Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, Revised Edition by Eberhard Bethge, Fortress Press, 2000.
Chapter 6 Lecturer and Pastor 1931-1932
Two quotes begin the chapter and set the tone. They involve a fear of disappointing, of getting things right with the state of German public life as such.
How is one to preach such things to these people? Who still believes them? The invisibility destroys us. . . . This absurd, perpetual state of being thrown back upon the invisible God–no one can stand it any longer. (Bethge, 173.)
“Bonhoeffer’s return to Germany in 1931 represented a break in his development that was certainly sharper than the momentous political and ecclesiastical upheaval that followed two years later. The second major phase of his career began now, not in 1933. The period of learning and roaming had come to an end. He now began to teach on a faculty whose theology he did not share, and to preach in a church whose self-confidence he regarded as unfounded. More aware than before, he now became part of a society that was moving toward political, social, and economic chaos.” (173)
At age 25 he now worked in three different fields, the academic as a lecturer at Berlin University, the pastoral as a student chaplain teaching catechism, a youth club for the unemployed in Charlottenburg and, in ecumenics, as a youth secretary for the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches and the Ecumenical Council for Practical Christianity (Life and Work). These two groups were seeds of what would later be the World Council of Churches.
In the late summer of 1931Bonhoeffer does a reconnaissance mission to explore these three fields before him. Isn’t that just like him? Always the need to know and be in control!
Bonhoeffer indeed found it difficult to subordinate himself to those who did not meaure up to his exacting standards. . . . He had an instinctive fear of being surprised by circumstances beyond his control without first having sassured himself of an alternative. it was very difficult for him simply to “believe”; indeed, he would have described such “belief” as laziness.
On July 10 in Bonn, through his friend Erwin Sutz, Bonhoeffer finally fulfilled the longing he’d held from his student days to meet Karl Barth. Karl, at 45, is twenty years older than Dietrich at this point. Bonhoeffer wrote to Sutz:
“I have, I think, seldom regretted anything in my theological past so much as the fact that I did not go to him sooner.” (Bethge, 186.) The relationship between these two men is of such importance that Bethge takes ten pages to describe it! That’s typical of Bethge’s writing. He often breaks into the narrative with long theological summaries. But few are as important to me as these ten pages. Bethge explains that while the two hit it off Barth never really got to know where Bonhoeffer was coming from theologically until it was too late. So where Bonhoeffer saw Barth’s advice and respected him highly, he also knew they could never truly be on the same page. Barth hadn’t read Sanctorum Communio or Act and Being and so knew nothing of Bonhoeffer’s theologia relationis or the Lutheran emphasis on the theologia crucis.
Bethge lists four stages to their relationship in which he demonstrates how each were moving in different directions personally.
“In direct contrast to Barth, Bonhoeffer concentrated on the terrifying proximity of an actively intervening God to preserve the majesty of God from being cheapened in the pulpit, and sought to proclaim him in the concreteness of grace-filled commandment.” (Bethge, 182)
Dietrich and Franz Hildrebrandt worked together on a Lutheran catechism from July to September 1931. Bethge notes that Bonhoeffer worked on two, one in 1931 and one in 1936. He says neither were “simple or convincing as a learning tool.” Not as interested in teaching as “attempting to put into words what the Lutheran faith says today. Questions and answers are designed for concentrated reading.” Hildebrandt came upon Luther’s Statement of Faith and this is what their catechism was based on. I wish I could post here the entire 1931 catechism from No Rusty Swords as it is hard to come by.
Bethge calls this the “most momentous of the three events.”
“His interest in the ecumenical movement was at first incidental, but it took such a hold on him that it became an integral part of his being. He was soon furiously involved in the internal battles about its orientation, and he defended it enthusiastically in public. The emerging world of the Protestant ecumenical movement became a vital part of his theology, his role in the church struggle, and ultimately his political commitment.”
Bethge points out that unlike in Britain, it was the academics and not church officials who first advocated ecumenical involvement. With this kind of representation to the outside, profs didn’t really represent the church, but as civil servants, were in lock step with the Reich. Bonhoeffer was significant because he represented a youthful academic emphasis on the role of the church, and later as a pastor in London he used his ecumenical influence to sway the expatriate churches in London against the home German churches. But that’s not for a few chapters. I’m getting ahead.
