It took me many years to free myself from I called in my memoirs the ‘bonds of my class.’ I know that even today there are many who accuse me of behavior instilled by the ‘bonds of class,’ especially some feminist women. Perhaps they are right and one never overcomes the class into which one is born. I don’t know.
–Simone De Beauvoir
It’s an honest, and a bit terrifying, account of her life as an intellectual: born into a bourgeois family, Beauvoir wonders whether she was ever able to overcome these class bonds and think for and from a different social situation. Is she able to transcend the class–and the cultural forms that went with it–into which she was born, or does she remain, despite her best efforts, another bourgeois intellectual? She doesn’t know, and this confession is remarkable given her vast erudition and relentless pursuit to understand herself and the world into which she is born.
This question–whether one’s class formation remains the ultimate horizon of one’s understanding of life–has stayed with me over the past few weeks. Are our theologies ultimately expressions of our cultural formations–forever trapped within boundaries that structured our personal development (boundaries of race, class, gender, and geographic location)?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote Discipleship (previously published as Cost of Discipleship) with this question at the forefront of his mind. In the famous first section on “Costly Grace”, Bonhoeffer wages war against a “cheap grace” that enables us to “remain as before in [our] bourgeois-secular existence” (50). Cheap grace “absolved an entire people” (53) in advance, a people who are now free from the call to obey a crucified God but who could live as other people live, secure and confident in their attempts to strengthen their own national existence through the exclusion of the weak and the unclean (i.e., the Jew).
Bonhoeffer obviously does not want grace to simply be the divine justification of our sinful, bourgeois-secular lives–we can’t get out, and grace tells us, don’t even try, just accept forgiveness. However, his answer in this first section appears to be: try really, really hard and then, after you begin with your own failed efforts, grace will show you the way forward. Besides being a thoroughly bourgeois answer (of the religious variety), the answer is theologically problematic. If grace is not the presupposition of our action, then what is?
Bonhoeffer offers a different way of reading this opening chapter when he says that “cheap grace is, thus, denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God” (43). Cheap grace is the attempt to claim grace; costly grace is to be claimed by grace. Cheap grace is a grace–and hence a God–at our disposal (“grace became the common property of a Christian world” p. 46). Costly grace is to find ourselves and our world under assault. In cheap grace, the incarnation is the affirmation of all we hold true about ourselves and our own people. In costly grace, the incarnation marks God setting aside our people and our own lives.
The incarnation is the divine encroachment, the divine transgression (as in “going across,” crossing the border that affirms, justifies, and secures our position in the world). To enter into discipleship is to accept God’s incursion into our sinful world. It is to say ‘amen’ to the God who bypasses the boundaries that establish our identity, and in moving across them, exposes them as sinful attempts to secure our own salvation apart from God, judges them, and then brings us to life beyond them. If there is a way beyond “the bonds of class,” it is the way of the cross, of discipleship to the living Word. It is therefore, like Beauvoir’s assessment, never certain in itself but maintains a faithful hope in the power of God: “for mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matt 19).