Archive for the ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’ Category


Death Is The Mother Of Beauty – Christian Wiman

September 17, 2013
God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’ve always been struck — haunted, really — by Wallace Stevens’ phrase, in his great poem “Sunday Morning,” “Death is the mother of beauty.” [See yesterday's post, link above.] Like that Robert Bringhurst poem I quoted in a previous post, Stevens’ line was practically tattooed on my brain for years; it was a kind of credo by which I lived. Or, as “Postolka” makes clear, almost lived.

It’s the old carpe diem cry, Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, etc. etc. Except that Stevens, unlike Horace and Herrick, isn’t encouraging haste and excess in the face of time slipping from one’s grasp. “Sunday Morning,” right from its famous first lines, is all about slowness and deliberation, about savoring experience:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug, mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

No, Stevens believed that a concentration on death concentrates life, that we cannot see life clearly except through the lens of death, but that once we have seen it with such clarity, we can savor it. This is what I believed, and how I tried to live — until one day I found myself looking through the actual lens of death.

The view, it turned out, was quite different. From the moment I learned I had cancer — on my thirty-ninth birthday, from a curt voice mail message — not only was the world not intensified, it was palpably attenuated. I can still feel how far away everything — the people walking on the street beyond the window, the books on the shelf, my wife smiling up at me in the moment before I told her — suddenly seemed. And long after the initial shock, I felt a maddening, muffled quality to the world around me — which, paradoxically, went hand in hand with the most acute, interior sensations of pain.

It seemed as if the numbness was not mine, but the world’s, as if some energy had drained out of things. At some point I realized that for all my literary talk of the piquancy and poignancy that mortality imparts to immediate experience, part of my enjoyment of life had always been an unconscious assumption of its continuity.

Not necessarily a continuity of reality itself — the moment does pass, of course — but a continuity in memory at least, and a future that the act of memory implies (there must be somewhere from which to remember). Life is short, we say, in one way or another, but in truth, because we cannot imagine our own death until it is thrust upon us, we live in a land where only other people die.

“Death is the mother of beauty” is a phrase that could only have been written by a man for whom death was an abstraction, a vaguely pleasant abstraction at that. Remove futurity from experience and you leach meaning from it just as surely as if you cut out a man’s past. “Memory is the basis of individual personality,” Miguel de Unamuno writes, “just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.”

In other words, we need both the past and the future to make our actions and emotions and sensations mean anything in the present.

Strictly speaking, though, the past and the future do not exist. They are both, to a greater or lesser degree, creations of the imagination. Anyone who tells you that you can live only in time, then, is not quite speaking the truth, since if we do not live out of time imaginatively, we cannot live in it actually. And if we can live out of time in our daily lives — indeed, if apprehending and inhabiting our daily lives demands that we in some imaginative sense live out of time — then is it a stretch to imagine the fruition of existence as being altogether outside of time?


From A Window

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,

I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically

as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close

to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit

that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind

haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision

over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

I wrote this poem a few months after getting my diagnosis. Nothing was planned or deliberate about it. I didn’t have the realization that an experience of reality can open into an experience of divinity and then go write a poem to illustrate my feelings. No, it was quite the reverse: I wrote the poem one day out of anguish, emptiness, grief — and it exploded into joy. I sought refuge in the half-conscious play of language and was rescued by a weave of meaning I never meant to make.

The poem taught me something, and one of the things it taught me was that if you do not “think” of God, in whatever way you find to do that, if God has no relation to your experience, if God is not in your experience, then experience is always an end in itself, and always, I think, a dead end.

Not only does experience open into nothing else, but that ulterior awareness, that spirit-cleansing whiff of the ultimate, never comes into the concrete details of existence either. You can certainly enjoy life like this; you can have a hell of a time. But I would argue that life remains merely something to be enjoyed, and that not only its true nature but also something within your true nature remains inert, unavailable, mute.


“From a Window” was one of a handful of poems I wrote after my diagnosis that gave me some sense of purchase and promise: the terrible vagueness of things was dispelled for a moment and I could see where I was standing, and could feel a way forward. (Feel a way forward: if someone had asked me at the time if I believed in an afterlife, I would have said no.

Yet my poems kept conjuring their eccentric heavens, kept prodding me toward new ways of understanding that verb “believe.”) It was puzzling, then, and troubling, to find myself as time went on writing poems that seemed to give up the gains I had made, seemed not simply devoid of divinity, but to relish that fact:

It is good to sit even a rotting body
in sunlight uncompromised
by God, or lack of God,

to see the bee beyond
all the plundered flowers
air-stagger toward you

and like a delicate helicopter
hover above your knee
until it finds you to be

not sweet but at least
not flinching, its hair-legs
on the hair of your leg

a coolness through you
like a soul of nerve.

Not only is there no God in this poem, the very possibility is pushed roughly to the side. And yet I felt some saving otherness everywhere in me and around me when I wrote it. There is no possibility of heaven in this poem; indeed there is an implicit contempt for the notion. And yet I felt — during that brief marriage of word and world that poetry is — projected into dimensions of existence I could never have imagined before writing the poem, or could only have imagined but never felt.

