Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thomas Kelly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Search for Community

The following is an excerpt from a paper presented by ESR student Diane Reynolds at the June 2012 conference of the Friends Association for Higher Education. The paper was originally written for a History of Christianity II course with Ken Rogers:

Although separated by nationality and denomination, Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly and Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had surprisingly similar faith journeys. Both were transformed by their encounters with the divine, and for both, their search for meaning was structured by their shared social location as Euro-centric early twentieth century white males. In their most famous writings, which were informed by their experiences of German totalitarianism, each man shared a similar quest: to find a vehicle for the Christian faith that would transcend the limitations of convention. Each came away with the conviction that developing small, cohesive “monastic” student groups was critically important to reinvigorating the church and hence society. In an era of increased isolation, in which on-line education is aggressively marketed as the answer to the cost of higher education, Bonhoeffer and Kelly’s monastic models are relevant to the survival of Quaker liberal arts colleges.

While Bonhoeffer’s and Kelly’s monastic circles shared similarities, Kelly’s model is clearly closer to the American liberal arts experience. However, both attempts at community building share commonalities:

1. Each developed largely within institutional boundaries but operated with little institutional supervision. Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde was supported by the Confessing Church, a breakaway from the sanctioned German Christian (Nazi) Church. The Confessing Church largely left curriculum-building to Bonhoeffer. Kelly created a Haverford student group, but ran it independently.

2. Participation was self-selecting, voluntary, and only attracted a minority of students.

3. Bonhoeffer could have as easily gone to America or to India to live with Gandhi; Kelly didn’t have to invite students to his home. Both were driven by a deep sense of urgency — their commitment to the group was deep.

4. Both Kelly and Bonhoeffer introduced culture and music and “fun” into the mix.

5. Both pushed their students’ boundaries, Bonhoeffer through advocating pacifism in the context of a culture of young pastor trainees eager to avenge Versailles: “The majority of the students completely rejected his suggestion that conscientious objection was something a Christian should consider.” Kelly, as we have seen, urged his students to embrace a George Fox-like evangelism that rubbed against upper middle class American cultural norms.

Quaker colleges already have the infrastructure and methodology to build strong spiritual/intellectual communities in a context of egalitarianism and might do well to more fully embrace that tradition, which is at the heart of Quakerism. In a world that is increasingly commodified, hurried and “cyber,” some students hunger for meaningful living interactions. Both Kelly and Bonhoeffer would likely have advocated for not taking the opportunity to build human capital for granted. Instead, like Woolman, they sought, in a “pattern … plain,” a way to build up that community.

Diane, center, pictured with ESR writing students, faculty, and graduates

You can read the full article here:

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