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Love Letters from Cell 92

Joy and Matthew Steem

JBandsmer_Bonhoeffer-1 Not long ago I had a conversation about a few of the respectable – or at least often mentioned – names in Christian theology. You know the ones, people who are associated with the “serious” kind of precise Christian foundational, and pristine – if not a little tart – triune doctrinal correctness: the first names that come to mind are Calvin, Luther, Knox, Edwards etc. For many, the term “serious” often identifies the most pertinent associations with theologians. Indeed, while the Oxford English Dictionary has quite a few connotations associated with the word “serious,” amusement, pleasure-seeking and amour are not – most gravely too, we might note – associated with it. “Serious,” I am afraid, means just what we think. It seems to me, most people think that “if it ain't heavy, sober and serious, it aint theology”! Indeed, seeing the name Bonhoeffer— the author of the sober sounding The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics, pretty weighty texts for those who know them on a conference announcement sprung my mind into “serious” mode. Even while reading about his “religionless Christianity” and the inseparability between a theologically-centered life and a life-centered theology, I was still reading with my “serious” eyeglasses on. Concepts like God’s “ineluctable reality” and God making himself a mediator between man and reality can often sound rather ... “serious.”

Then I read Love Letters from Cell 92. This correspondence between Bonhoeffer and his fiancée, Maria, made the “serious” part melt like a popsicle beside a Jacuzzi jet. To be sure, in the aftermath I realized that I had not lost any of the good stuff, only the “serious” took on a newer, more replete and vibrant meaning. I found that in the midst of the deep stuff there was also the soft and delicate and gentle flowering of beautiful emotionally dripping romance in ... yes, Bonhoeffer. Reading Love Letters alongside his other works is like putting on a pair of 3D glasses which bring to clarity the fuzzy image before us; it seemed that here in Bonhoeffer was serious theology concomitant with joyous[1] emotionality.

I heard fizzing sounds come from my head. Sure, both of those things can fit together conceptually, but in actuality? Many can even connect the blood and flesh in the Eucharist, but a theology that is both serious and joyous? Is it possible? Apparently, Bonhoeffer the serious theologian could just as easily entertain solemn ideas of thick theological import as enraptured romps of romantic fancy. Take the following note to his sweetheart, “you need to know what I am really feeling and not view me as one born to be a hermit on a pillar ... the desires I have ... are very earthly and tangible.” Bonhoeffer ends his letters with soft sentiments of love: “I give you a long tender kiss and embrace you”; and, “now, my beloved Maria, be tenderly embraced and kissed and loved, more and more, by your Dietrich.” In case we are wont to think such words as mere formulaic convention, Bonhoeffer laments in a letter to a friend that, as a couple, he and Maria had to “deliberately repress” all the normal aspects of engagement: this included the “sensual and erotic elements.” I figure this adds a good bit of clarity to the not being “a hermit on a pillar comment” for any who might be confused.

So, in returning to Bonhoeffer’s idea that a theologically centered life (let’s insert the word “humanity”) is inseparable from a life-centered theology, I am reminded that true life/humanity has, along with its seriousness, both joy and – at least for some – a good bit of romance. I was reminded that we also need not be trepidatious about embracing the most joyous aspect of humanity – love. After all, Bonhoeffer did – seriously.

[1] In a letter to Maria, Bonhoeffer quoted Adalbert Stifter, who said, “pain is the holiest angel who reveals treasures that would otherwise have remained hidden.” Bonhoeffer continued on in saying that, while he appreciated the angel pain, ”there is an even holier angel than pain and that is joy in God.”

(Photo by Judy Bandsmer)