If, like me, you have been following Communion and Liberation for the past year or more, you have heard about “the reduction of faith to feeling or ethics.” Most recently, Father Carrón reminds us about this phenomenon on pages ii and ix of his book presentation on The Religious Sense. Like me perhaps, your eyes are glazing over. I’ve heard this already, thank you, Julián. Tell me something new. Last night I read something new.
On my pastor’s recommendation, I began reading the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian who died in the Holocaust. He was hanged in Buchenwald 23 days before the Nazis surrendered. I’m a slow reader and I didn’t get past the brief foreword by Timothy J. Keller, but that was far enough.
Keller says that by the 1930s, Bonhoeffer’s idea of costly grace, “the true gospel,” had been lost in Germany.
On the one hand, the church had become marked by formalism. That meant going to church and hearing that God just loves and forgives everyone, so it doesn’t really matter much how you live. Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace. On the other hand, there was legalism, or salvation by law and good works. Legalism meant that God loves you because you have pulled yourself together and are trying to live a good, disciplined life.
Formalism and legalism, Keller’s terms, are not precisely the same as ethics and feeling, Carrón’s terms. But they amount to a reduction, all the same. They amount to Christianity in miniature, Christianity without arms or legs, Christianity without the contemporaneity of Christ. What are the consequences of such a reduction? Here is Keller’s next sentence:
Both of these impulses [formalism and legalism] made it possible for Hitler to come to power.
Here is Keller’s explanation of that statement:
The formalists in Germany may have seen things that bothered them, but saw no need to sacrifice their safety to stand up to them. Legalists responded by having pharisaical attitudes toward other nations and races that approved of Hitler’s policies. But as one, Germany lost hold of the brilliant balance of the gospel that Luther so persistently expounded—“We are saved by faith alone, but not by faith which is alone.” That is, we are saved, not by anything we do, but by grace. Yet if we have truly understood and believed the gospel, it will change what we do and how we live.