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By Matthew D. Hamilton

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spiritual disciplines

Dietrich Bonhoeffer largely derives his fame from his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazi regime. Under immense stress, Bonhoeffer’s religious convictions prompted him to fight for the true good of the German people against genocidal tyranny. Understandably so, less attention has been paid to his theology and his understanding of private Christian faith. However, Bonhoeffer’s life and writings demonstrate a vital nuance to personal, spiritual practices that ought to inform our private faith today.

Before his involvement in the assassination plot, Dietrich Bonhoeffer retreated to relative obscurity and operated an underground seminary in the German town of Finkenwalde. Here, removed from the political activities of his day, Bonhoeffer gives us the best glimpse of his expectations for personal spirituality.

Practicing spiritual disciplines

To prepare his seminarians for ministry, Bonhoeffer mandated disciplines very familiar to us.

Bonhoeffer required his students to read Scripture privately, writing, “We are not permitted to neglect this daily encounter with Scripture.” Bonhoeffer intentionally uses the word “encounter” here as he disallowed that this time would be an academic or pastoral pursuit: The ministers-to-be were not allowed to search for sermon material or use a Greek New Testament; rather, Scripture study was meditative, or prayerful, and enabled the Finkenwalde seminarians “to encounter Christ in his own word.” Thus, the “goal [of Scriptural meditation] is Christ’s community, Christ’s help and Christ’s guidance.”

Bonhoeffer also insisted that his seminarians fasted. Arguing that it reminded them of their “estrangement” from the world, he regarded this practice as nonnegotiable. Just as prayerful Scripture reading ultimately looks to encounter God, Bonhoeffer does not see fasting as an end in itself but rather a response to faith in Christ, a means of orienting one’s life to God.

However, Bonhoeffer appears to speak out of both sides of his mouth, paradoxically railing against retreat from the world. In Ethics, he writes firmly, “For the Christian there is nowhere to retreat from the world, neither externally nor into the inner life.” In After Ten Years, he develops this criticism a little further:

In flight from public discussion and examination, this or that person may well attain the sanctuary of private virtuousness. But he must close his eyes and mouth to the injustice around him. He can remain undefiled by the consequences of responsible action only by deceiving himself… He will either perish from that restlessness or turn into a hypocritical, self-righteous, small-minded human being.

Developing a moral backbone

How then are we to make sense of Bonhoeffer’s actions and commands?

While condemning withdrawal from the world, Bonhoeffer appears to do the very thing he hates, retreating to Finkenwalde and exhorting his students toward inward-focused, privatistic practices

In her essay “Bonhoeffer’s Understanding of Church, State and Civil Society,” Victoria J. Barnett, director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Programs on Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust, notes Bonhoeffer’s awareness of this exact contradiction: “The Finkenwalde experiment opened up the risk inherent in any kind of internal exile, which is that it becomes a flight into a privatized kind of discipleship.” Barnett thus indicates that while the Finkenwalde period may appear apolitical, Bonhoeffer understood this apparent contradiction.

However, his other writings—as well as more insight from Barnett—provide a fascinating dimension to Bonhoeffer’s personal spirituality which resolves this tension. Rather than seeing spiritual disciplines as a retreat from the world, Bonhoeffer understands spirituality as the necessary foundation for Christian political action.

Retreating to Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer was not neglecting or refusing the world. Rather, Barnett’s essay highlights how he here sought “the creation of moral backbone and the establishment of the discipline his students would need if they were to stay on the right path” under the attractive Nazi regime.

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Simon Barrow

By Simon Barrow
11 Feb 2014

Pioneering Lutheran theologian, anti-Nazi resister, educator, ecumenist, poet, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on 4 February 1906 – just over 108 years ago this month.

Bonhoeffer’s writings – including his books Life TogetherDiscipleshipEthics and Letters and Papers from Prison – have been crucially important for my own spiritual and intellectual journey over the years.

Of course, Bonhoeffer’s writings, though voluminous in the way that they have been collected and curated (especially in the excellent Fortress Press edition) are also fragmentary and open to multiple interpretations. The latter is true of all texts in a way, but perhaps these more than most due to the extreme pressure of the conditions under which they were written. Indeed the last two of the volumes mentioned above were actually compiled after their author’s death by colleagues, friends and former associates.

Over the years a veritable ‘Bonhoeffer industry’ has emerged; something to which I have made a couple of very modest contributions, most recently in bringing into print the important book by scholar and expert Keith Clements, Bonhoeffer in Britain (CTBI, 2006). Dr Clements, who has researched and written widely in this area, also made a significant contribution to the Fortress collected works in English in the shape of a full translation of the London sermons, many of which had previously only been available in German.

Bonhoeffer is important for all kinds of reasons. He combined a deeply prayerful and Christological approach to doing theology with biblical commitment and exploration, and with a determination to engage the reality of the world on its own terms – while recognising it to be God’s gift and promise in spite of its brokenness. His approach, arising out of his early doctorate and habilitation theses, therefore resists certain simplistic trends in both conservative and liberal theology which have persisted to this day, and beyond which I believe we need to move if we are going to continue to develop and sustain a transformational theology capable of facing up to the emerging post-Christendom context in which we find ourselves.

I say ‘we’, meaning Christians of a radical disposition (those wanting to nourish roots as well as open up routes), though I am glad also that Bonhoeffer has his appreciators among secular and interreligious audiences too – albeit, perhaps, smaller in number these days. The kind of ‘secular religion’ thinking prevalent in the 1960s did not always do justice to the subtlety of his thought in this area, it must be admitted. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer, anchored in Barth while able to hold back from too positivistic an account of revelation, rightly emphasised that incarnational Christianity was not about learning to be ‘religious’, but rather discovering what it means to be truly human. For him the narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was central to this understanding and to the faith and practice emerging from it.

Equally, it was Bonhoeffer who developed a language about reading ‘history from below’; who spoke of the kind of ‘new monasticism’ necessary to re-founding a church capable of faithful service to the world; who posited prayer and action for justice as the two non-negotiable elements of Christian living in a world shrouded in deep darkness; who preached Christ as ‘the man for others’; who foresaw the demise of Christendom and the church of power; who was inspired and revitalised by African-American Christianity at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York; and who went against the dominant Lutheran grain by embracing pacifism as a central part of his theology, shaped by Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.

This, of course, is just a partial flavour of the riches that Bonhoeffer has to offer the contemporary reader attuned to the thoughts and lessons of the past resourcing the thought of lessons of the present and future.

Of the points I have listed above, perhaps the one that may raise most questions for some readers is the point about pacifism. Did not Bonhoeffer abandon his earlier commitment to nonviolence and embrace a more situational and ‘realistic’ ethic in confrontation with Nazism? Was he not involved in, legitimating of, and arrested for, a resistance plot which involved plans to assassinate Hitler? Is he not therefore something of a prophet against, rather than for, nonviolence, at the end of the day?

That is the kind of reading of Bonhoeffer that all to easily emerges from some popular writing and pronouncements about him – perhaps not least the best-selling, recent biography by Eric Metaxas, which has gained the great theologian-martyr a rereading by many conservative Protestant evangelicals in the United States, among others, of late.

However, the notion of Bonhoeffer as virtually a just warrior is one which has been robustly (and, in my view, rightly) challenged in an authoritative way in an important new book published in November 2013 by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist and Daniel P. Umbel, entitled Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the myth, recovering his call to peacemaking (Baker Academic, USA).

I should declare something of a connection here. My long-term involvement with the former London Mennonite Centre included crossing paths with Mark Thiessen Nation when he was director of the LMC from 1996 to 2002. Though I enjoyed his theological contributions and gained a far greater ongoing familiarity with the work of Stanley Hauerwas through him, it would be fair to say that we did not always see eye-to-eye. However, I remember well one of the last seminars that Mark led at LMC before he left, and in which I had the pleasure and privilege to participate as a respondent. This focused on Bonhoeffer and peacemaking. It was excellent. We very much found a common language and commitment through Bonhoeffer’s work and witness – not least, peace witness.

I have long held the view that attempts to suggest that Bonhoeffer abandoned his commitments concerning the directness and centrality of the Sermon on Mount, discipleship, and peace as the Christian way are profoundly wrong and not borne out by proper readings of his later texts and actions. Whatever one makes of claims for his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler (and this new book shows that there is little direct evidence for this, though his involvement in resistance clearly brought him into contact with people who were going down that road), it seems evident that Bonhoeffer never sought to develop a theory, a theology or a justification for killing – though he was certainly prepared to throw himself without self-preservation into putting a ‘spoke in the wheel’ of the Nazi death machine in a variety of ways. The outcome of this, of course, was his own execution right at the end of the war, following arrest for treason.

Bonhoeffer the Assassin? highlights the evidence that the practical issues involved in his final arrest included what can rightly be called conscientious objection (which was punishable by death anyway) and activities to do with helping Jews and resisters.

However, the book goes much further than this. It provides close readings of Bonhoeffer’s biography set within the larger story of opposition to Hitler, compromise in the church, and the development of what became the Ethics manuscript, in which the more ‘realistic’ account of his thinking is supposedly found. As Professor Barry Harvey observes: “Regardless of whether you are persuaded by the authors concerning Bonhoeffer’s level of involvement in the attempt to kill Hitler, this volume will decisively reframe the way we read the thoughts and life of this most remarkable Christian.”

It certainly will, and I hope to return to its issues and arguments in greater detail at a later stage. Suffice it to say that I am very sympathetic towards the general drift of this work. Much of the detailed textual summary and historical commentary is exceptionally valuable. This is an important contribution to scholarship and thinking about one of the most important theological figures of the mid-20th century. It is also a substantial work in the area of Christian nonviolence, and advocacy for theological and Christological peacemaking or pacifism. I would commend anyone interested in any of these themes to read it with care.

Meanwhile, I will end with several quotations from Bonhoeffer himself, in the Fortress edition; ones which continue to have great purchase on our continuing attempts to be engaged and faithful as Christians in a troubled world today.

“The peace demanded by God has two boundaries: first, the truth; second, justice. A community of peace can exist only when it does not rest on a lie or on injustice. Wherever a community of peace endangers or suffocates truth and justice, the community of peace must be broken and the battle must be declared. If the battle from both sides is really about truth and justice, then the community of peace, even when externally broken, will be realised more deeply and strongly in the battle for this very cause… The sole reason that Christians have a community of peace is because the one wishes to forgive the sins of the other. Even where the order of external peace in truth and justice remains secure, forgiveness of sins remains the only basis for all peace. It is therefore also the last foundation upon which all ecumenical work rests, particularly where the brokenness seems hopeless… Neither the external order of peace nor of the peace struggling for the same cause, but only the peace of God who creates the forgiveness of sins, is the reality of the gospel in which truth and justice are preserves together.” (Bonhoeffer, ‘On the theological foundation of the work of the World Alliance’ in Ecumenical, Academic and Pastoral Work, pp. 365-366).

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July 2020


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