I Was Imprisoned by Subjectivity and You Visited Me: Bonhoeffer and Foucault on the Way to a Postmodern Christian Self

By Beaudoin, Tom | Currents in Theology and Mission, October 2002 | Go to article overview

I Was Imprisoned by Subjectivity and You Visited Me: Bonhoeffer and Foucault on the Way to a Postmodern Christian Self


Beaudoin, Tom, Currents in Theology and Mission


One of the most important issues at stake in the church's mission is what the church encourages or allows young adults to think about themselves--what the church teaches about how we should interpret our lives and order our relationships with others. Not only is it observable that on such issues ministry to young adults often stands or falls, it is also the case that the meaning of one's own life and relationship with others is at the very heart of the way of Jesus. Because of the margin of freedom that many young adults claim with respect to personal and spiritual development and church affiliation, and given the power that the church can and does exercise over the lives of young adults, a great deal hinges for both on what the church communicates about what is important about our lives and how we order our relationships with others. What exactly the church should be preaching and practicing about self-identity is a complicated question, both in principle and in the actual situation of many of our churches t oday. Each of us practicing theology or ministry does so with an at least implicit understanding of what constitutes a Christian self. Fortuitously, subjectivity has come in for serious questioning in much postmodern philosophy and theology. The time is opportune for an intentional reappraisal of how we construe Christian subjectivity.

In service of such a reappraisal, the purpose of this lecture is to resource Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by way of Michel Foucault, for the task of reinterpreting the Christian self in our present. The rethinking of subjectivity going on in postmodern theories and theologies affords an opportunity to revisit a classic Protestant work, through a postmodern lens, for the sake of gathering up intellectual resources for ministry in the present. It is not a matter of forcing Bonhoeffer's work to take responsibility for our questions or our answers but rather of culling what is useful for Christian subjectivity today from the resources of our Christian tradition.

I come to Bonhoeffer's work, in the words of Michel de Certeau, to "poach" it, (1) to read it strictly for my purposes, putting it to use for a theology of the present. Such a project was not foreign to Bonhoeffer, who remarked in an early lecture that out of "love for this contemporary world of ours[,] [e]very word is to be spoken out of the present for the present." (2) This poaching delimits my task in giving to our understanding of a theology of the cultures of younger generations further tools in service of what Foucault called the "undefined work of freedom." (3) Thus, when an idea struck me as useful in Bonhoeffer's work, I adopted Maria von Wedemeyer's tactic: "I purloined it and bore it off." (4) My style of interpreting Bonhoeffer is also a matter of honoring a chief characteristic of Bonhoeffer's own theological style, of which Eberhard Bethge has written, "Bonhoeffer did not let himself be deterred from applying his subjective contemporary experience to an eclectic examination of texts." (5)

I admit a certain hesitation in writing about Bonhoeffer, because I am, first, a Roman Catholic and second, decidedly not a "Bonhoeffer scholar." Can anything new be said of this man, or can anything said of old be deployed for a new freedom? My task here is to ask, with respect to an ethic of the self, not what Bonhoeffer himself necessarily saw but what his work allows us to see today. This is not an attempt at comprehensiveness with respect to Bonhoeffer's ouvre. Although it is important to associate my question within ever-widening circles of his other works, of interpretations of the Christianity of his day, and of interpretations of the self in the traditions to which he was heir, none of these tasks can be accomplished here. At the risk of parochialism, I shall restrict myself as much as possible to the prison letters, fixing their coordinates for this question as an initial movement in a larger project for a post-modern Christian interpretation of the self. …

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