coffee with dead people: dietrich bonhoeffer


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, courtesy Dover Beach

‘Coffee with Dead People’ is a recurring series on figures, historical and otherwise, I find to be fascinating, reflections on their lives and works mashed up with mine. And they’re dead.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most brilliant theological and philosophical minds of the 20th century, a textbook example of what might have been…

…had he not been executed by the Germans with Allied artillery virtually within earshot?

…had he decided to stay in the United States under asylum, as his friend Reinhold Niebuhr pleaded with him to do?

…had he not maintained his moral compass and theological integrity in the face of a tyrannical cultural movement?

My first encounter with Bonhoeffer was in college, where fervent and zealous fundamentalists gravitated to The Cost of Discpleship merely on the name of the work alone. In all likelihood, none of them probably read and understood the book, talking hyperbolic about laying everything down for Jesus in that inimitable way fervent, zealous fundamentalists can talk.

My first interaction with Bonhoeffer came a little later, finding his Ethics at a book liquidator for next to nothing. What I found was not a blustering, glib firebrand who would draw fundamentalists with his populist ramblings. Quite the opposite; I found a nuanced, skilled thinker–very German, very Lutheran–whose commitment to Christ and the doctrine of hypostatic union–the full God-ness and humanity of Jesus–led him to extrapolate a brilliant, almost mystic ethic based on the economy of union versus disunion, with God and with one another. His clarity was almost disconcerting, unlike colleagues such as Niebuhr or Tillich, Bonhoeffer took a simple idea and built an entire universe around it. Postman once said ‘Clarity is courage,’ and indeed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was courageous.

It is what people have done with him that seems cowardly in comparison.

Eric Metaxas, heir to the late Chuck Colson as the socio-political voice of Evangelicalism, wrote a biography of Bonhoeffer that might as well have been any number of modern American Evangelicals. It was a puzzling work that was on one hand very readable and enjoyable, but also intellectually harrowing and anachronistic. Indeed, one pre-release reviewer of the then-manuscript found it so fraught with mistakes, grammatical, historical and otherwise, and so deviant from other, more socially-proximate bios on the subject that he insisted HarperCollins not publish it. (Nashville’s Thomas Nelson, an Evangelical publishing house, ended up releasing it to Evangelical acclaim. (The former is a subsidiary of the latter. Metaxas, as Jeff Tweedy. YHF, my friend. YHF.)

The political and religious left have claimed Bonhoeffer as their own as well, using his ‘religionless Christianity’ as the basis for everything from universalism to a theological grounding for primarily-political recognition of same-sex marriage. We’ve already covered how fundamentalists love a good title. I think, with what I believe to be good reason, both miss the point (as tedious distinctions like left and right are wont to do since they ultimately represent nothing but idolatrous self-interest.)

This is not to say that it is inappropriate for one to, ahem, appropriate ideas into one’s thinking on a particular subject (lest I be rendered a hypocrite for having a series called ‘Coffee with Dead People’.) It’s just that when we deal with our own thinking on subjects, we need to do so with an understanding that the mere appearance of concurrence is not concurrence itself. We are inexorably at the mercy of context, and granted that matters of context and intent are not entirely knowable, this is not the same as saying they are not knowable at all. Tillich’s approach toward panentheism and process leaves me wanting, but that doesn’t mean I can’t agree with him when he says that faith is the object of one’s ultimate concern. Bonhoeffer’s unwavering resistance to the Nazi corruption of the German church is a false equivalent to both fundamentalist self-immolation and ‘progressive’ self-glorification. It is culturally and temporally located and what we derive from that has to be appreciated within that framework. Hating the Cubs doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the careers of Ron Santo and Ernie Banks.

Beyond all of this linguistic nonsense, though, lies a creeping, disconcerting thought, the one that plagues each of us periodically in our lives: what might have been? Then, I look at a person like Bonhoeffer, lionized after his time, and wonder how he must have felt in Flossenburg or Buchenwald, the final days of his life playing out toward an undeniable end. Had he not asked himself the same questions, his life would not have the same lasting resonance, for he would not have been a man at all. Then I consider Jesus in the same way, carrying the weight of dread in Gethsemane, then the beatings and the execution. Who thinks for a moment that Jesus didn’t consider doubt when the Romans were doing what they did best?

Then I hate myself for my compromise, and place my trust in divine grace to cover the deficit. What more could be done?

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