The greatest challenge that Bonhoeffer throws at the believer is when he states that “the New Testament is not the mythological clothing of a universal truth: the mythological – miracles, resurrection- are the real thing, only they must be interpreted in a non-religious way.”
I guess many have reacted as I have: great, but how exactly is this to be done?
Bonhoeffer defines religion as the practice of finding God in human weakness and at the margins of life, rather than in human strength and at the centre of life. Religion rests on the religious “a priori” of the existence of God. He sees Christian faith as accidentally caught up in religion, interpreting Paul’s struggle against the Jewish religious Law as a struggle for freedom from religion. If God has come to us in the weakness of Jesus, the man for others, we no longer have to seek God but have rather to share God’s weakness in the world.
So, how can we interpret, say, Jesus’ miracles, in a non-religious way?
1. Recognise that the miracles are not historical facts, but stories told by four different authors. Their meaning is embedded in the narrative of each Gospel.
2. Do not attempt to get behind what is often assumed to be naive credulity on the part of the writer, as for example, by explaining the miracle of the loaves and fishes as a spontaneous sharing of hitherto concealed resources by the crowd. That makes Jesus into an encourager of good behaviour. Mark however is making a contrast between King Herod, who consumes his people (the death of John the Baptist) and King Jesus who feeds his people. John on the other hand, wants to depict Jesus as the “bread of life, the true bread from heaven that nourishes human beings. In both cases the miraculous event is accepted as such by the author because it marks the presence of God in Jesus.
3. Do not then insist that we have to believe the miracle took place in the world as narrated. That’s the mistake of fundamentalism. But we do have to believe that it happens as narrated, IN THE STORY. We must not imagine ourselves to be wiser than the biblical author any more that we would think ourselves wiser than Tolstoy.
4. Does that mean we give up any direct relationship between the gospels and the historical events of Jesus’ life? Indeed,do we admit that Jesus is just a character in a book? Not at all. We note that the gospel writers want to communicate the gospel about a person who lived in history. Their united witness is that the person was a healer. Their different stories try to communicate the truth of his healings for readers who only have access to these events through their stories. If we look clearly at the differences amongst the four gospels, we can see that the authors allowed themselves a good deal of freedom in handling the traditions about Jesus. Perhaps the traditions themselves were already the result of such freedom.
5. See that the miracle stories of the gospels contradict the dominant narrative of Judaeo- Roman society in which power and stake holders are important and to be recognised, whereas the poor, the sick and the foreigner and their needs are considered negligible. The gospel miracles on the other hand show that God working through Jesus sees them as his dear children and is delighted to meet their needs. The stories subvert both the Roman imperial narrative and the Jewish religious narrative revealing the poor, the sinful, the needy, the outcast and the foreigner as key actors in God’s story.
6. Already the gospel writers were re-telling the miracle stories of Jesus for their societies which were different from his. We must find ways of re-telling them for our societies now, so that their critical and liberating power may be evident.