A Fundamental Claim on Our Being

I just finished reading Charles Marsh’s recent biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had seen a review of it this fall and so was happy to find a wrapped copy under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning.

Bonhoeffer has always been a figure I admire and I included him as one of the figures we discussed in the Heroes and Heroism undergraduate honors seminar I offered during this J-term that just ended. I have benefitted from many of his writings and often use some of that material in retreats I offer.

I found Marsh’s biography a worthwhile read – albeit a hefty one (400 or so pages, not including the endnotes). It paints a fuller picture of Bonhoeffer than I have read before.

So many things in this book struck me. But what most sticks with me are some of the questions Bonhoeffer asked himself, questions that in one form or another were his focus throughout his life.

In one of his dissertations, he asked: How might social existence be transformed if this ideal of the body of Christ became the aspiration of every Christian? (A good – and exciting – question to put to ourselves.)

While serving in a parish in Barcelona “the question then forming in his mind was whether Christianity – despite the bland outward cast it had assumed – could still become a vital and meaningful reality for people who had found better ways to spend a Sunday morning.”

In more simple terms, the question he explored over and over again in his own mind, with his students, with those with whom he corresponded, What does it mean to be a Christian with a lived devotion to Jesus?

Such questions reflect Bonhoeffer’s understanding, shared in one of his lectures,

that we understand Christ only if we commit to Him in an abrupt either-or. He was not nailed to the cross as ornament or decoration for our lives. If we would have Him, we must recognize that He makes fundamental claims on our entire being. We scarcely understand Him if we make room for Him in merely one region of our spiritual life, bur rather only if our life takes its orientation from him alone or, otherwise, if we speak a straightforward no. Of course, there are those not concerned with seriously considering the claims Christ makes on us with His question: Do you wish to make a complete commitment, or not? They should rather not get mixed up with Christianity at all; that would be better for Christianity, since such people no longer have anything in common with Christ. The religion of Christ is not the tidbit after the bread; it is the bread itself, or it is nothing.

The claim Bonhoeffer makes here is a bold and hard one, but I believe it is the correct one: Even if we can’t embody it fully, as least in aspiration and in effort, it has to be all or nothing.