October 17, 2017

Another Look: Who Is Christ for Us Today?

Guernica, Picasso

Guernica, Picasso

Note from CM: I am reading Letters & Papers from Prison because I want to explore more of what Bonhoeffer said about the “completely religionless time” he said was coming. Yesterday’s metaphor, which I realize came across with mixed results, was one small attempt on my part to begin working through my own sense that we, at least in the West, may be actually living in such an age.

• • •

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.

Comments

  1. I’ve always had a problem with the concept of the world coming into ”adulthood”. Does ”adulthood” mean the ability and propensity to slaughter millions at a time rather than just thousands? Or does it mean an ever increasing ability to eliminate the Creator from His creation while saying to himself ”Look what my hands have wrought!”? How is this ”adulthood”? It seems more like the petulancy of adolescence.

    • For once, I think we agree. The Bible is full of warnings about how much of a threat and temptation riches are. And there is no denying that abundant energy – and the technology that has arisen from it – have made much of the world very rich indeed (from a “basic needs” perspective). If that trend is indeed irreversible, then Bonhoeffer’s dilemma indeed applies in the long term.

      I do have my doubts about just how sustainable this all really is, however…

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        >The Bible is full of warnings about how much of a threat and temptation riches are.

        But is Hubris *the* message of Scripture? [It can sound that way from certain voices]

        Aside – the message of Hubris is *not* unique to Scripture, not even remotely. All manner of texts speak to hubris, stretch back into the mists of time, from cultures all over the world. Besides, Hubris seems to be a very sliding scale.

    • Perhaps Western culture is coming into adulthood in a similar sense that the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable came into adulthood when he demanded his share of the booty and went off to party hard in a foreign land, far away from the boundaries and restrictions of his father’s world. From a certain perspective, you could say that son threw off the shackles of old ideologies, took charge of his own existence, and moved forward into a brave new world. Maybe that’s where we are right now as a civilization: living it up in a world we’ve custome designed for ourselves. But I fear the pig herding days are not too far down the road. Perhaps humankind is about to go through a very painful learning process. But will we learn? Will the son “come to himself”, remember his father’s house, and start making his way back home? Or will he choose to choke to death on corn husks and pride?

  2. Can’t say this resonates with me at all. I don’t want to live “without God in a world without God”; frankly, this is one of my main motivations for being a Christian. I was under the impression that humans were meant to be in union with God, and that Christ’s work on the cross was meant to bring about this end. So it seems to me that increased autonomy/seperation from God constitutes a step in the wrong direction.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Is autonomy seperation? Is a father *less* with his son when the son is grown than when the son is an infant? The possibility of something like “union” has only increased – the son can now understand much more of what the father says.

      • David H says:

        You bring up a good point that makes me think of a passage I read recently in Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God:

        “No healthy parent wants a permanently dependent child on his hands. And so a father does not push his daughter around in a large carriage for life, but teaches her to walk, knowing that she may one day walk away. Good parents nudge their children from dependence toward freedom.

        Lovers, however, reverse the pattern. A lover possesses complete freedom, yet chooses to give it away and become dependent. ‘Submit to one another.’ says the Bible, and any couple can tell you that’s an apt description of the day-to-day process of getting along. In a healthy marriage, one submits to the other’s wishes voluntarily, out of love. In an unhealthy marriage, submission becomes part of a power struggle, a tug-of-war between competing egos.

        The difference between those two relationships shows, I believe, what God has been seeking in his long history with the human race. He desires not the clinging, helpless love of a child who has no choice, but the mature, freely given love of a lover. He has been ‘romancing’ us all along.”

        • That’s a great book, and a great analogy. I think this ties into the chart that Daniel Jepsen posted on Friday.

          • Rick Ro. says:

            +1. Yancey’s book did SO MUCH for me, helping me come out of my spiritual desert. Yes, it seems to tie to Daniel’s chart on Friday.

          • David H says:

            Rick Ro: I actually bought the book after you mentioned it in one of your posts not too long ago while I was thinking about starting some new books this summer 🙂

          • Rick Ro. says:

            Cool!

        • StuartB says:

          Ish. This makes “Jesus Lover of my Soul” so much worse. Too much Bridal Theology in my charismatic days…bad taste in mouth….no puns or jokes intended.

          God the Father wants us, his sons and daughters, to grow up and be independent and use the tools and wisdom he gives us while still not forgetting who our daddy is and to go to him for advice. That’s healthy. Dependency, even on God, isn’t.

          And to comment further on the lovers thing…I agree and somewhat agree. Submit to one another is great, but has to come from a place of partnership, each of you being equals. Some areas one may be greater, other areas another may be greater, but fundamentally, both are equals.

          Which is why I guess I find it impossible to find women in the american christian church, since I’m looking for that secular independent don’t need no man partner of a woman, and not a help meat.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            > Submit to one another is great, but has to come from a place of partnership

            I agree. Bridal theology works for only a very short metaphoric distance; if you keep up with the analogy it gets very very weird very soon.

            And no matter how you slice it this union – man with GOD – is no way what-so-ever at all one of equal partners. And Jesus is not my Besty.

            Those who advocate for the utterly subordinate position for females in the society and especially the church are the only ones who can carry bridal theology forward with a straight face.

            I think the meaning of the bridal metaphor is clear, and I accept it at its face value. But it then needs to be immediately abandoned.

