Interview with Craig Slane
Craig Slane, professor Systematic Theology at Simpson College, discusses the relevance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for contemporary ethics and theology.
All right, well, welcome to our show. [Todd laughs] I’m Todd Vasquez, the Assistant Director here at the Center of Christian Thought at Biola University, and I’m here with Professor Craig Slane, the Frances Owen Distinguished Professor of Theology at Simpson University in Redding, California. It’s great to have you.
Thank you, it’s good to be here.
So, you’re primarily known for your scholarship on Bonhoeffer, and there’s been actually quite a bit of interest in Bonhoeffer of late. There’s been a new biography that came out by Eric Metaxas.
And I know you wrote a book in 2004 on Bonhoeffer as martyr, right?
As martyr, that’s right.
And I was just wondering, what do you make of all this renewed interest in Bonhoeffer?
Yeah, I know. Well, I’m wondering if Bonhoeffer’s popularity ever did wane. It seems to me that there is a renewed interest in Bonhoeffer amongst the younger generation, but my guess is that Bonhoeffer’s been popular all along, ever since he was translated into English. But you ask about the Metaxas book, which is an interesting phenomenon, actually.
A friend of mine, Stephen Haynes, in the Bonhoeffer Society wrote a book on Bonhoeffer and explored the notion of Saint Bonhoeffer, basically, and it does seem that there has been of late a special interest in Bonhoeffer as a moral hero. I think this is what Metaxas’s book brings to the surface. Now, you might know or might not know that Metaxas’s book has received some strong criticism from certain fellows in the Bonhoeffer Society, senior colleagues of mine that I respect very much, but have been concerned that Metaxas’s book has been co-opted by the religious right. It is published by Thomas Nelson Press, conservative press. Metaxas was on the Glenn Beck show, which probably is another strike against him as far as some more left-leaning interpreters would see. And so in this book, you don’t hear, for example, about Bonhoeffer’s pacifism. You don’t hear much about his involvement in the ecumenical movement. So there are parts of Bonhoeffer that are clearly excised from Metaxas’s treatment. but in fairness, Metaxas wants to return Bonhoeffer to the middle or to the right. He thinks that Bonhoeffer’s been hijacked, the legacy’s been hijacked by people on the left. So, in any case, many tens of thousands of people are reaching this book, and I think it’s good when Bonhoeffer becomes known to a new generation. So Metaxas, as a great writer, in my judgment, is giving many people in the current generation a chance to encounter Bonhoeffer for the first time, and if they read Bonhoeffer, of course, straight up, they’ll realize some of the deficiencies of that book.
Yeah, no, it’s not just academics, but there’s quite a few non-academics that just are very into Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer in particular seems to be one of these writers whose thought connects with a much broader audience, as opposed to maybe, say, Karl Barth or something like that.
Yeah, it’s true, isn’t it? I think Barth didn’t die as a martyr. That was Barth’s problem, huh?
Todd: Dying as a martyr helps.
It helps a great deal, because I think in Bonhoeffer, you have a sense that we have a first-rate theologian. Granted, he did not have an opportunity to develop his ideas fully. He was only 39 when he died, and in fact didn’t have access to his library in those last two years in prison. So where Bonhoeffer’s thought would have gone beyond the war is an open question, and would he have gone back more towards an academic side?
Would he have become more of a churchman? I think the jury’s out on that question. But as it happened, of course, Bonhoeffer, in dying as a martyr, kind of wed together in his person a first-rate theological mind with discipleship and earnestness in following Jesus. And my opinion is that precious few are the persons in theology who die as martyrs these days. In the early church and in the Middle Ages, it was much more common to be a theologian and a martyr. But nowadays, martyrs are martyrs, and theologians are theologians, and the two hardly ever coincide. So I think this is part of the power of Bonhoeffer’s witness, yeah.
Yeah, you wonder if these been a divide between the theologian on the one hand and the evangelist on the other, ’cause you think of how many martyrs there are globally with persecutions in various parts of the world, lots of people losing their lives for their faith, but they’re not necessarily theologians, I guess, the way we would think of them today.
Right, right. And I think most of the martyrs that we would call to mind in the 20th century were non-Western figures. Russia had its martyrs, China has its martyrs, South America has its martyrs, but very few of them are Western figures. So, this probably is part of the mystique too, someone fully in the Western theological tradition who’s a martyr.
And now, one of the questions I’ve got is, people are familiar with some of Bonhoeffer’s work. Most people who are interested in Bonhoeffer will maybe pick up a biography about him. They might pick up Metaxas’s latest one or they’ll read another book about Bonhoeffer. In terms of works of Bonhoeffer, they tend to gravitate towards particular works of his like Life Together, that kind of thing.
