Letters from Cell 92: Part 6, "The Man for Others"

We've made quite a journey through Dietrich Bonhoeffer's theological letters from prison. We began by considering the central, Christological preoccupation of the letters, and then moved through the three dominant themes of the letters:

1. The World Come of Age
2. The Nonreligious Interpretation of Christianity
3. The Arcane Discipline
In light of our analysis of these themes we can now circle back to try to answer the central question of the letters: Who is Christ for us today?

In each of these posts we've been examining how Bonhoeffer was trying to create a this-worldly spirituality, a spirituality that is to be found in the center of life. As Bonhoeffer wrote in the very first theological letter:
April 30, 1944

To Eberhard Bethge:

...God's "beyond" is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.
God's transcendence, God's being "beyond," has nothing to do with heaven or other-worldliness. God's transcendence, God's way of being "beyond," is to be found "in the midst of our life." Following God, the church, therefore, isn't to be found at the edges of this world, as the religious doorstep to some other-worldly heaven. Rather, the church is to be found, with God, "in the middle of the village." As Bonhoeffer wrote on July 21: "By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities."

All well and good, but what are we to do there in the middle of the village? How do we experience transcendence in the middle of "life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities"? According to Bonhoeffer, we encounter God in the middle of life when we are there for our neighbors: "The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation."

It is in this "being there for others" that marks the Christian. The goal of the Christian life isn't to become "religious": "Our relation to God is not a 'religious' relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable--that is not authentic transcendence--but our relation to God is a new life in 'existence for others,' through participation in the being of Jesus." Thus, we finally come to the answer of the Christological question: Who is Christ for us today?
The experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that "Jesus is there only for others." His "being there for others" is the experience of transcendence. It is only this "being there for others," maintained till death, that is the ground of his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Faith is participation in this being of Jesus (incarnation, cross, resurrection).
Jesus' transcendence is found in his "being there for others." Through his incarnation, death, and resurrection Jesus becomes radically available to humanity. Consequently, Christian faith becomes "participation in this being of Jesus." Summarizing all this, in the notes he left behind for the book he was working on, Bonhoeffer gives us his most succinct answer to the Christological question:
Jesus is "the man for others."
Given that answer, Bonhoeffer expects the church to follow suit:
The church is the church only when it exists for others...The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.
One of the best descriptions of what this might look like, a church existing for the sake of the world, comes from a letter Bonhoeffer wrote in June, 1944 to Eberhard and Renate Bethge commenting on 1 Peter 3.9:
God does not repay evil for evil, and thus the righteous should not do so either. No judgment, no abuse, but blessing...Blessing means laying one's hand on something and saying, Despite everything, you belong to God. This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: may God's blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer. We have received God's blessing in happiness and in suffering. Yet those who have been blessed can do nothing but pass on this blessing; indeed, they must be a blessing wherever they are.
That might be the best summary of what a "religionless Christianity" looks like. It is being a blessing to others wherever you are, in the middle of life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. We lay our hands on others and say "Despite everything, you belong to God; be blessed." More, we suffer with our neighbors making our lives available to them, "not dominating, but helping and serving."

This brings us to the end of this series on Bonhoeffer's letters from prison. How to summarize and wrap up? Some have argued that the single best summary of Bonhoeffer's letters is a poem he wrote from prison during his final months in Tegel. The poem is entitled "Christians and Pagans." The poem has three stanzas and the movement of the poem is from a "religious" to a "nonreligious" interpretation of faith.

In the first stanza we find the "religious" interpretation of God, the deus ex machina, the other-worldly Powerful God who we turn to when we need a fix or a rescue operation. Stanza one, as the "religious" interpretation of faith, is a position now untenable in the "world come of age."

In the second stanza we find a contrast with the powerful deus ex machina God of the first stanza. In stanza two we find the theologia crucis of Bonhoeffer's letters, the God "pushed out of the world and onto the cross." Seeing this, "religious" Christians, fearful about God getting "crucified" and pushed out of the world, rush to God's assistance. The final line of stanza two, then, is filled with ambivalence. Some, wanting the "religious" God of stanza one, will rush to defend God against the attacks of the pagans. Others, by contrast, Bonhoeffer's "nonreligious" Christians, will see in the Crucified the true nature of God. Thus, stanza two hovers between the religious--stanza one--and nonreligious--stanza three--interpretations.

In stanza three, having moved through stanza two, "nonreligious" Christians find in the Crucified the true transcendence of God: A God who, by "hanging dead," came to us and fed us. This is God's "being there" for the world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Contrast the first two lines of stanzas one and three. In stanza one we have the other-worldly flight into the Beyond looking for relief from a Powerful Other. But this move is no longer plausible in the world come of age. But in stanza three we find God moving toward us, God "being there" in Jesus for the entire world, "for Christians and pagans alike."
Christians and Pagans

Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, pagan alike he hangs dead,
And both alike forgiving.

