Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bonhoeffer Part 2: The First Myth

MYTH: Because Dietrich Bonhoeffer's two visits to the United States were in conjunction with the liberal Union Seminary, we can view Bonhoeffer as a typical, early 20th century modernist liberal in the Union Seminary mold. (By the way, I am using the term "liberal" to describe a theological, not political viewpoint.)

I’m not sure of the protocol on blogging when you want to make a point by referencing a lot of material in another source. Metaxas’ depth of research on Bonhoeffer’s letters about the modernist theology that he saw in the United States at Riverside Church (Harry Emerson Fosdick) and at Union Theological Seminary is extraordinary. So I’ll err on the side of intellectual property rights and say “read the book” while quoting just these two summary passages regarding Bonhoeffer’s second visit to the United States.

On his earlier visit, Bonhoeffer had been warned that the Broadway Presbyterian Church, just down the road from Union Seminary, was a hotbed of “fundamentalism.” But Bonhoeffer was dissatisfied by the theology of worship at Riverside (p. 333), and he wrote about a sermon was centered around not the Bible but rather the philosophy of William James:

“The whole thing was a respectable, self-indulgent, self-satisfied religious celebration. This sort of idolatrous religion stirs up the flesh which is accustomed to being in check by the Word of God….The tasks for a real theologian over here are immeasurable. But only an American himself can shift all this rubbish, and up till now there do not seem to be any about.”

So Bonhoeffer ventured forth into forbidden territory. He’s what Mextaxas reports that he wrote when he attended Broadway Presbyterian Church:

“Now the day had a good ending. I went to church again. As long as there are lonely Christians there will always be [church] services. It is a great help after a couple of quite lonely days to go into church and pray together, sing together, listen together. The sermon was astonishing (Broadway Presbyterian Church, Dr. McComb) on our ‘likeness with Christ.’ A completely biblical sermon --- the sections on ‘we are blameless like Christ,’ ‘we are tempted like Christ,’ were particularly good.” In perhaps a second part of that letter or another letter, he said of Broadway Presbyterian Church “This will one day be a center of resistance when Riverside Church has long since become a temple of Baal. I was very glad about the sermon.”

The key part, I think, in this puzzle (at least for those who have been taught to see Bonhoeffer as a “modernist”) is the phrase “Word of God.” Bonhoeffer was out of step not only in the Upper West Side of Manhattan but also in Germany, where he was a rebellious “academic grandson” of Friedrich Schleiermacher. According to Metaxas (p. 136-137) Bonhoeffer wrote to his more typically 20th century German liberal brother-in-law:

“First of all, I will confess quite simply --- I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer. One can’t simply read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared really to enquire of it, only thus will it reveal itself. Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it. That is because in the Bible God speaks to us. And one cannot simply think about God in one’s own strength, one has to enquire of him. Only if we seek him, will he answer us….

“If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial to me. This place is Cross of Christ. And whoever would find him must go to the foot of the cross, as the sermon on the mount commands.”

Here are three closing thoughts. First, many of those who read this passage will find it beautiful, even powerful, but may not understand how much of an outsider these views made Bonhoeffer in the world of "establishment" German and American Christianity in the early part of the 20th century.

Secondly, it was mind-boggling humbling to read Mextaxas’ historical narration, knowing how it would all end, and to follow day after day the Dietrich Bonhoeffer who never ceased studying the Bible and praying: in life, in prison, and on the doorstep of death.

Finally, does it bother you to read the thoughts of a passionate Christian such as Bonhoeffer describing sermons and theology of Christians (Christians who are probably in most of our hymnbooks) as "idolatrous" and “rubbish” and comparing a famous Christian church to a “Temple of Baal”? I know it did me. In our culture there are strong constraints against being judgmental, and those cultural constraints have become a part of our religious identity. We don’t want to be seem as being judgmental of other Christians. Was Bonhoeffer out of place, or is it our reluctance to call out bad theology that is the outlier?

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