Can there be such a thing as an anti-devotional devotional poem? Hopkins and Herbert both thought that God circumscribed imagination, that faith required drawing certain lines inside of their own minds that they dared not cross, or if they crossed (for they certainly did), then they whipped themselves for it afterward. I understand the dilemma but disagree with the solution. If faith requires you to foreclose on an inspiration, surely it is not faith.


The question of exactly which art is seeking God, and seeking to be in the service of God, is more complicated than it might seem. There is something in all original art that will not be made subject to God, if we mean by being made “subject to God” a kind of voluntary censorship or willed refusal of the mind’s spontaneous and sometimes disturbing intrusions into, and extensions of, reality.

But that is not how that phrase ought to be understood. In fact we come closer to the truth of the artist’s relation to divinity if we think not of being made subject to God, but of being subjected to God — our individual subjectivity being lost and rediscovered within the reality of God. Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.

It follows that any notion of God that is static is — since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge — blasphemous. “God’s truth is life,” as Patrick Kavanagh says, “even the grotesque shapes of its foulest fire.” One part of that truth, for even the most devout among us, is the void of godlessness — and sometimes, mysteriously, the joy of that void.


The same impulse that leads me to sing of God leads me to sing of godlessness.

God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The gods are back, companions. Right now they have just entered this life; but the words that revoke them, whispered underneath the words that reveal them, have also appeared that we might suffer together.
René Char

Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.


Notes On Ambition And Dietrich Bonhoeffer — Christian Wiman

September 13, 2013
Life is always a question of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus. Contemporary despair is to feel the multiplicity of existence with no possibility for expression or release of one's particular being. I fear sometimes that we are evolving in such a way that the possibilities for these small but intense points of intimacy and expression -- poetry, for instance -- are not simply vanishing but are becoming no longer felt as necessary pressures.

Life is always a question of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus. Contemporary despair is to feel the multiplicity of existence with no possibility for expression or release of one’s particular being. I fear sometimes that we are evolving in such a way that the possibilities for these small but intense points of intimacy and expression — poetry, for instance — are not simply vanishing but are becoming no longer felt as necessary pressures.

I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself. But now? If a poet’s ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world.

No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self — except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity, realizes itself. That is noble ambition. But all that comes after — the need for approval, publication, self-promotion — isn’t this what usually goes under the name of “ambition”?

The effort is to make ourselves more real to ourselves, to feel that we have selves, though the deepest moments of creation tell us that, in some fundamental way, we don’t. (Souls are what those moments reveal, which are both inside and outside, both us and other.) So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.


Still, there is something that any artist is in pursuit of, and is answerable to, some nexus of one’s being, one’s material, and Being itself. Inspiration is when these three things collide — or collude. The work that emerges from this crisis of consciousness may be judged a failure or a success by the world, and that judgment will still sting or flatter your vanity. But it cannot speak to this crisis in which, for which, and of which the work was made. For any artist alert to his own soul, this crisis is the only call that matters. I know no name for it besides God, but people have other names, or no names.


This truth places the artist under the most severe pressure: if that original call, that crisis of consciousness, either has not been truly heard or has not been answered with everything that is in you, then even the loudest clamors of approval will be tainted and the wounds of rejection salted with your implacable self-knowledge. An artist who loses this internal arbiter is an artist who can no longer hear the call that first came to him.


These days I am impatient with poetry that is not steeped in, marred and transfigured by, the world. By that I don’t necessarily mean poetry that has some obvious social concern or is meticulous with its descriptions, but a poetry in which you can feel that the imagination of the poet has been both charged and chastened by a full encounter with the world and other lives. A poet like Robert Lowell, who had such a tremendous imagination for language but so little for other people, means less and less to me as the years pass. On the other hand, a poet like Gwendolyn Brooks, with her saturation of rough, real Bronzeville, or Lorine Niedecker, with her “full foamy folk” of eastern Wisconsin

I worked the print shop
right down among em
the folk from whom all poetry flows
and dreadfully much else

these poets seem to be throwing me lifelines from their graves.


The Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a radiant moral presence amid the murderous twentieth century, was safe in the United States when Hitler’s intentions began to be made clear. He could have stayed here, could have assumed a prestigious post at Union Theological Seminary and spent his life as a comfortable and influential public intellectual. But the decision was not all that difficult for him:  he went back to a disintegrating and dangerous Germany because, as he said, if he did not suffer his country’s destruction, he could not credibly participate in its restoration. He went back because, as he had written earlier, “Only the obedient believe. If we are to believe, we must obey a concrete command.”

For all the modern talk about keeping an author’s work and life separate, all the schoolroom injunctions against mistaking art for autobiography, there are some works that life electrifies with meaning, some sayings only action authenticates. The charge is not always a positive one: Sylvia Plath’s late poems are so disturbing and powerful precisely because she committed the awful act around which they danced.

The act is not always a willful one: the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, after a long forced march with hundreds of other doomed men, was killed by the Nazis and dumped into a mass grave in 1944. After the war, when his body was exhumed and identified, his wife discovered in his coat pocket a small notebook filled with poems he had written during his last days. Prophetic, apocalyptic, and yet brutally specific, the poems are at once unflinching and uncanny. “The reader approaches these with a certain veneration,” writes the poet and translator George Szirtes, “as though they were more than poems. Slowly, everything assumes a mythic shape and the life embraces the oeuvre so comprehensively that the one disappears in the other.”

Bonhoeffer was a theologian, not an artist (though he did have a gift for the kind of encompassing compression and lucid paradox that are hallmarks of poetry), but the effect is the same:

The important thing today is that we should be able to discern from the fragment of our life how the whole was arranged and planned, and what material it consists of.

For acquired knowledge cannot be divorced from the existence in which it is acquired. The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ.

Every real action is of such a kind that no one other than oneself can do it.

It hardly matters whether or not one “agrees” with any of this. The words have an authenticity and authority beyond mere intellectual assertion: they burn with the brave and uncompromising life — and death — that lie behind them.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945.


Bonhoeffer, after, after being in prison for a year, still another hard year away from his execution, forging long letters to his friend Eberhard Berge out of his strong faith, his anxiety, his longing for his fiancee, and terror over the nightly bombings: “There are things more important than self-knowledge.” Yes. An artist who believes this is an artist of faith, even if the faith contains no god.


I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.”
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Reading Bonhoeffer makes me realize again how small our points of contact with life can be, perhaps even necessarily are, when our truest self finds its emotional and intellectual expression. With all that is going on around Bonhoeffer, and with all the people in his life (he wrote letters to many other people and had close relationships with other prisoners), it is only in the letters to Bethge that his thought really sparks and finds focus.

Life is always a question of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus. Contemporary despair is to feel the multiplicity of existence with no possibility for expression or release of one’s particular being. I fear sometimes that we are evolving in such a way that the possibilities for these small but intense points of intimacy and expression — poetry, for instance — are not simply vanishing but are becoming no longer felt as necessary pressures.


Early Bonhoeffer

December 15, 2010

These are reading selections from Bonhoeffer’s youth and years at Berlin University where he studied theology with some of the leading lights in that field at the time. He shows a remarkable precociousness, if not early genius. All reading selections from Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. If you wish to read more about him online, here is another resource:

”In Hitler’s Germany, a Lutheran pastor chooses resistance and pays with his life. . . Eric Metaxas tells Bonhoeffer’s story with passion and theological sophistication, often challenging revisionist accounts that make Bonhoeffer out to be a ‘humanist’ or ethicist for whom religious doctrine was easily disposable. . . Metaxas reminds us that there are forms of religion — respectable, domesticated, timid — that may end up doing the devil’s work for him. — a review from the Wall Street Journal

Berlin University
Bonhoeffer’s principal reason for choosing Berlin University was its theological faculty, which was world-renowned and had included the famous Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose presence still hovered palpably.

In 1924 the theological faculty was headed by Adolf von Harnack, then seventy-three and a living legend. He was a disciple of Schleiermacher, which is to say staunchly theologically liberal, and one of the leaders of the historical-critical method of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His approach to the Bible was limited to textual and historical-critical analysis, and had led him to conclude that the miracles it described never happened, and that the gospel of John was not canonical.

Harnack lived in the Grunewald neighborhood, as did most distinguished academics then, and the young Bonhoeffer would often walk with him to the Halensee train station and ride with him into Berlin. He attended Harnack’s prestigious seminar for three semesters and esteemed the venerable scholar greatly, though he rarely agreed with his theological conclusions. A fellow student in Harnack’s seminar, Helmuth Goes, recalled feeling a “secret enthusiasm” for Bonhoeffer’s “free, critical and independent” theological thinking:

What really impressed me was not just the fact that he surpassed almost all of us in theological knowledge and capacity; but what passionately attracted me to Bonhoeffer was the perception that here was a man who did not only learn and gather in the verba and scripta of some master, but one who thought independently and already knew what he wanted and wanted what he knew. I had the experience (for me it was something alarming and magnificently new!) of hearing a young fair-haired student contradict the revered historian, his Excellency von Harnack, contradict him politely but clearly on positive theological grounds. Harnack answered, but the student contradicted again and again.

Bonhoeffer was a remarkably independent thinker, especially for one so young. Some professors regarded him as arrogant, especially because he refused to come too directly under the influence of any one of them, always preferring to maintain some distance. But someone who grew up dining with Karl Bonhoeffer, and who was allowed to speak only when he could justify every syllable, had probably developed a certain intellectual confidence and may be somewhat excused if he was not intimidated by other great minds.

