Last week in the context of his discerning the will of God through a conscious and considered practice of prayer, I mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the biography I have been reading. Several people inquired afterward for clarification about him and the book, so let me share with you now something that may be helpful.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 to a German protestant family of great social, cultural, and academic distinction, one of eight children, including a twin sister. He lost one older brother killed in World War I. Even among such precocious siblings, he stood out for his musical and intellectual abilities. While it may seem like a logical progression to us, it was shocking to his family when his studies in theology led him seek a career not as a professor and scholar, but rather as a pastor.
Having completed his doctoral studies while still too young to become a pastor (as I said, he was gifted), he worked with a German Lutheran community abroad in Spain, and spent a year in New York at Union Theological Seminary. That gave him an experience of religious life in the United States, notably mainstream Protestant liberalism (using that term in the specific theological sense) and the black Christian communities.
Meanwhile, Germany went through the crushing poverties and shame that the victors of World War I placed upon it, leading to economic and social near-collapse, from which arose Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Not only Dietrich but his entire family discerned from the first moment not only the threat that Nazism presented, but also the authentic evil that underlay their program and propaganda. Dietrich, however, as a significant figure in the German national protestant church, was faced with specific challenges and questions of what to say and do.
Without going into too much detail, let me just tell you that he resisted that evil at every level and in every way at his disposal. Most of that would seem trifling “inside baseball” in questions of theology and pastoral practice, but in fact was of monumental consequence. Bonhoeffer discerned that if he conceded to the bullies on these small points of speech and practice, what is commonly called “going along to get along,” he would have no solid ground on which to stand when the so-called “big questions” came around. He worked actively against the Nazis and Hitler constantly from the beginning until the end.
For years I have heard of him as a theologian, especially in the context of his book whose title is usually rendered in English as The Cost of Discipleship. But the book I have been reading is a recent biography by Eric Metaxas: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Long interested in the history of the period, including especially within Germany, I find myself binding together many threads of which I had been partially informed with what I am learning about Bonhoeffer.
Also, I recognize at many turns the theological, practical, and ecclesial resources that Bonhoeffer either lacked completely or had to try to invent himself that would have been more readily at his disposal in the Catholic Church and her tradition. The extraordinary ability and inspiration of this great Christian shines forth all the more in this context.
While encouraging you to learn more about him, I share with you a solitary quotation in which he explains one of the key concepts he introduced: “cheap grace.”
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. 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.”
It is no less pertinent to us today than it was when Dietrich Bonhoeffer first articulated it.