Letters from Cell 92: Part 1, A New Theology

Over the summer I read Eric Metaxes' recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. This week I finished Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's recent biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance. And a few years ago I read the seminal biography of Bonhoeffer, the one written by his close friend Eberhard Bethge.

Reading through these biographies, particularly this week finishing Schlingensiepen's biography, I've been once again pondering Bonhoeffer's enigmatic letters from prison regarding "religionless Christianity." Upon their publication in 1951-1952 these letters have stimulated a great deal of speculation, commentary, and head scratching. Some were disturbed (then and now) by what seemed to be a liberal turn in Bonhoeffer's thinking. It bothered people like Karl Barth that Bonhoeffer seemed to be saying things that sounded like Tillich and Bultmann. For many, it was hard to reconcile the "liberal" Bonhoeffer of the Letters and Papers from Prison with the "orthodox" Bonhoeffer of The Cost of Discipleship. Even today, evangelicals are drawn to Discipleship while liberals are drawn to the Letters.

So would the real Dietrich Bonhoeffer please stand up?

It is Eberhard Bethge's opinion, the man who knew Bonhoeffer's mind better than anyone, that there is actually quite a bit of continuity between the early and late Bonhoeffer. Bethge makes this argument in Chapter 13--Tegel: 1943-1944--of his biography under the heading "The New Theology" (pp. 855-891). As this blog functions as my journal, I'd like to devote a few posts to summarizing Bethge's analysis of Bonhoeffer's theological letters from Cell 92 in the Tegel prison.

For the rest of this post let's simply introduce the relevant data.

The theological letters were written by Bonhoeffer to Bethge during the last year of Bonhoeffer's life, 1944, while Bonhoeffer was in Tegel Prison in Berlin. The letters spanned four months, from late April (the first theological letter is dated April 30) to the end of August. These letters can be found from pp. 278-394 in Letters and Papers from Prison (henceforth LPP). Toward the end of this time, in August, Bonhoeffer outlined a book planned for about 100 pages and divided into three chapters:

1. A Stocktaking of Christianity
2. The Real Meaning of the Christian Faith
3. Conclusions
This outline and some notes for each chapter are found in LPP pp. 380-383. The theological letters were covering the material intended for these chapters. After writing letters and jotting notes on these topics for three months, it appears that Bonhoeffer began writing the book in August. In one of his last letters, dated August 23 (LPP 392-394), Bonhoeffer writes:
I'm now working at the chapter on 'A Stocktaking of Christianity'. Unfortunately my output of work has come to depend increasingly on smoking, but I'm lucky enough to have a good supply from the most varied sources, so that I'm getting on more or less. Sometimes I'm quite shocked at what I say, especially in the first part, which is mainly critical; and so I'm looking forward to getting to the more constructive part. But the whole thing has been so little discussed that it often sounds too clumsy. In any case, it can't be printed yet, and it will have to go through the 'purifier' later on. I find it hard work to have to write everything by hand, and it seems hardly legible. (Amusingly enough, I have to use German script, and then there are the corrections!) We shall see; perhaps I shall write out a fair copy.
On September 22 the Gestapo discovered the file collected by his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi documenting Nazi crimes. The discovery of the file effectively sealed the fate of Bonhoeffer, Dohannyi, and their fellow conspirators. In light of this, in early October the Bonhoeffer family made escape plans for Dietrich (there was a guard in Tegel willing to help) but these plans were called off for fear of Nazi reprisals against the Bonhoeffer family. Bonhoeffer was moved from Tegel and, on February 7, taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. From Buchenwald Bonhoeffer was eventually taken to Flossenbürg concentration camp. The execution orders were given on April 5. Bonhoeffer was executed, by hanging, four days later on April 9.

Twenty-one days later Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered.

It appears that Bonhoeffer took the book he was working on with him when he was moved from Tegel. Somewhere between Tegel and Flossenbürg the manuscript was lost. All we have are the letters, the outline, and some notes for the three chapters.

So what was the book to be about? We can begin to answer this question by looking at the first two theological letters on April 30 and May 5:
April 30, 1944

To Eberhard Bethage:

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."