Transition from theologian to Christian (202-206)
Much has been made of Dietrich’s transition. I’ve heard it described here in the US emphasized as a conversion. Stephen Haynes (The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon) points out that Evangelical Americans have cast Bonhoeffer in their image using this transition is a touchstone. This comment from Bethge might be a cold slap for them:
“Bonhoeffer never mentioned the biographical background of this thought to his students. They learned nothing about a conscious moment of a turning point. He had always been repulsed by the pietist’ deliberately told stories of their conversions. But this did not mean that he avoided making decisions whose time had come and that held the seeds of the future, including a new responsibility for the world in the final years.” (Bethge, 206)
Clifford Green in Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality spends ten pages (p. 140-147) on what this Transition most likely meant to Bonhoeffer personally as it relates to his theological development. Green locates “the soteriological problem of the powerful ego” as a central theme throughout Bonhoeffer’s early theology. And this issue of the powerful ego is worked out of Dietrich’s own personal struggles.
“I have already demonstrated the striking connection between the soteriological problem of the powerful ego in Bonhoeffer’s theology and his autobiographical memoirs and correspondence. Without suggesting for a moment that personal concerns were the only factors influencing the shape and direction of his theology, this connection is quite apparent. In Sanctorum Communio Bonhoeffer portrays human beings created in communities of mutual love, freedom, and responsibility for on another. To be human is to be essentally social, in its interpersonal and corporate aspects. This essential sociality is turned against itself by individual and collective egotism. Self-seeking, egocentricity, the dominant will, using the other as a means to the ends of the self-these destroy the primal community. The sinful person is now alone, a “solitary lord and creator” in the solidarity of egocentric individualism. Since being human is essentially being a person in sociality, the crisis of the self and the crisis of sociality is one and the same. From this loss of true humanity in sociality people are delivered by Christ. Christ is the reality of the new humanity, personally present in the social community of the church; by his Spirit of love people are freed from the isolation of their individual egocentricity and domination of others, and bonded together in a new social community characterized by “active being for one another.” Both the individual person and human community are, in the church, in the process of being made over and renewed.” (Green, pg. 149)
Bonhoeffer spent two years as a lecturer at Berlin University. Not only did he continue his teaching about Christ located in an anologia relationis (I don’t want to lose you here, this latin refers to how we encounter Christ in the boundary situation that faces us in every human relationship) but the “Bonhoeffer Circle” that formed among his students is an example in itself of Bonhoeffer’s theological praxis. He did not care about dogmatics without engagement. Christ is God’s answer to human estrangement. So as early as 1932 Bethge describes the rudiments of community taking place between Dietrich and his students:
“In 1932 they lugged potatoes, flour, and vegetables on a wheelbarrow to the Stettin train station so that they could spend the weekend together in the country, first at the Prebelow youth hostel and then in a cabin in Biesenthal. They talked theology, made hesitant attempts at spiritual exercises, went for long walks, and listened to Bonhoeffer’s collection of Negro spirituals. It was the first time they had spoken about things like forming fellowship, committing themselves to organized spiritual life, and the possibilities of serving in social settlement work. But there was still a long way to go before any of this was put into practice, and everything was on a free and informal basis. Bonhoeffer did not force anything. These were the hesitant beginnings of what later took shape in Finkenwalde and in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.” (Bethge, 208)
I must say that one of my favorite photos of Bonhoeffer graces the cover of Green’s book. He sits surrounded by his students in 1932 and there is this beautiful mix of men and women, smiling, one playing a flute. The photo describes the beauty of the theology itself! Not cold ideology, not austere irrelevant facts, but persons—-in relation!
Bethge spends ten pages describing Bonhoeffer’s university lectures. Because this blog is already no doubt the longest I’ve ever written, I won’t take the time to describe them here. Bethge says Dietrich found “delivering monologues a burden” and that “preferring student groups and seminars. . . . the further he advanced into the unknown, the more he longed for dialogue and criticism.” This indicates a certain definite style and makes it all the more interesting that his lectures from this period are lost. Did Bonhoeffer himself so little value them that he did not care that they were lost? We are left with the Christology lectures from 1933 and Creation and Fall—which he gave his students permission to publish. Quite honestly I did not find Bethge’s account of the lectures here terribly inviting.