      • StuartB says:

        Yes, exactly, amen.

    • I’m with you on this one, Mattk. There’s a big difference between growing up into the fullness of Christ and growing up into the fullness of fallen human pride. This whole discussion is reminding me very much of some of the “interviews” in Lewis’ “The Great Divorce.”

  3. How does this square with many passages that point to Jesus reigning over creation at God’s right hand, and the passages in Revelation where Jesus is seem in exercising authority over his people and his enemies? Yes, the cross but that’s not where Jesus is now. Jesus is the exalted Lord…

    I think I prefer The Lord with a place in the public square. That’s not the same as christened christendom.

    • Danielle says:

      “How does this square ….”?

      A question: Is the lordship of God predicated on human weakness?

      It is impossible to overstate the importance that God meets us in our weakness. If God didn’t, I don’t know what hope there could be.

      But if we define God as being God and savior only because we are weak, what place is there for God if God actually heals and restores us? Or if it turns out that human beings are not only week, but also have great creative capacity? Do we need to be kept in a state of weakness so that our dependence on God will remain?

      • Danielle says:

        I think one part of what Bonhoeffer is saying is that if God seems to disappear just because humanity can figure out how to conduct life using some of its gifts, is God gone? Or do we – esp. the religious – have to confront the death of a limited view of God?

      • Danielle says:

        I’m not sure that what I just posted really addressed what you were trying to say. Forgive me; I’m tired. I’m trying to get my finger on a thought … and the connection made sense to me while I was still waking up.

        • I forgive you but you did miss my point entirely. See below for what I actually meant if you check back here again.

      • Christiane says:

        Hi DANIELLE, I read your thought, this: ” . . . if we define God as being God and savior only because we are weak, what place is there for God if God actually heals and restores us? Or if it turns out that human beings are not only weak, but also have great creative capacity? ”

        and it reminded me of this:
        “By being partakers of Christ incarnate, we are partakers in the whole humanity which He bore. We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others.|” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

        Here is that quote in the context in which it was written by Bonhoeffer, which does add much to its depth:

        “Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race.
        By being partakers of Christ incarnate, we are partakers in the whole humanity which He bore. We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others.
        The incarnate Lord makes His followers the brothers of all mankind.”
        (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

        In short, I think Bonhoeffer understood much about how our humankind was affected by the Incarnation. And how, now, we are linked by Christ not only to the Trinity but to one another in a new reconciling way. This is a great mystery of Christianity that not many in the West have explored theologically. Something about what Bonhoeffer encountered in the Nazi era must have turned his attention to that mystery and he had an insight into it that I think we, in Western Christianity, can come to appreciate.

        • Danielle says:

          Yes

          I’m still not sure I am making sense – I’m really, really tired so I should know better than to type right now — but this is where my mind went free wheeling from Drena’s comment:

          I was musing about how the proclamation “God reigns” resonates if you accept a set of prior concerns: human sin, divine wrath, and so on. But it might not be clear what this resolves if you are the citizen of a “religionless” society where much of daily business is conducted without explicit reference to God. People can add metaphysics into a discussion, and many do, but if they do not, nothing appears to break down.

          With this as a backdrop, it may seem that if Christianity answers a set of problems, it is some second, less immediate set of problems. At worst, theology has manufactured imaginary problems out of language and then solves those problems with more fanciful language. At best, theology talks about something real, but it is “over there” or “out there” or about some future place. God reigns, but not in the public square I visit. This makes God very appealing when I’m trapped and there’s no way out – I might as well hope to “fly away” and ultimate death will take me even if I want to remain – but it seems less relevant when I am flourishing and trying to make a life in the world.

          So for theology to “say” anything in the current context, I’ve got reinterpret my life and problems in terms of the theology – and the way theology often sounds to the contemporary religionless, it’s not only talking stangely; it also doesn’t sound like its vesting much optimism in people or in the work of making the world “run”. It doesn’t sound like it relates to the world where things happen. So if a person resolves to think of his life largely in terms of this practical world where people really plan and build bridges, does God get smaller? To make God matter, does the evangelist need to warn against that behavior? There’s a problem of articulation here, where Christ keeps getting stuck in one half of the world.

          I think you are right Christiane, the mystery and theology of incarnation is the pivot on which this all swings!

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            “theology has manufactured imaginary problems out of language and then solves those problems with more fanciful language”

            Wow. If that would fit on a bumper sticker, and I had a bumper, I would buy that. A perfect encapsulation of how I feel about Theology most days.

            “it seems less relevant when I am flourishing and trying to make a life in the world. ”

            It also seems less relevant, in my experience, when I am “trying to make a life in the world” even when I am not flourishing.

            “So for theology to “say” anything in the current context, I’ve got reinterpret my life and problems in terms of the theology”

            You may be tired, but you are on fire this morning! This is sooo true.

            “So if a person resolves to think of his life largely in terms of this practical world where people really plan and build bridges, does God get smaller? To make God matter, does the evangelist need to warn against that behavior?”

            I encounter evidence that, for many, the answer to that question is Yes nearly every day. The principle prop to Theology often seems to be to insult people, write them off as lazy, selfish, and stupid – ‘Now my worldview makes sense!’

            “There’s a problem of articulation here”

            And of Fear. If we change our articulation we are capitulating [to something], if we change our articulation it will all fall down [neglecting that it has already].

