Bonhoeffer’s Mystical Faith Experience

In yesterday’s blog I expressed concern about the need for external reference with one’s life, especially with one’s belief system. Faith is, in a sense, a very narcissistic enterprise and always runs the risk of being merely a gross narcissistic indulgence. That has been the case with my faith so much of my life. And now my faith is taking a radically different direction and that gives me pause lest I too suddenly find myself all alone, believing in isolation, subscribing to some “unique” belief system for which there is no external validation. That is why it is important that I come across other people in my community, in my reading, and on the blog-o-sphere who have walked a similar path of faith or are doing so now. Yesterday, I discovered this marvelous quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who so beautifully describes my faith. (

A Reading from a letter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his friend Eberhard Bethge, written from Tegel Prison, dated 21, July, 1944

During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a human being, as Jesus was human — in contrast, shall we say, to John the Baptist. I don’t mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness, characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection.

I remember a conversation that I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor. We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with our lives. He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it’s quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn’t realize the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.

I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous person or an unrighteous one, a sick or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a human being and a Christian. How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?

I am glad to have been able to learn this, and I know I’ve been able to do so only along the road that I’ve travelled. So I’m grateful for the past and present, and content with them. You may be surprised at such a personal letter; but for once I want to say this kind of thing, to whom should I say it?


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