Bonhoeffer on What Technology Gives and Takes Away From Relationships

I’ve been reading (or rather listening to) Eric Metaxas‘ biography entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

If you know Bonhoeffer’s story, you know that he and Maria von Wedemeyer became engaged just a few months before Bonhoeffer was sent to prison for his role in the conspiracy against Hitler. He and Maria exchanged dozens of letters in his nearly two year imprisonment and, when it started to become apparent that that he was going to be in jail for longer than they had initially hoped, he reflected on the nature of longing and its relationships to technologically mediated communication.

My dearest Maria,
It always takes so long these days for our letters to reach their destination…

I’ve recently and with great enjoyment, reread the memoirs of Gabriele von Bulow von Humboldt. She was separated from her fiancé for three whole years, short after her engagment! What immense patience and forbearance people had in those days, and what great “tensile strength”! Every letter was over six weeks in transit. They learned to do what technology has deprived us of, namely, to commend each other daily to God and put their trust in him. We are now relearning that, and we should be thankful, however hard it is.

Before his imprisonment Bonhoeffer was able to call Maria, and his letters would take no more than one or two days to reach her. But now, deprived of the speed and ease that technology was able to bring him, he began to see that for all its benefits, technology made it possible for him to overlook the deepening that happens through non-technological means like prayer. Metaxas makes it clear that Bonhoeffer was always able to see his situation in light of how God was using it to shape him, and this technological deprivation was certainly no exception.

Perhaps this concrete experience puts into perspective his seemingly harsh words about technology given in lectures a decade before:

We do not rule; instead we are ruled. The thing, the world, rules humankind; humankind is a prisoner, a slave, of the world, and its dominion is an illusion. Technology is the power with which the earth seizes hold of humankind and masters it. And because we no longer rule, we lose the ground so that the earth no longer remains our earth, and we become estranged from the earth. The reason why we fail to rule, however, is because we do not know the world as God’s creation and do not accept the dominion we have as God-given but seize hold of it for ourselves…There is no dominion without serving God; in losing the one humankind necessarily loses the other. Without God, without their brothers and sisters, human beings lose the earth.
Creation and Fall

When I first read this quotation, I saw Bonhoeffer as decidedly anti-technology. But Bonhoeffer was famous for saying that, “every sermon must contain ‘a bit of heresy'” and I would guess that this is one of those overstatements meant to help us see how we can lose sight of God by allowing technology to become a distraction.

It’s only when we are deprived of technology, as Bonhoeffer was in Cell 92, that we see what we’re missing. If given the opportunity to call Maria in those final months before he was hanged, I’m certain that Bonhoeffer would have gladly jumped at the chance. Yet he still valued what this deprivation taught him, and I think his experience can encourage us to occasionally and intentionally deprive ourselves in order to see more fully.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

6 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer on What Technology Gives and Takes Away From Relationships”

    1. I used to be more bothered by such statements, but I’m starting to see the importance of rhetorical overstatements like, “If your eyes causes you to sin, poke it out” (Mark 9:47) especially when situated within a larger argument.

  1. It seems to me that what Bonhoeffer is addressing in both quotations is matters of control, and virtue. He is saying, in the first, that when we don’t have access to one another to find out how each other is doing, then we must relinquish our concerns to God. In doing this we delay gratification, and develop forbearance.

    On technology, I think he is saying that it is an idol. In relying upon technology to solve their problems, people allow it to rule them rather than God. And they lose the very dominion that could be theirs if they trusted in Him. Powerful food for thought.

    1. Bonnie, certainly we can make any technology into an idol. Or not. I personally think technology is making the world smaller, and by doing so is helping us see the degree to which we’ve made religion and religious tribal identity into an idol. Technologies (fishhooks, papyrus scrolls, books, pry bars, etc.) are an unavoidable result of our creative spirit given by a creative God. And, yes, we all abuse that creativity to one degree or another.

      I would add some balance to the Bonhoeffer quote, though I hesitate because I think DB wrote his most profoundly insightful work from prison – especially on the nature of religion as idol. I would simply counter DB’s notion of technology as a dehumanizing force with the possibility that emerging connective technologies could in fact be the most globally humanizing tool we’ve ever seen. As Rookmaaker said, Jesus didn’t come to make us Christians, he came to make us fully human.

      DB from prison,

      “I often ask myself why a ‘Christian instinct’ often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, but which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, ‘in brotherhood.’ While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people — because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable) — to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course… How this religionless Christianity looks, what form it takes, is something that I’m thinking about a great deal, and I shall be writing to you again about it soon. It may be that on us in particular, midway between East and West, there will fall a heavy responsibility.”

  2. John,

    Stumbled onto your blog from a link on Twitter. Great stuff. Check out our website. We would love to hear your thoughts on the App we’re about to release.

    Thanks!

    Will

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