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Of the Bonhoeffer brothers, Dietrich, the youngest, was the one most drawn to try the Youth movement. His episode in the Boy Scouts was a first attempt advance to move beyond the sphere of family and school, and to discover his own areas of experience not shared by his brothers and sisters. Many of his classmates did the same thing, and he did not want to be different from them in everything. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 33.

In 1917 Karl-Friedrich and Walter were called up. Because of their numerous contacts, the Bonhoeffers could have influenced the course of their sons’ military career to some extent, but the boys insisted on enlisting in the infantry, where the need was greatest. They joined the Fifth Regiment of Guards at Spandau, with no intention of becoming officers. With a heavy heart their parents let them do so; they did not want “to try to play Providence.”

After a short time of training, they were sent to the front.

…Walter was wounded in the advance on 23 April 1918. (He died from injuries on April 28)

…His death seemed to break his mother’s spirit. She spent weeks in bed at time…

…Karl-Friedrich was wounded in the October battles of 1918, but his injuries proved to be slight.

Seventeen-year-old Klaus was also called up and, after a brief period of training, served as an orderly at General Headquarters in Spa.

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 27-28.

Gradually, however, the war began to have a grim impact on the Bonhoeffer family. In 1914 their uncle Otto Bonhoeffer in Dussedorf and their mother’s sister, Aunt Hanna Countess von der Goltz, received bad news, and the children heard of cousins killed or severely wounded in action. As the war dragged on, the older brothers, who were still in school, approached military age.

At the end of 1916 faint hopes clung to the possibility of peace. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 26.

Thus in his boyhood and youth it was that gave him a special position at school and among his fellow students. His brothers and sisters allowed him this as well. Only when he came home from a school sports meet with the victor’s laurel wreath around his shoulders did he have to put up with the taunts of his big brothers. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 25.

Image result for Laurel wreath

…Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like his brothers and sisters, grew up to be a citizen of Berlin, despite the Swabian, Thuringian, and Silesian influences. His eventful life cannot be considered apart from this background. All the other places that were important to him in the course of his life–Breslau, Tubingen, New York, London, or Finkenwalde–certainly influenced him. The decisive influence, however, was Berlin and its complex diversity… 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 23.

by Richard Beck

One of my favorite parts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life is the spiritual transformation he underwent in the early 30s. Prior to these years, Bonhoeffer had mainly pursued theological studies as an academic, intellectual endeavor. The Bonhoeffer family was Christian, but they weren’t particularly devout by way of church attendance or personal devotion.

And while it may be strange to think of someone pursuing theology in a purely academic way, just attend AAR/SBL. Theologians and biblical scholars who have no faith in God are a dime a dozen.

That was Bonhoeffer before the early 30s. But then something happened to him. As Eberhard Bethge describes it, the theologian became a Christian.

What caused the change? Bonhoeffer’s time in America seemed to have played an important part. Bonhoeffer spent a post-doctoral year in 1930 studying in New York at Union Theological. During that time, two critical things happened.

First, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the black church. During his year in New York, Bonhoeffer attended and taught Sunday School at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Second, through his relationship with the Frenchmen Jean Lasserre, who was also studying at Union, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the Sermon on the Mount as the Word of God. Prior to this time, Bonhoeffer had used his Lutheran theology to keep the Sermon on the Mount in a box. But after 1930, Bonhoeffer began to see the Sermon at a command to be obeyed.

And beyond his experiences in America, I also think Bonhoeffer’s pastoral work with churches, like his confirmation class in the Wedding parish, also had a profound impact upon his faith.

All these experiences changed Bonhoeffer profoundly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a Christian. Here’s how his best friend Eberhard Bethge describes the change:

He now went regularly to church…Also he engaged in systematic meditation on the Bible that was obviously very different from exegetic or homiletic use of it…He spoke of oral confession no longer merely theologically, but as an act to be carried out in practice. In his Lutheran ecclesiastical and academic environment this was unheard of. He talked more and more often of a community life of obedience and prayer…More and more frequently he quoted the Sermon on the Mount as a word to be acted on, not merely used as a mirror.

For the rest of the post…

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bonhoefferToday’s guest post is by Prayson Daniel. Prayson, who blogs at With All I Am, has been using Faithlife Groups since 2012, and created the Natural Theology group. Prayson is from Tanzania, and he earned his BA at Harvest Bible College. He is currently pursuing his graduate studies at Aalborg University in Denmark. Prayson’s greatest desire is to inspire others to admire God through critical thinking.

“What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words—whether with theological or with pious words—is past, as is the age of inwardness and of conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether. We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ aren’t really practicing that at all; they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We have approached a “religionless” age. Some call it a post-Christian world. Ethics and politics are no longer directly influenced by religious beliefs. For many self-describing Christians, their lives show no visible difference from unbelievers.

“What is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?” was the question that persistently bedeviled Bonhoeffer during his solitary confinement ward at Berlin-Tegel Military Detention Center. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his participation in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Tegel was where he spent his last eighteen months in the world he saw coming of age. He was executed on April 8th, 1945.

During his time in Berlin-Tegel, Bonhoeffer wrote his final letters to those closest to him, and explored the most pressing questions in his final days. These writings are available to us as Letters and Papers from Prison. In his letters and notes, the question arose, what is Christianity today? In his correspondence with his best friend, Eberhard Bethge (April-July 1944), Bonhoeffer offered some of the most bewildering and exciting questions and ideas to help Christians faithfully engage with a “post-Christian” world.

Bonhoeffer asked, “How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?” and, “Is there such a thing as a religionless Christian?” He answered these questions with “the nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts.”

What is religionless Christianity?

For the rest of the post…

Bonhoeffer’s bourgeois heritage and keen intellect could easily overpower others. Measured by almost any index he was a rich man. His father was an esteemed professor at Berlin University. The child Dietrich lived in the luxurious Grunewald district at Berlin, attended by a cadre of household employees: a tutor, a nanny, a housemaid, a cook, a receptionist for his father, and a chauffeur. His family had contacts at the highest levels of German society. But he was perceptive enough to know that earthly riches make one less secure, not more. He suspected God is nearer to those who have need. And so his heritage became a kind of burden to be overcome. If he were to live a life devoted to Christ, pride and power would have to be monitored on a continual basis.

 (Craig J. SlaneBonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment19)

Now, since there was only a single toilet for all the prisoners, and one bathroom at the end of the corridor where several had to wash at once, there were opportunities to communicate. Talking was of course strictly forbidden, but they could whisper to each other while the cold shower was running. There were even guards who no longer believed in Germany’s “final victory: and may have looked the other way now and then…The best opportunities for sustained conversations among the inmates came during the air raids which now occurred more frequently.

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 364).

Not really!

In Berlin in 1933 there were about a thousand boys in the Hitler Youth, but 2500 secondary school pupils in Protestant Bible study groups alone and many more in the YMCA, the Boy Scouts and various other groups.

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 149)

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