Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be a saint by now if Protestants (Lutherans, in his case) sanctified their best. The historian Martin Marty brings him to life in conversation and gets quickly to the essential point of Bonhoeffer’s wide relevance today in a world where church life withers here and abounds elsewhere. Strictly orthodox at the same time he was blithely, instinctively informal, Bonhoeffer preached both the death of religion and Christian renewal. In his writing and his life Bonhoeffer seems to have anticipated the sense that religion is played out, almost disreputable; and still that the spark of the divine in man drives the visible and invisible life of the world.
The case for Bonhoeffer’s sainthood is easy on the grounds of his activism. He was a sweet-spirited martyr who’d returned to Germany from America in the summer of 1939, on the last free trans-Atlantic oceanliner before the War, knowing full well that he was sailing to his death, but having decided that the choice was between bringing down the Third Reich or bringing down Christian civilization. He said at the time: “I know which of those alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.” For his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned at Buchenwald, then Flossenburg, and hung on April 9, 1945, three weeks before Hitler killed himself. Bonhoeffer’s last words were “This is the end — for me the beginning of life.”
There’s another sort of immortality in Bonhoeffer’s writing. Martin Marty is decoding the ideas in some of his most famous phrases: “the cost of discipleship,” for example, and “cheap grace.” Bonhoeffer’s most resonant line was to the effect that “when Jesus Christ calls a man, he calls him to die.” He knew the price that Christians of conviction were paying in Nazi Germany, and he listed them: “Gefallen… gefallen… gefallen.” He knew as well that the institutional weight of the churches would not save them: conventional worship had cheapened grace, and when the real thing showed up they would not recognize it. Philosophically and scientifically, Bonhoeffer wrote, the world had “come of age,” and the ritual and superstition of its adolescence were expendable. But the “arcane discipline” of Christianity seemed to Bonhoeffer as essentially lively as ever: the shared meal of bread and wine, “the language, the concern, the agenda, the action of the people with whom you’re bonded. These meanings of God are active.” It was a vitality that captured Bonhoeffer in African America — in the Abyssinian Baptist Church and other black churches of Harlem, when Bonhoeffer was studying at the Union Theological Seminary uptown in New York. I am reminded of the Czech composer Anton Dvorak, in New York a half-century earlier, hearing the future of serious music in the songs and spirituals, the “Songs of Zion” that came out of black slavery in America:
MM: They were looking for, and discerning, and finding, and making something of, to use a word that needs some defining, soul. One definition of soul, it comes from Aristotle via a lot of other people, is that soul is not a ghost in the machine, it’s not a pilot on a ship, it’s not Caspar the ghost. One scholar calls it the integrated, vital power of any organic body. That’s what these people heard — the Jewish white composers like Gershwin. How did they catch on so fast? They were looking for precisely this kind of thing, and we still call it soul music. He learned to find that in preaching. But he also never turned against high culture. When you read his books, they draw upon worship and music from all the ages… He once said you have no right to engage in a Gregorian chant unless you have spoken up for the Jews. He was looking for soul.
CL: Can you picture him as one man?
MM: Yes I can, because I think he had that integrative power of soul. Trying to discern the secret of people like this is always the hardest thing we do. One thing a leader does, he takes steps at high risk. At the theological schools they used to call it the hermeneutics of testimony. If you have something at stake, you’re going to be paid attention to in a different way. I knew Martin Luther King somewhat. I don’t know why it was, but I think everyone I knew pictured that he isn’t going to live a full life. Someday somebody is going to get him … Therefore what he said had to be measured. Gandhi was the same thing. Certainly Mandela: twenty-seven years in that prison, he could read out of a phonebook and I’d want to be there. And I think that’s what happened with Bonhoeffer.
Martin Marty in Chicago, with Chris Lydon in Providence, April 27, 2011.
Zesty, prolific Martin Marty was seized as a seminarian more than 50 years ago by the scattered writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which he helped to gather and publish. His new book is a “biography” (in the Princeton series) of Bonhoeffer’s last miscellany, Letters and Papers from Prison.