Alan Wolfe is troubled.
In The New Republic, he writes about his encounter with the hero of Eric Metaxas' excellent biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an impressive subject, and the reviewer gives full credit to his faith as the source of his integrity and valor. Summarizing the pastor's journey from eager student to restless liberal to impassioned defender of orthodoxy, Wolfe accepts Bonhoeffer's experience as valid and affirmative (for him). The man might have lived his life in relative obscurity, his major challenges occurring in the faculty lounge, were it not for the rise of the Third Reich and the corruption of the German church.
That church's bland acceptance of "the Aryan paragraph," requiring congregations to exclude believers with Jewish backgrounds, led Bonhoeffer to take his stand in the Barman Declaration (1934), laying out the necessity of obeying God rather than men. His high profile-socially, intellectually, and now politically-made him a target, and out of concern for his fellow dissenters he accepted the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr to come to America as a professor at Union Theological Seminary.
But America convinced him he was needed in Germany. Part of his dissatisfaction was disgust with the theological laxity of Union, but he also heard the clear call of God. Within a month, he secured passage back to his beloved Germany: the book-burning, soul-devouring Germany of "the final solution." Hitler was not merely to be opposed-he had to be stopped, and Bonhoeffer's efforts to stop him led to execution in 1945.
Alan Wolfe is a distinguished essayist and author whose wide-ranging interests include literature, culture, and politics. His tone is measured, respectful, and decidedly secular. That's why he's troubled: "What gives an individual the courage to act as Bonhoeffer did?" One senses he never encountered a man like this: completely sold out to God. "For him, as Metaxas writes, 'the evilness of the Nazis could not be defeated via old-fashioned "ethics," "rules," and "principles."' . . . The best we can do in the most difficult times is not to view ourselves as free agents possessed with choices, but as subjects of a God whom we trust without reservation."
For Bonhoeffer, this was a rock-solid foundation. But what do liberals have? Those very "ethics" and "principles" and "choices" that Bonhoeffer deemed insufficient. Wolfe admits that "bringing this man-and his intransigence on all the important questions of our time-so vividly to life raises awkward questions for the liberalism in which I put my own faith." The most awkward question: Where does a man with no fixed star find courage? Wolfe can find reinforcement, of a sort, in the historic struggle to define morality as neutral ground for individuals of all beliefs-or none. And he can find comfort, of a sort, in his own conflicted attitude: "One should come away from the Bonhoeffer story impressed by religion, but not in awe of it. The human picture is more complicated."
Indeed, humanity is complicated. But courage is simple, a matter of paring away the rationalizations. For the soldier under fire: Do I consider my preferences, or stand with my comrades? For the firefighter before a burning building: Do I calculate my odds, or do I rush in? For the Christian in hostile circumstances: Do I bargain with God, or do I believe Him?
Years ago, noted atheist Sam Harris wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times in which he was forced to conclude that perhaps only a committed Christian could stand up to a committed Islamist. Alan Wolfe's review suggests a similar moment of weakness. He concludes that, "ironically," Metaxas' biography "wound up persuading me of the importance of the very autonomy that Bonhoeffer believed that we do not possess. . . . It was not a humble servant of the Lord who involved himself in the resistance, but a singular human being who, for whatever reason, was able to know what to do when faced with the problem of evil."
Most of us know what to do. The problem is doing it. That's where Alan Wolfe's doubt remains, and why his conclusion rings a bit thin, like whistling in the dark.
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