Bonhoeffer and Dahill

The author Lisa E. Dahill’s friend Shirley is the chair of adult education, her curiosity and passion to continue the expansion of her own horizon led her in enrolling in a week-long class on Bonheoffer at the Graduate Theological Union. This lectured covered most of Bonheoffer’s early writings about one being selfless and how to relate to ones neighbor, others and the enemy. Shirley did not agree on most of the points that the lecture made about having to give up ones self in favor of the claims of the other. With her abusive relationship if she were to have always followed Bonheoffer’s teachings, her husband would have killed her she states. Lisa E. Dahill a long time reader of Bonheoffer also sees the faults in Bonheoffer’s teachings about putting the well being of other before your self. She also points out how she sees a very patriarchal influence in Bonhoeffer’s teachings. Dahill’s studies focus on the on Bonhoeffer’s work from the perspective of feminist psychology and psychoanalysis, with an emphasis on disordered relationships between the two sexes which potentially leads to abuse.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906 along with his twin sister in to a wealthy germen family. The Bonhoeffer family was one of Germanys cultural elite families. Going back to Julie Bonhoeffer Dietrich’s grandmother, the Bonhoeffer family saw themselves as the protectors of the German culture. His father was a neurologist and psychiatrist; his mother was a schoolteacher who really focused on Dietrich’s and his 7 other siblings’ early education. The Bonhoeffer family was religious however did not believe that it was necessary to attend church, instead they were taught prayers and bible scriptures by their father at home. At the young age of 14 Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized that he wanted to become a theologian and was ready to pursue his passion. His household was very much a patriarchy family; it was instilled on the children from a young age to always show respect towards their parents especially their father. The children’s parents made sure that the children had a good home to live in and had everything that they needed to have a good life. However one thing that they reframed from giving to their children was a significant amount of emotional connection, they were very reserved emotionally towards Dietrich and his siblings. This left Dietrich lonely and in need of attention, which he frequently searched for. Once Bonhoeffer went to college he was determined to prove himself to his father and everyone around him. Once graduated from college he spent some time teaching and being a pasture and was appointed as youth secretary for the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the churches. At this point the Nazi party was beginning to gain strength in Germany and Bonhoeffer had already been speaking out about the Nazi threat, he was one of the most out spoken people about this. Bonhoeffer became publically a resister of the Nazi party two days after Hitler took power, through a radio broadcast speaking out about the negative affect that this will have on the country. From this moment on Bonhoeffer had a target on his back, which never went away until the day of his execution. Because of this target Bonhoeffer fled Germany and went to New York to escape the potential danger. However once in New York Bonhoeffer felt like a coward for not being with his people in a time of such need and returned to Germany to continue the revolt against the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer’s writings and teachings since his first publication at the young age of twenty-one has focused on selfhood and how one goes about living their everyday life. He emphasizes that one should “love the other instead of ourselves” one must give up individuality and care about humanity as whole before ones self. For Bonhoeffer self-love is sinful because that only shows love for one appose to others. He states one should live like Jesus Christ and give up ones self for others, for him Jesus is the first fruits of the new humanity, in the way that humanity should live. Ones life should be completed committed to others instead of focusing in ones self interest.

When I consider Bonhoeffer’s arguments about selfhood should be I have very mixed emotions. I do agree that one should not be completely self-centered and only worry about ones self so much that it impacts the life of others. One should look out after others and when capable put out a helping hand for someone in need. However one should look after themselves before others, one should value their own life more than anything else. “Human love, instead of being directed toward the other whether that be God or other people is now focused on oneself. Everything becomes a means to one’s own selfishness (p.50)”. I feel like this is one of Bonhoeffer’s major points that if you love your self you are automatically a selfish, self-centered person. This I do not agree with I Believe that one must be able to love oneself before being capable of loving others. I agree with Dahill’s argument about this outlook that Bonhoeffer has on selfness. “Bonhoeffer needs to turn down the volume on the self in order to hear the other; the victim of abuse needs to turn down the volume on the abuser in order to attend to herself”. I agree with this argument because Bonhoeffer is so persistent on talking about how people should not care about themselves he does not take the time to look at the bigger picture. Being blind to the situation that many people are in, such as abusive relationships. If those people do not love themselves more than the people that are hurting them they would live a life of misery, which no one deserves to live. The love for other is important in order to live in an orderly society, however before one could do so they must love themselves.

