Bonhoeffer’s testing ground was nothing less than the most devastating war that Europe had ever experienced in the midst of the most barbaric evil that the continent had ever experienced. The cost for Bonhoeffer was nothing less than his life in the need to surrender all for the following of God’s will as he understood it into the very bowels of hell if that is where it brought him. It is no small matter that in the process the extremities and the centralities of his theological probing expanded even in his always focused Christ the center vision as embodied within the church and within the world.
What is critical for our purposes is not so much the crisis theology of the 1930s and 1940s, although that remains instructive. What is enduring is the force of Bonhoeffer’s praxeology of pressing the word of God to speak to the concrete historical situation in things great and small in bringing together the “secular” and the “religious” within a common interpretation.
The relevance of Bonhoeffer’s “worldly” Christianity for our current setting may be further discerned by taking note of the four principle areas of application that he emphasized in Ethics: “labor, marriage, government, and the Church.” In all of these realms which continue to have an obvious contemporary ring, Bonhoeffer’s underlying theological principle remains constant. Whatever courses of action or attitudinal formation that may emerge in the many plausible contexts that give shape to vocation in and through these key institutions, the pivotal point is that “each in its own way shall be through Christ, directed toward Christ, and in Christ.” In this, Bonhoeffer dismissed any characterization of the first three mandates as “secular” in contrast to the last one only as being particularly “religious.”
Thus, Bonhoeffer fused what he meant by worldly and what he meant by Christian within a coherent theological vision that has a powerful current mediating potential in deconstructing tendencies toward world/church dualisms between critical mainline and evangelical sensibilities. The critical point is less the specifics of Bonhoeffer’s 1940s review of the theological underpinning of these sectors. The more fundamental matter is the core principle that God becomes self revealing through signs within the concrete settings to which human beings are called within the world and within the church for the purpose of attending to nothing less and nothing more than the small still promoting of Christ’s holy mandate within them.
Bonhoeffer’s core concept in his vocational theology is “deputyship” which we might interpret as stewardship, to give this a more contemporary ring.
In this, Bonhoeffer (1995) emphasized social role identity as the basis for theological construction and rejected any authentic Christian identity based on an ethos of radical individualism. Even those called to a more solitary life are so called for the purpose of servitude to Christ for the betterment in some respect for “mankind as a whole.”
This is in contrast to any merely self-fulfilling purposes, which Bonhoeffer viewed as vacuous in the most fundamental sense. In allegiance to Christ, the deputy works against two temptations; “set[ting] up one’s ego as an absolute” in drawing upon individual consciousness per se as the criteria for setting the pathway for one’s direction, or “set[ting] up the other man as an absolute” in the simple surrender of the self to the will of the other.
Such oscillating tendencies are compelling when the grounding for identity formation is culturally based without remainder. The synthesis, however imperfectly achieved, only comes through the deputyship of Jesus, “the incarnate Son of God” who “was not the individual desiring to achieve a perfection of his own, but…lived only as the one who has taken up into Himself and who bears within Himself the selves of all men.” In this respect, Christ “is the responsible person par excellence” the image through which the very notion of deputyship is to be formed among those who would like to be able to call themselves, if not his disciples, at least his ardent followers.
How one applies this to the specific realms of contemporary life can only be discerned within the complexities and the immediacies of specific events and circumstances. From such inevitable vantage points our task so often is not so much that of “turn[ing] the world upside-down, but to do what is necessary” through the prompting of Christ’s still small voice “at the given place” and time through which the mandate comes, and “with a due consideration of reality” in the discernment of right action. This bears, for example, on a decision at work on how a manager will mentor an insecure, but competent employee or on how parents of a child who has broken with them will respond or at least keep open to the possibility of reconciliation even if the prospect of healing is not likely to be achieved. It also bears on the political process, not only on which candidate and which sets of issues to support, but also in the discernment of the terms of engagement including that of one’s attitude toward one’s political opponent even when the stakes are seemingly large. Such examples, great and small which require a multitude of discerning moments that can only be enacted upon in the immediacy of time and place, can be multiplied a thousand fold and more.
The critical issue remains the same; that of discerning God speaking in the immediacy of the situation, and then acting according to the prompting of the small still voice. Attendance to the immediacy of the situation also requires a close discernment to the voice of the world. This necessitates rejection of any semblance of parody sometimes accompanying an evangelical caricature of liberal theology or secular culture. It also requires close listening for the voice of God first and foremost through a discerning reading of Scripture via the mediation of the Holy Spirit. This, in turn, requires among other things rejection of any caricature of fundamentalist anti-intellectualism or too easy charges of theological obscurantism. In both cases there may be grounds for such criticism, for which admonitions as well as affirmations are clearly called. Yet, in taking a tack from Bonhoeffer, such criticism, if need to be issued should come in a somewhat reluctant vein rather than as first impulse, seeking first, the voice of God speaking through one’s alter Christian identity.
The role of the church then becomes in the final analysis, the place and the body that gives specific articulation to God’s reconciling the world through Christ whether through preaching, teaching, liturgical practice, or theological explication. In short, the church in its foremost vocation is the called institution whereby God’s “word is repeatedly spoken, expounded, interpreted and disseminated until the end of the world” (p. 288). Given the importance of the lived experience of faith in the midst of an inescapably worldly setting, the church on Bonhoeffer’s reading plays an extremely important role. Specifically, it gives voice to the reality that shapes the identity and world view of those called to the various vocations where God places them in both confirming and conforming them to their most fundamental role as living members of the body of Christ.
In sum, Bonhoeffer calls Christians to be in the world but not of it. This is a mandate that as potential, yet never this side of the eschaton fully realized, has much to offer in bringing greater concord to the discordant sectors in American Protestantism that keep the fundamentalist-modernist divide so indelibly intact. It also holds the prospect of lending clarity to a common Protestant identity rooted in the priesthood of the laity through a theology of vocation grounded in the original vision of the Reformation. Bonhoeffer’s stance has the added benefit as serving as a mediating link between the ontological radicalism of Barth’s unequivocal embrace of biblical revelation and the pragmatic Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.