McKnight on Bonhoeffer

McKnight on Bonhoeffer

Over at Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight yesterday offered a thoughtful and provocative review of the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh.   Scot has kindly given me permission to post an extended extract here.  All I would say in advance is that it seems that Bonhoeffer's close male friendships seem to have left him susceptible to the same kind of interpretation which certain gay activists have imposed upon that between John Henry Newman and his friend, Ambrose St. John.   We live at a time when the complexity of concept of friendship is under huge pressure, from the attenuation of its richness through the cheapening of the term 'friend' by things like Facebook to the need of some to read everything through the simplifying lens of the politics of sexuality, just like stand-up comedians who need to find double entendres and innuendo in everything.  Bonhoeffer (like Newman before him) would seem to be an interesting candidate for the kind of subtle reflection for which Scot is calling.

Anyway, here are Scot's reflections on the inference of homosexuality in Bonhoeffer's life:

I must mention one feature of this book because if I don't it will emerge in the comments and this short explanation allows me a bit of more accurate expression. Marsh's biography is undoubtedly the best biography to read (though nothing can replace Bethge's fullness) but it will be remembered as the biography that suggested Bonhoeffer was gay or was romantically attracted to Eberhard Bethge. There is no explicit evidence; the relationship remained chaste; Bethge was engaged and then married and Bonhoeffer himself was engaged; there is Hitler's extermination system that included homosexuals. There are suggestions according to Marsh: they shared a bank account, they shared Christmas presents, they spent constant time together, Bonhoeffer's (not Bethge's) endearing language in letters, Bonhoeffer's getting engaged not long after Bethge got engaged, and Bonhoeffer's obsessiveness with Bethge. OK, but it's all suggestion, and this is complicated by Bonhoeffer's obsession with clothing and appearance. [For a Marsh interview, see this.] Maybe he was and maybe he wasn't, but  it seems their relationship could at least be explored in another context: male friendships among German intellectuals of this era, which maybe needs the reminder that friendships have been between same sexes for most of Western history. I quote here from Wesley Hill's exceptional post on this topic about DB:

But, second, it also seems to me there's an opposite danger that, in our effort to articulate and defend the existence of something like "close, non-sexual friendships between men" in past eras, we may overlook the importance of homosexual feelings in shaping those friendships. Yes, of course, "homosexuality" as we know it didn't exist as a social construct until relatively recently, but that doesn't mean the reality of persistent, predominant same-sex sexual desire didn't exist and that it didn't have a friendship-deepening effect for those who experienced it. Sure, Bonhoeffer wasn't "gay" in our post-Stonewall sense. But what Marsh's biography tries to explore is whether Bonhoeffer may have experienced same-sex attractions and how those attractions may have led him to look for ways to love his friend Bethge. Bonhoeffer evidently didn't--and maybe didn't even wantto--have sex with Bethge (and presumably Bethge himself wouldn't have consented anyway). But did Bonhoeffer's romantic feelings for his friend, if indeed they existed (as Marsh believes they did), lead him into a pursuit of emotional and spiritual intimacy with Bethge that he wouldn't otherwise have sought? I think there's a danger in avoiding that question, too, even as there's a danger in jumping to the conclusion "Bonhoeffer was gay." [Wes has a very good review of Marsh's biography in the most recent edition of Books & Culture.]

In an earlier post on the same topic, Christopher Benson asked this powerful question with a brief comment:

Did Bonhoeffer ache for a romantic friendship with Eberhard Bethge or for the romance of a friendship that unites body and spirit, emotion and intellect? This is a distinction with a difference, and it is lost upon us because we are no longer in touch with "the tradition of late-antique and early-medieval Johannine Christianity, in which intimacy and understanding go hand in hand," according to Samuel Kimbriel's new book,Friendship as Sacred Knowing: Overcoming Isolation

Perhaps then DB had same-sex attractions for Bethge but they were unreciprocated and the desires subdued by Bonhoeffer, but that those feelings had a "friendship-deepening effect." That is at least a reasonable explanation of the letters between DB and Bethge. But there's a bit more evidence that I had not known about prior to this post. In F. Schlingensiepen's very complete and well-researched study of Bonhoeffer, on p. 393, there is a footnote in which Bethge responds to the suggestion that the authors of the letters (in Letters and Papers from Prison, most recent edition?) must have been homosexuals. Bethge says unequivocally Nein.

So maybe DB's obsessions with Bethge deserve to be considered as expressions of a controlling, if not authoritarian, personality type. In fact, the Union professor, Paul Lehmann, said DB "simply took command, uncalculated command, of every situation in which he was present" (I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 42). Bethge himself said Bonhoeffer could sometimes be "imperious and demanding" (46).