Bonhoeffer in Pittsburgh

Charles Marsh

Conference facilitator Charles Marsh

Yesterday’s Bonhoeffer conference at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary was a rich experience.  The conference, called “Bonhoeffer’s Journey to Reality,” consisted of a keynote speech by Charles Marsh, author of Strange Glory, a breakout session in which we discussed Bonhoeffer in the context of possibilities for transformation and community building, a dinner, a Jewish Shabbat service and an interfaith panel discussion.

The PTS staff did an admirable job organizing the conference, and I found it  just the right length to be engaging without becoming exhausting. I was also delighted with the mix of activities and the warmth of the atmosphere.

In his keynote address, Marsh focused on Bonhoeffer’s spiritual transformation during his Manhattan year, 1930-1931, a period when Bonhoeffer moved from what he called “the phraseological to the real.” Marsh located Bonhoeffer’s transformation in three “streams” he encountered in the United States:

  1. The theological social progressive stream he experienced at Union Theological Seminary, represented by the Reinhold Niebuhr.
  2. The American organizing tradition of social reform and community building.
  3. The Harlem faith community, centered around Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Bonhoeffer also developed a deeper understanding of the “church of the outcast,” Marsh said, while journeying to and from a Quaker world peace conference in Mexico City, during which he traversed the Deep South. When he returned to Berlin, his family and friends noted Bonhoeffer’s new spiritual zeal. Bonhoeffer himself now turned more frequently to the Sermon on the Mount. Much later, he would famously write about the Manhattan year as a point of genuine transformation in his life.

After listening to Marsh, who is an excellent speaker, the hundred or so of us at the conference broke into small groups to discuss Bonhoeffer’s social justice transformation and our own. The conversation in my group was rich, heartfelt and fruitful. We emphasized Bonhoeffer’s faith in the transformational power of small groups and one-on-one relationships.

The Shabbat service after dinner, led by Rabbi Doris (I don’t have her last name), was also a rich experience. With its emphasis on embodiment–the scent of spice leaves and the flame of braided candles with four wicks–it enacted Bonhoeffer’s “this-worldly” theology and offered a tribute to his belief in the importance of the Old Testament, a document roundly vilified by the Nazis.

The interfaith panel discussed avenues and methods for building communities that can help transform our world, with a focus on fighting institutional racism and xenophobia.

I enjoyed the conference very much, as well as  the chance to meet new people. But more than that, I came away highly encouraged. With so many individuals caring about issues of faith and social justice and  raising deep questions about how we can live more authentically into the Christ experience, I am hopeful that we can help create a juster, more Christ-centered future, a goal dear to Bonhoeffer’s heart.

I also came with the wish that more of these short conferences could be organized. This seems to me an especially important resource for maintaining Bonhoeffer’s legacy. He did not want to become a pillar saint (although he did), but he did hope to inspire community building and active engagement in the messy business of living in the “center of the village.”


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