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Against the Despisers of the Body: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Today

by Jurgen Moltmann Monday, Nov. 13, 2006 at 5:02 AM
mbatko@lycos.com

We need Bonhoeffer's earth piety today. A new ecological theology must oppose religious and practical world denial. We humans came from the earth and belong to this earth. There is no salvation for humans without the salvation of the earth.

AGAINST THE DESPISERS OF THE BODY

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Speaks to Today’s Christians

By Jurgen Moltmann

[This article is translated from the German in: zeitzeichen 1/2006.]

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the best-known German theologian of the 20th century. What is the fascinating secret behind Bonhoeffer’s name? The Tubingen theologian Jurgen Moltmann who also enjoys a worldwide reputation probes this question.]




For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ordination as a pastor in 1931 was as important as teaching authority in the theological faculty of Berlin University. His friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge describes this as “the turn of the theologian into a Christian.” From being a subject of academic theology called “ecclesiology,” the church for Bonhoeffer in those years was a place of engaged Christian life. Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933, the struggle of the Confessing Church against the “German Christians,” the Nazis, and the Jewish persecution made theology into a personal and political necessity for Bonhoeffer and not merely an academic and church matter. From then on, theology and biography were connected in his lived theology. In 1933, he broke off his academic career after the theological faculties in Germany6 were “brought into line” by the Nazi party.

Bonhoeffer began to live what he knew theologically and reconsidered theologically the decisions in his life. His personal existence was a theological existence. His theology was increasingly a political theology because his personal life was challenged politically. We stand at the gateway to the fascinating mystery of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s effect, his authentically lived theology to his martyrdom on April 9, 1945 in the Flossenburg concentration camp. His authentically lived theology convinces people across time and space in Korea and Nicaragua, to name only two distant countries.

Bonhoeffer was 39 years old when he was put to death. From 1933 to his arrest in 1943, he had ten years to develop his theology in those difficult and dangerous times. Whoever reads his “Letters and Papers from Prison” from April 1943 to October 1944 shares in a theology of becoming and is stimulated through his incomplete ideas to his own thinking. That is unique in theology and constitutes Bonhoeffer’s tremendous attraction and lasting effect. He left behind lived theology and theology in becoming, not any doctrinal system or dogmatics.

LIFE – NOT RELIGION

In the cramped conditions of the prison cell, Bonhoeffer’s ideas were more expansive than ever. His focus changed from the church to the world. He discovered the freedom of the secular world, the dignity of earthly life, the real message of the Old Testament, the beauty of the earth and the delight in life on earth. For Bonhoeffer, faith is “something whole, a life act.” “Jesus calls to life, not to a new religion.” “Natural piety” and “unconscious Christianity” now suddenly interested Bonhoeffer, that lived Christianity of his own family, not a special churchly Christianity. Bonhoeffer wanted to “learn to believe” in the “full worldliness of life.” He did not think of the “trite and banal worldliness” of the enlightened and comfortable but worldliness “in which knowledge of death and the resurrection is always present.” In his prison cell, Bonhoeffer fought against the religious at the expense of the worldly and against spirituality at the expense of vitality. Faith meant for him affirming and loving life up to death and sharing in God’s love for the world that also embraces God’s suffering in this world. He saw in Christ God’s reality in the reality of the world.

Bonhoeffer overcame the traditional theological thinking in two realms or in the opposition of God and world. He wanted to believe in the full “polyphony of life,” in the beauty, delight and pain of life. He loved the Song of Songs of love in the Old Testament and hated the Christian tempering of all passions. He became engrossed in the wild opposition of pleasure and curse that constitutes real life and added the musical counterpoint in his new theological drama. If faith is the “cantus firmus,” the counterpoints are heard in the polyphony of life. Life first becomes whole in this polyphony. At the same time faith proclaims nothing sinister can happen as long as the “cantus firmus” is preserved. Since God is “beyond life in the midst of life,” faith must be grasped in the midst of life. The church must remain in the village and not be pushed aside to the edge of life and the cemetery.

Bonhoeffer began reading the New Testament from the Old Testament. “Only one who knows the inexpressibility of God’s name can say the name Jesus Christ. Only one who loves life and the earth so that everything is lost with them can believe in the resurrection of the dead and a new world. Only one who accepts God’s law over one’s life can also speak of grace.”

Boinhoeffer urged his fellow Christians to remain faithful to the earth and not believe those who “speak of supernatural hopes.” They are “despisers of the body.” Once blasphemy of God was the greatest outrage. “Now blaspheming the earth is the most dreadful blasphemy,” Bonhoeffer quotes the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The religious socialists of the twenties also understood this as a call to re-orient Christian hope and pass from the hope in heaven of the world to come to the forward hope in the coming reign and the new earth where God’s justice will dwell.

The young Dietrich Bonhoeffer belonged to this group. In a 1932 address on the petition “Thy kingdom come,” he said “only the one who loves the earth and God in one can believe in God’s reign.” “Christ strengthens the person.” Christ does not lead him “to the hinterlands of religious escapism” but “returns the earth to him as is faithful son.” Whoever “loves God loves him as the Lord of the earth as it is. Whoever loves the earth loves it as God’s earth.” This forces the church to pray for the reign “come what may in the cooperative society of the children of the earth and the world.” “God’s reign is the reign of the resurrection on earth.”

I believe Bonhoeffer returned to this early insight in faithfulness to the earth in prison in 1943. On the strength of this faithfulness, he resisted evil on earth. This was the theological basis for his new view of the “genuine worldliness of faith in Christ.” Christ’s cross stood on this earth. His resurrection happened on this earth. This earth will become again the dwelling-place of God’s righteousness.

