Sunday, August 7, 2016

If Dietrich married Eberhard today, would that be a problem?

This weekend I read Diane Reynolds' The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Women, Sexuality and Nazi Germany (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2016.

I think the only other biography of Bonhoeffer I have read is that by his close companion Eberhard Bethge. I am aware of recent biographies by Metaxas and Marsh. The latter, apparently, not only delves but lingers on Bonhoeffer's sexuality, with some interesting responses such as here and here.

In one way Reynolds' book belies its title. It is a book about the "doubled life" of Bonhoeffer (what we knew, what we didn't know about him; what people experienced of him, what he really felt like within himself; how he led a doubled life as a double agent for the Abwehr). It does tell his biography with special attention to the women in his life (more or less absent from Bethge's biography), with special interest in his relationship with Bethge and, of course, with engagement of the haunting, terrifying spectre of Nazi Germany as the context of Bonhoeffer's significant contribution to theology and to church history. But really, it is a book about Bonhoeffer and Bethge, their relationship and the impact it had on every facet of Bonhoeffer's life after they met and became life companions. It could be re-titled The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: the Unrequited Bromance of Dietrich and Eberhard and more or less be pretty much accurate as to what the focus of the book is.

I knew that Bonhoeffer had a fiance, Maria von Wedemeyer, and that they did not get to marry because he was executed within a few weeks' of the war ending. What I did not know before reading Reynolds' book was that
(a) Bonhoeffer's relationship with Bethge was a friendship of such closeness and unity that they shared a bank account, jointly gave presents to people and went on joint holidays;
(b) Bonhoeffer's engagement to a woman many years younger than himself copy-catted Bethge's engagement to a woman many years younger than himself (actually Bonhoeffer's niece, Renate);
(c) Bonhoeffer's relationship with Maria was foundering in the months before he was executed, not least because he was not emotionally engaged with her as she was with him; and
(d) notwithstanding Dietrich's engagement to Maria, Bethge remained the chief beneficiary of Bonhoeffer's will.

Yet it appears that, close as the two men were, Bethge may not have had an equal love in return for Bonhoeffer's love for him, so it may be a moot point to ask the following hypothetical question: in today's world, in today's Protestant church scene, if Dietrich had married Eberhard, would that be a problem for a Christian public besotted with Bonhoeffer's theology, discipleship and martyrdom?

To take up a point I have tried to note here, to consider this matter at a different level than "marriage," for a 21st century couple such as Bonhoeffer and Bethge, could we recognise such a partnership in life and in ministry in some formal way as a church?


Father Ron Smith said...

Thank you, Peter, for this most interestung thread, on the subject of that Evangelical Preacher and Teacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

How often, I wonder, has 'the cost of discipleship' (to quote his famous book title) been the complete supression of one's sexual identity? His revealed fastidious life-style, and his affective relationship with his male friend, bespeak volumes to those of us who are not strangers to the phenomenon of homosexuality. These are often aspects of a life that 'speak louder than words' to the observant - sometimes belying the important other aspects of one's life that demand respectful attention.

How many other great Evangelical Christians, I wonder, have gained the absolute respect and admiration of their conservative admirers who, if they only knew the 'truth' about their idol's inner sexual nature, would have damned them to Hell?

Jesus knew the deep love of another male person; as indeed did King David in the Old Testament. Perhaps they, of all our Christian heroes in the Faith, might shed some much-needed light on the phenomenon of Same Sex Relationships - about which many of today's commentators seem to have little or no understanding. Same-sex relationships are not ALL about what happens in the bedroom.

Brendan McNeill said...


Yesterday the sermon was entitled ‘Why I am still a Christian’. In his homily Mark explained that one reason was his own personal brokenness as a human being provided a reminder of his need for Christ; for a Saviour. This experience is common to all of us, surely.

It should not be surprising therefore that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was equally human, that he may have struggled with issues of same sex attraction, had difficulty knowing how best to acknowledge what he felt while still remaining faithful to Christ and his calling.

His experience does not constitute the basis for the blessing of same sex relationships any more than a Christian struggling with promiscuity should become the poster boy for adultery.

Both forms of sexual relationship are explicitly condemned by Scripture.

Surely this is simply one man struggling with the ‘stuff of life’ that we all have to do, each surrounded by our own weakness, lusts and desires. We have no mandate to baptize any of them or consider ourselves ‘victims’ for the experience. Instead we are called to be overcomers by the grace of God and in the power of his Holy Spirit. To be transformed by the renewing of our mind, to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. (Romans 12:1-2)

Please – enough already.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Brendan
I very carefully used the word "recognised" rather than "blessing" in this instance; and I very carefully described the relationship between Bonhoeffer and Bethge in terms of companionship and life partnership, terms which I think are accurate in describing their relationship which (e.g.) Reynolds does not argue was a sexual one.

