Letters from Cell 92: Part 3, The "World come of Age"

To understand Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity" we need to come to grips with Bonhoeffer's understanding of a "world come of age." Specifically, if a "nonreligious interpretation" is a part of the "solution" we need to understand what the "problem" or "diagnosis" might be.

In his theological letters, which began on April 30, 1944, Bohoeffer's first mention of the "world come of age" appears in a letter dated June 8 (LPP pp. 324-329):

June 8, 1944

To Eberhard Bethge:

...I'll try to define my position from the historical angle.

The movement that began about the thirteenth century (I'm not going to get involved in any argument about the exact date) towards the autonomy of man (in which I should include the discovery of laws by which the world lives and deals with itself in science, social and political matters, art, ethics, and religion) has in our time reached an undoubted completion. Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the "working hypothesis" called "God." In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become increasingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything gets along without "God"--and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, "God" is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.

...Christian apologetics has taken the most varied forms of opposition to this self-assurance. Efforts are made to prove to a world thus come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of "God." Even though there has been surrender of all secular problems, there still remain the so-called "ultimate questions"--death, guilt--to which only "God" can give an answer, and because of which we need God and the church and the pastor. So we live, in some degree, on these so-called ultimate question of humanity. But what if one day they no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered "without God"?...The attack by Christian apologetic on the adulthood of the world I consider to be in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third place unchristian. Pointless, because it seems to me like an attempt to put a grown-up man back into adolescence, i.e. to make him dependent on things on which he is, in fact, on longer dependent, and thrusting him into problems that are, in fact, no longer problems for him. Ignoble, because it amounts to an attempt to exploit man's weakness for purposes that are alien to him and to which he has not freely assented. Unchristian, because it confuses Christ with one particular stage in man's religiousness, i.e. with a human law. More about this later.

But first, a little more about the historical position. The question is: Christ and the world that has come of age...
So here, in the June 8 letter, we find the first wrestling with the "world come of age." According to Bonhoeffer the world come of age has achieved "autonomy" from God because, on a day to day basis, the "working hypothesis of God" is no longer needed. Man is, pragmatically speaking, on her own. God is "pushed more and more out of life." Bonhoeffer also describes this as leaving the "tutelage" or "guardianship" of God. Having left our Cosmic Nanny behind we enter the "adulthood of the world."

Now, we all know what this looks like. The would is becoming more and more secular and atheistic. And, generally speaking, Christians tend to see this as a bad thing. God is being chased out of the world. There is a War on Christmas!

Now Bonhoeffer makes a really surprising move at this point. For Bonhoeffer, the "world come of age" is actually a really good thing. More, Christianity, to be Christian, needs the world to come of age. For only in the world come of age can Christians fully understand both God and the gospel.

We get a hint of this move in the June 8 letter. Bethge has us note how Bonhoeffer keeps placing "God" in parentheses. That is, what is being "pushed out of the world" is a false view of God. A religious (i.e., human) view of God. This is why Bonhoeffer is so frustrated in the June 8 letter (and elsewhere) with Christian apologetics. Such an apologetics is trying to protect and prop up a misconception about who God really is in the world today. Resisting the adulthood of the world Christianity has clung to a heretical notion of God. Thus, it is only in embracing the world come of age where Christianity can fully discover the true nature God. In all this, the world come of age becomes a sort of midwife to the gospel.

So how are we to embrace the world come of age? Bonhoeffer describes what this looks like in one of his most famous (and controversial) letters:
July 16, 1944

To Eberhard Bethge:

...And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [translation: "as if there were no God"]. And this is just what we do recognize--before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
The phrase etsi deus non daretur, living as if there were no God, is startling. More, Bonhoeffer asks for something rather strange: Before God and with God we live without God. What could this possibly mean?

