Spirit, Flesh, Restoration, and Sublimation

There’s an intriguing passage in Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison where he discusses the relationship between “spirit” and “flesh,” in the context of discussing “restoration” and “sublimation,” in the context of discussing lyrics from certain hymns and songs that were meaningful to him in prison.

Here it is, from a December 19, 1943 (the Fourth Sunday of Advent) letter to Eberhard Bethge:

In recent weeks this line has been running through my head over and over: “Calm your hearts, dear friends; / whatever plagues you, / whatever fails you, / I will restore it all.” What does that mean, “I will restore it all”? Nothing is lost; in Christ all things are taken up, preserved, albeit in transfigured form, transparent, clear, liberated from the torment of self-serving demands. Christ brings all this back, indeed, as God intended, without being distorted by sin. The doctrine originating in Eph. 1:10 of the restoration of all things, ἀνακεφαλαίωσις—re-capitulatio (Irenaeus), is a magnificent and consummately consoling thought. (DBWE 8:229–30)

I also occasionally think of the p 231 from the Augustinian “O bone Jesu,” by Schütz. In a certain way, namely, in its devotion—ecstatic, aching, and nevertheless so pure—isn’t this passage something like the “restoration” of all earthly desire? By the way, “restoration” is, of course, not to be confused with “sublimation”! “Sublimation” is σάρξ, (and pietistic?!), whereas “restoration” is spirit, meant not in the sense of “spiritualization” (which is also σάρξ) but of καινή κτίσις through the πνεῦμα ἅγιον. (DBWE 8:230–31)

It’s intriguing (to me) because, in other prison letters, Bonhoeffer uses “spirit” and/vs. “flesh,” as well as the word “restoration,” to describe Barth’s theological critique of religion.

On April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote:

How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well? Is there such a thing as a religionless Christian? If religion is only the garb in which Christianity is clothed—and this garb has looked very different in different ages—what then is religionless Christianity? Barth, who is the only one to have begun thinking along these lines, nevertheless did not pursue these thoughts all the way, did not think them through, but ended up with a positivism of revelation, which in the end essentially remained a restoration. (DBWE 8:363–64, emphasis added)

Then, on June 8, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote:

Barth was the first to recognize the error of all these attempts (which were basically all still sailing in the wake of liberal theology, without intending to do so) in that they all aim to save some room for religion in the world or over against the world. He led the God of Jesus Christ forward to battle against religion, πνεῦμα against σάρξ. This remains his greatest merit (the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans, despite all the neo-Kantian eggshells!). Through his later Dogmatics he has put the church in a position to carry this distinction in principle all the way through. (DBWE 8:428–29, emphasis added)

Furthermore, “sublimation” is a very important word for Barth’s theological critique of religion as found in Church Dogmatics I/2, §17, “The Revelation of God as the Sublimation [Aufhebung, sometimes translated “abolition”] of Religion”!

For a moment, I thought I might be on to something here. What was going on with Bonhoeffer’s collocation of “flesh,” “spirit,” “restoration,” and “sublimation”?

However, I took a closer look and realized that, in the December 19, 1943 letter, Bonhoeffer uses the word Wiederbringung for “restoration,” as opposed to Restauration, which he uses to describe Barth’s positivism of revelation in the April 30, 1944 letter.

Furthermore, he uses Sublimierung for “sublimation,” and not Aufhebung, the term Barth uses in CD I/2.

So now I’m trying to parse out the differences between “Wiederbringung” and “Restauration,” and between “Sublimierung” and “Aufhebung.” Not to mention the connection between Barth and Bonhoeffer on the theme of spirit vs. flesh!

By Joshua Steele

Software engineer using "dead" languages to help the living. Learn more at joshuapsteele.com.

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