I have been accessing bits of the Christian tradition which deal with dying and death, because my friend and colleague Peter Thomson had been dying from cancer. He recently died and I spoke at his funeral service yesterday, where I quoted the following words from Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the gap truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the gap. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even at the cost of pain – the real relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the pain of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”
Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who returned from the safety of the USA to Germany in 1939 to share in the Church’s struggle against Nazism. His writings on Christian Community and the Cost of Discipleship had established his reputation as a a vigorous and distinctive follower of Karl Barth, who was influential in framing the Barmen Declaration, in which the Confessing Church committed itself to the one word of God in Jesus, rejecting all attempts to make German nationalism an acceptable spiritual force. Bonhoeffer was to express that commitment in his support for the Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler, as a result of which he was arrested, jailed and executed a few days before the war ended. In jail he wrote to family and friends letters which contain his deepest thoughts on faith.
I’ve been re-reading these, recognising the strength and originality of his thought while noting how he remained a man of his times, in, for example, his views on the authority of husbands over wives. His most exciting thought is his rejection of what he called “the God of the Gaps”, meaning the way in which modern theologians found the relevance of God in the gaps left by science – maybe we can still talk of the Creator because science has to leave the beginning of the universe as a mystery, or we can still look to Jesus for salvation because psychology can only describe our sickness but not provide a cure. Bonhoeffer said that this placed God in the areas of human weakness rather than human strength, and risked his complete irrelevance as human knowledge advanced.
The wonderful passage I’ve quoted above applies this thinking to the issue of bereavement, where of course there is a very obvious gap which some believers might want to fill with “God”, that is, with pious religion. Bonhoeffer thinks that God has too much respect for human relationships and human strength to fill that gap. Rather God leaves the gap unfilled so that the true relation can be kept open, even at the cost of pain. This advice is both profound and delicate, showing that his theology is not simply a matter of doctrines, but also a matter of practical caring.
He stated that we can well cope with death without the comfort of the resurrection. If we make resurrection the answer to the human fear of death, we tie God to our own lack of courage. Jesus was not raised from death to comfort his sad disciples, but to kick their butts and get them to challenge his killers. (This is my phraseology rather than Bonhoeffer’s, who was a gentleman.)
I like to think of my friend as having entered the irrepressible liveliness of God where he’s more likely to be blowing a trumpet than tinkling a harp.