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In 2010 I did a four-part series "Letters from Cell 92" about the theology of Deitrich Bonhoeffer as expressed in his enigmatic Letters and Papers from Prison. Cell 92 was the cell in Tegel prison where Bonhoeffer wrote most of his letters to Eberhard Bethge.
Letters and Papers from Prison (LPP) is a bit of a Rorschach blot. Bonhoeffer's reflections are provocative but fragmentary and incomplete. Consequently, it is difficult to tell how connected Bonhoeffer's prison reflections are with his prior theological work. Was Bonhoeffer making a radical theological break from the past or were the prison reflections simply the outworking of his ongoing theological project?
These questions are most acute when we get to Bonhoeffer's reflections about something he described as "religionless Christianity."
What is "religionless Christianity" for Bonhoeffer?
Some have taken Bonhoeffer to have been articulating a "death of God" theology, a form of Christian a/theism. Much of this interpretation is based upon this passage in LPP (taken from Part 3 of my series):
July 16, 1944According to Bonhoeffer we are to live in the world etsi deus non daretur, as if there were no God. God asks us to live in the world "without God as a working hypothesis." Thus, before God and with God we live without God.
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.
What does Bonhoeffer mean by this?
On the surface the notion of etsi deus non daretur jibes well with death of God and a/theistic interpretations of religionless Christianity, but these struggle with how we should understand our living "without God" as being done "before God" and "with God."
How can religionless Christianity be godless and a/theistic if it done before God and with God?
It is Eberhard Bethge's interpretation of religionless Christianity, with I tried to summarize in Part 4 of the series, that Bonhoeffer wasn't making a death of God or a/theistic move. According to Bethge what Bonhoeffer was doing was trying to combat a "false transcendence" with a radically incarnational view of transcendence, finding God not up in a heaven but in "the neighbor who is within reach."
To be sure, death of God and a/theistic approaches are trying to accomplish something very similar, finding God in immanent, human relationships rather than in cultic, transcendent practices. But the death of God and a/theistic approaches would not see these immanent, human relationships as being lived out "before God" or "with God." They are God, with no remainder. You can see the distinction between this view and Bohoeffer's in his discussions in LPP of the "discipline of the secret" or the "arcane discipline."
I discuss the "arcane discipline" in Part 5 of my series. The "arcane discipline" goes back to the days of the early church. After baptism new Christians were read the creed "in secret" and were told to memorize it and never write it down. The creed--as the mystery of the faith--held power and was to be the secret possession of the faithful. These secrets were not to be revealed to the world.
This seems to be what Bonhoeffer means by "religionless," but with a twist. The faith of the believer is never publicly declared, shared or practiced before the world. Faith is a secret and, thus, to the world looks "religionless." The confession of faith is expressed morally and ethically rather than verbally or ritualistically. The best description of what this looks like comes from Bonhoeffer himself, from a sermon he delivered in 1932:
Confession of faith is not to be confused with professing a religion. Such profession uses the confession as propaganda and ammunition against the Godless. The confession of faith belongs rather to the "Discipline of the Secret" in the Christian gathering of those who believe. Nowhere else is it tenable...Faith is a secret, a word between friends. Nowhere else is it tenable. Most importantly, faith is never expressed as a judgment of or against the world, as a weapon against enemies. The world should only see our love, a love that will be expressed godlessly, religionlessly.
The primary confession of the Christan before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If this deed is to have become a force, then the world will long to confess the Word. This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda. This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community. This is a matter between God and the community, not between the community and the world. It is a word of recognition between friends, not a word to use against enemies. This attitude was first learned at baptism. The deed alone is our confession of faith before the world.
Religionless Christianity is the deed which interprets itself, for the deed alone is our confession of faith before the world.