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Teaching Dietrich Bonhoeffer

'Meeting' the theologian in their classroom, university students raise questions

“He disturbs me.”

“How could a pacifist participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler?”

“Why did he get so ticked off at the German church?”

“I wonder if I could handle imprisonment like he did.”

“He seemed so confident that God was guiding him, and so calm in the face of danger and death. How did he do that?”


“Isn’t there a tendency, given the voluminous quantity of his writing, lectures, correspondence and sermons, to use him to support vastly different causes from liberation theology to James Dobson?”

These and many other questions and comments were voiced in a third-floor classroom of the religion department on the campus of Duke University, Durham, N.C., by 19- to 22-year-old students I introduced to Dietrich Bonhoeffer last spring. What did they think of the German theologian who was executed in a Nazi prison camp on April 9, 1945, days before the war ended? Did they find any connection to their lives, contemporary culture or church? Or is Bonhoeffer a relic of history worthy of admiration to be sure—but a voice that grows fainter with the passing of time? Decide for yourself as I try to be faithful to what I heard.

These students were:

• Attracted to the authenticity of the life of this man who lived and died his faith. They were fascinated with the particulars of his harassment, restrictions, arrest and death by the Nazis. Yet Bonhoeffer’s ability to deal with it, not pull away, and accept the inevitability of his fate, didn’t go unnoticed. They objected to the word “submissive” from the prison doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s hanging at Flossenburg as sounding too passive. They preferred “free.” He was free to die, as he had been to live.

Also the incomplete quality of his life was attractive: He wasn’t a finished project. His most important writing on ethics (according to him) was never completed, and while in prison he was thinking new thoughts about the future of Christianity.

• Encouraged by his humanity. Like many of us, my students’ first contact with Bonhoeffer was The Cost of Discipleship or Life Together, usually gifts from pastors, relatives or friends. Scanning these books and knowing how he died, they came to admire Bonhoeffer or to imagine him a courageous figure of saint-like proportions. They were, then, amused and relieved to read of the delight at the Christmas tree his fianceé, Maria, brought to him in prison, the irritation at not receiving a bunny from her at Easter or writing home for money during his student days. They strongly identified with his poem, Who Am I? in which his self-doubts are fully aired ending with a strong affirmation: “Whoever-I-am, I belong to God!”

• Sometimes annoyed with the density of his writing, but welcoming his intellectual challenge. Reading a single Bonhoeffer sentence three or four times can be frustrating. But the students admired his use of the intellectual resources of the day to relate theology to sociology, philosophy and history. They liked something to push against making comparisons to the “shallowness” of sermons some hear. They were surprised to see how influenced Bonhoeffer was by Martin Luther. For them, Bonhoeffer serves as an example of not leaving your brain at the church door.

• Disturbed by his presentation of cheap and costly grace. More than any other of Bonhoeffer’s themes, discussion of this gave rise to personal statements of faith, nonfaith, seeking faith and doubting faith.

• Attentive to his critique of his society. They wondered if church leaders of today (or themselves) had the courage or competence to “speak out” as Bonhoeffer did: delivering a radio address on the misuse of leadership two days after Hitler became chancellor; opposing the progressive steps of the Nazi regime to isolate and then exterminate the Jews; and trying to halt, unsuccessfully, the co-option of the church. Unsure about specific answers on how the church should relate to the state or the world, they, nevertheless, liked Bonhoeffer’s assertion that in Christ the reality of God and the reality of the world are united.

• Interested in comparing their experience with education to Bonhoeffer’s models. They wanted details on how Bonhoeffer conducted the illegal seminary at Finkenwalde and later the seminary-on-wheels moving from congregation to congregation one step ahead of the Gestapo. They appreciated the total community approach to residential education—living in dorms, daily worship, Bible study, public and private confession, attempts at theological reflection, and recreation and music (especially Bonhoeffer’s tapes of spirituals from his days at Harlem churches in New York City).

Some of these students have experienced deep life-changing communities of faith on campus or in summer service projects. They spoke of the value gained and longed for more. They did not know that The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together were products of the Finkenwalde days.

• Puzzled by the concepts of “world coming of age” and “religion-less Chritianity.” The first concept came to mean for them not adjustment to cultural trends but a faith unafraid of the world’s maturation (scientific knowledge, etc.) and a call to competence in the world, not a flight from it. Their reaction was, “What are we afraid of?” They named appeals to human weakness (“trying to make people feel bad”) to deliver the Christian “answer,” an approach abhorred by Bonhoeffer. They resonated with Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on human strength and ability while not underplaying the reality of sin.

The second concept, “religion-less Christianity,” was confusing. This course, after all, was offered in a religion department. Wasn’t the religious nature of people the “hole-to-be-filled” by the Spirit’s presence?

Finally they grasped Bonhoeffer’s understanding of religion as an immature system of beliefs and practices fostering dependency, irresponsibility and selfishness. They related this understanding to the “reward theology” some were getting in their churches as a mirror image of the “me” society. They could see, then, why Bonhoeffer presented religion as the underbrush to be cleared to make room for the gospel.

Bonhoeffer’s own practices of prayer, daily Bible reading and worship—at first viewed as contradictions to his view of religion—came to be valued as sources of his confidence and joy in the midst of one of the worst chapters in the human story and the church’s life.

This is what I heard. Bonhoeffer would be pleased, given his strong interest in children and youth and his theological intent to address how the coming generation is to live. A failing voice? Maybe not.

Bacher co-taught this course with Hans Hillerbrand, a professor of religion, at Duke University, Durham, N.C.


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