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  • Cited by 2
  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: May 2006

12 - Christianity in a world come of age

from Part two - Major themes in Bonhoeffer's theology


One may ask whether there have ever before in human history been people with so little ground under their feet.

It is not uncommon to find that the best-known writings of an author are the most difficult to examine. Familiarity produces its own 'readings' of a text, an audience already clear what its central content amounts to; and certainly clear about any impact the text may have made on them personally. Unlike some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's earlier texts, the Letters and Papers from Prison have a place in the life of many who, perhaps as a result, come to want to study him further. It is Letters and Papers from Prison that are the home of those evocative phrases, 'a world come of age', 'the religious a priori and 'religionless Christianity', and therefore it is in Letters and Papers from Prison that those who have sought Bonhoeffer's support for their agenda for the interpretation of the Christian faith so as to take account of the changed thought patterns of the contemporary world have found it.

In the midst of these theological explorations there are other phrases of a profoundly evocative quality, such as the reference to God's being 'pushed out of the world on to the Cross',3 that have offered themselves for use in the devotion of many subsequent believers. Here also is an utterly engaging human story, with its insight into the way in which a particular person survived in the uncertain, frightening and potentially demoralising circumstances of imprisonment: we learn of his love for and a little of his taste in music, of the kind of life for which he longed and the way in which he managed the intense loneliness of his situation. At the heart of the letters is a warm human being, a passionate lover of life, with enough capacity to engage his readers (readers he never envisaged), even if they had no particular interest in theology.