When we try to understand our fellow human beings, to grasp their thinking, the reasons behind their decisions, and the purpose of their actions, a familiar adage from popular wisdom comes to mind: “Put yourself in their shoes.”
However, there are voices that suggest that this might not be entirely possible. Balzac tells us this through the unpredictable characters of “The Human Comedy.” Steinbeck echoes it in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Among them are also psychology that establishes the limits of empathy and the biblical prophet Jeremiah asking himself about the human heart, “Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
When it comes to critical situations, we realise we don’t fully know ourselves, and we can’t predict how we might react in the future, under specific circumstances, no matter how much effort we put into anticipation and introspection. Yet, these efforts serve a purpose and help us discipline ourselves and prepare to some extent. In the book, With God in the Underground, Richard Wurmbrand confessed that he had read numerous books about people who had suffered detention and persecution. When he himself was eventually arrested, though he couldn’t foresee what would follow, he didn’t feel taken by surprise or unprepared. He was even able to encourage his fellow cellmates. Moreover, there are historical events that stand as lessons for us to examine and learn from, in order to avoid making mistakes in similar situations.
The complex personality of the renowned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his works, and his life of struggle and suffering overwhelm us. How could we ever put ourselves in the shoes of the man Eric Metaxas described as “pastor, martyr, prophet, spy”? How much did even those closest to him truly understand, such as the recipients of his letters during his detention? We won’t delve into judging him, his affiliating ideas, or his “confiscation” by one theological stream or another. However, it’s worth exploring what we can learn for our own lives of faith and service from Bonhoeffer’s thinking and experiences. This is one of those cases where both his works and biography matter equally. It’s important to see if they can be harmonised, or at least weighed and studied in terms of consistency, as we deal with a Christian theologian and, from a different angle, with a theologian who is Christian.
A disciple of Christ and a prisoner of the Gestapo
The main aspect worth considering is the difference in thought between the Bonhoeffer who wrote The Cost of Discipleship (1937), and the author of the works written during his final years of detention in Nazi prisons (1944-1945). The criteria for evaluating these two styles cannot be purely cultural. In literature, it’s certain that a late-work Goethe in Faust is superior to the author of the earlier The Sorrows of Young Werther. In philosophy, the profound and incisive Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil surpasses the spirit of the author of The Antichrist, a later work that reveals the psychological decline of the author.
However, when it comes to Bonhoeffer, we ask ourselves: What specific lessons should we preserve, cherish, and embrace from his thinking and life? We are asking this because the theologian of the 1920s and 1930s initially presents a creed of Christian living, while the later Christian seems to explain his historical experience through a different theology. For instance, when it comes to the meaning of Christ’s resurrection, he initially wrote that “it is…senseless and crude to make of it a bare historical (historische) fact, for God wants to appear in history (Geschichte). The resurrection occurs in the sphere of faith, of revelation; every other interpretation takes from it its decisive character: God in history (Geschichte)”. In the same vein, in The Cost of Discipleship the author stated that “the call of Jesus teaches us that our relation to the world has been built on an illusion.”
However, in a letter from 1944 to Eberhard Bethge (his future editor), he speaks quite sparingly about the world’s coming of age, a world which would have become fully responsible for its actions and which he salutes. Surprisingly, he writes the following about its relationship with Divinity: “God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” Could we harmonise these two perspectives on the Divine: one in which God reveals and manifests Himself in history and one in which He allows Himself to be pushed out of the world?
There are voices that argue we are dealing with paradoxes in the ideological trajectory of theologian Bonhoeffer. Some exegetists emphasise the continuity in the various stages of his thinking, from the editor and former disciple Bethge to Richard Bube, who says that despite the differences between the calm life in Berlin and the sufferings of detention, the “radical” Bonhoeffer of the years 1944-1945 is recognizable in the theologian of the 1930s. It has been said that he truly “lived [the] discipleship” he wrote about. Discipleship was understood as an imitatio Christi, a following of Christ in the world, a taking up of one’s own cross, a reflection of His image in us. The young theologian emphasised that the price of this discipleship is even death—the death of the old self, so that Jesus may live in us. This vision underlies Bonhoeffer’s theology of the cross. The theology of the cross opposes the theology of “cheap grace,” which states that man is saved by simply accepting the divine sacrifice, without undergoing radical change, without renouncing the old self.
The paradoxes we can identify represent the points of rupture between Bonhoeffer’s two styles of thinking, as previously highlighted. They can only be found in his final writings. The Cost of Discipleship offers a coherent discourse from beginning to end. It is formulated simply, it is accessible, clear, and biblical. Of course, there are theological aspects that refer to the mysteries of the Divine, just as there are in the Bible, but there are no paradoxes. On the other hand, the letters addressed to Bethge sometimes give the impression that they do not belong to the same author. For example, a doctrinal rupture arises concerning the resurrection of Christ; in The Cost of Discipleship the author considers it the essence of the theology of the cross: “His cross has power over us only if it is the cross of the resurrected one”, whereas in his writings from detention, the resurrection is merely “a chapter in the theology of the cross.”
In general, thinking in paradoxes has a unique stylistic and rhetorical effect, in the sense that it stimulates the receiver to produce their own meanings, to become, in a way, a co-author, to ideationally enrich the message, whether the author intended that enrichment or not. Polysemy is inherent in paradoxical thinking. Moreover, it often has an artistic effect as it defies logic. An example hereof would be the following: “We can only be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do recognize—before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God.”