Do they have it right? Are they reading the right sorts of things about Bonhoeffer, or are there other more obscure writings from Bonhoeffer you think they may?
Well, I don’t know who they are in your question. Do you mean they as in church people in the West? Evangelicals?
Yeah, people who find they’re interested in Bonhoeffer. He’s a peculiar figure, somebody who obviously was involved in the assassination plot on Hitler but who also wrote quite a bit about discipleship. So there’s a pastoral dimension to Bonhoeffer I think people connect with.
I see. Well, let me try to answer the question, ’cause I think there’s not two Bonhoeffers, but there’s two phases of Bonhoeffer’s life at least, and one of them is an academic phase. I mean, he started out at the University of Berlin, wrote his two doctoral dissertations on very dense topics. Akt und Sein was one of them, and the Sanctorum Communio was another.
And these read very much like the extended papers of graduate students. They’re very technical, very difficult to plow through. And I would never recommend these books for anyone starting on Bonhoeffer who had a sensibility for the church. These are academic books. And then of course The Ethics, which comes at the end of his life, is still a very academic book and a difficult one to make sense of.
The new arrangement of The Ethics has helped somewhat in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. However, I think what you’re pointing to probably are what we would call the church books of Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Discipleship. Psalms, Prayer Book of the Bible could be included in this collection, maybe Letters and Papers from Prison, some of which are very personal, and the ones at the end, the last phase of Bonhoeffer’s intellectual life, when he’s trying to imagine Christianity in the future, and he uses phrases like a world come of age or religionless Christianity. These have immense popular appeal.
My students are fascinated by the idea that Bonhoeffer wants to shed religion and get back to something closer to Jesus, closer even to the Old Testament in the way he thinks about theology. So, those kinds of books have enormous appeal to church people, and I would say casual readers as well. I think Life Together may be, if you count what’s been read on the continent and in North America, it may be his most popular book.
But a close second would be Discipleship. Many, many people have read Discipleship. Oh, you asked about the other books, the obscure books.
Yeah, I mean, I think you’ve presented on some of his poetry.
There’s some interesting nuances to Bonhoeffer that someone who’s just reading a biography about him or maybe one of the more popular church books, Life Together or Discipleship, might miss, and it might be interesting for them to track down some of these other interesting things about him.
There is a lesser known Bonhoeffer, and it was the one who wrote poetry. And I should say that Bonhoeffer wrote no poetry in the course of his life until he was imprisoned. And we find that fascinating. He wrote 10 poems from prison, and he also tried his hand at a short story, some fiction, in prison. So there’s a side of him that’s trying to come out, maybe to transcend the restrictions of his Tegel cell.
And I think personally that the poetry is the place where you will get the most intimate portrait of Bonhoeffer. The reason for that, there’s two late poems. One of them is called Moses, and the other is called Jonah. And Bonhoeffer is in those two poems reading himself, interpreting himself, in the biblical landscape. These two great biblical figures, Jonah and Moses, each have many problems in their lives. Each of them is threatened with death.
Jonah of course is going to become a vicarious sacrifice to still the waves, and you can think of Bonhoeffer’s precarious position at the end of his life where he sees that he himself is going to be sacrificed for the German people. And then Moses, atop Mount Nebo, he can’t enter the Promised Land because of his sin in hitting the rock, and here’s Bonhoeffer. He’s at the very end of the war, just a couple weeks before the Allies are gonna liberate the camp. He sees he’s probably not going to make it out, and so he’s like Moses.
He’s seeing from afar the future of Germany and the defeat of Germany, but he’s not allowed to enter into the new thing that’s going to come as a result. So I think in these choices, these careful choices in the poetry to identify with Moses and Jonah, there’s really a personal part of Bonhoeffer that we need to take stock of.
That’s great, and someone would find that where, in what parts of his writing?
Well, formerly, they were published in Letters and Papers, but now in the Bonhoeffer Collection, there is a whole volume on Bonhoeffer’s fiction writings and poetry. So I don’t know if you’re aware, but there’s a Dietrich Bonhoeffer works in English, a project that’s been going on now for over a decade with Fortress Press.
It’s a translation of the official 16 volumes in German, and we are now only about 12 to 18 months away from completing that long project. So everything Bonhoeffer ever wrote that is known to us is published in these 16 volumes. So lots of not just poetry, but writings that were heretofore unavailable to anyone in English have been stuffed into these volumes.
So I think there’s a generation of graduate students that are gonna be able to write some new dissertations.
Based upon, yeah, based upon those.
That’s great. So, you mentioned towards the end of his life, he started writing about this notion of the age to come.
World come of age.
The world come of age. I wonder if you could elaborate on that just a little bit and speak to some of the antecedents to Bonhoeffer within his historical context. It seems like there’s quite a bit going on around Bonhoeffer, other people who, these ideas were prevalent before be began thinking about them, and some of them kind of are the fertile soil that gives some of his thinking, carries some of his thinking.
