Archive for the ‘Mature Bonhoeffer’ Category

When writing his book Ethics (which he never finished), Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed some radical ideas, such as that we are not to concern ourselves with what is good but, rather, with what is God’s will. And that, he believed, could only be known by knowing God.

More than a decade earlier, when he was still in his early 20s, Dietrich was already radical. In his 1928 lecture entitled “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic,” he argued that there is in fact no such thing as a Christian ethic, that ethics is simply a matter of “blood and history.” By that odd phrase he meant simply that what seems ethical to us, what seems to be the set of proper principles by which we are to live, is determined not by anything universal but by our location in time and culture.

One of my treasures is a book copyrighted in 1831 in Connecticut. It is called “A New Family Encyclopedia or Compendium of Universal Knowledge: Comprehending a plain and practical view of those subjects most interesting to persons in the ordinary professions of life.” Its first section is on Man and includes on page 15 this paragraph:

INTELLECTUAL CAPACITY. Of all the varieties of mankind, there can be no doubt that the white man exhibits the greatest marks of ingenuity and intelligence; and of this variety the most intelligent will be found to be those who reside in temperate climates. . . .While none of these [Asian races] equal the Chinese and some others of the Mongul race, few, perhaps, are so sunken as some portions of the Negro race. This last race exhibits much animal power, yet it is far beneath the white man in intellectual capacity.

Such a view of the relative intelligence of the races was the best scientific observation of the day. One had only to look at the cultural achievements of the races to see their obvious rank on the scales of intelligence. Now, of course, we know that the intellectual potential of the various races cannot be distinguished but 200 years ago there was no way to know that.

An ethic based on science, such as heralded by atheists such as Dawkins, will always be as fickle and malleable as science itself. And it will always be liable to one man or group saying, “My science is better than yours and therefore so is my ethical position.”

Bonhoeffer way right: What seems ethical in one time and place will not seem so in another. Even science cannot provide a foundation for ethics. Science is the study of nature and nature, we were reminded long ago, is “red in tooth and claw.” Science can give us no more than the law of the survival of the fittest. The atheist is unwittingly calling us back to the primitive jungles of existence where “might makes right.”

There is no “good;” there is only God.


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I’ve been mulling over one of Bonhoeffer’s most provocative ideas lately, that of “religionless Christianity.” He sees it not only as desirable but inevitable. In a sense he was wrong to say we’re at the end of religious times, because religion is still very much a contemporary concern, especially in America.

Yet when I read Bonhoeffer’s views on Western “reigionlessness” I keep hearing Stephen Hawking’s computer-voice saying, “We can now explain the origins of the universe without recourse to a god hypothesis.” And Hawking is listened to!

The Christian’s issue is not with Hawking’s answer to the question, “How did the universe come to be?” — since science can in fact answer most of the big questions about the beginning, except the question, What went bang? Rather, the problem is that Hawking is answering the wrong question. The question we (and particularly our Christian scientists) want to ask is, By what process did the Creator bring the universe into existence? Whether he knows it or not and whether he likes it or not, that is the question Hawking is working so hard to answer.

To return, however, to Bonhoeffer and his idea of religionless Christianity, I have a few brief remarks.

First, let’s not lose track of the fact that Bonhoeffer is not talking about the end of Christianity or of our faith in and loyalty to Jesus Christ. In fact, he is trying very hard to understand these things more fully and deeply than ever.

Second, let’s remember that it was popular among Evangelical circles just a few years ago to proclaim that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. So Bonhoeffer’s ideas, however they may be worded, are not at all alien to the Evangelical mind.

Third, let’s try to understand what religion is and, therefore, why it is not worth clinging to. Religion is, to my mind, a set of humanly devised ideas and words and rituals intend to control and give form to our relationship with God. Even within Christianity, both now and throughout history, there have been innumerable religious patterns. We Evangelicals represent only a small slice of the whole of Christianity and need to cast off the hubris which makes us think we have somehow become the first people in the history of the church to “get it right.”

I’m very impatient with and bored by liturgical ritual but many believers find it to be the perfect meeting point for their communion with God. It doesn’t matter in the least whether I understand or like what goes on in Catholic and Orthodox worship. I don’t like what seems to me to be the shallowness and monotony of “contemporary” Evangelical services but that doesn’t matter either. When I become perfect, then I’ll expect everyone to do things to suit me. Meanwhile, still a bit short of perfection, I’m just glad that I get to be a part of the Church’s love of God in my own little way.

What Bonhoeffer is saying, I believe, is that we are not to be seeking the perfect religious forms for our faith but to learn to entrust ourselves to our Lord with or without religious forms of any sort. That’s hard for most of us — including Bonhoeffer himself — to imagine. But if it is impossible, it is not because God wants us to be religious but because we are still such limited creatures that we need the imposition of form and structure.

