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A Contradictory Hero

The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

by Mary Bosanquet
Harper and Row, 304 pp., $5.95

Ferocious power like that of the old Caesars can never again disgrace the leading civilizations of the world,” Frank Newman confidently predicted during the course of his lectures on ancient and modern history. Almost exactly one hundred years later a certain Lutheran pastor called Dietrich Bonhoeffer was taken from his Berlin prison to an extermination camp at Flossenbürg. The next day he was stripped naked and hanged.

He left behind him one uncompleted work of scholarship, several books of a pastoral nature, and some letters and jottings he had kept throughout his two-and-a-half years of imprisonment. These last were preserved and published in English sixteen years ago. If John Robinson, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, had not injured his back and thus had time for that meditation on the state of religion which in 1963 produced the provocative best-seller Honest to God, it is possible that Bonhoeffer’s influence would have been confined to a narrow circle. The Bishop, however, quoted him extensively, public interest was aroused, and the Bonhoeffer industry began. Books and articles poured from the press. Some nerve was touched which still vibrates and I do not think it an exaggeration to say that Bonhoeffer has been responsible for a great deal of the mood which lies behind the present theological debate. But how much is the real Bonhoeffer and how much Bonhoeffer bent to fit the preconceptions of those who are, in fact, preaching quite another gospel?

While rejoicing at the wide publicity given to his life and work we may legitimately regret the banner under which he was entered for the theological lists. There has been no lack of informed appreciation of his thought. The work of Bethge, Marty, Godsey, Phillips, and René Marlé, immediately springs to mind. But like the Bishop of Woolwich himself, to an unfortunate extent Bonhoeffer has been captured by his cruder exponents. A fastidious, conservative, deeply Christ-centered man has been associated in the public mind with revolutionary theology of a particularly shallow kind. Those who have not troubled to read his Ethics1 and Cost of Discipleship2 , or considered his Letters and Papers from Prison3 against its real setting, have seized on such notorious phrases as “religionless Christianity” and “man come of age” to promote attempts to substitute anthropology for theology. So, ironically, the man who on his first visit to New York wrote scathingly, “What do we find in place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism which pins its faith to progress and which for some not quite evident reason assumes the right to call itself Christian,” has often been dubbed the apostle of what is in essence unselfish atheism masquerading as religion. The saint of the secular has been transformed into the secular saint.

The truth is quite different and very much more disturbing. As a thinker Bonhoeffer was not original, nor, even if he had had the capacity, did circumstances permit him to integrate his ideas into some profound synthesis. What is, to some, startling about his estimate of the spiritual situation in which man finds himself is confined to a comparatively few pages of his posthumously published correspondence. He was not an academic theologian wrestling in the peace of his study with the problem of belief, conceived as intellectual assent to a metaphysical argument. What he left were the fragmentary, unresolved, probing reflections of one who had witnessed the failure of his own motivating force to affect the affairs of men one way or another. He was writing in extremis, expecting at any moment torture or death, and the very sharpness of his perceptions implies distortion. He uses words ambiguously, he is sometimes obscure, at others contradictory, but from first to last there is a basic consistency of thought and purpose.

No radical discontinuity exists between the Lutheran who once accepted the autonomous spheres of church and state and the man who spent his active years trying to persuade people of the contrary, or between the man who started life as a near pacifist and yet who ended deeply involved in schemes for political assassination. The prisoner who so baldly proclaimed that humanity must live as if God were not there was the same person who could write after the failure of the July Plot, upon the success of which so much of his hopes depended, “May God in his mercy lead us through these times. But above all may he lead us to himself.” It is this inner consistency which is revealed so clearly in Mary Bosanquet’s splendid biography, which she spent the last five years of her life compiling.

In the case of Bonhoeffer knowledge of the inner and outer man is not an impertinence but a necessity. Without it his work is unintelligible. It would have been easy in such a dramatic tale to have taken the reader’s emotions by assault. Mary Bosanquet’s restraint is far more effective, sharing at times with Bonhoeffer’s last letters of farewell an extremely moving quality. Bonhoeffer’s complex, attractive character is beautifully drawn out. As far as possible Miss Bosanquet lets him speak for himself, so the reader who is unacquainted with his earlier works gets an introduction not only to them, but also to his lectures, sermons, and poetry. For his character, personal life, and the interpretation of his theology she has consulted all those now living who knew Bonhoeffer well, including his twin sister, Sabine, who has contributed a foreword.

