What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience–and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by “religious.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letter to Eberhard Bethge, 30 April 1944
* * *
The famous passage above, from Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, has led to more than a half century of discussion on the question of “religionless Christianity.” Richard Beck has argued that this striking phrase and concept, which has caught the imagination of so many, was actually Bonhoeffer’s penultimate concern. The chief matter for Dietrich Bonhoeffer was: Who is Christ for us today? His central theological question was about Christology. The context was the “religionless” age in which we live.
Beck summarizes it like this:
Bonhoeffer was trying to understand how Christ could be “Lord of the world” in a world that didn’t recognize Christ’s existence or seem to need him. In that kind of world, who is Christ for us?
This was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s question in 1944. The world was at war, with madness at every hand, and Christianity seemed impotent to do anything about it. It caused him to question whether history might be witnessing the end of the Christian era itself.
Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the “religious a priori” of mankind. “Christianity” has always been a form — perhaps the true form — of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless — and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any “religious” reaction?) — what does that mean for “Christianity?”
In his June 8 letter to Bethge, Bonhoeffer further discussed how the historical movement toward “the autonomy of man” had in his time “reached an undoubted completion.” To him, it had become evident that “everything gets along without ‘God’–and, in fact, just as well as before.”
Richard Beck observes that this “world come of age,” this world that had arrived at “adulthood,” was not viewed as a bad thing by Bonhoeffer. He seems to have recognized it as a natural development from childhood to adolescence to maturity. It was something God’s people should accept and not fear. With that in mind, he critiqued as pointless, ignoble, and unchristian any Christian apologetic approach that attacked the world’s adulthood.
Pointless, because it seems to me like an attempt to put a grown-up man back into adolescence, i.e. to make him dependent on things on which he is, in fact, on longer dependent, and thrusting him into problems that are, in fact, no longer problems for him. Ignoble, because it amounts to an attempt to exploit man’s weakness for purposes that are alien to him and to which he has not freely assented. Unchristian, because it confuses Christ with one particular stage in man’s religiousness, i.e. with a human law.
Furthermore, in using these apologetics the Church is advancing a heretical view of God. By complaining that in coming to adulthood the world has evicted God, the church denies the exaltation of Christ as Lord over all things. As if humans could rise up and cast out the Creator and Redeemer of all from his universe! The Church, according to Bonhoeffer, too often presents God as a frustrated parent who doesn’t want human beings to grow up and achieve independence. As if God’s aim is to turn us all back into children.
But if this is not a good approach, how then should Christians live? How should they witness to the Lordship of Christ in a world that has achieved independence from God? We come back to Bonhoeffer’s controlling question: “Who is Christ for us today?”
In the end Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his letters and via his martyrdom, pointed to the Cross as the answer to that question. He writes, “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”
In other words, God acts in the world through the very act of letting himself be evicted from the world. Christ’s resurrection power and Lordship in the world is exercised not by his powerful, commanding presence and domination over the world, but by letting himself be crucified and cast out again and again. Through his weakness, impotence, and even his absence, Christ reigns.
If the Church is to truly witness to Christ then, it will not be through apologetics or any type of “ministry” that attempts to put the world back under the guardianship of a celestial nanny. Rather, it will be through taking our place alongside our fellow humans as people without God in a world without God in order that we might truly know God. As Richard Beck puts it, “By pushing the false ‘Powerful God’ out of the world the way becomes clear for the God revealed in the cross of Jesus.”
In this light, Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed his desire to live:
…unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian.
The world’s “adulthood” is not something to be feared and fought, rather it becomes a “midwife” to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ: that in his absence Christ is Lord of all.
And perhaps, when we embrace life in a world without God, we shall become Christians.
* * *
Recommended Reading: Richard Beck’s series: “Letters from Cell 92” at Experimental Theology.