Bonhoeffer on America

American theologians love Dietrich Bonhoeffer [DB]. I could correct that with some nuance: some do, some don’t, but books about him are mostly from Americans and the academic study of him occurs much more in the USA than in Germany. A well-known German theologian once told a friend of mine that “Germans don’t study Bonhoeffer. They study Barth.”

Some take deep soundings in Bonhoeffer’s “early” writings, namely, his Discipleship and Life Together, while others do their work with Bonhoeffer on the basis if his prison work, namely, his Letters and Papers from Prison. Very few root their thinking either in his dissertation (Sanctorum Communio) or his second dissertation, called “Habilitationsschrift” (Act and Being). His Ethics, some studies and chapters that have only recently been examined sufficiently to be placed in their proper order, stands more with the “early” than with the “prison” writings.

Many Americans neutralize or diminish the early writings by contending DB shifted or radically changed from a more ecclesial author into a Niebuhr-shaped “realist” theologian while in prison. This view argues DB all but gave up his earlier writings and that the prison writings map the future DB would have himself carried out.

One might even wonder today what Bonhoeffer would think of all this study of his work.

What did Dietrich Bonhoeffer, however, think of America? Better yet, what did he think of the American church and its theologians? If you listen to those who think he got caught up in a Niebuhrian mode then you would have one answer: he liked it and them. If you listen to those who think he didn’t get caught up so much in the Niebuhrian mode, you have another answer: he believed America never experienced the Reformation.

Joel Looper examines this question, lands on the side of the second group, as he probes the question “What did DB think of the American church?” in his new book Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land without Reformation.

DB was in the USA twice, once in the school year 1930-1931 as a special student at Union Seminary in New York City, and once very shortly in the summer of 1939, at which time he made the “fateful” decision to return to Germany to participate in the struggle with Hitler and his Nazi-fied German Church (Die Deutsche Christen). After that first visit he wrote a paper called “Protestantism without Reformation” and also filed a report with German sponsors on his time in the USA. Looper has mastered all this and much more.

What to think about this study and DB’s responses to Union, to its professors, to its students, to preachers he heard in the USA, to the experience with Blacks at Abyssinian Baptist Church, and to the American church? I cannot explain it all, and his second part of the book dealing with the objections to his thesis will have to be skipped – it takes lots of twists and turns even to summarize it and there’s not space here for that.

First, he doesn’t return the favor of our love for him. He was decidedly critical of the lack of preaching the Word of God in American churches, a lack that was revealed everywhere in the books he read, the professors he listened to (including very critical words of Niebuhr), and not least the hubris of the Union students in their laughter about core themes in Luther’s theology.

He saw the church as shaped by “enthusiasm” (Schwärmerei) and the pastor as the “association chair” in a democratic church where congregationalism ruled. Personal freedom and liberties and individualism mattered more so that the faith became their legitimation. Bonhoeffer didn’t think this sense of freedom was at all freedom. What mattered was the usefulness of Christianity for social progress.

DB: “In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life” (Looper, 17). [I quote Looper’s pages than providing all the details of a Bonhoeffer official edition, which Looper is always quoting.]

“modern Americans have absolutely no understanding for Pauline and Lutheran Christianity” (20).

In a lecture he gave to the students at Union about Barth, he told the students they’d never comprehend Barth and his significance except “by forgetting at least for this one hour everything you have learned before concerning this problem” (27). He saw in Barth, as the apocalyptic theologians do today, a revolutionary starting point that annulled what came before. The premise of Barth and Bonhoeffer was the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as the starting point for all theology. This is the gospel of Bonhoeffer.

Much has been said over the years, including that he was too young for such a comprehensive view, but mostly what has explained it is that in prison he changed his mind on what he learned at Union. A good example of this today is in the biography of DB by Charles Marsh.

Second, Looper doesn’t think DB changed his mind in prison and he offers a detailed defense of how better to understand some of the most difficult parts of DB’s prison writings, especially his “religionless Christianity” stuff. In short, “religion” for DB was what it was for Barth, a human thin rather than the theology of God that has apocalyptic dimensions in Barth and Bonhoeffer and that comes down from above to judge humans in its offer of grace and redemption and forgiveness of sins. We should not forget that as late as 22 April, 1944, DB said “I don’t think I have every changed much” (26).

The Niebuhrian capture of DB has fascinated me and I have never studied this intensively and Looper has been helpful for me. I have however read DB’s very critical words about Niebuhr and it has always perplexed me why so many think DB flipped on Niebuhr while in Tegel as a prisoner.  DB: “Finished reading Niebuhr…. This thinking does not come from the Bible, for that reason deeply unproductive. His essay in Beyond Tragedy about ‘as deceivers yet true’ is pure modernism” (56-57). And DB saw a lack of Christology in Niebuhr.

Third, DB saw the origins of American theology in the Lollards and Wycliffe and in the dissenters of English church and society as well as in the number of refugees from theological statism in Europe that found their way into the American church. And this all led not to a quest for the one truth of the gospel (as with Luther in Germany) but instead to a tolerant uncontrolled denominationalism that baptized personal religious experience and theology as the foundation for the church. In explaining this origin to the American churches DB was appropriating a now long forgotten historian named Thomas Cuming Hall.

Fourth, Bonhoeffer never gave up his strong sense of the two kingdoms theology from his Lutheran theology. For DB the secularization in the American churches was from within, not imposed from without. That is the politics of civil liberties cut into the heart of the gospel from within. In two kingdoms there is a pure gospel apocalyptic theology while the government’s responsibility was to protect the church to preach that Word of God. At Union the church had been collapsed into the world. DB thought the church’s job was at times to call the state back to its God-given task.

Extraordinary book and belongs on the shelf of everyone who studies Bonhoeffer.