Dietrich Bonhoeffer & ‘”Hospitality” at the End of Religion’

An article published in 2013, published article available from, draft version available at Bonhoeffer Paper


So much has been written about the theologian from central Europe Dietrich Bonhoeffer as prophet, martyr, priest, that one of the challenges is to find something new and interesting to say about him.  Too much passes the lips of hagiographers again to be in any way valuable in its right, slipping into an overextending of his life and work in what one might well call a hagiographic hubris – even a hagiographic hamartia.  For too much writing he is made banal and sentimental, tamed by the emotivism that surrounds talk of him as something of a heroic white knight who rides in to save the day as a deus ex machina when the darkness is about to fall.

Much of the commentators’ attention has been focused on “religionless Christianity”, a claim made in the always enigmatic and usually allusive late Letters and Papers from Prison.  Such claims tend to give comfort to those who have moved post-institutionally in their Christianity, or who pay attention to Christianity only from the perspective of being spiritually-minded ‘seekers’.  In this regard, Bonhoeffer’s claims might appear timely and provocative, a challenge to churches to move with the spirit of the times.  In many ways I want to deflate this understanding, or at least the ease of this use of his work, one that has largely been the product of the reception of J.A.T. Robinson’s populist Honest to God.  By giving Bonhoeffer back his bite to a Christian environment slipping more and more into trite and sentimental forms of spirituality might mean making him appear somewhat less attractive initially, but such for Bonhoeffer would be the cost of identifying one’s way as a disciple.  The claim is that his theology performs an interrogation of personhood, providing a challenge that is ontologically deep, with the effect of forming an ethic of persons-in-relation – in relation to God in Christ, our Neighbour.  Bonhoeffer’s primary value, then, may well lie not in his consoling words so much as in his dislocating of us from modes of constructing personhood that are namable as idolatrous.  This is to locate Bonhoeffer, even at the end, very much in terms of the costliness of witnessing to the Gospel of the crucified Saviour.  In other words, to use a phrase from Matthew Boulton, the healthy theological consideration of Bonhoeffer can function as part of “a kind of spiritual detoxification process”, weaning us off our delusions of grandeur which effect unjust abuses of others, or off the quietistic forms of endurance of highly contingent suffering and pathological dependencies, and off our habituations to “fear, guilt, [and] selfish ambition”.[1]

My paper hopes to put Bonhoeffer into service, reflectively critical service, in that his work is utilised to fruitfully bear on identifying certain contemporary conditions.  The conditions are those of the dis- and re-enchantment of the world, to use Max Weber’s scheme.  Where Bonhoeffer may best help is in putting to us questions of value, desire and power by reconceiving the human as a christically contoured performance of hospitable sociality.

[1] Matthew Boulton, God Against Religion, x.


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