30 January 2006

Rite and Reason:

One hundred years after the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Patrick Comerford looks at the significance of a theologian killed by the Nazis

He died at 39, yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the most influential theologians of the last century. He is one of the founding figures of the modern ecumenical movement and is widely accepted as a modern saint and martyr.

Bonhoeffer was born on February 4th, 1906 in Breslau, Germany – now Wroclaw in Poland – but moved to Berlin when he was six and his father became professor of psychiatry at the university. In this comfortable, upper-middle-class and non-church-going family, it was assumed young Dietrich would study medicine, science or law, and it came as a surprise to his family when he decided at the age of 14 that he was going to study theology.

As a student in Tubingen, Rome and Berlin, he was particularly influenced by Adolf von Harnack and Karl Barth. He received his doctorate in 1927, and after a short chaplaincy in Barcelona presented his qualifying thesis to teach at the University of Berlin. During a post-doctoral year in New York, he regularly visited black churches in Harlem, and travelled to Cuba and Mexico, and his early travels to Rome, North Africa, the US and Cuba opened Bonhoeffer to the ecumenical movement.

Bonhoeffer continued to teach theology in Berlin until 1933. In a radio address two days after Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer warned against the idolatry of the “F├╝hrer” principle. He helped organise the Pastors’ Emergency League, but moved to England that year, becoming pastor of two German congregations in London. In England, he formed a close friendship with the influential Anglican bishop, George Bell.

In the Barmen Declaration in 1934, Germany’s most influential theologians declared that the church must not be allowed to become an instrument of Nazi ideology, and rejected “the false doctrine that the church should acknowledge, as the source of its message over and above God’s word, any other events, powers, figures and truths as divine revelation”. The Confessing Church was formed by Bonhoeffer’s friends, including Barth and Martin Niemoeller, and in 1935 Bonhoeffer returned to assume the leadership of the Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde.

His licence to teach was soon withdrawn and Bonhoeffer was dismissed from the university and banned from Berlin. However, at Finkenwalde he produced his two best-known books, The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer argued that cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church, and the sacraments and forgiveness are thrown away at cut prices. Grace was offered without cost, while costly grace calls us to follow Jesus Christ.

When synagogues throughout Germany were set on fire in 1938, Bonhoeffer’s response to a frightened church was: “Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.” He marked the date in his Bible and later wrote: “The church was silent when she should have cried out.”

Bonhoeffer left for a post at Yale in 1939, but he soon realised his mistake and returned home within three weeks. He joined a secret group of high-ranking military officers based in the Abwehr or military intelligence plotting to kill Hitler and to overthrow the Nazis, travelling to Switzerland, Norway and Sweden, meeting Bishop George Bell and other contacts on behalf of the resistance. Bell reported back to Anthony Eden and Stafford Cripps on the plot to assassinate Hitler. But there was no response from Churchill, and Britain's subsequent policy of “unconditional surrender” left the German opposition without hope. Bell publicly criticised the policy of obliteration bombing of German cities such as Dresden, and his condemnation undoubtedly cost him the see of Canterbury after Archbishop William Temple’s death. During that period, Bonhoeffer was working on his book Ethics.

His efforts to help a group of Jews escape to Switzerland led to his arrest in 1943. In prison, he worked on his Letters and Papers from Prison, and wrote: “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed, who Christ really is, for us today … We are moving to a completely religionless time … if therefore man becomes radically religionless … what does that mean for Christianity? How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?” An unsuccessful plot in 1944 exposed Bonhoeffer’s links with the resistance, and he was hanged at Flossenburg at dawn on April 9th, 1945. An oft-quoted line from The Cost of Discipleship foreshadowed his death: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

His last recorded words as he was led to the scaffold were a message for George Bell: “Tell him that for me this is the end, but also the beginning.” Bonhoeffer’s role in the Confessing Church and his participation in the resistance make his works – particularly his Ethics – a unique source for understanding the interaction of religion, politics, and culture among those Christians who actively opposed Nazism. Letters and Papers from Prison is concerned with the growing secularisation of humanity and the need to speak about God in a secular way. This book gives a glimpse of what Bonhoeffer called a “religionless Christianity”. He argued that it was necessary to speak in a secular way about God, and he interpreted the person of Jesus as “the man for others”.

There are different interpretations of what Bonhoeffer meant by “religionless Christianity” and theologians continue to struggle with constructing a theology for what Bonhoeffer called “a world come of age”. Bonhoeffer’s biographer, John de Gruchy, believes that had he lived longer Bonhoeffer might have dominated the theological scene in the second half of the 20th century. “As it was, he became a paradigmatic martyr-theologian for the 20th century.”

“Bonhoeffer is one of the great examples of moral courage in the face of conflict,” says Martin Doblmeier, director of Bonhoeffer, a new documentary film. “Many of the issues Bonhoeffer faced – the role of the church in the modern world, national loyalty and personal conscience, what the call to being a ‘peacemaker’ really means – are issues we continue to struggle with today.”

The Rev Patrick Comerford is a Church of Ireland priest and southern regional co-ordinator of the Church Mission Society Ireland

This feature was first published as the ‘Rite and Reason’ column in the ‘The Irish Times’ on Monday 30 January 2006

No comments: