Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Bonhoeffer & Leadership: Intellectual Openness

Written by: on January 18, 2021

Throughout the first half of this semester, my blogging will be in conversation with the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as exposed in Eric Metaxes’ biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. I purchased the book years ago based on the recommendations of multiple friends and mentors and with the intention to get to it when the time was right. The time became “right” at the end of 2020 which found us in the ever-growing lethal intensity of a global pandemic, at the tail-end of a dangerous, evangelically-backed white-supremacist presidency, and at either a deepening midnight or a breaking dawn.

My particular location as a white male Christian faith leader and peacemaker in the United States deepened my curiosity about the life of Bonhoeffer. In a different time, he, too, was a white, male, Christian theologian, pastor, and activist. We both were groomed within a nationalist theological agenda that placed us at the pinnacle of a sociological and theological human hierarchy. For different reasons, both of us were awakened to the calamity of this false religion and identity and have embarked upon pilgrimages that have and (hopefully) are leading to the kinds of transformation that reform our understanding of identity, theology, practice, and influence.

In the posts that emerge over the next six weeks, I will explore some of the components of Bonhoeffer’s pilgrimage. I will do this in an effort to discover how other dominant culture faith leaders who have been groomed within nationalist Christianity can experience liberation from the shackles of this religion.

To begin, I want to point to Bonhoeffer’s intellectual openness. As a student in Berlin, Metaxes points out that Bonhoeffer possessed the remarkable capacity to understand the perspectives of those with whom he agreed and disagreed with. In reflecting on Bonhoeffer’s interaction with differing schools of theology, Metaxes writes: “As a result of his intellectual openness, Bonhoeffer learned how to think like a fox and respect the way foxes thought, even though he was in the camp of the hedgehogs.”[1]

Intellectual openness seems not to be a posture that one is naturally endowed with. Metaxes points to Bonhoeffer’s upbringing as the incubator of this mindset. His father “taught his children to speak only when they had something to say,” and that “he did not tolerate sloppiness of expression.”[2] The emphasis throughout Bonhoeffer’s rearing was on deep listening and the expectation was that in order to engage in thoughtful discourse, one must first demonstrate that they understood the thought process of another. It was only after seeking to understand the ideas of another that the Bonhoeffer children were permitted to surface their thinking and convictions on the matter.

It seems as though this practice generated in Bonhoeffer the ability to hold multiple perspectives in tension and learn from them without compromising his convictions. For Bonhoeffer, to demonstrate an understanding of another’s perspective was to show respect for the person. Yet, to demonstrate understanding was not the same as adopting the understanding of another. Rather, understanding paved the way for an exploration of deeper truths and more refined convictions.

Intellectual openness seems uncommon, even rare, in this moment of U.S. history. The generosity that comes with intellectual openness has dissolved and seems to be have been replaced with the rigidity and angry defensiveness of apologetic thinking. The result is the roar of simultaneous monologues accompanied by the applause of those in our own personal echo-chambers. Few are listening to, much less learning from and respecting, the different perspectives of others.

So how might leaders who may not have had the privilege of being raised in homes where intellectual openness was a lived value grow in this regard?

Let me offer three suggestions:

  1. Interrogate yourself. In conversation with others, pay attention to how you show up and then rate yourself 1-5 on the following topics:
    1. I listened thoughtfully, respectfully, and actively to the perspective of another.
    2. I asked a number of follow-up questions in order to seek a better understanding before I shared my input.
    3. I demonstrated my understanding of their perspective and inquired about its accuracy before I offered my input.
    4. I offered my input in a way that established connections and thoughtful contrasts with my partner’s perspective.
    5. I offered my input in a way that invited critique.
  2. Displace yourself. Find spaces within your own social location and/or in virtual forums that are being facilitated by those different than you where you will be held accountable for showing up, listening long, and demonstrating learning.
  3. Expand yourself. While displaced, listen for and write down the words, topics, and ideas that are unfamiliar to you. Rather than pretending to understand, seek understanding by identifying and pursuing thought leaders, books, articles, and other resources on the topics.


[1] Metaxes, 61.

[2] Ibid., 15.