My question remains, in our church today, could we recognise such a relationship?

Brendan McNeill said...


You said: “In our church today, could we recognize such a relationship?”

Sure, it’s called friendship.

Absent sexual intimacy, what else could it be? Have we reached the stage in the Anglican Church that we now feel obliged to invent ‘ceremonies of recognition’ for male friendship?

We all understand that there are different levels of friendship and affection, and I’m conscious of your desire to acknowledge companionship as a sound basis for two men (or women) sharing their lives together. I’m not arguing against that. I do think however that given our highly sexualized culture it does represent a potential problem around appearances, and we are instructed to avoid all appearance of evil.

In the above example an official Church recognition of the relationship would do nothing but stimulate speculation around the relationships legitimacy, else why bother with the ceremony?

Pastorally, I’m not convinced it is helpful to encourage people to live in situations where they may be tempted to sin. Is it permissible, definitely, is it helpful, probably not.

Anonymous said...

I think it is a sad reflection on the current state of affairs that men cannot have close, life long friendships without them being labled as homosexual.

"could we recognise such a relationship?"

We already do Peter. We call it being mates.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Brendan and Shawn
You make some good points, including the importance of supporting friendship and the lament of our society today being over-sexualised.

I have been great mates with some really good blokes ... but never shared a bank account with any of them. Perhaps they haven't trusted me :)

Glen Young said...

Wow Peter,where did you find this one??? Does she also write for TEC,it sounds like something straight off their song sheet.Can't wait for you to go to the next level with postings of Dan Brown's books.He probably has far more credibility!
Dietrich lived in a time and place that few or any of us would gladly share.It is easy now,seventy years later,to get our exercise by jumping to conclusions;and besmirching a man who died for his faith and in the fight against evil.How many of us would have done the same???
So I hope this is not part of your "Way Forward";It seems more like the "Way to Oblivion".
Regards Glen.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Glen
I suggest reading the book for yourself before making a judgment along the lines you have made. It is a cracking good read and is not some "liberal" propaganda sheet.
Far from besmirching the man, I think that he, an honest, probing, facing-the-truth theologian would relish the challenge of working out what it means to be a human being in the 21st century.
Part of the point of the book is to bring out the relentless questing for truth which was Dietrich's special courage as a theologian.
And he showed plenty of general courage in facing up to his responsibilities as a conspirator against Hitler.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
No, I am not going to publish your last submitted comment.
You must comment on issues not on commenters.

Glen Young said...

Hi Peter,
We have a copy of Eric Metaxes' extremely enlightening book on our shelves along with a selection of Dietrich's writings.As the father of two sons,who both admire Dietrich for the courage he displayed in taking the stand which he took,and in continuing the valuable ministry and writing he did;I feel that no useful purpose would be served by bringing books into our home which are not based on fact but rather assumptions;questioning someone's private thoughts.There is an old adage which says:"even if something is true,is any purpose served by saying it".The man is not here to defend himself and perhaps if he and others had not displayed the courage they did;we might not have the freedoms we have.Do unto others, as you would have them do unto to you.
The two boys have just had terrific time in Germany discovering the history of Luther and the Church.One has returned to Canada and the other to London to carry on preparing Cricket pitches.
Returning to Dietrich;I am sure that his manner of living, was not outside the Commandments of Christ and that he would not be impressed with being held up as the banner boy to bring about changing Church Doctrine to allow the recognition or blessings of same-sex unions.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Glen
Reynolds book is a careful work of scholarship, constantly citing letters and diary entries, careful to note when such sources run out (e.g. because of missing letters, entries torn from diaries), and it also actually makes no particularly outlandish claims re Bonhoeffer's "inner" self. The facts are that he had an extremely close relationship with Bethge, shared a bank account, etc as per my post above.

I agree with you that as far as any biographer can tell, his manner of life was "not outside the Commandments of Christ." I am not sure that I agree with you that he would not be impressed to be held up as a banner boy etc: one of Bonhoeffer's contributions to theology was to push the boundaries of accepted thought. He might be intrigued by current debates and almost certainly he would be contributing to them were he alive today.

GLEN yOUNG said...

Hi Peter,
We greatly enjoyed Eric Matexes in depth look at Dietrich's life.Can thoroughly recommend it.Sincere apologies if I read more into your comments about Reynold's book but I get a little tired of everything having to have a sexual connotation.I have always accepted that his friendship with Bethge was deep but platonic.The circumstances in which he lived and so courageously helped Jews to escape from the ghettos and even act as a double agent is beyond my imagination.
I find it interesting that you say his contribution to theology was to push the boundaries of accepted thought.My understanding has always been, that he was trying to show us where those boundaries truly lay but at the same time acknowledging that they must be confined within Christ's teachings.This I find far different from many of those who are pushing the boundaries of accepted thoughts in relation to the legitimate Doctrine of the ACANZP.
In the finality,my ultimate concern is not whether someone is "gay" or not.It is with those who are trying to change our Legitimate Doctrine in a manner that is highly irregular; those who are proclaiming a liberal Progressive Christianity which diminishes the Authority of Scripture,the Arianist who preach a reduced Divinity of Christ and the neo-Darwinists who give the Creation and Man a different origin than the Scriptures.

