What does Bonhoeffer mean by "religionless Christianity"?
As noted in Part 1, there has been a great deal of speculation about Bonhoeffers's theological letters from prison. For example, many of the "death of God" theologians in the 1960s saw Bonhoeffer as their patron theologian.
But most theologians tend to follow the interpretation of Eberhard Bethge, the man to whom the letters were addressed, Bonhoeffer's closest friend, and the man who wrote the definitive biography of Bonhoeffer.
According to Bethge, the key to unlocking the enigmatic letters from prison is to focus on the central question Bonhoeffer raises in the very first letter from April 30:
What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.In short, the central issue behind the letters is Christology, the question "Who is Christ for us today?"
More specifically, Bonhoeffer is wrestling with how Christ can be Lord in a religionless world. Later in the Apirl 30 letter Bonhoeffer raises this question of Lordship:
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?...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 does it mean for Christ to be Lord of a "religionless" world, a world "come of age"?
For Bethge, these questions are critical to understanding what Bonhoeffer is wrestling with. Bonhoeffer wasn't, as some have mistakenly assumed, trying to figure out a way to translate religious categories into a secular ("religionless") language to make faith palatable to modern persons. Rather, Bonhoeffer was trying to understand how Christ could be "Lord of the world" in a world that didn't recognize Christ's existence or seem to need him. In that kind of world, who is Christ for us? In his letters Bonhoeffer tries to crawl toward an answer.
Around this central Christological question--Who is Christ for us today?--there are three recurring themes in the theological letters. The first two themes we've already mentioned. The three themes are:
1. "World come of age."Most interpreters of the letters have tended to focus on Bonhoeffer's comments about "religionless Christianity." This is only natural as these passages are the most shocking and explosive, theologically speaking. But according to Bethge, if we place "religionless Christianity" at the theological center of the letters we'll misunderstand Bonhoeffer's project. This is, in fact, the mistake made by the death of God theologians. Again, for Bethge, to understand Bonhoeffer correctly we have to place the Christological question at the center of Bonhoeffer's concerns. This is the center of gravity. Thus, any discussion of a "religionless Christianity" has to orbit the central question: Who is Christ for us today?
2. "Nonreligious interpretation" (or "religionless Christianity")
3. "Arcane discipline"
Schematically, then, this is how Bethge asks us to approach the letters:
With this structure in place Bethge goes on to map these themes onto the three chapters Bonhoeffer had sketched out for the book he was working on. Recall from the last post that the three chapters were "A Stocktaking of Christianity," "The Real Meaning of the Christian Faith," and "Conclusions." Bethge maps the three themes onto the chapters in the following way:
1. A Stocktaking of Christianity: What is Christianity in a "world come of age"?In the posts to follow we'll walk through each "chapter" to try to come to understand what Bonhoeffer meant by "world come of age," "religionless Christianity," or the "arcane discipline" in his quest to answer the question "Who is Christ for us today?" So as we go forward we'll try to keep the Christological question at the center of our investigations, returning to it over and over. Here is Bethge on this point:
2. The Real Meaning of the Christian Faith: The "nonreligious interpretation"
3. Consequences: The practice of the "arcane discipline"
Bonhoeffer's theme entails setting out in order to discover the presence of Christ in the world of today: it is not a discovery of the modern world, nor a discovery of Christ from this modern world, but discovering him in this world...Hence this question governs Bonhoeffer's dialogue and must preserve, in the correct relation and proportion, the explosive formulas of the world come of age, nonreligious interpretation, and arcane discipline. Without the overriding theme of this question these concepts would fall apart and become stunted or superficial. As isolated intellectual phenomena, they have little to do with Bonhoeffer's thought; but within the christological perspective of his central theme they achieve their full and independent justification.So that's the question going forward: Who is Christ for us today?
Part 3: The World Come of Age