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Reflections: On Co-opting Bonhoeffer (Ben Fulford)

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Bonhoeffer
Prophet of secularism, champion of costly grace: appeals to 
Bonhoeffer in recent Christian media

Teaching the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the first time this term, I’ve been more alert than usual to the different ways in which he figures in the media I consume.

One of the striking things about Bonhoeffer’s currency is the contrasting ways in which he appeals to different Christian constituencies. Some (often but not only of a more liberal persuasion) are drawn to the daring explorations of ‘religionless Christianity’ in the prison letters. Others (often but not only conversatives) appeal to the demanding account of the Christian life in Discipleship and the vision of Christian community laid out in Life Together.

The Bonhoeffer of the prison letters was invoked as a prophet of secularisation by Harriet Baber in a recent article in the Church Times. The author hoped that in the “world come of age” there would still be a minority ‘who want to escape from ordinariness; who look for openings into another world that is more vivid, intense, and capacious’, that found in rituals and sacred spaces.

By contrast, the Bonhoeffer of Discipleship has appeared in several interventions in debates over same-sex marriage. Two examples illustrate this use well. The first is a contribution to GAFCON 2 — the second ‘Global Anglican Future Conference’, convened in Nairobi in opposition to a ‘false gospel’ spreading through the Anglican Communion that, among other things, condones homosexual practice. Amidst perceptions at the conference of a weakening of the Church of England’s stance on same-sex marriage, one of the speakers, Dr Mike Ovey (according to this report) exhorted the conference to preach not cheap, but costly grace — an echo of Bonhoeffer’s famous distinction from Discipleship. He parsed costly grace as that which demands repentance not only for what the world condemns as sin, but also for the sins the world applauds.

Bonhoeffer’s vision of discipleship was taken up again in respect of same-sex marriage in the Bishop of Birkenhead’s Dissenting Statement accompanying the Pilling Report (the report of the Church of England House of Bishops’ Working Group on Human Sexuality), published in November. He advocates that the Church uphold its traditional teaching on marriage while supporting those who wished to adhere to it and welcome all in the hope they see the need for transformation in this respect. Commending this vision, he anticipates criticism from wider society, but recalls that this cost is part of discipleship (para 489), citing Bonhoeffer’s equally famous claim, also from Discipleship, that ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.’

What might one make of these very different uses of Bonhoeffer? The vocation of a prophet of secularism is perhaps not what it was, though the relative de-Christianisation of the United Kingdom seems harder to contest.  Many Christian theologians, liberal, conservative and postliberal, could agree on the importance of certain rituals and sacred space in the formation of Christian identity. Yet framing Christianity as an escape from the ordinary and contingent seems rather like the private, interiorised religious Christianity that Bonhoeffer’s theological letters critiqued so trenchantly.

Bonhoeffer directed that same critique at a prurient ‘religious’ concern for the private lives of people – at attempts to discover in their weaknesses a need for Christianity to fulfil. It would help, in current debates, to hear Bonhoeffer’s reminder that Christ claims humans at the centre of their lives, in the public sphere and in centres of power and sites of human excellence. At the same time, human sexuality is, one way or another, woven intricately into our identities and public selves and is subject to power dynamics in society and in the churches alike. In that context, how helpful are these recourses to the rhetoric of costly discipleship?

Such rhetoric has a place in Christian discourse, wherever Christians forget that the gospel is a kind of liberating law which shapes life in demanding ways, and that Christian life begins in repentance. GAFCON is right, in its Communiqué, to see that the scope of such repentance is broad; that, for example, violence against women and children are prominent among the things from which disciples must turn to follow Christ. Yet it’s too easy to claim the badge of costly discipleship only for opponents of same-sex marriage. For the choice facing the churches is between alternative visions of the life of discipleship for those of same-sex sexual orientation: one which excludes the discipline of marriage as a path, and one which includes it. But then what’s at stake is less tractable to Bonhoeffer’s rhetorical dichotomy: not costly versus cheap, but, rather, alternative visions of costliness involving different ways of reading Scripture and understanding gender and sexuality. The power of Bonhoeffer’s terms, fraught with their background, risks obscuring not only the complexity of the issues but also the demanding nature of the visions contended for on both sides.

Ben Fulford is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Chester

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2 thoughts on “Reflections: On Co-opting Bonhoeffer (Ben Fulford)

  1. Bonhoeffer’s essay on What is truth? from Ethics I think is fascinating in the light of some of these debates… I use it when teaching professional ethics to youth ministry students.

    • Thanks Sally. I can see how relevant this would be to youth ministry and professional ethics! What does this account do for discussion re same-sex marriage, do you think? Or do those debates complicate Bonhoeffer’s argument?

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