How many of you remember the first time you heard the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer? I'm not sure. While I was in College studying current theology in 1974, we were introduced to recent trends which included 'religionless Christianity'. Around the same time I went to a public library sale of discarded books and picked up Mary Bosanquet's The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The coinciding of reading around radical late 1960's theology and this well written biography posed intriguing questions which still interest me. How could a man of such obvious piety be a primary source for 'religionless Christianity'? What to make of this German pastor who preached the Word, and grounded his convictions in a theology was that was radically Christocentric? Admiration but also puzzlement at his decision to return to Germany rather than stay in the safety of the United States - but also sadness mixed with gratitude that he did return, and how that decision, and many others over the next ten or so years, defined for the modern world a form of Christian witness as resistance. My own search for the connection points between Bonhoeffer's theology and writing, and the situation of the Church now - a search which can be much more substantially traced in the continuing flow of published writing on Bonhoeffer and his reception decade by decade since the publishing of his Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer has become a decisive presence in modern theology, and there is a vibrant Bonhoeffer publishing industry, including the completion of the English Translation of Bonhoeffer's Works.
My first reading of Bonhoeffer's Life Together coincided with the reading of two other books which in some ways are at the other side of the theological dining room. Jean Vanier's Community and Growth remains a watershed in Christian understanding of kenotic community based on welcome, servant presence and profound love for the other, expressed in care, accompaniment and recognition that every person is both gifted and disabled; we are both wounded and sources of healing; we are forgiven forgivers. W H Vanstone's Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense was a theological eye-opener. His exposition of Divine Love as precarious, vulnerable and by its nature unable to guarantee the Divine Lover's response, reconfigured my theological assumptions at the time. While wanting to qualify some of Vanstone's conclusions, the connection he made between Divine Love and kenosis has become an essential perspective in my own theology.
So when I read Bonhoeffer's Life Together, I had already encountered two very different expositions of what Cjristian community would look like, and how it might reflect the image and ministry of Jesus Christ, and do so as the Body of Christ. Bonhoeffer's theology, his doctrine of God in Christ and the relations between Christ and Church, was altogether more radical, stern, alert to the transcendent otherness and reality of God, more biblically grounded in text and dogma. But no less pastorally aware of the disciplines and faithfulness that gives Christian love its kenotic character, expressed in humility, service, prayerful openness to the other, and gratitude to God for the gift of each person.
I mention all this because I am awaiting delivery of the volume of Bonhoeffer's Works covering the Finkenwalde period when Life Together was written, and The Cost of Discipleship was gestating in the mind of someone whose witness and actions would grow out of profound personal appropriation of the Sermon on the Mount. I fully recognise the importance of Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison, and especially the late letters to Bethge. But putting Life Together into the overall contrxt of Finkenwalde, National Socialist Germany, and the life of Bonhoeffer himself will be a fascinating process. And perhaps for me will bring me full circle with Bonhoeffer whose luminous presence has been like a winking light on the shore of the Clyde - I know, a stretched metaphor, but one used by someone who loves the Rothesay ferry!