Saturday, January 13, 2007


I have been intrigued by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) for some time, but when I have read in his work, time after time I have found mainly exhortations to carry out the doctrines of his particular form of Christianity. However, sometimes a star flashes across the sky, as in an important passage in which he reflects on his reading in the physicist Carl von Weizsaecker's then recent book on "The World View of Physics" (1943). Bonhoeffer has in mind the common point of view in terms of which religion has to do with those problems of human existence for which science so far has provided no answers. Against this point of view, he writes of Weizsaecker's book: "It has again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stopgap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that's bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat." To the contrary, he writes: "We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know; God wants us to realize the divine presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved. That is true of the relationship between God and scientific knowledge, but it is also true of the wider human problems of death, suffering, and guilt." The text can be found in the collection "A Testament to Freedom" (1995, p.506).

From Bonhoeffer's suggestion, my thoughts leapt in two directions. One was towards the Hellenistic Jewish female personification of wisdom, which in this mode of thought is broad, ranging from the knowledge of a skilled workman to the principles of virtuous life. Traces or explicit mention of such personified wisdom can be found in various sections of the New Testament, and elsewhere in early Christian writings it is sometimes found in relation to the second and third persons of the trinity, as can be seen in the wonderful "Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church " (3rd ed. 1997) and in citations under the word sophia in G.W.H.Lampe's "Patristic Greek Lexicon" (1968).

The second direction that came to mind was the concepts of God that were expressed at various times by Albert Einstein. When I was a young student, I had the privilege to know the physicist and philosopher Philipp Frank, who succeeded Einstein as professor of theoretical physics at the University of Prague in 1912. Frank knew Einstein and his work well, and wrote a classic biography of Einstein (1947). Frank noted that in some of his comments on religion, Einstein "wanted to emphasize the common ground of liberal Judaism and liberal Christianity in their conception of God." At other times, Einstein would use the term "God" as a figure of speech, as in his famous remark "God is sophisticated, but he is not malicious", indicating Einstein's personal faith that the world made sense and could be understood. It has often seemed to me that the traditional Jewish and Christian faiths are really quite conservative in their assumptions, compared to the faith of scientists that the world really does make sense, despite all of the evidence to the contrary.


Lilylou said...

Hmmmm. I've been reading lately the work of Sam Harris, most recently "Letter to a Christian Nation", in which Harris rebukes the Abrahamic traditions for using their concept of God and God's intentions to beat up their brother religions.

This is certainly happening in the world as Muslims, Jews, and Christians fight each other over doctrine, land, and God's intent.

To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, "God is being pushed away by our accumulation of knowledge." I'm not sure he's right, though certainly that view resonates with a pre-modern point of view.

I think perhaps the Ultimate Power in the universe (beyond-God, if you like) is being illuminated by knowledge and that if we could let go of religion's "God", we might find what really matters in human life, a relationship with that Ultimate Power.

LinguistFriend said...

I am afraid that Bonhoeffer is elliptical here. My understanding is that he is saying, if we identify religion with regions where our knowledge is limited, then the frontiers of knowledge, and God, are pushed back as we learn more (the premodern view). Therefore that identification is to be rejected, and to the contrary, "we are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know". Thus what he is saying differs little from your view that
an Ultimate Power (choose your own term) is illuminated by knowledge.

LaReinaCobre said...

How can people not understand by now that Science vs. Religion is a false dichotomy? Bonhoeffer makes an incredibly relevant point ... it is typical for a traditional religionists to take God and their holy books as the answers to the questions they can't answer. (For example, religious people try to prove that their holy books are accurate by pointing out their "science" or proven predictions). This is a real recipe for disaster.

Religionists aren't honest about the purpose of religion. Perhaps it is the leaders who are to blame, but in their attempts to control every aspect of followers' lives, they have tried to set up their religion as science, and now they are dismayed that actual science is coming up with different answers than the ones they've proposed. This has been going on for centuries.

Science is a process. Religion is a completely different process. One cannot prove anything with religion.

I see in all of this a colossal waste of energy.

LinguistFriend said...

In reponse to LRC, it seems to me that this short discussion of Bonhoeffer's draws his notions of religion towards those of Einstein. We cannot know how Bonhoeffer's views would have developed if he had survived WW II. I neglected to say that this discussion is drawn from a letter that Bonhoeffer wrote from Tegel prison in Berlin on May 29, 1944, to pastor Eberhard Bethge, his later biographer (1970).
The relations of religion and science have varied and still do. Sometimes they have been productive, and sometimes they have been and are destructive, as you point out.