Introduction to Lisa Dahill’s Article, “Bonhoeffer’s Late Spirituality: Challenge, Limit and Treasure

1] With Lisa Dahill’s lyrical exposition of Bonhoeffer’s spirituality, we find a contemporary Lutheran theology working within a critical appropriate of virtue and character. Bonhoeffer has too long been labeled a “command of God” theologian, whose work confronts Christians with Jesus’ words “Follow me.” Certainly an “ethic of command drives the first part of his early Discipleship (DBW4: Minneapolis : Fortress, 2001). Bonhoeffer derives it from the synoptics, and it’s hard, harsh, and demanding. But the second part of Discipleship, along with Bonhoeffer’s later work in his Ethics and his Letters and Papers from Prison, describes an “ethic of formation” for the communities that Jesus left behind. This ethic of formation draws on the writings of Paul; it explores how the grace of the risen Christ works on the community to shape virtues that will allow Christians to hunker down for the long haul. How does the grace of Christ work? Through key spiritual disciplines like forgiveness, prayer, reading scripture, meditation, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and forgiveness. Luther will call these “the marks of the church;” for Bonhoeffer they are the disciplina arcani (the secret disciplines). These key practices sustain Christians in dark times.

[2] Dahill chronicles the impact of such practices. As Bonhoeffer faced his own darkness, the practices of prayer, meditation, and “the silent daily reflection on the Word of God as it applies to me” sustained him. The effect was extraordinary: he fell in love; he found hope; he discovered joy. As Dahill puts it, “[h]is is a grateful spirituality through and through….” This is not what one would expect from a man facing Nazi justice. Yet, the grace he experienced daily left him not fearful and despairing, but filled with the virtue of gratitude. As Dahill puts it, his is a “Christmas spirituality.” Thomas might call this “infused” charity, but Bonhoeffer put things more simply, more biblically, and powerfully christologically: Jesus Christ is also the fullness of gratitude; in him gratitude knows no bounds. It encompasses all the gifts of the created world. It embraces even pain and suffering. It penetrates the deepest darkness until it has found within it the love of God in Jesus Christ. To be thankful means to say yes to all that God Gives, at all times and for everything. (Ephesians 5:20)

[3] Bonhoeffer finds new resonance with twenty-first century Christians. While mainline denominations decline in numbers and income, there is a heightened interest in spirituality among seekers who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.” Bonhoeffer invites tired mainstream Christians to “meet Jesus again for the first time” and to listen to his message of uncompromising grace. At the same time, he challenges seekers to “seek first the Kingdomof God” in a community of believers, discarding the smug righteousness of virtuoso spiritualities. May his example of faith and his witness of joy continue to instruct us!

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).