The failure of rationalism is evident. With best of intentions, but with a naive lack of realism, the rationalist imagines that a small dose of reason will be enough to put the world right. In his short-sightedness he wants to do justice to all sides, but in the melee of conflicting forces he gets trampled upon without having achieved the slightest effect. Disappointed by the irrationality of the world, he realises at last his futility, retires from the fray, and weakly surrenders to the winning side.
Worse still is the total collapse of moral fanaticism. The fanatic imagines his moral purity will prove a match for the power of evil, but like a bull he goes for the red rag instead of the man who carries it, grows weary and succumbs. He becomes entangled with non-essentials and falls into the trap set by the superior ingenuity of his adversary.
Then there is the man with a conscience. He fights single-handed against overwhelming odds in situations which demand a decision. But
When men are confronted by a bewildering variety of alternatives, the path of duty seems to offer a sure way out. They grasp at the imperative as the one certainty. The responsibility for the imperative rests upon its author, not upon its executor. But when men are confined to the limits of duty, they never risk a daring deed on their own responsibility, which is the only way to score a bull’s eye against evil and defeat it. Then man of duty will in the end be forced to give the devil his due.
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 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 this disquiet, or develop into the most hypocritical of all Pharisees.
Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not in 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 obedience 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.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor in Germany, who was arrested and subsequently hanged by the Nazis in the 1940’s, for his leadership of the church in Germany and his love for people. The day before he was executed, a fellow prisoner (Payne Best) recounts this exchange: “We bade him good-bye – he drew me aside – ‘ This is the end,’ he said. ‘For me the beginning of life,’ … The camp doctor who witnessed the execution wrote: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer