Friday, March 30, 2007

Bonhoeffer is still the man

I began my graduate program having devoured Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison. I have scribbles in the margins, sticky notes extending from the pages to highlight quotes of particular interest and underlines everywhere. It feels right to be ending this program by examining his writings at a deeper level. The following are a few excerpts from the lengthy introduction of my thesis (due Monday). I thought for those who've asked me for more detail about my faith journey, this introduction develops that part of my life and how it relates to Bonhoeffer. And, frankly, I have no time to write anything else right now!

Excerpts from the evolving thesis:

Provocative Fragments for Postmodern Faith
A discussion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison

“Empty sky, empty sky. I woke up this morning to an empty sky.”
(Bruce Springsteen, “Empty Sky”)

Days after the World Trade Towers lay in rubble and the cloud of dust and smoke dissipated from the sky, I reached for the one book I thought might speak to our new context–a world where Americans were hated by people who claimed to love God. I turned to Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I wanted to know what a Christian ought to feel, ought to do in the midst of international conflict. I wanted to know if Christianity still had something to say in our postmodern world. The opening essay, “After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made at New Year’s, 1943” is addressed to Bonhoeffer’s family as well as his co-conspirators who had hatched a plot to assassinate Hitler as the “only patriotism which made any sense” (Kelly 507). I read with new eyes “…[we] must take our share of responsibility for the moulding of history in every situation and at every moment, whether we are the victors or the vanquished” (Letters Bonhoeffer 7). My theological wrangling over the problem of evil usually led me to question God, not myself. Where was God when evil was perpetrated against the innocent? Yet Bonhoeffer made the issue, “Where was I?” This shift in how I looked at history and my faith started a snowball effect.

While my initial motivation to read Bonhoeffer corresponded to my anxiety for my country’s safety and my questions about what a Christian response ought to be in the face of genuine evil (particularly evil perpetrated in God’s name), over the course of the next two years, Letters and Papers from Prison served a more profound purpose in my personal spiritual development. Somewhere along the way, I had lost my evangelical, win-people-to-Christ faith and at that moment, in the wake of international terror, I could not see a way back to Christianity at all.

Questions I had put on the high shelf of my faith descended with new urgency to be addressed and resolved: Can God be good if God allows evil and suffering? Why can’t Christians count on God’s special protection and grace? How can we be sure that God exists now that science has made so many religious answers obsolete? What is our relationship to the state as Christians? Does prayer work? Who is Jesus Christ and what does he have to do with the modern era?

No one doctrinal portrait could hold it all together in a meaningful way for me. Confidence in my “theological package” crumbled. I found myself examining myriad theological perspectives that were supposed to organize my beliefs in such a way that God made sense and my practice of Christianity supported those beliefs. Yet the more I studied, the less I understood. Christians do not present a united front when it comes to the meanings of words like: salvation, justification, the kingdom of God, and the mission of the church. Each time I felt I had found a key to unlock the contradictions that puzzled me, new questions emerged to replace the old ones.

By the end of a three-year search and study, I had lost the faith I once preached, I lost touch with God as I had thought God could be understood and known, and I no longer felt at home among Christians. Ironically, at the same time, I experienced an intellectual and artistic renaissance, wherein I discovered a love for the arts, literature, philosophy and nature study in a fresh, open way. I felt as though life—real life here on earth—took on meaning while my spirituality became nonsense...

...In reading Bonhoeffer again, I queried: how can Christian faith be relevant in the midst of a scientific, postmodern culture that no longer uses church authority as the means to hold people to the institution of the church? What is it to be Christian in these times?

Bonhoeffer did not disappoint. Here was a man faced with the most blatant evil of our era (Nazi hegemony and the Shoa) who spoke truthfully out of his experience both as a German intellectual and as a Christian. He managed to hold in tension the entire history of the human intellectual enterprise honestly in one hand while finding Jesus Christ to be relevant, empowering and meaningful in the other. Forged in Nazi prison cells, Bonhoeffer’s writings stated what no other Christian I had read to date admitted: “God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion…! For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible, eliminated” (360). Finally–someone who did not shrink from the loss of God in modern life.