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 that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them 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 become the 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 a religionless Christianity?

...The questions to be answered would surely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God--without religion, i.e., without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even "speak" as we used to) in a "secular" way about God? In what way are we "religionless-secular" Christians, in what way are we those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? What is the place of worship and prayer in a religionless situation?

...The Pauline question of whether [circumcision] is a condition of justification seems to me in present-day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation. Freedom from [circumcision] is also freedom from religion. I often ask myself why a "Christian instinct" often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, but which I don't in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, "in brotherhood." While I'm often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people--because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it's particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable)--to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course.

The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. 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...How this religionless Christianity looks, what form it takes, is something that I'm thinking about a great deal, and I shall be writing to you again about it soon. It may be that on us in particular, midway between East and West, there will fall a heavy responsibility.
May 5, 1944

To Eberhard Bethge:

A few more words about "religionless." I expect you remember Bultmann's essay on the "demythologizing" of the New Testament? My view of it today would be, not that he went "too far," as most people thought, but that he didn't go far enough. It's not only the "mythological" concepts, such as miracle, ascension, and so on (which are not in principle separable from the concepts of God, faith, etc.), but "religious" concepts generally, which are problematic. You can't, as Bultmann supposes, separate God and miracle, but you must be able to interpret and proclaim both in a "non-religions" sense. Bultmann's approach is fundamentally still a liberal one (i.e., abridging the gospel), whereas I'm trying to think theologically.

What does it mean to "interpret in a religious sense"? I think it means to speak on the one hand metaphysically, and on the other hand individualistically. Neither of these is relevant to the biblical message or to the man of today. Hasn't the individualistic question about personal salvation almost completely left us all? Aren't we really under the impression that there are more important things than that question (perhaps not more important than the matter itself, but more important than the question!)? I know it sounds pretty monstrous to say that. But, fundamentally, isn't this in fact biblical? Does the question about saving one's soul appear in the Old Testament at all? Aren't righteousness and the Kingdom of God on earth the focus of everything, and isn't it true that Rom. 3.24ff. is not an individualistic doctrine of salvation, but the culmination of the view that God alone is righteous? It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. What is above this world is, in the gospel, intended to exist for this world; I mean that, not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystic pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Barth was the first theologian to begin the criticism of religion, and that remains his really great merit; but he put in its place a positivist doctrine of revelation which says, in effect, "Like it or lump it": virgin birth, Trinity, or anything else; each is an equally significant and necessary part of the whole, which must simply be swallowed as a whole or not at all. That isn't biblical. There are degrees of knowledge and degrees of significance; that means that a secret discipline must be restored whereby the mysteries of the Christian faith are protected against profanation. The positivism of revelation makes it too easy for itself, by setting up, as it does in the last analysis, a law of faith, and so mutilates what is--by Christ's incarnation!--a gift for us. In the place of religion there now stands the church--that is in itself biblical--but the world is in some degree made to depend on itself and left to its own devices, and that's the mistake.

I'm thinking about how we can reinterpret in a "worldly" sense--in the sense of the Old Testament and of John 1.14--the concepts of repentance, faith, justification, rebirth, and sanctification.

Part 2: "Who is Christ for us today?"

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2 thoughts on “Letters from Cell 92: Part 1, A New Theology”

  1. How about, for instance, "reprogramming?" It has taken me years of painful reprogramming to get to where I am (which ain't saying much, incidentally), but the new "program" is analogous to "adaptive logic" - learning new generative tools that continue, enhance, amplify, and propagate the reprogramming process so that it becomes, in a sense, self-sustaining.

    "Deprogramming" does sound too closed-ended. Far better to set the bar at a new way of thinking rather than merely some new hermeneutical output. "Reprogramming" is plenty broad to accommodate, and acknowledge publicly, and then seek antidotes to, the toxins and biases.

    Perhaps we might define religious charity and pluralism in these terms, too. I, for one, would like my theology and praxis and rhetoric to be judged in terms of a narrative in which I am free to err in details provided that my broader trajectory is faithful(ness).


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