Review of Bonhoeffer through
Erikson's 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development
This paper will examine the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer focusing specifically on analyzing the review of Eric Metaxas’s biography of Bonhoeffer entitled, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, through the lens of Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a unique individual, born in Germany at the start of the twentieth century, experiencing both World War I and World War II. His father was a scientist and his mother originated from a line of pastor-theologians. This combination would prove formative for Bonhoeffer in regard to his worldview and approach to understanding things. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, theologian, and founding member of the Confessing Church. He is most known for his theological writings, most notably The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. Bonhoeffer is also known for being resistant to the Nazi dictatorship and their persecution of Jews, which eventually led to him being arrested by the Nazi’s in April of 1943 and executed by hanging in April of 1945.
Bonhoeffer’s life will be studied through Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development. This theory covers the entire span of a person’s life and it is Erikson’s idea that “there is a task that must be accomplished at each stage of development” (Mooney, 2000, p. 38). As a person passes through each stage, they develop and form certain strengths and weaknesses of their personality based on their development in each stage. Erikson did not discount the idea that not everyone will develop each of these skills within the age range he identified and acknowledged that some of these skills may be developed at a different age range or development stage than the ones listed on his chart below. However, he was convinced that “in the earliest years of life, patterns develop that regulate, or at least influence, a person’s actions and interactions for the rest of his or her life” (Mooney, 2000, p. 38).
Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development
0-1 year Trust vs. Mistrust Hope
2-3 years Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt Willpower
4-5 years Initiative vs. Guilt Purpose
6-12 years Industry vs. Inferiority Competence
Adolescence Identity vs. Role Confusion Fidelity
Young Adulthood Intimacy vs. Isolation Love
Middle Age Generativity vs. Stagnation Care
Old Age Ego Integration vs. Despair Wisdom
Year Old – Trust vs. Mistrust - Hope
Erikson’s first stage of development occurs during the first year of the child’s life. This time allows for the development of trust versus mistrust within the child, as well as hope. Carol Garhart Mooney, in her explanation of Erikson’s method, describes the baby’s task during this first year as to “develop a sense of trust in herself, in other people, and in the world around her” (Mooney, 2000, p. 40). This trust according to Erikson has two parts: external (belief that significant adults will be present to meet the baby’s needs) and internal (belief in her own power to effect change and cope with a variety of circumstances). A successful adaptation through this stage of life will allow a child to enter the next stage with “a sure sense that the world is a good place to be” (Mooney, 2000, p. 40).
Time spent between a baby and adults develops an attachment that provides the child with security and comfort. When these needs go unmet, the child will have difficulty developing trust in themselves and the world around them. Erikson identifies two areas that will assist a child in this first stage while developing trust: “holding babies close and having warm physical contact with them when they are being fed; and responding right away to their distress when they cry or fuss” (Mooney, 2000, p. 41).
2-3 Years Old – Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt – Willpower
The second stage of development according to Erikson is when the child begins to development willpower and develops in the areas of autonomy (independence) hopefully without suffering extremes of shame and doubt. The child that adequately adapts at this stage develops a strong sense of self. This usually takes place between the ages of two and three years old. Mooney attributes this stage to being critical in development because
“Its outcomes determine, to a great extent, the ratio of love and hate, cooperation or lack of it, and freedom of expression or tendency to suppress feelings that become part of who we are for the rest of our lives. When a child can fully develop a strong sense of self-control without loss of self-esteem, she will feel proud and confident. When a child experiences loss of control and excessive shame, she will tend to doubt herself” (Mooney, 2000, p. 47).
Ways for adults to help develop independence in children during this stage can do so by: “giving children simple choices; not giving false choices; setting clear, consistent, reasonable limits; and accepting children’s swings between independence and dependence, and reassuring them that both are okay” (Mooney, 2000, p. 47).
The First Several Years of Bonhoeffer’s Life
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into a family committed to the development of their children. The opening quote in Metaxas’s biography of Bonhoeffer states,
“The rich world of his ancestors set the standards for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own life. It gave him a certainty of judgment and manner that cannot be acquired in a single generation. He grew up in a family that believed the essence of learning lay not in a formal education but in the deeply rooted obligation to be guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 5).
