Letters and Papers from Prison

by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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The son of a psychiatrist teaching at Berlin University, Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided early to study theology. He served as pastor, lecturer, and theology professor in Spain, America, and England as well as Germany. Bonhoeffer became an outspoken critic of the Nazi government and an active member of the resistance movement. In 1943, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo and two years later was hanged. His other important works include Schöpfung und Fall (1933; Creation and Fall, 1959), Nachfolge (1937; The Cost of Discipleship, 1948), Gemeinsames Leben (1939; Life Together, 1954), and Ethik (1943; Ethics, 1955).

Letters and Papers from Prison is not specifically focused on the Holocaust, and the book is not intended to present a systematic set of ideas; rather, it posits questions and suggestive answers, or suggestive lines along which one may look for answers. As Bonhoeffer himself says, “I am led on more by an instinctive feeling for the questions which are bound to crop up rather than by any conclusions I have reached already.” However, one gets the feeling when reading this material that there was a book brewing in his mind. Just as one may think of Bonhoeffer’s previous work as a book on the theme of Christ as Lord of the Church, one could think of Letters and Papers from Prison as a work dealing with the theme of Christ as Lord of the world—for it is Christ and the world in the twentieth century and how one can be a disciple of Christ that seem to have been occupying Bonhoeffer’s mind. One of Bonhoeffer’s questions raised here, for example, and one that would greatly influence later theology, is “How do we speak . . . in secular fashion of God?”

It is the secularization of the world in the twentieth century that seems to preoccupy Bonhoeffer. He sees the world with its science and technology as having “come of age,” and the world and human beings as having become autonomous. We do not need God as the answer to problems as we once did. This he takes to be a fact with which theology must deal, but he also does not take it to be a bad one. When humanity can resolve its problems itself, to force human beings to rely on God is merely to force them back into adolescence. In the light of this, he calls for a “religionless Christianity,” one that does not rest on some a priori religious need for God. “The time when men could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious,” he tells us, “is over and so is the time of inwardness and conscience, which is to say the time of religion as such.”

A religionless Christianity stands in contrast to a Christianity that maintains that humanity has problems that only religion can answer. Of religion, Bonhoeffer writes:Religious people speak of God when human perception is (often just from laziness) at an end, or human resources fail: it is always a deus ex machina they call to their aid, either for the so called solving of insoluble problems or as support in human failure—always, that is to say, helping our human weakness or on the borders of human existence.

This is precisely the role for God that Bonhoeffer takes humanity’s “coming-of-age” to have rejected. It is the kind of situation, also, that we find reflected in Paul Tillich’s method of correlation, which maintains that human reason raises questions that it cannot answer and that these questions find their answer in Christianity. This is to base Christianity...

(This entire section contains 857 words.)

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on a false religious premise. In reference to Tillich’s attempt, Bonhoeffer remarks that Tillich “sought to understand the world better than it understood itself, but it felt entirelymisunderstood and rejected the imputation.” If the disciples of Christ are to be messengers, as was called for in Bonhoeffer’s previous work, then they must know how to be messengers to humanity “come of age”; otherwise, Christ cannot fulfill his role as Lord of the world.

In positing a “religionless Christianity” in a secular age, Bonhoeffer essentially shifts responsibility from an external, dogmatic godhead to an internal God, resident within the human soul and requiring religious institutions that work in the world. Two things that Bonhoeffer thinks the Church must take seriously if it is to speak to humanity “come of age” are, first, thatGod is teaching us that we must live as men who can get along very well without him. . . . God is weak and powerless in the world, that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can help us. Matthew 8:17 makes it crystal-clear that it is not by his omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by his weakness and suffering. . . . This must be the starting point for our “worldly” interpretations.

The second thing the Church must take seriously is its place in the world: The Christian Church must see itself as belonging to the world, but as powerless in the world, like its Christ, and existing for humanity: The Church “must take part in the social life of the world, not lording over men, but helping and serving them.”


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