A few weeks ago at a library bookshop I picked up a book that I’d been meaning to read for a long time, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. I’m glad I read the book, which Bonhoeffer published in German in 1937, but I can’t say I’m happy about it. This book opens and moves in a long, slow, painful progression of accusation. For me it does at least. The opening lines are particularly compelling:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace.
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?
I cannot read these words without a certain amount of discomfort. I know that all too often I, like most people, look to religion (or “spirituality,” if you prefer) as a way to “feel good,” as a drug. I have bargained for my own share of cheap grace.
Bonhoeffer did not write from a theoretical perspective. He wagered everything on the value of what he called “costly grace.” A German Lutheran pastor and theologian, he could have spent the duration of World War II at a comfortable distance from the Nazi regime. But he chose not to. He returned to Germany to oppose the evil of fascism. On April 6, 1943 he was arrested and, after a period of imprisonment, was hung at dawn, April 9, 1945. He was thirty-nine.
Bonhoeffer’s argument bears a considerable resonance with another important book from the 1930s, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley’s protagonist John Savage is a man much like us—a person looking for meaning thrust into a world of endless entertainment and diversion, a world ignorant of God and antipathetic to contemplation. At the book’s dénouement, the World Controller, Mustapha Mond, tells John that the world has no need of religion which has been superseded by the decidedly more efficient tools of pharmacology, sexual “freedom,” and a constant barrage of entertainment. “Anybody can be virtuous now,” Mond tells John. “You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears—that’s what soma is.” But John isn’t buying: “What you need,” he counters, “is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.”
Does our spirituality cost enough? Is it cheap? Or costly? Are we guilty of what the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa described as “spiritual materialism.” Are we marked by the habit of being what the Catholic Hermeticist Valentin Tomberg called “spiritual drunkards,” looking only for the next spiritual fix?
I know I am.
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