Besides Harnack, three other Berlin professors had a decided influence on Bonhoeffer. They were Karl Holl, who was perhaps the greatest Luther scholar of that generation; Reinhold Seeberg, who specialized in systematic theology, and under whom Bonhoeffer wrote his doctoral thesis; and Adolf Deissman, who was Bonhoeffer’s introduction to the ecumenical movement, which would play such an important role in his life and provide the means by which he became involved in the conspiracy against Hitler. But there was another theologian who had a greater influence on Bonhoeffer than any of these, and whom he would revere and respect as much as anyone in his lifetime, who would even become a mentor and a friend. This was Karl Barth of Gottingen.

Barth was Swiss by birth and was almost certainly the most important theologian of the century; many would say of the last five centuries. Bonhoeffer’s cousin Hans-Christoph was studying physics at Gottingen in 1924, but after hearing Barth, he promptly switched to theology and stayed there. Like most theological students in the late nineteenth century, Barth absorbed the regnant liberal theology of his time, but he grew to reject it, quickly becoming its most formidable opponent. His groundbreaking 1922 commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, fell like a smart bomb into the ivory tower of scholars like Adolf von Harnack, who could hardly believe their historical-critical fortress pregnable, and who were scandalized by Barth’s approach to the Bible, which came to be called neo-orthodoxy, and which asserted the idea, particularly controversial in German theological circles,that God actually exists, and that all theology and biblical scholarship must be undergirded by this basic assumption, and that’s that.

Barth was the principal figure in challenging and overturning the influence of the German historical-critical approach pioneered at Berlin University by Schleiermacher — and furthered there by the current eminence grise Harnack. Barth stressed the transcendence of God, describing him as “wholly other,” and therefore completely unknowable by man, except via revelation. Fortunately he believed in revelation which was further scandalous to theological liberals like Harnack. For refusing to swear his allegiance to Hitler, Barth would be kicked out of Germany in 1934, and he would become the principal author of the Barmen Declaration, in which the Confessing Church trumpeted its rejection of the Nazis’ attempts to bring their philosophy into the German church.

Harnack’s theology was something like Archilochus’s proverbial fox, knowing many little things, while Barth’s theology was like a hedgehog, knowing one big thing. Bonhoeffer would side with the hedgehog, but he was in the fox’s seminar and through his family and the Grunewald community, he had many ties with the fox. As a result of his intellectual openness, Bonhoeffer learned how to think like a fox and respect the way foxes thought, even though he was in the camp of the hedgehogs. He could appreciate the value in something, even if he ultimately rejected that something — and could see the errors and flaws in something, even if he ultimately Accepted that something. This attitude figured into his creation of the illegal seminaries of Zingst and Finkenwalde, which incorporated the best of both Protestant and Catholic traditions. Because of this self-critical intellectual Integrity, Bonhoeffer sometimes had such confidence in his conclusions that he could seem arrogant.

The debate during Bonhoeffer’s time between the neo-orthodox Barthians And the historical-critical liberals was similar to the contemporary one between strict Darwinian evolutionists and advocates of so-called Intelligent Design. The latter allow the possible involvement of something “outside the system” — some Intelligent Creator, whether divine or other — while the former reject this by definition. Theological liberals like Harnack felt it was ‘unscientific” to speculate on who God was; the theologian must simply study what is here, which is to say the texts and the history of those texts. But the Barthians said no: the God on the other side of the fence had revealed himself through these texts, and the only reason for these texts was to know him.

Bonhoeffer agreed with Barth, seeing the texts as “not just historical sources, but [as] agents of revelation,” not merely “specimens of writing, but sacred canon.” Bonhoeffer was not against doing historical and critical work on biblical texts, indeed he had learned from Harnack how to do it and could do it brilliantly. Harnack powerfully flattered the eighteen-year-old when, after reading the fifty-seven –page essay Bonhoeffer wrote for his seminar, he suggested Bonhoeffer might someday do his dissertation in the field. Harnack obviously hoped to convince him to follow in his footsteps by choosing the field of church history.

As ever, Bonhoeffer cagily maintained a certain distance. He wished to learn from the old master, but would preserve his intellectual independence. In the end he would not choose church history. He respected that field, as he demonstrated by mastering it, to Harnack’s delight, but he disagreed with Harnack that one must stop there. He believed that picking over the texts as they did, and going no further, left behind “rubble and fragments.” It was the God beyond the texts, the God who was their author and who spoke to mankind through them, that fired his interest.

For his doctoral dissertation Bonhoeffer was drawn to dogmatics, the study of the beliefs of the church. Dogmatics was closer to philosophy, and Bonhoeffer was at heart more philosopher than textual critic. He didn’t want to disappoint his friendly old neighbor, Harnack, who continued to woo him, but now Bonhoeffer had another eminent professor to deal with. Reinhold Seeberg’s field was dogmatics, so it seemed Bonhoeffer might write his dissertation under him. This presented not one, but two difficulties. First, Seeberg was a bitter rival of Harnack, and the two of them were competing for the theological affections of the same young theological genius. And second, Seeberg was deeply opposed to Barthian theology.

