Did He Really Say That?

200px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1987-074-16,_Dietrich_Bonhoeffer“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”

For some time, I have used this quote in the “signature” for my emails. I attributed the quote to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I think I must have picked it up off a quotes site when I did a profile of Bonhoeffer for a book group.

A friend contacted me recently after I used the quote in a post about the encyclical “Laudato Si’ ” by Pope Francis. Others have used this quote in connection with matters related to the environment and my friend was interested in the context in which Bonhoeffer was using the quote and where it could be found.

I thought this might be easy, so I googled the quote to see if anyone had cited the source as well as attributing it to Bonhoeffer. The quote turned up on a number of websites, all attributing it to Bonhoeffer but none giving the source. So I did two other things.

One was that I left a message at the website of Eric Metaxas, who has written a biography on Bonhoeffer. One of his staff responded but could not give the source of this quote either but suggested works in which I might find it.

A search in Google Books turned up nothing so I turned to trusty Facebook and asked my friends. None of those who responded could find it either. One friend, Nancy, talked to Charles Marsh at the Bonhoeffer House who said Bonhoeffer wouldn’t have used these words but mentioned that in Letters and Papers From Prison Bonhoeffer said, “The question of ultimate responsibility is not how I might extricate myself heroically from the situation but how the coming generation is to live.” Looking “inside the book” on Amazon, I found this in the front matter toward the bottom of page 7. The discussion was on the question of our responsibility toward history, which ultimately was not to be heroic or “successful” (the section is titled “on success”) but to consider our responsibility to the rising generation.

This is certainly a related idea, but focused on the life of an individual rather than a moral society, and speaks not of ultimate tests, but ultimate responsibility. It still leaves me with questions. Foremost is the question of “how responsible can I be for how the coming generation will live?” We may be responsible for the conditions the coming generation will face, but can I really be responsible for how another generation will live?

Back to the quote that I thought was Bonhoeffer’s (and may still be although no source for this has been found so far). This all seems a big deal over a quote that most people I know like and give at least intellectual assent to. Most, apart from Charles Marsh, would think it sounds like something Bonhoeffer would say. And it is often quoted. So why not?

I think the issue is truthfulness. It seems this has become a slippery slope, particularly in our public discourse. The problem then becomes the credibility of anything anyone says. Do we ever really want people to trust us, to take us at our word. That can only be so if we tell the truth to the best of our ability. And so from now on, I will have to say of this quote, “source unknown, commonly attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

If someone reading this actually knows where the quote that begins this post comes from, whether by Bonhoeffer or not, drop me a note in the comments.

Review: Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture
Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture by Keith L Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you noticed the spate of Bonhoeffer books on the market? I wonder if this reflects our longing for genuine heroes, the kind who finish well and are people of substance and integrity. Perhaps his ideas of “religionless” Christianity resonate with those who prefer to consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” What is more fascinating for me is the evangelical embrace of Bonhoeffer, who clearly loved and trusted Christ, but by no stretch embraced the wider spectrum of evangelical conviction. Particularly intriguing is the fact that this book represents the proceedings of a theology conference at Wheaton College, the citadel of evangelical conviction.

This collection of papers explores a gamut of concerns around Bonhoeffer. The book opens with an essay by Philip Ziegler on Bonhoeffer as a theologian of the Word of God, which is shorthand for the idea that Jesus Christ is God’s Word to us. This is followed by a paper by Timothy Larsen on the evangelical reception of Bonhoeffer, which he would attribute both to Bonhoeffer’s life and death, and his more popular books. What I found neither dealing with is Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of scripture and its incompatibility with evangelical conviction, although Larsen does cite some of the early critiques of Bonhoeffer by evangelicals.


Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-074-16 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Several essays illuminate what has always been a question for me, which is how Bonhoeffer, who articulates pacifist ideals in The Cost of Discipleship could decide to embrace active resistance to Hitler including participation (minor) to assassinate him. Reggie L Williams essay on Bonhoeffer’s exposure to the Harlem renaissance and the idea of a “black” Christ of resistance argues for how Bonhoeffer could part ways with the established church, and even his Confessing brethren to act against Hitler. Steven J Plant’s paper on Bonhoeffer’s politics introduces us to his ethic of responsibility for his life while being accountable to God. It seemed even clearer to me from this paper that there was a “double” character to his thinking that recognized both the necessity to act against Hitler and yet also recognized his accountability for the taking of life before God and that all he could do was cast himself on God’s grace. In Lori Brant Hale’s essay on vocation, we see that Bonhoeffer did not believe in an abstract ethic, but one worked out in concrete life and in social relations. The Reich changed all the conventions and to say “yes” to Christ and “no” to self in this context demanded some unusual choices.

Daniel Treier explores a connection I had never before made between Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul around their similar ideas about technology. Charles Marsh chronicles Bonhoeffer’s increasing estrangement from “academic” theology. Keith Johnson explores what we can gain from Bonhoeffer for the Christian academy. Joel Lawrence explores Bonhoeffer’s theology of the church as the community that exists for others, and that does so by practicing “death together” in its practices of confessing our sins to each other–one of the most challenging pieces of the book for me! Jim Belcher concludes the book by exploring the liturgies Bonhoeffer practiced at Finkenwalde, an illegal seminary training Confessing Church pastors, and how this sustained Bonhoeffer during his imprisonment and as he faced death.

This is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the life, work, and writing of Bonhoeffer. I found new insights for some of the questions I have about Bonhoeffer. However, I did find it curious that at an evangelical conference co-sponsored with an evangelical publisher, there was so little about the evangelical engagement with and appropriation of a theologian who was far from evangelical in some of his fundamental convictions.

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Review: In Search of Deep Faith

In Search of Deep Faith
In Search of Deep Faith by Jim Belcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jim Belcher and his family were at a crossroads. He’d spent ten years pastoring a church from its very beginnings into a thriving congregation. He made the bold decision to resign. His wife needed a respite from the bubble of pastoral ministry. And he was facing a significant question as a parent: how do I help my children come to own a “deep faith” in their own lives, not just an inherited faith that disappears when one is removed from a Christian social context, but an enduring faith?

Belcher’s answer was a pilgrimage through England and Europe revisiting the sites where thoughtful and courageous Christians he had looked to as heroes lived, and sometimes died for, their faith. This book is a kind of travel or pilgrimage narrative of that year.

The first part of the book follows their journeys in England exploring the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer, Sheldon Van Auken’s struggle for a meaningful faith, the life and places of C. S. Lewis, and the conversations that changed the life of William Wilberforce, who changed the course of British history with regard to slavery.

The second half of the book (Parts Two and Three) recount their journeys through Europe. He begins, interestingly enough with the life and art of Van Gogh, and his struggle between despair and belief. They move on to the French village of Le Chambon, where Andre Trocme and a village of Protestant Huguenots hid and saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. We shift then to Holland and the German prison camps where Corrie Ten Boom lost her sister but held fast to her faith for the same courageous act of protecting Jews. Then we consider the life and death of Bonhoeffer, and the equally courageous decisions of the von Trapp family, both like, and unlike their Sound of Music counterparts. We end with Heidelberg, and Martin Luther, and finally the soldier’s cemetery at Normandy.

Belcher interweaves the narrative of his travels and interactions with family with the narratives of each of his heroes. And this also seems to have two major parts to it–the challenge of ordinary obedience in things like home school lessons and our Jekyll-Hyde struggle with sin during their stay in England. In Europe, and particularly as they witnessed the sites of courageous acts and even martyrdom, they wrestle with what constitutes a deep faith that sustains one through despair, danger, suffering, resistance, and in the face of death. It does seem that when Belcher realizes that the education in faith of this pilgrimage is more important than math and writing and grammar lessons that they all are opened up more to what God had for them on this pilgrimage.

I’ve read other narratives of many of the lives he profiles but I found Belcher wrote with a concise freshness that brought people like Lewis and Bonhoeffer to life in new ways for me. Perhaps it was the act of inhabiting their places. And I appreciate that Belcher “kept it real” with regard to the struggles as well as the moments of insights his family faced on this pilgrimage. One of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

[I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through a contest hosted on Goodreads.]

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