Despite my years as a devoted Germanophile, I have not yet taken the time to read any of the works of the theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I knew of him from my studies of German history and culture, but he was for me just one of that far-too-short list of names of those known to work against the Nazi regime, a list that includes names like Sophie Scholl and the few members of the White Rose. But in our Wednesday Night Words class, we have begun the study of his work, Life Together, and well, my historical-church-theological nerdiness is showing. Last night we talked about the documentary we had seen the week before, our impressions of it, of him, and then we talked a bit about his life and work.
And then, a most interesting question was asked. That question was, simply this: what made Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man born of a family that really didn’t go to church, of a society in which in so many ways the church as an institution was discredited, what turned that man into one of the great theological thinkers of an era? Oh yes, and the follow-on question: what in our own lives influenced us all, so that we were people who would choose to spend their Wednesday evening seated around a table in a church classroom, talking about him and his thoughts?
Since it is less complicated to answer this question about Bonhoeffer than about myself, I took a look at the other book I’m reading, a book about his life and work. In the first chapter of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, the answer becomes quickly clear: the formative influence was that of his mother, and of the nannies carefully selected by her. Paula Bonhoeffer’s grandfather was a famous theologian; her father a military chaplain and later chaplain to Kaiser Wilhelm II; she herself was educated partially at the Pietist community of Herrnhutter Brudergemeine, a center of the Moravian church created in the 18th century. [By the way, it was from Herrnhutt that missionaries were sent to the New World, giving birth to the Amish and Church of the Brethren movements in the fledgling country that would become the United States…but I digress.] When she engaged nannies, she chose devout Christian women from Herrnhutt, women who would become Dietrich’s nurses and teachers during his formative years. Paula Bonhoeffer’s faith may not have led her to take a seat in the pews of the state-run church in Germany, but it did lead her to insist that her children internalize and live by the values of selflessness, generosity, helpfulness and charity. And Karl Bonhoeffer, who apparently did not share the beliefs of his wife, did share her values — they stood shoulder to shoulder on all matters relating to the education of the children. Later in life, according to Dietrich’s twin sister, Sabine, it was his mother who urged the young pastor to make the church live out its beliefs by speaking against the Nazis and by taking action against them.
With all that information and a passing knowledge of psychology and human behavior, it is easy to see the seeds that were planted which eventually sprouted into the Bonhoeffer who left us such amazing thoughts and writings, and who lived such an extraordinary life in complicated times. But that unknown ingredient, that part of him and that personal connection with the Holy Spirit that made him Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian, truth-teller, activist…that is not something we can find in a psychological or historical profile of a life. That was the Gospel at work in Dietrich Bonhoeffer…his very own special connection to God.
And so, as I thought more about the question of influences in my own life, my thoughts turned naturally to my own mother, Mabel. She wasn’t descended from a long line of famous preachers and theologians, and I didn’t have carefully selected nannies with the finest credentials and the deepest faith (I had, in fact, no nanny.) But I think that the combination of the values that she taught me, the faith-filled life she lived in my presence, and that undefineable connection to Holy Spirit that she taught me to listen to, well I think with all those things I’m not doing so badly at all.
I recently read somewhere, a definition of what it means to be a prophet, a definition that caught my attention more than most: a prophet is someone who speaks words that continue to sound and inspire across the distance of time and space. I think, in their own small ways, all mothers are prophets. It is pretty clear that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s mother was, and lately, I’m pretty sure that mine was too. And just like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, we don’t always listen to these ready-made, loving prophets that we have at hand.
I’m glad that Dietrich Bonhoeffer listened. And I’m glad that, although many years too late, I have learned to listen too.