Bonhoeffer’s father, Karl, was a doctor and his mother, Paula, was a teacher. Both of his parents came from illustrious backgrounds. They were married in 1898 and birthed eight children within a decade with Dietrich and his twin sister being born February 4, 1906. He was the fourth and youngest son. All of the Bonhoeffer children were born in Breslau, where Karl Bonhoeffer held the chair of psychiatry and neurology at the university. Commenting on having eight children, Karl mentioned to his diary, “despite having eight children – which seems an enormous number in times like these – we have the impression that there are not too many of them! The house is big, the children develop normally, we parents are not too old, and so we endeavor not to spoil them, and to make their young years enjoyable” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 8-9). The family staffed a fairly large group of aids to assist in making the raising of eight children more enjoyable. They staff included: a governess, a nursemaid, a housemaid, a parlor maid, and a cook.
During these years, according to Erikson’s model, Bonhoeffer would have been developing hope and willpower. Based on his family’s strong ties and historical foundation, Bonhoeffer had plenty of adults in his home to have affirmed him early in life. The environment surrounding Bonhoeffer in his first several years provided an ideal situation for him to develop a sense of trust in himself, in other people, and in the world around him. The family’s strong values also would have allowed him to develop confidently with a sense of hope as a foundation for his understanding of the world around him. Though Bonhoeffer grew up in a family with seven siblings and many live-in aids, his comfort in solidarity later in life affirms that he comfortably developed a sense of independence during the critical second stage of development around the age of two-three years old.
4-5 Years Old – Initiative vs. Guilt – Purpose
The third stage in Erikson’s theory usually occurs during the ages of four and five years old. A child successful at this stage will be confident and competent. Mooney notes a child “will believe that she can plan and complete a task independently. She will be able to cope with and learn from mistakes without feeling guilty for things that don’t go as planned” (Mooney, 2000, p. 52). This is a stage where the child has more energy, and is more willing to listen and learn from teachers, parents, and other children. Ways that Erikson suggests teachers can support a child’s development in this stage are to:
“Encourage children to be as independent as possible; focus on gains as children practice new skills, not on the mistakes they make along the way; set expectations that are in line with children’s individual abilities; and focus curriculum on real things and on doing” (Mooney, 2000, p. 53).
Though this stage may seem to be easier than the previous two for the adults raising the child, this stage is actually a very critical one where “the child’s development can split in one of two possible directions: human potential for glory or for destruction” (Mooney, 2000, p. 52). Encouraging a child to use their energy in active and involved ways will build the child’s confidence and competence. However, focusing on their mistakes or doing something for the child that the child is capable of doing creates a sense of guilt or discouragement.
Bonhoeffer Between Four and Five Years Old
The first documented report of memories involving Dietrich Bonhoeffer come from his twin sister Sabine:
“My first memories go back to 1910. I see Dietrich in his party frock, stroking with his small hand the blue silk underskirt; later I see him beside our grandfather, who is sitting by the window with our baby sister Susanne on his knee, while the afternoon sun pours in in the golden light. Here the outlines blur, and only one more scene will form in my mind: first games in the garden in 1911, Dietrich with a mass of ash-blond hair around his sunburnt face, hot from romping, driving away the midges and looking for a shady corner, and yet only obeying very unwillingly the nursemaid’s call to come in, because the immensely energetic game is not yet finished. Heat and thirst were forgotten in the intensity of his play” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 10).
This spirit depicted by Sabine is further remembered from a moment recalled by Fraulein Kathe:
“Dietrich was often mischievous and got up to various pranks, not always at the appropriate time. I remember that Dietrich specially liked to do this when the children were supposed to get washed and dressed quickly because we had been invited to go out. So one such day he was dancing round the room, singing and being a thorough nuisance. Suddenly the door opened, his mother descended upon him, boxed his ears right and left, and was gone. Then the nonsense was over. Without shedding a tear, he now did what he ought” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 13).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a unique position within his family as his five older siblings formed a quintet, and Bonhoeffer along with his twin sister and the youngest sister formed a trio in which Bonhoeffer took the role as the strong and chivalrous protector. He had the advantage of being both a younger sibling, and yet an older sibling. His twin Sabine reminisced of Bonhoeffer having a sweetness of character, often sacrificing for the sake of making her happy or comfortable. This behavior was further affirmed by Bonhoeffer’s relationship to their governess with whom, “of his own free will he assumed the role of her good spirit who helped and served her, and when her favourite dish was on the table he cried: ‘I have had enough,’ and forced her to eat his portion too” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 11).
