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Isaiah Colton ThompsonIsaiah Colton Thompson, religious studies and history major

Isaiah Colton Thompson, a senior with a double major in religious studies and history at Cal State Fullerton, discovered his primary subject, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a most unusual way … courtesy of a trashcan and an engaging professor. (Bonhoeffer was a German evangelical pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident. His influential writings focused on Christianity’s role in a secular society.)

“I was meeting with one of my professors, Bradley Starr, to discuss my broad research interests,” he recalled. “When I mentioned Bonhoeffer, his eyes lit up. He literally reached into his trashcan and handed me a magazine that was advertising a recently published work on Bonhoeffer. I ordered the book, found an area of interest and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Thompson was looking forward to visiting Washington, D.C., this spring as his senior thesis on Bonhoeffer and the lessons from Finkenwalde Seminary had been selected for display at the Council on Undergraduate Research’s annual “Posters on the Hill” event, which takes place in the nation’s capital. It was abruptly canceled in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A virtual poster session is scheduled for Tuesday, April 21 at 9 a.m. on Twitter. For more information , visit the Council on Undergraduate Research.

“I was surprised and incredibly pleased that my poster was selected,” Thompson said. “Sixty projects were selected, from across the nation, out of 400 applications. The point of the event is to demonstrate the research being performed in universities across the country and encourage further funding for these programs.”

Thompson’s project was the only one selected from the state of California for this honor.

At CSUF, there are many programs that benefit from federal funding, including the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholar and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, all programs that Thompson is involved in.

“Programs of these kinds are incredibly important as they support low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students who want to complete their degrees in higher education,” he said. “Participating in this event not only would have allowed me to promote my research … but would have enabled me to endorse the very programs that encouraged my research.”

The Problem of Discrimination in Nazi Germany

Thompson was particularly interested in “the lessons from Finkenwalde Seminary.” The focus of the seminary was the problem of racism in Nazi Germany.

“During the 1930s, Hitler called on Nazi-supporting Christians to bring Germany’s churches under the ideals of the Nazi state,” Thompson explained. “This included race. The seminary at Finkenwalde resisted those ideas and taught a counter-narrative to combat targeted discrimination. Bonhoeffer directed the seminary and taught many of the classes.”

Many, including Nazi-supporting Christians, held the people, the land and the leader of Germany in high esteem. They believed Germany was called to a special path of victory and triumph. In pursuit of this path, certain groups of people were targeted because they did not fit “the ideal” that Germans had in mind. Bonhoeffer, however, saw the flaw and addressed it directly in lectures from Finkenwalde.

The Power of Resistance

“Ultimately, the research reveals the power of resistance,” Thompson said. “And it looks at the influence of nationalism on race. Because the Nazis held the ideals of the state in such high regard, they justified sacrificing human beings for those ideals. It also focuses on a deeper issue — the power of ideas.

“Because of my research, I often wonder about the everyday influences that impact my thinking. Where do these ideas come from? Who produces them? Bonhoeffer and the students at Finkenwalde remained cognizant of the ideology of their leaders … and strongly resisted this world view.”

Lessons for Today

Thompson believes that some of the lessons of Bonhoeffer resonate today.

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by Rev. Dr. Peter Walker, Principal, United Theological College

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed on the order of Heinrich Himmler seventy-five years ago in a Nazi concentration camp in Flossenburg, only days before its liberation, in April 1945. Bonhoeffer had known from the age of sixteen that he wanted to study theology. He died having fully expended himself in that calling. And in so doing, he has become an inspiration to generations of Christians. As his gravestone reads: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Witness to Jesus Christ.

In 1935, Bonhoeffer accepted a call from the Confessing Church, an alliance of faithful resistance to Nazism, to lead an underground seminary for its pastors. There, in Finkenwalde, he wrote Life Together in 1938. Now a devotional classic, Life Together was first of all a guide to life in Christian community – a reflection for his underground seminarians. Within it, Bonhoeffer explores the joy and struggle of community lived in and through Jesus Christ; a spiritual and even divine reality, manifest in human fellowship, and marked by Bible reading, communal singing, sharing a table, prayers, and daily work.

Yet the central chapter of this beautiful book about being together is titled ‘The Day Alone’.

Hearing the voice of God

Bonhoeffer writes, ‘Let those who cannot be alone beware of community’. The noise and activity of life together may crowd out the voice we sometimes need to hear alone, the voice we might sometimes only hear alone – the voice of God.  Yet with a balancing wisdom, Bonhoeffer follows soon after with its opposite. “The reverse is also true”, he writes. “Let those who are not in community beware of being alone”. The voice which speaks out of the silence to our inner-most self, calls us into the community of Christ’s disciples.

