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Coffee & Wisdom 02.48: Allow Me to Post This Epistle Part 4

David Breeden is speaking all week about writing from prison.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, and this is Coffee and Wisdom. This week we’ve been looking at something I’m calling allow me to post this epistle that is writings from prison that escape out into the world one way or another and have effects on the larger society. And today, I want to talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Nineteen sixty in nineteen forty five, one of the more famous prisoners in our own time and very much affects what we talk about in seminaries and about religion and theology very much today. Here we have a little Greek Orthodox icon of Bonhoeffer running away the demon of Nazism.

There are quite a few of those kinds of things out there.

Most people, I think, know a little bit about Bonhoeffer. I do want to make a very quick pass through his life here. Bonhoeffer traveled to the United States in 1930 on a teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary where he said there is no theology here. He was accustomed to German universities and German theology very much in the liberal theological Protestant tradition. He was into systematic theology, that is theology that all fits together very logically in huge volumes of and collections of books. So the American theological landscape just was not up to his standards. But he began to go to Harlem and the black church very much appealed to him. He fell in love with spirituals and he was transformed by the social gospel of the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell senior. Now, Bonhoeffer then goes back and he was a key figure in the early nineteen thirties, forming what was known as the confessing church, the church that was opposed to the Nazi takeover of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism right in the lead up to the Second World War. We can see some images here. The do you see this is the the Protestant churches that cooperate with Nazism and in the confessing church that was very much against Nazism. And we know how that’s going to go as the day is passed. This is from about nineteen thirty three and four and the crackdown is going to begin. What confuses Bonhoeffer is why the church isn’t better able to resist the ideas of the Nazis. As the war approaches, Bonhoeffer will have to go into service. He will be drafted. He’s a pacifist. But avoiding service was a capital offense, so he would have been shot.

So he pulled strings. And Bonhoeffer was very connected to the ruling class within Germany of the day from his family background. And so he pulled strings and is able to join the military intelligence service. This leads to a lot of opportunities to do travel outside of Nazi Germany. He’s able to contact church leaders in other parts of the world. And but unfortunately, it also leads eventually to his death. Yes, he was indeed a spy. And so there are some interesting books out there talking about this, the faithful spy and the plot to kill Hitler Bonhoeffer. And this is really the scholarly standard if you’re interested in reading about his life. Bonhoeffer Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, spy, and is an open question very much debated today, whether or not Bonhoeffer should be considered to be a martyr, because here he was executed. Yes. By the Nazis. Yes, we’re trying to kill Hitler, but he was trying to commit murder and he was tried and convicted of doing that and therefore hanged, executed several books that are out there, the plot to kill Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, passersby, unlikely hero and Bonhoeffer, the assassin, questionmark, challenging the myth, recovering his call to peacemaking, trying to reevaluate how these things work. How much did he know about the plot to kill Hitler and when did he know it, et cetera? And is he really in some way implicated or to blame for the plot to kill Hitler? That did not work out. And the conspirators? Were all hanged, Bonhoeffer being one of those in the late 1930s, the book that was published during his lifetime is called The Cost of Discipleship.

This book is very much affected by his experiences in the United States. He uses a term cheap grace. It was coined by the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell senior. He is very upfront about that. He got this idea while in the U.S. attending black churches. Bonhoeffer says this cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate. So very much about the cost of discipleship. Hence the title and not a very liberal document calling very much for the idea that discipleship will have an expense to you in your life. He was obviously processing what he should do against the Nazi government. Bonhoeffer thought that the Christianization of Europe had resulted in a secularized Christianity watered down to meet the needs of the masses, and he thought that was a bad thing and that Christians would have to go back to some kind of idea of real discipleship outside of the secularized, friendly to government kind of Christianity. So that was the book published during his lifetime in nineteen thirty seven. Still very much in print today. And in terms of Bonhoeffer and theology and people reading him, this is the one that pushes him much more toward the conservative end of what Christian theologians would be thinking, the Roberts and the Reinhold Niebuhr of the day, both of whom he did know while in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote letters speculating on a religionless Christianity.