Bonhoeffer’s letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge, his family and fiancĂ©, and his notes to himself during his prison term at the end of World War II teased me. He spoke of a faith not characterized primarily by forgiveness for “private” sins, but rather a faith that created a profound sense of responsibility within us to take seriously the shaping of history, in particular, the historical moment in which we found ourselves. His viewpoint continues to be credible today because he lived what he professed. “…[T]o the extent that these letters are valued today, their importance rests largely on the fact that they originate from Bonhoeffer and are authenticated by his life and death” (Haynes 3).

Bonhoeffer stayed me in an hour of despair. It is not an exaggeration to say that without these fragments of under-developed theological reflection, I would have left the Christian faith all together. His hints at a religionless Christianity, a relevant faith that grappled honestly with challenges to its very meaning and truth-value supported me in my desire to be intellectually curious as well as spiritually alive. Because he lived honestly both his convictions and his questions, I found a living example of Christian belief and practice I could embody...

...The beauty and mystery of Bonhoeffer’s body of work in Letters and Papers from Prison is that while his theological insights are incomplete, we encounter a whole person through his writings. We are not left with a sterile systematic theology that can be studied, evaluated and then judged as good or bad, right or wrong, satisfactory or insufficient. We cannot catalog Bonhoeffer and confine him to one tradition, to one church confession. In fact, we find that we cannot dismiss him, either, because we have come to love him. His voice lingers in our imaginations long after we close the pages of this collection of writings...


my15minutes said...

No wonder your prof was happy with what he saw here....I've watched you on your journey, and I still found your writing fresh and meaningful; and I am grateful to Bonhoeffer for helping you retain your faith in a meaningful way. :-) Three cheers for wrapping this up with style.

Dave said...

That's a very elegant piece of essayin' there, Julie. I'm quite impressed by both the content and the way you expressed yourself. Very genuine, reflective and *real.* I don't see any of the arch straining to "inflate the souffle" that so often comes through in theological writings, particularly in papers that serve as some kind of "major statement" or other. Probably because I don't get the sense that you are covering up or over anything as you write! ;o)

SusansPlace said...

Loved reading about your journey, even though I've been privy to some of it, the Bonhoeffer connection was never quite so clear to me before. :-)


Dalissa 365 said...

Thanks for sharing your journey, Julie. It's quite interesting. Love you.

Steve said...

Ok Julie. We are very similar in this regard. While my faith has not evaporated, perhaps to a similar extent as yours, it sure as heck has evolved. And I returned to Bonhoeffer just last year, as I was asked to lead a younger couples group at our (broken) church. Life Together became our study, and I loved it, rereading it after about 25 years (Bel Air Pres days).

I am thankful for you, and your honest wondering. And I am thankful for Detrick, and his honest faith. May you find a home and solace.

Julie, I still have many questions about your dissappointment with church folk, as I suspect much of your wondering is connected to the failures (repeated) of these people.

When you are ready, please write about that. Or, better yet, come to So Cal, sit on our back deck after a swim, and share it all over dinner and wine.

Peace, and Grace for you and your family this Holy Week

Carol said...

Oh, I do remember our unfinished discussion on this novel back about 5 years ago! Can you believe it? I don't know if you even remember it!

I was hoping I could read part of it. Thanks for posting an excerpt!

julieunplugged said...

Carol, I do remember it! In fact, as I was writing and reading again, I thought about you and I reading the opening essay in the wake of 9/11 on TD. So yes, I do remember.

thechurchgeek said...

I've often wished that Bonhoeffer was still alive. I think he offers so much to us, and I would have loved to have seen how he would have worked out many of his thoughts and sketches in Letters and Papers from Prison.

julieunplugged said...

Jim, I think one of the enduring aspects of Bonhoeffer's writing is that he didn't get to flesh it out. It's up to us to think for ourselves and use our imaginations to flesh out that religionless Christianity. I find that challenging and exciting.