This is it: tomorrow is the last day of class, and I’ve just finished my last required chapter of the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (chapter 13, “Christianity in a world come of age” by Peter Selby), which discusses Bonhoeffer’s notion in Letters and Papers from Prison of a “religionless Christianity” in “a world come of age.” (See LPP, letters from May 5-6, 1944, and especially June 8 and 30 1944)
A World Come of Age
When Bonhoeffer talks of “religion” in this context, he’s not talking about Christianity itself, but rather a certain notion of religion in general that nobody would aspire to, yet nevertheless existed quite strongly in the German Evangelical (Protestant) Church: outward proclamation combined with inward piety, and generally without much of an ethic or a politic at all. In a word, irrelevant, perhaps even hypocritical. But of course, Bonhoeffer had been answering this kind of empty religion his entire life: when as a child he told his family that he would be a theologian, and they were unimpressed due to the bourgeois nature of the institutional church, his answer was “then I will reform it!” His radical ecclesiology, stemming as it does from his robust christology, certainly was answer enough to a church that simply lacked engagement with the world.
The problem, though, was not simply that the church had lost relevance; rather, it was that the world (at least the world of modern intellectual Germany) no longer needed it. In the modern age of science, art, and social thought, the boundaries of knowledge had been continually pushed back, and with them, society’s reliance on God.
It’s not that God himself is irrelevant, but rather that “religion” tended to only present God as a deus ex machina, a God of the gaps, the answer to all things mysterious. In Bonhoeffer’s time, science was believed to have prevailed almost entirely, answering all of life’s questions. Without gaps in human knowledge, the God of the gaps was unnecessary. Humanity needed no intellectual crutch to lean on: it had come of age, and was now independent of God.
Bonhoeffer recognized that the world had come of age, and was no longer dependent on the notion of God. Rather than rail against this, he embraced it, seeing it as something that God himself demanded of them. Rather than seeking God in unanswered questions, as “religion” did, Bonhoeffer held that we should seek God precisely in the answered questions. Rather than having a church that required people to come to it, and required people to lean on it, Bonhoeffer had already proposed a church that was radically “missional” (to use today’s language – see yesterday’s post for clarification), sent out into the world to exist on its behalf.
Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” still had a church – the type of community he proposed in all of his works, but particularly Sanctorum Communio, Discipleship, and Life Together, infused with the responsibilities outlined in Ethics. It also still had the necessity of a strong faith, discipleship, and spiritual disciplines. What it didn’t have, what it had given up, was proclamation: the proclamation of “religion”, and even of the Confessing Church who had held true to the gospel in the face of the Reich Church’s misuse of it to support Nazi ideology, had failed entirely. He held out hope that someday the time for proclamation would return, but in the meantime he suggested that Christianity in a world come of age would be a hidden church. In place of proclamation, which under “religion” had often been empty moralising, would be the radical existing-for-others ethic which required incredible discipline and spiritual/ethical formation. This church would bear witness through its actions, through its being-for-others, through its devotion to the God who had allowed himself to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross in order to be weak and suffer along with his creation. This suffering would be the mark of Christianity in a world come of age.
I sense in Bonhoeffer here a notion of progress (though perhaps that word is too loaded with conceptual and historical baggage): the world had begun to become self-sufficient, building societies and making discoveries and having laws and justice and occasionally peace – all “as if God didn’t exist.” We were getting along just as well without the notion and motivation of the existence of God as we were when we were shackled to religion, and this itself could be a testament to God at work in the world, allowing Himself to be pushed out of it while still upholding it, for the sake of our maturity. If the world can get by without being beholden to religion, should not also the church? It seems to me that Bonhoeffer is suggesting that we should be able to grow up to the point where we are good to one another, not because piety demands it or to avoid the hypocrisy of having proclaimed it without acting upon it, but instead because we have been shaped into the form of Christ and have actively chosen to participate with him in caring for others out of our own maturity in Christ. Rules are for children; continued dependence on laws even when we already know not to break them is thus infantile, or else legalistic (Bonhoeffer compares “religion” to Paul’s discussion of circumcision as legalism). We should no longer go through the forms of religion upon which we used to rely, when we are instead capable of living in a state of Christ-likeness to which those old forms were to point!
Now, I should be clear that Bonhoeffer never really set out a design for the church, he only worked out a theology of the church. The actual form of the church, I’m sure he would say, would depend on the context and people involved. He was definitely not a fan of uncontextualized principles, urging instead that people live out of their basic convictions, which of course were to be theologically informed. In Letters and Papers from Prison he was engaged in the task of dreaming about a Germany after the war, a Germany he never saw; he was not dreaming of Canada in 2013.
That’s up to us.
p.s. I’ll be back tomorrow with some final reflections, but this is the end of my summaries from the Cambridge Companion. Don’t go away!