Friday, October 21, 2005

The Persistent Voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Edwin Robertson

In prison] there are his writings too. It is not only Ethics which he is still working on, but that unwritten book on the future of the Church and its relation to people of the present day. He tries out ideas in these letters, but not casually. Much thinking and prayer and study of the Bible has preceded the remarks apparently thrown off in a personal letter. [Eberhard] Bethge is the only one to whom he can write about these things, because for ten years they have shared the changing theology of a Christian in Nazi Germany, and they have discussed matters endlessly. Bonhoeffer is aware that he is going beyond Bethge, and expects him to be surprised, even worried. Yet, he must go on, because he knows that the time is past when people can be told everything in theological or pious words. The monstrous evil that had beset his country and the poison which it had injected into the Church had made ‘inwardness and conscience’ obsolete. These are the ‘rusty swords’ of which he writes eloquently in Ethics, and with appreciation for the role they have played in the past.

Perhaps religion too is obsolete. He detects that they are moving towards a ‘completely religionless time’ and that people as they now are, ‘cannot be religious any more.’ This he deduces from observation of those who call themselves ‘religious’ – the German Christians, the Confessing Church, the monks at Ettal, for all their differences, come under this heading of ‘calling themselves religious.’ But they do not act up to what they call religious, they live by other means. He can only conclude that they must mean something quite different from what an earlier generation meant by ‘religious.’ There are echoes of the boldness of his very first sermon in this letter.

He observes that the war is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction, as other wars have done. He questions whether Christianity is right to assume that humanity is basically religious. For nearly two thousand years, we have made the claim that Christianity represents the highest form of religion and Bonhoeffer does not doubt that. He question whether religion itself is essential to modern man. In sweeping terms that have more than a ring of truth in our day, he outlines the way people have left the Church:

‘The foundation has been taken away from all that has up to now been our ‘Christianity,’ and there remain only a few ‘last survivors of the age of chivalry,’ or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as religious. Are they to be the chosen few? Is it to be on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce in fervour, pique or indignation, in order to sell them our goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them?’
These are rhetorical questions. He is really trying to find what is left, ‘now that the preliminary stage of Christian civilisation is over and we are entering a new era with a complete absence of religion – as we have known it.’

From chapter 14 of The Persistent Voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – the shame and the sacrifice and after, published by Eagle 2005
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