XIV International Bonhoeffer Congress Conference Report

Scholars from all over the world gathered in Sydney, Australia for the fourteenth International Bonhoeffer Congress. Known in some circles as the “Bonhoeffer Olympics” due to its every four-year occurrence, this iteration of the congress explored the theme “crisis and hope.” Taking place over four days (not counting the meeting of PhD students before the conference), the presentations were rich, diverse, creative, and challenging. 

Anne Pattel-Gray, indigenous Australian theologian, outlined how Bonhoeffer’s articulation of a call to discipleship showcases the moral failings of the Australian church in its inefficacy in presenting unified support for indigenous rights, most recently in the debates around the voice referendum. Eco-theologian Lisa Dahill pushed for a post-theistic, post-religion version of Christianity that moved towards pantheism. The following day, Dianne Rayson presented an eco-theology that pushed in a similar direction but ultimately held onto a transcendent God who remains other than creation. 

I have to confess, I was a bit disappointed that neither of these keynotes on eco-theology, nor any in the eco-theology panel, brought in that biographical aspect of Bonhoeffer that is most thrilling and confounding to so many: his alleged involvement in the conspiracy to blow up Hitler. I would have loved to hear a talk engaging Andreas Malm’s How to Blow up a Pipeline, Bonhoeffer’s theology of call to obedience, and eco-terrorism. If we are facing not only the extinction of homo sapiens but also thousands of other species, might the call of God be to challenge this genocide by blowing up a pipeline? But that’s not the fault of the conference! 

Willie Jennings at the XIV International Bonhoeffer Congress

My favourite keynote — due in part I am sure to my American-ness, but also to my theological interests — came from Willie Jennings, presenting on the limits of creatureliness and how the colonial logic at its heart seeks for limitlessness. During his talk, Jennings wove in poetry, pushing the boundaries of what “counts” as authentic and meaningful God-talk in an academic setting. One of my favourite quotes from his talk went something like, “When we’re sitting around deciding what courses to teach and what readings to include in theological education — and all education — we must ask first and foremost: what does this theology do for poor women around the world? Especially poor women of colour.” In a sense, this re-focus calls all theology and theologians to the witness stand and asks point blank, how are you proclaiming freedom and liberation to those entrenched in oppressive systems of power? 

Pushing this critique further, theological frames are of little use unless they push against oppression and unjust hierarchies. As a personal challenge, I have to ask myself how I can produce a theology that forms and not merely informs. 

Me asking an unintelligible question after Dr Jennings’s talk on heteronormativity and creaturely limit, probing whether Barth and Bonhoeffer’s love lives offer any hints at a move beyond heteronormative coupling. Photo credit Dr Rayson.

Many things to consider and think about! And I’m incredibly grateful to the conference organisers who did a tremendous job holding everything together, as well as all those presenters who offered up their own reflections to the theological discourse. There is also immense joy in meeting others from around the globe who are doing their best to follow that costly call of discipleship in their own work and lives. 

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