Tuesday, April 10, 2007

More Bonhoeffer: Religionless Christianity

As I read and reread my paper, I am struck with just how radical Bonhoeffer's notion of religionless Christianity really is. I have clicked around plenty of sites that pay homage to Bonhoeffer, that claim to champion his thinking into our era. After all, Dietrich has practically been canonized by the evangelicals of our day. (It's a huge irony that they don't perceive, either. Bonhoeffer specifically states that he should not like to become a saint, but rather that he'd like to learn to have faith.) For Bonhoeffer, faith is what it takes to live whole-heartedly in a secular life for others. It cannot be achieved if one's aim is sainthood.

In fact, he critiques his most "venerated" of Christian classics: The Cost of Discipleship in the same letter:
I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.
Bonhoeffer realizes that we can't be more interested in how to live a holy life than in how to lead a relevant life, risking personal safety and reputation in order to share in God's sufferings in the world.

And of course, for evangelicals, they took his primary message to mean that he expected Christians to be bold in their witness. They assumed being others-centered meant to be missionaries to the ends of the earth. Bonhoeffer, however, at the time of writing, was speaking into the German Lutheran context. He was disturbed by the passivity of the German church because they had elevated the act of grace in salvation so high that they feared living lives that might "set them apart" from the rest of the world (perhaps unwittingly putting works ahead of grace in the equation of salvation). This way of thinking about grace led to Bonhoeffer's most famous distinction between "cheap and costly grace."

In chapter one of The Cost of Discipleship, he writes critically of his fellow German Christians, revealing the way they might think about grace and works:
He must let grace be grace indeed, otherwise he will destroy the world's faith in the free gift of grace. Let the Christian rest content with his worldliness and with this renunciation of any higher standard than the world. He is doing it for the sake of the world rather than for the sake of grace. Let him be comforted and rest assured in his possession of this grace — for grace alone does everything.
While Luther's monumental insight that grace saved us, not works, catalyzed the Reformation and may have relieved centuries of Catholics from the unending pressure to perform at near perfection in order to merit salvation, the subsequent centuries led to a repudiation of the role of works, trusting soley in grace as evidenced by peaceful trust rather than active engagement with the demands of present life. Bonhoeffer found this kind of Christianity abhorrent.

In Letters and Papers from Prison, he expands this theme. Bonhoeffer asserts that the Christian will not try to avoid the world or to create some kind of religious sanctuary away from the cares and problems of this life, but will rather enter the world fully, leading a ‘secular’ life, that is, a life free from religious obligation. That strikes me as totally different than the common practice of editing the news or avoiding certain kinds of media or removing ourselves from the schools or staying out of politics or wishing to live in a place removed from the sins and shames of this world. I keep asking myself "just how secular" is the life he is advocating? The more I read, the more secular it becomes. Bonhoeffer levels a profound critique at the religious life, suggesting that is has become irrelevant to the vast majority of humans today and that the world gets along just fine without the working hypothesis of God.

So what is a Christian to do under these circumstances? Return to a council of despair, fearing the results of modern science, history, psychology, physics, biology, morality and the rest that keep pushing God beyond the boundaries of human experience and knowledge? Do we really need to convince people that they are sinners first before there can be a meaningful connection made between God and humanity, Jesus and our daily lives?

He asserts by way of example that Napolean Bonaparte wasn't more sinful because he was an adulterer. His private sins are irrelevant in the scheme of things. He doesn't need God because he was unfaithful to his wife. It's his sins of strength that ought to worry us. It's his sins against humanityto which Jesus calls us.
It is again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved. That is true of the relationship between God and scientific knowledge, but it is also true of the wider human problems of death, suffering, and guilt. It is now possible to find, even for these questions, human answers that take no account whatever of God (it has always been so), and it is simply not true to say that only Christianity has the answers to them. As to the idea of 'solving' problems, it may be that the Christian answers are just as unconvincing - or convincing - as any others. Here again, God is no stop-gap; he must be recognized at the center of life, not when we are at the end of our resources; it is his will to be recognized in life, and not only when death comes; in health and vigor, and not only in suffering; in our activities, and not only in sin.

The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He is the center of life, and he certainly didn't 'come' to answer our unsolved problems. From the center of life, certain questions and their answers, are seen to be wholly irrelevant... (29 May 1944, 311)
For Bonhoeffer, unless the absence of God can be meaningfully bridged in the person of Christ, Christianity has ceased to be relevant in our day and age.

