I couldn't shake my nerves yesterday. I got up early and re-read (in skimming fashion) the entire book Letters and Papers from Prison making notes, listing page numbers with quotes, reminding myself of things I had forgotten or hadn't thought about recently. (Bonhoeffer's view of women sure needed some reformation! More on that another time...) I walked around the house agitated, like a pacing cat. I bought nail polish and then didn't put it on my nails. I showered and dressed in my nice outfit, and then emptied and loaded the dishwasher. I ate nothing and didn't even make food for the kids.
At 1:15, I left for school--paid too much for gas, got the car washed and drove. Do you remember my post two entries ago? It was titled "The end of the world as I know it..." Would you believe that the first song on the radio yesterday afternoon on the way to Xavier was "The End of the World as We Know It." I haven't heard that song on the radio for years. It was followed by Rob Thomas's "Little Wonders." Very appropriate...
our lives are madeI can't put the time back in the bottle. It keeps spilling out no matter how present and conscious I am in each moment.
in these small hours
these little wonders,
these twists & turns of fate
time falls away,
but these small hours,
these small hours still remain
I arrived at school to see moms and dads emptying dormitories of computers, book shelves and oscillating fans. Undergrads, in sweats and smiles, hauled bags of dirty clothes to their parents' cars--the end of a school year and finals.
I clicked in my heels up the brick walkway. I purchased three thank you cards for my advising team and a bottle of water. Once I'd written pithy notes (my writing is horrible when I'm nervous - nothing original or fresh or specific.... just gushes of gratitude), I made my way to the conference room in Hinkle Hall. I was the first to enter that room.
Two minutes later, my chief advisor (Dr. Walker Gollar) arrived with a big smile and a handshake. My stomach rolled. Then Dr. Adam Clark (my black theology professor) joined us, followed a few minutes later by Dr. Art Dewey (Pauline Writings - very first class, Foundations of Biblical Studies and New Testament Greek). We all sat at this long conference table with the floor to ceiling windows for all passers-by right across from me.
They began by each one affirming how much they enjoyed my paper and how provocative it was. That felt good.
Then it was up to me to begin with context so I did. I shared what they mostly already knew, but I filled in a few blanks. I gave fuller expression to what drove me to grad school, why Bonhoeffer has been a consistently useful theologian in my studies and how grad school had helped me to make comparisons and to analyze Bonhoeffer's content in a way I hadn't achieved on my own. (It is amazing to me how every time I open the letters and papers, I discover that something I had not noticed or understood before becomes immediately apparent and clear now that I've read so many more of the writers that influenced him or understand the references he makes.)
Once I concluded my little intro (less than five minutes), Dr. Dewey went first. I knew to brace myself for the hardest questions from him. He's creative and insightful. He challenged right out of the gate the use of performance theory to describe Bonhoeffer's appeal. So we spent several minutes discussing the nuances I meant to emphasize versus the insight he brought to the table: doesn't performance also indicate the use of masks or roles? Is it possible that in writing letters (even if they were not intended to be published) that Bonhoeffer was constructing a role, constructing a fiction just as much as if he had written a book (Dewey was critiquing what he thought was my attempt to call this kind of writing more authentic than another form)? (For those confused by this language, let me explain it like this - all of us are constructing roles and fictions all the time... that's how we create and form our identities and relationships.) So his challenge to me was to ask me whether or not I was simply expressing a preference or if I was rating one way of constructing self as more genuine than another.
My response to this was that I wasn't judging authenticity as much as I was crediting Bonhoeffer's legacy as being more compelling because of his letter writing and the way his performance (life) matched his rhetoric so openly. We discussed for several minutes. It went well.
