to be dragged into. To renunciation you have no call. ‘Friendship’ then? In this fallen world the ‘friendship’ that should be possible between all human beings, is virtually impossible between man and woman. The devil is endlessly ingenious, and sex is his favourite subject. He is as good every bit at catching you through generous romantic or tender motives, as through baser or more animal ones.

This ‘friendship’ has often been tried: one side or the other nearly always fails. Later in life when sex cools down, it may be possible. It may happen between saints. To ordinary folk it can only rarely occur: two minds that have really a primarily mental and spiritual affinity may by accident reside in a male and a female body, and yet may desire and achieve a ‘friendship’ quite independent of sex. But no one can count on it. The other partner will let him (or her) down, almost certainly, by falling in love.

But a young man does not really (as a rule) want ‘friendship’, even if he says he does. There are plenty of young men (as a rule). He wants love: innocent, and yet irresponsible perhaps. Allas! Allas! that ever love was sinne! as Chaucer says. Then if he is a Christian and is aware that there is such a thing as sin, he wants to know what to do about it.

-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien, 6-8 Mar 1941’

‘God is strong enough to exult in monotony’

Now to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Moody Classics ed), p 92