Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is regarded widely as a Christian martyr and Protestant saint. He was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who spoke out early against Hitler’s sinister plans for Germany and the world and especially his pretensions to be fulfilling some godly plan for restoring German greatness.
Hitler and his deputies quickly realised that part of the formula for success would lie in convincing the various Christian churches that they were somehow ‘on their side’. Craftily, Hitler engaged in a series of pacts with the various churches, including emulating Mussolini’s concordat with the Catholic Church. These pacts had the effect of restoring worldly powers to churches, powers that had been lost invariably to the European churches through the heavily secularist 19th into 20th centuries.
These moves by the Nazis convinced many Christians, including those in authority, that Hitler truly was one sent by God; for some, even a type of Messiah. While eventually Hitler’s anti-religious and especially anti-Semitic and anti-Christian sentiments became obvious, there were not so many in the early days who could see through his apparently positive rhetoric and policies. Bonhoeffer was one who did, offering a savage critique in a radio commentary on the very night of Hitler’s elevation as German Chancellor, a commentary that was cut short apparently by authorities who recognised immediately that Bonhoeffer was someone to be watched closely. In a sense, he was a marked man from that time until he was eventually arrested in 1943 and sent to prison for treacherous activities. During his time in prison, his own church all but abandoned him, warning other pastors it could go badly for the church if they were to be seen fraternising with him.
Two years later, on 9 April, 1945, less than a month before the end of the war in Europe, Bonhoeffer would be hanged for his opposition to Hitler. In the two years he was in prison, and especially in the last year, Bonhoeffer wrote what is loosely referred to as his ‘prison theology’, partly built on his earlier theology but partly a much sharper re-working of it. It is for his prison theology that he is best known and an element of it has come to form the foundations of a modern Christian approach to interfaith theology.
Bonhoeffer’s start in life was anything but an interfaith one, his theology first forming in the fairly narrow confines of an exclusivist Protestantism. His was a Lutheran Protestantism that saw even other forms of Protestantism, and certainly the likes of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, as something less than the true Christianity of Lutheranism. Within these narrow confines, the idea that God could be at work beyond Christianity was simply not acceptable. While it is in his prison theology that these assumptions are most obviously challenged, we find much earlier indications of Bonhoeffer questioning them as he comes to experience other churches and their members, becomes fascinated with Gandhi’s work in India and starts to ponder seriously ‘the Jewish question’ as it was unfolding in Germany throughout the 1930s. We also see in him a growing scepticism about institutional religion generally, granted the relative ease with which Hitler was able to manipulate it and exploit its divisions to further his own aims.
These changes in his thinking have sometimes been put down to Bonhoeffer succumbing to the forces of secularism or even atheism, especially during his prison years. Closer examination however reveals that, alongside his scepticism about institutional religious forms and his explorations outside Christianity for inspiration, was a growing understanding of the centrality of Christ to all the questions he had about the times through which he was living. Principal among these questions was the simple one that directs much of his prison theology: ‘Who is Christ for us today?’ Paraphrased and extended, we might see related sub-questions: ‘Who is Christ in a world that has let down the name of Christ so badly?’ ‘Who is Christ in a world that sees institutions that use his name cowering before a dictator and turning their backs on humanitarian issues like the genocide of the Jews?’
Because institutional Christianity had failed so badly to be Christ in the world, as it professed to be, Bonhoeffer turned to the notion of ‘religionless Christianity’ as the only viable future for Christianity. This is often interpreted as projecting a secular, or even an atheist, form of Christianity, an ethical Christianity that supersedes belief in a God. Again, closer reading shows how wrong this is. For Bonhoeffer, in Christ, God had shown himself to be ‘Lord of the World’, not just of religion and least of all, of one particular religious group over another. The notion of a God who was there for some but not others was a menace that had underpinned much of the devastation wrought by Hitler as he exploited divisions between religions, most especially between Christianity and Judaism. In contrast, Bonhoeffer saw in the Gospels endless stories of the God revealed in Christ rejecting institutional forms of religion built on stone in favour of faith built in the heart and issuing in love. In this, the message was consistent with that of the prophets of old but this time coming from God, in Christ.
The answer to the question ‘Who is Christ for us today?’ must therefore be ‘Christ is the one who leads Christians to go beyond the human-made boundaries of institutional religions to embrace and support their fellow humans wherever they are to be found.’ As Lord of the World, God demands no less and has revealed no less in Christ. For Bonhoeffer, this was what had been missing in Christians understanding their mission in the face of the ‘Jewish question’. It explained for him why so much had gone wrong in the world he inhabited. It helped him make sense of his growing awareness that in Gandhi’s work, inspired by Hinduism and Jainism, there was ‘more Christianity than in the entire (official) German church’. It helped him even to make sense of the challenge he encountered in prison of witnessing many non-Christians and even atheists who, like him, were being punished for trying to help their fellow humans while, outside, so many of his fellow ‘Christians’ were doing nothing. This then is the foundation of Bonhoeffer’s interfaith theology, one far from a turn to secularism and atheism but, in contrast, deeply residing in his Christology. For Bonhoeffer, to be Christian was not to be narrowly religious but to be an agent of interfaith, and faith to non-faith engagement, as witnessed in the life of Christ in the Gospels. Such an interfaith theology provides a template for Christian action in the multi-faith and largely non-faith environment in which we live today.
Terence Lovat is Emeritus Professor and Postgraduate Theology Convenor at The University of Newcastle.
He is also the Conference Chair for The Broken Bay Institute’s 11th Annual Australian Bonhoeffer Conference. The conference will be held on Thursday 3 and Friday 4 December 2015 at St Joseph’s Spirituality and Education Centre, Kincumber.