Then Dr. Dewey asked me to examine and critique Bonhoeffer's christology. He put it like this: "How would you tutor Bonhoeffer today, based on the developments in christology since he wrote his letters and papers?" We looked at a passage in his letters where Bonhoeffer asks Eberhard Bethge (his primary dialog partner) how the Gospel writers could have known what Jesus prayed in the garden before his crucifixion. Bonhoeffer remarks that it just doesn't make sense that he told it to the disciples at some later date after the resurrection. So I explained that Bonhoeffer hadn't yet delved into the study of the historical Jesus and was more interested in reinterpreting orthodoxy than he was in re-examining its core doctrines. For instance, he clearly grasps that the creeds can be used to demand beliefs that people don't actually believe and he finds that to be a wrong use of the creeds. Yet he never goes so far as to explore what might be the alternative. He is more willing to leave it to mystery. He does state that while he has been influenced for the good by liberal theology, he is attempting to retain orthodoxy in some relevant way. But he suspects that men (sic) after him may have more success than he has had in addressing this difficulty.
Additionally, we looked at his use of language and beliefs that rely on assumptions that have been challenged since the 1940s, such as Christ as the center of reality (how does that fit with other world religions?), death and resurrection (what do they accomplish - personal salvation or kingdom of God justice or both or something else?). Dr. Clark picked up on this theme later when he asked where the phrase "Jesus, the Man for Others" came from. None of us know. But what I do know is that Jesus as the man for others is about the crucifixion, not about the kingdom of God (in Bonhoeffer's construction). So we discussed these issues several times over the course of the hour+.)
From here, we moved to Dr. Clark. He challenged my use of postmodernism as a lens through which to view Bonhoeffer. (So do you get what's happening here? The two primary planks of my paper were gutted in the first 17 minutes of discussion! And it was okay - in fact, it was amazing.) We discussed postmodernism at length. I gave my point of view that while I would never categorize Bonhoeffer as a postmodernist, I would say that Bonhoeffer was having a postmodern-style crisis of faith. The war pushed him to go places theologically he would never have gone without it. As a result, this aristocratic, huge brained, intellectual, German faced the conditions of oppression, abuse of power, the clash of out of date cosmology against modern cosmology, and spent most of his time in prison deconstructing his faith and country.
In fact, one of the fresh insights that I don't think I drove home in my paper yet came to me as we dialogued is that Bonhoeffer's view of the human person was radically altered through his prison tenure. He moved away from a strictly Lutheran perspective (as Dr. Clark quoted Luther or Calvin: humans as "snow-covered dung") and instead, saw human beings in all their fallenness as strong, valuable, capable of making a real difference, even good. He sees human life as of the utmost signficance (more than the afterlife). What grounds his view of the human person, though, is that he is utterly confident in God's forgiveness for when he fails (which retains that Lutheran view of the atonement). In this sense, he has created the ideal conditions of risk. It's not that we are free to sin, it's that we are free to risk sinning on behalf of others. That's the insight.
Therefore as we explored further, it became apparent that Bonhoeffer's primary message in his religionless Christianity is that risk is an essential quality of Christian practice and faith. Without risk, one has ceased to be a genuine Christian.
I know you're ahead of me: what is risk for a middle class, suburban mom of five? Yep. That's just where they went! I blinked twice. "I have no idea." They all chuckled appreciatively. So we discussed then this dichotomy of the call to risk and the lack of correspondence between our ideals and our lives. I did express that for my current years as a student of theology, risk has looked like consistently putting out my ideas for exposure and dissection to people who don't approve of them. It's cost me business and friendships. It is the primary way I have risked, though it is certainly nothing compared to risking one's life on behalf of others.
I was asked whether or not I thought Bonhoeffer should have participated in the plot to kill Hitler. I honestly don't know. I answered that I'm more interested in the theological gymnastics that that commitment prompted, yet I also feel without being in a similar condition, my judgments would not be worth much. We discussed MLK Jr. (who was also assassinated at 39) and wondered if he would have remained strictly pacifist. I compared Bonhoeffer's journey to MLK Jr. in the early years and then radicalized into a Malcolm X by the time of his death. Then Dr. Dewey asked: "Do you think Jesus would have killed Hitler?" That really put it to me!
