Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction to His Thought
by Sabine Dramm
Translated by Thomas Rice
Reviewed by Chris L. Rice
If you invest enough time in the life and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and by these I mean Eberhard Bethge’s biography and the letters and writings from the Gesammelte Schriften (which are soon to be fully released in English), you get rather frustrated by the popular attention for Bonhoeffer (which is maybe six inches deep) compared with the enormity of what he really has to say for the whole human Christian life in this age. When I was handed this new introduction by Sabine Dramm by a friend I thought, “Who needs another introduction? Aren’t there enough of those?”
Was I ever wrong! Upon further investigation, I found a book worthy of high recommendation for anyone wanting a real taste of the seemingly daunting Bonhoeffer corpus. Sabine Dramm carefully and deliberately expounds on all of the Gesammelte Schriften in a delightfully open, philosophical and yet biographical manner. My only explanation for her style is that, rather than presenting the material didactically, in a fashion designed for undergraduates, she presents Bonhoeffer from the position one who has fully traversed his story and concerns and is a faithful guide to the terrain.
Here is one example from her chapter titled “The Book of his life: Ethics”
“According to Bonhoeffer, it cannot be the intention and task of ethics to produce a compendium of ethical values and universal directives for action; nor is it the intention and task of an ethicist to burst forth as an authoritative source of theological truth. The limits of both the ethicist and a set of ethics are clearly defined. He emphasizes how easy it is to say what does not constitute an ethics and an ethicist:
“Ethics cannot be a book that defines what everything in the world by rights should be, but unfortunately is not; and an ethicist cannot be one who invariably knows better than others what and how things are to be done; … an ethics cannot be a laboratory beaker in which ideal ethical behavior and Christian human beings are produced, and the ethicist cannot be the embodiment or ideal representative of a basically moral life” (DBW 6, 372).
These words indirectly describe his own Ethics. They also contain a warning by Bonhoeffer against overestimating oneself and others— a warning we too should hear clearly with respect to his person. Bonhoeffer himself intended with his Ethics nothing more than to help us “learn to live with others” in a world he loved (DBW 6,372), and this in spite of and in that world’s atrocities, in spite of and in the shortcomings of its inhabitants.” (pgs. 104-105)
I don’t recommend shortcuts to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’m willing to face the fact that he’s just going to be beyond what most folks are willing to invest. I don’t mean to sound arrogant in saying that, let’s face it, in the same way I won’t be venturing into the worlds Kierkeggard, Heidegger, Foucault, or Camus anytime soon. But if I had to start again for the first time, I would want someone to recommend this book by Sabine Dramm. Immensely helpful stuff!