Interestingly, this is the first recorded theological inquiry of Bonhoeffer. He inquired of his mother, “Does the good God love the chimney sweep too?” and “Does God, too, sit down to lunch?” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 11). Clearly theological integration was prevalent in his formative developmental years and would contribute to shaping his thought process as he grew older.
Once Bonhoeffer was old enough to be schooled, his mother transitioned his education to Fraulein Kathe, though his mother continued to provide the children with religious instruction. Both Kathe and her sister, Maria, spent two decades assisting the Bonhoeffer family and came from the community at Herrnhut, where Paula had spent some time as a child. The teaching from Herrnhut became quite noticeable in Bonhoeffer’s adult life as the leader at Herrnhut, Count Zinzendorf, “advocated the idea of a personal relationship with God, rather than the formal churchgoing Lutheranism of the day” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 12). As Bonhoeffer grew older, he would draw on the conservative theological tradition of Herrnhut and would use the Moravian’s daily Bible texts for daily devotions until his death. The Bonhoeffer family did not place an emphasis on going to church, but focused on their relationship with God and their “living faith.” A typical day would consist of Bible reading and hymn singing led by Paula Bonhoeffer. She would “read Bible stories to her children from the actual Bible text and not from a children’s retelling. Still, she sometimes used an illustrated Bible explaining the pictures as she went” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 12).
6-12 Years Old – Industry vs. Inferiority – Competence
During this stage of life, a child seems set to enter into life but must enter school life first in order to be trained to enter the real world. During this time, a child is “tamed and harnessed to the laws of impersonal things” (Erikson, 1963, p. 258). Erikson considers this stage to be one where the child learns to be a worker and potential provider while preparing to be a parent. It is at this stage that Erikson considers the child will learn to “win recognition by producing things” (Erikson, 1963, p. 259). This age allows a child to master skills and tasks.
The concern at this stage is developing a sense of inadequacy and inferiority. This occurs when there is a breakdown in the effectiveness of the child to use the tools required to work at this age. Typically a child’s development is “disrupted when family life has failed to prepare him for school life, or when school life fails to sustain the promises of earlier stages” (Erikson, 1963, p. 260).
From a social aspect, this is quite a decisive stage. Industry consists of doing things with others. At this point, Erikson comments, “a first sense of division of labor and of differential opportunity, that is, a sense of the technological ethos of a culture, develops at this time” (Erikson, 1963, p. 260). This idea builds off of previous dangers developing from identifying differences in color of skin, background of parents, and fashion rather than focusing on a desire and will to learn as contributing factors to determine worth. In the judicial words of Erikson, at this stage the child has been “sentenced after his expulsion from paradise. If he accepts work as his only obligation, and ‘what works’ as his only criterion of worthwhileness, he may become a conformist and thoughtless slave of his technology and of those who are in a position to exploit it” (Erikson, 1963, p. 261).
Bonhoeffer as a Child From 6-12 Years Old
In 1912, when Dietrich was six years old, his father accepted an appointment as the chair of psychiatry and neurology in Berlin. At an age when a child is developing an understanding of industry, Bonhoeffer’s father reached the pinnacle of his profession. His no nonsense approach to loving his children formed them to be model children and eventually adults. Metaxas explains that Karl Bonhoeffer:
“Taught his children to speak only when they had something to say. He did not tolerate sloppiness of expression any more than he tolerated self-pity or selfishness or boastful pride. His children loved and respected him in a way that made them eager to gain his approval; he hardly had to say anything to communicate his feelings on a subject. Often a cocked eyebrow was all it took” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 15).