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Glen
One of the things I am specifically attending to in my drafting up of a final version of my submission to the Archbishops is preserving our "Legitimate Doctrine."

Rosemary Behan said...

Peter I think he DID contribute to them, and the review of Bonhoeffer's book is still on your page. Let me quote .. “When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.” Bonhoeffer cuts through our idealism when it comes to community life. It isn’t all hugs and holy kisses but rather a messy, difficult, and yes beautiful thing to do life together. In a world where community has become a buzzword this is a classic and refreshing book on what it means to live with others in genuine Christian community.

(First published in 1939 in German and uses gender exclusive language.)


Bonhoeffer affirms the wonder of Christian community saying “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” The reason that this is so is because Christian community is grounded in relationship with Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer argues that Christian community is not an ideal but rather divine reality. It is not a human reality, but rather a spiritual reality. Bonhoeffer can therefore say: “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”

All Christian community is formed through and in Jesus Christ. “We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ”

This leads Bonhoeffer to be critical of any human dreams of community that get in the way. “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Rosemary for that observation!

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter; it's presumptuous to suggest that Bonhoeffer would be contributing to this first world middle-class tea drinking debate. There are far more important matters like murder of Christians in the middle east that would be occupying his time. I have resolved not to contribute to this time waste any more, except to call it what it is.


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Nick
I take your point and all such criticism needs to be made re us Anglicans these days, but I do think the signs in Reynold's book are that if he and his friends were time-shifted from the 1930s to the 2010s then Bonhoeffer would be anguishing about Trump, Assad and Putin while also wondering about where to go on his next holiday with Eberhard.

On the ongoing discussion of these matters: I simply say as a member of ACANZP that we are heading to a crunch point that I don't think any other NZ church is heading towards on these matters. So while it is time wasting relative to (say) the siege of Aleppo, the context is our own fraught South Pacific Anglican possibility of schism ... which I would like to avoid, if possible.

PS I hope you will comment on other matters ... a post on confirmation is in the pipeline!

Andrei said...

Peter Nick's comment is right on the money - and in your response you once again are guilty of projection reflecting the values of the spin masters in Washington DC and the Globalist elites

Where do you stand?

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

I look forward to the confirmation post. I accept that you currently have some unique concerns in ACANZP and I do not want to minimise that. Having said that, the topic which must not be named gets far too much oxygen to the detriment of far more pressing issues. Not that I am suggesting that you are an offender.


Andrei said...


I'm not sure of the wisdom of my previous comment or that you will even grasp its full meaning

But as parents we struggle(d) to raise our children in the values of the Christian Faith in the face of the inane babble of the world

TV is a shocker representing the values of materialism and sexual hedonism

And the Anglican Church has often not helped our endeavors but actually sabotaged them with things like blasphemous billboards

This speculation over the "sexuality" of a man who died more than seventy years ago and projecting your views current political issues on him is not only a waste of time but actually unhelpful in spreading the Gospel in a world increasingly hostile to it

Father Ron said...

Dear Peter, I wonder if it has entirely escaped some of your commenters here, that the fear and hatred evidenced by Hitler's regime was two-fold - against both homosexuals and Jews. Coukld it not be possible that, because of his own inner sexual identity, Dietrich could have been doubly motivated to fight against Hitler's crippling progroms? In the typical circumnstances of his day and age, no Evangelical Churchman - especially of so distinguished a theological reputation as that of Bonhoeffer - would have thought it expedient or necessary to spell out his own situtation vis a vis his private life. It would have seved little purpose at that point in history.

Andrei said...

Dear Fr Ron, I wonder if it has entirely escaped your attention, that the last major conflagration that engulfed the world involved a lot more than the Fascists antipathy toward Jews and Homosexuals.

I don't suppose you have ever heard of Jasenovac, a leading figure there being a Franciscan Friar known colloquially as Friar Satan or the Devil of Jasenovac because of his brutality - Miroslav Filipović

And what was Jasenovac's purpose? The mass murder of Orthodox Christian Serbs, a genocide and nothing to do with the current obsession with Homosexuality or Fascist Homophobia

Oh and by the way there were 30,000,000 or so dead Russians along the way as well

Next time Peter feels inspired to review a "Russian"" film he might be drawn to one with dialogue in Russian, or perhaps Belarusian if you want strict accuracy rather than in a broken English bad representation of a Russian accent called Иди и смотри (Idi i smotri) which comes from the Book of Revelations - "Come and See"

A very famous film and almost unbearable to watch.

