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Wednesday, April 10, 2013  

Theologian and Martyr (1945)

Last fall I was on the bus to Hyde Park, preparing to lead a class discussion on preaching and politics, when I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's last surviving letter to his parents, from February, 1945:

I'm also writing today because of the People's Sacrifice. I would like to ask you to take complete control of my things. I'm told that even a dinner jacket would be accepted; please give mine away; also a 'pepper and salt' suit which is too small for me and a pair of brown shoes; you, mother, now know better than I do what I still have. In short, give away whatever anyone might need, and don't give it another thought. [emphasis original] If you have any doubts about anything, you might perhaps telephone Commissar Sonderegger! The last two years have taught me how little we can get along with... [elipsis original]

In the inactivity of a long imprisonment one has above all a great need to do whatever is possible for the general good within the narrow limits that are imposed. You'll be able to understand that. When one thinks how many people lose everything each day, one really has no claim on possessions of any kind....[elipsis added]

Now for a few more requests: unfortunately there were no books handed in here for me today; Commissar Sonderegger would be willing to accept them every now and then if Maria could bring them. I should be very grateful for them. There were no matches, face-cloths, or towels this time. Excuse my mentioning that; everything else was splendid. Could I please have some tooth-paste and a few coffee beans? Father, could you get me fromt he library Leinhard and Abendstunden eines Einsiedlers by H. Pestalozzi, Sozialpadagogik by P. Natorp, and Plutarch's Lives of Great Men?

I'm getting on all right. Do keep well. Many thanks for everything.

With all my heart, your grateful Dietrich

Please leave some writing paper with the Commissar!

I was most likely rather short on sleep, having tried conscientiously both to do my job as a pastor during Advent and to lead the discussion as the guest practitioner in the Divinity School's worship and homiletics course, so it is perhaps not too surprising that this letter left me hopelessly in tears as the hospital express rolled down Roosevelt Road and onto Lakeshore Drive and again an hour later as I wrapped up my little introduction to the day's readings with this same passage.

Yesterday, April 9th, was the 68th anniversary of Bonhoeffer's execution and hence the day of his commemoration by Lutheran churches (and others) around the world. I am sure there is no theologian of the last one hundred years who has been as influential for me personally, and there are very few who have been more influential for theology and the life of the church generally. His major works are all indispensable in their own ways, partly by being so hard to categorize--Creation and Fall, [The Cost of] Discipleship, Life Together, Ethics (unfinished)--but his Letters and Papers from Prison constitute a testament that is at once revolutionary as theology, significant as history, and profound as literature. In it he raises, fearlessly and beautifully, the questions that, to our own day, haunt a church that in both its Protestant and Catholic manifestations is still too obsessed with a fruitless search for moral and philosophical foundations and too timid in facing the history through which it has lived.

Bonhoeffer inspired succeeding generations of badly declined admirers (including yours truly), but that's not his fault. There has perhaps never been a theologian as great as Aquinas--as dominant in his command of his tradition's central texts, as imaginative in his synthesis of source materials, as creative and poetic in his image of the world--and he spawned centuries of utterly worthless imitators. That is the cruel penalty history imposes upon genius: the great ones get pureed, by the imprecise future, with their pale progeny. Calvin and Luther could no doubt sympathize. But no one that I know quite captured, or even really tried to, Bonhoeffer's odd stance in the world. Not that it's easy to do. One can't just make oneself into the scion of a brilliant aristocratic German family, blessed with a library that may be called upon at will even from a Nazi prison (into which one can't simply will oneself nowadays either). As a consequence of his historical circumstances and his peculiar genius, Bonhoeffer became a sort of conservative radical. He lamented the immorality and evanescence of popular culture even as he lit the fuse of a massive bomb underneath the remnants of Christendom theology.

And I would argue, in any case, that there was and is nothing incoherent about that stance in the modern world. The calling of a theologian is not normally a heroic one in the usual sense of the word. Don't get me wrong; it is heroic in a rather less ordinary way. I tend to agree with Luther when he says that it is not by studying but by living, dying, and being damned to hell that one becomes a theologian. A great theologian is a hero of the mind, someone who sees farther, deeper, or more generously than the world sees. Bonhoeffer was most definitely that. But he was also a hero of the world, albeit a comparatively minor one. He faced his age and his fate with the resignation of a Roman senator, the pity of a Christian monastic, and the unifying vision of a Romantic poet.

That final letter made me think back to an earlier letter to his confidant Eberhardt Bethge in which he remembers Jean Lasserre, a friend from his Union Seminary year. Lasserre (Bonhoeffer does not mention him by name) aspired to become a saint. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, aspired to have faith. What strikes me so deeply in that final letter is that the two aspirations are, ultimately, the same. The saint, like the killed and resurrected person of faith, knows deeply how little we really require and how little claim we have in a world of need. They each come, perhaps by different paths, to the same place of sorrow transfigured, by grace, into a love for their fellow humans that knows no earthly bound.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:44 PM
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