Thursday, August 22, 2019

Jens Zimmermann's "Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christian Humanism"

Jens Zimmermann was born and raised in Germany. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of British Columbia, Canada, and a PhD in Philosophy from the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. He formerly occupied the position of Canada Research Chair in Interpretation, Religion and Culture, and is Professor of English at Trinity Western University (TWU) in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. His publications include Humanism and Religion: A Call for the Renewal of Western Culture (2012).

Zimmermann applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christian Humanism, and reported the following:
I tried the page 99 test and found it to work at least in part. After all, Ford Madox Ford claimed that this page would reveal the “quality of the whole,” and not the content of the whole work. Here is why the test kind of worked: My book Bonhoeffer’s Christian Humanism offers a new reading of this famous, important German theologian by placing his theology within the context of the greater Christian tradition. This tradition reaches back to the very beginnings of Christian theologizing in the patristic period, that is, to the time of the early theologians from the second to the sixth century, who understood the Christian gospel in a sense quite different from what we often hear in contemporary churches. For them the “Good News” was not so much a personal message of salvation to allow escape from God’s wrath or hell, nor predominantly a social gospel for turning earth into heaven. Rather, they preached that God became a human being in the person of Jesus in order to restore humanity to the kind of existence God originally intended for it.

Following other theologians who have studied these church fathers, I call this interpretation of the New Testament message “Christian humanism,” because the gospel is all about the “new humanity,” about becoming a genuine human being. On this interpretation of the good news, Jesus is not so much a moral teacher as the actual recapitulation of the human race and exemplar of what human existence should be like: to live a life of freedom in peaceful communion with and responsibility for others. In short, the goal of the Christian life was also the goal for all humanity. This goal entailed that human beings should become like Jesus in their love for God, and therefore for the world itself, and for other human beings. The patristic gospel of Christian humanism was expressed in the language of “the image of God” according to which humanity had been first created. For the early Christian tradition, this image or icon was the eternal word of God who became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. The whole of the Christian life, then, was to become shaped into this image. Early theologians called this process of becoming shaped into Christ-likeness deification or becoming like God.

What does all this have to do with the page 99 Test? Well, it is a central claim of my book that Bonhoeffer stood within this tradition, and page 99 takes the reader to the beginning of this central argument within a chapter of the book that shows the strong agreement between Bonhoeffer’s own interpretation of the gospel with the humanist reading of the church fathers. The most difficult part of this argument is that the notion of deification or becoming like God has been widely misunderstood (especially within Protestant traditions) to express the kind of sentiments we find in New Age philosophies, namely that human beings become actual gods, that they become divine by nature. Yet, as I show, early theologians never understood deification in this way. Indeed, they couldn’t because their view of reality, derived from Judaism, was based on a radical difference or huge gap between the being of God and every other creature or created thing.

Once this misunderstanding is out of the way, the way is clear for placing Bonhoeffer’s writings within the context of this earlier reading of the gospel as humanism. My desire for doing so in this book was by no means arbitrary but was motivated by the astonishing parallels between Bonhoeffer’s statements about the incarnation (God’s becoming human) and its importance for the Christian life. For example, his famous book Discipleship (in German, “Nachfolge”, i.e. following after Christ), is all about the new humanity as becoming transformed into the image of Christ. As I go on to show in the other chapters of the book, Bonhoeffer’s entire theology with its deeply interpretive character (Bonhoeffer put a premium on discerning God’s will with reference to reality rather than simply finding it dictated in the Bible or a sermon), his holistic view of reality, his support of all cultural traditions that had humanizing character, and indeed his political resistance against the inhumanity of Nazi politics—all these aspects of his thought and life are connect to and driven by the idea that God became a human being so that human beings be transformed into the humanity of God as accomplished in Christ.

There is much more going on in this book (for example, the reader will find a close examination of Bonhoeffer’s use of the Bible, of how he related faith and reason, or how he envisioned the relation of the church to society and the state, and also of what his enigmatic notion of religionless Christianity was all about), but page 99 of Bonhoeffer’s Christian Humanism indeed takes the reader to what one may consider the heart of this important Christian thinker.
Learn more about Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christian Humanism at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue