Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bonhoeffer's Conservatism

Bottom line: plotting to kill a Fascist doesn't make you a liberal, and there's no particular reason to think it should.

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.
Triple ouch!

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.


Pastor Joelle said...

Okay. Now read THIS review

Hijacking Bonhoeffer

Father Anonymous said...

Thanks -- the Century review is an important corrective, and I've changed a few sentences in my post accordingly. The book sounds much less appealing now, but I'm still fascinated by the struggle to "claim" Bonhoeffer.

I also just stumbled across another diary entry about Riverside, which -- apparently like everything Metaxas has to say -- is lifted from Eberhard Bethge's biography:

"Quite unbearable. The whole thing was a respectable, self-indulgent, self-satisfied religious celebration. Such sermons make for libertinism, egotism, and indifference."


LiturgyGeek said...

You had me at "Rudolf Oh-Must-We Bultmann." That is all.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes, Metaxas is conservative and that colors his biography, and his style is far more narrative than scholarly -- but it was a really compelling read.

*looks around, whispers*

As good as any thriller.

But I got the biography the Christian Century reviewer recommended as well, so you know, I am getting my biographical broccoli.

-- Anna

Mark said...

Also note this review of Mataxas biography:

Pastor Joelle said...

It's just too bad we have to read Bonehoeffer and the bible and other things, not to see what they have to say, not to challenge ourselves or force ourselves to look at the world just a little bit differently but simply to reaffirm what we already believe is right. And we all do that, regardless of which way we tilt.

Daniel Spigelmyer said...

Interesting...discussion with my one German professor today about liberal theologians led us to talking about Tillich and Bonhoeffer. By his estimation, neither's blood ran red - it was so blue it probably came out in ice droplets. To copy/paste your analysis and email it to him?

Father Anonymous said...

@ Joelle: Durn tootin'. On the other hand, I was just reading [another] story about research showing [again] that even hard science experimental results seem to be influenced, ever so subtly, by the expectations of the researchers. We're all trapped.

@Daniel: My "analysis" is basically just copied from Wolfe, except for the part in parentheses -- which I think is actually the important part. But behind the various reviews of the Metaxas book, as your teacher surely knows, is a long-simmering battle over the right to "claim" Bonhoeffer. There's a very similar one over Karl Barh, maybe just a bit less intense because his story is less exciting.

My own feeling, as I tried to say, is that Bonhoeffer doesn't fit neatly into either of the theological camps that would like to claim him, precisely because he was SUCH a Lutheran.

Daniel Spigelmyer said...

Everyone wants to claim the famous's always that way. I'm sure my prof knows the background, but he willfully ignores it. One nice thing about being a Lutheran is that it allows us to look at problems from multiple angles without compromising our core "doctrine." A good Lutheran, at any rate, should be able to do that. A well-rounded person, one might argue, should be able to do that, even, but I'll let it rest at a good Lutheran.

Daniel Spigelmyer said...

@Pastor Jill - re: reading the Bible et al. in light of our views for "reinforcement," I concur wholeheartedly. It's not just the Bible,'s so much in our society - newspapers, television, the Congressional Budget Office, etc. It makes me grow cynical and depressed about the state of human affairs. I hope that it's only my becoming aware of things with coming of age and that things were always this dysfunctional. Sadly, from what I hear from others who have a few more years and a bit more experience on me assure me that we are indeed becoming more uncivil towards one another, more polarized. I pray for humanity...may we not destruct ourselves.

Nixon said...

Bonhoeffer clearly had no intention of cutting the financial strings that still strangle European religion; the idea that the state should pay its clergy to promote what it considers good for the masses, whether or not the masses want it.
Very paternalist and condescending. No freedom of choice.
And no surprise that both conservatives and "progressives" are absolutely convinced that the churches couldn't live without this money.

Father Anonymous said...

*Some* European religion. Not every country puts its clergy on the dole, and no country puts the clergy of all churches (much less any other religious communities) on the dole.

As I've said before, I agree with you that state churches are a bad idea. "Paternalistic and condescending" is true, although of course many people would call it "preserving our cultural heritage." You say tomato, I suppose.

But let's be careful about a blanket statement like "no freedom of choice." In no (modern) European country that I know are people simply prohibited from attending the church of their choice.

You could argue that free choice is suppressed by establishment of one church over another. But the same argument would naturally apply to churches that receive subsidies from abroad. If the government can't support one church, why should foreigners get to support another?