Dietrich Bonhoeffer, April 9, 1945

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While in prison, he wrote a series of letters to his close friend Eberhart Bethge in which he began speculate about “religionless Christianity.” While this notion has received considerable attention over the decades beginning in the 1960s, his words remain as challenging and questioning in the twenty-first century as they did when he wrote them while imprisoned for his participation in an assassination plot against Hitler, and as World War II was coming to an end:

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the “religious a priori” of mankind. “Christianity” has always been a form–perhaps the true form–of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless–and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any “religious” reaction?)–what does that mean for “Christianity”? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our “Christianity,” and that there remain only a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the Western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity–and even this garment has looked very different at different times–then what is a religionless Christianity?

I’ve previously written about Bonhoeffer here and here.

A Strange Glory

I just finished Charles Marsh’s new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s entitled A Strange Glory: The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In short, it’s brilliant, spellbinding, and full of new information. Marsh gives us a portrait of Bonhoeffer in all of his complexity. He comes across as almost hedonistic at times and irresponsible. Marsh depicts his desire for companionship and his desire for community, but points out the irony that while he wrote a dissertation on the importance of Christian community, he rarely attended services while a theology student.

Marsh is especially strong on the importance of Bonhoeffer’s time in America in raising his consciousness about injustice (racism) and as the location where he first fully engages in Christian community (at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem). In Marsh’s perspective, the quest for community would drive Bonhoeffer for the rest of his life.

It’s been thirty years since I’ve read Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer so I don’t recall details, but Marsh is working with new archival finds and he has scholarly distance from his subject that Bethge could not have. What impressed me most about Marsh’s reading of Bonhoeffer was the central role of Bonhoeffer’s deepening spirituality, the spiritual disciplines that became central in his life, his desire for Christian community, and his shaping of the underground seminary at Finkenwalde by the monastic communities he encountered in England and elsewhere.

He’s also very strong on Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge. We learn that two lived for a number of years as a couple, sharing a bank account, giving Christmas gifts with both names, traveling together (and Bonhoeffer’s annoyance when Bethge brought friends with them on their journeys). Marsh also makes clear that whatever the relationship was, it was not consummated sexually but that Bethge was the one who had to establish clear boundaries. Incidentally, within two weeks of Bethge becoming engaged to Bonhoeffer’s niece, Dietrich himself became engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer.

Bonhoeffer is widely regarded as a hero of the faith, a martyr and his legacy has been contested. Marsh stresses Bonhoeffer’s early opposition to Hitler and does a very good job of showing his theological and ethical development, especially on the issue of Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot against Hitler.

I own well-worn copies of the Letters and Papers from Prison in both English and German and have always been fascinated by the rigorous and revolutionary theological insights he articulates there as well as by the deep Lutheran, even pietistic spirituality that he expresses.

As I was reading Marsh’s biography, I was intrigued by the continuing relevance of those theological insights in our very different cultural context and wonder what a theological voice steeped in Bonhoeffer might have to say in the post-Christian, neoliberal culture of the twenty-first century.

Christian Wiman’s review in the Wall Street Journal

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: April 9, 1945

“To be conformed to the image of Christ is not an ideal to be striven after. It is not as though we had to imitate him as ell as we could. We cannot transform ourselves into his image; it is rather the form of Christ which seeks to be formed in us (Gal 4:19), and to be manifested in us. Christ’s work in us is not finished until he has perfected his own form in us. We must be assimilated to the form of Christ in its entirety, the form of Christ incarnate, crucified and glorified. Christ took upon himself this human form of ours. He became Man even as we are men. In his humanity and his lowliness we recognize our own form. He has become like a man, so that men should be like him. And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God.” Cost of Discipleship

Whenever You Pray–Sermon on the Mount Bible Study

This evening, we’ll be looking at Matthew 6, especially vss 1-14. I’m always struck when I encounter texts in different contexts and the liturgical uses of these verses are powerful and foundational for the Christian life. The Lord’s Prayer is also our prayer, recited in the Daily Office and at every Eucharistic celebration. Its familiarity is both blessing and problematic. When said consciously and meditated upon regularly, it offers the possibility of helping us shape our discipleship and faith. It helps to create a relationship with God that stresses our dependence on God for the necessities of life as well as our purpose and end (“Your kingdom come, Your will be done). But it’s also easy to allow the words to roll off our tongue unthinkingly. Sometimes that’s OK; for example when we need to pray but can’t find words of our own. Sometimes it may be an example of the sort of external piety that Jesus criticizes in the first verses of the chapter.

