In the last post we discussed Bonhoeffer's understanding of the "world come of age," specifically how the world come of age acts as a midwife to the gospel. In the world come of age we no longer look for God "out there" beyond the blue. The forces of secularism push God out of the world. Generally speaking, Christians have seen this development as a bad thing. But Bonhoeffer sees this as a good thing. We no longer look for God "out there" in a world come of age, so we are forced back into the daily affairs of this world. This is a positive development, because, according to Bonhoeffer, the God revealed in the gospels was never found "out there." Rather, God is always found in our midst, or suffering on the cross. Thus, we shouldn't be worried, as a church, that God is now overlooked in our world. Because that's how we find God treated in the gospels: Overlooked. In short, the God pushed out of the world is actually a "false God," a vision of God that occluded the God found in the gospels: the Crucified God. Thus, before God we live etsi deus non daretur, as if there were no "God." The missional objective in all this is to prevent other-worldliness, to force the church to find God in the world.
In this post I want to turn to Bonhoeffer's analysis of religion, particularly his discussions of a "religionless Christianity." What we'll discover in this analysis is a set of ideas very similar to the ones we encountered with the "world come of age."
To understand "religionless Christianity" we have to understand how Bonhoeffer is using the term "religion." What is the problem with "religion" that Bonhoeffer is trying to get around? In this letters Bonhoeffer picks out two aspects of religion that he find particularly problematic:
May 5, 1944Bonhoeffer singles out metaphysics and individualism as problems with religion. The problems with metaphysics should be obvious. Modern man has a great deal of trouble dealing with the cosmology presented in the bible. Witness the struggles fundamentalist Christians have with Darwinian evolution. But what does Bonhoeffer mean by individualism? Basically, it is the religious focus on sin and personal salvation. As the May 5 letter continues:
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?Now what is the root problem with metaphysics and this concern over personal salvation? The problem is the same one we encountered in our analysis of the world come of age. The problem for Christianity is that when it becomes concerned with religious issues (like metaphysics and personal salvation) it becomes other-worldly; Christianity-as-religion pulls the Christian out of the world, getting us to focus on the Somewhere Beyond the Blue. Bonhoeffer's concerns over other-worldliness become explicit as he continues on in the May 5 letter:
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...What we see in all this is that, through things like metaphysics and concerns over personal salvation, religion pulls us out of the world:
This is the same dynamic we saw in the last post. Only now we are focusing on how religion becomes a vehicle of other-worldliness. So what is the solution? Well, what we need is an interpretation of faith that is "nonreligious," an interpretation of faith that creates a this-worldliness. This is what Bonhoeffer is trying to achieve with his vision of a "religionless Christianity," a faith that moves Christians deeper into the world.
So what would this nonreligious interpretation looks like? Bonhoeffer gives a hint if we read a bit further in the May 5 letter:
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.We got a hint above about Bonhoeffer's interest in using the Old Testament as a guide for his nonreligious interpretation. As he notes, there is very little other-worldliness in the Old Testament. When the Psalms speak of salvation they are asking for salvation now. In this world. In a similar way, when the Psalms cry out for justice they are asking for justice now. In this world. God's interests are totally absorbed with this world, right now. Salvation and justice are about what happens today.
But it's not just the Old Testament. The Lord's Prayer captures it well: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." But the trump card is the Incarnation itself. Bonhoeffer cites John 1.14. How this-worldly can you get?
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.I actually like the way The Message renders John 1.14:
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.In sum, a religionless Christianity is trying to create an interpretation of faith that creates the this-worldliness of the Incarnation:
What does this kind of this-worldly faith look like? Well, sadly, Bonhoeffer didn't get a lot of time to work this out in great detail. But he gets close in one of his final letters dated July 21:
July 21, 1944But perhaps Bonhoeffer's best description of his nonreligious interpretation can be found in the notes he left behind for Chapter 2 of his book. In these notes it becomes very clear how Bonhoeffer is trying to define the transcendent encounter with God in a this-worldly manner. That is, rather than "transcendence" drifting into other-worldliness, the great temptation of religion, we ground it in the midst of everyday life:
I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world--watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia [translation: conversion, repentance]; that is how one becomes a man and a Christian...
Encounter with Jesus Christ. The experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that "Jesus is there only for others." His "being there for others" is the experience of transcendence. It is only this "being there for others," maintained till death, that is the ground of his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Faith is participation in this being of Jesus (incarnation, cross, resurrection). Our relation to God is not a "religious" relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable--that is not authentic transcendence--but our relation to God is a new life in "existence for others," through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation...For me, this conclusion is stunning. To find God I don't leave this world to search Somewhere Beyond the Blue. I don't find God in my heart (individualism) or in heaven (metaphysics). Although religion, on a daily basis, tempts me in these directions. Rather, I look for the "neighbor who is within reach." And in "being there for others" I encounter Christ. This is a true, this-worldly, Old Testament, Incarnational, John 1.14 transcendence. A nonreligious Christianity. The Word is flesh and blood and lives in my neighborhood.
And, to conclude, in that phrase, "Jesus is there only for others," we get very, very close to the answer to the question that has been haunting Bonhoeffer's letters: Who is Christ for us today?
Part 5: The Arcane Discipline