Saturday, August 29, 2009

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction to his Thought

By Sabine Dramm, Hendrickson, p. 258.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed on Hitler's orders after having endured almost two years in prison for his opposition to the Nazis. Bonhoeffer played a leading role in the formation and leadership of the group of Lutherans that opposed Hitler and became associated with the attempt on the dictator's life in 1944.

Sabine Dramm emphasizes Bonhoeffer's people-centeredness and full participation in building a role for himself in his society:

“Even the final photographs, taken early in the summer of 1944, show him in a group, together with Italian prisoners in the prison courtyard. As he wrote to his friend on August 14, 1944, 'There is ... almost no happiness greater than the feeling that one is valued by others. What is important is not their number, but the intensity of this experience. After all, human relationships are simply the most important thing in life, and even the modern 'career' person cannot change this.'”

These words reflect the different kind of society in which Bonhoeffer lived – one that was still largely based on local community, extended family, and even on agriculture. This society was grappling with the horribly destabilizing effects of industrialization and urbanization, as families broke up, the economy grew further and further away from its agricultural roots, and people in Germany and elsewhere in Europe grew increasingly desperate, eventually allowing the Nazis to take over in Germany and for World War II to start.

Bonhoeffer belongs to the old Christian cultural and spiritual guard of Europe – Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant – that failed to hold society together. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century popes also fought these tough, losing battles to secularism. Sabine Dramm makes clear that Bonhoeffer and his theology had been deeply affected by this Culture of Death even before the specter of the Nazis placed further demands on his theology:

His “reflections on religion-less Christianity and the world come of age make clear that he himself had traveled the road to what has been called in modern times 'the death of God, from Hegel to Nietzsche,' only to go beyond Nietzsche.”

Dramm makes the significant connection between this modern atheism and Nazism, and specifically Bonhoeffer's concrete suffering:

“[T]he theology he developed in Tegel Prison offers his most direct response to Feuerbach's critique of religion....In response to the central point made in Feuerbach's critique of religion – namely that religion is simply a product of human projections – Bonhoeffer presented an interpretation of the Christian proclamation,” which emphasized that “The congruence between the suffering God and suffering man in the Christ-event does not correspond in reality to religious images of God and man.”

Bonhoeffer and his theology incarnate the catastrophes and moral chaos that have resulted from the West's rejection of Christianity and subsequent adoption of extreme individualism, materialism, and secularism. Because he belongs to the increasingly frail and brittle liberal Protestant tradition, contemporary mainstream Christianity tends to overlook him, to its own loss.

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