I'll expand a bit more on how Jesus fits into this religionless vision of Christianity in the next installment.

11 comments:

carrie said...

Not having the background you do makes this very difficult for me to understand. I have read and re-read all you've written about DB's views and I'm feeling stupid. I read sentences over and over and simply don't understand what they mean. Like this one: For Bonhoeffer, unless the absence of God can be meaningfully bridged in the person of Christ, Christianity has ceased to be relevant in our day and age.

I'm not seeing how radical service to others precludes meaningful religious structure. But...I will be patient and hope that further entries will enlighten me. ;-) Thanks for taking the time to post it all.

my15minutes said...

Wow. I love this. I especially like the part about finding God in what we know, not what we don't know. Too often my experience bears out the opposite...people plug in God when there's a mystery (hell, or miracles, or whatever) and run in fear at a known (scientific discovery, for example). I love finding God in what I learn, what I know. DB sure gives us a lot to think about. I like how he implies that the goal is a secular life, lived with edgy faith, rather than a cloistered life lived with holy certainty. Can't wait to read that thesis! :-)

julieunplugged said...

Hi Carrie.

Bonhoeffer is starting with the premise that religious practice isn't meaningful for most people. He's not saying it should or shouldn't be as much as he is saying that it has ceased to function in a meaningful way for most of us. Too often Christianity requires a sort of double conversion - first to Christ and then to this whole way of seeing God and faith that (in Bonhoeffer's view) is unrelated to reality as most people live and experience it.

In other words, most people don't reference God in order to lead productive, happy, meaningful lives. That is not how it's always been. For centuries, God was the taken-for-granted source of life's well-being (Christian or not).

Bonhoeffer is admitting that this is no longer the case and that to suggest that modern people must be returned to the necessity of God in areas where they get along quite fine without him is to recommend that people become disingenuous, or somehow dishonest by trying to squeeze God back into spaces that no longer require God as the answer or solution.

So instead, Bonhoeffer suggests a radical departure from that approach to the faith. He says that what makes Christianity radical - different - is that Jesus is not a divinized human being, but rather, a real man. God's move on behalf of humanity through the incarnation is not about creeds and beliefs, but about selfless existence for others. God wins space for God, ironically, not through miracles and big divine events, but through humanness, through weakness, suffering, identification, attending real human needs here on earth, as Jesus did.

I'll write more about this this week, but that's the flavor of what he's writing. It's taken me four years of really sitting with and reading these letters to grasp it. It's a whole different way for my brain to comprehend the message of Christianity. And what I love about it is that I feel I don't have to pretend or adopt or yield to someone else's configuration of faith.

Julie

Rachel said...

God's move on behalf of humanity through the incarnation is not about creeds and beliefs, but about selfless existence for others.

I think this might be carrying it where Bonhoeffer didn't take it, or at least setting up an either/or that he didn't. His religionless Christianity seems to me to be primarily about practice, not about doctrine. The fault he found with "religious" Christianity was not that it proposed creeds and beliefs, but that it did not think or behave in accordance with those creeds and beliefs because what it sought was not Christ himself but a way to live or a way to answer questions or a way to explain the world. It missed the point of creeds and beliefs. In fact, his frustrations with the ecumenical movement and the German church seem to me to have stemmed most often from their failure to "get it"--to understand the implications of doctrines, not from the fact that they HAD doctrines. If I remember rightly, he virtually always connected "selfless existence for others" with creeds (perhaps informally expressed ones) and beliefs, as if to say that one arises from the other; his reason for selfless existence for others was grounded in his creeds and beliefs in the same way that Jesus' selfless existence was tied to certain "things that are definitely true"; to remove them along with the outward perhaps-grown-irrelevant forms of religion would, in his mind, I think, leave a void that would turn "religionless Christianity" into Christ-less Christianity, a state of affairs he likely would have found unacceptable. So I would say Bonhoeffer is arguing for something--a real Christ for real people--not arguing against creeds and beliefs as if they are at best irrelevant and at worst malignant. Creeds and beliefs are not synonymous with "religion".

You've gotta sympathize with the man. To beat his head against the wall for years trying to get Christians to quit playing church politics and tend to a real crisis must have been disillusioning to say the least. While Hitler was systematically dismantling the structure of religion, the church was so busy trying to protect that structure that it missed the point totally--it forgot what it stood on and for, and that's why it became irrelevant. Bonhoeffer saw firsthand its impotence--talk about getting the pins knocked out from underneath; I think that would set any pastor to some hard thinking.

julieunplugged said...