At the age of seven, Bonhoeffer began to attend school outside of the home. He was expected to walk to school by himself and initially had a great fear of the walk which including passing over a long bridge. Initially someone had to accompany him along his journey but he eventually overcame the fear. His sister Sabine remembered Dietrich being afraid of Santa Claus and water around this age. The first several times he was let in the water, he was quite scared and screamed out in fear, but later he became a great swimmer. Overcoming these fears showed that Bonhoeffer may have had initial hesitation in regard to unfamiliar things, but he excelled with his family’s affirmation and time to grow acclimated with the new environment. Though Bonhoeffer had friends, “throughout Dietrich’s childhood, his circle of friends was limited to family” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 18).
Around this time, at the age of eight, Bonhoeffer developed a love and skill of music. Just as Erikson portrayed in his model of stages, Bonhoeffer considered pursuing this talent as a full-time career. Music played a big part of the Bonhoeffer life and the family had musical evenings each Saturday night. For Bonhoeffer, “although he eventually chose theology over music, music remained a deep passion throughout his life. It became a vital part of his expression of faith, and he taught his students to appreciate it and make it a central aspect of their expressions of faith” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 23).
When Bonhoeffer was eight and a half, Germany declared war on Russia. The war would contribute to Bonhoeffer’s early development. Once the war was announced, many people took to the streets to celebrate. The Bonhoeffer’s promptly addressed their children that the family was not opposed to war, but would not celebrate it. The act of war drastically changed the way of life for the Bonhoeffer’s and the family went from being quite comfortable in their living to having to be creative in how to survive. Dietrich became very skilled in tracking down food supplies and was praised for his talent. The family moved again in 1916, with Dietrich around age ten, to Grunewald. This location was slightly larger than their home in Berlin and provided more space for the eight children and for planting gardens and keeping chicken and goats.
When Dietrich was 12, he had two of his older brothers called to war. The second oldest brother, Walter, died from a shrapnel wound just two weeks after leaving home. This would prove to be a turning point for Dietrich. While grieving for their son, the Bonhoeffer’s sent Dietrich away with the van Horn sisters in order to keep him away from death and sorrow at such a young age. During this period, Dietrich spent time with his mother’s side of the family, with which the profession of pastor or theologian was quite normal. Metaxas identifies the period of Germany losing the war to the time when Dietrich Bonhoeffer entered a new stage in his life, “If 1918 can be seen as the year that Dietrich Bonhoeffer left childhood, it can be seen as the year that Germany did too” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 31).
Adolescence – Identity vs. Role Confusion – Fidelity
The next stage of Erikson’s model, he classifies as adolescence. Erikson considers this to be a child developing enough world skills and tools along with the developing puberty to be considered the beginning of a transitional stage. Erikson identifies that a person going through this stage faces a physiological revolution within them. An adolescent accepting the adult tasks ahead, worries more with how they appear in the eyes of others and wrestles with how to link the skills developed earlier in life with the responsibilities of adulthood.
The challenge of this stage is role confusion. This confusion typically manifests itself within one’s sexual identity, delinquent and psychotic episodes. These challenges are not uncommon and can be controlled if diagnosed and treated properly. An adolescent unsure of a career path to associate identity will typically turn to peers for a sense of identity. This age group will often associate in groups, which at times can lead to segregation. Love at this age is also important as it helps develop a sense of identity; where Erikson associates young love to involve much conversation. Essentially it is important to remember that the adolescent is caught in a stage between childhood and adulthood and is working on unifying the morality learned in childhood with the ethics developed as an adult. This age is an ideal age to help guide a person to understanding their identity and help mold their future.
Bonhoeffer as an Adolescent
Bonhoeffer at this age determined that he was going to be a theologian. Rather than turning to his peers for a sense of identity, Bonhoeffer confidently proclaimed his desire to be a theologian. He did so knowing that he would be teased and given a hard time about his decision. Dietrich’s brother Karl-Friedrich challenged the decision the most, and in one of their arguments Dietrich commented, “Even if you were to knock my head off, God would still exist” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 38). Another theologian, Gerhard von Rad, became a friend of Bonhoeffer’s through Dietrich’s visits to his grandmother’s home. Von Rad added, “it was very rare for a young man of this academic elite to decide in favor of the study of theology. The study of theology, and the profession of theologian, were not highly respected in those circles. In a society whose ranks were still clearly discernable, the university theologians stood apart, academically and socially” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 38).
