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."


VanceH said...

I asked Scooper, who referenced this post in his blog Blind Chihuahuas' Bomb Shelter: "I don't feel like I really have a handle on Bonhoeffer's statement "..compromise hates the word." For me this reminds me of John 1, amongst other things, but I can't really get it straight in my mind. Any thoughts?"

Scooper responded:

"The compromiser hates both the word and the Word.

The word, because if words have meaning independent of the compromiser's will of the moment, then the compromiser can be pinned down. Think of the famous, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." And if important aspects of reality can be spoken of, then those aspects of reality can set constraints on the compromiser.

The Word, because the Word is absolute Truth, independent of the compromiser's will. Again, the compromiser becomes constrained - there are somethings about which there can be no equivocation."

Thanks Scooper--that clears it up for me!

Scooper said...


Of course, if there is anything to the doctrine of Original Sin, then we all play the compromiser or the radical with respect to various issues at various times in our lives. Moreover, others might label us as either compromisers or radicals depending on their point of view. And we might do it to them. It might be interesting to think about that for a while.

Yours in Faith,

VanceH said...

For me Bonhoeffer's contrasts destroy any hope that the extreme positions offer stable truth--and as you suggest are likely to lead to sin. The radical synthesis of these two styles of thinking/living seems a narrow and curvy path.

-- Vance