A Brief Report on a Theological Colloquy

A Brief Report on a Theological Colloquy

“Wer glaubt, der flieht nicht”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Ermutigung zur Gegenwart

Theological Center, Wuppertal
Gemarker Kirche, Barmen-Wuppertal, Germany
Friday/Saturday, May 19-20, 2006

On the Occasion of the 100th Anniversay of the Year of the Theologian’s Birth in Breslau
by Frederick R. Trost, President (retired)
Wisconsin Conference, United Church of Christ

“Wer glaubt, der flieht nicht”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Ermutigung zur Gegenwart

Theological Center, Wuppertal
Gemarker Kirche, Barmen-Wuppertal, Germany
Friday/Saturday, May 19-20, 2006

On the Occasion of the 100th Anniversay of the Year of the Theologian’s Birth in Breslau
by Frederick R. Trost, President (retired)
Wisconsin Conference, United Church of Christ

“A man suffered shipwreck in, with, and because of his country. He saw his church and its claims collapse in ruins. The theological writings he left consisted of barely accessible fragments. In 1945 only a handful of friends and enemies knew who this young man had been; the names of other Christians in Germany were more in the limelight. When his name did emerge from the anonymity of his death, the response from the world of academic theology and the churches was tentative and restrained. Even today, some Germans hesitate to accept him and what he stood for completely.”

(Eberhard Busch, Preface to the First English Edition, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography,” 1970)

At the kind invitation of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, I was invited to participate in a memorable observance of the life, faith and witness of the now famous Christian theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). The observance was marked by texts, prayers and hymns, beautiful music, thoughtful and challenging reflections, set in the environment of the theological Hochschule (seminary) at Wuppertal and the historic Gemarker Kirche in Barmen-Wuppertal where, in May 1934, synod delegates gathered to affirm the Barmen Declaration, which continues to challenge and inspire faithful Christian theological work and discipleship in many parts of the world to this day.

Several hundred participants gathered at the Gemarker Kirche to open the colloquy on Friday evening, May 19, in what was called “Polyphonie des Lebens” (An Evening of Music to Texts from the Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer). The tribute to Bonhoeffer began with the spiritual, “Nobody knows the trouble I see…” As many of you are aware, this spiritual was sung at the underground seminary of the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde, which Bonhoeffer led beginning June 24, 1935 and which was sealed in September, 1937 by the Gestapo. Bonhoeffer loved this spiritual, hearing in it the truth that in the deepest of depths one is confronted by the Kingdom of God, and at the farthest edge of the cosmos, its outmost ring, one finds oneself actually in the middle. (Josiah Young III). Eberhard Bethge noted that Bonhoeffer took time to collect materials on the struggle for human rights from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People while studying at Union Theological Seminary (New York City) and in Harlem (1930-1931), and that during the academic year he collected recordings of negro spirituals which came to be enjoyed by the seminarians at Finkenwalde.

Following this powerful introduction, the choral “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” by Johann Sebastian Bach was sung and a tenor and base sang from the passion story of Jesus. A portion of a letter Bonhoeffer wrote on March 20, 1940 to Ruth Roberta Stahlberg was then read, including some reflections on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. We then sang Hugo Distler’s “Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort” (Sustain us, Lord, with Your Word) from 1933. This was followed by excepts from a prison letter that Bonhoeffer wrote to his parents on May 15, 1943 in which he confesses his love for the psalms and how Psalms 3, 47 and 70 (among others) endeared him to the music of Heinrich Schutz. This music had become among the greatest enrichments to his life. An additional brief reflection on Schutz from a letter of February 4, 1941 (to Eberhard Bethge) followed. Then, a portion of Schutz’s “Eile mich, Gott, zu erretten, Herr, mir zu helfen!” (based on Psalm 70) was sung.

An Advent letter (November 28, 1943) to Bethge was also read, with the prisoner’s reflections on Advent hymnody and its relationship to the precious environment at Finkenwalde and beyond: “Dunkel muss nicht kommen drein, der Glaub bleibt immer im Schein’…” A beautiful solo voice sang two stanzas of “Veni redemptor gentium” (with a 12th century melody) to a text attributed to Martin Luther (1524) : “Die Krippen glanzt hell und klar, die Nacht gibt ein neu Licht dar…”

Another Advent letter from prison in Berlin (to Bethge, December 19, 1943) was read with reflections on Ephesians 1. We then sang a beautiful hymn of Paul Gerhardt, “Froehlich soll mein Herze springen” (“With great joy, my heart shall leap”) followed by another Advent letter (4 Advent 1943) to Bethge on the same theme and Schutz’s “O suesser, o freundlicher, o guetiger Herr Jesu Christe.” The congregation, choir and soloist then sang in dialogue Paul Gerhardt’s moving “Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier”

(“I stand here at Your Manger”) to the music of J.S. Bach (1736). Another reading from the prison letters was then offered aloud (February 22-23, 1944, to Bethge) with a piece from Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue” and an organ chorale by Johann Baptista Serranus (from 1567.)