In his essay for Seeberg’s seminar, Bonhoeffer expressed the Barthian idea that in order to know anything at all about God, one had to rely on revelation from God. In other words, God could speak into this world, but man could not reach out of this world to examine God. It was a one-way street, and of course this was directly related to the especially Lutheran doctrine of grace. Man could not earn his way up to heaven, but God could reach down and graciously lift man toward him.

Seeberg disagreed, and after reading Bonhoeffer’s essay, he became agitated: it was as though a cocky Barthian rooster had sneaked into his chicken coop. He thought he might talk sense into the brash young genius’s head by appealing to a higher authority, and that summer, at a meeting of distinguished Berlin academics, he had a conversation with Karl Bonhoeffer. Perhaps this eminent scientist could reach his son. Karl Bonhoeffer was intellectually closer to Seeberg’s views than to his son’s, but his respect for Dietrich’s mind and intellectual integrity was such that he did not try to influence him.

That August, Dietrich was hiking along the Baltic coast. From the house of an [gel brother near Bremen he wrote his father, asking what Seeberg had said and how to proceed. The answer was inconclusive. Then his mother weighed in, suggesting that perhaps he should study under Holl, the Luther expert, and write his dissertation on dogmatics after Seeberg was out of the picture. As the daughter of a respected theologian and the granddaughter of a world-famous one, she likely had more to say on this subject than any mother in Germany. The intellect of both Bonhoeffer parents and their interest in their son's academic progress are remarkable, and we can hardly wonder at his closeness to them. They were an unwavering and unflagging resource of wisdom and love for him to the very end.

By September he made his decision: he would write his doctoral dissertation under Seeberg after all, but it would he on a subject dogmatic and historical. He would write about the subject he had begun puzzling over in Rome, namely, What is the Church? It was eventually titled Sanctorum Communio. A Dogmatic Inquiry into the Sociology of the Church. Bonhocffcr would identify the church as neither a historical entity nor an institution, but as "Christ existing as church-community." It was a stunning debut.

During these three years in Berlin, Bonhoeffer had a staggering workload, yet he completed his doctoral dissertation in eighteen months. But somehow he had a very full life beyond the world of academics too. He was endlessly attending operas, concerts, art exhibitions, and plays; he maintained a copious correspondence with friends, colleagues, and family; and he was perpetually traveling, whether on shorter trips to Friedrichsbrunn or on longer trips to the Baltic seashore.

Making Up His Mind
In his diary in early 1928, Bonhoeffer wrote but how he decided to go to Barcelona. It provides an early window into his decision-making process and into the self-consciousness he brought to it:

“I myself find the way such a decision comes about to be problematic. One thing is clear to me, however, that one personally -- that is, consciously -- has very little control over the ultimate yes or no, but rather that time decides everything. Maybe not with everybody, but in any event with me. Recently I have noticed again and again that all the decisions I had to make were not really my own decisions. Whenever there was a dilemma, I just left it in abeyance and -- without really consciously dealing with it intensively -- let it grow toward the clarity of a decision. But this clarity is not so much intellectual as it is instinctive. The decision is made; whether one can adequately justify it retrospectively is another question. "Thus" it happened that I went.”

Bonhoeffer was always thinking about thinking. He meant to see things through to the bottom, to bring as much clarity as possible. The influence of his father, the scientist, is unmistakable. But the difference between his thinking now and in the future was that now, despite his being a theologian and pastor, he didn't mention God's role in the process or God's will. Still, what he said here in his diary curiously and clearly presaged the famously difficult decision he would make in 1939, trying to determine whether he should remain safely in America or sail back to the terrible Terra Incognita of his homeland. In both cases, he sensed that there was a right decision, but that ultimately it wasn't his. Later on he would say it explicitly: that he had been "grasped" by God; that God was leading him, and sometimes where he preferred not to go.

Meeting People
“Every day I am getting to know people, at any rate their circumstances, and sometimes one is able to see through their stories into themselves -- and at the same time one thing continues to impress me: here I meet people as they are, far from the masquerade of "the Christian world"; people with passions, criminal types, small people with small aims, small wages and small sins -- all in all they are people who feel homeless in both senses, and who begin to thaw when one speaks to them with kindness -- real people; I can only say that I have gained the impression that it is just these people who are much more under grace than under wrath, and that it is the Christian world which is more under wrath than grace.”
Letter to Helmut Rössler

From Three Early Lectures


One admires Christ according to aesthetic categories as an aesthetic genius, calls him the greatest ethicist; one admires his going to his death as a heroic sacrifice for his ideas. Only one thing one doesn't do: one doesn't take him seriously. That is, one doesn't bring the center of his or her own life into contact with the claim of Christ to speak the revelation of God and to be that revelation. One maintains a distance between himself or herself and the word of Christ, and allows no serious encounter to take place. I can doubtless live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as a gentleman -- just as, after all, I can also live without Plato and Kant.... Should, however, there be something in Christ that claims my life entirely with the full seriousness that here God himself speaks and if the word of God once became present only in Christ, then Christ has not only relative but absolute, urgent significance for me.... Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously. Understanding this claim means taking seriously his absolute claim on our commitment. And it is now of importance for us to clarify the seriousness of this matter and to extricate Christ from the secularization process in which he has been incorporated since the Enlightenment.”


