I am not a scholar of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have not read a book-length biography of the man. And my exposure to his writing is limited to Letters and Papers from Prison, the unabridged version (800 pages)!
With those prefatory remarks out of the way, let me say that I am intrigued by how two reviewers of a recent biography have responded to a claim about Bonhoeffer’s homosexual disposition. Charles Marsh, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, has authored, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My goal here is not to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of Mr. Marsh’s claim, but to ask why we are making much ado about Bonhoeffer’s alleged sexuality, which may be some-thing or no-thing at all.
In Christianity Today, Timothy Larsen, a professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College, reflects on the quirky humanity of Bonhoeffer:
Marsh makes a convincing case that Bonhoeffer harbored feelings for [Eberhard] Bethge that extended beyond friendship. Those feelings were unrequited, and Bonhoeffer probably did not consciously acknowledge them. Still, Marsh notes, he was possessive and smothering in his attention. He created a joint bank account and sent Christmas cards signed, “Dietrich and Eberhard.”
This turns into a major, recurring theme in Strange Glory. It fascinated me at first, but I grew tired of Marsh directing the camera angle of every scene so as to rather heavy-handedly keep it in view. Particularly regrettable is his decision to describe this relationship using words from Emily Dickinson—”The heart wants what the heart wants”—given the association between the quotation and Woody Allen’s use of it to justify unsavory behavior.
Bonhoeffer, by contrast, was so sexually innocent that I would not assume Athanasius himself surpassed him in this regard. Any such possible desires for Bethge appear sublimated and regulated. Even Bonhoeffer’s physical relationship with his fiancée, Maria—whom Marsh says Bonhoeffer was “smitten” by—comprised only a solitary occasion when, as a prisoner, he kissed her on the cheek in the presence of the public prosecutor. In a late prison letter, Bonhoeffer observed that he had lived a full life even though he would die a virgin.
In The Wall Street Journal, Christian Wiman, a poet at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, writes about the complexity of human desire:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was gay.
Well, no, that’s not what Mr. Marsh says, not outright. What he says is that for a number of years Bonhoeffer and Bethge, who had been teacher and student, lived very much like a couple: sharing a bank account, giving gifts under both of their names, traveling together, sleeping by warm fires, and rapturously reading books and playing the piano madly at all hours. Their intimacy was that of lovers, not friends.
There is no question of consummation, nor even the suggestion that Bonhoeffer ever actively sought it. “Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge had always strained toward the achievement of a romantic love,” writes Mr. Marsh, “one ever chaste but complete in its complex aspirations.”
But what about Bonhoeffer’s engagement, at the age of 36, to Maria von Wedemeyer, who was 20 years his junior and the first “girlfriend” he’d ever had? Mr. Marsh stresses not only that last fact but also the severe formality between them and their intellectual incompatibility (he had been her teacher—and flunked her!). Bonhoeffer made his proposal just two weeks after Bethge made his own (to Bonhoeffer’s 17-year-old niece) and, according to Mr. Marsh, “took it as a test of his own mettle—his capacity for entering into and sustaining a romance with a woman and thus keeping pace, as it were, with the man who was his soul mate.”
On one level, it’s hard for me to care about any of this. It is possible for a man to fall in love with another man and not be gay. It is possible for a woman to fall in love with another woman and not be a lesbian. Or perhaps in both instances the lovers do warrant the words but in some more elastic and empathetic versions than contemporary American culture—or at least conservative religious culture—seems inclined to allow. Human desire is a complex phenomenon. Just think how much more complex is the human desire for God, or God’s desire for what human love ought to look like.
Still, there’s another way of looking at this. Theology is not a discipline like science, sociology or even philosophy. You can’t draw some stark line between the life and work of the theologian, because in a very real sense the life is an active test of the work. When Martin Luther wrote, late in his life, that the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and . . . must be accounted as filth,” and then went on to suggest that the only Christian thing to do to Jews might be to kill them, the comments not only anticipated and almost ordained the rise of Nazism but also seeped like sewage back through the rest of Luther’s truly beautiful work, which can now never have quite the same smell.