What we are encountering here is the theologia crucis of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Theologia crucis is a term coined by Martin Luther to suggest that the true nature of God can only be ascertained in the crucifixion of Jesus. That is, if you ask the questions "Who is God?" or "Where is God?" or "What is God like?" the theologia crucis answers in every case: Look at Jesus on the cross. The cross is who God is, where God is found, and what God like. Recall the main question of the theological letters: Who is Christ for us today? Bonhoeffer answers with the theologia crucis. We see this very clearly in the July 16th letter. Right after the shocking "Before God and with God we live without God" the very next sentence picks up the theme of theologia crucis:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
God is "weak" and "powerless." God "lets himself be pushed out of the world" and "on to the cross." God helps us in the world not through power ("omnipotence") but by "his weakness and suffering." In this we see how the world come of age is functioning as a midwife to the gospel. By pushing the false "Powerful God" out of the world the way becomes clear for the God revealed in the cross of Jesus. Thus, the July 16 letter continues:
...Man's religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God's powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world's coming of age outlined above, which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way to seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.
The world come of age kills off a "false conception of God" and this allows us to see the "God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness." This is how the world come of age acts as a midwife to the gospel. The "adulthood" of humanity has allowed us to dispose of a false conception of God, the Big Guy in the Sky, the deus ex machina, who swoops down to solve our problems or answer all mystery. This God has been kicked to the margins in the world come of age. And, for Bonhoeffer, this is a very good thing. For it allows us to see the God of the cross, the weak and powerless God here in the midst of us.

Let me try to summarize all this in a few pictures. Because you know how I love schematic, visual summaries!

First, we have the situation before the world come of age, when humanity was under the "guardianship" of the Big Guy in the Sky:
What happens in this situation, as I try to represent in the diagram, is that religion becomes other-worldly. God is found "outside of" or "beyond" this world. It's this other-worldliness that Bonhoeffer is trying to combat.

So what happens when the world comes of age? Well, we have the negation of "God." We, as Christians, live, before God (!), etsi deus non daretur. No longer looking for a God "out there" we are forced back into the world. We replace other-worldliness with the "secular" "this-worldliness" that Bonhoeffer speaks of over and over again in his letters. We find Christ in the "midst of life":
So Christians follow God into the world where, as Bonhoeffer writes on July 18, we are "summoned to share in God's sufferings at the hands of the world." As God become radically available to the world (and suffers for it), so the church becomes radically available to the world (and suffers for it). As William Stringfellow describes it:
The Church exists for the sake of the world into which God enters and in which He acts and for which He expends His own life.
And that's the crucial point. The dynamic we see in the world come of age is the same movement of the theologia crucis:
The point in all this is that, yes, there is a "death of God" being spoken of in Bonhoeffer's theological letters. And there is a sense in which the secular world has marginalized God and made God irrelevant. But all this is, Bonhoeffer contends, some very good news. Because it clears the ground and positions us to envision the true shape of the answer to the question: "Who is Christ for us today?"

Part 4: Religionless Christianity

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12 thoughts on “Letters from Cell 92: Part 3, The "World come of Age"”

  1. Great post. Your explanation of etsi deus non daretur while not fully encapsulating what Bonhoeffer's view, hits the very heart of it.

  2. Fascinating! Only by making Himself low in humble sacrifice and suffering was Christ Jesus then lifted high and exalted, which serves as our model. Reading this did cause me to think about the concept of "resurrection" in the Christian life. In the earthly/temporal sense, we are weak. Through the power of Christ's resurrection, we receive strength in this life and for eternity to be recreated, renewed, even through the experience of little "deaths" of varying degrees. I'm reminded of Dumbledore's pet phoenix in Harry Potter's 'Chamber of Secrets.' When killed by the basilisk in order to save Harry, it bursts into flames, reduced to a pile of ashes, only to momentarily rise again. God, in this world, doesn't save us from all the little "deaths" (or the big, ultimate reality of death), but uses them to resurrect, transform us more and more into Christ's image.

    Luther's "theologia crucis" offers some explanation on the issue of theodicy, but I'm pondering and interested in hearing others' thoughts on the meaning of "Resurrection Life" in Bonhoeffer's take on religionless Christianity?

