Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Charles Marsh
Knopf, 2014
528 pp., $35.00

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Wesley Hill

"The Full This-Worldliness of Life"

On Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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Late in his life, Bonhoeffer recounted a conversation he'd had with his friend Jean Lasserre years earlier, during their drive across America, in which they shared with each other their highest aspirations. Lasserre wanted sainthood, and he eventually became a pastor and joined the French resistance. Bonhoeffer thought he wanted something equivalent—to learn to have faith—but it dawned on him later that Lasserre's and his answers weren't identical, or at least that he had misunderstood Lasserre in his own quest for spiritual perfection. For a long time, Bonhoeffer said, he tried to achieve sanctity through rigorous discipline. "I suppose I wrote Discipleship at the end of this path," he mused. But the kind of faith that mattered now, with the seepage of corruption into every crevasse of the German church's life, was a faith that took its stand against the encroachment of ambition, hubris, and shattering abuse and torture in Germany. "[T]he most important things in life are human relationships," Bonhoeffer concluded, and "the full this-worldliness of life." In Marsh's words, "Discipleship was but a stage in the journey, one that he had now moved beyond." What mattered now was what was disappearing, or rather being forcibly taken, from Europe—"all that is human," "personal life secure with … loved ones and … possessions," the togetherness and tenderness of the quiet joys of friendship, marriage, and extended family. Christian theology and practice must be aimed at preserving and hallowing those things, rather than inculcating any ethereal kind of self-denial.

On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested. The charges didn't initially include his involvement in a plot on Hitler's life (those details would emerge later); they were, rather, lackluster accusations related to his trip to the UK, his avoidance of military service, and other "minor" offenses to do with incendiary speech and assistance to the non-state sanctioned church. Soon he was transferred from a Gestapo cell to the military prison at Tegel. And it was there, finally, that Bonhoeffer tried to put into words the faith he had come to embrace.

Much of what he wrote was centered around Bethge, whom Marsh's portrayal foregrounds. Bonhoeffer loved Bethge in a way he never loved anyone else, not even his (much younger) fiancée, Maria. "[T]he human," he wrote, "is created in such a way that we seek not the many but the one particular." (Again, Bonhoeffer rejected the monastic preference for companies rather than pairs.) One could speculate that Bonhoeffer was a homosexual, albeit a celibate one, but Marsh wisely avoids any clear-cut verdict on that score. He lingers over the relationship, revealing its depth and intensity in a way no other scholar has attempted. But what emerges most clearly from that close attention is not a homoerotically inclined Bonhoeffer to the exclusion of a "quite normal" one (to use Bethge's designation for his friend) but a Bonhoeffer whose zeal for intimacy and filial, spiritual closeness complicates and overflows the categories by which we often classify such things. I think here of Rowan Williams' conclusion that romantic love and the love of same-sex friendship are best understood as "different forms of one passion—the passion for life-giving interconnection."

Perhaps it was the austerity of the war years that made Bonhoeffer eschew the timidity of expression he might otherwise have disciplined himself to observe in his friendship with Bethge ("[I]n the months here in prison I have had quite a terrible longing," he exclaimed in one of his letters). Or perhaps the reason for his pursuit of such a friendship was deeper than merely a consciousness of time having grown short. Perhaps it was owing, more fundamentally, to what Bonhoeffer had come to see as the way to embody the faith and spirituality he had long sought. "God, the Eternal," he wrote to Bethge in 1944, "wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of cantus firmus"—the primary musical voice to which other voices in a polyphonic composition relate in counterpoint. God is found and known and loved in the world, in relationships, in the love between human beings, "in a few people one wants to see and with whom one wishes to be together," Bonhoeffer said. If true, it was an experience of God he would only know for a few months longer. He was executed in April 1945, just before the Allied forces arrived to liberate the Nazi prisons but not before he had asked Bethge to save his prison letters for possible publication. It was one of the last exchanges Bonhoeffer had with "the man who was his soul mate," and, thus, it seems to be the most natural, the most intimate, lens through which to view Bonhoeffer's entire life.

Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. His next book, Paul and the Trinity, is forthcoming from Eerdmans.

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