Lori Brandt Hale's Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Editor's Note: In anticipation of our upcoming webinar, “Exploring the Life and Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer with Lori Brandt Hale” on February 10, we sat down (virtually) with her to talk about how she came to focus her academic journey on Bonhoeffer, why the public might be interested in Bonhoeffer today and what her current and future Bonhoeffer projects look like.

Tell us a little about your academic journey and how you became interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I was introduced to Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa and then found myself in a seminar devoted primarily to Bonhoeffer’s Ethics while doing my master’s degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School. However, it was not until I was done with my PhD coursework and working on my dissertation proposal on ideas of (religious) community at the University of Virginia that I turned to Bonhoeffer again. And I did so under pressure to include Bonhoeffer in my work and, consequently, with a fair amount of reluctance. When I finally “caved” to that pressure, and read Bonhoeffer’s dissertation, Sanctorum Communio (The Communion of Saints: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church) for the first time, I understood the insistence that I revisit his work and I was hooked. The focus of my dissertation shifted to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of intersubjectivity and was titled, “Love Your Enemies? Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Question of the Other.”

Why might the general public be interested in Bonhoeffer’s life and theology?

Bonhoeffer wrote profoundly, provocatively, and prolifically on fundamental theological and ethical concepts. His collected works—including monographs, papers, sermons, letters, etc.—are sixteen hefty volumes (plus an index). In his work and in his life, he stood up to the Nazis: he challenged the church to stand up to the state (in certain circumstances) and to stand up for victims of the state; he directed an illegal, underground seminary; he joined the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler; and he was executed by the Nazis for his role in the resistance—at the age of 39.Bonhoeffer’s legacy is an important one for scholars, students, pastors and lay folks, and, increasingly, activists. However, it is a complicated legacy with people of all theological and political leanings using (and abusing and coopting) his work. For a clear picture regarding the reception and use of Bonhoeffer, check out The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump by my friend and colleague Stephen Haynes.

How did the recent book you co-edited, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theology, and Political Resistance, come together?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theology, and Political Resistance is the second book in a new series by Lexington Books titled, “Faith and Politics: Political Theology in a New Key.” The series editor, Fred Dallmayr, reached out to me in early 2018 about possible work on a Bonhoeffer volume for this series. I was excited to take on the project. I invited W. David Hall, a fellow Westar Scholar (and my husband), to co-edit the book with me. I have a strong background in Bonhoeffer studies; he has expertise in political theology. We organized the book around three methodological commitments: historical-critical interpretation, critical-constructive engagement, and constructive-practical application, in keeping with the renewed vision for Bonhoeffer scholarship articulated by the International Bonhoeffer Society—English Language Section in 2016. It was a delight to reach out to Bonhoeffer scholars from across the nation and around the world to contribute chapters for the book, which was published in June 2020. My chapter in the book is titled, “The Interfaith Imperative: How Dietrich Bonhoeffer Compels Interfaith Action.”

Are you currently working on anything? What are your future writing plans? Are there other theologians who are of special interest to you?

Yes, I am currently working on a number of things—and I am very excited about all of them! First, I have taken the lead on the redesign process for a new website for the International Bonhoeffer Society—English Language Section. It is long overdue, but I am now meeting weekly with two other Board members and our web designer. Second, I am writing the “Bonhoeffer” entry for the forthcoming T&T Clark Handbook of Modern Theology. Third, I am in conversation with a publisher about several projects, including an edited volume, an edited series, and a possible monograph. This last piece may be of most interest to the Westar audience. I have been inspired by Michael Zbaraschuk and fellow Westar Scholar Daniel Peterson (see their edited volume Resurrecting the Death of God: The Origins, Influence, and Return of Radical Theology) to revisit the relationship between Bonhoeffer and William Hamilton on the resonances between Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” and Hamilton’s “Christian atheism.” This work will also afford me the opportunity to return, in earnest, to the work of my doctoral studies mentor, radical theologian Robert Scharlemann.

Lori Brandt Hale is professor and chair of religion and philosophy at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is vice president of the International Bonhoeffer Society-English Language Section and a scholar in the God and the Human Future Seminar of the Westar Institute. Hale is co-editor (with W. David Hall) of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theology, and Political Resistance (Lexington Books, 2020) and co-author of Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians (Westminster John Knox, 2009). She has written on Bonhoeffer’s political resistance, understanding of vocation and relevance in contemporary times.

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