Thursday, December 06, 2007

The last things and the things before the last

In his unfinished book “Ethics” Dietrich Bonhoeffer includes a study of what he calls the ultimate and the penultimate. The context is the Christian life and how we live it. Bonhoeffer relates that as a pastor he usually adopts one of two very different attitudes when visiting a person that has lost a loved one. He can speak the Biblical words of comfort (the ultimate), or he can silently sit with them and share in their helplessness (the penultimate). Taken to extremes the ultimate becomes the radical and the penultimate becomes the compromiser. Bonhoeffer places these attitudes in opposition in the five quoted sentences below:

“Radicalism hates time, and compromise hates eternity.”

  • The radical wants the black and white solution that solves the problem. The passage of time only complicates the situation and makes things muddy.
  • The compromiser hates eternity, because instead of a yin and yang to everything there is a final answer that does not allow temporizing.

“Radicalism hates patience, and compromise hates decision.”

  • The radical does not want to wait. The answer is obvious and the execution of that solution should be immediate.
  • The compromiser does not want closure, there are too many factors to consider, no one should be ever be wrong, or right...

“Radicalism hates wisdom, and compromise hates simplicity.”

  • Wisdom implies breadth of thought and a willingness to go beyond the immediate "facts" to the big picture issues at stake.
  • Simplicity requires that some factors be ignored and judgment applied to closeout a matter of disagreement.

Radicalism hates moderation and measure, and compromise hates the immeasurable.”

  • Moderation implies limits--the radical hates nothing more than limits and the metrics that go with them.
  • Things without limits profoundly discomfort the compromiser. How can you "split the difference" when the positions can’t be quantified?

“Radicalism hates the real, and compromise hates the word.”

  • The radical sees the ideal and loathes the reality that challenges it.
  • The compromiser rejects any notion that important aspects of reality can be captured by language.

Bonhoeffer concludes:

"To contrast the two attitudes in this way is to make it sufficiently clear that both alike are opposed to Christ. For in Jesus Christ those things which are here ranged in mutual hostility are one. The quest of the Christian life will not, therefore, be decided and answered either by radicalism or by compromise, but only by reference to Jesus Christ Himself. In Him alone lies the solution for the problem of the relation between the ultimate and the penultimate."