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Reviewed by:
  • Reading from the Underside of Selfhood: Bonhoeffer and Spiritual Formation
  • Elisabeth K. J. Koenig (bio)
Reading from the Underside of Selfhood: Bonhoeffer and Spiritual Formation. By Lisa E. Dahill. Princeton Theological Monograph Series. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2009. Paperback. 268 pp. $33.00.

Lisa E. Dahill (Assistant Professor of Worship and Christian Spirituality at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, OH) co-chairs the Bonhoeffer: Theology and Social Analysis Group of the American Academy of Religion. In addition, she has translated two volumes of Bonhoeffer’s works for the DBWE series from Fortress Press [DBWE 16, Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940–1945 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006) ; and DBWE 8, Surrender: Letters and Papers from Prison (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010)]. In Reading from the Underside of Selfhood: Bonhoeffer and Spiritual Formation, Dahill leads readers into subtleties of Bonhoeffer’s thought that would be apparent only to such a skilled translator. This alone makes for both [End Page 309] satisfying and deeply challenging theological reading. Dahill’s project, however, extends far beyond that of translator or interpreter. With tactful psychological and theological insight, she details how Bonhoeffer’s model of self-sacrificing disciple-ship liberated him from his patriarchy-and-patrician engendered ego. She then argues that for people who suffer trauma, abuse, and other forms of violence, that model of discipleship could not be freeing, precisely because it perpetuates a disregard for the self that is both a continuation of abuse, and an impediment to the Christian discernment of vocation. As Bonhoeffer eventually discovered for himself, discernment requires a particular kind of focus on self, which is a loving engagement with the reality of self that is known only in relationship with Jesus Christ.

Dahill’s central chapters are entitled “Bonhoeffer’s Sense of Self”; “Bonhoeffer and Christian Spiritual Formation”; “Gender, Selfhood, and Abuse”; and “Conversation Between Bonhoeffer and Feminist Psychology.” She faithfully explicates Bonhoeffer’s thought and experience, as reflected in his written works and through the observations of people who knew him. Her profound love and respect for him is everywhere apparent, and it is clear that, because she, like Bonhoeffer, is a Lutheran theologian, there is a special Christological resonance between them. Dahill is nonetheless a feminist theologian. Her sensitivity to issues stemming from gender, race, and class has been honed through extensive reading in feminist theology and psychology, personal experience, and through exposure to people who live on the “underside.”

Dahill describes her project’s significance for Bonhoeffer studies “precisely as a psychologically-informed feminist analysis within the discipline of Christian spirituality.” She appropriates Sandra Schneiders’ description of the academic study of Christian spirituality as interdisciplinary and self-implicating. Bonhoeffer’s writing ultimately exemplifies these two characteristics in her argument. His early work, especially Sanctorum Communio, daringly joined sociological reflection to theology in an age where such interdisciplinarity was rare. Self-implication appears in Bonhoeffer’s writing only after a long struggle. His “blind spots,” limitations to which his gender and class had conditioned him, prevent him from honoring the self in a theological or spiritual analysis. For the young Bonhoeffer, redemption and spiritual growth involve complete abandonment of the self, even to the point of aggression against the self. The self (das Selbst) is a universally negative concept for Bonhoeffer. The I (das Ich) is totally claimless before the absolute demands of the You. (Dahill notes that there is a blurriness of referent here: the You seems to carry both human and divine connotation.) Bonhoeffer’s will-centered anthropology means that the encounters in community that form persons always involve a conflict in which the self’s needs, desires, and very reality are necessarily overcome. For the early Bonhoeffer, such dissolution, utter effacement, even extinguishment (from ausgeloscht) of the self constitute liberation from the imprisoning ego. However, when persecution changed his social status, his view of self changed too. Bonhoeffer’s eventual valuation of the self, within the context of relationship with Jesus Christ, only took place after he had suffered personal diminishment through imprisonment and abuse at the hands of the Nazis. Dahill documents a process of spiritual transformation that occurred as a result. She speculates, “Perhaps, faced with these savage idolatries of Nazism so intent on...


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