I’ve been meaning to post my impressions of the Bonhoeffer Congress, but I’ve had more urgent business.
The main thing I’ll say is that the whole experience of participating in an international congress, along with my recent other travels to Europe confirms Bonhoeffer’s insight (below) on the importance of travel to other lands. There is no substitute for face-to-face conversations with people from other countries, especially for conversations about faith. It keeps us from drawing our theological circles too small.
OK–here are a few highlights.
Jürgen Moltmann gave the first plenary address. He was born twenty years after Bonhoeffer but their time as prisoners overlapped. Moltmann was captured as a prisoner of war as a seventeen-year-old conscript into the German army. He spent the remainder of the war in allied prison camps, first in Belgium, eventually in Scotland where he began his theological training.
He mentioned that he was not impressed with his first reading of Bonhoeffer, including Discipleship and Life Together. Moltmann had come from a secular background and found the “churchy” language in Discipleship off-putting. As for “life together”–he had had enough of that in prison camp! But later, as his theological education progressed, he found the insights in Widerstand und Ergebung very stimulating. In particular, he found the concept of a God who suffers with us more helpful than the “apathetic” God of classical theology. (He mentioned Kark Rahner’s disagreement with him here–for Rahner, a God who does not suffer is strong enough to help.)
Moltmann also had some criticisms of the concept of the “world come of age.” First, the “world” in Bonhoeffer’s day was swept along by the Nazi program and did not show any inclination to shake off its self-imposed immaturity and sapere aude (dare to think) independently. Second, the whole modern concept of progress privileges the present and is condescending to the past.
I’ll skip ahead to the last address here. John DeGruchy spoke on reading “with Bonhoeffer and Beyond Bonhoeffer.” He made the interesting observation that Bonhoeffer was probably thinking of the members of his immediate family (his brothers, brothers-in-law) and friends with whom he was associated in the conspiracy against Hitler when he spoke of completely secular, well-adjusted, and ethical people. These were those who represented the “world come of age,” perhaps the anonymous Christians.
The general theme of this Congress was “Between Fundamentalism and Secularism.” Martin Marty reported on the results of “The Fundamentalism Project,” a major investigation to define fundamentalism phenomenologically. Marty made the important distinction between fundamentalists and conservative or traditional believers. Fundamentalists are in fact impatient with conservative traditionalists. Fundamentalists are forward-looking; they want to change the world to fit their vision. Fundamentalists rely on sacred texts, but since “texts do not interpret themselves,” they also rely on charismatic leaders to give authoritative interpretations of the texts.
Several of the Czech speakers confirmed my observations from travel that Europe is not as secular as we in America imagine. Faith finds different expressions in different places; you could say that the verbal and symbolic language of faith has different “idioms.” There is a difference between “Secular I” meaning democracy and freedom from church interference in government and personal life and “Secular II” the rejection of faith.
The Czech Republic, in its long history, has experienced both religious wars and religious tyranny, and godless tyranny as well. The people cherish the current opportunity to enjoy freedom, to make responsible choices for themselves about whether or how to worship; they also appreciate the role of the churches in organizing and coordinating the peaceful resistance that led to the velvet revolution.
The main addresses and many of the papers presented will eventually be published. I will pass on the information when I have it. I will probably write one more summary of my own of some of the highlights. In the meantime, I will get back to posting selections in German.