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.