“With that we have articulated a basic criticism of the most grandiose of all human attempts to advance toward the divine -- by way of the church. Christianity conceals within itself a germ hostile to the church. It is far too easy for us to base our claims to God on our own Christian religiosity and our church commitment, and in so doing utterly to misunderstand and distort the Christian idea.


“Humanism and mysticism, the seemingly most beautiful blossoms put forth by the Christian religion, extolled today as the highest ideals of the human spirit, indeed often as the crown itself of the Christian idea -- [but] it is precisely the Christian idea itself that must reject them as an apotheosis of the creature and as such as a challenge to the honor belonging to God alone. The deity of humanism, of the idea of God presented by Christianity orients those human wishes to itself rather than the reverse.”

His Graduate Thesis, Act and Being
Bonhoeffer finished. Act and Being that year, submitting it in February 1930. Eberhard Bethge reckoned the following its “classic passage”:

“In revelation it is not so much a question of the freedom of God — eternally remaining with the divine self, aseity (vocab: in metaphysics, the property by which a being exists of and from itself) — on the other side of revelation, as it is of God’s coming out of God’s own self in revelation. It is a matter of God’s given Word, the covenant in which God is bound by God’s own action. It is a question of the freedom of God, which finds its strongest evidence precisely in that God freely chose to be bound to historical human beings and to be placed at the disposal of human beings. God is free not from human beings but for them. Christ is the word of God’s freedom. God is present, that is, not in eternal non-objectivity but – to put it quite provisionally for now – “haveable,” graspable in the Word within the church. Here the formal understanding of God’s freedom is countered by a substantial one.”


No One Really Knew What Christianity Was Anymore

December 14, 2010

Martin Luther, 1532

More than anything else, Eric Metaxas in Bonhoeffer Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy relates the decline of Lutherism and the danger of state Churches that merge a cultural or national identity with a Christian faith. I also couldn’t help but read the story in terms with our American century, the decline in my own lifetime of the Church in the Public Square here in the States with the rise of fascism in Germany in between the wars. I kept replaying the questions of “How could this happen?” with “How does this compare with now?” the smothering of the Church and Christian morality by the American secular state.

Catholic orphanages have been closed because they fail to arrange adoptions for gay couples; when will the state step in to close a Catholic parish when it refuses to perform a gay marriage? While those who do not share our faith may firmly believe their unions as truly marital, they fail to understand, that marriage is made possible by the sexual complementarity of man and woman, and that the comprehensive, multi-level sharing of life that marriage is includes bodily unity of the sort that unites husband and wife biologically as a reproductive unit.

This is because the body is no mere extrinsic instrument of the human person as the secular state advocates, but truly part of the personal reality of the human being, what the Church refers to as the Human Person. Human beings are not merely centers of consciousness or emotion, or minds, or spirits, inhabiting non-personal bodies: The human person is a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. (Matthew 22:21) but (asks The Manhattan Declaration) will we render to Caesar what is God’s? That’s the question by the way; it has nothing to do with being “fair” or not recognizing the civil rights of gays and lesbians.

The global baby,  an international network of surrogate mothers and egg and sperm donors that produce children on the cheap and operates beyond the pale of laws and morality, is now a reality. We have our own holocausts but when you use that word the secularists accuse you of being an over reactive ninny.

Just as serious as the Human Child issues, end of life issues also confuse and befuddle believers. The Manhattan Declaration put it this way: “Eugenic notions such as the doctrine of lebensunwertes Leben (“life unworthy of life”) were first advanced in the 1920s by intellectuals in the elite salons of America and Europe. Long buried in ignominy after the horrors of the mid-twentieth century, they have returned from the grave. The only difference is that now the doctrines of the eugenicists are dressed up in the language of “liberty,” “autonomy,” and “choice.”

Is it any wonder when Eric Metaxas writes this lyrical memory of Sabine Bonhoeffer’s that we can close our eyes perhaps and return to a world of faith in the 1950’s when all these problems seemed not to exist or at least were whisked away (“Debby’s having a baby!”) to Puerto Rico by teachers and parents?

“Sometimes in the evenings the Bonhoeffer children played ball games with the village children in the meadow. Inside they played guessing games and sang folk songs. They “watched the mists from the meadows waft and rise along the fir trees,” Sabine, Dietrich’s little sister, noted and they watched dusk fall. When the moon appeared, they sang “Der Mond ist Aufgegangen”:

Der Mond ist aufgegangen,
die goldnen Sternlein prangen
am Himmel hell and klar!
Der Wald steht schwarz and schweigt and aus den Wiesen steiget
der weiBe Nebel wunderbar.

The moon has climbed into the sky,
where golden stars shine bright and clear.
The woods are dark and silent;
and from the meadows like a dream,
the white fog rises in the air.

