At the end of his fascinating presentation at our Bonhoeffer Day conference last year in Birmingham in which he described the on-going impact of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and ideas on the German churches and society since his execution in 1945, Pastor Ulrich Lincoln had this to say about some important ways in which Bonhoeffer’s thinking is relevant not just to Germany but to the whole of Europe today:
Does Bonhoeffer have a relevance today? Does he have a future?
When I ask German theology students today about their interest in Bonhoeffer, I do not run into much enthusiasm. Perhaps it is because he has become part of the theological establishment – I don’t know. On the other hand, there is still a flood of books on him being published in Germany. There are churches and streets named after him, there are songs, oratories and even an opera about Bonhoeffer. And he is still frequently quoted within debates about church and state and ethics and so on. It is not a bad career for a pastor, I guess. Also in the UK I meet a lot of people who show a great interest in the man and his work.
There have been times when Bonhoeffer was fashionable, and others when he was not discovered yet, or seemed outdated already. But apart from the fluctuation of theological fashions and attention spans, I believe there are at least three points which shed light on his relevance for modern Germany. And of course these three points are quite subjective, they mirror basically my very own questions. I will try to relate all of these three aspects to the notion of discipleship:
Discipleship as ethical responsibility:
Bonhoeffer develops a new concept of responsibility. It has to with the ability to respond appropriately and ethically to a situation. The German churches are always in danger of becoming too self-centered, of being too much occupied with themselves and their survival. If, however, the Christian church is always a church for the world and for the other person, as Bonhoeffer so famously stated, she has to practice and exercise this kind of responsibility which looks beyond itself. I believe that, as Europe is currently facing a new political struggle about refugees, exiles, and immigration, the churches need to listen closer to what Bonhoeffer had to say about responsibility – and act accordingly. Bonhoeffer’s contribution to a theological understanding of human rights seems to me quite important. Within the twentieth century theology he was one of the first to address the theme of human rights, and he still has a lot to say about that.
Discipleship as a Christian listening to their Jewish heritage:
I believe that we Germans still have to come to terms with the Holocaust. Not because there has not been an intense discussion and education about that story. No, we did have the discussion and the education and all of that and we are still having it. But we certainly have not exhausted the story yet, neither the story of the murderers nor the story of the victims. And that also applies to theology. Thirty years ago Theology after Auschwitz was an exciting project, but for the current generation of students it seems to be a chapter from the past. Bonhoeffer’s writing speaks from inside the situation of the holocaust, almost. As you know, he himself from the very beginning on saw very clearly that the church had to stand with the Jewish citizens against their persecutors. He was able to apply his theological thinking to the political and moral situation of his time, and he was one of the very few Christian thinkers who did that. I believe reading Bonhoeffer helps in a conversation with Jewish thinking, a conversation which is not about historical guilt, but from a Christian perspective about the question of self-understanding: Christianity needs to listen to the Jewish story in order to understand its own existence in the footsteps of Israel, God’s chosen people.
Discipleship as an existential theology:
One of the most interesting concepts in Bonhoeffer for me is the notion of reality, and of Christ’s reality within the world. The concept of reality is one of the hinges on which he hangs, or builds, his Ethics. He writes: “In Jesus Christ the reality of God entered into the reality of this world” (Ethics (1965), 194). But reality also means, very concretely, Bonhoeffer’s own existence and the circumstances of his existence: I mentioned his curiosity, his going beyond borders of culture, religion and milieu. Bonhoeffer was a person who was attracted by that strange reality on the other side of his personal world. That is what I would call his “Wirklichkeitsnähe“, his closeness to reality, his constant search for Christ’s reality in other corners and parts of the actual world. Therein lies a particular way of relating to the world. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas talks about “sensitivity” and “vulnerability“ as a way of relating to the world, and in particular to the other human being. [Levinas, one of the major philosophers of the twentieth century, was born in the same year as Bonhoeffer and they share a lot of common experiences and thinking].
And that brings me back to the beginning of my talk. That is what I probably felt and sensed when I read Bonhoeffer’s letters for the first time, back then in the early 1980s: that sensitive closeness to the reality of human existence, that feeling for the essential vulnerability of the other person. I am sure that also in the future readers in Germany will always react to that closeness.