The simple answer to the question why Bonhoeffer became a pastor and theologian is itself a question. What could be not only more worthwhile than to preach from the pages of Scripture, but also more thought-provoking than the inquiry into the nature of God and religious belief? However, to get some insight into the complexity which surrounded his career choice, it’s enough to look at the reaction of his family to his decision.
His brothers were adamant in their protests: “You’re going the way of least resistance! The church is a bourgeois, boring and feeble institution!” Well, Bonhoeffer wasn’t going to stand for that. Summoning up all the defiance of his fourteen years, he countered, “Then I shall reform this church!” (Bethge, 1994, p. 61)
Bonhoeffer’s mother was deeply religious, yet non-ecclesiastical. She made sure that her children were baptized. However, the family didn’t attend church, even on high holidays. As for his father, who held the chair of neurology and psychology at Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, he must have scratched his scientist’s head upon learning of his youngest son’s occupational intentions. Many years later, in 1934, the elder Bonhoeffer reflected on his attitude at the time in a letter he wrote to Dietrich. “When you decided on theology, I thought to myself that it would almost be a pity for you to devote your life to the quiet, dispassionate existence of a pastor.” (Goedeking, Heimbucher & Schliecher, 1994, p. 90)
It’s unlikely that the rational head of the Bonhoeffer family would have altered his position if it hadn’t been for the Nazis. As he went on to say in the above-mentioned letter, in terms of the dispassionate nature of a pastor’s existence, “I erred grossly. My scientific education ruled out the possibility of such a crisis [as the schism between the pro-Nazi German Christians and Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church] in religious circles.”
This, however, is exactly what lends Bonhoeffer’s decision to become a pastor and theologian its drama. By devoting himself to God, he became duty-bound to carrying out the Will of the Almighty – and doing so not regardless, but precisely because of the dire political circumstances of his day.
Bethge, E. (1994). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, eine Biographie (blog author's translation)
Goedeking, H.,Heimbucher, M. and Schliecher H-W. (1994). DBW 13 – London 1933-1935 (blog author's translation)
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