Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"No theology here..."

My favorite book last year—and the one that taught me the most—was Eric Metaxas's Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. This week it was reviewed by Alan Wolfe for The New Republic. The review is long and interesting, especially since it is written by someone apparently unsympathetic to Bonhoeffer's Christian convictions but nevertheless impressed by what those beliefs impelled him to do. Much of the review is about Bonhoeffer's resistance to Hitler and the Nazis. Metaxas is very good on that subject, but new to me was Bonhoeffer's distaste for American liberal theology, described here by Wolfe:
.... Bonhoeffer’s second visit to the United States lasted only twenty-six days. The reason was in part theological. Union was committed to a form of religious liberalism fully at odds with the fundamentalist versions of Protestant faith growing in places such as Oklahoma and Georgia; but if Niebuhr and his colleagues thought that in welcoming Bonhoeffer they were adding another liberal modernist, they were quite mistaken. Bonhoeffer simply could not abide the liberalism he found at Union. On his earlier trip to New York, he had written home that “there is no theology here.... They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria.” The only church that had moved him in New York was the black church, and in particular Abyssinian Baptist, where Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was the pastor. Once he discovered Abyssinian, Bonhoeffer spent every remaining Sunday of his youthful sojourn in Harlem teaching Sunday school and absorbing the living presence of Christ in its midst. Upon his return to Germany, he brought with him records of black gospel music that he played to his European friends every time he could.

Bonhoeffer’s disappointment proved to be even greater when he returned to the States in 1939. Niebuhr might be considered a deep thinker in the United States, but Bonhoeffer, we are told by his able biographer Eric Metaxas, got little or nothing from reading his books. “No thinking in the light of the Bible here,” he wrote in his diary during his second visit to Union.  ....

Something more pressing than his disappointment with Union’s liberalism also cut short Bonhoeffer’s visit to Manhattan. God spoke to Bonhoeffer in ways that ran counter to the traditions of academic theology in which he had been trained. ....

The Bible for him was a holy work, written by a living and vibrant Supreme Being who had sent His son to live among us and atone for our sins. Christianity, properly understood, was in his view not a religion, that is, not a set of moral precepts about the right way to live. God, not religion, is all that matters. We can do nothing to reach God, but He can reach out to us. Through our obedience to him, we may prepare ourselves to hear what He has to say. “I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions,” Bonhoeffer wrote to his brother-in-law in 1936. “One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books.... Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it.” .... [much more]
Wolfe's approval of the book and his obvious admiration for Bonhoeffer leads him, later in the review, to reflections on faults of both liberalism and contemporary evangelicalism. And also reflection about his own convictions. He does however manage to avoid the implications in the final paragraphs of the review.

Alan Wolfe On Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy By Eric Metaxas | The New Republic