Bonhoeffer’s professional future was cemented during his adolescence. Though there was no mention of love, or a desire to link himself to friends for the purpose of identity, his peers took notice that Bonhoeffer successfully unified the morality he learned as a child to impact his ethics that he would continue to develop as an adult. Discussing an assassination that took place right outside of Bonhoeffer’s classroom, a friend recalled, “Bonhoeffer’s passionate indignation, his deep and spontaneous anger…I remember his asking what would become of Germany if its best leaders were killed. I remember it because I was surprised at the time that someone could know so exactly where he stood” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 40).
Young Adulthood – Intimacy vs. Isolation – Love
Once a person has successfully passed through adolescence and has a sense of identity, Erikson argues that the next practical step is towards using that identity to associate with others. The young adult eagerly associates with affiliations and partnerships, even at the extent of sacrifices and compromises. At this stage, close and intimate relationships are considered important. The desire and goal of this stage is intimacy in relationships and ultimately developing an understanding of love. The potential danger of this stage is isolation. According to Erikson, an avoidance of intimate contacts can lead to character problems.
Bonhoeffer as a Young Adult
By way of a family tradition, Bonhoeffer attended Tubingen to begin his university studies. Following his father’s footsteps, Dietrich joined the Igel fraternity. This allowed him the association with others that Erikson identifies as much needed at this stage of life. Though Erikson identified intimate relationships at even the extent of sacrifices and compromises, Bonhoeffer was raised secure in himself and his beliefs. During this time, other fraternities engaged in duels that allowed the members to disfigure their faces in a game of honor. These facial scars were seen as great distinctions within the German society. The Bonhoeffer’s had no desire to partake in such “buffoonery.” A fellow Igel commented on Dietrich being “extremely secure and self-confident, not vain, but ‘able to tolerate criticism’” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 43). The fellow Igel further commented that Bonhoeffer was “‘a companionable, physically agile and tough young man’ who possessed a ‘sharp nose for essentials and a determination to get to the bottom of things’ and who was also ‘capable of subtly teasing people and [who] had a great deal of humor’” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 43). Though he did not partake in the tradition of dueling for the sake of facial disfiguration, Bonhoeffer was eager to participate with his fellow colleagues in military training for the sake of being prepared if ever Germany needed to be defended. He joined his fellow classmates in covert training while in school, which was Germany’s way around having a military, since they were not allowed to have a military at this time due to the Allied Control Commission.
Dietrich maintained close and intimate relationships with his family, and even travelled to Rome with his brother Klaus. In Rome, Dietrich began to wrestle with the question of “what is the church?” From this trip, Bonhoeffer began to distinguish the church as being separate from the state and realized his connection to Christians outside of Germany. It was in Rome that Bonhoeffer came to realize that “this idea of a church defined by racial identity and blood – which the Nazis would violently push and so many Germans tragically would embrace – was anathema to the idea of the universal church” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 53).
Bonhoeffer earned his doctorate at the age of twenty-one. While in school he studied under Adolf von Harnack. Though Bonhoeffer did not agree fully with von Harnack’s theology, he respected the man and “esteemed the venerable scholar greatly” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 59). Because Bonhoeffer was confident in his position, he “refused to come too directly under the influence of any one of them, always preferring to maintain some distance” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 60). This caused some of the professors to consider Bonhoeffer to be arrogant because of his ability to be an independent thinker at such a young age. Even while excelling in school, Bonhoeffer maintained a stunningly active life as he “completed his doctoral dissertation in eighteen months” but also “was endlessly attending operas, concerts, art exhibitions, and plays; he maintained copious correspondence with friends, colleagues, and family; and he was perpetually traveling, whether on shorter trips to Friedrichsbrunn or on longer trips to the Baltic seashore” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 63).
