Appointments with Bonhoeffer
Keith Clements introduces his new book, a series of reflections on how Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and thought can continue to engage our hearts and minds with the challenges of our time
‘Who is Jesus Christ, for us, today?’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s simple but searching question, penned in a Nazi prison cell in 1944, has ensured he has never gone out of fashion. Successive predictions that the ‘Bonhoeffer industry’ is ending prove to be fake news. His sayings still bite with prophetic edge:
‘Peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be made safe’.
"Speak out for those who cannot speak" - 'who in the church today still remembers that this is the very least the Bible asks of us?’
‘Jesus calls us not to a new religion but to life.’
‘The church is church only when it is there for others.’
It was 60 years ago this year that my own interest in Bonhoeffer was ignited by a talk given to the Baptist Students’ Society in Cambridge by Canon Paul Oestreicher. The sense that Bonhoeffer was someone who just had to be listened to, studied, and in due course taught and written about (to the tune now of six books written or edited) has never left me.
Today we are beset by resurgent nationalisms and forms of authoritarian rule, fascism and racism. We are trembling in face of wars and renewed nuclear threat. Societies (not least our own) are fragmenting in pursuit of divisive political and ideological goals. ‘Religion,’ far from resisting, is too often being co-opted to serve the destructive impulses. We talk much about democracy but are less able to say why it matters and what it really requires. We are still in need of a prophet who in his own time saw, spoke and acted the truth unto death, and who still speaks.
The word ‘appointments’ in my title is a bit of a give-away. The book comprises, not a single narrative or progressively developed argument, but a series of reflections on how Bonhoeffer’s life and thought has stimulated, and can continue provoking us, to engage our hearts and minds with the challenges of our time. In Britain there is the disarray wrought by Brexit, and the moral vacuum at the heart of so much political and public life today, in which Christianity is typically relegated to the private sphere. Our obsessions with identity (individual, communal or national) at the expense of ethics, and with superficial notions of freedom, have left us bereft of any guidelines on how to build true community. The domination of our culture by press-button media has encouraged glib talk at the expense of truth-telling, and self-advertisement instead of listening.
The thread of continuity throughout the chapters is Bonhoeffer’s hold on Jesus Christ as the one who lives and acts representatively on behalf of others, even to the cross, and in so doing both reveals who God is, and embodies the centre of our life as social beings. For Bonhoeffer, God is ‘the burning fire of love, the nucleus of reconciliation’; no embarrassment here about talking of love at the levels both of personal faith and public responsibility, of both prayer and politics.
I’ve also included some studies of hitherto unknown or little noticed features of Bonhoeffer’s thought and influence: his posthumous use (or misuse) in Cold War East Europe for example, and his pointed remarks about ministry and church community, which are so apposite for witness in a ‘post-Christian’ world.
I’ve also drawn what I see as some striking connexions or parallels with other thinkers, like the 17th century priest and poet Thomas Traherne, who like Bonhoeffer believed that knowing God requires immersion and delight in God’s created world (a potentially powerful resource in our quest for an ecologically responsible faith); and the Catholic Modernist Friedrich von Hügel, of whom Bonhoeffer once remarked to some friends in London, ‘If you English had read him you would not have needed to read Karl Barth!’
To come clean: nearly all the chapters are hitherto unpublished, but originated as papers or lectures given over the last few years in a wide variety of contexts in the UK, Australia, South Africa, Sweden and the USA. Adding to the mix are two sermons: ‘The gospel subversive of tribalism’ preached at matins in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge; and ‘Are we still of any use? Words for tired public servants and frustrated citizens’, preached at the Bath and North East Somerset Civic Service on the 75th anniversary of the July 20 1944 plot against Hitler.
Of course I’ve not tried to address each and every ‘issue’ in these fast moving and turbulent times, rather to keep in view Bonhoeffer’s underlying and basic biblical, Christ-centred theology which always drove his own engagements, and which should now make us think. But I was able, just as the book was going through the press, to tag onto the Preface the open letter which I wrote to Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
If, as quite likely, Appointments with Bonhoeffer proves to be my last offering of this kind, I just hope it may help promote still further the reception and appreciation of Bonhoeffer’s legacy for today’s and future generations. It is greatly encouraging that, worldwide, a new wave of younger scholars is now taking him up. There’s an aptness in that. Looking back to a historical figure who died nearly 80 years ago, we perhaps picture a venerable ‘father of the church’. But it should not be forgotten that Bonhoeffer was just 21 when he got his doctorate, that it was as a youth secretary he served the ecumenical peace movement, and that he was just 39 when he died. He will forever be young in the kingdom of God.
Baptist minister the Revd Dr Keith Clements is the former General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches 1997-2005
Keith's new book Appointments with Bonhoeffer - Personal Faith and Public Responsibility in a Fragmenting World is published by T & T Clark
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