Friday, April 06, 2007

Bonhoeffer 30 April 1944

I offer these thoughts from Letters and Papers from Prison on Good Friday because Bonhoeffer strikes me as one of the most insightful Christians I've read in four years of grad school:

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 towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. 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'.

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 a 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'? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our 'Christianity', and that there remain only a few 'last survivors of the age of chivalry', or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as 'religious'. Are they to be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce with fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them our goods?

Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don't want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ be Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity--and even this garment has looked very different at different times--then what is religionless Christianity?

I will post his answers tomorrow... they are hardly answers at all. In fact, most of my paper is an attempt to restate his hints at religionless Christianity and how they might help us to ask ourselves the right questions in our attempt to be religionless Christians.


SusansPlace said...

haha...I didn't realize you were quoting and thought these were your words. Increasingly I thought, this doesn't sound like Julie's style of writing but it does sound like her thinking. About 2/3 way through I realized you were quoting. :-) I am intrigued by the term "religionless" so will look forward to understanding more of what that means...tommorrow.


julieunplugged said...

Susan, I was just coming back to put in the source of this quote. I realized I had left it out. Yes, there is much to be rethought after reading Bonhoeffer, not the least of which is his irritation with the practice of getting people to see themselves as sinful as a means to converting them. He can't stand that! :)

my15minutes said...

Provocative writing that ol' Bonhoeffer! I see why you like him so much. I'll look forward to more.

Dave said...

Thanks for this well-chosen and challenging quote. I'm not sure if Bonhoeffer was "ahead of his time" or just realizing a different way to be Christian than the options that had been laid out to him previously. It seems likely that "religion" will continue to be a felt need by many people for a long time to come - full-scale secularism or the disappearance of religion altogether seems so far off that such a condition is hard to imagine, globally speaking. But certainly some quarters of society are already embodying what Bonhoeffer describes. He was in quite a critical situation though, of course... Nazi Germany, WW2 imminent, old orders of Europe in disarray, and him having to maintain the expectations (facade?) of being a Lutheran pastor in such grim circumstances, brought about largely by either the tacit approval or passive non-resistance of many of his ecclesiastical colleagues. Talk about "no way out!"

Thinking about this gets me thinking about post-WW2 Europe and what happened there culturally. I recently viewed a couple of key films from that era, both with strong spiritual themes. One is "The Flowers of St. Francis" by Roberto Rosselini and the other is "Winter Light" by Ingmar Bergman. (I've blogged about them both over at my spot...) Both were produced by men who had a profound spiritual sense about them but both found it necessary to abandon religion as a result of their explorations and prolonged gaze at the real condition of things. That's a hard passage to go through, and it has real consequences on one's relationships, especially for those who continue practicing their religion. That social aspect may be enough to slow down the process that Bonhoeffer here seems to imply is nevertheless inevitable.

Dave said...

Just one quick catch - I said "WW2 imminent"... well of course in 1944 the war was raging and going very badly for the Germans and D.B. obviously saw that the end was near, so it was even worse than I was describing!

julieunplugged said...

Yes, Dave, in fact, DB was writing from prison and just a year later (April 9, 1945) he was hanged. Your reflections are excellent and I'll post more in response to them in my post for today.

Chuck said...

My favorite portion of the passage is the question "How can Christ be Lord of the religionless as well?". Looking forward to his elaboration on this - as you say, don't expect "answers".