Metaxas mentioned Bonhoeffer’s love life for the first time at this age. He began a section on Bonhoeffer’s first love by stating, “many who knew him have described Bonhoeffer as having a bit of distance between him and others, as though he had his guard up, or as though for sheer diffidence he didn’t wish to intrude on other people’s dignity” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 65). Near the end of his three years in Berlin, and for the majority of his twenties, Bonhoeffer had a significant woman in his life. Bonhoeffer and this woman, Elizabeth Zinn, spent eight years together and enjoyed concerts, museums, and operas together. She was also a student at Berlin University, so they enjoyed many theological conversations. Yet despite the close relationship between Bonhoeffer and Elizabeth, it appears their relationship may have been complicated. Bonhoeffer wrote many years later, “I was once in love with a girl…we didn’t realize we loved each other. More than eight years went by. Then we discovered the truth from a third person, who thought he was helping us…it was too late. We had evaded and misunderstood each other for too long. We could never be entirely in sympathy again, and I told her so” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 66).
As a pastor, Bonhoeffer had a deep love for the people he was given the opportunity to preach to. He considered his sermons as “nothing less than the very word of God, a place where God would speak to his people” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 272). His desire was to help his congregation “see that preaching was not merely an intellectual exercise…an opportunity to hear from heaven” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 272). Essentially his argument was that as a pastor, his teaching and his living must be “two parts of the same thing” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 272).
Middle Age – Generativity vs. Stagnation – Care
When examining the stages of life, Erikson identified this stage as being the central one, because it “encompasses the evolutionary development which has made man the teaching and instituting as well as the learning animal” (Erikson, 1963, p. 266). Most focus on the needs of children and examine their development, yet Erikson argues the desire for a mature adult to guide and instruct is just as important. Erikson considers generativity as “primarily the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation, although there are individuals who, through misfortune or because of special and genuine gifts in other directions, do not apply this drive to their own offspring” (Erikson, 1963, p. 267).
When such enrichment fails, a sense of stagnation takes place. Instead of discipling or teaching the next generation, a person becomes his or her own child. This idea of being one’s own child puts the focus of attention on the self. This type of thinking tends to be discouraged in many institutions, which tend to put their focus on generativity, or procreating and sustaining existence.
Bonhoeffer at Middle Age
Erikson’s assessment of placing the primary concern in establishing and guiding the next generation overlaps many years of Bonhoeffer’s life. In his early pastoral days, he was a youth pastor and found ways to connect with the children. Bonhoeffer believed, “communicating what he knew theologically – whether to indifferent businessmen, teenagers, or younger children – was as important as the theology itself. His success in children’s ministry shows this” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 85).
As the situation in Germany grew grimmer, and the effects were being seen throughout the world, Bonhoeffer showed that “the circumstances of life had obviously grown darker. In some ways it was as if decades had passed. One sign of a deepening seriousness in him was his penchant for eschatological themes and palpable longing for the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ which he communicated in his sermons” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 202-3). In a letter written in the mid-1930’s, Bonhoeffer noted that “one feels such a tremendous longing for real peace, in which all the misery and injustice, the lying and cowardice will come to an end” (Metaxas, 2010, p, 203).
In 1934, because of these injustices, Bonhoeffer accepted the directorship of the Confessing Church seminary. This school was created in order to maintain a theological education that was not influenced by the Nazi theology that was flooding the education system. Here, Bonhoeffer taught values similar to his upbringing, while putting Christ at the center of the focus. Bonhoeffer was ever the eternal optimist, knowing that “whatever befell him or the faithful brethren would open new opportunities in which God would operate, in which his provision would become clear” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 299). As the Nazis began to crack down on the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer began to wonder whether the movement’s fight was over. He knew that God was calling him to another fight, one that would enter him into a conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi leadership. Metaxas writes, “it’s impossible to say when Bonhoeffer joined the conspiracy, mainly because he was always in the midst of it, even before it could have been called a conspiracy” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 318-9). Bonhoeffer began to put into action his conviction for preserving the Scriptures and his fellow brother. Metaxas notes:
“Nearly all that Bonhoeffer would say and write later in life marked a deepening and expansion of what he had earlier said and believed, but never any kind of significant theological change. He was building on what had been established, like a scientist or mathematician. However high and far one built from the foundation, one could never disown or float free of that foundation” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 84).