            Bonhoeffer has been a great help in making sense of what to do with in [not with] this world. Even if I often can track exactly what he means. But the letters and much of this writing reads like a work in process – I wonder if he was not even certain sometimes [what he meant, precisely].

          • Danielle says:

            And if our “God” isn’t the God of the incarnation, then we might as well let conception of “God” die so that we can find God again.

        • StuartB says:

          If a parent bandages up your knee, do they then demand you stay obediently at their feet praising them for healing you, or do they send you back out into the street to play some more and possibly get hurt again, which brings you running back, repeat, etc?

      • OldProphet says:

        God is God whether we are strong, weak, or clueless. He is the One we turn to for help and need no matter what condition we are in. The real fact us that when we think we are strong, we just think it. It dies not mean we are. We always need to fall on our faces before Him and ask of Him. I don’t know about most of you, but the more I see people rise up with a “I am strong in spirit! kind of attitude, then I think, yeah, right.

      • You missed my point completely actually. Makes me wish I checked back here before.

        Danielle, what I was saying is that Jesus is not hanging on the cross anymore. He is the risen and exalted Lord over Creation. Whether society “evicts” him or not does not change that. That does not mean he does not come to us in our weakness. But the answer is not to put him back on the cross.

        • Danielle says:

          Yes, you made sense! My mind was swirling, so my comment went off in some other direction.

          Bonhoeffer’s comment that God has to be on the cross does is actually the part of what Bonhoeffer says that makes the least sense to me.

          I think Adam has a point with the comment that if Christ reigns, then Christ reigns. It isn’t like a shift in human culture dethrones him. So if we have our concept of how and where Christ reigns confined to certain perameters, we might be tempted to think that a cultural shift makes God disappear. Our God-talk fails to put Christ on the throne in all the places he might be recognized. But if God reigns, he is already in the places we aren’t seeing him. So the question becomes, ‘where is he?’

          Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity comments are a little mysterious – and I am not sure that society is going to ever be “religionless” in the way the comment imagines. But his reflection touch on a live question – in a world where religion doesn’t occupy the same cultural capital it once did, where is God? How do *I* live there?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > Jesus reigning over creation at God’s right hand,

      At least part of Bonhoeffer’s point is that this is or is not true. It is not up to us.

      Yesterday as I waited for a prescription to be filled I listened to a woman talk about how America had “evicted” God, and the surety of coming judgment. I think this type of thinking is flawed – All of humanity cannot “evict” God. And when pressed she could not clarify what “judgment” entailed – hurricanes and earthquakes? No. Rain of Brimstone? No. He would *possibly* ‘be denied to our hearts’… which does not sound like “to him who knocks the door shall be opened”. Even this lady has moved on from the God we meet in the OT, even she cannot manage to remain there.

      • Robert F says:

        The Jews in Palestine during the time of Jesus’ life had partly moved on from this God of the OT, too; part of what all that oral law and tradition that they had developed did was to soften some of the more barbaric implications of trying to live by all of the laws as they were given in the OT, and also to soften the image of the God who gave them.

  4. Robert F says:

    As far as institutional Christianity goes, Europe has obviously become very religionless, and North America is becoming more and more so, as are Australia/New Zealand. Everywhere else, though, and even in places where religion has been ruthlessly and systematically suppressed by communist political ideology, religion is growing in strength, by leaps and bounds. As a whole, humanity is not becoming less religious, but is a religious as its ever been. The sociological parallel of Bonhoeffer’s speculations about the “world come of age”, secularization theory, has proved to be untrue, except for a narrow band of elites in places around the world, elites educated in Western institutions. These elites, though very small in number, command an enormous amount of attention because of their social clout.

    We are not living in a more secularized world, except in the few places I mentioned; we are living in a more pluralistic world, where it’s impossible to ignore the existence of other belief systems, or to act as if they don’t exist or don’t matter. Christianity, in this global context, appears to its adherents to be less important, and less able to have any apparent effect on what happens in the world. The world, in its pluralism, does not give any special privilege to the perspectives of Christians speaking about or to the situations that exist in the world. I think it’s a mistake to see this loss of Christian power in the world as a loss of religiousity in the world; perhaps it comes from too long having sat in the seat of power, thinking that our displacement from that seat means that religion has been displaced. Not so.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > suppressed by communist political ideology, religion is growing in strength, by leaps and bounds

      We will have to see what happens over time. I’m more skeptical that cultures are religionless or bounding toward religiousness. Much like out Great Awakening, et al these tides may wax and wane while at the same time somehow leaving no measurable impact in their wake.

      > “world come of age”, secularization theory, has proved to be untrue,

      I take it to me as much a *change* in Religion – the cultural/traditional aspects of which may remain unchanged – more that a claim or lack of claim regarding affiliation. Is there any doubt that Religion in a modern society is a notably different beast than before?

      “These elites, though very small in number, command an enormous amount of attention because of their social clout”

      No, I don’t this holds. I see the lives of the average ordinary American to be essentially religionless. Walking down the street in Chicago – where is the religion? The same is true in Canada. Even in the streets of Oaxaca it was not nakedly evident.

      I do not believe Bonhoeffer’s point is about non-religious, or pluralist, it is about that Religion has changed. It is not what it was before. For much of the world, to me at least, this seems undeniably true.