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11 thoughts on “Letters from Cell 92: Part 6, "The Man for Others"”

  1. I can't get over the way this man languishing in a World War II prison facing deprivation and death can sound so relevant and vital sixty-five years later. There seems to have been something of an apostolic succession of such people who met God in surprising ways in such appalling circumstances through history.

    Thank-you again, Richard, for guiding us along the cold, mud-spattered tracks of this intimate journey which has led us from the mundane to the extraordinary and profound and back full circle to our everyday lives transformed.

    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.

    T.S. Eliot - "Little Gidding"

  2. Andrew,

    Thanks for the lines from Eliot. Maybe Richard would consider what Eliot was working through in "The Four Quartets." For what it is worth, I consider it the greatest poem in the English language in the twentieth century. That from someone American-born.

    Blessings and Merry Christmas!

  3. Richard,

    This series has reminded me that we need theologians, but that some theologians in their explorations engage in abstraction. Bonhoeffer does not move toward high theology bordering (a kind of functional docetism) but toward the flesh and blood "least of these" Jesus.

    Thanks, Blessings, and Merry Christmas!

  4. This quote I read this morning seems pertinent:

    The paradox of God's "Yes" spoken to creation in Jesus Christ is that it throws the world into a crisis of judgement. It is spoken, not from the lofty heights of Christendom's power, but from the depths of dereliction, a cry of protest against all Empire. Absolute and vulnerable, God proclaims life as a free gift. No market can buy it, no state can enlist it, no church can own it. It is common wealth."

    Steven Shakespeare, the Common Wealth Network

  5. Richard i must say the sum of the matter being discussed is a bit skewed.
    and what makes this an awkward is the ontology of Christ... just have a little peek at (i will run the process down last first ) rom> 15:16...15:3-8...ROM 3:21- 31 subjective gender (Gods righteous goodness exposed by the Christ's faithfulness to the will of god's word according to scripture and the promise of life given back to the faithful) and intrinsic righteousness of god for the good of his creation.
    then back to r0m 3:4 showing that he is faithful to his words.
    this goes back to the power of god unto salvation to those that believe....the GOSPEL...
    all this is predicated by rom.1:1-7

    we ...if we just possibly get it at all are shone gods goodness kindness and mercy. by a rescue plan over the ages

    AND THEY(trinity) ASK WHY???? WILL YOU NOT RECIPROCATE this truly unmerited favor TO EACH OTHER.

    merry Christmas rich

    and if you don't ...........well.....guess what ya don't get it.....

  6. On being there for others, I found this from Lewis, from roughly the same time frame.

    10 August 1943, to Sister Penelope, from Magdalen College.

    There is never a time when all these three women are in a good temper. When A is in, B is out: and when C has just got over her resentment at B's last outrage and is ready to forgive, B is just ripe for the next, and so on! But out of evil comes good. From praying anxiously for a little of God's peace to communicate to THEM, I have been given more of it myself than I think I ever had before. Which is interesting. You don't get it when you ask for yourself: want it for the sake of the others, you do ...

    -C.S. Lewis
    Letters of C.S. Lewis, Walter Hooper, editor

  7. Richard, there's been so much to think about here and I'm still trying to get my head around it. That is I'm trying to get at the essence of what being religious is. There's a terrific biologist named Ursula Goodenough who is wanting to find a way to be religious, but instead of basing the experience on "God", she wants to base it on "Nature".

    I wonder though, in our case here, if being religious ultimately boils down to how one relates to Heaven? If one sees Heaven as a future place and time where life is complete and everything is provided for we could say they're being religious. On the other hand then, if one sees heaven as a "model" or "framework" within to consider how we create our lives together here and now, we could consider them as non-religious.

    The major difference then between this non-religious person and one who lives in a secular humanism framework, is that the non-religious person begins from the contingency from which human being emerges, (God) while a secular humanist begins from human being; or if there is a noted contingency, it's understood as a materialist/mechanistic one.

    As I said, I'm still thinking this through. So thank you for such a terrific set of posts! And Merry Christmas to you,


  8. But you don't have to be a Christian to "be there for others." Given that fact, Dietrich's "arcane discipline" is pointless; his calling it a "mystery" is merely a fidiestic rationalization of prayer and worship.

  9. Just wanted to thank you immensly for this blog! A great man of God writing about similar thoughts is Gabe Lyons. Thanks alot!

  10. Dear Richard,
    Have loved your explanation of Bonhoeffer, found it confirming my own Bethge based interpretation. I am finishing a book of conference proceedings on Bonhoeffer entitled Bonhoeffer form Below: Australian and South African Essays on the Centenary of Bonhoeffer's Birth. Am wonderingif I could have permission to use your wonderful diagrams with attribution of course. Youpr prompt response would be greatly appreciated. Gordon Preece preecegordon@hotmail.com

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