Before I forget, this is just a backtrack, to put a bookmark in a minute, but there is a book on Bonhoeffer’s poetry by T&T Clark. And I contributed one essay, the one on Moses in that book, but there’s some very, very fine essays. So anyone who is really interested in Bonhoeffer’s poetry would find that volume to be a great companion volume to the Dietrich Bonhoeffer works.
But world come of age, in German, die mundigkeit is the term that is used, and this is like coming to adulthood. And the world for Bonhoeffer is reaching a place of autonomy, adulthood. This has been going on he thinks since about the 13th century, where greater and greater degrees of human autonomy from the divine and from transcendence have been getting planted of course, into Western culture, to the point that people can actually live their lives as if there were no god. It is entirely possible to do so. And he marvels that people can do so without any great sense of tragedy or sadness or loss. One really can live one’s life without God.
But now here’s the paradox: one has to do that right beneath God’s vision. It is before God that we live without God. This is what a Christian theologian must say. So, world come of age is one in which atheism plays a big part, but one in which we’re trying to find God’s presence in the world in new ways. Part of the reason God is ushered out of the world, Bonhoeffer thinks, is God’s been identified with religion far too much.
Bonhoeffer’s rather like Barth on this. Religion is a way of human beings constructing paths to God from the earth up or something like this. This is not Christianity. True Christianity for Bonhoeffer, we need a new language, a redeeming language, a language like Jesus’s own language that will shock people and bring about new possibilities.
So the world come of age for Bonhoeffer is filled not with remorse or lament for a lost Christendom but with great possibilities for a kind of, I don’t wanna say revival, it’s a little too pietistic for Bonhoeffer, but a new awareness, a new form of Christian life, which will probably be a lot more communal and less institutional.
Yeah, so, you know, you read a number of these writers like Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, and I would imagine also Bonhoeffer, and they’re reacting to, they’re very dissatisfied with their experience of Christianity, within its religious form in their historical context. For those who aren’t as familiar with the history, can you give us a sense for the kind of Christianity, the kind of religiosity that someone like Bonhoeffer would be reacting to?
Yeah, well, it’s an interesting question. I mean, there’s no clear denunciation, for example, of a state church, interestingly, in Bonhoeffer. Now, he does have his own experiment with The Finkenwalde Seminary. And that’s a topic worth exploring if we have time, and maybe the true answer to your question lies in this new form of community that he envisions and publishes later in Life Together. But I think it will be a Christianity that comes out of the cloister is the way he put it in Discipleship. He notices in Luther this trajectory toward the world.
This is the way he reads the Reformation. The Reformation gets Christianity out of the cloister and into real life. So, I think Bonhoeffer’s new direction is going to be one in which Christianity becomes profoundly this worldly. We don’t have a right to leap over earth to get to heaven, he says. The earth demands our labor. So issues of justice and poverty, things that are on the agenda often of the middle and the left in Christianity are certainly in the purview of this new kind of Christianity that Bonhoeffer sees.
Of course, he crystallizes it at the end of his life in this hermeneutic phrase, the view from below. We have learned to see the great events of history from below, from the perspective of those who suffer. So you might say that in a rather bold way, Bonhoeffer becomes a theologian of the cross. He really does.
It is suffering that becomes the hermeneutic key for this new theology. And you must remember that Bonhoeffer was born as a bourgeois German, insulated from all manner of suffering, but he in his own life sort of took this downward path into suffering, relinquishing all these privileges of his family the best he could. He sold items, he gave his books away.
He was very free and open with his time, gave money even to some of his younger seminarians, lived with his confirmands on the corner in a ghetto in Berlin. So he did the kinds of things that sort of let power go. He wanted the experience of living a life of discipleship from below. So I guess that’s the best I can do to answer your question. But I think it gets us pretty far, to think of this new Christianity in terms of suffering.
Sure. Now, you’ve recently been doing some work here at the Center of Christian Thought on religion and violence, and earlier in our conversation, you talked about, you know, the fact that there’s not a lot of martyrdom for theologians today the way we typically think about them. But you’ve done some work on Justin Martyr, and you’ve written about martyrdom, and obviously, you’ve done quite a bit of work on Bonhoeffer.
Are we missing something? Is there something to the concept of suffering and the view from below that we’re just missing across the board, missing in our churches, missing in our Christian universities and institutions and parachurch organizations, and if so, what exactly is it that we’re lacking, and how do we get back to a perspective that Bonhoeffer, it seems, had such great insight into, even though he didn’t start out as this poor, suffering individual.
