Bonhoeffer's Transformative Encounters with the American Prophetic Tradition
Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life
Charles Marsh, Commonwealth Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, delivered the Boisi Center’s 14th Annual Prophetic Voices Lecture on October 8 to the Boston College community. Marsh is also the director of the Project on Lived Theology, which has the mission to connect theology with lived experience.
Marsh began his lecture with passionate remarks about the relevance of theology in a time of social crisis. Marsh spoke of his own childhood in the segregated South and the thinkers who inspired him to make sense of theological questions related to his experience. German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one such thinker.
Marsh began his discussion of the life of Bonhoeffer by describing a 1944 letter he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison in Germany, where he was imprisoned for his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer wrote that there had been two times in his life when he observed his own personal growth and transformation. The first was under the strong personality of his father. The second was during his first journeys abroad, specifically his time in America. Marsh emphasized that before this trip, Bonhoeffer’s writing was more technical and abstract, while after the trip his writing became much more concrete.
Marsh maintained that when the young Bonhoeffer first arrived in New York in 1930 to serve as a visiting student and post doctoral fellow at Union Theological Seminary, he was not impressed by what he saw as the state of American theology. Marsh noted that Bonhoeffer thought American Christianity was pragmatic and unsophisticated. However, through three prophetic encounters during this year, his preconception of American Christianity was challenged and transformed, as was Bonhoeffer himself.
First, he encountered American social theology in the classroom. Reinhold Niebuhr pushed Bonhoeffer to recognize the need for a concrete ethical component in his abstract theological thinking. Second, he engaged with the African-American church and black culture. Bonhoeffer first experienced a true sense of prophetic religion in the United States while visiting Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem with a young black seminarian named Franklin Fisher. Marsh also noted that Bonhoeffer loved the spirituals he heard at the church. Bonhoeffer took both sheet music and recordings of spirituals with him when he returned to Germany. There he played and sang them with the other members of the Confessing Church. The third and final prophetic encounter was with the American organizing tradition. Marsh said that Bonhoeffer took a class with Charles Webber, a Methodist minister and radical socialist, who took the students out into New York City to work with various social groups. Bonhoeffer also encountered the Women’s Trade Union and the Worker’s Educational Bureau of America.
From these groups he learned about the labor movement, poverty, homelessness, crime and the social missions of the churches. All of these interactions brought Bonhoeffer from “the phraseological to the real,” Marsh argued. It was in America that Bonhoeffer found theology grounded in action. He returned to Germany transformed by this sense of lived theology.