Of course some people are now living those horrors as we speak and the conflagration is spreading

Peter Carrell said...

Dear Commenters
Thank you for your comments.
I don't think I have made my point in this post very well at all - it was meant to be much more about what the church today, but ACANZP in particular makes of a couple such as Dietrich and Eberhard.
But in my lack of clarity I have been guilty of things for which criticism has arisen, including the sense that I am trying to make more of the actuality of their situation than is warranted.
As for other matters of more importance: yes, there are, but some of them sure are confusing, including just what amount of righteousness/rightness attends Putin and his actions, here, there, Syria, Ukraine, DNC hacking etc, as per news reports these past few days ...

Andrei said...

it was meant to be much more about what the church today, but ACANZP in particular makes of a couple such as Dietrich and Eberhard.

You use the word "church" here with a lower case "c" rather than the upper case "C" - review Ephesians 4:1-16

We don't need to concern ourselves over this particular relationship - that is a matter for God

But my point when entering this discussion was how in your discussion of these matters have reflected current secular English speaking culture - the assumptions and values of Khandallah and Epsom drawing rooms as shaped and controlled by the BBC and CNN and in fact it is these values that make the topic of this relationship interesting (to some) in the first place

Your motivation in running this blog is how to restore the Anglican Church in New Zealand as an authoritative voice of the Church in this local context, not because you want bums of the seats (I hope) but because you want the Gospel to be heard and the Church to grow

There is an immense spiritual vacuum in this age and negative things rush in to fill it.

And if the Anglican Church cannot fill the hole that most people feel that is in their lives then it will die - (that hole is our seperatopm from God)

You did a post on "Evensong" a while back which lead to richness and theological worthiness of the Hymns that can be a part of that tradition as I recall - I suspect that in that type of discussion your way forward lies rather than speculations on the sexuality of long dead theologians or for that matter in finding a way to reconcile the modernist revision of the institution of marriage to that which the Church has held to for the past 2000 years and wont change

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Andrei
I remain open to thoughts such as yours as I work - more slowly than I thought I would - towards a final post on AWF. Let's see what comes out!

Father Ron said...

Dear Andrei, I think you do our Host, Peter, a grave disservice when your comments - often with severe criticism - enter into areas totally unrelated to the posts he presents for intelligent conversation here on his blog. Most people ARE aware of the religious congflagrations that have taken place around the world, but I, for instance, was speaking of one which comes most readily to the minds of people whose very lives are caught up with the issue concerning the essential nature and character of one of the modern world's most famous apologists (and Martyrs) for ther Christian Faith. Each subject matter provides enough scope for objective criticism, without muddying the waters just to make a point.

All Christians are, or ought to be, theologians-in-the-making - especially on matters concerning the common human condition (as created in the Divine Image and Likeness), and this is what Peter, so brilliantly, from his own unique personal background, contrives (and, to my mind, so well) to do and to spur into dialogue. He should not be pilloried for providing a generous platform for a diverse and interesting conversation - from more than one (insular) viewpoint.


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Ron but Andrei's comments here on this thread are picking up conversations on other threads on this blog, when I have travelled into geo-political territory! You are both welcome as commenters. And I don't feel pilloried :)

Ellen said...

I've written a review which may be found here:

Here’s some thoughts: first of all this is a What If, question, a counterfactual. If we see that in the first half of the 20th century these two men to me so obviously in love (especially Bonhoeffer) and spending lots of intimate time alone together, were closet lovers -- Diane’s biography suggests a couple of other men earlier, it’s a different world today. There would be no such elite class supporting Hitler (bulwark against communism), no pressure from a culture not unlike what we find in Tolstoy, no Ruth to coerced arranged marriages to keep up rank and money. Maria so reluctant would have had so many other options. Counterfactuals cannot begin to take in the complexity of differences from the past.

You can’t put case, Bethge and Bonhoeffer would go for a same-sex partnership or marriage: it would depend where in Germany they lived, what church they belonged to. Further, realistically, imagine it for real: when people marry, or set up a partnership far more than sex and/or love goes into it. People have ambitions; someone today who is homosexual in the US where same-sex marriage is legal, may well find himself in a hostile environment. There are local churches where the pastor/priest will say anyone in the church who recognizes such a marriage or gives such people jobs or rents them a place to live is not one of us. The reason Hobby Lobby in the US is being used so strongly is groups of people in the US want to make this legal behavior.

Diane's book shows what an ambitious man Bethge was. Who he married shows us love played just one part. He's a character from LeCarre as I've said. Bonhoeffer was the vulnerable enthralled one who couldn’t bear to be parted, but today he would not have to worry about being parted.

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Ellen for those thoughts.
The post you linked to is very interesting!