      • Robert F says:

        Pluralism relativizes religious faith; if I’m to live at peace with my neighbors, who profess entirely different faiths than my own, or no faith at all, then my own faith will be modified by the prioritizing of that goal of peaceful co-existence itself. So I can concede your point that religion in the modern world is different; I just don’t know that we are all, or even most of us worldwide, living completely in the “modern” world.

        It would be hard to say that religion plays any less of a role in the world today than it did a thousand years ago, but it does seem that technocracy, and specifically the worldwide communications revolution that so facilitates pluralism, introduces its own imperatives, and modifies both religions and societies as it moves through them. Jacques Ellul said that technology itself is a kind of religion, with its own metaphysical system, meanings and societal imperatives that provide both a way of life and rationale for living in certain ways.

        But the demotion of the influence of institutional religion, Christianity included, or its relativization, does not amount to a religionless world. It’s likely that even secularized Europeans hold personal beliefs that are religious in nature, including metaphysical beliefs and belief in the afterlife, and even God. Jettisoning traditional institutional religion is not the same as jettisoning religious belief. I think Bonhoeffer was wrong, if he thought otherwise.

        • As I understand Bonhoeffer, “religionless Christianianity” and the “world come of age” has much to do with turning away from the idea of “God as machine” (deus ex machina) and honestly discovering “who Christ is for us today” given the trend of “religionlessness”.

          What we are encountering here is the theologia crucis of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Theologia crucis is a term coined by Martin Luther to suggest that the true nature of God can only be ascertained in the crucifixion of Jesus. That is, if you ask the questions “Who is God?” or “Where is God?” or “What is God like?” the theologia crucis answers in every case: Look at Jesus on the cross. The cross is who God is, where God is found, and what God like. Recall the main question of the theological letters: Who is Christ for us today? Bonhoeffer answers with the theologia crucis. We see this very clearly in the July 16th letter. Right after the shocking “Before God and with God we live without God” the very next sentence picks up the theme of theologia crucis:

          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.
          God is “weak” and “powerless.” God “lets himself be pushed out of the world” and “on to the cross.” God helps us in the world not through power (“omnipotence”) but by “his weakness and suffering.” In this we see how the world come of age is functioning as a midwife to the gospel. By pushing the false “Powerful God” out of the world the way becomes clear for the God revealed in the cross of Jesus. Thus, the July 16 letter continues:

          …Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age outlined above, which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way to seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.

          The world come of age kills off a “false conception of God” and this allows us to see the “God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.” This is how the world come of age acts as a midwife to the gospel. The “adulthood” of humanity has allowed us to dispose of a false conception of God, the Big Guy in the Sky, the deus ex machina, who swoops down to solve our problems or answer all mystery. This God has been kicked to the margins in the world come of age. And, for Bonhoeffer, this is a very good thing. For it allows us to see the God of the cross, the weak and powerless God here in the midst of us.

          (Richard Beck)

    • turnsalso says:

      Indeed. While I do sign on to Bonhoeffer’s “world-come-of-age” idea (and indeed, I admit that I lack the language to investigate the claim more fully because I am a product of the wordless culture in which I live), I still don’t see the usefulness in bemoaning the “religionlessness” (irreligiosity?) in our society. I would even go so far as to say that the decline now observed in American churches in particular is a good thing–now that church isn’t the only place to socialize, and now that lack of attendance is not stigmatized, people are finally being honest about their religious convictions, or the lack thereof.

      CM’s/Bonhoeffer’s question then remains, however: who is Christ for us today, when people can admit without judgment that they don’t see why religion should matter to them? I suppose I would answer that he is the one who makes all of the good in the world possible. He not only shows us what goodness looks like (i.e., charity), but he empowers us through his mediation of grace actually to ACCOMPLISH truly charitable deeds, like his own. He is at once the playwright, the director, and the very blood in our veins, allowing us all to play the parts we are needed to play at any time.

      “And yet,” one might ask, “why are so many people who invent the next great procedure in medicine, or make food more affordable to the poor, so frequently non-religious? If that sort of thing is your Christ’s domain, why are so many who don’t worship him so successful at it?” I might say that it seems that we American Christians may have lost a sense of the importance of these callings, devaluing them in our churches for various reasons, but this does not answer the question of why are the irreligious so successful at these good pursuits. For that, I can only say that it seems to me that God indeed sends rain on the just and the unjust alike, and that rain makes beautiful gardens grow in the most surprising places.

    • StuartB says:

      So the pattern seems to be that freedom leads to less religion whereas oppression leads to more religion. Freedom allows us to make a better world, oppression leads us to hoping for a better world.

      The Book of Revelation, in some regards, is the NT putting Jesus back into the position the Jews of Jesus’ time wanted him to be: a coming reigning King who will conquer all and destroy his enemies.

      Yet the Jesus of the Gospels wasn’t that man, which makes me wonder if it’s the same Jesus of the Revelation.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        My thoughts on Revelation almost exactly.

        And the lack of fruit witnessed from the study of Revelation – a book which itself – right up front – promises blessing in reward for study…. A book that reads much like a polemic before transitioning into metaphoric chaos.

        • StuartB says:

          It’s a great work of fan fiction, with maybe some subtle political agendas going on. By faith you have to accept that Jesus even said any of that stuff to the churches, otherwise it’s just a guy on an island writing in someone else’s voice ala a lot of the NT and OT…

          But that’s liberal hogwash.