In August 1944, Bonhoeffer writes:

The church must come out of its stagnation. We must move out again into the world, and risk saying controversial things, if we are to get down to the serious problems of life. I feel obliged to tackle these questions as one who, although a 'modern' theologian, is still aware of the debt he owes to liberal theology. There will be many of the younger men in whom these two trends are combined.

I see Bonhoeffer as striving to hold open the door to the meanings of the cross and resurrection, but he does so through a reality-based assessment of what we really believe first and then turns to what we can actually do.

In his notes for the book he never wrote:

What do we really believe? I mean, believe in such a way that we stake our lives on it? The problem of the Apostles' Creed? 'What must I believe?' is the wrong question; antiquated controversies, especially those between different sects; Lutheran versus Reformed, and to some extent the Roman Catholic versus the Protestant, are no unreal. They may at any time be revived with passion, but they no longer carry conviction. There is no proof of this, and we must simply take it that it is so. All that we can prove is that the faith of the Bible and Christianity does not stand or fall by these issues. Karl Barth and the Confessing Church have encouraged us to retrench ourselves persistently behind the 'faith of the church', and evade the honest question as to what we ourselves really believe. That is why the air is not quite fresh, even in the confessing church.

He goes on to say that we must not rely on the church to determine what our faith is, nor that we simply identify ourselves with the church like the Roman Catholics (which he says is why the RC is often seen as insincere).

Then he offers what he really believes and as usual, we are cut short. He cites three sub-categories in his outline, only one of which is fleshed out. And that one is that abstract belief in God (in his omnipotence, etc.) is "not a genuine experience of God, but a partial extension of the world. Encounter with Jesus Christ."

He says: "Faith is participation in this being of Jesus (incarnation, cross and resurrection)." I'll post more about this in another post.

Also, Bonhoeffer writes about the power of Jesus's example and chides those who see that strain of theology as "liberal" as missing the point. But I don't have time to look for it right now.

Bonhoeffer's belief in the creeds or not is almost irrelevant to what he was trying to do in his writing. He purposefully takes on the challenge to write a secular interpretation of Christianity so that it might be relevant in a secular, non-religious context. He asks, what remains that is relevant for those who don't start with church or creedal assumptions about faith, who don't see the relevance of a deus ex machina God?

julieunplugged said...

Ack. I should preview my posts.

Should say that the controversies are now unreal.

Also, the final part of the quote about God: "Encounter with Jesus Christ" - that is what he considers to be genuine transcendence as he expands in the section that follows it.

It is utterly true that Bonhoeffer is mired in the context of WWII and an apathetic church. It skews every thought he has, colors every idea he pursues, overshadows all of his prayers. Yet it is because of the dire situation that he faces what many of us (in our less frightening times) can ignore or treat with a casual hand.

Bonhoeffer ran smack into the emptiness of faith that professed right beliefs yet lacked authentic ownership of what faith is supposed to do. To me, this is the crux of the modern and postmodern crisis. Are we really going to say that a metaphysical belief in the resurrection is more important than living as Christ did for others, more saving, more right, more Christian?

Is it really more important to preach heaven and hell as over and against living fully vested in this life, in this world, taking on its problems and cares and the significance of its events for the sake of human beings in this life?

Do we know God in the center of our lives, fearlessly, openly, or do we defend God from the quarters that would rob us of him (science, archaeology, religious pluralism)?

Is God a superstition, an abstraction or the source of our compassion, the messianic example for the neighbor within reach?

These are the kinds of questions Bonhoeffer asks in LPP.

Dave said...

Julie, I just have a minute in the middle of a very full day to say I really appreciate your latest column (I think the break from churning it out each week did you good!) and this Bonhoeffer mini-series.

I went to church on Easter Sunday and enjoyed the music and much of the liturgy but where the service stumbled was in the over-interpretation and force-fitting of the Resurrection story into a supposedly "mandatory meaning." IOW, the preacher and other "talkers" during the service spent way too much time trying to tell us what we should make of the resurrection story and predictably, it was skewed toward telling the secularists, non-religious and others how wrong or incomplete their lives and worldviews are if Jesus isn't the Most Important Everything in our lives. And I could even go along with that if they didn't conflate Jesus with their version of religion and the whole outlook of cultic devotion that this church and many others like it try to maintain.

To me, it just produces confusion and double-mindedness since there's no way I can stay within that "bubble" while going about the rest of my life. And I work and live in a very Christianized milieu!

carrie said...

Julie- thanks so much for the further explanation. It has helped a great deal. I apologize for being dense. With your explanation, Rachel's remarks and your further expansion, I feel like I am grasping the central points.

You wrote:
Are we really going to say that a metaphysical belief in the resurrection is more important than living as Christ did for others, more saving, more right, more Christian?

Is it really more important to preach heaven and hell as over and against living fully vested in this life, in this world, taking on its problems and cares and the significance of its events for the sake of human beings in this life?


This helps. I get more what you are saying. I guess I'd answer these rhetorical questions by saying both are important. Why does there need to be an either/or? Do both and whatever reaches the heart of a person is what is imporant in that moment.

I am intrigued by the point you (and DB) are making about not trying to force God into places where he has been shown (in secular life) to be "irrelevant." This is definitely a important point worth lots more thought.

Thanks. I can see I need to read more Bonhoeffer. ;-)
Carrie

julieunplugged said...

Carrie, I hear what you are saying: why can't it be both?

Well, Bonhoeffer might say that it isn't that it can't be both but that for many, many people it isn't both. And the insistence on beliefs as over and against decisive encounter and existing for others is a stumbling block to real faith. He is looking at his peer group (the academic community, theologians, the German church, his family - which included a Jewish brother-in-law) and is saying that to insist on doctrine as the key to spiritual identity and holiness misses the essence of the Christian faith.

So he is arguing that we don't have to be afraid to hear that someone doesn't see God as the God of the gaps in order to bring a relevant, meaningful Jesus as the revelation of God into their lives.

Rachel said...

Karl Barth and the Confessing Church have encouraged us to retrench ourselves persistently behind the 'faith of the church', and evade the honest question as to what we ourselves really believe. That is why the air is not quite fresh, even in the confessing church.

I see this as another description of consigning God to the edges, which starts with a view of God that allows a Christian to basically go about business as usual (for the Christian that would be religious, churchy business) until some problem hits. Then, instead of responses that grow out of a life and world turned upside down by an encounter with Christ, the religious Christian turns for a way out, a way back to comfortable religious life, to the books and categories and formulas that have formed the church's battle lines for centuries, as if the need of the day is to beat back some new strain of doctrine rather than beating back faithlessness in oneself. I think Bonhoeffer's objection to religious controversies described here is not that the ideas don't matter, but that when one turns them into skirmishes at the edges as a way of protecting an autonomous, untouched-by-Christ center, religion loses its relevance.

And that one is that abstract belief in God (in his omnipotence, etc.) is "not a genuine experience of God, but a partial extension of the world. Encounter with Jesus Christ."

Again, the key word here is "abstract" not "belief". Is it belief in the omnipotence of God that Bonhoeffer speaks against, or abstract belief in the omnipotence of God? He seems to me to be concerned about going deeper into Christian belief, not elsewhere--restoring a belief that is central and alive rather than peripheral and dead. The question I'm asking is whether Bonhoeffer would ever make the jump that often IS made today to say that it doesn't matter what you believe about the resurrection or the divinity of Jesus as long as you serve others like he did. To find support for that in Bonhoeffer might be "taking his name in vain."


Bonhoeffer's belief in the creeds or not is almost irrelevant to what he was trying to do in his writing. He purposefully takes on the challenge to write a secular interpretation of Christianity so that it might be relevant in a secular, non-religious context. He asks, what remains that is relevant for those who don't start with church or creedal assumptions about faith, who don't see the relevance of a deus ex machina God?

But what about his notion that there IS no such thing as a secular/ religious divide? The modern unchurched individual might see herself in a secular, non-religious context and therefore not be able to connect with God through religious means, but Bonhoeffer doesn't come at it with a view of two spheres, one religious and one secular, looking for ways to inject the relevant bits of the religious sphere (how to treat one's neighbor) into the secular sphere, sort of a "take out all the problematic things so the secular can buy into this" approach, a way of resolving or avoiding the points of antagonism between the secular and the spiritual. He says that a right view (creedal statement coming up) subsumes the world within the reality of Christ so that there is no "secular"--there is one reality: "The world has no reality of its own, independently of the reveleation of God in Christ...Thought which is conducted in terms of two spheres regards such pairs of concepts as secular and Christian, natural and supernatural, profane and sacred, and rational and revelational, as though they were ultimate static anti-theses, serving to designate certain mutually exclusive entities. It fails to recognize the original unity of these opposites in the reality of Christ, and in the place of this true unity it sets the forced unity of some sacred or profane system in which these contradictory concepts are combined. In such a sytem the static antagonism persists. But these things assume quite a different form with the recognition of the divine and cosmic reality in Christ. The world, the natural, the profane and reason are now all taken up into God from the outset....They have their reality nowhere save in the reality of God, in Christ." (Ethics, Chapter 5.)

