Anthony Siegrist wrote this essay to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the execution of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
My hands are dusty from packing up my office. I don’t know why that is. Where does the grit on these brown boxes come from? Most of what I’m packing is books. I pack the majority without thinking about them too much. They’ve been friends on the shelf; they will get along in a box for a few weeks. A few, though, find an intermediary resting place on my desk. I need companions for a little while longer.
A copy of Jim Reimer’s posthumous essays docks there because I owe a review of it to a Canadian journal. I’ll think it over when we drive through Reimer’s home province of Manitoba. I keep out Robert Louis Wilken’s book on patristic theology too. I love the church fathers for their ignorance, that is, their ignorance of the divide between practical and academic theology. I’ll need mentors in a few months. Buechner’s memoir of vocation also finds an open slip. The back cover says he was a Presbyterian minister. And then, I add a pair of books by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Life Together and Letters and Papers from Prison. I have the new blue and white volumes, with the footnotes about the footnotes.
These boxes are the weight of a vocation. We’re all more stable when we sit low in the water. I’m parting ways with the college where I’ve taught for eight years. I wrote my dissertation while I was a lecturer there, wrote articles too, and introduced students to theology. There were hundreds, from across the Canadian prairies and the big cities beyond. They were mostly earnest young people, some were newly married and some I think were grappling with a monastic calling. Protestants don’t have much to say about monastic vocations but my books do.
I hope my books will help me find the right tack as a minister. That’s why my thoughts keep bouncing back to Bonhoeffer as I pack. He completed his first dissertation when he was 21. That makes him sound like an academic prodigy. There’s some truth to that, but he only had limited success in academia. I’m convinced that at his core Bonhoeffer was a pastor. I say that tentatively because lots of people see their life in Bonhoeffer’s—both pacifists and bellicists, to name but one odd couple. His pastoral passion, though, bubbles to the surface in Life Together. The book is a product of his work as leader of a Confessing Church seminary, first at Zingst and then at Finkenwalde. From some reports it sounds like his passion threatened to blow the whole community up. He ran the thing like a monastery. Karl Barth famously detected an “odor of a monastic eros and pathos.” After the clandestine school was closed by the Gestapo, Bonhoeffer took a month to commit his learning to paper.
It was 1938, Hitler was gobbling up new portions of Europe, and Bonhoeffer feverishly wrote about Christian community. Bonhoeffer believed his mode of pastoral training was nothing more than a proportional response to the toxic environment in which his trainees would serve. His work at the school began with the belief that ministry in 1930s Germany required militantly serious formation in what he called “church-monastic schools.” If his charges were to stay on course as ministers, they needed more than a scientific understanding of the Bible, and more than the ability to deploy a few ministry techniques. One of his close friends later said that Bonhoeffer saw these years as the most fruitful part of his life.
Prior to training pastors Bonhoeffer had done pastoral work in both Barcelona and London. His faithful critic Karl Barth thought that taking the appointment in London was a terrible decision. It amounted, he thought, to Bonhoeffer’s avoidance of challenges at home, ones he was particularly suited to face. The challenges of ministry in contemporary North America are not the same as those Bonhoeffer faced in 1930s Germany—not at all! On the other hand, ministry is ministry. Earlier this year the Pew Research Center released the results of research on the changing religious landscape in the USA. What grabbed the most attention was the almost 8% drop between 2007 and 2014 in Americans who identified as Christians. The decline was evident in Protestants of both the mainline and evangelical variety, and among Roman Catholics as well. Becoming a pastor in this context feels like throwing in my lot with a team doomed to finish at the bottom of the division. Academics can always claim the value of “studying religion.” They don’t have to identify their own beliefs. I doubt that any but the flakiest of pastors could pull that off.
One of the most famous things Bonhoeffer wrote later was his “Outline for a Book.” It was enclosed in a letter he wrote from prison to Eberhard Bethge on August 3, 1944. It’s here that Bonhoeffer wrote about the “religionlessness of the human being come of age.” I’m intrigued by the connection he made between “religionlessness” and the insurance industry. My boxes being trucked east are insured. Bonhoeffer believed modern humans have learned to safeguard themselves from “accidents” and “blows of fate”—or at least have greatly reduced the danger of these things. The goal, he thought, “is to be independent of nature.” Looking ahead to the first chapter of his imagined book, Bonhoeffer continued,
Nature used to be conquered by the soul; with us it is conquered through technological organization of all kinds. What is unmediated for us, what is given, is no longer nature but organization. But with this protection from the menace of nature, a new threat to life is created in turn, namely, through organization itself. Now the power of the soul is lacking!
In some denominations pastors are still called “curates.” They are the ones who cure or care for souls. If the Bonhoeffer of August 3, 1944 is right, the Bonhoeffer that was all-too-near the end of his life, then there is much curing and caring to do. It sounds strange, but that gets me excited about my own shift in vocational course. Bonhoeffer names the headwind: its modern ease, independence from the vicissitudes of nature, our way of keeping grace at arm’s length. The question is how to tack into it. I think there’s more than pragmatics to gain: we miss something of the rush of controlled speed over water when we try to run downwind.
I’ll keep these Bonhoeffer volumes with me then. I’ll put them on a shelf in my new study. They will take their place again alongside the other blue and white critical editions. The older versions will be there too. They will each serve as ballast.