Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Model Academic

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a lot of things. A martyr. A resistance fighter. The hero of a fallen leader. He is an inspiring writer who cared about Christ and his church. Yet for all this, we rarely see Bonhoeffer as a model academic. Unless of course you are Marilynne Robinson.

Robinson's Bonhoeffer is more than this of course. But to understand Bonhoeffer you need to understand him as an academic. Earning a doctorate in theology by the age of 21, Bonhoeffer started to lecture in the University of Berlin by the time he was 22. He would go onto to teach in some of Germany's finest academic institutions of the time. And yet, unlike so many other academic contemproaries, Bonhoeffer understand the danger posed by Hitler's National Socialism. As a Christian in academia, Bonhoeffer was prepared to let his beliefs shape every part of his life, even if it lead him to the hangman's noose. Having read Robinson's homage to Bonhoeffer in The Death of Adam, I want to suggest three reasons why Bonhoeffer stands out as a model academic.
  1. Christ at the Centre. The central focus point of Bonhoeffer's academic career, and indeed his life, was the Lordship of Jesus. He is the one with full authority. He is the one who is to be obeyed and trusted - in life and in death. It was his commitment to Christ at the centre that lead Bonhoeffer to shape everything around this reality. It was this reality that prevented Bonhoeffer from submitting to any other authority.
  2. Religionless Christianity. I have to admit that although I've heard this phrase thrown around quite a bit, it's baffled me. Until I realized what it actually means. Often used as an excuse to stop 'stuffy, anachronistic liturgy' etc. Bonhoeffer used this phrase to challenge his culture. In a nation where everyone and everything assumed Christianity, Bonhoeffer used his place as an academic - in the university and the seminary - to call the assumed a priori of god in German society hypocrisy. His vocation as a scholar was to call Germany to denounce the Fuhrer and follow the true lord.
  3. Christ at Gethsemane. These two points made Bonhoeffer an academic who was well thought-out and integrated in his faith and study, and willing to let this shape his dialogue with the world.
    "By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world - watching with Christ in Gethsemane...How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God's suffering through a life of this kind?"
    The scion of German aristocracy and one of the greatest minds of his generation, Bonhoeffer could have stayed quiet in the ivory tower of academia. He could of, but he didn't, because Christ went to Gethsemane. He would be an integrated scholar who would get involved in the world's mess. As a disciple of Christ, Bonhoeffer would stay true to his convictions. "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."
A brilliant mind, Bonhoeffer lived and died for what he believed in. He loved the world like his master did, and was prepared to speak up and act against injustice. And he did all this without going flaky on what lay at the centre of his life. Bonhoeffer has been an inspiration to me for over seven years now. And Robinson's reading of him has only solidified this for me. I look forward to carrying on part of his legacy in the postgrad ministry at Sydney University.

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