His emphasis here, admittedly, is to convince Christians that their rejection of the world is a rejection of Christ, since as he says, "..that which is Christian is to be found only in that which is of the world, the "supernatural" only in the natural, the holy only in the profane, and the revelational only in the rational. The unity of the reality of God and of the world, which has been accomplished in Christ, is repeated, or, more exactly, is realized ever afresh in the life of men. And yet what is Christian is not identical with what is of the world..." He approaches it from the religious side, which denies the reality of unity in Christ by setting aside the "secular" world. But it can also be seen from the other side--how might the secular deny the reality of unity in Christ? Perhaps by creating a religionless Christianity based not on Christ at all but on abstractions of a secular sort, every bit as irrelevant in a world subsumed in Christ as are the abstractions of omnipotence in a world reeling under the power of man.

In all of Bonhoeffer's writings, Christ is central in a turn-the-world upside down way, not a follow-his-example way, so to conclude that one can live a "real" life (one that embraces reality) in a secular realm with a secular Christ merely by divesting him of a few of his religious trappings (born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven....) is to play fast and loose with the nature and identity of the lynchpin.


Bonhoeffer ran smack into the emptiness of faith that professed right beliefs yet lacked authentic ownership of what faith is supposed to do. To me, this is the crux of the modern and postmodern crisis. Are we really going to say that a metaphysical belief in the resurrection is more important than living as Christ did for others, more saving, more right, more Christian?

If Christ is the only ultimate reality, the things he did and said and who he is are not metaphysical abstractions, although we can treat them as if they are. Participation in Christ is more than living as Christ did for others in the same way that participation in Christ is more than a metaphysical belief in the resurrection. I don't see how it can be anything but both/and.


Is it really more important to preach heaven and hell as over and against living fully vested in this life, in this world, taking on its problems and cares and the significance of its events for the sake of human beings in this life?

If heaven and hell exist some way as vital pieces in the identity and work of Christ, it would be impossible to live fully vested in this world (a world that exists only in the identify and work of Christ) or to know anything of the world's problems and cares or the significance of its events in human lives without somehow also knowing and speaking something of heaven and hell. If it is important in Christ's life somehow, it's important. Period. If Christ is central, the most important thing is knowing him, and if stuff like the resurrection and heaven and hell are not vital to knowing him, then neither can living selflessly be vital to knowing him. Knowing him has to be ALL of that rolled together somehow...and then some. There's nothing in this world about which we can say, "Oh, that's not really all that important; the main thing is to just do this...." It all fits together somehow into "knowing Christ". Saying there are things that one doesn't need to believe in order to know Christ or live in him is exactly the same kind of segregated unity-less-ness as saying that it doesn't matter what you do as long as you believe the right things. Both leave some center uninvaded by the Christ of reality.

For Bonhoeffer, everything comes back to who Christ is...and who Christ is is expressed in the language of belief and creed--for the religionless as well as the religious. They matter...but they can get in the way when they are used to push aside the Christ of reality.

So I'll stay tuned to see what more you have to say about the role of Christ in Bonhoeffer's thought. :-)

Rachel

julieunplugged said...

You said: I think Bonhoeffer's objection to religious controversies described here is not that the ideas don't matter, but that when one turns them into skirmishes at the edges as a way of protecting an autonomous, untouched-by-Christ center, religion loses its relevance.

I think he says that they don't matter. :) But I also think he is much more concerned about the "untouched by Christ center" because as you say, that's when religion loses its relevance.

As you stated in your quotes from Ethics (and as I cite in my paper), Bonhoeffer wishes to erase the lines between sacred and secular. His emphasis on the "secular life" is his way of saying that this world matters and the Christian finds his identity in Christ living in this world, not living above it or to the side of it or in waiting for the next world.

I will post another salient portion of LPP that addresses some of your other concerns.