Her greatest debt is to the generosity of Dr. Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s former pupil and close friend, who was involved with him in the struggles of the final years. It was Dr. Bethge who edited the Letters and Papers from Prison and to whom so many of the letters themselves were addressed. He has already written extensively on his friend, but his latest work, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologe, Christ, Zeitgenosse, has not yet been published in English. For the political and ecclesiastical scene Miss Bosanquet was faced with a daunting amount of published material. She has skillfully guided the reader through the evidence, sifting and selecting so that the pattern emerges clearly.

In an interesting passage the author points out that until those last years in prison, Bonhoeffer tended to avert his eyes from the challenge scientific knowledge makes to religion. She suggests that this may have been a defense mechanism, a survival from the time when, as a boy, he felt unable to defend his immature but profound sense of religious reality from the informed arguments of his skeptical elder brother. His home was not a religious one in the simple sense. It was a curious mixture, more common then than now, of settled agnosticism, high ethical standards, and a vague but pervading Christian piety. Bonhoeffer’s decision to become a pastor, although unopposed, was not received with enthusiasm. His father was Professor of Psychiatry at Berlin and in today’s jargon would be termed a secular humanist with a social conscience.

Living in the shattered Germany which followed the defeat of 1918, with its galloping inflation and political and economic unrest, the Bonhoeffer family were in close contact with events and alive to the danger of that bitter backlash which paved the way for the rise of National Socialism. All of them inherited the courageous, individualistic, cultivated, liberal tradition at its best. It is typical that when the command to boycott Jewish stores was obeyed, as the author says, “amid many scenes of disgusting inhumanity,” the majority of those who did not care to be mixed up in the general unpleasantness remained at home. Not so Bonhoeffer’s ninety-year-old grandmother who boldly pushed her way through the cordon of S.A. men and Hitler youth to do her shopping as usual.

In one aspect Bonhoeffer’s intellectual, sophisticated, liberal university circle was broad enough; from another his early environment was narrow. He visited Rome when he was seventeen. There the young man who had seen the Christian Church merely in its provincial shape of Lutheran Prussia and only occasionally attended Protestant services encountered a truly universal Church and the still numinous splendor of a liturgy whose reckless destruction is one of the saddest and maddest features of the present decay of Catholicism. At that moment the Protestant Church seemed to him “no more than a small sect” and he wrote after a brief visit to the Libyan desert, “In Islam everyday life and religion are a single whole, as also in general they are in the Catholic Church. As for us, we go to Church and when we come back quite a different life begins…..”

No doubt the Islamic and Hindu religious cultures will sooner or later go the way of Catholicism. But I think Bonhoeffer hankered after something like them and the impossibility of translating such a synthesis into modern terms accounts in part for the pessimism and contradictions of his later writing. The point to be made here, however, is that his awareness of the pressures of the outside world stimulated in his home was early fused with a realization which was to lead him to the gallows—namely that the demands of Christianity are as total as the pretensions of the Nazi state.

The flavor of Bonhoeffer’s Christian devotion always remained Lutheran, nor, as Mary Bosanquet remarks, was he affected by Catholicism in the sphere of dogmatic theology. Fertilization occurred where it matters most, not in conceptual formulation but through interior approach to God. He was constrained, the author remarks, “by a powerful inward pressure to explore the vast territory of the spirit of which so large an area had been wiped off the map of Protestant theology.” This most active of men seemed to have been strongly attracted to contemplation. For many years he longed to go to India, and there survives a revealing sermon on the subject which clearly indicates the direction of his mind.

In the event, he remained within his own tradition, but at the seminary he founded near Stettin, which flourished until it was closed down by the Gestapo in 1940, he established a discipline of meditation and prayer described by an uneasy Karl Barth as possessing an “indefinable odour of the eros and pathos of the cloister.” It is important to stress this aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life because without it he is seen entirely in the wrong focus. The foundation of his activity was prayer. As Captain Payne Best, the English officer who was Bonhoeffer’s companion during his last weeks remarked, “He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom God was real, and ever close to him.”

Recognition of the potential and actual wickedness of humanity was one of Christianity’s most valuable inheritances from Judaism. “Ce serait une duperie,” writes David Rousset, himself a former inmate of one of the worst German concentration camps, “et criminelle, que de prétendre qu’il est impossible aux autres peuples de faire une expérience analogue pour des raisons d’opposition de nature.” Given certain conditions the horrors of Nazi Germany could be repeated anywhere.

  1. 1

    Macmillan, 384 pp., $1.45 (paper)

  2. 2

    Macmillan, 352 pp., $4.95

  3. 3

    Macmillan, 254 pp., $4.95

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