Stanley Hauerwas Thinks Historically About Bonhoeffer


Stanley Hauerwas, the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University, recommends the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but not before he chides clergy for their lack of theological reading and theologians for their failure to write for the church.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a theologian who should be studied by those in the ministry. Indeed, I suspect he is one of the few recent theologians who has been read or at least admired by those in the ministry.

I worry that he may be more admired than read, but I have no way of judging how deeply his theological work has shaped those in the ministry. My worry is not just about whether Bonhoeffer has been read, but the extent to which those in the ministry have read anything, much less theology.

I do not mean this to be critical because for some time theologians have written primarily for other theologians. They have done so because theologians now think their primary constituency is the university and not the church. As a result, we get the disastrous distinction between theology proper and practical or pastoral theology.

This comes from a long essay at the ABC’s “Religion and Ethics” page. After he chides ministers and theologians, Hauerwas engages in some historical thinking about Bonhoeffer and his usefulness today.  A taste:

Yet one may wonder how Bonhoeffer should be read by those in the ministry in our time. The challenges he faced are so different from the everyday tasks incumbent on those in the ministry in our day. Bonhoeffer confronted the Nazis and Hitler – it is hard to imagine a more dramatic conflict. Dangerous though it may have been, those confronted by the Nazi’s knew what sides they needed to be on. We seldom enjoy such clarity. The result is often a stark divide between activities associated with pastoral care and the social witness of the church.

Those in the ministry today must negotiate a very different world than the world Bonhoeffer encountered. We are unsure who our enemy is, or even if we have an enemy. We lack the clarity Bonhoeffer enjoyed – which, of course, is not a bad thing. But it leaves us confused about how to discern in the world in which we live what the primary challenge facing the church may be. Bonhoeffer saw quite early who the enemy was, though he was surrounded by many who did not see what he saw in the Nazis. Indeed, one of the interesting questions for Bonhoeffer’s relevance for pastors in our time is what enabled him to see the threat Hitler represented.

Accordingly, a crucial question that needs exploration in order to gauge Bonhoeffer’s continuing importance for the church in our day is what made it possible for him to see the character of the regime Hitler represented when so many others did not. That he came from the upper classes no doubt played a role, but surely what Muller and Schoenherr identify as his “grounding the concrete community in the reality and activity of Christ” was crucial if we are to understand his early opposition to the Nazis.

The question for us is how that “grounding” might help us know better the challenges before us. I suspect it is a mistake – and a quite understandable one – to assume that what you are against is sufficient to define your moral identity, rather than what you are for.

Read the entire piece here.