So I turned to Green to immerse myself in the lectures for this blog. Granted it’s mainly Christology and Creation and Fall as they relate the earlier theological works, but Green makes the valuable point that there is a stream, a definite progression and continuity in Bonhoeffer’s theology (that is sociality) that anyone really wanting to know Bonhoeffer rightly must follow. I’m not going to take you into Green’s text here (pgs. 105-246) because of the length(!) but I will offer one criticism. Green focuses on Bonhoeffer up to 1933 but then offers a critical evaluation of Discipleship as a major theological extension of the early theology. He completely ignores Life Together and moves into Ethics and the Prison writings. Granted, there is lack of theological attention to how Letters and Papers and Ethics relate to Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being. But to ignore Life Together is perilous! I guess we can’t have everything. For an example of how Finkenwalde (and thus Life Together) is a realization and progression of Bonhoeffer’s theological development I must direct you to Craig Slane’s book Bonhoeffer As Martyr (pgs. 207-250).
The Church (221-238)
Bonhoeffer was ordained in the German State Lutheran Church on November 15, 1931 in the Matthew Church near Potsdam Place. He couldn’t choose his own pastorate. He was assigned a chaplaincy to the students of a technical college in Charlottenburg. This effort didn’t prove very fruitful. He was also assigned a confirmation class in Wedding, a Berlin district. Now things get a bit more light hearted and fun. Bethge says:
The class was out of control; the minister responsible was at the end of his tether, and in fact died several weeks later. Bonhoeffer wrote Sutz that they had “quite literally harassed [him] to death.”
Bonhoeffer’s success with this group of kids is really cool. It reveals a gentle patience and strength to his personality. He also began a youth club in Charlottenburg which flourished only for a brief while and then to seek a ministry in the “overcrowded slums of east Berlin” (Bethge, 231). His desire for a church there didn’t work out though as his application was denied in favor of someone else. He didn’t give up and found another position in the same district. Then he found out that Aryan clause would soon be applied to that church, which would have betrayed his solidarity with Jewish Christians.
During this time Bethge says that Bonhoeffer “did not join the public on the question of ethnic nationality in the church.” “He was concerned with building small groups; he was not interested in publicity or journalism.”(p. 233) Instead, in 1932, he got involved with some guys who would become Martin Niemoller’s Pastors’ Emergency League.
Bethge spends four pages on Bonhoeffer’s preaching. (234-238) I assume that he was basically an itinerant during this time, filling in as a guest for different pastors. I get the sense that Bonhoeffer believed in preaching and in the power of the sermon more than most other agencies of the Church. He locates the sermon as a sacrament of the Word, though I admit I don’t fully understand this. Clyde Fant has a book called Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching (Thomas Nelson, 1975), which is one of the first books I ever read on Bonhoeffer. It is taken up with lectures from the Finkenwalde era.
I must admit that this final section (of this chapter) on Bonhoeffer’s ecumenical was the hardest of any sections to get through. I found terribly boring! Painfully boring! But before you call me a ninny let me just say that I have very little personal connection to the work of the World Council of Churches. I’m beginning to educate myself on it, largely through the work of Lesslie Newbigen. But in the circles in which I was raised, we were ecumenical but also kept anything that smacked of universalism at arms length. So my family had no direct connection to the WCC that I know of. Reading about all these seed organizations for the WCC, with their very formal and political ways of doing everything I had to fight to stay interested!
However, Bonhoeffer’s involvement here provided a much needed education and placement for his relations with Bishop Bell in the coming years. In chapter eight it all becomes clear with Bonhoeffer’s pastorate in London and his full engagement in the Church Struggle.
Well that’s a weak way to end this chapter, I know. I only wish I had more to say about each of these sections. I hope you get a sense of how important this two year period is and how difficult it is to unpack. In the true spirit of Bonhoeffer’s sociality, I really want to hear from anyone plodding through this period. Comments please!