Following a brief pause, the music of Richard Wagner (from a recording with Wilhelm Furtwangler from October, 1953) was heard (“Goetterdaemmerung,” Act III) and then a portion of a letter from Gaetano Latmiral to Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Gerhard Leibholtz was read with Bonhoeffer’s reflections on “the tragic fate of the German people” and the relationship of Wagner’s music to this outcome.

As the evening neared its end, another of Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison (March 27 1944) to Eberhard Bethge, was read. He thanked Bethge for helping him appreciate the great Easter joy of chorales he has not been able to actually hear sung since his imprisonment and how, in an enlightening comment, what is present in the “inner ear” (memory) can almost be more beautiful than what can be physically heard; “a greater purity.” In Easter hymnody particularly, Bonhoeffer notes, the sound rings especially true. Thus, for him, “the music of the deaf Beethoven has become more existentially understandable.” Ludwig von Beethoven’s ”Piano Sonata #32 in C-minor” then sounded in a recording with Walter Gieseking, made in April, 1947.)

Claudio Monteverdi’s “O quam pulchra es” (from 1625) was sung alongside Bonhoeffer’s comment that this “earthly love song” can be interpreted “christologically.”

When one loves, Bonhoeffer writes to Eberhard Bethge (May 20, 1944) “one wants to live and comes to hate everything that can threaten life itself.” He goes on to tell of how God and His eternity wills to be loved with all the human heart. This is the “cantus firmus” to which the other “voices of life” resonate as “counterpoint.” But the “cantus firmus” and the “counterpoint” remain intimately connected, “indivisible and yet separate…. as Christ’s divine and human nature are related.” Interestingly, Melchior Franck’s “Du bist aller Dinge schoen, meine Freundin” (1608) followed, and a letter from the second day of Pentecost, 1944 (to Bethge) was read in which Bonhoeffer reflects more on this theme.

The evening closed with Heinrich Schutz’s beautiful “Verleih uns Frieden genadiglich” (“Grant us graciously, dear God, peace in our time”) and Bach’s “Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God.”

This was a powerful, astonishingly beautiful, and deeply moving start to the theological colloquy that followed the next morning.

Praeses Nikolaus Schneider of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, offered a stirring address on Saturday, May 20 on the theme “Whoever believes, does not flee.” He drew attention to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s profound theological commitments and his entry into the resistance movement in opposition to the National Socialist regime, reflecting on how Bonhoeffer’s very being and his theological insights, particularly in relation to ethics and the nature of the Church, presented then (but also now!) significant challenges to the thinking and being of the Church. The contemporary nature of Bonhoeffer’s theology

requires not our admiration but an answer! I thought particularly of words Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke to his Finkenwalde students in August, 1935, with which he called for intercession on behalf of the persecuted Jews in Germany: “The service of the Church has to be given to those who suffer violence and injustice. The Old Testament demands right-dealing of the state, the New Testament no longer does so. Without asking about justice or injustice, the Church takes to itself all the sufferers, all the forsaken of every party and of every status. ‘Open your mouth for the voiceless’ (Proverbs 31:8). Here the decision will really be made whether we are still the Church of the present Christ. The Jewish question.” Throughout the rest of the colloquy these words kept returning in my mind and I thought of the challenges and temptations we face in the United States.

Workshops followed in the afternoon on a variety of themes as follows:

  1. A choir workshop with Roselies Evang-Kords entitled “Shall I not sing unto my God: Bonhoeffer’s Thought and the Hymnody of Paul Gerhardt”
  2. “Whoever believes, does not flee…” a film by the International Bonhoeffer Society, and discussion with the film’s producer/director Hellmut Sito Schlingensiepen
  3. “Theology of Resistance: Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” with Professor Dr. Christian Gremmels
  4. “The Shape of the Church of Tomorrow” with Pfr. Jonas Marquardt and Pfr. Dr. erdinand Schlingensiepen (retired)
  5. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Continuing Challenges to Ecumenicity” with Dr. Gotthard Fuchs and OKR Dr. Juergen Regul (retired)
  6. “Peace in the Struggle for Truth and Justice” by Prof. Dr. Johannes von Lupke and Dr. Volker Stumke
  7. “Church as Community: Spirituality and Life Together” with Pfr. Achim Reinstadtler and Pastor Nicol Kaminsky
  8. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Example?” by Prof. Dr. Joachim Perels
  9. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer” with Prof. Dr. Renate Wind
  10. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ‘The Jewish Question is a Church Question” with Prof. Dr. Siegfried Hermle
  11. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a New Alliance Between Culture and Church” with Prof Emeritus Dr. Jurgen Henkys

