When Bonhoeffer taught a seminar on the theology of Karl Barth during his year in the U.S. in 1930, he began by urging participants to forget everything they thought they knew about theology if they hoped to understand Barth. The same, I think, can be said about us trying to understand DB.
And seventy years after his death we’re still trying to do that!
DB’s reception in North America depended a lot on Bonhoeffer’s character and courage in engaging and resisting the demonic paganism of the Third Reich. A number of movements in the latter half of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in this country have appealed to him and sought to utilize his example and ethics to support their agendas. While that’s something we all do all the time, it’s particularly problematic in the case of Bonhoeffer. For he points us to a place where the familiar benchmarks no longer help us, where what we know tends to mislead us, and where established agendas cannot easily comprehend or integrate his thought.
-The radical “Death of God” theologians in the sixties sought to enlist him and his reflections on the death of God, religionless Christianity, and secularity to take leave of the church.
-Mainline traditions usually subordinated him to Barth (not in itself a bad thing!) and struggled to make sense of him (especially the LPP) within the church and theology of their tradition which tended to dilute and domesticate what he was about.
-Evangelical traditions resisted Bonhoeffer for quite a while, deeming him just another or perhaps the ringleader of “liberal” and “secular” Christianity. For various reasons younger evangelicals in the 1990’s realized this was a faulty assessment of Bonhoeffer and embraced him almost as an evangelical icon. Yet this reassessment has often resulted in an evangelical “makeover” that also dilutes and domesticates what he is about.
This happened, in my view, because we have not fully passed through the liminal period of trying to fathom what has happened to the church and what might lie ahead. DB saw and experienced the full measure of what we here are experiencing in degrees and over a much longer time. Bonhoeffer, graced with a genius to see beyond the wreckage of the death and demise of the Constantinian/Christendom church and reflect on its future outside the box, asked the questions and questioned the assumptions that needed to be asked and questioned. He framed reality with a fresh vision of Christ, and offered cryptic yet powerful images that engage and stretch the imaginations of all who wrestle with them. In the twelve years of Nazi hell (1933-1945) DB experienced the depth and totality of the demise of the Constantinian/Christendom church and peered into the abyss of its debris. He “peeped around a corner” (Barth) and saw things that we are for the most part are not quite ready to see because we have not yet “peeped around (that) corner.” All we can do is try to assimilate him to what we already know and come to terms with parts of him that remain indigestible or opaque. My hunch is that as we grow nearer the end of this liminal period and the death of church as we have known it settles in our bones, we will see DB with new eyes and ears.
That, at least has been my experience. Six or seven years ago I finally realized in my gut that church as I had known it was dead. I reached the point where I could no longer go out on the chancel on a Sunday morning because I no longer believed in what I was doing there. I just couldn’t do it anymore, even for a paycheck. Not that I lost faith in God or the gospel. But I lost faith in the church as I had known it as fit vehicle for the work to which it was called. I had to search for fresh expressions of church that embodied both a fresh reappraisal of the biblical and theological resources and the world after the demise of the Constantinian/Christendom church. DB’s work came to life for me as never before and I guessed I might have “peeped around (that) corner” for a moment too. I realized that if you leave aside the model of church as we have known it, Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers makes a great deal of sense! Further, as I read through his works again, that sense he makes in LPP is the culmination and climax of Bonhoeffer’s thought about Christ and the Church that runs through and ties all his work together.
In other words, if we can read DB without presuming the model of church as we know it, the Constantinian/Christendom church, we realize he has always been pushing us to the form and function of church we find in LPP, even if he himself could not see it clearly till he lived through that twelve-year hell of Nazism and the full experience of the death of the church. We cannot see it clearly today because we have not fully experienced and internalized the death of the Constantinian/Christendom church.
Hockey great Wayne Gretzky says that he never skated to where the puck was but to where it would be. That image captures Bonhoeffer for me. He was always skating to where the church should/would be not where it was, even if he could not at times see clearly where that was. I believe he is our best chance to discover where the church will be found in our time.