Bonhoeffer’s faithfulness to the earth is revolutionary. The traditional Christian hope is a longing for redemption. It is directed to heaven, not the earth. Little children learn to pray “Dear God, make me pious so I can come to heaven.” The pious enter heaven after death, it is said. An unconscious world denial is planted there. If heaven is true home, then this earth becomes indifferent. Since we cannot remain here, we exploit the earth and leave behind devastations. Different forms of religious world denial are responsible today for destruction of the environment and the ecological catastrophes inflicted on the earth. Conversion from betrayal of the earth to faithfulness to the earth is implicit in the simple petition: “Thy kingdom come – on earth as in heaven.”

We need Bonhoeffer’s earth piety today. A new ecological theology must oppose religious and practical world denial. We humans came from the earth and belong to this earth in the present and future as the angels belong to heaven. There is no salvation for humans without the salvation of the earth, that new earth on which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3,13). We make international politics but need earth politics. We bring world religions into dialogue but need a religion of the earth that respects a Sabbath of the earth. We globalize and mean Internet and the cyber-world while the globe is marvelous and fragile. Bonhoeffer had not known about the ecological crisis. Still his theology of faithfulness to the earth is a magnificent ecological theology.

For the philosopher Immanuel Kant, enlightenment was “the end of the self-indebted minority human status,” the “inability to use one’s intelligence without the direction of another.” Kant encouraged persons to use their own intelligence. Bonhoeffer took up this idea of enlightenment when he spoke of the “come-of-age world” and of the “autonomy of the world” in one of his last letters. He saw a great cultural development in the modern age leading to a come-of-age world where a person can live, think and feel as though there were no God. God as a moral, political and natural science work hypothesis had its day for Bonhoeffer. Dropping this work hypothesis and “being finished with life without God” was part of intellectual honesty, the theologian said.

How can Christ counter the come-of-age world? “Christ takes hold of the person in the center of his life.” Starting from this point, the come-of-age world and the modern person can be confronted in their strongest position with God. A “non-religious interpretation of biblical terms” in a religionless world is necessary. Bonhoeffer could not tell us what this interpretation would look like. But he left behind a very dialectical formula: “We see before God that we have to live in the world – etsi deus non daretur! God forces us to this discovery… God shows us we must live as persons finished with life without God. The God who is with us is the God who abandons us (Mark 15,34). Before and with God, we live without God.”

Bonhoeffer sees God in Christ and Christ in the modern come-of-age world. Like the young Hegel, he interprets the process of God’s displacement from the modern world christologically as a new Golgotha. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on the cross.” Matthew 8,17 declares: Christ helps “by virtue of his weakness and suffering, not by his omnipotence.” “Worldly interpretation should be used here.”

This is a very bold, unusual and one of the last total theological interpretations of the modern world as the Christian world. Let us see whether his analysis is true.

In the modern world, people are only rarely come-of-age. In the Nazi dictatorship and under communist rule, there was no chance of using their own intelligence without direction of the party. Rather people were held as extremely underage and could only use prescribed political-ideological language. This is called political correctness today.

The interpretation of the modern age as the “come-of-age world” transfers the personal stages of development of a person to the development of humanity. At age 18, one is come-of-age. Previously one was underage and needed a guardian. This transfer is part of the modern belief in progress that declares the past as a preliminary childhood stage of its own development. However this is not true. Our ancestors in antiquity and the Middle Ages were not more underage or more come-of-age than us.

After the diverse criticism of religion in the 19th century, we at the beginning of the 21st century did not enter a “religionless age” but are threatened by religious terror and the longing for religious redemption.

We conclude: We need not all become religious again before we can become Christians. There is also a non-religious Christianity, not only a religious Christianity. Bonhoeffer’s sentence “Christ brings new life in the world, not a new religion” is true for both. What is involved is this whole, loved, healed and justified life that Christ opens up with the abundance of life and eternal life. The word “suffering God” comes in the context of Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the “come-of-age world.” To my knowledge, this is unique in all German theology of the 19th and 20th centuries in Germany. This idea only appeared with the philosopher Georg F W Hegel while an extensive discussion about God’s capacity for suffering occurred in England.

Bonhoeffer speaks of “God’s suffering in the godless world” and of “God’s messianic suffering in Jesus Christ.” He says in a poem: “People go to God in God’s distress, find him poor and scorned, without shelter and bread, see him engulfed by sin, weakness and death. Christians stand by God in his suffering.” However God’s suffering embraces the present godless world situation and is not limited exclusively to Christ. This is God’s suffering in the godless world. As the poem says, God suffers in the godlessness of violent criminals and in the abandonment of their victims, “poor, and reviled, without shelter and bread.”

In the New Testament, Christ’s sufferings are not exclusively Jesus’ sufferings. The Apostle also shares in them. They reach up to the sufferings of this age (Romans 8,18). A new theology of the cross arose out of the experiences of war, destruction and mass murder after the Second World War. Unconsciously and consciously, this was tied to Bonhoeffer’s message from the Gestapo cell: “Only the suffering God can help.” The metaphysic of an apathetic deity incapable of suffering that has long marked Christianity was criticized.

The God helping through his suffering is not the untouchable sovereign in heaven who so gloriously rules all things but rather the “one like the mother bearing her child” and “as a father holds his child in his arms.” So God in Christ bears our suffering and our sin as the Greek sage Atlas bears the world on his shoulders so the world does not sink in the abyss and become lost. The God who bears and supports this world is the “God of hope” (Romans 15,13).
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