Monday, 5 October 2009

Who am I? Bonhoeffer's theology through his poetry

Bernd Wannenwetsch, ed., Who Am I? Bonhoeffer's Theology Through His Poetry (T&T Clark 2009), 259 pp. (thanks to T&T Clark for a copy)

I've been waiting eagerly for this book, and I wasn't disappointed. An impressive range of scholars – including Oliver O'Donovan, Stanley Hauerwas, Bernd Wannenwetsch, Hans Ulrich, Brian Brock, Philip Ziegler, and others – offer theological readings of Bonhoeffer's poetry.

The ten poems that Bonhoeffer wrote in Tegel prison in 1944 were among his last works. This book includes the text of the poems (German and English on facing pages), together with an essay on each poem. The kind of close reading modelled in these essays is unfortunately rare in contemporary theology; and the essays show that our own theological horizons can be extended through such a discipline of slow, attentive reading.

Of course, Bonhoeffer was scarcely a first-rate poet. Yet as Marilynne Robinson has observed, poetic language for Bonhoeffer "functions not as ornament but as ontology"; or as Philip Ziegler puts it, "even at its most stylized – as in the prison poems – [Bonhoeffer's] writing advances nothing less than decisive claims about reality" (p. 142). This does not mean that the poems should be regarded merely as "versified theology", as though they could be translated without remainder into prose. The contributors to the volume are aware of this, and so their aim is not so much to explain or interpret the poems as to think along with them and to see what theological possibilities they might open. Indeed, as Hauerwas very aptly remarks: "I do not, however, want to give the impression that the poem is an explanation.... For I assume that one of the tasks of poetry is to teach why 'explanations' are not all that interesting" (p. 101).

Three of the essays here really stand out. Hauerwas offers some incisive reflections on the poem "The Friend". This poem was written for Bonhoeffer's friend Eberhard Bethge; some early readers mistakenly took it to be a poem about a homosexual partnership. "Such an assumption," Hauerwas notes, betrays our own "impoverished understanding of friendship" (p. 100). For Bonhoeffer, friendship belongs not to the sphere of the orders of creation (work, marriage, government). It belongs instead to the sphere of freedom; it is grounded in nothing and has no necessity. It is not divinely mandated, nor is it a matter of ethics and obedience. But since friendship stands outside the mandates of creation, it is also able to transform these mandates, turning them from law to gospel. Marriage, for example, is divinely ordained; it requires obedience and responsibility. But marriage can be "given life by the realm of freedom in which friendship flourishes" (p. 106). It is thus friendship that "saves the mandates from their potential to be repressive" (p. 108). On this basis, Hauerwas goes on to argue that this poem evokes an alternative politics: "'The Friend' is Bonhoeffer's attempt not only to say, but to enact in a world of terror, that God's church exists making friendships possible" (p. 111).

Michael Northcott's essay explores the relation between human identity and spiritual disciplines in the poem "Who am I?" In a brilliant reading of the poem, he critiques the way Rowan Williams and Bernd Wannenwetsch (he might also have mentioned Hauerwas) have "enlisted Bonhoeffer ... in the post-liberal attempt to recover the moral self through the public worship and the politics of the body of Christ" (p. 15). In Northcott's view, Bonhoeffer is not trying to overturn the modern quest for interiority or authentic selfhood. He is comfortable using language of inwardness and individuality; but against modern narratives of the self, he argues "that moral responsibility is the mark of true personhood" (p. 17).

Another critique of postliberal ecclesiology appears in Hans Ulrich's remarkable essay on the poem "Stations on the Way to Freedom" – far and away the most powerful and compelling contribution to the book. Ulrich argues that Bonhoeffer's whole theology is pervaded by the theme of God's acting, God's presence. The poem indicates "the places of God's acting", the stations of God's presence in our lives: God is present where our lives are structured by the disciplines of discipleship; God is present where we act rightly; and God is present where we suffer because of our dedication to God. In ecclesiological terms, this means the church does not represent God's action, but is instead "the place holder for God's acting in the world". As a place holder, the church "does not become the new polis"; it is "the place of transformation, the place of change, the place of giving oneself over to God" (p. 165).

Ulrich thus argues that Bonhoeffer's political theology must be understood as a distinctively Lutheran theology of the cross: not a political theology in which the church represents God's gifts or action, but one in which "God stands in our place – and there happens our suffering because we cannot act any more" (p. 162). And it is only in this way that true freedom appears in our lives: not a freedom consisting in a plurality of options, but a kind of cruciform freedom, the suffering experience of God's presence, guidance and action.

I've highlighted just three of the essays here: but this whole collection is an exciting, creative, tightly focused exploration of Bonhoeffer's poetry and theology. It's not only an invaluable contribution to Bonhoeffer studies; it also contributes significantly to contemporary conversations about ecclesiology, ethics, politics, and human identity.

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