Monday, November 02, 2015

Bonhoeffer on Freedom and Responsibility

Ever since reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics I've been thinking long and hard about his view of moral responsibility as something owed ultimately and daily to the command of Christ in complex, messy situations rather than to abstract principles or timeless duties.

In Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison we find a succinct and compelling expression of this in a paper-fragment titled 'Who Stands His Ground?' The following excerpt quotes roughly half of that paper:

'The great masquerade of evil has wrought havoc with all our ethical preconceptions. This appearance of evil in the guise of light, beneficence and historical necessity is utterly bewildering to anyone nurtured in our traditional ethical systems. But for the Christian who frames his life on the Bible it simply confirms the radical evilness of evil.

[Before continuing, Bonhoeffer considers and finds wanting the 'ethical systems' of 'rationalism', 'moral fanaticism', reliance on one's 'conscience', and 'duty'.]

What then of the man of freedom? He is the man who aspires to stand his ground in the world, who values the necessary deed more highly than a clear conscience or the duties of his calling, who is ready to sacrifice a barren principle for a fruitful compromise or a barren mediocrity for a fruitful radicalism. What then of him? He must beware lest his freedom should become his own undoing. For in choosing the lesser of two evils he may fail to see that the greater evil he seeks to avoid may prove the lesser. Here we have the raw material of tragedy.

Some seek refuge from the rough-and-tumble of public life in the sanctuary of their own private virtue. Such men however are compelled to seal their lips and shut their eyes to the injustice around them. Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep themselves pure from the defilements incurred by responsible action. For all that they achieve, that which they leave undone will still torment their peace of mind. They will either go to pieces in face of disquiet, or develop into the most hypocritical of all Pharisees.

Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call of God.'

- quoted from pages 135-7 of the 1960 Fontana publication
(bold print added, masculine language refers to all persons)

I'm sure there are plenty of others who are far ahead of me in their thinking on this, but I offer it here because--to quote Sheriff Ed Tom Bell from No Country for Old Men--'it has left quite an impression on me'. In fact, one might quote that character even further in responding to Bonhoeffer:

'I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, "O.K., I'll be part of this world."'

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Theological Symposium at Trinity College on 15 October

I'll soon be part of a theological symposium hosted by Trinity College Bristol, in partnership with Bristol Baptist College, exploring:

A Christian Response to the Refugee Crisis

The event is from 2 – 4 pm on Thursday, 15 October 2015, in the chapel at Trinity College. The plan is to hear and discuss three papers, including:

Rev Dr Knut Heim, ‘Attitudes Toward Foreigners in the Bible’

Rev Dr Helen Paynter, ‘Reflections on Jubilee in the Light of the Refugee Crisis’

Rev Dr Jon Coutts, ‘Who is my Neighbour? Questions of Proximity, Awareness and Responsibility’

This is a free public event, with coffee/tea provided afterward. For more information see the college website.

Saturday, September 26, 2015


In my early thirties I compiled lists of the albums, books and movies which had to that point been favourites or left an impression. One for every year. I've been adding to it each birthday since.

This being my fortieth I guess it is a bit of a milestone. It was a good year for reading, especially.

Here they are then: the film, album, novel and book that left the greatest impression on me this year. Only one of them actually came out recently, but they were all new for me.

Together with the prior entries (in the tabs above) they round out a sort of life-top-40.

NOVEL #40:
The Crossing - Cormac McCarthy

(runners up: Marilynne Robinson, Gilead & Home)

FILM #40: 
Calvary - John Michael McDonagh

(runner up: Two Days, One Night)

ALBUM #40:
Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes

(runners up: Dawes, All Your Favorite Bands &  Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell)

BOOK #40:
Ethics - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

(runner up: Pope Francis, Laudato Si)

I highly recommend all of these. Especially those novels: wow. Click the pictures for links. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

An Open Question to City Council (about Chalk)


We live on a street with a cul-de-sac in ___. We are getting complaints (twice, but they say others agree with them) about our kids writing on the street with chalk. The second complaint said kids shouldn't be out on the street "unsupervised". But this literally three doors down, in a cul de sac, in front of the kids' friends' houses.

Our children generally scoot or bike or play tag, stay off others' property, and only use a soft ball which wouldn't hurt anything even if it made contact.

Can someone contact me, please, to discuss the proper by-laws and unwritten rules about kids playing in neighbourhoods? Do children have rights as well as responsibilities? Rights to play on their block without harassment, as long as private property and noise levels are respected? (Neither of these are a problem, our kids are in by 7:30).

I would particularly be interested to know: if children are not to be on the street or cul de sac, can we demand that the side walks not be cluttered up with cars?

Thank you for any help you can give me. Wanting to be peaceable, but also to know what's right from what's people being grumpy and unreasonable.

 Jon Coutts

(Update: I'm informed that my letter has been forwarded to Highways and Traffic. And, for what it's worth, we are complying with neighbour requests).

Monday, September 07, 2015

Sufjan in Bristol

Sufjan Stevens, "Should Have Known Better" (Photo Chris Davies)
This is a shot from the Sufjan Stevens concert in Bristol, England, last night. It was aesthetically gorgeous and emotionally devastating all at once. Sufjan didn't say a word until very late in the show, but I've never seen anyone give so much of themselves to an audience. In Colston Hall, the clapping waited an extra beat until we were sure each song was over: there was just so much attention to detail and quiet moments of beauty, no one wanted to ruin anything. We were spellbound. Someone on twitter described it as if they'd been down to the river to pray.