Dietrich Bonhoeffer largely derives his fame from his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazi regime. Under immense stress, Bonhoeffer’s religious convictions prompted him to fight for the true good of the German people against genocidal tyranny. Understandably so, less attention has been paid to his theology and his understanding of private Christian faith. However, Bonhoeffer’s life and writings demonstrate a vital nuance to personal, spiritual practices that ought to inform our private faith today.
Before his involvement in the assassination plot, Dietrich Bonhoeffer retreated to relative obscurity and operated an underground seminary in the German town of Finkenwalde. Here, removed from the political activities of his day, Bonhoeffer gives us the best glimpse of his expectations for personal spirituality.
Practicing spiritual disciplines
To prepare his seminarians for ministry, Bonhoeffer mandated disciplines very familiar to us. Bonhoeffer required his students to read Scripture privately, writing, “we are not permitted to neglect this daily encounter with Scripture.” Bonhoeffer intentionally uses the word “encounter” here as he disallowed that this time would be an academic or pastoral pursuit: the ministers-to-be were not allowed to search for sermon material or use a Greek New Testament; rather, Scripture study was meditative, or prayerful, and enabled the Finkenwalde seminarians “to encounter Christ in his own word.” Thus, the “goal [of Scriptural meditation] is Christ’s community, Christ’s help, and Christ’s guidance.”
Bonhoeffer also insisted that his seminarians fasted. Arguing that it reminded them of their “estrangement” from the world, he regarded this practice as nonnegotiable. Just as prayerful Scripture reading ultimately looks to encounter God, Bonhoeffer does not see fasting as an end in itself but rather a response to faith in Christ, a means of orienting one’s life to God.
However, Bonhoeffer appears to speak out of both sides of his mouth, paradoxically railing against retreat from the world. In Ethics, he writes firmly, “for the Christian there is nowhere to retreat from the world, neither externally nor into the inner life.” In After Ten Years, he develops this criticism a little further:
In flight from public discussion and examination, this or that person may well attain the
sanctuary of private virtuousness. But he must close his eyes and mouth to the injustice
around him. He can remain undefiled by the consequences of responsible action only by
deceiving himself . . . He will either perish from that restlessness or turn into a
hypocritical, self-righteous, small-minded human being.
Developing a moral backbone
How then are we to make sense of Bonhoeffer’s actions and commands? While condemning withdrawal from the world, Bonhoeffer appears to do the very thing he hates, retreating to Finkenwalde and exhorting his students toward inward-focused, privatistic practices.
In her essay “Bonhoeffer’s Understanding of Church, State and Civil Society,” Victoria J. Barnett, director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, notes Bonhoeffer’s awareness of this exact contradiction: “The Finkenwalde experiment opened up the risk inherent in any kind of internal exile, which is that it becomes a flight into a privatized kind of discipleship.” Barnett thus indicates that while the Finkenwalde period may appear apolitical, Bonhoeffer understood this apparent contradiction.
However, his other writings—as well as more insight from Barnett—provide a fascinating dimension to Bonhoeffer’s personal spirituality which resolves this tension. Rather than seeing spiritual disciplines as a retreat from the world, Bonhoeffer understands spirituality as the necessary foundation for Christian political action.
Retreating to Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer was not neglecting or refusing the world. Rather, Barnett’s essay highlights how he here sought “the creation of moral backbone and the establishment of the discipline his students would need if they were to stay on the right path” under the attractive Nazi regime. Personally, Bonhoeffer saw his meditation not as retreat but the only way he could take certain steps in public life: encountering God personally provided the necessary foundation for political action.
This moral formation via spiritual discipline does not, however, only apply to ministers. Bonhoeffer extends this political dimension of spirituality to the local church because a church consumed with her own desire and self-interest cannot truly love her neighbor. Only by developing contentment and self-control will the church be able to be selfless, to be the church-for-others, as Bonhoeffer puts it.
Bonhoeffer thus resolves the apparent contradiction and demonstrates a necessarily political or public understanding of private spirituality. Rather than serving as an end-in-themselves, private spiritual practices function as a means to create genuinely Christian public action. Reading Scripture prayerfully may appear an isolated or individualistic practice, but such meditation forms our desires and builds virtue. Fasting similarly generates self-control, enabling—through God’s grace—the Christian to overcome selfish ambition and promoting generosity. Personal spirituality, though seemingly apolitical, therefore empowers the church to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned.