Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bonhoeffer in America

May 20, 2010

Eric Metaxas has written the first major biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer since that of Bonhoeffer’s friend, Eberhard Bethge, more than forty years ago. It is called Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. (Thomas Nelson, 2010) I wrote my undergraduate thesis on this man and both his life and theology have intrigued me ever since. I keep returning to the story of someone who saw and felt what was happening in Germany in general and in the German Church in particular such that he compared himself to the prophet Jeremiah and suffered imprisonment and death for his fidelity. I keep returning to the story of someone for whom God was real, but who rejected fundamentalism along with the particularly American forms of liberalism that he encountered while yearning for what he called a kind of “religionless Christianity”.

He came to Union Seminary near Columbia University in New York City in 1930 at the height of American liberalism and was appalled. John Rockefeller had just built Riverside Church as a pulpit for Harry Emerson Fosdick who also taught preaching at Union. Fosdick’s curriculum placed topics like ‘the forgiveness of sins’ and ‘the cross’ in the general, and by implication not terribly important, category of “traditional themes” (p.106). Bonhoeffer learned much about community while at Union and much about both music and holding the faith apart from the mainstream through what he called ‘negro religion’ traveling through the South in search of greater understanding of this particularly affective and hopeful expression of the faith. Both were to play an important role in the way his life was to unfold. But he was appalled by the theology, or rather lack of theology that he encountered. Metaxas cites a letter to Max Diestel in which Bonhoeffer writes

“There is no theology here…They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students…are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about…They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level” (p.101).

Elsewhere in a reflection on The Enlightened American he remarked that the sermon has been reduced to “parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events.” He admired the social conscience that was part of genuine community, but feared for Christianity that did not preach a vigorous gospel of sin, repentance, salvation and the cross.

I doubt that Bonhoeffer would have the same experience of Union Seminary today. We will have a glimpse of today’s theology when Serene Jones, the President of union and a wonderful speaker offers our Woodall Lecture this autumn. She has spent much of her career holding together the insights of Calvinism and the insights of feminism which even in the early 1980s were considered strange bedfellows. Her recent work considers theological resources for those who have suffered trauma. I wonder what he would say about the content of preaching at All Saints’ and believe that he would hear the gospel proclaimed with vigor from a clear consistent theological (what he calls ‘dogmatic’) foundation. But he would hear it in the midst of a people who, while shaped by and towards a desire for righteousness (diakosoune), and with an appreciation for the continuing revelation of divine will in and through community, might not always articulate the Christian gospel of forgiveness and grace through the cross and resurrection with great confidence. Does that sound right? And is it a problem?

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