Old Age – Ego Integration vs. Despair – Wisdom
Erikson admitted that this stage was difficult to define, yet considered the ego integration to be:
“The ego’s accrued assurance of its proclivity for order and meaning. It is a post-narcissistic love of the human ego – not of the self – as an experience which conveys some world order and spiritual sense, no matter how dearly paid for. It is the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle as something that had to be and that, by necessity, permitted of no substitutions: it thus means a new, a different love of one’s parents. It is a comradeship with the ordering ways of distant times and different pursuits, as expressed in the simple products and sayings of such times and pursuits. Although aware of the relativity of all the various life styles which have given meaning to human striving, the possessor of integrity is ready to defend the dignity of his own life style against all physical and economic threats. For he knows that an individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history; and that for him all human integrity stands or falls with the one style of integrity of which he partakes. The style of integrity developed by his culture or civilization thus becomes the ‘patrimony of his soul,’ the seal of his moral paternity of himself. In such final consolidation, death loses its sting” (Erikson, 1963, p. 268).
Despair becomes prevalent at this stage as the person processes the understanding that they are now too old to start fresh, and that time is short. Erikson discusses the idea of mature adults sharing and recognizing in one another the final stage of integrity. To experience this integrity, “the individual must know how to be a follower of image bearers in religion and in politics, in the economic order and in technology, in aristocratic living and in the arts and sciences. Ego integrity, therefore implies an emotional integration which permits participation by followership as well as acceptance of the responsibility of leadership” (Erikson, 1963, p. 269). Erikson’s final thought on this stage links the mature adult back to the younger stages commenting that “children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death” (Erikson, 1963, p. 269).
Bonhoeffer in His Final Days
Bonhoeffer’s decision to enter the conspiracy was the beginning of the end for his earthly existence. As Erikson noted when discussing the wisdom accrued in old age, “for him all human integrity stands or falls with the one style of integrity of which he partakes” (Erikson, 1963, p. 268). This wisdom allowed Bonhoeffer the courage to stand up against the evil empire. Bonhoeffer chose to work from within and blend in rather than drawing attention by making anti-Hitler statements. In a difficult ethical dilemma Bonhoeffer determined that it would be better for him to make small sacrifices for the betterment of society as a whole. This understanding was difficult for others in his time to fully understand, as “for many of them, such deception as Bonhoeffer would soon be involved in was no different from lying. Bonhoeffer’s willingness to engage in deception stemmed not from a cavalier attitude toward the truth, but from a respect for the truth that was so deep, it forced him beyond the easy legalism of truth telling” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 365). For Bonhoeffer, the thought of people giving into a form of religion that attempts to deceive God was far worse than his deception. He felt that as long as his decisions were based on keeping Christ at the core, he would be justified. He considered the relationship with God as ordering everything else around it, comparing it to “the cantus firmus of a piece of music. All the other parts of the music referred to it, and it held them together. To be true to God in the deepest way meant having such a relationship with him that one did not live legalistically by ‘rules’ or ‘principles.’ One could never separate one’s actions from one’s relationship to God” (Metaxas, 2010 p. 366-7). Bonhoeffer viewed this as a deeper, more demanding, level of obedience to God in response to the evil of Hitler. In reference to Martin Luther, Bonhoeffer felt he was merely “sinning boldly.”
Once Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, he continued to having morning meditation, pray, and read his Bible for hours. In the face of danger and potential death, Bonhoeffer remained strong. He had pledged his allegiance to God and was living his life in full obedience to God’s calling. Those working in the prison, as well as fellow inmates became enamored with Bonhoeffer and found him kind and generous.
Bonhoeffer had an understanding that he was older than he ever could have imagined, but felt full of life. As Erikson mentioned, Bonhoeffer was a follower of God and proved to be an image bearer even affirming that, “there is no reality apart from God and no goodness from him” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 469). By this point in his life, Bonhoeffer had accepted leadership in the movement that was attempting to preserve Christianity and mankind.
Erikson notes that “children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death” (Erikson, 1963, p. 269). Bonhoeffer in his final days wrote that since the day one hears about the resurrected, one becomes homesick while joyfully awaiting a release from bodily existence. Bonhoeffer writes, “life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up…death is not so wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word” (Metaxas, 2010, p. 531).
Erikson, E. (1963). Childhood and Society. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Metaxas, E. (2010). Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Mooney, C. G. (2000). Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson,
Piaget, & Vygotsky. St. Paul: Red Leaf Press.