Wednesday, February 15, 2006

He bids us to come and die

I was born almost 10 years after the end of the Second World War, and as I grew up, consciousness of the Shoah as a central moral issue grew -- I barely remember coverage of the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann. By the time I was in high school, I was living in (then West) Germany while my father was stationed at Wiesbaden. While there, I visited Berlin, and as part of that trip, went to Plötzensee Prison, now maintained as a memorial. This is where many member of the German resistance to Hitler were executed. In my teens, as I started to become a more active Christian, and began to wonder about the role of our faith in that time. And then one day at the Fresno Bible House, I found Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Or, at least his Nachfolge, or The Cost of Discipleship. I moved on to some of his other works, then read about his own story as a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who opposed Hitler. Even though he had a job away from danger in England and other offers there and in the US, he chose to return to Germany to help start an underground seminary. He was a pacifist, but became involved in the plot against Hitler, unwilling to be a bystander. He was arrested, and just a few weeks before the end of the war, was executed by the SS at Flossenburg concentration camp.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of Bonhoeffer's death, and there is a brief discussion. along with the text of his April 30th, 1945 letter to Eberhard Bethge at Allelon. One section made a particular impression on me:

. . . I've come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man's life and goodness. As to the boundaries, it seems to me better to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the 'solution' of the problem of death. God's 'beyond' is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village. That is how it is in the Old Testament, and in this sense we still read the New Testament far too little in the light of the Old. . .
This letter includes a reference to one of Bonhoeffers more intriguing speculations, what he called "religionless Christianity." His reflection on that idea was cut off by his death.

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