Thursday, 22 October 2009

Writers and Spirituality (1): Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer ... links spirituality and discipleship through his ideas of discipleship as a life for others

Patrick Comerford

On Tuesday morning in chapel, one of the hymns we sang was Father, Lord of all creation (Church Hymnal, 318) by Bishop Stewart Cross (1928-1989), a former student at Trinity College Dublin.

In second verse, he draws on images that were popular at the time the hymn was written in 1964 – images that Bishop John Robinson had drawn from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, such as Jesus Christ the man for others:

Jesus Christ, the Man for Others
we, your people, make our prayer
give us grace to love as sisters
all whose burdens we can share.
Where your name binds us together
you, Lord Christ, will surely be;
where no selfishness can sever
there your love may others see.


For Bonhoeffer, Christ is the man for others, and “Christ takes hold of a man at the centre of his life.”

Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was as a pastor and theologian of great intellect and spirituality, who lived as he preached. He was known for his involvement in and commitment to the early ecumenical movement, but is remembered most of all for his resistance to the Nazis. This led to his imprisonment and his eventual martyrdom in 1945.

The way in which he lived out his life of discipleship, to the point of suffering and martyrdom, has great influenced and inspired Christians across broad denomination affiliations and ideologies, including people such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu amd Martin Luther King.

Most studies of Bonhoeffer tend to emphasise his life and death. But his theology and his spiritual writings have been very influential too, even though the interpretations of his thinking are often based on speculations and projections.

Because his theology is often unsystematic and fragmentary because of his early death at the age of 39, it has subject to diverse and often contradictory interpretations. For example, his Christo-centric approach appeals to conservatives, while his commitment to social justice appeals to liberals.

But central to Bonhoeffer’s theology is Christ, in whom God and the world are reconciled. For Bonhoeffer, God is a suffering God, whose manifestation is found in this-worldliness.

For Bonhoeffer, the Incarnation means we can no longer speak of God and the world “in terms of two spheres.”

He stressed personal and collective piety and revived the idea of the imitation of Christ. He argued that Christians should not retreat from the world, but that we have a duty to act within it.

He believed that two elements were constitutive of faith: the implementation of justice and the acceptance of divine suffering.

He insisted that the Church, like Christians, “had to share in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world” if the Church is to be a true church of Christ.

In his prison letters, Bonhoeffer raises tantalising questions about the role of Christianity and the Church in a “world come of age,” where people no longer need a metaphysical God as a stop-gap to human limitations.

He spoke about the emergence of a “religionless Christianity,” where God would be unclouded from the metaphysical constructions of the last 1,900 years.

Bonhoeffer was influenced by Karl Barth’s distinction between faith and religion, and had a critical view of the phenomenon of religion, asserting that revelation abolished religion – which he called the “garment” of faith.

Bonhoeffer was strongly critical of the Church for its failure to deal with the evils of racism. For as long as he was able, he circulated letters aimed at maintaining the spiritual life of his former students during the Church’s struggle against Nazism and during World War II.

During his two years in prison, he continued writing and those letters have had a profound influence since then on theology in Europe, America and the Third World.

Bonhoeffer’s teaching on prayer, the religious life, the role of the Christian and the Christian community in the world are bound up with his theological understanding of Christ and of the Church. In this teaching, Bonhoeffer tried to work out a range of ethical attitudes to replace the “ethics” of earlier times.

In his lectures on Christology (English ed, 1966), he defined his view of the place of Christ in the Christian experience. These lectures dealt with Christ as the centre of human experience, by whom alone that experience can be understood; the centre of human history, by whom alone that history can be interpreted; and the centre of nature, whose meaning is found in Christ alone.

These lectures also dealt with the real presence of Christ in the word, the sacrament and the community.

The Cost of Discipleship (English ed, 1948), which is Bonhoeffer’s best-known book, begins: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.” That was a sharp warning to his own church, the Confessing Church, which was engaged in bitter conflict with the state church.

