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