The Greatest of These


Flickr photo by Christopher Michel

It seems ironic that the lives of the 20th century’s two most beloved theologians – C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – should have been so marked by tragedy.  Then again, perhaps it makes perfect sense.  Undoubtedly, it is part of the reason why their stories continue to captivate us.  One cut down in the flower of youth by a tyrannical Nazi regime (Bonhoeffer); one forced to endure the wrenching heartache of personal loss  when his wife died of cancer (Lewis).  Surely it informed their theology, but I would rather say that their passage of these two tests lends truth to the words they have spoken.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer with seminary students in Germany in 1932. Photo from the German Federal Archive.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer with seminary students in Germany in 1932. Photo from the German Federal Archive.

There is one particular part of both men’s tragedies that affects me acutely: the loss not of life or possession but time.  And not time only for time’s sake, nor the sake of further benefit to humanity.  Time to be with the ones they loved – the women they loved.  It is easy to think of religious scholars as beyond the reach of such trifling matters.  This only shows our lack of appreciation for the power and importance of romantic love, which we deify in our culture but remove from our faith.  Perhaps the Catholic Church, with its historically dual standards of righteousness for the celibate and non-celibate, is responsible for this misapprehension, or maybe our Puritan ancestors have had a greater effect on us than we like to admit.

There can be no question that both of these men loved deeply.  Lewis had been a bachelor for life before suddenly changing his mind.  Likewise, Bonhoeffer told his own students that resistance did not lend itself to matrimony, but before he was consigned to prison he too was engaged to be married.  I do not believe that anything but the deepest love could have persuaded them to change their minds.  They had each met their match and they knew it.  Tragically, neither one would be given more than a few fleeting moments to experience that love.

C.S. Lewis' former home near Oxford, England.

C.S. Lewis’ former home near Oxford, England.

When Maria runs back to the abbey in The Sound of Music, determined to go through with her vow of celibacy despite her newfound love for Captain von Trapp, the Mother Abbess reminds her, “The love of a man and a woman is holy as well.”  The greatest man is not the one who has no need for such love, but one who sees its infinite value.  Romantic love is not everything, but it is one of the greatest blessings that God has given to humanity, much as all forms of human love are a light in an otherwise very dark world.  When I see how these men finally found it, only to have it snatched away, it makes me realize how precious is each day with the one God has made for me.

Please do not misunderstand me: I am by no means elevating the virtues of marriage above those of singleness, nor do I seek to make this time of year any harder for those who yearn for romantic love but do not have it at the present time.  I merely wish to point out that it is a mistake to assume that intellectualism cannot coexist with emotion, or that it is impossible to devote one’s self to Christ while also devoting one’s self to another human being.  Both Lewis and Bonhoeffer valued love so much that they embraced it despite the knowledge that it would most likely lead to pain.  Perhaps that can be an inspiration for us all.