Book Review: Strange Glory – A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Charles Marsh – 1/7/2016
Charles Marsh leads us on the journey of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s spiritual transformation from a comfortable and privileged childhood in Poland and Berlin, his pursuit of a religious life to one of strife and suffering, and finally death at the hands of the Nazi German terror machine that struck the world from 1930 through 1945. This transformation was brought about by Bonhoeffer’s own scholarly practice and human experience in the midst of one of the worst of times in history that had and continues to have monumental consequences for all humankind. Bonhoeffer was in the end, killed in the Flossenburg Nazi prison concentration camp close to the end of the war.
The journey is highly personal, filled with Bonhoeffer’s own mind exploration and change, discovering his heritage as it relates to the world we see, at times with incredible will to release and reject old ideas supplanted with a humanistic theology, that toward the end of his life becomes his view of “I and thou”, and finally, how we relate to one another under God. And, how inexorably linked this relationship is. Dr. Bonhoeffer’s basic foundation of thought is always a developing conscious contact with God. Or, perhaps his return to it. It is the human condition that accepts God’s hand, always there, always offering Oneness, seeming from afar, yet right within our own mind. “Christ, community and concreteness” (Page, 57) are the key words Bonhoeffer gives his life for, as an experience that makes living here in this world full of hope and God’s glory in the end. God wills to overwhelm our made up world with Truth and Love. Professor Marsh tells us, The “ ‘enigmatic impenetrable Thou.’ Forgiveness means forgiving people, Bonhoeffer said, and apart from the dynamic of personal encounter, the doctrine of the justification of sins vanishes into thin air.” I interpret that to mean, Jesus’ proclamation he came to take away the sins of the world. And we ignore this by our guilt.
Bonhoeffer implies it is but our encounters with one another that can be holy. If we understood that fully, there would not have been the atrocities Bonhoeffer and so many others have had to experience. As soon as Adam walked away from the Garden in the Genesis story, we are beset with anger, fear, guilt and death. Yet it is Bonhoeffer’s experience that he offers to us instead, always the optimist. One way to interpret Marsh’s biography is that Bonhoeffer, knowing his fate, escaped the terrible depression that surely would tempt anyone, his message was in the end, forgiveness.
Professor Marsh, with great attention to detail, scholarly faith in truthfulness, and compelling story telling, gives us a picture of Bonhoeffer’s full life — including, from what one might see as his practice of rather mundane minor details for one of the twentieth century’s greatest theologians, to some of the greatest isights of our time. For example, we find Dr. Bonhoeffer, very seriously discussing how to dress for a weekend occasion. This is a side of Bonhoeffer that is concrete and worldly. In Bonhoeffer’s words: “ Regarding the dress-code: please take the light travel suit…A coat is not necessary…If I find a second one, I will take it along. Otherwise we will wear the one in turn.” (This from a letter to his beloved friend, Bethge.)
It is interesting to contrast his care for dress with a very profound statement coming from his own transformation. He proceeds from strong nationalism for his country and its place in history, even its rationalized call to war, to the following statement: “it does nobody any good professing belief in Christ without first being reconciled with his brother or sister — including the non-believer, his brethren of another race, the marginalized, or outcast….Even faith and hope as they enter into eternity are molded by the shape of love. In the end everything must become love…Perfection’s name is love.” Hitler was in power when he said this.
From whence such a change? From personal suffering and his growing empathy for others, inside and outside his country. One of the upheavals in Bonhoeffer’s thinking comes from his visit to the United States, perhaps his most profound. He meets his fellows at the Union Theological Seminary in 1930, where he as become a teaching fellow. His education is beyond some of the most famous teachers there including Reinhold Niebuhr, who is about to become one of the world’s most revered theologians. Bonhoeffer’s theological thinking begins to take on a much more relational approach, as he sees America’s own “question,” not unlike the German “Jewish question,” the African American question, which cannot make any sense in light of our democracy and constitution. Neither makes any sense as exposed to Jesus’ message of equal children under one Father. Bonhoeffer’s great love for the Sermon on the Mount is now seriously challenged, once to the point of another rationalization: “even murder can be sanctified in the defense of one’s country.” As to the Beatitudes, the foundation of Jeus’ teaching, “Applying the Beatitudes concretely to the present age is ‘meaningless’ and ‘impracticable,’ as Marsh relates in Bonhoeffer’s words, …”…and goes against ‘the spirit of Christ, who brought freedom from the law.’”
While in New York City, Bonhoeffer meets his life time friend, Frank Fisher, and it becomes clear in the biography that this African American man had enormous influence on the rest of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought, as Fisher tells Bonhoeffer of the inconsistencies of his experience in American democracy and Christianity as a Black man. Bonhoeffer also meets Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He regards him as a great teacher. These moments of truth as Bonhoeffer experiences them had a life long affect on his theology and life as a humanist.
This wonderfully crafted biography can remind us that the only way to remain non-dualistic in a world contrived on the concept dualism, a world that believes we are, and somehow should be, separated from God is to come to recognize God as One, that there is only the Oneness of our Creator, a loving Father Who, because of His love for us, must allow us to go down the path of separation. There is, however, no such path. Only a dream of its possibility. While we seek for it here and even search for ways to accommodate God at times, even to grant Him a place in our constant business of trying to make illusion real, false gods real, small selves to take the place of the one Self forever in unity with God, on and on, we fail. War, murder, disregard for the sanctity of each other are the stuff of self reliance and selfishness, which cannot find a place in God’s heart. Nor can we find our place there, as sure as it is. Yet, optimism comes from a grateful heart. Bonhoeffer’s proclivity it seems for such a response to man’s mistakes, is his message. In effect, he was fulfilling Jesus’ message of communion through God’s Love: we are never alone, we have not left the Kingdom, the Atonement (At-one-ment) is the only answer to awake from the dream of hell, and finding ourselves in the loving arms of our Father.
The Father we have, in Truth, never left. People kill each other, defame each other, use each other, take from one another, fight in defense of what we think we need, or for what we fear we will lose, to support a thought system that does not even exist, for it is outside God’s mind, taking place in a dream. Yes, we do think it real, and our thoughts about it seem to make it real. However, as Bonhoeffer was able to do, we can think differently, and see differently in the worst of circumstances. We can think what we want: God’s way, in the joining that was never lost, or our way. We, in reality, cannot think apart from God. We are in His Mind. War and killing are only dreamed in the Mind of God. And it is there where we are all restored to sanity, those who kill and those who die at their hand, for Heaven cannot know hell.
Bonhoeffer was not a martyr, nor was Jesus. Jesus for sure knew
God’s plan, recognizing (re-knowing) His Truth. Seeing Truth, being saved for its glory, involves no sacrifice. I believe Bonhoeffer knew this from the moment as a child he decided to bring the Truth to us from God. Reviewed by Bob Pajer
I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.