Bonhoeffer’s America

  • By Joel Looper
  • Baylor University Press
  • 272 pp.

The German theologian came to New York twice. What he saw appalled him.

Bonhoeffer’s America

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is known in the United States as a brilliant Lutheran theologian and brave Nazi resister who risked his life to save Jews. However, in Bonhoeffer’s America, Joel Looper focuses on a different, lesser-known aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life: his two visits to America.

During his 1930-1931 stay at the Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, Bonhoeffer studied with three of America’s most highly respected Protestant theologians — Eugene Lyman, Harry F. Ward, and Reinhold Niebuhr — all of whom were concerned primarily with social-justice issues.

In his writings from this period, Bonhoeffer noted that “American Christianity was pragmatic, morally courageous, oriented toward social activism, and individualistic but was also entirely theologically unmoored,” explains Looper. It seemed to Bonhoeffer that sociology and politics were more important at Union than the study of Gospel.

Reformation theology had been the nucleus of Bonhoeffer’s education. Luther had rebelled against the Catholic Church on theological grounds. In the face of the commercialization of indulgences, Luther argued that salvation and eternal life were not earned through acts (such as purchasing indulgences) but were a grace given by God to believers through their faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer. Luther argued that the Bible, not the church (or its spokesman, the pope), was the only source of divinely revealed knowledge.

Bonhoeffer found that American theologians placed little emphasis on the fundamental theological questions: the Crucifixion, the resurrection, salvation, grace, and redemption. “There is no theology here,” he wrote in a letter to a friend.

It was not that Bonhoeffer undervalued the importance of politics. But for him, the church was where people gathered to hear the Word, which would generate “a new Spirit-directed politics.” For Bonhoeffer, the American church functioned merely as a “social corporation,” and the pastor as the “association chair.”

Americans assumed that the cure for society’s ills lay in them, not in God: They “trust in ‘facts’ and in their ‘own development,’ and view truth only immanently rather than in its transcendent claim,” he wrote in Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931. “It is clear that this view basically conceals a purely individualistic understanding of life that would grant happiness to each individual and yet contains very little beyond this.” 

In his essay “Protestantism without Reformation,” Bonhoeffer offers an explanation for this situation. American and continental Protestantism developed differently, he wrote. While European Protestantism emerged from a revolt against the established religion, Catholicism, American religious communities were the product of the pre-Reformational English tradition of dissent launched by John Wycliffe, a 14th-century priest who challenged certain church teachings.

Wycliffe believed in the theological virtues and predestination; he questioned the veneration of saints, transubstantiation, and the authority of the pope. His disciples, known as Lollards, held that since the Roman church was corrupt, they were free to ignore its decrees.

Drawing mainly from the lower classes, the Lollards attracted a large following. Eventually, they split into numerous sects, “forming their own theologies from personal experience and personal reading of the Bible.” They denied the church as mediator between the individual and God, seeking inward illumination and turning to themselves as a source of “personal religion.” Because they could not seek protection for their individualistic religious practices from the institutional church, they looked to the state — not always with success.

The spiritual descendants of these dissenters brought the possibility of a non-ecclesial, inward-looking theology to the New World. Different groups — Quakers, Baptists, Unitarians — established themselves in America; all were guided by an “inner light” rather than Gospel. “The theological descendants of Wycliffe had begun the long process of shaping the American theological scene in their own image,” writes Looper.

To survive, the diverse communities had to be tolerant of one another; they had to reject the kind of confessional conflict that characterized Europe. They saw the state as the guarantor of religious freedom, but in so doing, argued Bonhoeffer, they turned their back on the Word.

Bonhoeffer saw modernity as a progressively secularizing process. In the 1930s, American Christians went to church, and God was frequently invoked in public gatherings. Yet American Christians were too individualistic to be authentic followers of Christ, he thought. He wrote that although they were proud of their freedom to worship, “the American praise of freedom is more a tribute to the world, the state, and society than it is a statement concerning the church.”  

At the core of Bonhoeffer’s thought on church and state is the notion of the “two kingdoms”: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. The first was ruled by the Gospel, while the second was governed by law. In Bonhoeffer’s view, Americans had conflated the two kingdoms, making equal treatment under the law and the pursuit of happiness, which they clothed in Christian language, the objectives of the state.

Bonhoeffer did not argue that the Christian individual had no social responsibility but that social action must stem from God, whose Word is conveyed through the Gospel, not from the belief in the supremacy of the human being.

The one exception to this tendency, Bonhoeffer wrote, was Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where Adam Clayton Powell and his son preached. Looper explains that in contrast with White liberal politics, the activism of Abyssinian was based on revelations from beyond. Thanks to his experiences in Harlem, Bonhoeffer was able to see the effects of racism from the perspective of the sufferers and to take a stand in favor of the Jews 12 years later.

When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, he was faced with a disintegrating political situation. In 1939, he returned to New York but stayed only a short time, as he felt morally obligated to endure the onslaught of violence at home with his fellow citizens. In 1943, after the unraveling of a plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer was detained in Tegel Military Prison because of his association with the conspirators. He was hanged in 1945.

While in prison, Bonhoeffer worked out a new understanding of American and European secularism. “We are approaching a completely religionless age,” he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge. By that, he meant that “God” (Bonhoeffer’s quotation marks) had become, as Looper explains, “merely a human power employed…for social and personal change.” By recognizing the ineffectiveness of such a “God,” Bonhoeffer believed, people would be better able to “see the God of the Bible.” 

Many scholars believe that his letters from Tegel reveal that Bonhoeffer had a change of heart about American Protestantism at the end of his life. Looper also considers several flaws in Bonhoeffer’s arguments — for example, they are based on his very limited experience in this country. However, Looper concludes that in spite of valid objections, Bonhoeffer’s views remain consistent and should serve as an advisory for today’s churches.

Joel Looper’s treatment of this controversial theologian is fair-minded and engaging. Bonhoeffer’s America is not an easy read, but Looper has done an excellent job of encapsulating Bonhoeffer’s teachings and explaining his objections to American Protestantism.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2021.]

Bárbara Mujica is a professor emerita at Georgetown University, where she taught courses on Spanish mysticism and the Counter Reformation. Her most recent scholarly book is Religious Women and Epistolary Exchange in the Carmelite Reform: The Disciples of Teresa de Ávila. Mujica is also a novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. Her novels include the international bestseller Frida, based on the relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Sister Teresa, based on the life of Teresa of Ávila, and I Am Venus, which explores the identity of the model for Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. Her collection of stories, Far from My Mother’s Home (Spanish edition: Lejos de la casa de mi madre), focuses on the immigrant experience. Collateral Damagepublished last March by the University of Virginia Press, is an edited collection of women’s war writing, and Imagining Iraq contains short stories told from the perspective of the mother of a veteran. Her new biofictional novel based on the life of Mexican film star Dolores del Río will be published next year by Graydon House/HarperCollins.

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