About the Author

Jer Swigart

12 responses to “Bonhoeffer & Leadership: Intellectual Openness”

  1. Dylan Branson says:

    Jer, when I read Bonhoeffer a few years ago, his upbringing floored me. The environment in which he was raised contributed to his being such a powerhouse. That intellectual openness was such a definitive marker in his relationship with his parents and siblings (and I couldn’t help but be a bit envious of it), and yet it was also marked a spirit of humility. But the continued relevancy his life still holds today is one that continues to humble me as I’m rereading it.

    I think one thing that stuck out to me about his beginnings was how Metaxas writes that in the Bonhoeffer household, if you made a statement you needed to be able to back it up and to also approach conversation with humility. Tying in what Dr. Harris was saying last night about misfiring in our conversations with others, we need to be able to take the time to fully seek and understand before making a bold statement. That’s something that I’ve personally tried to model with Bonhoeffer — to not just throw words around, but to use them as a means of grace.

  2. Greg Reich says:

    I look forward to your blog. Great choice! I have five of his works in my library. I have found that though he was very open minded he was not hesitant to speak his mind. I wonder in this environment of hot bed topics with no lack of diverse biblical opinions if Bonhoeffer could speak his mind as animately now as he does in his books? I also wonder what his message would be like if he would have lived in our current time without having the deep influences of Martin Luhter King? In his works “A Theology of Sociality” and “Sanctorum Communio” he has very strong opinions and they are in my opinion they key to understanding the rest of his writings and his theology. I especially liked his “Letters and Papers from Prison.” I have wanted to interact with Bonhoeffer’s theology in connection with his predecessors and contemporary theologians like Barth, Luther, Bultmann and Tillich just to see where if fits among other influential theological opinions.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      I, too, wonder how Bonhoeffer’s outspokenness would be received today…especially within a context where it seems that bold, brazen, outspokenness is more the rule than the exception. The uniqueness to Bonhoeffer’s approach as I understand it is that he modeled a thoughtfulness that became rooted far more in the evolution of the church in its faithfulness to its mission than it was in the preservation or demolition of a nationalist religion.

      • Greg Reich says:

        I agree! In some of his writings you not only see a strong opinion but between the lines a deep sense of personal struggle. For example, how can a preacher/ theologian become a spy? If you read his theology and social beliefs and then read the prison letters you can get a sense of the mental struggle that led him to stand against Hitler.

  3. John McLarty says:

    But, but, but…our society’s posture is “idolize yourself,” “defend yourself,” and “express yourself.” I’m digging everything you’re selling here, but it feels a bit like trying to mop up the ocean. To use an image from our advance last fall, what percentage of people do you think it would take to redirect the current of culture. What would be the tipping point?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      One of our American Idols, freedom of speech, has ironically seduced us away from intellectual openness and an appreciation for diverse perspectives and toward an arrogant, rigid thoughtlessness. There is no better example of this than Trump. While he stirred the hornets’ nests with his brash myopic ignorance, in the end, it led to his shameful demise. From my view, yesterday’s inauguration reminded us of the unifying power of civil discourse, of thoughtful disagreement, or, as my Jewish friends call it, righteous disagreement. As we seek to understand one another’s perspectives and disagree respectfully, we discover a better truth. To turn the tide, we first have to keep ourselves and each other accountable to intellectual openness. Who knows…maybe it will become contagious.

  4. Darcy Hansen says:

    I remember in my Poverty and Restorative Eco-justice class thinking that the reason why it is difficult to shift to more sustainable ways of living is because it takes so much extra time and effort. We live fast, think fast, and consume information fast. We all are also so consumed with our own problems that taking significant time to step into the life/reality of another to better understand is labor intensive. While I appreciate your suggestions at the end, they seem to be time consuming, both in thought and action, much like living a zero waste lifestyle. Getting people to buy into that when life is happening fast is tough. The pandemic has afforded us the opportunity to start the process- but once things open up again, how do you envision drawing people into intellectual openness when the pace of life is once again fast? Do you have a cliff notes version of your suggestions?

  5. Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, have you engaged with Volf’s work on “porous boundaries”? He develops that metaphor for discussing openness (porous), while still maintaining shape and convictions (boundaries). You might find that helpful.

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