Dietrich and Eberhard

I’ve mentioned Charles Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer several times here in recent months—there’s a round-up here—but now my full review has been published and is online at Books & Culture. Here’s my conclusion:

On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested. The charges didn’t initially include his involvement in a plot on Hitler’s life (those details would emerge later); they were, rather, lackluster accusations related to his trip to the UK, his avoidance of military service, and other “minor” offenses to do with incendiary speech and assistance to the non-state sanctioned church. Soon he was transferred from a Gestapo cell to the military prison at Tegel. And it was there, finally, that Bonhoeffer tried to put into words the faith he had come to embrace.

Much of what he wrote was centered around [his closest friend Eberhard] Bethge, whom Marsh’s portrayal foregrounds. Bonhoeffer loved Bethge in a way he never loved anyone else, not even his (much younger) fiancée, Maria. “[T]he human,” he wrote, “is created in such a way that we seek not the many but the one particular.” (Again, Bonhoeffer rejected the monastic preference for companies rather than pairs.) One could speculate that Bonhoeffer was a homosexual, albeit a celibate one, but Marsh wisely avoids any clear-cut verdict on that score. He lingers over the relationship, revealing its depth and intensity in a way no other scholar has attempted. But what emerges most clearly from that close attention is not a homoerotically inclined Bonhoeffer to the exclusion of a “quite normal” one (to use Bethge’s designation for his friend) but a Bonhoeffer whose zeal for intimacy and filial, spiritual closeness complicates and overflows the categories by which we often classify such things. I think here of Rowan Williams’ conclusion that romantic love and the love of same-sex friendship are best understood as “different forms of one passion—the passion for life-giving interconnection.”

Perhaps it was the austerity of the war years that made Bonhoeffer eschew the timidity of expression he might otherwise have disciplined himself to observe in his friendship with Bethge (“[I]n the months here in prison I have had quite a terrible longing,” he exclaimed in one of his letters). Or perhaps the reason for his pursuit of such a friendship was deeper than merely a consciousness of time having grown short. Perhaps it was owing, more fundamentally, to what Bonhoeffer had come to see as the way to embody the faith and spirituality he had long sought. “God, the Eternal,” he wrote to Bethge in 1944, “wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of cantus firmus”—the primary musical voice to which other voices in a polyphonic composition relate in counterpoint. God is found and known and loved in the world, in relationships, in the love between human beings, “in a few people one wants to see and with whom one wishes to be together,” Bonhoeffer said. If true, it was an experience of God he would only know for a few months longer. He was executed in April 1945, just before the Allied forces arrived to liberate the Nazi prisons but not before he had asked Bethge to save his prison letters for possible publication. It was one of the last exchanges Bonhoeffer had with “the man who was his soul mate,” and, thus, it seems to be the most natural, the most intimate, lens through which to view Bonhoeffer’s entire life.

We speak often here at SF about needing to see real-life, in-the-flesh friendships—how they work (or don’t), what makes them tick. For me, even before Marsh’s biography appeared, the friendship of Dietrich and Eberhard was one of those inspiring and instructive models. It was far from peaceful: Dietrich could be possessive, mercurial, demanding. But reading their letters to one another is still, I would say, one of the high points of my life as a reader. Their friendship continues to move me and delight me and provoke me, and I’d commend their writings to anyone here who wants to know more about what friendship can be.

8 thoughts on “Dietrich and Eberhard

  1. Is there a particular book that collects all their letters? I did some searching and other than the Prison Letters collection, it appears that they are scattered throughout Bonhoeffer’s collected works.

  2. Who would have thought that celibate love can be so deep, and yet not give in to the Human desires that are normally wrought by such intensity? Is he up for the process of Canonization? He’d make an excellent Patron of Celibate Gays.

  3. Reblogged this on stolywizard's Blog and commented:
    I’m glad you qualified Bonhoeffer’s homosexuality as a nonphysical relationship. I am very fond of Bon, and as a recovering homosexual Christian, I have mixed feelings about Bon acting on his sexual desires for another man- if he even had them.

  4. I have very mixed feelings about Bonhoeffer being so attached to another man that it was closer than his wife. As a recovering homosexual Christian, I am not sure, I’m even conflicted about, how I feel regarding Bonhoeffer expressing his sexual desires for another man, if he actually had them at all. I know the deleterious effects of homosexual relations on a man’s walk with the Lord. I am devoured by shame and guilt everywhere. The chaste/celibate life has only compounded my struggle and my guilt and shame. I am so effeminate I get teased, unmercifully. I can’t see me ever getting married. I want to serve the Lord. I’m a pity party and I’m sorry. I hold onto Christ’s love, grace and compassion for me and others. The judging of my sexuality I have to turn away from, it’s just too painful. Luv.

    • Stolywizard,

      You are forgiven. You are forgiven.

      All those feelings you mention, the guilt, are the second temptation from the devil. The first was to act upon your homosexual attraction and once you have overcome this with the grace of God the devil still tempts you with guilt. Don’t let him.

      YOU ARE FORGIVEN. In the name of Christ.

      • Thank you so much. God continues to lead me away from the lie. But, you are right. I feel more of the shame and guilt in relating to my Christian friends- this sin, this abomination etc. Before God, I am only guilty and ashamed when I am in physical lust and neediness. It’s like I’m offending all over again. I pray now and daily for God’s power and the assistance of godly friends, like you. Thank you, and have a very blessed day.

      • No. Before God you are just like everyone else: you are in need. In need of His love and forgivinnes. We are all in the same bin with respect to God: in the bin of the needy. All of us, it doesn’t matter what we have done or failed to do, with respect to God we are needy. So let it go. Let go of the shame or guilt. I’m also guilty and ashamed but I accept God’s help and love. I invite you to do the same.

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