One of the results, Bonhoeffer imagines, is that to the degree that we shuck off religion, we will find ourselves walking with Christ in the world, not in our self-created ghettoes.

Is that really so far from the biblical foundations of our faith. What kind of formal worship services did Jesus have with his disciples? Did he simply lead them to the synagogue every Saturday? The Bible doesn’t say so. And when he is reported to have gone to the synagogue, wasn’t Jesus a disruptive force?

These are ideas with implications worth a great deal of pondering, right?

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The snow is falling in large, lazy clusters. No breeze pushes them. They simply drift down in silent peace. The quiet is something more than an absence of noise — It is restful, calming, comforting.

I sit at my desk, windows constantly pulling my eyes to the beautiful snowfall, a warm candle to one side, and the ancient choral music of Hildegard of Bingen softly filling all the nooks and crannies of my library.

I’ve been thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his last weeks and days before his execution at the hands of the Nazis. Oddly, there is a certain peace that I find in Dietrich up to the very day of his death. Shortly before Christmas of 1944, for example, he wrote a poem called “By the powers of good.” The last verse reveals the heart of a man whose deepest reality was not his impending murder but the love and faithfulness of his Lord.

By powers of good so wondrously protected, / we wait with confidence, befall what may. / God is with us at night and in the morning / and oh, most certainly on each new day.

The powers of evil, embodied in Adolf Hitler, were only a minor threat to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The powers of death did not frighten him. His was, in the words of St. Paul, “a peace that passes all understanding.” Only those whose lives and hearts are entrusted to our Lord can know such peace. . .

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From time to time I hear questions raised about discontinuity between the “early” writings of Bonhoeffer and the later works. Some say we ought not to bother with the earlier works because only Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison represent his mature thinking. Others say these two books (both written by Bethge with materials from Bonhoeffer) express ideas developed under duress and were not well thought through. The biography by Metaxas, for example, dismisses the LPP as being “inchoate” thoughts that Bonhoeffer wouldn’t want us to be taking seriously.

The truth (as Metaxas himself notes in different parts of his book) is that all the ideas which came to fruition in Ethics and LPP can be found in Bonhoeffer’s earliest works, including his student papers and dissertations. Reading the sometimes difficult ideas in the latter books is greatly enhanced by a careful reading of the foundational work Bonhoeffer had been doing since he was 20 years old.

It’s true that when reading his prison letters to Bethge, we often find ourselves wishing Bonhoeffer had better developed this idea or that, but the development of those ideas can actually be traced in advance by a broad reading in the full scope of Bonhoeffer’s writing.

For example, perhaps the central question Dietrich asked in prison was, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” Taken out of context, it may sound as if he is suggesting we have to keep inventing a new Jesus to suit us in each generation. When that question is paired with a lecture he gave in 1928, at age 22 (“Jesus Christ and the Essence of Christianity, DBWE 10:342), we realize that Bonhoeffer is always talking about Jesus Christ as a person, not as a doctrine.

To know and follow a person over a period of years and in a rapidly changing blur of historical situations means we must always attend carefully to the character and to the active leadership of that person. We cannot “know” him once, capture him in a timeless doctrine, and then blindly follow the doctrine forever. We have to listen again and again to our living Lord. What is he saying to us today? What part of his eternal character is emerging in this situation? How are we to be in harmony with him on this very day?

There was a fad a few years ago to ask a similar, though disturbingly shallow, question: “What would Jesus do?” Dietrich is simply asking the same thing but at a far deeper and more personal level. We don’t know when he first asked it but we do know that he never ceased. And neither should we.

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Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Mataxas was interviewed by Glenn Beck on December 10, 2010. It is available on YouTube. Beck begins with comments about how – in his view – the “Left” has badly misunderstood Bonhoeffer by saying “he is a social justice guy.” It is clear that both “Left” and “social justice guy” are pejorative code words for Beck, needing no explanation.

Metaxas then makes the important point that, contrary to what some have thought, Bonhoeffer did not leave his biblical and theological foundations in his later years but remained a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer, Metaxas emphasizes, was never like the liberal theologians with whom he studied. Unfortunately, showing a certain American provincialism, Metaxas seems to assume that if a Christian is not a liberal, he must be an evangelical. That is a very poor assumption which is not supported by the facts at all. Bonhoeffer and the modern Evangelical are much alike in many ways but overlapping ideas and commitments does not make us identical twins. Metaxas demonstrates this very conclusively by not correcting Beck about “the social justice guys.”

When Dietrich wrote in 1933 that the church must protest against injustice at the hands of the state and bind up the wounds of those injured by the state’s injustice and even do whatever it can to stop the wheels of the state’s injustice, was he not describing “social justice” very perfectly? And did he not live out this prescription very fully?

The juxtaposition of Beck with his code words and Metaxas with his unexamined assumptions is almost comical. They reinforce one another’s blindness.

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Bonhoeffer and Christian Maturity

One of the words Bonhoeffer used often is “responsible.” It meant a great deal to him to learn what it means to be a responsible, mature follower of Jesus Christ.

I have observed over the years that, without undue simplification, we can recognize three stages of Christian maturity. They are especially clear in someone who becomes a believer after childhood.

First, there is the initial joy of discovering God’s great and beautiful love. We are motivated to serve God with great fervor. All that we do is for God. Before long this leads to a period of discouragement when we realize we cannot do nearly enough or be good enough to be all that God is worth. Many new believers retreat at this point, either ceasing to consider themselves Christian at all or falling into a “good enough to get by” kind of faith.

Only a few seem to discover a second level, when we realize just how immense is God’s grace and how absolutely trustworthy is his love. We learn to accept life as being perpetually from God, a continual gift. We learn to rest in his love and grace and our hearts are shaped by deep gratitude.

Fewer still discover that the Lord is moving them to a third level, one which incorporates the first two but moves us beyond them. We begin to realize that God is forming a certain Christlikeness of character within us, not leaving us as little children but treating us as responsible adults. In this stage we are learning to live with God.

This is the stage upon which Dietrich Bonhoeffer meditated the last several years of his life. In his book Ethics Bonhoeffer wrote,

Formation [in the image of Christ] occurs only by being drawn into the form of Jesus Christ, by being conformed to the unique form of the one who became humans, was crucified, and is risen. This does not happen a we strive “to become like Jesus,” as we customarily say, but as the form of Jesus Christ himself so works on us that it molds us, conforming our form to Christ’s own (Gal. 4:19).

Maturity, Christlikeness of character, is not an achievement but a gift. We become mature not by asking “What would Jesus do?” but by allowing the Spirit of God to teach us and mold us through joy and travail, experienced in faith.

It is also important to note that growing up is not merely a private matter. We grow by “speaking the truth in love” with one another. Take time to meditate on this passage:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16).

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Bonhoeffer and Pope Francis

One of the most important experiences in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was his two-month visit to Rome in the late spring of 1924, when he was just 18. With his already rich knowledge of history and art, he expected to revel in the museums of Rome. What impressed him most, however, was the Church of Rome. He loved the music, the worship, and the faces of the faithful. His understanding of what the church could be was greatly expanded by all that he saw.

On Palm Sunday morning, having attended Mass at St. Peter’s, he wrote in his diary: “The universality of the church was illustrated in a marvelously effective manner. White, black , yellow members of religious orders – everyone was in clerical robes united under the church. It truly seems ideal.” (1)

How he would have enjoyed the white smoke of the Vatican this week! He would have been deeply moved at the joy of the tens of thousands of people jamming the Vatican to await that sign of a new Pope.

And, just as much, he would have appreciated what we are learning of that man, now to be known as Pope Francis, having chosen to take the name of the impoverished St. Francis of Assisi. He has been living in a humble apartment rather than regal church housing, riding public buses and serving frequently among the poor.

Bonhoeffer had “discovered” the poor and homeless when he spent a year in Barcelona at age 22 and then, three years later in New York, came to appreciate the love of Jesus he found in Harlem among the Black churches. These experiences helped shape his compassion for the Jews when Hitler came to power and unleashed the widespread German hatred of them.

Years later, in December of 1942, he reflected back on the Nazi years and wrote, “It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reveled, in short from the perspective of the suffering.” (2)

Clearly Dietrich would have recognized in Francis a brother in the faith who is able to see life “from the perspective of the outcasts.”

It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis can resist the corrosive effects of the great power of his position and the great wealth and pomp with which he will now be surrounded. The Roman Church has a long history of transforming humble situations into glorious circumstances. St. Francis himself, for example, is honored in the Church by a huge and spectacular basilica in Assisi, a building which likely would have disgusted him.

Dietrich saw that one of the great weakness of the church in Germany was that the leaders, Catholic and Lutheran alike, tended to enjoy privilege and status more than servanthood. He hoped that a purified church would emerge from the horrors of Hitler and the War. As Eberhard Bethge points out, however, Bonhoeffer’s hope was not fulfilled. He writes, “When a church was rebuilt after the war in Berlin – in Moabit, which is a kind of Harlem in Berlin – Bishop Dibelius came to the dedication in a Mercedes, but the famous mayor Reuter of Berlin came in a Volkswagen. And the people in Moabit noticed that at once.” (3)

May Pope Francis be protected from temptation and distraction and be elevated not to pomp and merely human glory but deepened in his spirit of serving the poor and oppressed.

(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, vol. 9, p. 88.
(2) “After Ten Years,” DBWE 8:52.
(3) Eberhard Bethge, “Prayer and Righteous Action,” p. 22.

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