among the greatest theologians in history — majestic Jesus disciple Dietrich Bonhoeffer
So, this arrived on my doorstep about two weeks ago.
I agreed to read and write on The Bonhoeffer Reader for the Patheos Book Club because I’ve always wanted to know more about Bonhoeffer and his theology. But I didn’t know the book would be so big. (The photo doesn’t quite convey its heft. It’s really, really big.) I knew I wouldn’t be able to read the whole book in the short time I had before the Patheos deadline for book club entries, and I was right. I made it through Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall, plus a few other short lectures. To be completely honest, I didn’t understand all of it. I struggle with straight-up theology, and gravitate more readily to story and poetry.
But I was captivated by Bonhoeffer’s description, in Creation and Fall, of the “anxiety-causing middle” in which people live. We did not witness the beginning of creation and we do not know its end, so we are dwelling in a middle place of uncertainty concerning where we come from and where we are going. Sounds a lot like daily life, doesn’t it? When Bonhoeffer writes that “….you do not wish to live without the beginning, without the end, because being in the middle causes you anxiety,” I also thought of my recent Christian Century article about the need for stories that leave intact the messy, tension-filled reality of life rather than transforming our stories into shiny, clean-edged morality tales. When we make a story into a morality tale, we impose a clear narrative arc with a defined ending where it becomes clear who or what was right or wrong, good or bad, compassionate or villainous. This temptation comes from the same fundamental anxiety that Bonhoeffer speaks of in our relationship with God as creator—an anxiety about dwelling in the middle, without knowing the beginning and end.
In contemplating creation, Bonhoeffer also says that God’s word (the biblical creation account), as “the word of a book, the word of a pious human being, is wholly a word that comes from the middle and not from the beginning. In the beginning God created….This word, spoken and heard as a human word, is the form of a servant in which from the beginning God encounters us and in which God alone wills to be found.” While the Bible obviously stands apart from and above the many words that we produce today, the idea of word as a servant through which God speaks to us and through which we encounter God also resonated with me as a writer. So often, the act of writing, of choosing words to describe inward or outward experiences, leads to revelation and sheds light into the shadows.
Finally, it strikes me that Bonhoeffer’s life itself testifies that God can use our anxiety-riddled middle places to point toward the God who is beginning and end. Biographical descriptions of Bonhoeffer point out that his theology and ideas changed and evolved throughout his life and ministry, and would no doubt have continued to evolve and change if he hadn’t been executed while he was still dwelling very much in the middle, rather than reaching a natural mortal end. So often, in today’s information-saturated world, we resist allowing our and others’ ideas to evolve and change. The blogosphere, and the egos of writers, thrive on certainty (or at least the appearance of certainty)—complex ideas pared down to numbered lists, sharply defined opinions hurled at breakneck speed toward those with different opinions. We can count on the numbered list and the opinionated blog post pitting one writer against another to garner high numbers of page views. These perennial favorite blog forms leave little room for changing one’s mind, or even allowing one’s ideas to be gently shaped, over time, by experience, reading, and discourse. Perhaps it’s silly to compare the musings of bloggers with the work of as learned and influential a theologian as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But as someone who regularly offers my theological musings publicly, with the terrifying knowledge that readers can and will throw my own words back at me should I change my mind or merely see a topic from a different perspective, I like the idea of writing from the middle. We write from a place of flux and uncertainty, where fixed notions of where we came from and where we’re going will always fall short because God who is the beginning and end cannot be so easily categorized. Our words can serve God, but they do not define God.
A deadline required me to go ahead and write something about The Bonhoeffer Reader, but I’m not yet finished with this collection of wisdom from one of the 20th century’s most influential theologians. I plan to continue reading, particularly his classics on Discipleship and Life Together. And I’ll also come back to this fundamental statement of how contemplation of God as creator comforts us who dwell in the anxiety-causing middle:
In the beginning—that is, out of nothing—God created heaven and earth. That is the comfort with which the Bible addresses us who are in the middle and who feel anxiety before the spurious nothingness, before the beginning without a beginning and the end without an end. It is the gospel, it is Christ, it is the resurrected one, who is being spoken of here. That God is in the beginning and will be in the end, that God exists in freedom over the world and that God makes this known to us—that is compassion, grace, forgiveness, and comfort…The beginning has been made…That it is true, that it has been done, that heaven and earth are there, that the miracle has come to pass, deserves all wonder.