6 February 2023

Faith, fear form valuable dialogue with Bonhoeffer

Barbed wire. Picture: iStock

By Reverend Canon Professor Dorothy Lee 

20 December 2021

AN increase of fear generated by the current global pandemic forms the context for this remarkable collection of essays, edited by the religious journalist and commentator Dr Rachael Kohn AO FRSN. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an appropriate dialogue partner in the debate about whether fear is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, because he lived and died with acceptance and hope in the terrifying circumstances of the Third Reich. He also had quite a bit to say about fear, including his famous sermon on overcoming fear in 1933 in Berlin. The authors of this collection interact with Bonhoeffer and his theology, particularly on the issue of faith and fear. 

The collection begins with two essays by Christian writers. The Reverend Dr Charles Ringma presents Bonhoeffer not as a super-hero, but rather as a vulnerable human being who struggled to understand himself and his fear in the frightening context of National Socialism. Bonhoeffer, he argues, calls for courage, identification with others and a new imaginative faith that “does not lead to elitism or escapism”. In this way, Bonhoeffer, even in his fragility, can provide an inspiration for us today.  

Dr Mick Duncan reflects on his own experience as a Christian missionary in the Philippines where he went with his partner and family to live in dire circumstances among the poor in Manilla. He argues that faith must thrive in the context of “a culture of fear”. For him, faith is about risk-taking, and he finds a model in Bonhoeffer’s later reflections where the latter, he argues, developed a more mature and less judgemental understanding of fear. Duncan’s conclusion is that overcoming fear involves — for the Apostle Paul, Bonhoeffer and himself — not only a relationship with Jesus, but also deep, sustaining bonds of friendship. 

The following two essays are written from the perspective of Jewish theology. The essay by Rabbi Dr Martin Lockshin is a must-read for all Christians who still retain something of the Marcionite heresy that the Old Testament deity is a God of wrath, while the New Testament presents a God of love. Exploring the Hebrew Bible and later Jewish interpretations, Martin argues that, while “fear can be devastating”, it is also intrinsic to biblical spirituality in a particular dimension: that is, the fear of God — or, better, reverence for God. In this context, fear and love are complementary, since love alone is often insufficient to bring about moral transformation. 

Dr Alexander Green picks up some of the same reflections on fear through the lens of Maimonides, the Jewish Mediaeval philosopher who, like Bonhoeffer, takes a hopeful view of fear. Here again, love and fear are to be held together in Maimonides’ thinking, as are the synonymous virtues of awe and courage. We need both in relation to God and others. Paralysing fear can thus be overcome in this way so that “it is possible to live a life that is both heroic and humble”. 

The final two essays come from rather different perspectives. Professors Dominic Johnson and Joseph Bulbulia are, respectively, an evolutionary biologist and a psychologist. Together they examine the evolutionary function of fear and its overt manifestation in facial expressions in human society. In their research, “fear fosters cooperation” and “keeps us alive”. It enables us to live together in greater harmony, against all forms of predation and fear. Religion especially fosters high levels of cooperation that begin by facing fear, as Bonhoeffer advocated, and working in community to overcome it. 

The final essay discusses law, justice and faith in the correspondence between Bonhoeffer and a friend, Gerhard Leibholz, a professor of constitutional law. Dr Karola Radler argues that Bonhoeffer is determined to maintain Christian principles, as embodied especially in the Sermon on the Mount and centred on the person of Jesus Christ, over against the totalising and self-legitimising ideology of National Socialism. In this view, God is the ultimate Judge and offers divine forgiveness and grace to guilty humanity. This is a vision diametrically opposed to the German regime, advocating faith in a God who “stood above yet was inextricably invested in his people and the world”. 

Overall, this book rewards careful reading and pondering. It has much to offer the contemporary context, both from the writings of Bonhoeffer himself and from his interlocutors, whether theological or scientific, Jewish or Christian. It is an ecumenical book, in the broadest sense, and well worth reading: the kind of high-quality material we have come to expect from the work of Rachael Kohn. 

Rachael Kohn (ed.), Fear and Faith: Christian, Jewish and Evolutionary Perspectives (Adelaide: AFT Theology, 2019). Available online at: atfpress.com 

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