        • Robert F says:

          This has occurred to me, too; wherever Jesus is imaged in a triumphalist, violent way in the NT, wherever he is shown as conquering at his second coming by the use of kingly violence, I wonder if that’s the result of the first followers of Christ losing sight of who and what he was actually about, and imposing there own wishes on their memory of Jesus. It’s not just in revelation; there are bits and pieces of it here and there throughout the NT.

    • Robert, I’m not sure that Europe *is* “religionless” – Eastern Europe in particular. But… religion is no longer regulated and run by the state, or so intertwined with the state as to be almost indistinguishable. There are plenty of religious people of all sorts in Europe. However – during WWI, people in all of the countries in the conflict were preaching about going out and killing Their Enemies; WWII saw the co-opting of the state church in Germany by the Nazi party and, overall, such incredible devastation that I do not believe there was any way to go back to older models of belief and business as usual, ever.

      • StuartB says:

        Or maybe it’s been so thoroughly Christianized it “feels” religionless, because they’re actually doing the stuff in the sermon on the mount…

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          Ah, you mean that terrible Social Gospel where the elderly aren’t left to freeze to death and education is generally available? Sounds terribly unchristian to me – it leaves nothing for the Church to do [you know, if the Church every got around to doing that or could ever find the resources to do so].

          • turnsalso says:

            And that’s where that rhetorical ploy sinks, from running into the other line that preacher men use when they need a new person to lead the youth program or volunteers for the food bank: “this BUILDING is not the Church; YOU are the Church!!!”

            If members of the Church enacting legislation to see to the care of the poor and weak is not “Being The Church™,” then clearly that statement is a lie and the Institution really is what matters.

            Or perhaps, that people generally don’t believe either thing and just don’t want to part with their money or time, neither to Christ nor to Caesar.

      • Robert F says:

        numo,

        No, I don’t think people anywhere, for the most part, are religionless, including Europeans. But there has been a huge disaffiliation from institutional religion among the last couple generations of Europeans; that much is plain. If by religion we mean institutional religion, or institutional Christianity in the case of Bonhoeffer’s speculations, then Europe has become far more religionless in the last few generations(though the recent influx of large numbers of Muslims may be changing this). If, however, we mean the inherent religious propensity of humanity, and its outworking in personal religious beliefs, then Europeans are probably as religious as they’ve ever been.

        • Robert, i think that both the devastation of WWII and the huge changes that have followed it have a great deal to do with many peoples’ rejection of the institutional church. But i am really very skeptical when some people (mostly evangelicals) trot out the tired old trope of all Europeans being irreligious, because it simply isn’t true. Look at the UK – there’s huge diversity there, from xtian immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean to Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims (and probably some adherents of Jainism) from the Indian subcontinent, and much more. The CofE might be shrinking, but i would be willing to bet that there are many very healthy churches attendef mainly by 1st and 2nd generation immigrants from parts mentioned just above.

          And then there are places like Ireland – still reeling from the horrible abuses suffered by so many, and what that means for people in their daily lives. I have seen people object to the freedom of conscience in the US part of the RCC, but given all that the Irish people have bern through, it seems like an inevitable next step for them as well – at least, for those who still want to be part of the Church.

  5. My time here has come and gone. I thank you for your patience with me and I ask for forgiveness in anything that might have not been up to standards. One more poem you inspired it kind of.
    Starting
    Here I go out in the world
    It is the calling of another day
    Somewhere within the natural pearl
    Are the precious finding the way

    I hope and I hope some more
    For in the trying there is no quit
    There just beyond the one true door
    The opening where I fit

    Thank you much for making the path
    Being the gate to enter the garden
    In sin’s forever passing wrath
    I am given with love my pardon

    The first day of many past
    It is here I must begin
    A coming of age at last
    In the loss I call a win

    Where has prideful self now gone
    It is vanishing in thy wind
    Now this strength to carry on
    In the gift I enter in

    You have enter a heart of stone
    Now I touch it and it is flesh
    I will never have to walk alone
    To have, to hold, to cherish yet

    This promise is not the one I keep
    It is buried within your heart
    Like the seed in fertile soil deep
    It has been there from the start

    You people have helped me through a very difficult time…. I am humbled

    • Please don’t leave without a forwarding address. We will miss you. You have a true heart.

    • What DebD said. And I hope after a “vacation” from IM, you come back to visit.

    • Ric Schopke says:

      Do come back and visit, w. May God the Father bless you, the love of Jesus sustain you, and the Holy Spirit guide you. Thank you for sharing wisdom with us. Please continue writing poems and sharing them with others somewhere.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Keep praying for me, w. Two more weeks to see if God shows up. 😉

    • Danielle says:

      No, don’t go away!

      It’s an honor to have you here. I hope you’ll stop in from time to time.

    • Robert F says:

      Don’t be a runaway train, w. Don’t you know, there’s nowhere to go? Take it from me; I’ve been there (or I haven’t been there, since there’s nowhere to go). You have a big heart, and you aren’t afraid to share it. Those are wonderful attributes. Stay with us.

      Anyway, here’s a haiku to entice you to stay (if it doesn’t have that effect, just disregard it):

      It’s the dog days of summer,
      but all the dogs of summer
      stick close to the shade.

    • OldProphet says:

      Hey W, peace and blessing to you. If you read this, maybe you would be interested in a way for you and I could communicate A side post somewhere or on some other media place?

    • Clay Crouch says:

      Adios.

  6. T.S.Gay says:

    Someone here should mention Taylor’s “The Secular Age”. Or perhaps James K.A. Smith’s take on the same, called “How (Not) To Be Secular”. Why? Because there are often many accounts that explain “the secular” as subtraction of religious belief. As if the secular is what is left over after we subtract superstition. In contrast, Taylor and Smith emphasize that the secular is produced, not distilled.
    Just a brief mention here of what is called the nova effect. An explosion of different options for belief and meaning in a secular age. Produced by the concurrent cross pressures of our history. As well as( and this is crucial) the concurrent pressure of meaning, significance, and fullness being sought in a self sufficient and naturalistic way. You understand- out in the real world. With (at least) echoes of transcendence.
    Fullness in this ethos requires a transformative perspective. It seems to me that is at the heart of the so-called post conservative evangelicals( Michael Spencer, Richard Beck, Roger Olson, Scot McKnight, N.T.Wright, Clark Pinnock, and many here). So religion is not just a set of beliefs, or a theology, or systematic, or institutional. But rather it engenders a way of life that is transformative.
    As to maturity- Fowler used the word subversive. Not in the sense of undermining, but rather faith developing that can identify with persons currently overcome, blocked off, or exploited. Often helping the helpless in unexpected ways. Unexpected ways is about the nova effect and maturing is all about the transformative perspective.

  7. Adam above sez, “But the letters and much of this writing reads like a work in process – I wonder if he was not even certain sometimes [what he meant, precisely].”

    I am not a fan of Bonhoeffer, nor do I understand him enough to understand why Evangelicals are so enamored with him these days, but I do understand that both he and CM and the whole Monastery are works in progress, as am I. I much prefer the exploration of 21st century uncertainties than the continual rehashing of leftovers.

    In my view the Church Age is over in the same way that the Temple Age was over even as Jesus and the early Christians walked it’s precincts. That the little congregation I attend is dying a slow death is not a big deal in the larger scheme, but if iMonk closed its doors it would be a huge loss to me in my walk, and I believe to the world. There’s an example of technological progress as a positive.

    It is obvious to me that humanity as a whole is maturing at an ever increasing rate, and if others deny this by pointing out the stragglers, that is looking at the trees rather than the forest. To me it’s like we are in an old-time one-room schoolhouse, with some in the first grade and some in the eighth, getting ready to graduate.

    It’s not like students in the eighth grade are better than first graders, they just are studying what is most appropriate for their current level of development. The problem starts if third graders believe that life revolves around memorizing your times tables, and that everyone else should be mastering and practicing multiplication as the final goal in life.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > I am not a fan of Bonhoeffer, nor do I understand him enough to understand why
      > Evangelicals are so enamored with him these days,

      One part of this ‘fascination’ is certainly that he was a remarkable man – in stark contrast [IMNSHO] to many of Christiany’s historical – and current – pontificators. Admiring so many from our past – including Luther & Calvin – is a hard swallow; most people do a great deal of trimming in order to get them up onto that pedistal.

      Bonhoeffer on the other hand – and this in no way implies Moral Perfection – it would be hard to quiblle with how he lived his life. Actual – in practice – great men merit a considered hearing, IMO. Even if ultimately I walk away from their ideas [personally, for example, not a fan of much of Ghandi].

      > I much prefer the exploration of 21st century uncertainties than the
      > continual rehashing of leftovers.

      But we are *always* starting from leftovers. That is the essence of human culture.

      > That the little congregation I attend is dying a slow death is not a
      > big deal in the larger scheme, but if iMonk closed its doors it
      > would be a huge loss to me in my walk,

      I cannot follow you there. I think a website/BLOG is no substitute for a community. An Internet Religion is ultimatley a religion about an Idea – a notion I reject. Physical communities of proximity are and will always remain the circumstance where Church does or does not happen.

      > It is obvious to me that humanity as a whole is maturing at an ever
      > increasing rate, and if others deny this by pointing out the stragglers,

      I am a Progressive – meaning I believe Progress is not only possible, but it is demonstrable [I think the mountain of evidence is with the Progressives]. But I am not a Progessive in the sense that I believe this to be Universal or Inevitable; it only happens in places where people engage in a positive way. Places which have that can loose it.

      > that is looking at the trees rather than the forest.

      There is a lot of that. Point out the FACTUAL decline in global poverty in any room and you’ll find them – ‘not it is not actually so because of X’. And you can count on the fact that those souls would *NEVER* accept such a data-point – a not-really-because clause is necessary to prop-up their world view.

      > It’s not like students in the eighth grade are better than first graders,
      > they just are studying what is most appropriate for their current level of
      > development. The problem starts if third graders believe that life revolves
      > around memorizing your times tables, and that everyone else should be mastering
      > and practicing multiplication as the final goal in life.

      As in the Church such a condition represents a profound failure of the Teachers [leadership]. That the third-graders aspirations are so limited – they failed to understand that you learn the time-tables in order to later learn trignometry, so that you can build a bridge that doesn’t fall down, so that the farmer can bring over the food.

      • “I think a website/BLOG is no substitute for a community.”

