You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Bonhoeffer Letters’ category.
“Christ kept himself from suffering till his hour had come, but when it did come he met it has a free man, and mastered it. Christ, so the scriptures tell us, bore the sufferings of all humanity in his own body as if they were his own–a thought beyond our comprehension–accepting them of his own free will. We are certainly not Christ; we are not called to redeem by our own deeds and sufferings, and we need not try to assume such an impossible burden. We are not lords, but instruments in the hand of the Lord of history; and we can share in other people’s sufferings only to a very limited degree. We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and actions, not in the first place by his own suffering, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for who sake Christ suffered.”
“We must allow for the fact that most people learn wisdom only by personal experience. This explains, first, why so few people are capable of taking precautions in advance–they always fancy that they will somehow or other avoid the danger, till it is too late. Secondly, it explains their insensibility to the sufferings of others; sympathy grows in proportion to the fear of approaching disaster. There is a good deal of excuse on ethical grounds for this attitude.”
“Unless we have the courage to fight for revival of wholesome reserve between man and man, we shall perish in an anarchy of human values. The impudent contempt for such reserve is the mark of the rabble, just as inward uncertainty, haggling and cringing for the favour of insolent people, and lowering oneself to the level of the rabble are the way of become no better than the rabble oneself.”
“We are certainly not Christ; we are not called on to redeem the world by our own deeds and sufferings, and we need not try to assume such an impossible burden. We are not lords, but instruments in the hand of the Lord of history; and we can share in other people’s sufferings only to a very limited degree. We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered.”
“I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose he needs men who make the best use of everything. I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us to resist in all the times of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone. A faith such as this should allay all our fears for the future.”
“To talk of going down fighting like heroes in the face of certain defeat is not really heroic at all, but merely a refusal to face the future. The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live! It is only from this question, with the responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating.”
One evening, after his young students at the underground seminary of Finkenwalde had finished their supper, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went alone to the kitchen to wash the dishes.
He began the work alone, then requested the help of his pupils. But the seminarians did not budge, leaving Bonhoeffer alone scrubbing silverware. When no one offered to serve alongside him, he locked the door. When the students realized what he had done, they felt badly and finally offered to help. The door, however, remained locked and Bonhoeffer finished the work alone. His lesson was simple: service and leadership go together, and true service does not stem from lazy pity.
Each of the students at Finkenwalde had a number of these experiences when, because of his intense desire to teach them, Bonhoeffer would do or command something unusual in order to underscore the radical nature of life within the kingdom of God. To make disciples of Jesus in this upside-down kingdom required hyperbole and dramatic expression. And on one occasion, it meant locking the door while washing the dishes.
Thinking and doing
My introduction to Bonhoeffer came through his small book entitled, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. My wife had taken it off her stepmom’s bookshelf when we were in high school and dating. Near the end of that little book, Bonhoeffer’s best friend, Eberhard Bethge, wrote “A Biographical Sketch” of the pastor and theologian. In this section, Bethge describes his friend’s time as a leader of the secret, underground seminary.
‘[At Finkenwalde] he shared with them his personal belongings—material as well as spiritual—his time, and his plans. He was magnanimous … many students were at first startled by his strength and power of his thought but soon discovered that no one was able to listen to them so well and so completely, in order to be able to advise them and to make demands on them which none previously had been able to make with success. Here in the seminary everything was done in a fresh way.”
This short passage piqued my interested in Bonhoeffer, leading me to read Life Together and his Letters and Papers from Prison.
I will attempt the impossible. In the course of two blog posts, I will try to understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s infamous proposals for a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. There is a vast literature of academic discussion on Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, especially these particular letters from April to July of 1944, and the continuity or discontinuity with his earlier works. For the sake of blogging brevity (my go-to excuse!), I will have to ignore most of that.
Below is part one, and I will soon post a follow-up next week, discussing Bonhoeffer’s cryptic complaints about Barth’s “posivitism of revelation.” There, I will register some criticisms, not surprisingly.
In a letter to Eberhard Bethge from prison in Tegel, 30 April 1944, Bonhoeffer signals some new developments in his theological reflections, which then reappear in subsequent letters. And it is best that we label these as “reflections” or even “musings,” given the suggestive and piecemeal nature of this epistolary material. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer intends them to be taken seriously, as the most recent fruit of his fertile mind. He is quite aware of the radical nature of these suggestions, warning Bethge that he “would be surprised, and perhaps even worried by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to….” What are these thoughts and conclusions? They deal with Bonhoeffer’s proposal for a “religionless” Christianity, or better yet, a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. We will look closely at the precise way in which Bonhoeffer expresses himself, focusing on this question of non-religious interpretation.
Bonhoeffer has spent his life discerning who is Christ and especially who is Christ for the church and for us today. He is imprisoned for his own commitment to the sole lordship of Christ and his demand for us now. He informs Bethge that these questions have been “bothering him incessantly,” and it appears that the pressure to revisit these questions anew has come from his assessment of the society of his day. As Bonhoeffer sees it, “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more.” But what does he mean by “religious”? His explanation is grounded in the recent philosophical and cultural developments of Western society. There was once a “religious a priori,” according to Bonhoeffer, which supported and sustained religious man, which is to say virtually every man in religious society. This a priori is the metaphysical foundation, or background, or framework upon or through which religious man understands himself and his relation to God. As such, it provided the “plausibility structure,” to borrow from Peter Berger, for how the divine exists and interacts with the finite realm. It also provided the inwardness or self-consciousness of religious man in relation to spiritual matters, where God is a necessary and vital corollary. This religious man is disappearing, according to Bonhoeffer, and so the church must ask, “How do we speak of God – without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even ‘speak’ as we used to) in a ‘secular’ way about ‘God’?” Moreover, this metaphysics for the last nineteen hundred years, in Bonhoeffer’s view, has led us to consider ourselves as “specially favored,” as belonging to another reality other than the concrete world to which we belong. And, thus, there is a moral component to Bonhoeffer’s criticisms, namely that this metaphysics distracts and takes us away from our neighbor who wholly belongs to this world with us.
In a subsequent letter to Bethge, written on the same day, Bonhoeffer continues with his reflections about a Christianity without religion, further clarifying what he has in mind. It is here that Bonhoeffer expresses his dissatisfaction with apologetic theology and faith, where God only appears as the cause or sufficient explanation for the unknown or inexplicable. As Bonhoeffer explains:
Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail – in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, wither for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.
The problem with this sort of religious faith is that the boundaries are ever decreasing as humanity advances in its knowledge of the world. This God of the gaps is a desperate attempt to “reserve some space for God,” even as the gaps continue to close. But more importantly for Bonhoeffer, it places God on the boundaries of life, in the ignorance or in the weaknesses of our fragile life. This is even true of those existentialist theologies that have acknowledged the failure of “the God of the gaps” approach.