Bonhoeffer on the Interplay of Mystery and Joy

In the latter part of his biography of Bonhoeffer, Charles Marsh carefully works through Bonhoeffer’s prison writings. The prison letters have come to be seen as some of Bonhoeffer most important and challenging theological work, and in this post I’d like to reflect on two recurring themes from those letters, namely the themes of hilaritas and arcnaum. Hilaritas is Christian joy that embraces the this-worldliness experience of life and Being, while arcanum is the unfathomable mystery of God as God. I’d like to suggest that these two themes are deeply entwined, that the proper response to mystery is in fact joy, that the recognition of arcanum is not a throwing up of the arms in the face of mystery but a joyful embrace of life as life and God as God.

Bonhoeffer’s reflections on these themes speak to his understanding of the vocation of theology. In a purely academic setting there might be no place for mystery at all, expect perhaps to solve it or to dispel it. But this is not how Bonhoeffer ever saw his own theological vocation, and especially not in prison at the end of his life. As Marsh writes: “It was a great mistake, Bonhoeffer said, to think of theology’s purpose as being the unveiling of mystery, ‘to bring down to the flat, ordinary wisdom of experience and reason!’ Theology should rather, as its sole mission aim to ‘preserve God’s wonder as wonder, to understand, to define, to glorify God’s mystery as mystery,’ ‘In the arcanum,’ he said, ‘Christ takes everyone who really encounters him by the shoulder, turning them around to face their fellow human beings and the world.’ Theology’s task was to preserve the eternal mystery in a catastrophically demystified time.” (from Strange Glory)

And it is precisely at this point that joy enters the conversation because the preservation of mystery is not a dour task, but a deeply joyful invitation into the life of God and into the world itself. Bonhoeffer sums this theme up as hilaritas. Bonhoeffer’s initial reflections on hilaritas emerged from his reading of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics II.2 in prison. In that volume, Marsh notes, “Bonhoeffer discovered the value of hilaritas—good humor—as the quality of mind, body, and spirit most important to animating the greatest human achievements.” But it was more than this too. Hilaritas is also a joyful resistance to the nihilism Bonhoeffer saw around him. It is a refusal to accept the construal of the world as nothing more than power, an absolute determination to not surrender. But it is more than a No; it is first a Yes. As Marsh writes, “hilaritas is “saying the Yes and the Amen in gleeful defiance of the Nothing” (366).

Thinking of the interplay of mystery and joy, I’m struck that the book of Ephesians is both the most extended meditation on the mystery of God as revealed in the gospel and the most breathlessly doxological book epistle in the New Testament.

Joyful doxology is the proper response to mystery. If mystery becomes simply something to be solved, then two possible dangers emerge, one being a throwing up of the hands and the other being the temptation to move on once the mystery is “solved”. Balthasar expounds on this second danger, writing, “Problems do not exist in order to be solved; we can never get ‘behind’ Being. We always look with mild contempt on everything we have solved. Problems should always become more luminous in the light of the great mystery in which we live, move, and have our being.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Grain of Wheat

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