Another one of Bonhoeffer’s focuses in his writings is the idea that individuals should live their lives as if they were all Disciples of Christ. One must be do so to be able to undergo their spiritual formation. Jesus is every where around and looking at us at all times, just like we should be looking at him at all times. Every action one takes and word one says is directly towards Jesus Christ. He states that one must drop anything and everything that they have ever learned because that is no longer important. The only thing that is important is Jesus Christ and his teachings. “Jesus isn’t interested in merely being added to already configured lives as an appendage. Christ wants to be the center of people’s lives, forcing them to let go of all that previously occupied them” (P.77). Also in his other book In Life Together he continues his idea that Jesus Christ is everything and he is even reality its self. Once you are able to do all these things you are then truly spiritually formed according to Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer’s argument about how one could be spiritually transformed or formed makes a lot of valid points about ones spirituality. However to be able to so one must go through radical steps and drop everything that they have ever known and only know the teaching of Jesus Christ. I do not agree with this, one could not eliminate everything that they have experienced throughout their lifetime and consider it insignificant because ones experience is what shapes them spiritually. “Discipleship is nothing other than being bound to Jesus Christ alone. This means completely breaking though any preprogrammed, idealistic, or legalistic. No further content is possible because only Jesus is content. There is no other content besides Jesus. He himself is it. So the call of discipleship is a commitment solely to the person of Jesus Christ”(P.76). I believe that ones maximum spirituality and following of Jesus Christ would be accomplished when they learn to balance the life that they live, while incorporating the word of Jesus into it as the centerpiece. However the reality of life it self could not be dropped. I do agree with Bonheoffer in the sense that Jesus Christ should be what your life is based on, as far as ones morals and decision-making. If this were not the case then there would be no spirituality or faith in anyone. In my perspective to reach maximum spirituality an individual must go through life’s obstacles not ignoring reality, while basing their actions on the model that Christ set for us.

The book Reading from the Underside of Selfhood was a very informative book about Bonhoeffer’s life and teachings. A positive thing about the book was the format of the book I liked the way that Dahill broke down each section of Bonhoeffer’s work and analyzed it. Another thing about the text that I liked was the way that she incorporated real life situations to critique the flaws in Bonhoeffer’s writings. I also agreed with most of her arguments about how Bonhoeffer didn’t really take in to consideration people that were not in his situation he wrote most of his work from his perspective only. His work would have been a lot stronger if he also wrote in the perspective of other that were different then him economically, sexually, or any other difference between him and others. There are few negative things that I believe could have made Reading from the Underside of Selfhood a more efficient book to make Dahill’s critiques about Bonhoeffer a little clearer. One being she could interpreted each one of the quotes that she chose form Bonhoeffer’s writings a little more clearer and in more depth to what he was trying to pass through his writings. The other thing that would have made her arguments stronger to the reader was if she critiqued Bonhoeffer as she went along through each one of his points. Instead of waiting till chapter five to express why his points were seen by others and herself as invalid. It would have been stronger if she used specific examples of his text in her critique. Besides those two things I think that Dahill did a good job on interpreting to the reader what Bonhoeffer’s teachings were and why she didn’t accept them.

Bonhoeffer’s teaching brought up some questions about how I am living my own life. The first thing that I began to think about was my perspective of my self and how I treat others. After thinking about all his points I believe that I do put my self in front of other a little too much. Still believing that one self-love is more important then for others. I think that I could take a step back and begin to lend a hand to other more often than I have so far in my life.

His writing about spirituality also arose questions about how I am living my life spiritually. Being a catholic, I don’t believe that I am completing my full role as a religious person. I believe that I am living my life and making decisions without taking in to account what the correct thing would be spiritually or religiously. I want to start to live my life in a manner that is more spiritually sound while maintaining a balance with the reality that I am living in.

The one part of the book that I had difficulty relating to was Dahill’s argument about women in abusive relationships. I was able to take a step back from my own life and realize what she was speaking about and try to connect with it. However being a male and never having any experience in any sort of an abusive relationship it was hard for me to relate her argument personally to my life.

Bonhoeffer’s teachings throughout his life take a very bold and aggressive stance in how one should go on living their life. He has many good points and ideas to how someone could be spiritually sound and live their life to its full potential. However sometimes he does become to radical and makes his criteria almost seem unrealistic, especially in the society that we live in today. Overall Dahill does a good job analyzing and critiquing Bonhoeffer’s complicated work, in manner that the average person could gain the understanding of it.


Dahill, Lisa E. Reading from the Underside of Selfhood: Bonhoeffer and Spiritual Formation. Eugene, Or.: Pickwick Publications, 2009. Print.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, John W. Doberstein, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. New York: HarperOne, 2009. Print.


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