Student Spotlight: Peter Hartwig’s UVA Includes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Cappella and the Holy Spirit

Peter Hartwig
February 15, 2016

Peter Hartwig came to the University of Virginia revering a contemporary German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann. Now, the fourth-year religious studies and classics student has met his inspiration in person – over tea while traveling in Germany – and is preparing a thesis on one of Moltmann’s inspirations, theologian and Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This summer, Hartwig will be the only undergraduate presenting research at the International Bonhoeffer Congress in Basel, Switzerland. He will discuss how Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the Holy Spirit connects to modern Pentecostalism, today’s fastest-growing form of Christianity.

It is a very personal topic for Hartwig, whose father is an evangelical preacher in Charlottesville. Hartwig – now a part-time preacher himself – has used his studies to better understand his upbringing and religious views.

His approach has impressed his faculty mentor.

“Ordinarily, I would be directing this kind of work at the dissertation level, not the undergraduate level, but Peter is just that kind of student – a bit of a theological prodigy,” said religious studies professor Charles Marsh, Hartwig’s adviser and a renowned Bonhoeffer expert.

“Peter is unusual in that he is able to maintain a clear, richly defined religious identity while also being exceedingly generous, open and engaging. He is willing to listen to any argument or idea, however different from his own,” Marsh said. “That is obviously something we need more of, both in learning and in the national debate.”

UVA Today sat down with Hartwig to discuss how his time on Grounds has enhanced his understanding of faith, whether he is in class, singing with the Academical Village People a capella group or teaching a class at the Albemarle County Jail.

Q. What drew you to the study of theology?

A. In a way, it has been my life’s work. My dad is a minister and I was raised with charismatic Christianity (focused on experiences with the Holy Spirit). When I was 14, I was unexpectedly introduced to the work of German theologian Jürgen Moltmann. It immediately became my life’s passion and that has never gone away.

It is the most storybook thing that has happened to me. I was just absolutely captivated and that sent me into this long and wandering journey into academic theology. Coming to UVA, I wanted to find a way to marry the particularly odd religious upbringing that I had been fortunate to have with the resources of academic theology.

Q. Your thesis has earned recognition from the biggest conference on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What are some of its key ideas?

A. Being raised amid Virginia evangelicalism, the Holy Spirit was part and parcel of everyday life and religious expression. My thesis looks at how the Holy Spirit works in Bonhoeffer’s writings.

By and large, he does not mention the Holy Spirit directly. However, he talks about a “religionless Christianity” – a Christianity with no mediating principle except for a very dynamic, present Jesus. This is basically Pentecostal, focused on the presence of God in the world. So I am drawing connections between Bonhoeffer’s views and my own Pentecostal view of the Holy Spirit. Essentially, I am writing what Bonhoeffer could have thought about the Holy Spirit. It is a bit brash and cheeky, but I am doing it anyway.

Professor Marsh has been so supportive and remarkably generous in helping me do this. Resources have dropped in my lap that I did not know existed, and it was actually his idea to send my proposal to the conference, that made it all possible.

Q. How have your extracurricular activities at UVA influenced your academic experience?

A. Weirdly enough, the Academical Village People have been important for me theologically, in the way that I think about religious groups. Trying to get along with people toward a kind of vague goal is really important, and trying to sound better with 16 other college-aged males is remarkably difficult, but deeply formative and rewarding. It has changed the way I think about community.

Also, as an intern with Professor Marsh’s Project on Lived Theology, I taught a course in spiritual autobiography at the Albemarle County Jail, with graduate student Nathan Walton. I had taken a similar course with associate professor Heather Warren, and it was the first time I reflected on my own upbringing in a systematic way. I thought that might be a useful skill for those in prison. I offered, if they wanted it, space and resources to tell their story. It ended up being an awesome experience, and they taught me more than I think I taught them.

Q. How has your time at UVA changed your faith?

A. Coming to UVA, I managed to create an academic distance from my religious upbringing. Now, near the end of college, I am turning back with a renewed appreciation for my Pentecostal upbringing and for what my dad does as a minister, how confusing, rewarding and difficult that is. I preach a lot now, which is still kind of strange to me.

I think that my studies here have made my faith more authentic. Under the razor of academic study, my faith has been pared down into something more dynamic, authentic and gravitational. Baptism is a helpful metaphor. It is about going all the way under the water and coming back up. Being at UVA, more of me has been baptized, intellectually going all the way under and coming back up. I have gotten to study with people that I really respect, who have guided me in this process. I see more clearly the political outworking of what I believe. I feel like studying at UVA has made my faith much more real.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. Right now, I am thinking about working in investment banking for a year. Then, I hope to go to graduate school. I would like to be someone who spends enough time in the academy to figure out what they think and come up with something new to say, and also enough time in the church that they have someone to say it to. Working in the church is a deeply formative experience on a number of levels, because you are dealing with the thing that people hold most dear. I am kind of a junkie for it.

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