The well-known theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer met Karl Barth, a theologian that had deeply influenced him, for the first time in July of 1931. He loved his lectures. But even more he was taken with Barth the engaging conversationalist over dinner. He reported on the conversation in a letter to a friend of his, Erwin Sutz. “He is really fully present,” said Bonhoeffer. “I have never seen anything like it nor thought it possible.” He mentioned in the letter that Barth was concerned about Bonhoeffer’s over-emphasis on grace. Barth said that Bonhoeffer “was making grace into a principle and was bludgeoning everything else to death with it.” Ever since first reading this letter I have wondered if Bonhoeffer would have written The Cost of Discipleship if he had not had this conversation with Barth.
Whether it was this exchange that spawned the idea or something else, I’ve come to realize that Bonhoeffer’s problem was hardly unique. I have come to believe that one of the things that goes wrong in many conversations that relate to moral issues—especially contentious issues, though not just them—is that we too often over-emphasize ONE thing. We do this either because this one thing matters a great deal to us or it simplifies matters. But the simplification too often over-simplifies, reducing something genuinely complex to something simplistic. Thus we too effectively bludgeon “everything else to death with it,” that is with the ONE over-emphasized word, concept or point.
Therefore I wrote an article for the most recent issue of The Mennonite, the official magazine for The Mennonite Church U.S. It is called “Naming What Unites Us.”