Dietrich Bonhoeffer: a model for engaging with a faith different from one's own

by Bill Tammeus

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One of my theological heroes is German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Nazis executed him as a traitor to their malevolent cause in April 1945, just as World War II was ending.

One of Bonhoeffer's books, The Cost of Discipleship, was among the most influential in my young adulthood as I was finding my way back into church life.

I have long known that he and others conspired to rid Germany of Adolf Hitler, and I have known that he stood with the Jews (first just those Jews who had converted to Christianity but eventually the whole of the Jewish people) against the Nazi plan to exterminate European Jewry. What I have not known but learned by reading Keith Clements' new book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ecumenical Quest, was how important Catholicism was in shaping his view of the church universal and, indeed, his own theology.

The first thing readers discover about that subject comes early in the book as Clements describes Bonhoeffer's last days alive. A group of prisoners Bonhoeffer was part of asked him, as the only member of the clergy present, to conduct a prayer service for them. Clements writes: "Bonhoeffer was at first diffident: most of the company were Roman Catholics and he did not wish to impose a Protestant style on a (literally) captive audience." But the others insisted, and he led a service in which he "prayed on their behalf."

It's that kind of ecumenical sensitivity that sometimes is lacking today among both Protestants and Catholics.

To the surprise of his parents, Bonhoeffer announced he wanted to become a theologian, and at age 17 began theological studies at Tübingen University in 1923. In that period, Clements writes, "his most memorable religious encounter was once again provided by Roman Catholicism, a Corpus Christi procession in Rottenburg 'which made a great impression on me.' "

The next year, Bonhoeffer spent two and a half months in Italy, much of the time in Rome itself.

"As expected," Clements writes, "he reveled in the Roman sites and artifacts of antiquity, but what he was not prepared for was the impact of Roman Catholicism on full display on its home ground. Already on the journey south he was in continual lively discussion and argument with a Catholic seminarian. Then came a succession of stunning encounters with St. Peter's and the other great churches of Rome, and above all during the services of Holy Week and Easter."

The result of all this and more, writes Clements, is that "it is clear that in Rome Bonhoeffer was allowing his curiosity and interest to take him beyond ignorance and prejudice, to see and see into what was there in this other tradition."

In 1942, Clements notes, Bonhoeffer returned to Rome, and it was evidence "of a most remarkable feature of his life while a resister: a growing engagement with Roman Catholic life and thought, more serious and profound than ever before in his career."

The result of all this, the author concludes, is that "Bonhoeffer writes as a Lutheran ... but not as an advocate of Lutheranism over against all other traditions."

So now those of us who have long seen Bonhoeffer as a model of how to stand against evil in tortuous times can add to that picture Bonhoeffer as a model for how to learn from and engage with a faith tradition different from our own.

Bonhoeffer later said he thought more than once about becoming Catholic, but he remained true to his Lutheran heritage. Each of us, of course, must choose our path, so as much as I respect Bonhoeffer's choice, I have equal respect for a Lutheran clergy friend who recently became a Catholic.

When we listen to our hearts in that way, we do so the way Bonhoeffer did, "not as an advocate of [fill in the blank] over against all other traditions."

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. His email address is]

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