Search Term Friday: Religionless Christianity

Continuing our Friday series where we highlight search terms that have brought people to the blog.

This week's search terms:

religionless christianity

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, 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.
According 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.

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...

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.
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.

Religionless Christianity is the deed which interprets itself, for the deed alone is our confession of faith before the world.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

17 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: Religionless Christianity”

  1. This dove tails with some of the frustration I mentioned in your Stringfellow series.

    Stringfellow gets at something real about human experience and does so through a "language environment" that evolved into Christianity. Kind of. He took the "stuff" on which Christianity built its edifice, but "built" something different. Same with Bonhoeffer here.

    For the Evangelical (I was once one) becoming a Christian is the end. For Stringfellow and Bonhoeffer- and Jesus?- something else is the end. What IS this something else?

    And why can't we see this "something else" scientifically? And why does Christianity- particularly Evangelicalism, which holds itself to be its purist expression of it- miss it?

    The reality Stringfellow and Bonhoeffer point to, isn't a secret one that requires an in-the-know handshake or password to "get in." Yet if we're to move into a future where we don't self-destruct, this reality is crucial for human life everywhere to understand.

    The Potential to be human resides in the people who can be human- not in a religion. Somehow, this vital and real "stuff" that Stringfellow and Bonhoeffer illuminate, should be able to be conceived in human words, not just religious ones. Maybe though, it can't. This too is interesting.


  2. This reminds me of your posts on the weakness of God. I am still thinking about how the power of God is defined by love, and not the characteristics of American culture's might and power. Thanks for the challenges.

  3. I think it depends upon what we mean by "religion." I know what you mean by religion when you write "The Potential to be human resides in the people who can be human- not in a religion."

    But I'm very, very religious. And I'm ferociously religious because I'm training myself in becoming a human being. In The Slavery of Death I share a quote from Stanley Hauerwas: "To be a human being is not a natural condition, but requires training."

    Of course, people adopt various "training regimens," some religious and some not. My training regimen is the Christian religion, a training to become like Jesus who repeatedly described himself as "the human being."

    That's how I'm a Christian. Jesus defines "human being" for me and I use the religion founded in his name as my arena of training.

  4. Yes, very much so. I think I used this quote in that series in describing the weakness of God.

  5. What is "religionless Christianity" for Bonhoeffer?

    Well, how does Bonhoeffer understand Christianity as a"religion"?

    (1) It's a metaphysic and, as is popular to say today, a "worldview".

    (2) Its idea of of God is that God is a God of power (a deus ex machina, as Bonhoeffer calls this deity).

    (3) It assumes that we come to know God when we have reached the end of our epistemological tether, and that God meets us in extremis, in our weakness, not our strength. So, with (2), it says that strong God meets weak human being, rather than weak God meets strong human being.

    (4) It privileges the individual in unmediated relationships with other people.

    (5) Its "spirituality" is one of inwardness.

    (6) With (4) and (5), its soteriology is about saving individuals, saving souls. (Bonhoeffer calls such a soteriology "salvation egoism".)

    (7) It makes absolute ethical clams based on ideals and principles and promulgates moral programmes.

    (8) When push comes to shove, it blesses violence (consistent with a God of coercive power).

    There's an octave, for a start. I hope it's helpful. Start deconstructing it and you begin to see what Bonhoeffer was beginning - no, continuing - to explore with the term "religionless Christianity". I trust it hardly needs saying that he did not mean a churchless or worship/prayerless Christianity.

  6. I agree.

    As I like to say it, the Bonhoeffer in prison was the same Bonhoeffer at Finkenwalde.

  7. Your point is well taken. And it was Paul himself who wrote and proclaimed, "I am not ashamed of the gospel." The announcing of the good news, God's power unto salvation was forcefully proclaimed by the Wesleys in a cold and hostile environment, but not as white-hot demonic as that Bonhoeffer faced in Nazi Germany. Wesley preached personal salvation with social (humanistic) implications. His calling was shaped by his environment, his day of accountability. The martyred German pastor battled two great institutions, the spineless Protestant church and the crushing horrors of Hitler. German Christianity lost it's soul when it lost it s calling. Bonhoeffer's resistance took on a face both allowed and provoked by the reality of his time. The mark of the high calling of Jesus Christ inspires courage and purposeful action. "Walking the walk" takes different forms, but it never winds up worshiping its own footsteps or evading its own calling to die to self and live for the world in which it exists. Jesus steadfastly set his face toward Jerusalem. The witness of the martyrs lives to goad us weaklings in the faith. Religionless Christianity indeed!

  8. I think this post clarifies the importance of how we live and that Christians confessing their faith through actions should have no problem teaming with anyone on the same course of action.