It occurred to me how significant it might have been during the course of the 100th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birth (in 2006), were the United Church of Christ to have offered similar workshops, given the current challenge facing Church and State in the USA. I thought of how the UCC has in its rich theological heritage vital links to Dietrich Bonhoeffer through the former Evangelical and Reformed Church which provided the resources that made possible the publication in Germany (in 1949) of Bonhoeffer’s vitally important book entitled “Ethics.” This volume remains to this day crucial, I believe, for any serious effort to understand the purpose of the Church, the nature of the State, or the life of the Christian. Bonhoeffer, of course, did not complete the book. This task fell to his closest friend, Eberhard Bethge, to whom he wrote from Tegel Prison in December, 1943, “Sometimes I think I really have my life more or less behind me now and that all that would remain for me to do would be to finish my ‘Ethics.’”

“Do and dare what is right, not swayed by the whim of the moment,
Bravely take hold of the real, not dallying now with what might be.
Not in the flight of ideas but only in action is freedom.
Make up your mind and come out into the tempest of living.
God’s command is enough and your faith in him to sustain you.
Then at last freedom will welcome your spirit amid great rejoicing.”

(“Stations on the Way to Freedom”) [“Action”]

Were the Church of Jesus Christ in the United States to listen to these words, to ponder and to heed them in times like these!

The closing session of the theological colloquy took place at a public gathering in the rebuilt Gemarker Kirche. The church had been severely damaged during the Second World War. A Jewish synagogue has been built recently alongside the church and is a powerful symbolic statement. The cornerstone for the synagogue was taken from the old building and presented as a gift by the Rhineland Church to the Jewish congregation. A wall connecting the two congregations was constructed and sound-proofed in such a way that each congregation is able to hear the singing of the other. The late Johannes Rau, an important figure in the political life of Germany and in the life of the Church, spoke at the dedication ceremony when the synagogue was completed.

It was here on May 31, 1934 that the “Theological Declaration” of Barmen was affirmed with its six Articles, including the very famous confession in Article 1 that remains so critical to the integrity of the Church of Jesus Christ to this day:

“Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear, and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”

Among the pastors at the Gemarker Kirche had been leading figures in what became the Confessing Church in Germany including Karl Immer, Paul Humburg, and Harmannus Obendiek, Adolf Lauffs and Paul Kuhlmann. Each offered early and spirited resistance to the so-called “German Christian” movement. There were 139 delegates to the Confessing Synod in the Gemarker Kirche in 1934, representing the Lutheran, Reformed and United traditions in Germany. A majority were young. Of this number, 53 were laity.

The city of Barmen-Wuppertal is located a few miles from Dusseldorf, in the Wupper river valley, for centuries a stronghold of the Reformed Church. The “Barmen” scholar, Arthur Cochrane of Dubuque Theological Seminary observed years ago, that here, “a curious combination of strict Calvinist orthodoxy and a fervent evangelical piety” was deeply rooted. The great Reformed hymn writer, Gerhard Teerstegen (1697-1769), had a presence, and the theological heritage of F. A. Krummacher (1767-1845) and his brother, G. D. Krummacher (1774-1835) was a significant force. In this valley also, Hermann Friedrich Kohlbrugge (1803-1875) stood in strong opposition to the rationalism of the nineteenth century. These people were an influence on the theological ideas of some of those who immigrated to the United States from Germany at the time, founding congregations that eventually became the Evangelical Synod of North America. Some of those churches remain today part of the United Church of Christ.

The doors to the nave of the Gemarker Kirche are made of glass and imprinted in the glass are words from the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel (“I am the door…”) and also a portion of the initial thesis of the “Barmen Declaration” of 1934, as well as the final statement from “Barmen”: Verbum Dei manet in aeternum.

After a greeting and welcome by Praeses Schneider, we sang Paul Gerhardt’s “Sollt ich meinem Gott night singen (to a melody of Johann Schop, 1641). Pupils from the Konrad-Heresbach School in Mettmann offered thoughts on the meaning of Dietrich Bonhoeffer today. A prize was given by the Rhineland Church to a young theological student, Sandro Gopfert of Leipzig, for an essay entitled “Church with a Future: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Understanding of the Nature of the Church in the Present Crisis It Faces.”

A contemporary motet by Kay Johannsen (written in 2001) with a text of Bonhoeffer (“Menschen gehen zu Gott in ihrer Not”) was then sung and this was followed by an address (“The Word the Church has to Present to the World”) by the President of the German Evangelical Kirchentag, Dr. Reinhard Hoppner. Appropriately, we sang Gerhard Teerstegen’s “Now the Day has come to an end” and we passed through the doors and went on our various ways, grateful for a momentous and inspiring colloquy in the spirit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Yes,… “Who believes, does not flee!”

“O God, Thy goodness is better than life. Amen.”