        In my view iMonk is not only a community but a church, in the sense of where two or three are gathered, there am I. In my “real life” community at large, I only know of one person within driving distance I could discuss matters such as this with any profit. That would be my pastor, and I ordinarily see him once a week at church, occasionally spend five minutes with him after service. He lives about forty-five minutes away and is a busy man. Attending a “Bible Study” with the best my congregation has to offer is like being in third grade Sunday School. There is no way I could say there the things I express here, and the boredom and aggravation can be excruciating. Is that what it might mean to pick up your cross?.

        This place is more like a Bible Study than a worship service, so in that sense you would be correct, but I’ve been doing Bible Study now for forty years, most of it outside the confines of a church building. It is how I have grown to whatever extent I have so far, both in knowledge and in spirit. In those forty years I don’t remember anything I have learned from a real life sermon other than an occasional bit of trivia. Learn more here than any other single place I know, both directly and thru links and reviews. True, I get the benefit of bread and wine at 3-D church, but there is a communion of saints that happens here too.

        • StuartB says:

          Makes me wonder if you don’t really need communion for it to be a church. Or “church discipline”, as some conservatives always brings up about “real” churches.

          A study on the history of communion would be interesting.

        • StuartB says:

          Correction: we are the church. A body of believers gathered, even online, is still the church.

      • StuartB says:

        Bonhoeffer is an example of wretched urgency in Christianity. He’s a quite useful tool to many leaders.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          > Bonhoeffer is an example of wretched urgency in Christianity

          He lived in some wretchedly urgent contexts. Someone can make him into an advocate of Wretched Urgency, but I would suspect they are failing to acknowledge context.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      I’m surprised there’s not a new Christian theology, “Bonhoefferism.”

    • Danielle says:

      “I do understand that both he and CM and the whole Monastery are works in progress, as am I.”

      I concur with Adam that one of Bonhoeffer’s qualities is that he was feeling his way forward – and there’s an urgent vitality in it. “What now, what now?” He’s trying to get some place, and I always wind up feeling that I want to get there as well.

      Whatever Bonhoeffer meant or would have meant by it in time, what he is grappling for in invoking the term “religionless Christianity” seems compelling to me. From the letters:

      “God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.”

      “Religious man] must therefore live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a “secular” life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. He may live a “secular” life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man–not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”

      • Danielle says:

        Charles Marsh, author of the Bonhoeffer biography “Strange Glory,” writes about an admonition that Bonhoeffer repeated during his time in prison, “Spread Hilaritas.” This seems deeply moving to me, and perhaps it hits on that same theme – finding God in the midst of the world – and doing work in the world.

        In Marsh’s words:

        “Bonhoeffer attested to having undergone a “great liberation from guilt and self-doubt” during his final year in prison. What had stirred it? Discipline, control, and ardor—these were attributes of character to which he had long aspired—demanded even by his father’s example—and insofar as he’d attained them, they would sustain him until the end.

        “He had looked for and found a certain spiritual relief in a different aspect of mind. It was only when he first read Barth’s Church Dogmatics II/2, Bonhoeffer said, that hilaritas leapt off the page at him like the vision of dappled things, fickled, freckled, and illuminated a new way of seeing. Bonhoeffer had discovered the hilaritas, the “high-spirited self-confidence”—speaking the Yes and the Amen in gleeful defiance of the Nothing, a cheerful audacity.

        “Spread hilaritas!” Bonhoeffer directed Bethge, in a kind of eureka.

        “Now that his eyes were opened, he discerned hilaritas shimmering and sparkling in all of humanity’s beautiful and good creations: in the triumph of grace as narrated over five hundred pages in Barth’s II/2; in Raphael and Mozart; and in Walther von der Vogelweide, the Knight of Bamberg, Luther, Gotthold Lessing, Peter Paul Rubens, and Hugo Wolf, to name but a few. Hilaritas connoted boldness, audacity, and a “willingness to defy the world and popular opinion”; living out of the “firm conviction” that with his work one is giving the world something good, “even if the world is not pleased with it.”

        • Now that *is* fascinating – creativity and joy in his life. I’m very glad to hear about this, becsuse so muh of what i have known of the earlier work has made me want to run away fast.

  8. I’ve always wondered how influential Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have turned out to be if he had not met the fate he did. That’s not a criticism just an observation. Matyrdom does tend to sanctify.

    I’m not sure we need to resort to discussions about highfalutin’ concepts like “religionless Christianity” (even assuming we know what it might mean) to say some things about where Christianity is going in these United States.

    For many (most?) people in the pews Christianity functions in its social/cultural aspect. It engenders community and sacralizes life transitions. For all the talk in Evangelical circles about Jesus as “personal savior” one wonders how much personal private piety actually goes on. Note how discombobulated many “believers” become at the prospect of losing social/cultural religious privileges. I can’t help but think that if these folks had a strong healthy personal private spirituality as the foundation of their religious experience they’d be a lot less freaked out.

    What would happen if this trend continues and religion becomes mostly private expression? Personally I think this is the best thing that could ever happen to the Church. The first result would be that all those leeches and carbuncles that attach themselves to the Body for reasons other than sincere belief would fall off when they perceived any lack of advantage in such attachment.

    Typically perhaps the loss of religious privilege is being characterized falsely as a loss of religious liberty. As if we had a right to force our beliefs on others! Many believers are unprepared to give an accounting of themselves in that “marketplace of ideas” we hear so much about without having the system gamed in their favor. Perhaps the success of the atheist/skeptical movement is because they don’t encounter any real substantive opposition. Most Christians simply aren’t up to it. The scriptures speak often of “remnants” and the “refiner’s fire”.