  9. Totally agreed. You partner with anyone working toward the same goals.

    As an example, I wrote about this awhile back on Rachel's blog, about locations of common purpose between the conservative Church and the gay community:

  10. Maybe then, as I consider your thoughtful response, the solution I'm looking for doesn't entail finding a common language environment that Christians and non-Christians can share in. Maybe the solution is about making plain and clear the idea that being human is not a "natural condition" that you cite. In this scenario, we share a common place that is innately everybody's. It's in this shared common space of being human requiring from us some kind of attentive work in order to become more fully human, one could ask "how have you pursued this work?" And then we could "compare notes" without seeking conversion, but illumination.....

  11. "The world should only see our love, a love that will be expressed godlessly, religionlessly.

    "Religionless Christianity is the deed which interprets itself, for the deed alone is our confession of faith before the world."

    That sounds a lot like Newbigin...

    I believe I have commented before that Bonhoeffer was consistent all his life. We have a hard time "getting" his more "theological" works because the study of theology in Europe required/s the use of a specific type of language, with which we in the US are totally unfamiliar except in the most rarified air of academia - which does not include the vast majority of Protestant seminaries here. Bonhoeffer was no Evangelical - except in the sense of the German word "evangelisch" - meaning "Lutheran."

    Fr Stephen Freeman has written a little series on his blog recently, about modernity/the "modern project" - B's "religionless Christianity" reminds me of this. I think there's a connection between what B was trying to describe and Fr Stephen's writings on the 2-storey universe (with gratitude to F. Schaeffer for the term) and how we can resist being squeezed into that outlook.


  12. Hi Equalog,

    For Bonhoeffer, who learned it from Barth, God and God alone - in the incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ - grants knowledge of God - and not to the "mind" but holistically (in "act and being", the title of Bonoheffer's second dissertation - "being" being a supplemental corrective to Barth's emphasis on the divine "act") and in concrete responses of obedience. You won't find a systematic epistemology in Bonhoeffer.

    And,yes, for Bonhoeffer, God in his weakness meets men and women not - or not only - in their weakness but above all in their strength. Sniffing out a person's sins in order to bring God into their lives Bonhoeffer found a quite repugnant form of evangelism.

    Ad, yes, Richard - the Bonhoeffer in prison was the same Bonhoeffer at Finkenwalde. See the recent Nation, Siegrist, Umbel, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking (2013) for a brilliant and convincing demonstration of your statement: Ethics is a development, not a retraction, of Discipleship.

  13. So now I'm seeing another question: "What if science can't see in any complete way, what the life of being human is?" If it can't, why not? And of that which it can't see, is it pertinent to reality as a whole, let alone to human living?

    Thanks for the dialog you created in your recent pieces Richard, it's really helping me to formulate some things I've been working on of late. Mike

  14. Richard, I hope you give us another post or two on Stringfellow for the 21st century. I wonder if we're too easily skipping past the reality that Stringfellow took the legal profession and the institutions that support law in Western society as domain of Christian witness. In the previous post, someone posted a beautiful quote by Wendell Berry about finding our resistance within the personal. This sentiment does exhibit aspects of Stringfellow's ethic as it is presented within this book. I find it inspiring. But there is also the public Stringfellow that was willing to advocate for the poor and disenfranchised through the courts.

    Of course institutions are fallen and must be resisted. The Catholic university that employs me as a professor is, frankly, a death-dealing "Buffalo Bill". Most higher ed institutions are -- secular, Christian etc -- at this point. I resist as best I can for the sake of solidarity (I'm still trying to figure out solidarity -- what it means, how it works). In honesty, I think the courts have been largely correct in protecting persons in their right to be persons. I wish more Christians, like Stringfellow, would dedicate themselves to this demonstration of rational love, often given at personal cost as per Stringfellow's life. Did Stringfellow bear forth life for the church? Or did he seed his life for the transformation of human institutions? What community are we really taking about?

    Thanks for this thoughtful blog.

  15. I think that we also have to consider that for Bonhoeffer was a German and that for Germans religion was a function of the state. In Nazism Bonhoeffer had witnessed the inability of the church to detach itself from the state, and seen how the state corrupted religion. So I wonder if religionless Christianity doesn't point towards a post-Constantinian world where the state no longer looks to the church for its legitimacy and the church in turn is fully independent of the state and therefore able to become an authentic Christian polis, an alternative society. That would make it rather like the Confessing Church itself was.

  16. the notion of religionless Christianity is one that has intrigued me for awhile. Merton was also exploring this in his last years. His very last talk (on the day he died) brings up "Everybody has to stand on his [sic] own feet." -- pointing the way toward the validity of inner knowing.

    Sometimes I think that articulation somehow dilutes that inner knowing.

Leave a Reply