This is the easiest takeaway from Alan Wolfe's very readable TNR review essay of the book by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. The book sounds interesting enough, although Pastor Joelle points us toward this Christian Century review, which accuses Metaxas both of unremarkable scholarship and, more important, of "hijacking" Bonhoeffer, enlisting him as a foot soldier in the cultural combat of our own time.
Wolfe, however, likes Metaxas' version of Bonhoeffer, and not without cause. Because Bonhoeffer's story is so dramatic -- he would have been a hero even without his participation in the assassination scheme -- it is easy to speak of him in terms that are glowing but perhaps imprecise. Like other heroes, and especially religious ones, his appeal is greatly broadened if the specificity of his witness is understated. (Many people find St. Francis is easier to deal with when they imagine him attempting to convert the fuzzy animals rather than the Muslims, for example). Wolfe's essay pulls in the other direction.
Consider Bonhoeffer's remark about about Christianity in America, and at New York's Union Theological Seminary in particular:
[T[here is no theology here.... They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria.
Ouch! Or on his preference for the then-fundamentalist Broadway Presbyterian over the iconically liberal Riverside:
[Broadway Pres] will one day be a center of resistance when Riverside Church has long since become a temple of Baal.
Double ouch! Despite this, he accepted a job at Union, which was offered at Richard Niebuhr's insistence as a way to keep the brilliant young theologian out of a concentration camp. Here is his expression of gratitude, in a theological evaluation of Niebuhr:
“No thinking in the light of the Bible here,” he wrote in his diary during his second visit to Union.
Wolfe's point is that Bonhoeffer was not an American-style theologian, torn between fundamentalism and liberalism, but rather one deeply rooted in the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions. (Wolfe doesn't mention the Confessions per se, but it is worth remembering that the Ethics has a separate index to citations from the Book of Concord.) He goes on to describe the Confessing Church in terms of the [complicated and difficult, but essentially medieval] Lutheran teaching about church and state:
Like any good Lutheran, Bonhoeffer believed that states were necessary to secure conditions of social order. ...... Bonhoeffer’s religious convictions left no place for pluralism. He was anything but a believer in the separation of church and state, or in the need for the state to be neutral between religions, let alone between religion and non-religion. The church should be allied with the state — but it had to be the right church and the right state.
This is all useful, especially for anybody who is tempted to claim Bonhoeffer for the causes of liberalism, relativism or pluralism. For all the pre-post-modern profundity of his writing from prison, he was not so far from his grounding in the very pre-modern traditions of Lutheran theology.
(Come to think of it, a splendid essay -- or book, or dissertation -- could be written upon Lutheranism and its difficult relationship with the "modern" intellectual world. On one hand, it was Lutherans who created a great deal of it. Try to imagine the historical-critical school of Biblical studies without the contribution of Lutherans from Johann Semler to Adolph von Harnack to Rudolph Oh-Must-We Bultmann, or the evolution of modern religious philosophy without Kierkegaard, Hegel, Kant and even Rudolph Otto. And the list, of course, goes on. On the other hand, though these thinkers continue to cast a long shadow over Western culture, they are largely dismissed by regular churchgoing Lutherans, in preference to our various lesser-known Pietistic and Evangelical Catholic heroes. We'll see your Nicolai Grundtvig and raise you a George Lindbeck. Perhaps it is our imagination, but it seems that the Reformed and even Anglican churches live more easily with their Enlightenment legacy. Readers, any opinion?)
Anyway, Wolfe attempts to go deeper than his meditation upon Bonhoeffer's Biblicism and Lutheranism, and to propose that although these things may have shaped Bonhoeffer personally, they were not essential to the anti-Nazi resistance. He seems to be pushing toward that great Enlightenment goal, the privatization of religious faith, and its exclusion from the realm of civil discourse. Here he is less convincing; indeed, he seems to be making a point about Bonhoeffer that Bonhoeffer would have rejected vehemently. One of the first comments on his essay observes that he treats the White Rose rebels as secular, when they were largely motivated by religion.
Still, it's a provocative read. Check it out, if you haven't already wasted too much time on the Internet today.