Saturday, September 08, 2012

Bonhoeffer - Seeking Truth

Image of Dietrich Bonheffer
I'm reading Bonhoeffer - Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has interested me since I read some chapters from his book Life Together back in college. This Metaxas book is a richly detailed biography that is also a very good read. What is disturbing, however, as the Nazi shadow looms over the story is how often I see things that remind me of our times. When I see how quickly and easily Germany changed, I wonder what our country is changing into.
Bonhoeffer studied Theology in Berlin University under the influence of the well known liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack. Although Bonhoeffer respected Harnack, he came to very different theological conclusions. Harnack died in June 1929, and a memorial service was held for him which featured an impressive list of speakers, including high ranking government officials. Twenty-four year old Bonhoeffer was asked to speak on behalf of Harnack's former students, and here is Metaxas' quote from that speech.
It became clear to us through him that truth is born only of freedom. We saw in him the champion of the free expression of a truth once recognized, who formed his free judgment afresh time and time again, and went on to express it clearly despite the fear-ridden restraint of the majority. This made him . . . the friend of all young people who spoke their opinions freely, as he asked of them. And if he sometimes expressed concern or warned about recent developments of our scholarship, this was motivated exclusively by his fear that the others' opinion might be in danger of confusing irrelevant issues with the pure search for truth. Because we knew that with him we were in good and solicitous hands, we saw him as the bulwark against all trivialization and stagnation, against all the fossilization of intellectual life.
Metaxas goes on to comment about this speech.
Bonhoeffer's words reveal that he was never what one might today term a culture warrior, nor could he easily be labeled conservative or liberal. ... Anyone on the side of truth, wherever it led, was a compatriot to be lauded. ... Bonhoeffer's father was his primary mentor in this way of thinking. Karl Bonhoeffer's conclusions may have been different from his son's, but his respect for truth and for other human beings of different opinions formed the foundation of a civil society in which one might disagree graciously and might reason together civilly and productively. In the years ahead this would be seriously attacked, and the Nazis would stoke the fires of the culture wars (Kulturecampf) to play their enemies against each other. They would brilliantly co-opt the conservatives and the Christian churches, and when they had the power to do so, they would turn on them too.
What concerns me about the culture war arguments that I see in the United States today is that most of the arguments on each side of the fence are only about winning, not about seeking the truth. My concern is not only that such people end up blinded to the truth, but that they are also easily manipulated. Then all it takes is a sufficiently skillful leader to take them down a path they never intended to go. They won't even realize what they have done until it's too late.

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