Those verses are always the gospel reading on Ash Wednesday. In that context they are problematic and challenging, especially of the piety we display on Ash Wednesday. It’s hard not to think about how our actions look to others, whether we’re walking around on Ash Wednesday with ashes on our forehead or attending church on Sunday morning when our friends and neighbors are drinking coffee and reading the paper or out on a bike ride or run. But hiding our piety for the wrong reasons is also a problem. Jesus criticizes “hypocrites” for wanting others to know about their donations and fasting. He isn’t addressing those of us who hide our actions or faith because we are slightly embarrassed of our quaint habits.

Perhaps most important is something implied rather than directly stated here: that our prayers and other practices should be sincere and come from the heart. Prayer is not about others or about ourselves; it is about God. Bonhoeffer has this to say:

Prayer is the supreme instance of the hidden character of the Christian life. It is the antithesis of self-display. When men pray, they have ceased to know themselves and know only God whom they call upon. Prayer does not aim at any direct effect on the world; it is addressed to God alone, and is therefore the perfect example of undemonstrative action


Blessed are you… The Beatitudes and Discipleship

I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship as I prepare for our Lenten Bible Study on the Sermon on the Mount. I’m not sure when I last spent any time with this Christian classic (25 years, 35 years?). Coming back to it after all those years, it’s striking both in the way it reflects its historical context and the ways in which it transcends its time and still speaks to us decades later.

For example, after going through the beatitudes, explaining them and showing how they speak immediately to the situation of Jesus’ followers in the first century, Bonhoeffer asks whether the community described in the Beatitudes exists anywhere on earth. His answer:

Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found–on the Cross at Golgotha. The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it is found all. From the cross there comes the call “blessed, blessed.”

The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified!

Earlier, he points out that Jesus called his disciples blessed in the crowd’s hearing and that “the crowd is called upon as a startled witness.” From this he posits the essential unity of disciples and people. In his discussion of the Beatitudes, Bonhoeffer tends to emphasize the tension between Jesus’ followers and the world but here he stresses the commonality. It’s easy to read him (and to some degree the Beatitudes themselves) and place ourselves on that same grid. We hear a lot these days about the persecution of Christians in American, for example. But I wonder whether the perception might change if the emphasis were on the ways in which the people of God are meant to be a blessing to the communities and world in which they live.

In this week’s lectionary reading from Genesis 12, God calls Abram and Sarai out from Haran into the Promised Land, telling them, “I will bless you … so that you will be a blessing” and “in you all the families of the world will be blessed.” It’s easy to recoil, raise our defenses, withdraw or try to fight back when we encounter opposition. The world sees plenty of that from Christians. What might it be like to offer oneself and one’s community of faith as a blessing to its neighborhood and the world?


Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Today is the 68th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom. Imprisoned because of his participation in the 1944 plot against Hitler, he was executed a few days before his prison camp was liberated by Allied forces. His writings while in prison were compiled as Letters and Papers from Prison. Included in it is the poem “Who am I.” Here’s an English translation that first appeared in the March 4, 1946 issue of Christianity and Crisis:

Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equally, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were

compressing my throat,

Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

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, 0 God, I am Thine!

The Dietrich Bonhoeffer home page is here. A recent essay from the New York Review of Books on Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi



It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God, whereas the world fell into trembling when Jesus Christ walked over the earth. That is why it is so strange when we see the marks of God in the world so often together with the marks of human suffering, with the marks of the cross on Golgotha. We have become so* accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Coming of Jesus in our Midst”

From a sermon Bonhoeffer preached on the First Sunday of Advent, 1928, in Barcelona; from The Living Pulpit