Enlivening Faith – Dietrich Bonhoeffer in New York

I’ve been thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer again these past weeks. There’s something about his life story that continually intrigues me. Maybe it’s the sharpness of his rejection of a vapid cultural Christianity or maybe it’s the incisiveness of his political critique—I’m not entirely sure. Whatever it is, it’s caused me to pick up a book that’s been on my shelf for a while, Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s biography. I’ve read sections of this biography before, the ones most relevant to the book I coauthored on Bonhoeffer’s ethics. There are a few parts, however, that I haven’t read closely. I’ve been enjoying those. One of the things that’s stands out about Bonhoeffer’s faith is the decisive turn it took during his time in New York City.

When Bonhoeffer was a visiting student at Union Seminary in New York he had already written his doctoral dissertation. He didn’t find the theology at Union to be terribly impressive on an intellectual level. That wasn’t what impacted him. Instead, it was the relationships he formed with two young men, Jean Lassere and Frank Fisher. Bonhoeffer travelled around the country with Lassere in a borrowed Oldsmobile (Bonhoeffer had trouble passing his driving test).

Lassere helped him see the impact of taking scripture seriously, especially the Sermon on the Mount. The work Bonhoeffer would later do to advocate for peace stems from this. Fisher introduced Bonhoeffer to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. It was there that Bonhoeffer saw what a Christian community could be. He saw powerful preaching that addressed real problems. He saw how significant faith could be to those with their backs pushed against the wall. These two things came together to help Bonhoeffer see the power of the life of faith and to see the world “from below.”

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