January 21, 2011


The Grounds of Courage: a review of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
By Eric Metaxas (Alan Wolfe, January 13, 2011, New Republic)

What gives an individual the courage to act as Bonhoeffer did? In his case there were many reasons for his valor, including his love of Western culture, his devotion to his family, and his strong sense of loyalty. But clearly included among the causes of this man’s bravery must be Bonhoeffer’s complete and absolute devotion to God. For him, as Metaxas writes, “the evilness of the Nazis could not be defeated via old-fashioned ‘ethics,’ ‘rules,’ and ‘principles.’” Bonhoeffer’s soul lived in a realm not only beyond utilitarian indifference but also beyond Kantian imperatives. The problem of evil was not one that human beings could solve. Even “religion,” with its commandments and its ethical duties, was in his view insufficient. It is not virtue we need to confront evil, nor is it some inner light: “all things appear as in a distorted mirror,” Bonhoeffer wrote in his Ethics, “if they are not seen and recognized in God.” This was true also of evil. Evil takes place in this world, but it can be grasped only when “we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not only our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane.” The best we can do in the most difficult of times is not to view ourselves as free agents possessed with choices, but as subjects of a God whom we trust without reservation.

With faith as deep and obedient as this, Bonhoeffer did not fear death. “Death is the supreme festival on the road to freedom,” he reflected toward the end of his life. Paradoxically, such a deeply spiritual preoccupation with the next world conferred upon him a this-worldly advantage: it helps, if you are engaged in serious and dangerous political deeds, to contemplate what might be in store for you, and to accept its likelihood. We can never know who, when tested, will prove strong, and who will not. But anyone familiar with the theological reflections that preoccupied Bonhoeffer throughout his life would not be surprised by his bravery. “Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering; dying, we now may behold thee revealed in the Lord,” he wrote.

As admirable as Bonhoeffer’s actions were, there nonetheless remains something disturbing—we should be candid about this—in his willingness to jettison so many centuries of moral and ethical reflection on the good life and how it should be led. “Principles are only tools in the hands of God,” he wrote. “They will soon be thrown away when they are no longer useful.” But it is precisely because we recognize the fragility of ethical principles that we work to preserve and protect them when they are under attack. If all men were Bonhoeffers, ethics might be dispensable. But they are not, and so we need Kant and his successors. This is especially the case when we seek to counter the fragility of societies containing individuals who differ radically about the God in which they believe—if they believe in any at all. It is impossible not to be awed by the courage that Bonhoeffer’s faith in Jesus gave him, but that does not mean that we must all have faith in Jesus.

It has become popular in certain religious circles to point to Hitler’s hatred of Christianity, and in so doing to interpret the Holocaust as what inevitably takes place when people become too secular and turn away from Jesus. In this account, liberalism, indeed the entire Enlightenment out of which it grew, lacks the depth of commitment and the sense of the tragic necessary to come to terms with radical evil in its most brutal form. A way of thinking about politics that insists on the need for the state to remain neutral between competing conceptions of the good life, we are told, cannot find the resources to denounce a conception of life that is evil in its nature. The rules that apply for what Rawls calls a wellordered society have little or no relevance to a society in which everything that enables people to live cooperatively with others is turned upside down: even people making rational decisions behind a veil of ignorance could find themselves choosing Auschwitz.

Those who hold to this view believe that if there is any lesson to be learned from the life and times of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—and, to take another example, from the Catholic opposition to communism in the 1980s, in the Vatican and in Poland and elsewhere—it is that a confrontation with evil demands that beliefs be anchored in the laws of nature or the laws of God. Only when convictions are absolutely secure, this line of reasoning concludes, can we know what to do, and have the courage to do it. But nothing in liberal secularism is secure—and this is by design. For this reason, liberalism—and secularism—have no solution to the problem of evil. Confronted by monsters, a liberal instinctively wishes to reason with them.

Throughout his book, but especially toward the end, Metaxas turns this erudite and at times abstruse theologian into a living and tragic human being. I would be less than honest if I did not admit that bringing this man—and his intransigence on all the important questions of our time—so vividly to life raises awkward questions for the liberalism in which I put my own faith. How, precisely, would a Rawlsian have acted in those dark times? Must we not move beyond this-worldly conceptions of politics as a struggle for power to other-worldly concerns with repentance and days of judgment, if we are to grasp how the Nazis were able to combine their own rational plans to kill millions with satanically inspired ideas about a Thousand Year Reich, and also how some people were able to resist those plans? Is it possible to face death with courage without knowing that a better life awaits? Can one be loyal to one’s collaborators in the resistance without being loyal to some higher power? Can faith help overcome torture? Lurking behind all such questions is the major one: if the problem of evil is not one that humans can solve, have we no choice but to rely on God for help? Does Bonhoeffer’s greatness prove his rightness?

Yet when I put this book down, I realized that its author, no doubt inadvertently, had helped me to answer these questions. Bonhoeffer may have been convinced that God was telling him what to do, but I am not convinced. Ironically, Metaxas’s passion, the intensity of his engagement with his subject, wound up persuading me of the importance of the very autonomy that Bonhoeffer believed that we do not possess. Even if God told Bonhoeffer what to do, it was Bonhoeffer who chose God in the first place. It was not a humble servant of the Lord who involved himself in the resistance, but a singular human being who, for whatever reason, was able to know what to do when faced with the problem of evil.

It is important to note in this context that there is no simple relationship between faith and courage. The German Christians who collaborated with Hitler may have abused religion, but they considered themselves religious. At the same time, many—if not most—of the resisters to Hitler were not Christian believers and did not take orders from God. They included Prussian generals, and left-wingers (including even a few communists), and the student movement known as the White Rose. Their bravery had nothing to do with religion. One should come away from the Bonhoeffer story impressed by religion, but not in awe of it. The human picture is more complicated.

It does not, of course, matter whether German Christians tried to convince themselves that collaborating with Nazism was okay, because it was in fact unChristian. On the other hand, there was nothing intrinsically unPrussian, unLeft, nor unsecular about collaboration. Only the Christian was morally obligated to oppose Hitler. for the others it is not that their courage had nothing to do with religion but that it had nothing to do with anything.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 21, 2011 5:53 AM
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