The worlds of folklore and religion were so mingled in early twentieth century German culture that even families who didn’t go to church were often deeply Christian. This folk song is typical, beginning as a paean to the beauty of the natural world, but soon turning into a meditation on mankind’s need for God and finally into a prayer, asking God to help us “poor and prideful sinners” to see his salvation when we die — and in the meantime here on earth to help us to be “like little children, cheerful and faithful.”

German culture was inescapably Christian. This was a result of the legacy of Martin Luther, the Catholic monk who invented Protestantism. Looming over the German culture and nation like both a father and a mother, Luther was to Germany something like what Moses was to Israel; in his lusty, cranky person were the German nation and the Lutheran faith wonderfully and terribly combined. Luther’s influence cannot be overestimated. His translation of the Bible into German was cataclysmic. Like a medieval Paul Bunyan, Luther in a single blow shattered the edifice of European Catholicism and in the bargain created the modern German language, which in turn effectively created the German people. Christendom was cleft in twain, and out of the earth beside it sprang the Deutsche Volk.

The Luther Bible was to the modern German language what the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible were to the modern English Language. Before Luther’s Bible, there was no unified German language. It existed only in a hodgepodge of dialects. And Germany as a nation was an idea far in the future, a gleam in Luther’s eye.

But when Luther translated the Bible into German, he created a single language in a single book that everyone could read and did read. Indeed, there was nothing else to read. Soon everyone spoke German the way Luther’s translation did. As television has had a homogenizing effect on the accents and dialects of Americans, watering down accents and sanding down sharp twangs, Luther’s Bible created a single German tongue. Suddenly millers from Munchen could communicate with bakers from Bremen. Out of this grew a sense of a common heritage and culture.

But Luther brought Germans to a fuller engagement with their faith through singing too. He wrote many hymns — the most well-known being “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” — and introduced the idea of congregational singing. Before Luther, no one outside the choir sang in church.”

And it is to Luther that Metaxas returns to again and again. And we see how the leader of the great schism of the sixteenth century had really ended (Badly. I never knew any of this.):

Luther and the Jews
“Many Jews in Germany, like Sabine’s husband, Gerhard, and like Franz Hildebrandt, were not merely culturally assimilated Germans, but were baptized Christians too. And many of them, like Franz Hildebrandt, were devout Christians who chose to enter the Christian ministry as their life’s work. But in a few years, as part of their effort to push Jews out of German public’ life, the Nazis would attempt to push them out of the German church too. That these “non-Aryans” had publicly converted to the Christian faith meant nothing, since the lens through which the Nazis saw the world was purely racial. One’s genetic makeup and ancestral bloodline were all that mattered; one’s most deeply held beliefs counted for nothing.

To understand the relationship between Germans, Jews, and Christians, one has to go back again to Martin Luther, the man in whom Germanness and Christianity were effectively united. His authority as the man who defined what it was to be a German Christian was unquestioned and it would be used by the Nazis to deceive many. But when it came to the Jews, Luther’s legacy is confusing, not to say deeply disturbing.

At the very end of his life, after becoming a parody of his former cranky self, Luther said and wrote some things about the Jews that, taken on their own, make him out to be a vicious anti-Semite. The Nazis exploited these last writings to the utmost, as though they represented Luther’s definitive take on the matter, which is impossible, given what he’d said earlier,in life.

In the beginning of his career, Luther’s attitude toward the Jews was exemplary, especially for his day. He was sickened at how Christians had treated Jews. In 1519 he asked why Jews would ever want to become converted to Christianity given the “cruelty and enmity we wreak on them — that in our behavior towards them we less resemble Christians than beasts?”

Four years later in the essay “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” he wrote, “If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian. They have dealt the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property.”

There is no question that Luther believed Jews could convert to the Christian faith and wished they would so — and therefore never thought being a Jew and being a Christian mutually exclusive, as the Nazis did. On the contrary, like the apostle Paul, Luther hoped to give them the inheritance meant for them in the first place, before it meant for Gentiles. Paul declared that Jesus came “for the Jews first.”

But this initial cheeriness and optimism would not last long. For most of his adult life Luther suffered from constipation, hemorrhoids, a cataract in one eye, and a condition of the inner ear called Meniere’s disease, with results in dizziness, fainting spells, and tinnitus. He also suffered mood swings and depression. As his health declined, everything seemed to set him off. When a congregation sang anemically, he called them “tone-deaf sluggards” and stormed out. He attacked King Henry VIII as “effeminate” and blasted his theological opponents as “agents of the devil’ and “whore-mongers.”

His language waxed fouler and fouler. He called the pope “the Anti-Christ” “a brothel-keeper above all brothel-keepers and all lewdness, including which is not to be named.” He blasted the Catholic Church’s regulation marriage and accused the church of being “a merchant selling vulvas, genitals and pudenda.” Expressing his contempt for the devil, he said that he would give him “a fart for a staff.”

