My copy of Charles Marsh’s new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer will be dispatched to my house soon, so for now I’m making do by reading John Stackhouse’s fine review of it. Someone on Twitter sent it to me the other day, with this tag: “Bonhoeffer was a celibate gay Christian. Thoughts?” Intrigued, I landed on this paragraph from Stackhouse:
Bonhoeffer’s former student, longtime confidante, and first biographer, [Eberhard] Bethge comes through in this book as a significant character—but chiefly as the object of Bonhoeffer’s increasingly lavish affections, the expressions of which in actions, gifts, and words seem to fascinate Marsh perhaps more than they will every reader. Marsh never once refers to homosexuality and only once or twice refers to sexual desire at all, but he frequently paints Bonhoeffer as the ardent suitor while Bethge wants to remain “just friends.” What Marsh doesn’t ever do is explore directly whether a same-sex friendship without sexual desire can be this intense, even erotic in the sense of deep desire for closeness that can become (excessively) possessive. Bonhoeffer, who grew up without a close friend and whose twin Sabine gets married rather young, seems lonely until he meets Bethge, and then pours himself into that friendship as a river surges through a channel rather too small for it. Marsh defends the chastity of the two men, but one wonders if Marsh might usefully have hinted less and ruminated more. (Remember, it isn’t as if Marsh is overdelicate about such themes. He is quite willing to detail and pronounce upon the sexual sins of both Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, and to do so without the scholarly cover of actual citation of sources.)
I can’t tell what Stackhouse intends with the sentence just before the parenthesis. Is he implying that if Marsh had ruminated a bit more, he might have concluded that a pursuit of friendship as intense as Bonhoeffer’s must have been fueled by sexual desire (thus lending credence to the idea that Bonhoeffer was gay, albeit celibate)? Or is Stackhouse rather suggesting that more interrogation on Marsh’s part would have shown our suspicion of Bonhoeffer’s being gay to be a post-gay-rights-era preoccupation, all too ready to classify people as either “gay” or “straight” and not attuned enough to the complexity, even for “straight” people, of desire in simple friendship? As I say, I can’t tell, but I’d like to continue the conversation.
In any case, as I’m nearing the end of working on my friendship book, I can say that reading Bonhoeffer and Bethge’s correspondence was one of the richest experiences I had in the course of my research. Other than Pavel Florensky’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, I doubt there was a book that taught me more about friendship than Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. What struck me in reading it, perhaps in contrast to Marsh and Stackhouse’s views, was how unwieldy our categories are—either “homosexual” or “just friends”—when it comes to classifying a relationship as profound as Bonhoeffer and Bethge’s was.
Years after their exchange of letters, and after Bonhoeffer’s death, Bethge fielded a question from a member of an audience who had gathered to hear him speak about his old friend. Surely, the questioner said, “it must [have been] a homosexual partnership” that existed between you and Bonhoeffer—after all, what else could Bonhoeffer’s impassioned letters have signaled? Bethge responded by saying, no, he and Bonhoeffer were “quite normal.” But perhaps an even better response would have been to query that idea of “normal.” Better, perhaps, for Bethge to have explored whether friendship and erotic love might be (in the words of Rowan Williams) “different forms of one passion—the passion for life-giving interconnection.” Pursuing this line of thought might not give us a “celibate gay” Bonhoeffer, but it also might not yield a “just-friends-with-no-hint-of-eros” Bonhoeffer.