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When he went to the university at the age of seventeen, Bonhoeffer left home for the first time. The world of independent thought and action opened before him; he greedily absorbed what the philosophers and the theologians had to offer. His parents wholeheartedly supported his goals. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter Two: Student Years: 1923-1927, 45.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Quote

…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.

“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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.

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In the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of Germany’s most famous pastors and theologians—at a time when German clergy were increasingly capitulating and buying into Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer joined the Confessing Church, a movement resisting Nazism, and eventually joined a plot to assassinate Hitler.

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Why Can't Men Be Friends?

In January 1944, several months after he had been imprisoned by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge. In it, he reflected on what their relationship meant to each of them. Bonhoeffer wrote that, in contrast to marriage and kinship, friendship “has no generally recognized rights, and therefore depends entirely on its own inherent quality.”

As he penned those lines, Bonhoeffer must have had his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, in mind. With Maria, Bonhoeffer knew where he stood. They were pledged to be married, and all their family and acquaintances recognized their love and were prepared to witness their wedding ceremony, provided Bonhoeffer was released. With Eberhard, on the other hand, Bonhoeffer admitted there wasn’t a similarly public recognition. That led to a question: What were Eberhard and Dietrich to one another, and how might their love be preserved and sustained?

Years later, Eberhard addressed an audience member who had come to hear him speak about his friendship with Bonhoeffer (one explored in depth by Charles Marsh in the acclaimed biography Strange Glory). Surely, the questioner said, theirs “must [have been] a homosexual partnership.” What else could Bonhoeffer’s impassioned letters to Eberhard have signaled?

We wonder how much we can expect from friendship, how solid and durable it is, when we compare it to other bonds. Is it a weaker tie than marriage or family?

Bonhoeffer was aware that his friendship with Eberhard was breakable—that no public ceremony or vow kept them tied. That awareness that friendship is fragile has grown more pronounced since Bonhoeffer wrote his letters from prison. Words like suspicion, unsettledness, and doubt best describe our instincts about friendship. We are uncertain about it—perhaps especially between people of the same sex. And, like Bonhoeffer, we wonder how much we can expect from it, how solid and durable it is, when we compare it to other bonds. Is friendship a weaker tie than marriage or family? Further, many of us doubt that we can attain intimacy without there being deep down some sexual element to the friendship.

An Eclipse of Friendship?

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“Not hero worship, but intimacy with Christ.” 

Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship

Living Simply

Living simply can be pretty simple, some say

Simple living may appear intimidating to people who have only read about it or maybe know someone who practices that spiritual discipline.

Does it mean having to wear hemp clothing to church, digging a well in the backyard or going “off the grid” and living in isolation?

It doesn’t mean any of that, according to Christians who live or study the intersection between simplicity and their faith. In fact, they say, living simply is, well, pretty simple.

jessica joshua hearne200Joshua and Jessica Hearne“Simple living is no more complicated than a commitment to removing the excess from your life and recognizing how many of your possessions are excess,” said Joshua Hearne, executive director of Third Chance Ministries and abbot at Grace and Main Fellowship, a Danville, Va.-based organization that adheres to the new monasticism movement.

Simple living can be practiced by anyone, whatever their context, Hearne insisted.

“It can be just paring down your possessions, getting by with a little less, and that often means finding ways to do more with less things,” he said.

Of course for many, including Hearne, the lifestyle can go much further.

The new monasticism movement started in June 2004 with a conference in Durham, N.C., whose participants devised rules for living in intentional communities, Christianity Today reported.

‘New monasticism’

They modeled themselves after ancient and more recent church thinkers, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and used the term “new monasticism” from the book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World by Jonathan R. Wilson.

Common denominators between the groups that developed include submitting to the larger church, living with the poor, living with or in proximity to other ministry members, shared economy, peacemaking, creation care and reconciliation, Hearne said.

roland thirdchance425Roland, a member of the Grace and Main community in Danville, Va., cares for a flower bed. (Joshua Hearne Photo)Rutba House in Durham and Grace and Main in Danville are communities typical of the movement.

The movement and its offshoots emphasize a Christian faith marked by adherence to the example of intentional poverty and simplicity displayed by Jesus in the Gospels, Hearne said. He and his wife, Jessica, serve as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel.

The lifestyle also is marked by practices of hospitality that include inviting strangers and homeless to live in homes, feeding the poor and communal living.

Among Baptists, the inspiration to live more simply dates back to at least the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council led to more ecumenical dialogue between Catholic leaders and Protestants, said Loyd Allen, professor of church history and spiritual formation at the McAfee School of Theology in Macon, Ga.

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“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions.” 

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community

February 2020
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