Saturday, August 06, 2011

Bonhoeffer: Two Biographies of the orthodox saint of "Religionless Christian"

I finnished, at long last, this week Eberhard Bethge's biography of Bonhoeffer, Deitrich Bonhoeffer a Biography: Theologian Christian Man for his Times. As I have said elsewhere I had read portions of Bethge's biography of Bonhoeffer, but not all the way through. Bethge of course came up when I posted on having read Metaxis' biography of Bonhoeffer. Some suggested I just should have read Bethge and been done with it. Yet. critics I read seemed to indicate that Metaxis was too close to Bethge's presentation of Bonhoeffer while also saying Metaxis brought Bonhoeffer too close to American Evangelicalism and the Religious Right. It is true to say that Metaxis' audience was the American Evangelical. Metaxis presents a Bonhoeffer who can be received (again) by Evangelicals. Yet, Bethge is also writing his biography so that Bonhoeffer maybe received into a certain fold(or folds): that of the theological academy and the German Evangelical Church. Bethge's and Metaxis' presentation are close to each other because each are apologists for Bonhoeffer for their times and groups, and they diverge from each other because of the differences between their times and groups into which they wish Bonhoeffer to be received.

Bethge on several occasions mentions how Bonhoeffer has been ignored by the theologians and theological academy of his time. Much of the volume (and this contributes to its voluminousness) is taken up in presenting and defending Bonhoeffer as an academic, a theologian and critical thinker on par with the giants of his time. Bethge defends Bonhoeffer's thought and theological work. First and foremost then we are to see Bonhoeffer as a a Theologian who could have had he chosen and had he not lived in Nazi Germany followed an illustrious academic career. The problem is that one of the reasons Bethge must mount this defense is that Bonhoeffer himself seems to have been unconcerned with his theological reputation. He was pursuing something else, and in part we may not know exactly what that was since that pursuit led him into a particular confrontation with the Nazis, and thus ultimately his death at their hands.

However, Bethge is not solely concerned with Bonhoeffer's reputation as a theologian among the academic theologians, but also Bonhoeffer's reputation among Christians particularly those in the German Evangelical Church. Here there are several sticking points: His role in the Church Struggle, his role in the assassination plot(s) against Hitler, and his fragmented thoughts on "Religionless Christianity" presented in some of his letters from prison. Here Bethge presents Bonhoeffer in terms of great integrity and willingness to sacrifice and undergo suffering for the truth and in order to preserve the church's authentic witness to Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer's harsh criticism's of those in the German Evangelical Church who did not side with the Confessing Church or who left the Confessing Church at certain points in the struggle, are softened by this presentation of Bonhoeffer's intense commitment to Jesus Christ, and the demands of following Christ truly. This is done in part by showing the consistency between Bonhoeffer's stance in the Church struggle and his already widely received Discipleship (Cost of Discipleship).

More challenging is Bonhoeffer's participation in the political conspiracy to remove Hitler by assassination, and "Religionless Christianity". Bethge though points to the continuities between Bonhoeffer's fragments in Prison and his previous writings and actions. The main thread of this continuity is for Bethge Bonhoeffer's Christology and ecclesiology. "Religionless Christianity" is the means by which the church witnesses to Christ in a world come of age. Also, Bethge limits the definition of "religion" for Bonhoeffer in such away that "religion" is not synonymous with theism, but is a sort of distorted theism.

Metaxis had similar concerns, but he is also attempting to rescue Bonhoeffer from certain uses among certain segments of the academy and theologies, like "death of God". He also, wants to present Bonhoeffer as someone with whom Evangelicals can relate. Metaxis suggests the strong possibility of some form of conversion for Bonhoeffer during his first time in New York as a student when he spent "nearly every Sunday" at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem church (Bethge pg 150). Even Bethge marks this as a point of transition though Bethge has a more extend period of Bonhoeffer's becoming a Christian. Metaxis veiw and bias is partly supported by Bonhoeffers own actual disapointment with the preaching he found and Riverside Church, and his having chosen to spend most of his Sundays while in New York at the Abysinian church.

Some Critics have said that this above interpretation and that Metaxis follows Bethge so closely is a weakness in that we encounter nothing new in Metaxis' work. Which is perhaps true to a degree but Metaxis style and desire to present a consistent person of faith who was killed for his faith, means that we actually have an account that follows the lead of Bishop Bell's own sermon at the memorial service for Bonhoeffer, namely giving us a Bonhoeffer who is a martyr and a saint. For me the value in Metaxis' biography is that it is an hagigrphy, or a martyrion. Metaxis, more consistently than Bethge, presents us with Bonhoeffer as a man of faith whose faith lead him to die for Christ and that faith is expressed in part in the act of political resistance. Thus it also rescues martyrdom and sainthood from needing to be purely apolitcal. Metaxis biography shows how martyrdom and the life of faith must be grounded in the world and even politics while also transcending them, and thus transfiguring said actions into witness to Christ. In that sense showing us how "religionless Christianity" is a filling out of the sufferings of Christ.