What could we understand from here? The strange coming of age that Bonhoeffer talks about is somewhat explained by Bethge through a comparison with the enlightenment (Aufklärung, German, with reference to Kant’s philosophy) of an immature person—that is, their transition to a stage where they can use their intelligence without anyone’s help. By analogy, this phenomenon would have occurred with the world, with humanity. However, it is not explained how and why this happens at this particular moment in time. Could we deduce that humanity only needed God during its stage of immaturity and that it is now “emancipated” from His intervention or help?
In a theological context, this polysemy is confusing, and the lack of logic can lead to doctrinal impasses. It is assumed that, in the case of a theological message, the receiver deciphers a single revealed meaning, mediated through the theologian’s interpretation, and it is not desirable for the meanings to be multiple, personalised according to the thinking and culture of each individual recipient.
Yet, here is another such paradoxical formulation by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, about God showing us, in the contemporary world, “that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.” Such a fragment might partially “reconcile” an atheist, a theist, a Christian, and a non-Christian believer, but it wouldn’t fully satisfy any of them. Anyone can understand whatever they wish, to a certain extent, from this vague concept of the Divine.
Bonhoeffer, following some late readings in the history of physics, refers to the notion of “God of the gaps.” In the case of gaps in knowledge or explanations in science, there was room for the explanatory hypothesis of divine existence or intervention. Bonhoeffer argues that, in the mature stage of the present world, there is no longer a need for explanations by invoking the concept of God in science. Also, in the case of problems related to guilt, suffering, or death, there is no longer a need to appeal to God as an explanatory hypothesis. As Richard Bube illustrates, Bonhoeffer urges us to acknowledge that we are fully responsible for what happens in the world and in our lives, and that we should not throw this responsibility upon God, which was previously not ours, but now is due to our coming of age.
Yet another aspect of ideological rupture in the late writings of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer concerns ethics. In the context of the relationship between freedom and responsibility, he reverses things, again through a paradox. Instead of emphasising that a certain degree of freedom entails a corresponding responsibility, he ends up saying that people, precisely because they are fully responsible, also have the freedom to act contrary to any law.
This is a passage in which, in his ethical reflections, Bonhoeffer justifies his choice to conspire in the assassination of Hitler. His reasoning goes as follows: since the prevailing factor in the decision is the “freedom of those who act responsibly,” even though aware that he is violating God’s commandment—“You shall not murder”—“in such a situation, one must completely let go of any law, knowing that here one must decide as a free venture. This must also include the open acknowledgment that here the law is being broken, violated…thereby affirming the legitimacy of the law in the very act of violating it….”
The problem with this justification, as paradoxical as it is formulated, is that it can fit, rigorously, with any choice, even with that of denouncing one’s fellow believers. It is related, through a sort of embraced fatalism, to the famous formulation of Machiavelli: “The end justifies the means,” meaning that a noble end justifies the violation of principles; and even with Stalin’s cynical statement “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”—meaning, metaphorically, sacrificing human lives. It is a pattern of fatalistic and paradoxical thinking, suggesting that for a greater good in the future, one can compromise with a lesser present evil, all while assuming authority.
This, of course, entails believing in a higher reason for social actions, one that is transindividual but distinct from the divine reason, since you can afford to reject the divine law. Bonhoeffer continues in the same paradoxical note, suggesting that there is no other option, no other choice outside of guilt, but only one “captive” to guilt: “In either case one becomes guilty, and is able to live only by divine grace and forgiveness.”
The style of this paradoxical thinking is speculative, dialectical, perhaps even Hegelian (it is known that the author gave lectures on Hegel’s philosophy), but it is certainly not theological. If we accept it as theological, then we can only observe an ideological discrepancy between the author’s initial and final theology.
If we analyse this style of thinking through paradoxes and compare it with the theological thinking in The Cost of Discipleship, I believe we can draw some useful conclusions for us today.
First and foremost, the deliberate choice to act contrary to divine will, in a context where God becomes a concept distant from actual life, cannot harmonise with the expectation of divine grace and forgiveness, as it would hinder the chance for repentance and even divine authority. Yet, in his early theology, Bonhoeffer described precisely this notion of cheap grace, whose theory he disavowed: “Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin…Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner…”
Secondly, the coming of age of the Christian and the full responsibility for everything lived, which Bonhoeffer speaks of as the contemporary stage, fundamentally excludes the essence of the theology of the cross as discipleship in Christ, as imitatio Christi, because it denies Christ His authority, power, and love for His disciples.
However, in the aforementioned work, in the chapter “The Visible Community,” Christians are portrayed entirely differently, living in the world but not worldly: “Amid poverty and suffering, hunger and thirst, they are meek, merciful, and peacemakers, persecuted and scorned by the world…. They are strangers and sojourners on earth (Heb. 11:13; 13:14; 1 Peter 1:1). They seek those things that are above, not the things that are on the earth (Col. 3:2)…. Here all that is visible is their dying, their secret daily death unto the old man, and their manifest death before the world. Although they are a visible society, they are always unknown even to themselves, looking only to their Lord. He is in heaven, their life is with him, and for him they wait.”
Finally, to weigh things correctly, I believe that the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that deserves to be valued is only that which is articulated coherently, clearly, without paradoxes, and in accordance with Scripture. The late dialectical, speculative discourse, which is filled with paradoxes, cannot be considered a theological discourse, but it is relevant from a historical and psychological point of view. It sheds light on the sociopolitical context facilitating the understanding of the life and actions of the man Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Douglas Hall attempted to distinguish, among the posthumously published works, the elements of an ethics in the making in Bonhoeffer’s writings. In my view, if we are to extract a Christian-based ethics from Bonhoeffer’s theology, this can only be articulated starting from the theology of the cross—that is, from that discipleship of which the later Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke with the serene dedication of a young pastor, saying that it “means joy.”