These letters were written in nineteen forty four to a friend in which he begins to think about how Christianity can be after the war. This appears in letters and papers from prison. A pretty thick book if you get the whole thing. And he really is wrestling with this idea of what again, why couldn’t Christianity withstand the lure of the Nazis? Why couldn’t it stop that? And what will it mean after the war that Christianity cooperated with the Nazis all over Europe? So it says this. What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity or who is Christ? Actually, for us today, the age when we could tell people that with words, whether with theological or with pious words, is passed, as is the age of inwardness and of conscience. And that means the age of religion altogether. You see what he’s doing? He is he is equating the Protestant liberal Christian tradition with an idea of inwardness, inward piety and conscience, not social action. And he says that is done. That’s not going to be what we do after this war is over. We are approaching a completely religionless, less age. People, as they are now, are now simply cannot be religious anymore.

Even those who honestly describe themselves as religious aren’t really practicing that at all. They are presuming they presumably mean something quite different by religious. Again, his idea that the Christianization of Europe had led to a watered down, secularized form of Christianity, a form of Christianity that is not able to in any way to resist Nazis and fascism in that kind of thing, isn’t able to live up to the ideas of the social gospel that we’ve talked about quite a bit in coffee and wisdom. So how are we going to do religion in the future? And you can see why this still very much resonates with people today who are thinking about going into ministry. The questions to be answered would surely be what do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness and so on? And in this and some of his other writings, he definitely was reading Nicha and thinking about Nietzsche’s idea of the death of God. As a matter of fact, we’ve just. Just before in coffee and wisdom, there is a movement in the 1960s, in the mid 1960s in the U.S. called the Death of God movement that is coming directly out of Bonhoeffer’s ideas, even though I would suspect that Bonhoeffer himself would not have liked to be a part of that, because, again, he does have this very traditional edge to him.

But he is opening the question, what is a religion without God? Can we do away with metaphysics and inwardness, that conscience idea? And what would it mean if we were to do that? How do we speak? Or perhaps we cannot now even speak as we used to in a secular way about God? In what way are we religionless secular Christians and what way are we those who are called forth not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specifically favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? Again, how can we act in the world very much again, going back to the black social gospel that he had heard in Harlem in the early 30s. How do we do that in the world? Because we’re not going to be able to talk about the existence of God anymore. We’re not going to be able to talk about Christ anymore. We’re going to have to begin to talk about Jesus as this person like us who did this. And this is the general idea of where he’s going. In that case, Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really, the Lord of the world.

But what does that mean? What is the place of worship and prayer in a religionless situation? So you see how he’s asking these questions. He does somewhat answer them, but he didn’t live long enough to really formulate this into a book length argument. So therefore, these ideas are still very much open. And that’s why he’s such a hot topic at most liberal Christian theological schools today, because they are definitely the right questions to be asking. So, yes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his letters and papers from prison as it’s huge, but there are some very, very interesting things in it. You can also get a condensed version that has more of the those kinds of letters that I just mentioned. Also his great work that he was working on constantly and really trying to get what’s called ethics. That is an unfinished work because he was executed in early nineteen forty five, about three weeks before the American soldiers showed up at the concentration camp where he was executed. So there is a bit of a martyr or was he again, in some traditions, he is very much considered a martyr. Even the United Methodist golomb a martyr. But other traditions say no, wait a minute, spy working around trying to kill Hitler, even Hitler. You shouldn’t do that. He was a pacifist, et cetera.

But very much an open topic to discuss today, because here is a guy who was able to write, able to get those letters and ideas out of the Nazi prison and then concentration camp and really dealing with what the the real issues of our time are in a very real way. So Bonhoeffer, probably the most popular, popular, if that’s the word seminary topic in a liberal religious seminaries today. And very much rewarding of your time to look into some of his ideas he was seeing down the road to a world that was as we live now for the most part in a secular world. What does religion mean, if anything? And that’s definitely a question that we humanists wrestle with all the time. Thanks a lot for listening today.

This month, our theme is commitment at First Unitarian Society is what we’re going to be talking about. And this coming weekend, we’re going to be hearing from Paula Cole Jones. She’ll be doing a workshop on Saturday all day, and then she’ll be speaking at our assembly at ten, thirty a.m. Central Standard Time on Sunday morning. She is talking about a new principal right now. The Unitarian Universalist have seven of them. She’s talking about an eighth principle that is up for a vote down the road. And that would be about specifically about being anti-racist. So very interesting person. And you will enjoy hearing from her. Thanks a lot. And we’ll be back to conclude the work of the week to. Tomorrow, that is epistles coming out of prisons. Thanks a lot and I’ll see you tomorrow.

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