Well, you mentioned that Bonhoeffer stands on a tradition, and we all do, and there are predecessors of that tradition which I think explain these kinds of movements. There’s always been this thin tradition of the cross, Theologia Crucis or a theology of the cross. Luther brought it out into the open, but many have followed this path. So, to say it’s missing is probably an overstatement, at least I think that’s the case, but to say that it has been downplayed is certainly true, especially in evangelical Christianity.
I think we have something akin to a theology of glory, and of course we’ve gotten mixed up with market economy now, which is very big in the way we think about Christian faith. So what we’re missing, it seems to me, is what the monks knew we were missing after Constantine, through the empire in the direction of Christianity, and that is some kind of identification existentially with Jesus and with the apostles.
When you live in luxury and comfort, as we do, it’s very difficult to identify with those who suffer. So I think what we might be missing is that existential sense of hardship that early followers of Jesus knew, just as a matter of course. And that unfortunately has changed often the way we have thought theologically and philosophically in the West.
We have thought from a situation of synthesis and comfort, and maybe we have sort of just downplayed this more radical form of Christianity because it’s not so comfortable. It really edges us out of the status quo. I’m not sure Bonhoeffer would have gotten there had he not grown up and had to work in the context of the Holocaust.
This was really foisted upon him, wasn’t it, just like martyrdom was foisted upon many of the early followers of Jesus. It’s not that they sat around and said, I think I’ll live a life of radical obedience, but life situations arose in which they had to make decisions from the gut, as it were, and follow them. And we remember that in 1939, when Bonhoeffer came to America for the second time, this is a decisive moment. He’s in New York, it’s the summer, it’s July, and he’s very uncomfortable with his decision.
He made a mistake, he said, in coming back to America. And I think the reason he felt this way was that he’d already written about discipleship as this more radical following of Jesus, and here he had left a place of hardship, come to a land of comfort and opportunity, and it was not sitting well in his conscience. So I think Bonhoeffer’s notion of discipleship actually helped him navigate that summer a decision to go back to Germany. So it does take, it takes concrete decisions at pivotal points in one’s life, I think, in order to live this way.
I feel like I’m dancing around your questions without answering them directly.
No, I think it’s good. I mean, it seems to me like you’re right, there is a sense of comfort and blindness that comes when you’re comfortable and you’re not suffering. You’re not persecuted, and when you’re in a context where persecution and suffering and hardship is the day-to-day way you live your life, as it was in the early church, quite a bit of the gospel comes to the forefront in terms of discipleship to Jesus and taking up your cross and following him daily.
But I think it has to be a Christologically framed kind of answer. So maybe just one other comment here, and that would be that the best question isn’t what are we missing today but what does Jesus Christ want to do in the world today through his church or through his followers? That’s the question that Bonhoeffer always asks, not what did Jesus Christ want then, but what does Jesus Christ want now?
In The Ethics, it’s called an ethik als gestaltung or ethics as formation, and Bonhoeffer’s big question is, where and how does Christ want to enter the reality of the present and shape it so that it can be a witness to him? The action is always from the side of Christ. He’s got a real mystical Christ ontology going in The Ethics.
So the best question to ask is not the application question, how can we carve out a life in which we are faithful to this theme of suffering, but how can we open a dimension of our existence as we know it, Christian existence, to really receive Christ into the present and let Christ form it, and Christ will form it after the cross. Christ will also form it in the manner of resurrection and new life, and Christ will form it after the manner of incarnation, Bonhoeffer thinks. All of these pivotal moments in Christology are open. So there’s no one template that one can apply.
Yeah, I noticed there was a presentation you gave back in 1995. Did you present on something similar to this?
I think I have before. Yes, that’s a concept that comes out of the Christology Lectures in 1933 in which Bonhoeffer insists that there’s only one question that we can really ask and do honor to Christ, and that is the question, who are you? You can’t ask how is Christ possible. [Craig laughs] That’s probably going to lead you in a godless direction.
It takes you behind the Christian faith. It’s the philosopher’s question, maybe, how is it possible that Jesus could be human and divine? Some things we just accept as part of the structure, the confessional structure of Christian faith. So the question, who, who are you, Jesus, is the question to ask. It’s the question of transcendence. A
nd when we ask that question, we find out that Christ is present for us now. Pro me, pro nobis, those old Latin terms, and it really is for Bonhoeffer a matter of the church. I mean, these are ecclesiological kinds of questions as well as ontological questions. Christ wants to make himself obvious in the church. In fact, he has this rather bold formulation. Christ exists as the church. It’s a very Catholic notion, isn’t it, of ecclesiology?
Yeah. Now, you know, people write their biographies. They have a particular slant on Bonhoeffer after they’ve done their work. In your view, would you describe Bonhoeffer as a hero?
