This review is by our blog friend and regular commenter, Diane Reynolds, and is a sneak preview of a book coming out November 1: Theological Education Underground, 1937-1940 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 15), ed. by Victoria J. Barnett. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has become a singular saint among many today, and I hope it leads to many reading his brilliant studies Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 5) and Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4). I have been reading Bonhoeffer since about 1974, when I first read what was then called The Cost of Discipleship, but I also have found his Life Together to be a treasure trove of wisdom — derived in the most difficult of circumstances, life in hiding from Hitler. Now to Diane’s fine introduction to various publications during those difficult times of Bonhoeffer’s life:
The years 1937 to 1940 marked a critical period in the life of pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During this time, he conducted his illegal seminary under increasingly dangerous circumstances in Nazi Germany, wrote two of his most famous books—Discipleship and Life Together—and decided to reject a secure haven in the United States to return to Germany on the eve of World War II. His departure after only a month in the U.S. catapulted him towards active resistance—and hence execution—as part of the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.
These years are chronicled in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theological Education Underground:1937-1940, volume 15 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English edition series (DBWE), to be released by Fortress Press on November 1. This book, the fourth-to-last of the 16 volumes (plus index) to be translated from German, chronicles Bonhoeffer’s struggles to respond to the horrors of Nazism and offers a riveting “fly on the wall” view of one individual’s wrestling with issues of conscience and discernment.What do you think drives the current fascination with Bonhoeffer? What does Bonhoeffer mean to you?
In his notes on “sin,” in this volume, Bonhoeffer ponders issues that will preoccupy him for the rest of his life: “Because the essence of sin is to obtain praise for itself and to judge over good and evil, sin can never recognize its own sinfulness. … sin is a judgment of God, who calls sin that which people call good, namely, one’s own righteousness.” Do you agree with this definition? Can one’s own will to righteousness—our desire to preserve our own purity—be sinful? Does God ever call us out to serve him by abandoning our purity?
Although Bonhoeffer became a pacifist during his year at Union Theological Seminary in 1930-31, from 1937-40 he was working out—and living out– the theology that would lead to the difficult decision to participate in an assassination attempt against Hitler. True to form, Bonhoeffer was unflinching in not rationalizing his participation in this plot as somehow holy. For this Sermon on the Mount Christian, even killing someone as evil as Hitler potentially violated Christ’s witness. Bonhoeffer recognized that he was caught in a bind, but felt he could not be a Christian without acting in what he called a “this-worldly” way—and he hoped, but was never certain, that God would forgive him for his deed. Is this the definition of courage? Or did he wrongly abandon his pacifism?
The letters and journal entries that lead us through Bonhoeffer’s 1939 decision to return to Germany—a choice so incomprehensible that one of his friends hopped a train from the Midwest to argue with him in person— and are a particularly poignant part of this volume. How many of us would return to Nazi Germany, given a chance to escape—and not only to escape, but with the opportunity to do meaningful work in exile? How many of us, at a time when it was clear war was coming and unclear that Britain could withstand a German assault, would decline a chance to bring a beloved twin sister and her Jewish husband and daughters out of harm’s way? Bonhoeffer’s life challenges our easy rationalizations and our tendency to cast our decisions as pure.
Like the other meticulously edited DBWE volumes, this one does not disappoint, offering up a full feast of scholarship, including letters and papers unearthed since the German edition was published. As usual, the editors’ essays, in this case by Victoria J. Barnett and Dirk Schulz, are top notch. Further, the letters, sermons, notes and diary accounts build an intimate portrait of Bonhoeffer and chronicle, “up close and personal,” a fascinating period of history and a fascinating man.