Dietrich Bonhoeffer by William Hamilton
There are several Protestant theologies loose in American intellectual life. The one that is foremost in the much publicized ecumenical movement, and that is decisive in the Protestant-Catholic dialogue, is a more or less ossified version of the theology of Karl Barth. Whenever Protestants talk about art or psychoanalysis or literature, it is a good guess that the massive work of Paul Tillich is informing their discussion. When the knotty problems of American arrogance or the contest between ideological and pragmatic foreign policy is being debated, the work of Reinhold Niebuhr is in the immediate background.
But a strong case can be made that the most decisive theological influence on the younger generation of Protestants today is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Gestapo on April 9, 1945.
"Martyred" may beg some questions. Do Protestants have martyrs? Can they have them? What is a martyr? The word was used fairly often about the late Dag Hammarskjöld, not at the time of his death but on the occasion of the publication of Markings. Does a martyr have to die in the presence of God to become a martyr? Socrates and Joan of Arc were martyrs, but Jesus, somehow, was not. Why?
Bonhoeffer was a martyr not only because he died making a very sophisticated theological protest against Nazi tyranny but because he met that other condition we seem to require of martyrdom: he let us know what it is like when one gets ready to die. A martyr is not just a religious man who dies for a cause. He is a man -- he could be religious or non-religious -- who dies for others, and who has had the occasion to communicate somehow the experience of preparing for death. The German resistance movement produced many authentic martyrs in this sense, but no one of them is a contemporary intellectual influence in the way that Bonhoeffer is. He died at the age of thirty-nine, after about two years of imprisonment, just several days before his prison camp was liberated by the Allies, and less than a month before the conclusion of the war in Europe.
Why have the fragmentary works of this young German theologian acted like a delayed time bomb in America and come into their own so recently? Bonhoeffer is not, it should be noted, an important or influential figure in West Germany or Switzerland, the traditional intellectual centers of Protestant theology. (He is important in East Germany and in Czechoslovakia, but not perhaps for the reasons we value him here.) In this country he is communicating to many young Protestants today because his are the only theological words written in the recent past that can help us understand the new era into which we are moving.
What is this new era? It is not the world of the ecumenical movement, or of dialogue with art, or psychoanalysis, or of the politics of sin. It is the world of the radically accelerating pace of secularization, of the increasing unimportance and powerlessness of religion, of the end of special privilege for religious men and religious institutions. It is the world of the new forms of technology, of the mass media, of great danger and great experiment -- what Kenneth Boulding calls the postcivilized world.
Bonhoeffer is teaching a few Protestants what it means to say "yes" to the twentieth century and still somehow to stay recognizably Protestant. A look at a few of his seminal ideas will make this clear. The significant works are Ethics and, most importantly, his Letters and Papers from Prison. This little book is almost certainly in the process of doing for the sixties and seventies what Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man did for the forties and fifties. Three central ideas from this book are in the process of becoming part of the general intellectual equipment of a good many younger observers of the American scene, both those with and those without an interest in what is usually called theology.
First, from the prison letters, there is the affirmation of the coming of age of the world. This is related to the rather silly debate about whether or not we are living in a post-Christian world, but it is not the same thing. Bonhoeffer’s conviction that the world has moved out of its adolescence and reached an adult phase implied a new interpretation of the intellectual history of the West since the thirteenth century, and demanded a full, ungrudging, affirmative attitude to the secularizing process which began at that time. He writes in the letter of June 8, 1944, that Christians have ordinarily read this story of secularization as tragic or at least as unhappy, and have tried to find some way of urging the worldly West to return to its religious foundations, or to appropriate the wisdom of the East as a guide, or to search for some new theonomy. In any case, Christians have almost always been offended by the self-assurance of the Western secular man.
Christian apologetics has taken the most varying forms of opposition to this self-assurance. Efforts are made to prove to a world thus come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of "God." Even though there has been surrender on all secular problems, there still remain the so-called ultimate questions --death, guilt -- on which only "God" can furnish an answer, and which are the reason why God and the Church and the pastor are needed.
Bonhoeffer insists that this traditional Christian uneasiness in the presence of confidence, assurance and independence in man is wrong. God is not a working hypothesis; we must learn to live without him, as if he were not there.
So our coming of age forces us to a true recognition of our situation vis-à-vis God. God is teaching us that we must live as men who can get along very well without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who makes us live in this world without using him as a working hypothesis is the God before whom we are ever standing. Before God and with him we live without God. God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us. (Letter of July 16, 1944.)