It’s interesting. I gave a chapel address at Taylor University some years ago, and I titled it Bonhoeffer’s Two Mistakes, because I did not want to present Bonhoeffer as a hero. I think he would chafe at that. As a German, he would have been very uncomfortable with anything that called attention to himself.
And even in these poems that I mentioned where he’s likening himself to Jonah and Moses, he’s opaque in doing so. It’s always Moses that’s in the foreground. It’s not Bonhoeffer. So I think to see Bonhoeffer as a hero is probably to do an injustice to him, in the sense that heroes create a sense of distance between ourselves and the possibilities of a real life of faith. I think it could be dangerous. So my guess is that Bonhoeffer would prefer that we think of him as faithful rather than a hero.
What if you made a distinction between hero and heroic?
Uh-huh, and what do you have in mind with that distinction?
By hero, it’s that sense of distance. It’s somebody who’s on a pedestal, somebody who everybody looks up to and thinks, I wish I could have run that mile that fast, right?
I wish I had that kind of boldness and courage, to share my faith in that way or to give my life in sacrifice for some noble cause. So, it creates that distance, hero. But heroic in the sense of having dispositions of greatness, of aligning your life in a way that’s in accordance with the principles of the kingdom of God and what Jesus would want to bring about in the world in the present.
Yeah, if you start from a premise that what today’s young people often lack is courage, and this has been pointed out by a number of ethicists, that we seem to have lost courage.
I think Solzhenitsyn said as much in 1978 in his Harvard address, that he felt that the West had lost courage, moral courage. Then I think people like Bonhoeffer inspire us perhaps to realize some better version of ourselves, some deeper sense of commitment to Christ, some earnestness about following Jesus. And in that sense, it’s very positive. But there’s a fine line between that idealistic projection of oneself and a genuine kind of Christian courage, it seems to me. So I still think there’s a danger even in thinking heroically about Bonhoeffer, and I think this is why Metaxas’s book, to circle back to our theme of a few minutes ago, could be conceived as dangerous in some way.
It does present Bonhoeffer as a morally courageous person who stands up to an unjust government. It’s very easy to conscript Bonhoeffer into other agendas that people have. And I remember a Lutheran pastor in the South some years ago justified shooting an abortion doctor on the basis of his reaching of Bonhoeffer. He was acting heroically to save the lives of the unborn, drawing that symmetrical connection with Bonhoeffer, and I just make mention of that because I think it’s very difficult for me to give any kind of a wholehearted assent to this theme of heroism in Bonhoeffer because of the dangers of trying to apply his own ethical moral courage in the current American situation.
Yeah, I mean, it seems to me that it has to do with the place of power. To be heroic in a sense of being humble and pursuing what’s right, standing up, being an advocate for the poor, those who are suffering, those who have injustice being committed against them, all of those things are great, but there’s that other side to admiration of the heroic or the hero that when you come into power, or you have some sense of power, it seems like it can grow into a kind of monster that makes you tribalistic and you begin seeing yourself as somebody who’s more.
Yeah, yeah. There’s a poem by an Australian poet, Dianna Ekson, which I like very much, because people always accuse her, she’s a lover of Bonhoeffer’s writings, and people accuse her of being a Bonhoeffer freak. She’s nutty about Bonhoeffer. And so she writes a poem about this, and in the poem, she says, woe is me if I’m promoting Bonhoeffer. It’s always a question of Jesus.
So, I know as human beings we are given to imitation. That is part of the structure of our humanity, and we’re gonna end up imitating somebody. And I think the caution is not to let the hero, even if Bonhoeffer is a hero, stand in the foreground, but the one for whom he gave his life, the one for whom he worked as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, really needs to get the spotlight.
So ultimately, if we’re going to speak about heroes, I think Jesus must set the pattern for what it means to be a hero, and that’s not an Aristotelian form of heroism, certainly.
Yeah, there is that. I was thinking as you were talking that, you know, in ancient times, the view of the rabbi or teacher, and even in Eastern traditions like Buddhist traditions, you know, on the Eightfold Path, if you run into the Buddha on your way to enlightenment, you’re supposed to, Buddha is an impediment on the path or on the journey.
And in the ancient world, the view of your teacher or your rabbi, it was the sense of you wanna get to the point where you master your own teacher. That’s a sign of progress in your tradition and your learning and your wisdom, not in the sense of gaining some type of one-upmanship, but just in the sense that you’ve mastered the master. You’ve mastered the content. You’ve mastered the prudence and the wisdom you’ve needed to discern as you’ve grown along the way.
And I think that’s really quite close to what I would say characterizes my own dealing with Bonhoeffer today. I haven’t mastered necessarily the subject matter of Bonhoeffer, but I do find that he’s a theological companion, a conversation partner, and I often day by day think, oh, what would Bonhoeffer think about this, or what would Bonhoeffer think about that? And so, in a sense, rather than heroize Bonhoeffer, I have made him a conversation partner and dialog partner as I try to work out my own Christian life, my own life of discipleship.
I don’t see it as heroic in that sense, and part of it is because I’ve actually known people in the Bonhoeffer circle. I met some members of his family, I’ve met his biographer, one of his students, two of his students at Finkenwalde, and they have told me stories about Bonhoeffer which have made him very human. And his niece Renata on her American tours has also labored to make him a very human figure. But I can see how other people without connections to the Bonhoeffer people, the people in the story, would tend to valorize him.
Yeah. Now, you know, even if Bonhoeffer himself wouldn’t go for viewing himself as a hero or see himself as a heroic and would eschew that title, other people do tend to kind of see him as somebody who embodied a form of heroism. Anybody who has the disposition to engage in an assassination plot against someone like Hitler, you admire that kind of bravery, that kind of courage. And so, I think there’s a sense in which it seems people admire Bonhoeffer’s heroism when it comes to trying to change something that’s big and large, something that’s international, national, that affects a large swath of people.
But I wonder if there are aspects to Bonhoeffer’s life that are less heroic, or they’re not on that same level of affecting national politics and national power but are just parts of his everyday life, the way he thought about reality and the way he thought about living his life, the way he thought about the church. I wonder if there are things there that everyday people would connect with.
Well, a couple comments there that may be helpful. I’ll work in retrograde motion from the latter phase back. But you know, when he was involved in the conspiracy, he wasn’t always all that active. He was basically a courier who would shuttle back and forth, meet with some church people and try to inform them about plans going on inside of the resistance. He spent weeks on end with nothing to do. He was in the Ettal Monastery in South Germany mixing it up with the monks, working on his ethics, waiting for something to do. So when we think of him in the conspiracy, you can’t think of him with weapons in his hands, plotting raids by night.
Todd: With a chart all over the table.
Right. His role was very different. He was more of a moral inspiration, I think, for the other conspirators. And these were people, military people, who had to go against their military oaths to be involved in the conspiracy, and they were in serious moral crisis themselves. And I think Bonhoeffer with his theological sensibilities and his great sense for German history was able somehow to salve their consciences as they went about what they did.
So I don’t think we should picture Bonhoeffer here with weapons and with a kind of delight that he was gonna take down Hitler. It was much more banal than that. And then secondly, this example from earlier during the period of immigration when Jews were leaving Germany, 1933-35, a request came to Bonhoeffer from his brother-in-law. His sister, his twin Sabine, had married into a Jewish family, and Gerhard Leibholz actually asked Bonhoeffer to do a funeral for his father. Now, his father was a baptized Jew, so a believing Jew.
And Bonhoeffer asked his superintendent whether this was a good idea, because the political climate was so explosive at this time with Hitler’s policies. And the word came down that it would be best for him not to do that, and he capitulated, and he did not hold the funeral. And he regretted this. He apologized later. He said I don’t know what could have happened, what came over me. Why was I so timid? This is not the kind of hero that we normally think of with Bonhoeffer. So he fled. He avoided this sort of public confrontation and that edgy radical life that I’m talking about. He recovered it later, but there are these episodes I think that helps us to think about Bonhoeffer perhaps in more human ways.
And he wanted to get married, you know. He was engaged to a young woman named Maria. He had been advising his seminarians that they should not be getting married because of the difficult times, and the next thing we know, Bonhoeffer himself is engaged to be married. The correspondence between Maria and Dietrich is very interesting, but you can see that he’s hoping that if he can survive the war, that he and Maria will have a life together.
So he’s thinking about marriage, and he calls marriage God’s yes and amen to earthly life. It’s a great line. It’s a line everybody should use at a wedding, I think. So there is this earthy, common version of Bonhoeffer that I see and others see too I think if they look carefully at his life.
Yeah. Do you see a progression in Bonhoeffer with respect to that sort of growing bravery and willingness to take more risk?
Yeah, progression, probably, but there’s a period of his life in the early 30s where he really does, I mean, in Eberhard Bethge’s judgment, he becomes a Christian. If you were to read the biography that Bethge wrote, not the one Metaxas wrote, but the definitive biography, there’s a chapter in there, The Theologian Becomes a Christian.
And this happened probably in 1931, and Bonhoeffer had been reading the Sermon on the Mount, and it really radicalized his life, and within a few months’ time, there is a shift in him, and he’s writing to his atheistic brother, he’s writing to a girlfriend at the time trying to explain how the Sermon on the Mount has altered the course of his life, and he’s beginning to pray. So we always think of him as a theologian, but this theologian had an experience of faith.