And Bonhoeffer? He “became a theologian because he was lonely,” wrote Bethge, who would have known best. That loneliness is woven into the early, Wordsworthian experiences with nature that Bonhoeffer claimed—in a letter from a Gestapo prison—”made me who I am.” It is evident in the conflicted way in which he approached divinity: the awful longing for an absent God, the hunger for the hot touch of an absolute Christ. And one sees it most acutely in the way he pursued an always deeper intimacy with Bethge, who clearly determined the limits of their relationship, finally declaring in a letter that he simply could not give Bonhoeffer the kind of companionship he wanted.
There will be blood among American evangelicals over Mr. Marsh’s claim. For some, it will be more damning to Bonhoeffer’s memory than any anti-Semitic aside that Martin Luther made half a millennium ago. I suspect that’s precisely why Mr. Marsh has written his book with such subtlety and circumspection: He didn’t want this story to be the story. He may be in for quite a shock.
As for myself, I feel both grateful for and pained by the revelation. Mr. Marsh’s evidence does seem compelling—though I think he may underestimate the feelings Bonhoeffer developed for his fiancée. I am grateful because the research casts a different, more introspective light on some of Bonhoeffer’s ideas and inclinations (his extreme need for a community that was bound together both physically and spiritually, for example). I am pained for the same reason: The discovery reveals the rift of emptiness, of unanswered longing, that ran right through Bonhoeffer and every word he wrote.
Mr. Wiman, no doubt, is right when he predicts “there will be blood among American evangelicals over Mr. Marsh’s claim.” If Bonhoeffer was gay or, more maddeningly to those who like binary opposites, bisexual, some evangelicals will plug their ears with beeswax because his theology is tainted with disordered desires. “Religionless Christianity,” they may (wrongly) aver, is an outgrowth of ambiguous and confused sexuality.
Such a response would be unfortunate and, frankly, stupid. As Mr. Wiman notes, we go on listening to Luther even though his anti-Judaism is inexcusable compared to the chaste longings of one man for another. Let me also wager this prediction: there will be cheers among American mainline Protestants over Mr. Marsh’s claim; they now have a saint in their own heterodox image. Of course the problem with such horn-tooting is that there is really nothing “heterodox” about Bonhoeffer. He subordinated eros to agape, which defines the orthodox approach to sexuality. Alternatively, we could say he ascended the scala amoris with a companion who deeply shared his vision of God. Either way, we are dealing with the highest form of friendship, one that should elicit our admiration rather than censure.
The affections of Bonhoeffer, whether for a man or woman or both, matter only for two reasons.
First, they reveal his humanity in all its messy glory. We are creatures marked by desires in conflict, and for this reason we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). Bonhoeffer, the man without a halo, becomes a relatable saint, much like the apostle Paul who says at the height of his spiritual maturity: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15).
Second, the affections of Bonhoeffer reveal the cultural fabric behind his theology. To live in late modernity is to experience what Mr. Wiman eloquently describes as “the awful longing for an absent God, the hunger for the hot touch of an absolute Christ.” We are all lonely, desperate for life together.
Did Bonhoeffer ache for a romantic friendship with Eberhard Bethge or for the romance of a friendship that unites body and spirit, emotion and intellect? This is a distinction with a difference, and it is lost upon us because we are no longer in touch with “the tradition of late-antique and early-medieval Johannine Christianity, in which intimacy and understanding go hand in hand,” according to Samuel Kimbriel’s new book, Friendship as Sacred Knowing: Overcoming Isolation.
Bonhoeffer, it seems, was trying to overcome the habits of isolation that beset modern people. His intimate friendship with Bethge should be lauded because it reminds us “there is no knowing the good without friendship, and no knowing without friendship. To see the good is to become intimate friends with others,” as Catherine Pickstock says in her endorsement for the aforementioned book. A characteristic mistake of modernity is to assume that friends have taken the wrong turn when they look at each other, face to face, rather than ahead. Thanks to Dr. Freud, we have sexualized eros, as if every longing must be consummated in genital sex. Bonhoeffer and Bethge may show us a more excellent way, where the sexual element—if present—is transformed and transcended by a preoccupation with the mystery of God.