Just imagine it. You’re a theology student at the start of your fifth semester, and everything you’ve been taught up to this point has been a complete and utter disappointment – plodding analyses of Biblical texts and dry church history. Nonetheless, you decide to attend a lecture by some new private tutor nobody’s even heard of. You open the door and see only a score of students scattered around the benches in the large lecture hall. The worst of all signs! A lecture hall is like a restaurant. Unless people are standing in line to get in, it’s almost certainly a guarantee of poor quality. What will you do?
Back in 1932, 21-year-old Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann found himself in exactly this situation. Perhaps against his better judgment, he sat down on one of the many vacant benches and bided his time. It was a decision that would change his life.
Immediately, in bounded an athletic man only five years Zimmermann’s senior. The new lecturer arranged his notes and began to speak.
“Today it’s asked time and again, ‘Do we still need the Church?’ ‘Do we still need God?’ ‘Can’t we get along well enough without this help?’” (Zimmermann, 2004, p. 12)
For Zimmermann, the roof flew off the lecture hall. Finally, here was someone who was addressing the issues at the very heart of not only theology, but also the universe! Moreover, he wasn’t talking AT, but WITH that lucky handful of students who happened to find themselves in that sparsely occupied lecture hall that morning. And, once he’d grabbed the attention of his students, the new lecturer wasn’t about to let go.
“These questions have it all wrong. God isn’t up for debate. He’s here, and He’s here to stay. The Church is here, and it stays God’s Church. As a result, it only remains for us to decide whether we’re prepared to accept the fact or not.” (Zimmermann, 2004, p.12)
The effect of the lecture on Zimmermann and his fellow students was immense. “This was a completely new point of view […] All of a sudden, a reality became visible which neither doubt nor denial could shake. Here were facts we could rely on. In that moment, it became clear: there’s a reality beyond that of this world which is valid, wholly independent of the attitude of people toward it.” (Zimmermann, 2004, p. 12)
Perhaps needless to say, the new lecturer was none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself.
Zimmermann, W-D. (2004). Wir nannten ihn Bruder Bonhoeffer (blog author's translation)
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash