Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been criticized by people from many angles. Some criticize him for being too liberal; others, for not being liberal enough. Yet it is interesting to read what the man himself had to say, and indeed his words make it clear that he was, in fact, in that rather lonely area in the middle where answers cannot so easily be given to “simple” questions.
I’ve been reading through Bonhoeffer’s collected works, and came across yet another quote that struck me. He studied in New York at Union Theological Seminary for a year, and in Volume 10 of his collected works, Barcelona, Berlin, New York 1928-1931, there exists his report on his time there. In that report (itself undated, though sometime in 1931), he noted that the seminary had many students and teachers entirely dedicated to socialization and thus secularizing Christianity. The problem was that they reduced Christianity to a message of social justice.
On the other hand, Bonhoeffer was also critical of several aspects of American Fundamentalism, and would certainly be critical of the same today.
In a particularly insightful section, he notes difficulties of both the religious “right” and “left” (however unhelpful those categories are. He wrote:
The theological spirit at Union Theological Seminary is accelerating the process of the secularization of Christianity in America. Its criticism is directed essentially at fundamentalism and to a certain extent also at the radical humanists in Chicago; such criticism is healthy and necessary. But the foundation on which one might rebuild after tearing down is not able to support the weight. The collapse destroys it as well. A seminary in which numerous students openly laugh during a public lecture because they find it amusing when a passage on sin and forgiveness from Luther’s de servo arbitrio [On the Bondage of the Will] is cited has obviously, despite its many advantages, forgotten what Christian theology in its very essence stands for. (DBW 10, 309-310).
Thus, Bonhoeffer can be seen here noting that both ends of the theological spectrum have difficulties. He expands on his issues with “fundamentalism” elsewhere (see, for example, Creation and Fall), but here he only hints at it needing some correction. On the other hand, he also notes that it is all too easy to fall into the trap of turning Christianity into a club of social programs, rather than getting the heart at Christian theology. And for Bonhoeffer, that heart is most certainly Christ and living our lives out in light of God’s work.
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