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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Ben
Re the quotation in your para 4 - remind you of any churches / church bodies a bit nearer to home? or is it just Victoria?
Hope all is well

Fat said...

What would he make of 2009 Australia?

Jim said...

Facinating post. I would really be interested in any recommendations where one can find the "deep wellspring of teh Lutheran doctrine of justification of faith." What could one read? where is it most present today?

Hopefully someday this new series of books will be affordable.

Patrik said...

This strikes me as a profoundly important insight:

"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"

Not enough attention is payed to the difference between european and american liberalism.

Chris TerryNelson said...

Great post Ben! This chapter in his life was always such a mystery to me - what a great time indeed.

R.O. Flyer said...

This volume is worth buying just to have Bonhoeffer's "Concerning the Christian Idea of God," and "Seminar Paper: The Theology of Crisis and Its Attitude toward Philosophy and Science." I think this is Bonhoeffer at his very best. The seminar paper on the theology of crisis was delivered to students at Union, and it really shows how deeply Bonhoeffer was indebted to Barth.

Ben Myers said...

Yeah R.O., those are excellent essays. And speaking of his Barth essay, you just reminded me of one more quote (which I meant to include in the post): "I confess that I do not see any other possible way for you to get into real contact with [Barth's] thought than by forgetting at least for this one hour everything you have learned before concerning this problem" (p. 463).

Rory Shiner said...

I had thought "clueless" was a relatively modern coinage. Interested to hear Bonhoeffer was using it to describe Union students in the 1930s.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a good review Ben, and one which energetically echoes a consolidatory period in Bonhoeffer's life.

Anonymous said...

The following quote still rings true from my experience at PTS:
"They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, are amused at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level."

Ben Myers said...

Jim, several of these volumes have been released in paperback, and they're very affordably priced. Hopefully more of them will be released in paperback as time goes by.

Evan said...

Thanks for the post, Ben. It's always fascinating to read Bonhoeffer's comments about the U.S.- he's really a veritable Tocqueville of theological life.

Also worth reading from this volume is his inaugural lecture on "The Anthropological Question in Contemporary Philosophy and Theology". I believe it has been published previously in a Bonhoeffer anthology- No Rusty Swords, maybe. This is a necessary piece for understanding his Act and Being (which is, I think, probably his most interesting work).

Brian Thomas said...

The best place to start with the "wellspring of the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith" is in Article IV of the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, which continues to form the very center of confessional Lutheranism (then and now). It can be found online at:

Anonymous said...

"They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, are amused at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level."

What level is being referred to?

Anonymous said...

"What level is being referred to?"

+!, I am also curious as to what he's referring to. My guess would be that despite their problems, at least the fundamentalists are trying to serve and obey the living Christ.

cyberpastor said...

Actually the habilitationsschrift has as much Heidegger, if not more than Kant.

Anonymous said...

"Bonhoeffer also encountered the fundamentalist theology of J. Gresham Machen and his followers, especially in the Southern Baptist Church."

This is not an accurate statement. Any similarities between Machen and Baptists, southern or otherwise, during the 1920s and 30s is only at the surface level. Dig deeper and you find theological divides between Machen the confessional Presbyterian and others who fell into the "fundamentalist" or broadly evangelical camp.

One has only to read what H.L. Mencken wrote about Machen before and after his death ( Or you can read the actual words of Machen. After being offered the presidency of the new William Jennings Bryan College, Machen responded:

"I never call myself a 'fundamentalist.' There is, indeed, no inherent objection to the term; and if the disjunction is between 'Fundamentalism' and 'Modernism,' then I am willing to call myself a Fundamentalist of the most pronounced type. But after all, what I prefer to call myself is not a 'Fundamentalist' but a 'Calvinist'—that is, an adherent of the Reformed Faith.

As Terry Chrisope has written, it is a far stretch to attach the label of "fundamentalist" as understood as that which arose in the American church in the 1920s and 30s, to Machen.

"In light of Machen’s intellectual development and theological stance, it may well be asked whether he should be regarded as a fundamentalist at all. Would it not serve the progress and clarity of historical analysis to acknowledge that Machen was not a fundamentalist but a confessional Calvinistic Presbyterian of the Old School tradition who allied himself with fundamentalists in a common cause?"

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