Bonhoeffer wanted his seminarians to understand the connection between silence and our ability to hear the still small voice of God which animates our faith; to understand “the essential relationship of silence to the Word.” And, he wanted them to understand that time together and time alone are both essential to Christ’s community. Time with others enriches our time alone, and time alone enriches our time with others. “The day together will be unfruitful without the day alone”, Bonhoeffer writes. And conversely, “After a time of quiet, we meet others in a different and a fresh way”.

“Only in this fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone, and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship. It is not as though the one preceded the other. Both begin at the same time, namely, with the call of Jesus Christ.”

COVID-19 and ‘the day alone

COVID-19 has brought a form of ‘the day alone’ upon us all. In reality, it will be much more than a day. We are beginning a time of relative solitude that will last for weeks and may hold for months.

Notwithstanding our heartbreak for those to whom this virus brings suffering, for whom we must do all we can in love, I suspect Dietrich Bonhoeffer would encourage us, as individuals and as the church, to embrace this time alone. Embrace it for meditation on the scriptures. Embrace it as an opportunity to be intentional in our listening for God. That will not be easy, and we will need to be patient. Yet we have time. What is God saying to you? What is God saying to this church?

Embrace this mandated time apart as a time for prayer.

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Today in History: German Foreign Office Warns about Dietrich Bonhoeffer

February 29, 1936: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would later be executed by the Nazis for his involvement in the resistance, had already made a name for himself, stirring up trouble with his actions alongside the Confessing Church. He had broken with the (much) larger German Christians and already declared that they represented a false Christ to the world, in part due to their allegiance to the Nazi state.

Bonhoeffer was heavily involved in ecumenical movements, and had informed the Foreign Office that he would be traveling as the director of the Preacher’s Seminary at Finkenwalde to support ecumenical work in Sweden. Today in history, the Foreign Office sent a letter to the German Legation in Stockholm warning them about Pastor Bonhoeffer’s actions:

The Reich and Prussian Ministry for Church Affairs as well as the Church Foreign Office would like to warn you about Pastor Bonhoeffer because his activities are not conducive to German interests. State and church officials have serious objections to his trip abroad, which has only now become known.
I respectfully ask that you report back concerning his public activities and concerning possible reactions in the Swedish press.

(From Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 14: Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937[DBWE 14:146])

This message’s import should not be understated. It shows that Bonhoeffer was already being monitored both at home and abroad.

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…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 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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The Cost of His Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45)

On July 20, 1944, the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler failed. The very next day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to Eberhard Bethge, his former student and future biographer. Bonhoeffer had been in prison since April 5, 1943. In the wake of the failure of the Valkyrie plot, Hitler led a crackdown on the resistance movement. Hundreds were immediately arrested; many in the movement already held in prison were moved to higher security prisons. Many were put on expedited paths to their execution. Bonhoeffer was one of them.

But on July 21, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote about a conversation he had in America in 1930. He was in the United States to learn of theological developments. He was to spend the year at the patently theological liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He found it wanting. “No theology here,” he reported back to Germany. But he did find dear friends, and he found adventure on a road trip from New York to Mexico City.

Somewhere along the way, as they camped in pup tents and sat around a fire, they asked each other what they wanted to do with their lives. One of them, a Frenchman named Lasserre, said he wanted to be a saint. Bonhoeffer picks up the story from there in his letter to Bethge the day after the failed plot:

At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. . . . I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous or an unrighteous man, a sick man or a healthy man. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.

As we reflect on that list in that last sentence, there’s only one word we really like, “successes.” We tend to avoid the other things mentioned by Bonhoeffer, but those things are part of life, of “this-worldliness.” Bonhoeffer then adds that by living life in this way, “We throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of the God-man in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith.”

Bonhoeffer learned this in a very short time in a very short life. He died in his thirty-ninth year. While most people are only beginning to make their mark and offer their mature thought as they turn forty, Bonhoeffer never made it to that milestone.

Young Professor in Berlin

He was born into an academic family. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a renowned psychiatrist at the University of Berlin. One of his brothers, a chemist, would go on to discover the spin isomers of hydrogen. The family home had a large library, a conservatory, and walls lined with very impressive looking oil portraits of his predecessors. Dietrich excelled as a student. He took his first doctorate as he turned twenty-one and a second doctorate three years later. He served in the academy, initially. But he loved the church.

As a young professor at the University of Berlin, he noticed an appeal for a teacher of a confirmation class at a Lutheran church in Berlin, on the other side of the tracks from where the Bonhoeffer family home stood. These were rough kids, who had already chewed through a few prospective teachers. The pastor was hoping to get an idealistic seminary student who didn’t have the better sense to not do this. Instead, the pastor and this band of prepubescent ruffians got a theology professor in wire-rimmed glasses and tailored suits.