    I haven't read Bonhoeffer firsthand, so this series -- essentially "unwrapping" some of his writings -- has been very beneficial to me. Thank you!

  3. Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer didn't get to unpack all these thoughts. So I ask the same question about where the resurrection life fits in. But if you look at his early work my hunch is that he would make two moves:

    1) In his doctoral work Act and Being Bonhoeffer speaks of "Christ as community." In community the Resurrected Christ becomes available to us. In his Letters I think Bonhoeffer would have gone on to add that the Resurrected Christ also becomes available to those 'outside' the community even as Christ is unrecognized (as we see in the resurrection narratives: Christ, unrecognized, in the midst of us). So when we become available to others (Christian or not) the Resurrected Lord is at hand.

    2) I'm following William Stringfellow on this point (as he, it seems to me, offers an almost perfect extension and elaboration of Bonhoeffer's Letters), the resurrection life sets us "free from the slavery of the fear of death" (Heb. 2.15). Only by setting us free from the fear of death can we become radically available to each other (to be and find Christ in each other)

  4. Thanks. I'm new to these letters so I'm summarizing, at this stage, how I understand it all, if only in a preliminary way. But it's good to know I'm going, generally, in the right direction.

  5. It was a link to one of your older posts about Bonhoeffer's "religious Christianity" that first brought me to this blog. I was amazed to discover then that many of my own personal doubts, which had led me to seriously question whether I could in good faith call myself Christian, were shared by one of the great Christian theologians! Were it not for finding that blog entry, I would likely not be in the church today.

    This series, too, is well-timed. The dilemma Bonhoeffer outlines in the first letter is one I have struggled with for quite some time.

    His second letter, meanwhile, just blows me away. Still working through it.

    Thanks Richard.

  6. Richard,

    Observation: in the late-1970s, I taught in a Texas maximum security prison and had my student/inmates read Solshenytsyn's "Gulag Archepelago," Hitler's "Mein Kampf," Dr. King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," and Bonhoeffer's "Letters." I thought about including Paul's prison letters but did not. I encouraged them to keep journals. My class was nonetheless fascinating. Because I was then so much into my head to avoid suffering, I would now like to do a similar seminar to reflect on what one of my students (doing thirty for rape) said: "Prison is a hell of a place to find God."

    Blessings!

    George Cooper

  7. Just had to share my thanks for this series. I've been going down a lot of "thought paths" lately and your series on Bonhoeffer seems to be tracking down the same issues I've been thinking about. Now I have more reading to add to my list for next year.

  8. .....oh! the vain reasonings of man.....there is no end to it...becoming wise in their own conceits.

  9. "God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us."

    All I can say is this: The Jesus I know rose on the third day after He died, conquering sin and death. He is going to return with power to establish His kingdom. My God isn't weak and powerless. He has overcome the world.

  10. I got to this party late, for sure. Be that as it may, the following passage quoted above to me illuminates the flaws in Bonhoeffer's later thinking:

    Letters and Papers from Prison: 8 June 1944
    “The attack by Christian apologetic on the adulthood of the world I consider to be in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third place unchristian. Pointless, because it seems to me like an attempt to put a grown-up man back into adolescence, i.e. to make him dependent on things on which he is, in
    fact, no longer dependent, and thrusting him into problems that are, in fact, no longer problems to him. Ignoble, because it amounts to an attempt to exploit man's weakness for purposes that are alien to him and to which he has not freely assented. Un-christian, because it confuses Christ with one particular stage in man's religiousness, i.e. with a human law.”

    Think about the situation Bonhoeffer was in when he wrote that: Imprisoned and destined to be executed following a sham trial. In other prisons in the region millions of people were being executed using modern technologies, assisted by modern organizational practices, and facilitated by modern logistical systems. Although Bonhoeffer knew nothing about it then, World War II would be finalized by the detonation of the deadliest weapons in human history in Japan.

    In other words, modernization didn't make the world more capable of functioning without God. Instead it made the need for an all-powerful and immanent God even more desperate than before.

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