He viciously mocked Pope Clement II’s writings: “Such a great horrid flatus did the papal arse let go here! He certainly pressed with great might to let out such a thunderous flatus – it is a wonder that it did not tear his hole and belly apart!” Luther seemed to have had an absolutely torrid love affair with all things scatological. Not only were his linguistic flourishes styled along such lines, but his doctors seem to have followed suit: for one of his ailments, they persuaded him to take a draught of “garlic and horse manure,” and he infamously received an enema — in vain — moments after he had departed this world. So it is in this larger context that one has to take his attitude toward the Jews, which, like everything else in his life, unraveled along with his health.

The troubles started in 1528 when, after a large meal of kosher food, he suffered a shattering attack of diarrhea. He concluded that the Jews had tried to poison him. By that time he was making enemies everywhere. In his last decade, his list of ailments ballooned to include gallstones, kidney stones, arthritis, abscesses on his legs, and uremic poisoning. Now his nastiness would hit its stride. He wrote the vile treatise “Von den Juden und Iren Lügen” (“On the Jews and Their Lies”), and the man who once described the Jews as “God’s chosen people” now called them “a base and whoring people.”

What he wrote during this time would rightly haunt his legacy for centuries and would in four centuries become the justification for such evils as Luther in even his most constipated mood could not have dreamed. To be fair, he was an equal opportunity insulter, the Don Rickles of Wittenberg, attacking everyone with equal fury, including Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and fellow Protestants. As the lights began to dim, he became convinced that the Apocalypse was imminent, and his thoughts toward everyone took on darker and darker tones. The thought of reasoned persuasion went out the window; at one point he called reason “the devil’s whore.”

But the tragicomedy became purest tragedy when, three years before his death, Luther advocated actions against the Jews that included, among other things, setting fire to their synagogues and schools, destroying their houses, confiscating their prayer books, taking their money, and putting them into forced labor. One may only imagine what Luther’s younger self would have thought of such statements. But Goebbels and the other Nazis rejoiced that Luther’s ugliest ravings existed in writing, and they published them and used them with glee, and to great success, giving the imprimatur of this great German Christian to the most un-Christian and – one can only assume – demented ravings. The hundreds of thousands of sane words he had written were of little interest to the men in brown.

It’s noteworthy that Luther’s foulest condemnations of the Jews were never racial, but were stirred because of the Jews’ indifference to his earlier offers to convert them. The Nazis, on the other hand, wished adamantly to prevent Jews from converting. But when one considers how large the figure of Luther loomed over Germany, one can imagine how confusing it all was. The constant repetition of Luther’s ugliest statements served the Nazis’ purposes and convinced most Germans that being a German and being a Christian were a racial inheritance, and that neither was compatible with being Jewish. The Nazis were anti-Christian, but they would pretend to be Christians as long as it served their purposes of getting theologically ignorant Germans on their side against the Jews.

Years later, Eberhard Bethge said that most people, including him and Bonhoeffer, were unaware of the anti-Semitic ravings of Luther. It was only when the arch-anti-Semite propagandist Julius Streicher began to publish and publicize them that they became generally known. It must have been shocking and confusing for devout Lutherans like Bonhoeffer to learn of these writings. But because he was so intimately familiar with all else Luther had written, he most likely dismissed the anti-Semitic writings as the ravings of a madman, unmoored from his own past beliefs.”

The German Christians began to change:

“Christianity had no place in the positive Christianity of the German Christians. Another German Christian declared that the teaching of “sin and grace … was a Jewish attitude inserted into the New Testament” and was simply too negative for Germans at that time:

A people, who, like our own, has a war behind them that they did not want, that they lost, and for which they were declared guilty, cannot bear it, when their sinfulness is constantly pointed out to them in an exaggerated way…. Our people has suffered so much under the lie of war guilt that it is the task and duty of the church and of theology to use Christianity to give courage to our people, and not to pull them down into political humiliation.

How the German Christians justified twisting and bending the traditionally accepted meaning of the Scriptures and the doctrines of the church is complicated. One German Christian leader, Reinhold Krause, said that Martin Luther had left Germans with “a priceless legacy: the completion of the German Reformation in the Third Reich!” If Luther could break away from the Catholic church, it followed that nothing was written in stone. That was the weed in the garden of Protestantism. Even Luther had questioned the canonicity of some books of the Bible, especially the book of James, for what he took as its preaching of “salvation by works.”

And Bonhoeffer’s professor, the liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack, had questioned the canonicity of much of the Old Testament. There’s little question that the liberal theological school of Schleiermacher and Harnack helped push things along in this direction. But the other piece of this puzzle has to do with the confusion that inevitably arises when the Christian faith becomes too closely related to a cultural or national identity.

For many Germans, their national identity had become so melted together with whatever Lutheran Christian faith they had that it was impossible to see either clearly. After four hundred years of taking for granted that all Germans were Lutheran Christians, no one really knew what Christianity was anymore.”

The question in our age is more the relevancy of Christianity to the American Experiment as it disappears from the Public Square.


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