The Strange Glory of a Fully Human Life

The Strange Glory of a Fully Human Life May 9, 2014

When we were working on the list of saints for Common Prayer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was at the top of our list of sisters and brothers we wanted to add to the traditional Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons. As our new monastic communities have sought to heed the prophetic stream in Christian history, this 20th century voice crying out in the wilderness of Nazi Germany has been an inspiration. Not only did he challenge Hitler from the beginning of his terrible reign; Bonhoeffer also developed an underground seminary at Finkenwalde, seeing the need for a “new kind of monasticism,” as he said, to form Christians who are able to resist the powers of the age. Next to the Bible, Bonhoeffer’s Life Together may be the most common book on the coffee tables of new monastic homes.

But you don’t have to live in community long to realize that lives which are blessed and instructive are still flawed. The grace of the gospel isn’t only that the Word was made flesh in Jesus, but also that the eternal Word is made present in weak and wonderful people. “The glory of God,” St. Irenaeus famously said, “is the human fully alive.” Not the Super Human, but the quirky, peculiar humans you meet in real community. “It is a strange glory, the glory of this God,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached. Strange glory, indeed. In his beautiful new biography, theologian Charles Marsh displays both how strangely human and how gloriously blessed Bonhoeffer’s life was.

As told by Marsh, the Commonwealth Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, Bonhoeffer’s life is itself a study in theology. This is, notably not a study of Bonhoeffer’s theology (though Marsh has also written such a book in Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer). But neither is it an adventure tale, focused solely on the high-society-scion-turned-double agent, trying to subvert Hitler while writing love letters to his fiancee. It is, rather, the story of a boy who stayed up late at night trying to understand eternity becoming a man who, though he didn’t entirely understand himself, tried to fathom the eternal Word of God.

Bonhoeffer is best know for being the earliest German voice to speak out against Adolf Hitler, calling the German Protestant church to resist Nazification. Though he had earned two doctorate degrees and was lecturing at the University of Berlin at the time, Bonhoeffer was only 27. His adjunct teaching position was unpaid, and he was living on his tenured professor father’s dime. What, then, made this radical witness possible?

Marsh tells the story of a gregarious and active boy who loved sport and study but somehow became fascinated by God. His privilege of birth was access to some of Germany’s brightest minds, not simply as people he might read or study, but as neighbors. This familiarity seems to have set Bonhoeffer at ease in the heady world of theological ideas. He understood the conversation well enough to recognize the bombshell that Karl Barth dropped on liberal theology. What’s more, he knew the nuances of intellectual life well enough to write a dissertation that appreciated Barth’s contribution without alienating the very people Barth was writing against.

All of this careful study led Bonhoeffer to one conclusion: that the proof of Christian theology is in the community that shares its convictions. He came to America in 1930 searching for a “cloud of witnesses”–a church that could somehow embody the Word that he found so compelling. Initially disappointed by the state of theology in America (he was better educated than his teachers at Union), Bonhoeffer nevertheless found what he was looking for in the black church and its radical allies. In Strange Glory, Bonhoeffer’s experience in America becomes the turning point. To quote Marsh:

These Union personalities were among “the most radical Christians with whom Bonhoeffer ever associated,” as the scholar Clifford Green notes. “They worked on urban and rural poverty, on racial justice and civil rights, on union organizing, on peacemaking, and many spent time in jails and prisons.” By the end of his Sloan Fellowship, Bonhoeffer must have recognized these men and women as being part of the greater “cloud of witnesses,” he had longed for since his arrival in New York.

Bonhoeffer remained critical of the seminary’s indifference to “all genuine theology,” but his final assessment of the school’s commitment to “radical socializing” were gentle and appreciative. For the same students who laughed out loud at mention of Luther’s doctrine sola gratia were tireless workers in the vineyard, dressing the branches by which food, clothing and shelter found the poor, extending the vine to the outmost highways and hedges, where the powerless dwelt and where righteous action was the highest of all virtues.

As a student of the Southern Freedom Movement, it’s enlivening for me to think about Bonhoeffer studying with Myles Horton, the founder of Highlander Folk School who would go on to work alongside Virginia Durr and Rosa Parks, Septima Clark and Martin Luther King. When, after returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer started Finkenwalde, his experiment in radical theological education ran parallel to projects his classmates were carrying out in the American South. Some of the theological seeds that gave rise the America’s Civil Rights Movement were scattered in Germany a generation before they began to bear fruit here.

Indeed, prophetic theological education is the gem at the center of Strange Glory. Observers who have obsessed over Bonhoeffer, the avowed pacifist, choosing to support an attempt on Hitler’s life have often tried to make his life “about” discerning the Grezfall–that “extreme case” which compels one to deny principle for the sake of responsibility. While Marsh doesn’t overlook this struggle, he seems to understand that Bonhoeffer’s central theological question was more fundamental: what does it take to be truly Christian in the face of Nazi apostasy?

This is the question that Bonhoeffer never gave up asking. From the time of his graduate studies in Berlin, he knew that it would require community. But community is difficult–not only because it refuses to be the “wish dream” that we might wish it to be, but also because it brings up things within us that we might not recognize otherwise. Marsh is honest about the fact that Bonhoeffer was rather undemocratic in his pedagogy, compelling some students to call him “Fuehrer” behind his back. He became infatuated with a brother in the community, seemingly unaware of the power dynamics at play. Even after becoming a political dissident on the run, he seemed to obsess over fashion. A strange Christian radical indeed.

But the glory in this story is that God’s Word makes a claim on Bonhoeffer (even if other passions also have their say). To the end, Bonhoeffer is determined to hear God’s Word in the present and to know it in the fellowship of a cloud of witnesses–however unlikely that crowd might be. A scene from his last days is telling. Transported to the concentration camp where he and his co-conspirators against Hitler know they will be killed, a Catholic brother asks the Protestant theologian if he will lead a service of worship. Before agreeing,  Bonhoeffer turns to the atheist in their circle and asks if he has any objection. No, he would be glad to participate. So Bonhoeffer proceeds, reading the text for the day: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”

So the strangest of congregations bore witness to a peculiar glory, foretold by the prophet of old. And so we are invited to hear the Word anew, brought by the light of the gospel into fellowship with all who submit to truth.

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