Sunday, 18 October 2009

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in New York

Over the past few days I had a delightful time reading Volume 10 of the new edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's works, Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931 (Fortress 2008), 764 pp. – a remarkable collection of letters, sermons, essays and lectures from his time as a vicar in Spain, a postdoctoral student in Berlin, and a visiting fellow at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

After working as a pastor in Barcelona (where he even acquired what may have been an original Picasso!), Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to complete his postdoctoral dissertation, Act and Being, which presented a kind of Barthian-Kantian approach to theological anthropology, grounded in the empirical reality of the church. The ensuing American period is especially fascinating: 1930-31 was a hell of a time to be in New York City!

The young Bonhoeffer was taking courses with Reinhold Niebuhr and John Baillie, going to hear sermons by Harry Emerson Fosdick, studying pragmatism and American literature (he "read almost the entire philosophical works of William James, which really captivated me, then Dewey, Perry, Russell, and finally also J. B. Watson and the behaviorist literature"), worshipping in black churches, and corresponding with former teachers like Harnack and Seeberg.

His impressions of liberal American church life are generally quite scathing: "In New York, they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ.... So what stands in place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress that – who knows how? – claims the right to call itself 'Christian'. And in the place of the church as the congregation of believers in Christ there stands the church as a social corporation. Anyone who has seen the weekly program of one of the large New York churches, with their daily, indeed almost hourly events, teas, lectures, concerts, charity events, opportunities for sports, games, bowling, dancing for every age group, anyone who has become acquainted with the embarrassing nervousness with which the pastor lobbies for membership – that person can well assess the character of such a church.... In order to balance out the feeling of inner emptiness that arises now and then (and partly also to refill the church's treasury), some congregations will if possible engage an evangelist for a 'revival' once a year" (pp. 313-14).

In this ecclesial ethos, "the church is really no longer the place where the congregation hears and preaches God's word, but rather the place where one acquires secondary significance as a social entity for this or that purpose" (p. 317).

Bonhoeffer was similarly dismayed by the students at Union Theological Seminary. The students "are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are not familiar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, are amused at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.... In contrast to our own [German] liberalism, which in its better representatives doubtless was a genuinely vigorous phenomenon, here all that has been frightfully sentimentalised, and with an almost naive know-it-all attitude" (pp. 265-66). Again, referring to Union Seminary: "A seminary in which numerous students openly laugh during a public lecture because they find it amusing when a passage on sin and forgiveness from Luther's de servo arbitrio is cited has obviously, despite its many advantages, forgotten what Christian theology in its very essence stands for" (pp. 309-10).

Bonhoeffer also encountered the fundamentalist theology of J. Gresham Machen and his followers, especially in the Southern Baptist Church. This kind of theology, he remarked, revealed "a different side of the American character", namely, "an unrelenting harshness in holding on to one's possessions, possessions either of this or of the other world. I acquired this possession with trust in God, God made my success happen, so whoever infringes upon this possession is infringing upon God" (p. 317).

It was of course the black churches that won his warmest praise and admiration: "In contrast to the often lecturelike character of the 'white' sermon, the 'black Christ' is preached with captivating passion and vividness. Anyone who has heard and understood the Negro spirituals knows about [this] strange mixture of reserved melancholy and eruptive joy" (p. 315). Bonhoeffer would later introduce some of the Negro spirituals to the worship services at the illegal seminary in Finkenwalde (possibly one of the first places in Europe to introduce such songs).

The volume also contains the remarkable student papers that Bonhoeffer wrote for classes and seminars in New York – papers on William James, ethics, determinism, dogmatics. His paper on "the Christian idea of God" draws a sharp distinction between "history" and "decision": "Within the world of ideas there is no such thing as decision because I always bear already within myself the possibilities of understanding these ideas. They fit into my system but they do not challenge my whole existence" (p. 458).

A similar Kantian point is elaborated in his paper (written for Baillie) on Barth's use of neo-Kantian philosophy. Here, he argues that "the deepest antinomy" is "the antinomy between pure act and reflection"; God does not enter the realm of reflection, but "tears man out of this reflection into an actus directus toward God" (p. 474).

In sum, this is a wonderful, invigorating book, documenting an exciting and formative period of Bonhoeffer's life. We find him learning new languages, encountering new traditions and ideas, adapting to radically different ways of life – and returning again and again, with remarkable consistency, to the deep wellspring of the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith. As Bonhoeffer remarks in one of his letters to Seeberg: "there can be no doubt that only through active contact with other ways of thought is one led to the formation and comprehension of that which is unique to oneself" (p. 119). In the same way, even in some of his most negative assessments of American church life, one catches a glimpse of Bonhoeffer's own profound and developing ecclesiological and ethical commitments.


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