I don’t wanna make it an evangelical-style conversion, because that’s not faithful to Bonhoeffer, but within his own Lutheran understanding, this was an awakening of faith and a seriousness about Jesus and his future that dawned on him. He says, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I probably can’t go this way in safety and security.
But clearly, in those early 30s, and then you see in the lectures from 33, the Christology Lectures, that even though he’s talking up here at the level of academic discourse in this question about who is Jesus, beneath the surface is almost this autobiographical sense that Bonhoeffer himself is encountering this transcendent Christ and reordering his life. So I think the answer is probably between 31 and 33 there is a shift in Bonhoeffer away from the academic man of earlier years to something more like a genuine churchman.
So, over the course of your study of Bonhoeffer and really just digging deep into his work and his life and meeting people who were connected with his family, are there a few things you could share with us that have made a personal impact on you, formatively, things that just have to do with a chance in perspective, a different way of reaching the scriptures, a different way of approaching life? Are there maybe two or three things you could share with us that you would say, yes, these three things just confronted me?
Well, two come to mind rather quickly, and maybe a third will pop in as I’m talking. You know, in The Discipleship, Bonhoeffer has this line. He’s talking about the rich young man who comes to Jesus and says, what can I do to be saved, and Jesus says, go sell everything you have and give it to the poor. And the man goes away sad, and Bonhoeffer reflects upon this interchange between Jesus and the young man.
And in the course of this conversation that Bonhoeffer’s having with himself, he say the line, discipleship is a matter of exegesis. That’s a loaded sentence. And the way it becomes a matter of exegesis is what are you willing to say about a text that asks you to do a deliberate thing like sell everything and give it to the poor?
Are you going to say that Jesus is teaching me a principle for Christian life, that nothing is supposed to stand in the way of my relationship to God, which is the way one could imagine it going in some sermons, or do you leave room in your exegesis for some kind of literal obedience to the command of Jesus? Ethics for Bonhoeffer is not about principles.
It’s about something much more existentially connected. It’s about authority and the collision of authority. And the authority of Jesus interrupts our lives with a call to discipleship. And I think that sense that at any time, God may ask something of me that’s very difficult is part of what I have taken away from my experience of Bonhoeffer.
And then there is, in this notion of the present Christ, you alluded to it before, something that’s very powerful. Many theologians will think historically about Christ. So we have in the first century this Jesus who did some things, miracles and healing and exorcism and so on and teaching, and that over the centuries, there’s a kind of ripple effect of Jesus. But Bonhoeffer doesn’t like to think about Jesus merely historically.
His beginning point for Christology is in fact the resurrection or the ascension, or even to say it more clearly, it is Christ existing now in the church. So we don’t ask a question about this historical person as if they’re gone. We ask the question about one who lives, and I find that to be enormously helpful in theological dialog. I don’t know about you, but automatically, I’m conditioned to think historically about the Christian faith.
Todd: Particularly in exegesis, right?
Particularly in exegesis, that’s right. But at this particular moment, Jesus might have something to say to me. He thinks something about me, even in the context of this interview. Jesus has an opinion about what I’m saying. So to live with that consciousness that Jesus is present is a gift, and I think it’s part of the best of the evangelical heritage, really, and maybe that’s why Bonhoeffer is so likable to evangelicals.
He’s quite like us on that particular point, that Jesus is to be personally encountered. And then finally, I did think of a third thing, and this comes out of the Finkenwalde time, and I’ve not always been successful at this. But when I have been successful, I give thanks to God for Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer made a comment once about meditation. His seminarians were very upset. These guys were Lutherans.
They didn’t know anything about meditating on scripture. Every day, Bonhoeffer says, you should be meditating for about 30 minutes. This was part of the morning routine at Finkenwalde. They smoked, they worked on homework, they did all kinds of things. They couldn’t stay fastened on meditation. So they came to Bonhoeffer complaining about this practice. And the big objection was that when you try to focus on something, all these other thoughts come into your mind. You’re thinking about your family. You’re thinking about your girlfriend. You’re thinking about the work of the day, and we just can’t focus, we just can’t concentrate.
And Bonhoeffer said, that’s okay. Let these thoughts come into your mind. You’re human. Bring them back to the text with you. So are you under temptation? Bring it into the text with you. Are you thinking about your father or your mother’s illness?
Bring them into the text and make them part of your meditation. So there I think we see that Bonhoeffer cuts down the lines between sacred and secular, and this is part of the very texture of his theology, no thinking in terms of two spheres. Reality ultimately is united, because Christ has pressed his form on all things.
It seems like there’s a really good sense of as we are, as you are, simply being present to the Spirit of God and to the text. I know in the monastic tradition, you have that sense of when various thoughts that seem foreign to living a spiritual life, living in accordance with the kingdom, it’s a sign of the presence of God coming and kind of creating some dissonance in your own soul. So it’s simply a part of the process of wading through that, and it seems like Bonhoeffer’s advice connects very well.
It was very Benedictine. Yeah, when he did the Finkenwalde experiment, he called it, it was St. Benedict’s Rule that became the dominant framing structure for community life. And so the public reading of scripture, the meditation, all of that was stolen. I mean, Bonhoeffer’s not inventing this, but he is looking for a form of life that works in Nazi Germany, that will keep the church faithful for the long haul.
Nobody knew how long Hitler would be in power. I mean, for all anybody knew, it could have been 20 or 30 years, right, and the church would have to survive the Hitler years intact. So he was looking for a form of life, a ritualized form of life, that would form a kind of bulwark against the propaganda and the tactics of the Nazis.
Now, I’ve been watching you during your residency here at the Center for Christian Thought, and one of the things that I noticed about you and that I really have come to admire about you is just how well you listen to other people when they’re speaking, whether they’re providing some type of critique of your work or an incisive question or just asking a question out of curiosity, that kind of thing.
I’ve noticed that you really do have the sense of hitting the pause button and just listening in a kind of genuine, completely open way. I wonder, is there something about Bonhoeffer that in particular you’ve connected with that has brought that to you, or is it just something that you’ve acquired over time, other writers that you’ve read? I’m just curious.
I don’t think it’s Bonhoeffer. Thank you for the observation. I don’t think anyone’s ever said that to me before, so I hope you’re right. I hope you’re not just an outlier. But yeah, in Bonhoeffer, there’s a book that’s been published. I think Jay Rochelle was the editor of this volume. It’s probably out of print now, but it’s on pastoral care. It was a collection of excerpted texts from Bonhoeffer on pastoral care, and one of the things that Bonhoeffer does talk about is the ministry of listening. But I don’t think that that’s, it’s probably more to do with my introvertish personality than any strategic adaptation of Bonhoeffer in my life.
But you know, I have to check, it’s an interesting question, because I have to check the impulse to speak too. I admire other people who speak less than I do and have really incisive things to say. It’s a balance, isn’t it, knowing when to speak and when to be quiet?
Oh, sure, sure. Yeah, no, it’s just something I’ve noticed. There’s a difference between somebody who listens in a way that they’re waiting to kind of bring in something. They’re listening very attentively, and they’re thinking about how what a person’s talking about is connecting with the resources that they’ve got to bring to the table, but there’s also a kind of listening that knows that Jesus is present in the orphan and the widow, is present in those who need clothes and those who need food, whatever that passage is where it says, you know, I was with the person who needed clothing and needed food, and you didn’t recognize me. It seems like you’ve got a good grip on that. In all of our conversations here at the Center, I’ve noticed you just have had that form of listening.
Well, thank you. I have to say it’s nothing that I have worked on particularly in my spiritual life. I think I could do better at it. But I notice that one of the things that gives me great joy in life is an idea that sort of moves on its own logic, that doesn’t get coerced. I like a good idea, and then just following it where it goes.
That’s a great joy, actually. It’s one of the delights of the life of the mind, is to be able to be vulnerable I think to an idea and let it have its way without coercing and manipulating the idea.
Well, and that’s very foreign I think for people when they think about theology, when they think about their own set of beliefs, the things that they hold very dearly, this whole notion of, not necessarily experimentation, but the idea of following an idea wherever it leads. On the face of it, it seems like a threat to somebody who’s part of a confessional traditional, somebody who holds to the Nicene Creed. Am I going to take up an idea and follow it where it leads that leads me somewhere outside of the faith?
Sure, yeah. Well, I think there are seasons. Some things that you would do in the classroom with students, you probably shouldn’t do if you’re preaching a sermon. There are times when staying within the bounds of the confession is the right thing to do. But there are other environments which I think call for more freedom in thinking.
And for me, theology has always been a human task. I guess it is sacred at some level because we’re responding to revelation, but it’s human thinking about God, and if you can just swallow the pill that it’s going to be human thought, it’s going to be freighted with sin and with limitation and all of that, you’re never gonna get it right, it’s never gonna be pure, then I think you get liberated a little bit to wander away with an idea and see where it goes.
Yeah, yeah. Well, Craig, it’s been absolutely wonderful having you here at the Center for Christian Thought. We’ve enjoyed all of your research and conversation that you’ve been able to bring, and it’s been a pleasure talking to you today as a part of this interview.
Well, thank you, and this has been a very rich experience for me. And so on behalf of others as well, I’m sure I speak for the whole group of research fellows. You have given us an opportunity to marinate ideas, a space to be creative and to be productive, so we’re very grateful from our end as well, thank you. [upbeat rock music]
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