plodding through Bonhoeffer # 5 "America"

pg. 147-172 Eberhard Bethge, “Bonhoeffer”

On vacation I kept up on my reading in Bethge, Green, and Sanctorum Communio. In real time I’m up to 1933 but I’ll recap here for you my reflections on Bonhoeffer’s first journey to America. For some reason this chapter is one that I have read more than a few times over the years. I think I must have heard more about Bonhoeffer’s first visit to America than anything else. To reread it again as it fits in relation to his student years and early theological work gives it a much different feel. He’s a young student who doesn’t think much of an American theological education or it’s requirements. A friend advises that he thinks of it like secondary school. His love for dogmatics makes him an alien at Union Theological Seminary. Instead of attending chapel he hangs out with his friend Frank Fischer in Harlem. He brings home to Germany his new love for African American spirituality. He relates their impact to his students and fellow Finkenwalde members in story and song.

Seeing the film”The Motorcycle Diaries” makes me think of Bonhoeffer’s journey across America in a borrowed automobile. Wouldn’t it be magnificent to know more about this journey with friends? Before this first trip to America Dietrich is much less politically inclined. His pastoral burden shines for sure in Barcelona, but in America the social gospel taught at Union managed to climb into his thinking. The French pacifist Jean Lasserre became a good friend during this trip and his influence is seen in the following chapter, particularly in the ecumenical work. Paul Lehmann (the Theological Ethicist who I surmise was able to fully develop an Ethic where Bonhoeffer left off) provided a home for Bonhoeffer on this trip. I worked through the book Humanization and the Politics of God: The Koinonia Ethics of Paul Lehmann by Nancy Duff at least five years ago and I still believe Lehmann’s is the most convincing ethical path I’ve encountered. I have found troublesome logic in his The Decalogue and a Human Future (his final work) but in all honesty I stopped reading it and so haven’t been able to engage it in a real conversation. I know I’ve digressed here but my point is that Lehmann is a keystone in both his relationship to Bonhoeffer, his engagement with his thought, and his study of German history and the aftermath of the post-war. I’m not aware of much focus of Paul Lehmann these days. But he deserves our attention.
These three friends: Frank Fischer, Jean Lasserre, and Paul Lehmann could make the subject of a wonderful book in and of themselves. It would take some work for someone to unearth and survey their paths but I’d read and review it!

Anyway back to the chapter at hand. Another thing I found of interest was Bonhoeffer’s tutelage in the philosophical works of William James to try to understand the American way of thinking. Bonhoeffer wrote:

In them, particularly in James, I found the key to understanding the modern theological language and ways of thought of the liberal, enlightened American. . . . Questions such as that of Kantian epistemology are “nonsense,” and no problem to htem, because they take life no further. It is not truth, but “works” that is “valid,” and that is their criterion. (Bethge, pg. 161)

The fact that Bonhoeffer so wanted to bridge the cultural and intellectual gap in his understanding says something about him. It’s also indicative of a gap that we as his readers should grasp. All the American scholarship on Bonhoeffer, the hundreds of books in the bibliographies compiled, seem to take for granted that we have this connection to him by virtue of some spiritual affinity. I find however that the more I read of Bonhoeffer the further I am removed from actual theological proximity. The case in point would be trying to read Sanctorum Communio, then Act and Being, then his Christology lectures, and then finally The Cost of Discipleship. I saw that an reviewer is doing that now. I know so many readers of The Cost of Discipleship. That work is undoubtedly the only work most will ever read. And of that work I surmise only the first few chapters!

I say these things not because I want Bonhoeffer extricated from the American mind and put into an intellectual ivory tower, but because I think the struggle to understand him in his full complexity should be engaged and attempted. I find in his writings (and I consider myself only a neophyte) a struggle to make faith real and practical and to really understand Jesus’ claims and God’s heart. The more I read the more I am compelled to read. If I as a German illiterate and college drop out can attempt that so can anyone.

I know this post has turned out much more topical than chronological. Again it is because I think too much cursory treatment is already made of this first trip to America. Much more is contained in No Rusty Swords pg. 67-113 than I can say here.


1 Comment

Filed under Blogging DB, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eberhard Bethge

One response to “plodding through Bonhoeffer # 5 "America"

  1. Simon

    I’ve just discovered your notes on Bonhoeffer and am finding them useful.
    I am reading The Cost of Discipleship and am interested in why he wrote what he wrote.
    Keep going!

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