I said, "No." Then we discussed all the ways that Jesus was subversive in his time, but that he didn't organize for the purpose of overthrow. Dr. Gollar interrupted with Just War theory and asked why that didn't apply to Bonhoeffer. I suggested that the allied forces were already engaged in the war at that point and that Bonhoeffer was a part of an internal resistance which I wasn't sure worked in JW theory. I gave a lot of "But I don't want to say definitively..." kinds of answers. Then Clark came back with Ghandi saying that Ghandi believed in non-violence, but he believed more in courage. He suggested that Ghandi would rather see someone throw a punch to resist evil than to stand back while evil is done in the name of the "principle" of non-violence.
Wow! That one really struck a nerve for me. This is just what Bonhoeffer did. He threw off his principles for the sake of courageously throwing a punch at evil when he was supposed to be cowed into submission by the Third Reich. (There's a whole section at the front of the book where Bonhoeffer's correspondence with the interrogators shows him defending himself against accusations, stating emphatically that he is telling the truth, followed by letters to his friend where he discusses a theology of lying, secrecy and truth-telling.)
Dr. Dewey then wondered aloud how significant a role DBH even played in the attempt on Hitler's life since he was in prison when it occurred. Very many overlapping issues.
We also addressed the conventionality of Bonhoeffer's basic outlook on gender roles, the role of the government and his relationship to his nationality. I asserted that in most ways, he was conventional. Yet his creative mind and his deep commitment to living a practical life of action (harnessed to sound theological thinking) made it possible for him to resist the temptation to defend the status quo. If you think about it, that is the more radical of the two anyway. Unconventional people are often moved to risky action. It is the conventional who are usually not.
Dr. Gollar's turn came and he addressed Bonhoeffer's relationship with his fiance. He asked me how the tenor of the letters changed when he wrote to Maria. It was a surprising, yet terrific question. I had just that morning reread in one letter to his friend Eberhard where Bonhoeffer openly criticizes Maria's taste in books. He goes on and on about how the books she reads are beneath her and how he can't stand when husband and wife don't agree on everything. He is set to reform her and then wonders "Or is this just my tyrannical nature coming out?". We all chuckled over that. Maria was more fantasy than real relationship. They had spent a total of one hour together alone before his prison tenure began. They barely knew each other. She was just 18 and not an intellectual. She served, in the end, as a catalyst for his reflections on the meaningfulness of human emotion, physical needs and the value of life. So his letters to her had more to do with his longings (physical especially) than with his theological process.
By the end of his letters (where he began with such appreciation for his books, a parcel of laundry, his cigarettes, his connections to the outside world), Bonhoeffer was reduced to one thing: human relationships. He instructs his mother to give everything he owns away and tells her that all that remains for him are his relationships. It is a poignant end to his two years in prison.
At this point, I was asked to leave the room. They spent about eight minutes discussing the session. When Dr. Gollar came to get me, he beamed, "They loved it. They loved the whole conversation."
I returned and they immediately were on their feet shaking my hand, congratulating me, smiling, telling me what a great job I had done and how much they enjoyed the whole discussion and paper. I handed out the thank you cards. Then they gave feedback. Dr. Dewey suggested that the paper could be stronger without the performance analysis and Dr. Clark suggested I take out the postmodern language and gave me instead, some other ways to frame that part of the paper. Dr. Gollar then brought up how I had revitalized Bonhoeffer for all of them. Drs. Clark and Dewey talked about ways they might incorporate Bonhoeffer into fall courses! (I gave my schpiel on how they ought to do that since I've thought lots about it. [g]). Not one course in my years at X has included anything by Bonhoeffer so that made me really happy.
Then we got up to leave and left the room, but stood in the hallway discussing cults, sex, conservative and liberal theology, feminism, and parenting. After 30 minutes, we split up (I left with Dr. Clark in the elevator). He and I talked for twenty more minutes about the youth retreat he is leading at his church this summer and how to address teen sexuality. Then Dr. Dewey came downstairs and joined us for ten more minutes. Then Dr. Gollar came downstairs and we all laughed that we couldn't stop talking.
Finally, FINALLY it was over. I hugged everyone, fought back tears, and walked into the sunshine with my heels click, click, clicking over the bricks to my car, reliving the experience and already missing grad school.