It is fairly clear how the meaning of these passages can be put to work in our day. This is, first of all, a rather untypical Christian reading of modern intellectual history. The movement toward secularism, autonomy, away from God, is approved not so that secularists will applaud, but for theological reasons: i.e., dependence and need are not proper descriptions of man’s relationship to God. Bonhoeffer invites us to accept the world without God as given and unalterable. If there is to be a God for the modern world, he will not be found by renouncing the world that can do without him.
There is also, in Bonhoeffer’s vision of the world come of age, a rejection of religion as salvation either by transmitting the individual to some protected religious realm, or even as protection from something that, without religion, a man might fall into, like despair or self-righteousness. Put more clearly, Bonhoeffer states that in the world come of age, we can no longer be religious, if religion is defined as that system that treats God or the gods as need-fulfillers and problem-solvers.
There are thus no places in the self or the world, Protestants who listen to Bonhoeffer go on to say, where problems emerge that only God can solve. There are problems and needs, to be sure, but the world itself is the source of the solutions, not God. God must not be asked to do what the world is fully capable of doing: offer forgiveness, overcome loneliness, provide a way out of despair, break pride, assuage the fear of death. These are worldly problems for those who live in this world, and the world itself can provide the structures to meet them.
Familiar intellectual worlds are being rejected by Bonhoeffer and by those who are using him as their navigation chart today --Protestant theologies of correlation, for example, where worldly forms of art and knowledge are used to illustrate the incompleteness or brokenness of the world without God. It need hardly be added that the vulgar world of the problem-solving preacher, the pro-God subway ad, and the slick, vulgar world of the clever T.V. commercial for God, are being set aside as well.
Technically, what Bonhoeffer is saying is that in the modern world that can do without God, the idea of the innate religiousness of man, the religious a priori, must be rejected. Augustine has sung lyrically and soothingly to many: "restless is our heart until it comes to rest in Thee." Our response today is, maybe some hearts are, and maybe some are not.
The second idea which marks Bonhoeffer’s influence and importance is his plea for a non-religious or religionless Christianity. Because the world is grown up and has moved out of its dependency situation, the God of religion, solving otherwise insoluble problems, meeting otherwise unmeetable needs, is impossible and unnecessary. Thus man cannot be said to need God at all; God is not necessary to man. With this affirmation, the substance of whole libraries of Protestant preaching, evangelism, apologetics and Christian education seems a little thin. If man does not need God, if he is not necessary to our lives, how can there be a God for us? Doesn’t this lead to a fatal blurring of the line between belief and unbelief? Is it really possible to pull off, without sophistry or deceit, a definition of the Christian as the godless man?
There are some Protestants who are definitely moving in this direction, seriously considering our time as the time of the death of God whose full advent Nietzsche’s madman predicted. Others stop short and claim that we may be able to distinguish between using God and enjoying him, between uti and frui. Thus, we need to seek out the ways in which the unneeded and unnecessary God may be enjoyed.
The plea for a religionless Christianity is thus a plea to give up all claims for the necessity of religion generally. Christianity -- as would be true of any religion and any irreligion -- is not necessary. It is merely one of the possibilities available to man in a competitive and pluralistic spiritual situation today. Christians are perfectly free to offer their wares to the world come of age, the religionless world. But they have no head starts, ontological or psychological. This in turn implies no clergy deductions, no tax exemption and no preferential treatment of any kind. Finally, when men say "no" to Christianity, it is a real "no," and not a deeply concealed "yes" masked under a protest against false religion. There are those, Bonhoeffer says, who can make it today without God and without despair and guilt. And their success is just as real as the fulfillment of those who live happily and have a God.
We can begin to see what Bonhoeffer is doing and persuading us to do. He is undermining the traditional Christian confidence in language, argument, debate; in short, our assurance that we can persuade an indifferent world that it really needs God. He is forcing us to shift our center of attention from theology, apologetics, criticism of culture, the problem of communication, and even from hermeneutics, to the shape and quality of our lives. He has enabled us to note, in Protestantism, perhaps he has even brought about, the end of theological confidence, and the beginning of a time of confusion between theology and ethics. The communication of the Christian in our world is likely to be, at least for a time, essentially ethical and nonverbal. Christians themselves, at work in the world of the twentieth century, saying their "yes" to it as vigorously as possible, provide the dynamic evidence for the truth or falsity of their message.
The time when the real vitality of Protestantism was intellectual and centered in the Academy is at an end. The Protestant continues to engage his unbelieving brother, but he is likely to be engaging him by working alongside him. What distinguishes this Christian from his non-Christian comrade? If there is any answer to that, it may well be found by meditating on the third, and most elusively powerful, of Bonhoeffer’s ideas, written nine months before he was hanged: "Man is challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world." (The letter of July 18, 1944.)