    • Bonhoeffer’s comment on “religionless Christianity” makes far more sense in context. Remember, there was an official state church in Germany; they accommodated the Nazi party; they used hoops of red tape and due process to stymy attempts to save the Jews; they opposed and ostracized the Confessing Church. What Bonhoeffer seems to have been espousing (given also the context of his own practice) was an organic faith that looked a lot like (small church, not commercial) evangelicalism.

      • Robert F says:

        When Bonhoeffer visited New York, he despised what he experienced of worship in and around the halls of liberal Union Theological Seminary; it was at the Abyssinian Baptist church in Harlem where he thrilled to hear what he knew to be the gospel. It’s clear that he preferred the evangelical worship at Abyssinian to the more refined liturgies at Union.

  9. I’ve got to chew on this a bit.

    My initial thought is that we are indeed a vain people if we somehow believe that we have arrived, or will arrive, to a point of maturity that enables us to have no need for God, or at least the God that we knew 1000-2000 years ago. Context and culture have changed, but Scripture remains the same: God is unchanging.

    Am I wrong, or do these ideas, reflect some of the same attitude that resulted in the Reformation, and subsequent division within the Body? There were some legitimate changes needed within the Church at that point in history, as there always are, but the period also yielded a batch of theologians who thought they were somehow wiser than the Apostles and Church Fathers that preceded them, so we wind up with a hodgepodge of religious systems within what was designed to be a unified Bride. No one really knows what it means to be “Christian” anymore.

    Mystery is unacceptable, and so are absolutes; morality is relative; rules offensive; and narrow paths seldom trod, because, well, they’re narrow, and no one wants to appear to be narrow. What the hell is tonsure, anyway? Each man defines Scripture for himself. Man, in essence, becomes God.

    Jeez, this fruit does good, doesn’t it?

    I appreciate that Process Theology and Progressive Christianity are hot topics right now, but I have to say, I miss discussions about liturgy, the mysteries of our faith, Liturgical Gangstas, and good old Father Ernesto. I guess our IM community is growing and maturing in some way in its own right. I don’t know that the ideas expressed here capture the ethos of post-evangelical or paleo-orthodox thought as much as they do post-emergent trends…You know, answering questions with questions for the sake of discussion, rather than conforming to fixed ideas. The catch phrases and semantics are evolving, but the end result is the same…My ignorant dirt road self leaving the conversation, scratching my head, thinking “Did I really just read what I think I just read?”

    Sometimes I want to run away with my kids and wife to Mt. Athos, and never look back…

    • Should read, “Jeez, this fruit does taste good, doesn’t it?”

    • “…does taste good”…Sorry

      • Wow. That was strange. God, if there still is one around here, must have predestined my typing errors.

    • Robert F says:

      Sometimes I want to run away with my kids and wife to Mt. Athos, and never look back…

      They don’t allow wives (or women [and girls] generally) on Mount Athos; they’d throw her out if she managed to get in somehow, and you with her for bringing her there.

  10. As I read this, I’m thinking of how Bonhoeffer’s thought intersects with and is echoed in some ways by more modern voices such as N.T. Wright, who sees the kingdom as here and now but also as not yet perfect and not fulfilled, and Greg Boyd, who speaks of the power of our faith as a “power under” rather than a power over, and Rachel Held Evans, whose most recent post on the failure of the church to love LGBTQ people as we should and the resulting alienation seems to yearn for a more humble kind of faith that comes alongside those who are so often sidelined and rejected, and even CM’s comments on living a quiet and faithful life.

    I haven’t thought about it enough to be able to articulate the connections in detail, and probably am not smart enough to do so clearly any time soon, but I do have a sense that some of the same themes are repeated, and I hope believers will hear these voices.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      >I haven’t thought about it enough to be able to articulate the connections

      Perhaps it is not a religion of an idea that needs to be articulated precisely. Or the best articulation is the coming alongside those who are often sidelined and rejected.

      >and probably am not smart enough to do so clearly any time soon

      Perhaps the world, and Christianity, has an overabundance of smart people. Some days it sure feels that way [ever try to organize something… there always seem more people willing to tell you how to organize than you have volunteers for work].

  11. >Perhaps the world, and Christianity, has an overabundance of smart people. Some days it sure feels that way

    The way I feel every time I’m on an interview committee trying to see if the PhD has “enough qualifications” for a job that I’ve trained Bachelor’s Degree holders to do at my previous employer.

  12. Robert F says:

    Pluralism is not a threat to the heart of Christianity, because Christianity is not about controlling social reality or being the dominant perspective or influence in any society. Given who Jesus was, and is, you’d think this would be apparent, but Christians have become so accustomed to the religious hegemony we’ve inherited in the West that it’s actually hard to see. We can, and should, participate with others in making a better world; we can’t, and shouldn’t, impose our values and beliefs on others. If we participate in governing, it should never be as Christians first, but as citizens who come to the office formed by Christian faith; if our efforts aren’t collaborative with people who hold very different religious values and beliefs from our own, we should probably be suspicious of our own actions and motives. The world exists in its own right; God has given it that right, so far as I can see. I think it’s unwise for us to deny it or try to suppress it; it’s too late int the game to do that anyway.