How I Wrote My Dissertation

Vision and Revision Part I

By spring 2008, the second half of my first year as a Ph.D. student in historical theology at Saint Louis University, it was clear that I would attempt to write my dissertation about the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary. I would analyze the relationship between the practices and beliefs of this community of Protestant nuns in Germany and their historical context. That much I knew. But which practices? Which beliefs? And which aspects of their context? A dissertation needs to be a focused work, ideally attempting to answer one precise question of the author’s determining. I had some digging to do.

I learned the basics from the sisters’ website. On the night of September 11, 1944, Allied bombers decimated the city of Darmstadt, Germany. Tens of thousands of people died. Most of the city’s residents were homeless by morning. Among them were the members of a Lutheran girls Bible study. They prayed that night for God’s forgiveness in light of his manifest judgment and soon decided to dedicate their lives to him as a formal sisterhood. I later learned that this account was a simplification, but at least it was a start. Even in their most basic account, the sisters connected their origins to their experience of the Third Reich.

I dug as deeply as I could in the library and in book databases. I found a handful of works treating the broader phenomenon of Protestant religious orders in post-World War II Europe. There were in fact a few dozen such communities, many of which survive today. The literature, much of it from the 1950s and 1960s, mostly concerned the question of whether or not Protestant religious orders should exist. From a historical standpoint, this is not a relevant question. Such communities do exist. But why?

With a one-time book scholarship I purchased the entirety of the sisters’ in-print book catalog. Given by her husband in memory of Rhelda Marbry Morgan, a Ph.D. candidate who died before she could complete her dissertation, the scholarship was a welcome reminder that my work is the fruit of the work of others, living on after them, just as I hope that my work will live on after me.

Reading through the works of Mother Basilea, I began to pick up on key themes: the joy of repentance; the urgency for believers to have bride-like love for Christ; the power of the blood of Christ to cleanse sins; the need believers us to have Mary-like devotion for Christ; the hidden blessings of suffering; and God’s eternal love for the Jewish people. But I did yet not see how these themes fit together.

Even as I dug deeper into the sisters’ writings, I worked to expand my knowledge of their historical context. That is the essential method of historical theology: to understand past ideas about God and a life of faith in light of their historical context. I happened to be emailing a pastor and mentor from my youth, back in my Lutheran days in Oregon. He informed me that one of the world’s leading scholars of post-World War II Germany in general and regarding religious issues in particular, Mark Ruff, was in fact on the faculty of my university’s history department. I soon made regular visits to Dr. Ruff’s office, asking questions, letting him dispel my myriad misconceptions, and taking reading requests. It was soon apparent that he would be on my dissertation committee. Ruff helped me understand that Protestant church leaders did not resist Hitler as much as they later acted like they did and that the question of national guilt dominated public discourse in Germany in the immediate post-war years. Those were two of the biggest missing pieces in my puzzle.

But I was not done digging. I needed to go back to the beginning, to look at the sisters’ earliest published writings, including those now out-of-print. They all still existed, just not in the U.S. I needed to visit the German National Library. Everything ever published in Germany sits on its stacks. I just needed the means to reach it.

My department offered a scholarship for overseas language study, as long as it was at an established program. I could use the funds for airfare to Germany and enrollment in a short-term intensive course, and also conduct my research while I was there. I had to find something relevant to my studies as a historical theologian. The problem was that my modern German was just fine; so was my French; and I couldn’t justify starting a neighboring language from scratch, since this wouldn’t have anything to do with my dissertation. The solution: Herrnhut Germany’s Moravian archives offered an intensive course in deciphering 18th-century handwriting (which, if you don’t know, is like cursive but with completely different letters – lower-case “t”s look like “s”s; so do lower-case “s”s). I succeeded in making the case that it was a solid long-term investment in my education. In late May 2010, before the one week course, I could spend a solid two weeks digging in the German National Library.

Imagine if the U.S. Library of Congress were run by Germans. That is, in essence, what the Deutsche Nationalbibliotek is like. You cannot bring anything into the reading room apart from writing implements and paper, which you must carry in a transparent plastic tote bag. You may secure all other belongings in a locker in the lobby. You can only check out five books to look at at a time and you cannot leave the reading room with them. You must order them at least one day in advance. I had a list of 74 books and two weeks in which to “read” them. Even defining “read” as speed skimming (auf Deutsch), taking extensive short-hand notes, and identifying which texts mattered most, time was very much against me. It is a good thing I had help.