Within minutes, Bonhoeffer had won them over. When the day came for their confirmation — a day the pastor was almost sure would never come — Bonhoeffer took them all to his tailor and got them all suits. He was the kind of professor who would just as soon pull out a “football” and hit the soccer pitch with his students as he lectured to them. During the time he spent in America, he got an armload of 78s of blues and negro spirituals. After the soccer games, he would spin records with his students and talk theology. For Bonhoeffer, education was discipleship.

Life Together

When the German Lutheran Church endorsed the Nazi party and became the Reich Kirche, Bonhoeffer quickly became a leader among the Confessing Church, despite his very young age. He lost his license to teach at the University of Berlin, and his books were placed on the banned book list. He was appointed the director of one of the five seminaries for the Confessing Church. At this seminary in Finkenwalde, he taught his students the Bible and theology, and he also taught them how to pray. Bonhoeffer saw these three things — biblical studies, theology, and prayer — as the essential elements of the pastoral office.

Eberhard Bethge, one of his students at Finkenwalde, exemplifies what he was taught by Bonhoeffer. Bethge wrote, “Because I am a preacher of the word, I cannot expound Scripture unless I let it speak to me every day. I will misuse the word in my office if I do not keep meditating on it in prayer.”

The Gestapo found out about the seminary at Finkenwalde and shut it down. Bonheffer spent the next year in his parents’ home. He wrote Life Together, memorializing what he practiced and what he had learned at Finkenwaldeab, and he visited his students and kept them on task with their studies and ministry.

Letters from Prison

The next years of Bonhoeffer’s life, 1940–1943, are debated. He joined the Abwehr at the urging of his brother-in-law. But it does not appear that he is actually much of a spy at all. He used his position to travel freely around the country — a way to keep up with his students and keep up with the churches they were pastoring. Then comes the contested episode of his life as he became part of a group seeking to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s role was not one of providing strategy — that was supplied by the other highly placed military and intelligence agency officials.

Bonhoeffer appears to be the pastor in the room, the one who gives the blessing on the undertaking they were about to embark on. Bonhoeffer wrestled with it, wondering if what they were doing was right and not at all presuming it was right and righteous. It was war, and these Germans were convinced that Hitler was an enemy to the German state and the German people, as well as to the other nations plunged into war. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s contribution was to this group, he did not make it presumptively or rashly.

The plots, like the Valkyrie plot, all failed. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to Tegel Prison. For the next two years, he would live in a 6’ x 9’ prison cell. He spoke of missing listening to birds. He missed seeing colors. Early in his time at Tegel, he despaired for his life. It was also in Tegel that Bonhoeffer wrote about living a “this-worldly” life. It was at Tegel that he spoke of learning to have faith in life’s failures, difficulties, and perplexities. At Tegel, he wrote poetry. He wrote a novel. He wrote sermons for weddings and baptisms — they were smuggled out and read by others at these occasions. Bonhoeffer’s time at Tegel yielded his classic text Letters and Papers from Prison.

In one of those letters, on June 27, 1944, he wrote, “This world must not be prematurely written off.” He was in a Nazi prison cell while Hitler was unleashing madness upon the world, and Bonhoeffer wrote about being a Christian in the world, in the time and place in which God had put him.

Cost of Discipleship

In 1936, Bonhoeffer published Nachfolge. It would be later published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it he declares, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

In Christ, we are dead. The old self and the old way is dead. And, in Christ, we are alive. After the Valkyrie plot, Bonhoeffer could write simply, “Jesus is alive. I have hope.”

For the rest of the article…

“In Christian brotherhood everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Second, that Christian brotherhood is a spiritual  and not a psychic reality.” 

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together26.

The pressures on these young clergy were immense. At the 1934 Dahlem synod, the Confessing Church had decided to train, certify, and ordain its own clergy. Bonhoeffer’s seminary at Finkenwalde was one five Confessing Church seminaries. In August 1937, however, Heinrich Himmler banned these seminaries, and the Gestapo closed Finkenwalde and the other seminaries one month later. The Confessing Church continued to examine and ordain its own candidates, but its examination commission in Berlin was arrested and tried in 1941.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945, 4

by

from chapter 4 in Paul House, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision.

1. Bonhoeffer believed that seminary is a time for students to learn how to lead a faithful Christian community.

2. “Let them thank God on their knees and realize: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.”

3. Without Christ, students’ egos would keep them from loving one another.

4. But the greatest danger to Christian community is a wishful image.  Only when all such images are broken, and disillusionment sets in, can the community begin to be what it should be in God’s sight.

5. Students did not always stay at Finkenvalde.  Bonhoeffer himself wished to get away.  People grumbled.  The Confessing Church did not always live up to its promise.  Visions of the future got crushed.

6. “God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.  Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves.  They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly.”

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What the German theologian is still teaching me on the 70th anniversary of his death.

Leading like Bonhoeffer

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.

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