Bonhoeffer’s Experience with the American Liberals: My Experience with the American Evangelicals

Theological virtuoso Dietrich Bonhoeffer, after already earning two PhDs in theology (by his mid-twenties), came abroad to diversify his theological portfolio. He landed on the shores of New York, and in the halls of Union Theological Seminary. He had been trained in the liberal theological tradition, where it was founded, in Germany by its greatest minds; its most premier, just as he was entering studies, was Adolf von Harnack. But after writing his PhD dissertation, Communio Sanctorum, and then his post-doctoral Habilitation, Act and Being, even while being critical of aspects of Karl Barth’s theology, in the main, Bonhoeffer took the Christocentric, and orthodox turn with Barth. This had all happened just prior to him ending up at Union. He had the real deal liberal theological training behind him (just as Barth did), and could sniff out a phony version of it better than anyone else. Even so, as noted, he had abandoned the premises of liberal theology through appropriating Barth’s broad contours, and made that significant turn. When he entered Union Theological Seminary he was anticipating finding more of the same in regard to liberal theology, but he had come to learn how to apply theology at the social (street) level; and Union had a stellar reputation for this. But what he found, and was shocked by, was just how far-gone Union was. He realized that they were peddling an imposter’s version of liberal theology; to the point that they had completely gutted it of anything doctrinally or historically interesting. In the end he didn’t even think that what Union was offering was Christianity at all. This is interesting, and parallel to my own impression of American evangelicalism today. But before I share some of my impressions, let us hear further on Bonhoeffer at Union, and how Gary Dorrien frames things for us: 

He said it bluntly to his friend Helmut Rößler in December 1930. American liberal Protestantism, Bonhoeffer wrote, was ‘infinitely depressing’ to him, ‘smiling in desperation’ without realizing it was desperate: 

The almost frivolous attitude here is unprecedented, and my hope of finding Heb. 12:1 fulfilled has been bitterly disappointed. Moreover, theology in Germany seems infinitely provincial to them here; they just don’t understand it; they grin when you mention Luther     (DBWE 10: 261). 

A week later, writing to German church superintendent Max Dietsel, Bonhoeffer allowed that American seminarians were certainly friendly; they even expected professors to be friendly. But conversations with American students and professors ‘almost never yielded anything of substance,’ because Americans were averse to substance and truth: 

There is no theology here. Although I am basically taking classes and lectures in dogmatics and philosophy of religion, the impression is overwhelmingly negative. They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students—on the average twenty-five to thirty years old—are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are not familiar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, are amused at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.        (DBWE 10: 265-6) 

Bonhoeffer struggled to convey how bad it was. He had groused about shallow students at Berlin, too, but he assured Diestel that this was much worse. Americans ‘dreadfully sentimentalized’ religion, they spouted their opinions with ‘an almost naïve know-it-all attitude,’ and any reference to Luther evoked insolent laughter. They were proud to be superficial, counting it as sophistication. With a glimmer of something important, Bonhoeffer said that most of the theologians and clergy at Union accepted James’ notion of a finite God: ‘They find it to be profound and modern and do not sense at all the impertinent frivolousness in all such talk.’ Local church services were much the same: 

The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a Negro (indeed, in general I’m increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes)      (DBWE 10: 266) 

That was another important glimmer; Bonhoeffer caught that gospel truths were existential to Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and his African American congregation at Abyssinian Church. Overall, however, the case for despair was overwhelming. Bonhoeffer puzzled over how the usual fare in American churches could be called Christianity. The Federal Council of Churches, he reported, was equally frivolous: ‘People talked about everything, except about theology. Only rarely did anyone venture any comments really getting to the point, and if they did, the discussion quickly moved on to the daily agenda’ (DBWE 10: 266-67). 

There are interesting parallels, I think, between Bonhoeffer’s impression of American liberalism, and how American evangelicalism has come to operate today. I can only imagine Bonhoeffer running across a Progressive church today, or your typical American evangelical church, and walk away with the same impressions he did when he was exposed to the “Christianity” at Union Theological Seminary. For me personally, this is my impression of American evangelicalism in the main. I think of Christianity Today styled evangelicalism, and when I juxtapose that with so-called Progressive American Christianity, I don’t see much difference. Maybe their doctrinal statements would differ, but their praxis reduces to the same; what Christian Smith and others have identified as a moralistic therapeutic deism. There is no real sense of the Christian, and thus concrete God of Jesus Christ present in most of American evangelicalism these days (whether that be on the progressive or mainstream evangelical continuum). What we are exposed to are other purely pragmatic or flattened versions of the social gospel, with no reference to a God outside of the horizontal domain; or we get a pie-in-the-sky notion of God, who is there to help us feel good about ourselves, and present us with experiences that are supposed to elevate us to our best lives and self-actualized selves now. 

 

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