In addition to having native fluency in English and Spanish, my wife Enelia is also proficient in German and has a flexible work schedule. She accompanied me on the trip, checking out books in her name, letting me “read” them, and making photocopies of the parts that mattered. 74 books, ten business days (minus the first day, which is just for ordering books and for orientation, and minus Corpus Christi, which relatively few Germans celebrate but which German libraries do).

By looking at the sisterhood’s earliest literature, I learned that there were only a handful of original sisters. Most of the girls’ Bible study members never joined. Guilt and repentance were always at the center of their life together, but the guilt did not take on specificity until a later date. A vague sense of collective national guilt and fear of God’s judgment at the end of World War II did not become enshrined in the sisterhood as a sense of guilt for the Holocaust until the early 1960s.

It helped in a way me not being a native German speaker. There were odd moments in the sisters’ writings that stood out to me, things that I might have taken for granted if I were not hanging on every word. Mother Basilea wrote about the guilt of the German Volk against the Jewish Volk. The word means “people” not as the plural of “persons” but as the singular of “peoples.” The word in German means “nation,” “ethnicity,” and much more. In part because there was a relatively cohesive German culture long before there was a German nation-state, the word developed connotations of spiritual unity and moral agency beginning in the Romantic era and reaching its zenith, as you might imagine, under the influence of German nationalism during and between the World Wars.

The sisters were influenced by this. Their assertion of collective German guilt rested on the idea that Germans as a people were a Christian nation. They had sinned against the Jewish people. It is interesting to note here that Mother Basilea and the sisters assumed that to be German was to be Christian and Gentile, and that German and Jewish were two mutually exclusive categories – assumptions that many German Jews would have rejected prior to the Holocaust and that Germany’s Jewish population would almost universally accept after it.

The sisters were not alone in asserting German national guilt after World War II. What made the sisters distinctive is that they embraced the idea of German guilt as Germans and that they defined German guilt as guilt for the Holocaust, if not initially, still significantly in advance of most public German reckoning with the legacy of the Holocaust. Many Allies were eager to ascribe guilt to the German nation after World War II. After all, that is what the victors did to Germany after World War I. International ecumenical leaders even coerced German Protestant church leaders into issuing statements of national repentance in 1945 and 1947. That is what the Stuttgart Confession and Darmstadt Statement were supposed to be. But both documents were silent about why specifically Germans were guilty and who precisely was repenting. Instead they were vague and, while briefly controversial, quickly forgotten.

The sisters, by contrast, embraced a clear ideology. They saw themselves as a spiritual elite who needed to cleanse themselves like priests in order to repent on their nation’s behalf. In this way, Mother Basilea and the sisters rooted their ideas of national guilt not merely in some elements from German nationalism but more overtly in their reading of the Hebrew Bible and the role of the Temple priesthood. The sisters and their allies alone were pure enough in their devotion to God to lead their nation in repentance. They loved Jesus and the Jews enough to make spiritual sacrifices, burdening themselves with the weight of their nation’s transgressions, and praying long into the night, hoping to hold back God’s judgment and postpone the looming nuclear apocalypse so that more souls might be saved.

There were still two big pieces missing to my puzzle. The first was gender. As a man researching a women’s religious community, I felt profoundly inadequate. One of my mentors and other dissertation committee members, Angelyn Dries, provided some especially poignant challenges and insights. As the member of a women’s religious order herself, she knew that I needed to ask the question: how did the sisters’ identity as women impact their religious practices and beliefs? I struggled over several semesters to accept that I could observe and analyze the gendered aspects of the sisters’ life without first offering a multi-page apology for doing so.

What I discovered was this: the sisters tended to relativize gender. The models for ideal discipleship that Mother Basilea offered were either gender-neutral – as in the case of children, who love God with an innocent trust – or, more often, primarily female, as in the case of the Virgin Mary, their exemplar and namesake, and true Brides of Christ, those who passionately loved Jesus as the Bridegroom of their souls. The one exception, the paradigm of the ideal disciple as priest, still relativizes gender, for women, too, are just as able to serve God in his spiritual priesthood.

The other big missing piece in the puzzle was the sisterhood’s art, architecture, and landscaping. The sisters given their gardens and buildings that contain their motherhouse and retreat center the name Kanaan. The community’s homeland is a Christianized, Germanized version of Israel, the sisterhood’s own small-scale Promised Land. I needed to see it to believe it – and I was fortunately able to do so in great detail on the same 2010 trip that took me to the German National Library. (Enelia took the pictures to prove it).

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)