The book, first published in 1937 as Nachfolge (Discipleship), is a classic exposition of what it means to follow Christ in a modern world beset by a dangerous, oppressive and criminal government. At its centre stands his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, with Christ’s challenge to his followers, and Bonhoeffer's thoughts on how the life of discipleship is to be continued in all ages.

He presents the Sermon on the Mount not as an idealised picture of what perfect Christians might one day become but as the charter of the Christian life to be lived here and now.

As the basis of that Charter, he takes the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 3-10) as the description of disciples of Christ:

They are the poor … They have no security, no possessions to call their own, not even a foot of earth to call their home, no earthly society to claim their absolute allegiance. Nay, more , more, they have no spiritual power, experience or knowledge to afford them consolation or security. For his sake they have lost all. In following him, they lost even their own selves, and everything that could make them rich. Now they are poor – so inexperienced, so stupid, that they have no other hope but him that called the. (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 97.)

Life Together (English ed, 1954) was written in 1937 with the forced closure of the Confessing Church’s seminary at Finkenwalde. This book contains Bonhoeffer’s thoughts about the nature of Christian community based on the common life that he and his ordinands experienced at the seminary.

He describes the privileges of community life, not as the wish dream of an ideal, but as a divine reality. Christ is present in such a community by the love its members share for one another.

He advocates a disciplined and regular reading of the Bible as a means of holding the community together. In this Bonhoeffer was strongly influenced by his experiences of the Anglican religious communities in Kelham (Society of the Sacred Mission) and Mirfield (Community of the Reurrection), where the disciplined use of the Psalms in worship made a lasting impression on him.

He challenged his fellow Lutherans by suggesting the formation of monastic-like communities and by suggesting confession before Holy Communion, saying that after confessing to one another and receiving forgiveness, the “day of the Lord’s Supper is an occasion of joy for the Christian community.”

His Prayerbook of the Bible is a classic of Christian spirituality. In this theological interpretation of the Psalms, Bonhoeffer describes the moods of a person’s relationship with God and also the turns of love and heartbreak, of joy and sorrow, that are themselves the Christian community’s path to God.

Before his arrest, Bonhoeffer reflected on his efforts to resist Hitler’s reign of terror. His Letters and Papers from Prison (English ed 1953/1971) were written during his two years in prison. It is in these that we find the germs of many of Bonhoeffer’s ideas, including “religion-less Christianity,” “man come of age,” and “secular holiness.” He argues for the autonomy of humanity which in its maturity must learn to “live in the world as though there were no God”:

Anxious souls will ask what room there is now left for God … And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi dues non daretur. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! … God would have us know that we live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15: 34). 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. God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us … Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.

Human maturity brings with it the need to learn to be human and to be responsible, not to be dependent on being rescued by God from the consequences of our own mistakes.

Bonhoeffer taught that God needs humanity as the instrument for accomplishing his renewal of the world.

And he asks whether he and his friends failed in the face of evil in the world?

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by man storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness? – (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, London: SCM Press, pp 16-17.)

The agony of those last days in prison brought inward turmoil for Bonhoeffer. He heard the footsteps of his fiancée dying away with no prospect of seeing her again; he caught the sadness of Moses watching his people entering the Promised Land without him – an experience shared 20 or 25 years later by Martin Luther King. He questioned his own identity.

But all this resulted in memorable poetry and prayer. He described how this inner conflict tore him apart in a poem that reaches its climax in a prayer of affirmation and belief:

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.


(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, London: SCM Press, p 348.)

Closing Prayer:

With every power for good to stay and guide us,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
We’ll live these days with you in thought beside us,
and pass with you into the coming year.

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening;
the long days of our sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that which we’ve learnt from sorrow shall increase us,
and all our life be dedicate as thine
.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, December 1944, Letters and Papers from Prison, London: SCM Press, p 400.)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar in the course ‘Spirituality for Today (TH 3029) with Year III B.Th. students on Thursday 22 October 2009.