Thoughts on Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity: Part 1, The Issue of Consistency

I'm back home now. We had a great month in Germany as I was leading a study abroad experience for our ACU students.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I was reading Eberhard Bethge's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer during our time in Germany. I was reading the biography because I was kicking around an idea I had about Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity."

Before I get to religionless Christianity, I want to say what a profound spiritual experience it was reading Bonhoeffer's story while following in his footsteps in Germany. As I wrote about recently, I visited Zion Church on my birthday, the church where Bonhoeffer taught a confirmation class. We visited Humboldt University (then University of Berlin) where Bonhoeffer studied and taught. We visited the Topography of Terror where the Gestapo headquarters once stood and where Bonhoeffer was interrogated and imprisoned after the failed plot on Hitler's life. We stood in the basement of the building in Buchenwald concentration camp where Bonhoeffer was held the weeks before his death. Even when we were in Leipzig, where the ACU villa is located, we were close to Bonhoeffer as his brother taught in Leipzig during the war years.

It all had a deep spiritual impact on me. I'm still processing how I've been affected and changed.

Having shared that, let me turn to the theological issue I was pondering during those days walking in the steps of Bonhoeffer. The issue has to do with the perceived consistency or inconsistency between the "early" and "late" Bonhoeffer, between the Bonhoeffer who wrote The Cost of Discipleship and the Bonhoeffer who wrote Letters and Papers from Prison.

If you're not familiar with Bonhoeffer and these works let me try to summarize the issue. The early Bonhoeffer who wrote The Cost of Discipleship appears "conservative" in how he pits the church strongly against the world. By contrast, in Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer appears "liberal" in how he embraces the secular world. In Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer rejects a church that is pitted against the world.

This switcharoo poses problems for interpreters of Bonhoeffer. The inconsistency seems to be so great that many simply reject the Bonhoeffer they don't like. Conservatives like The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer and tend to dismiss the Letters and Papers from Prison as too fragmentary and experimental. Plus, Bonhoeffer was in prison and under great psychological strain. Consequently, the provisional thought-balloons of Letters and Papers and Prison can't be taken too seriously. Karl Barth, for one, took this view.

Liberals, by contrast, see the theology of Letters and Papers of Prison as expressions of Bonhoeffer's mature theological thought. In this view, the conservatism of The Cost of Discipleship was simply a phase and season that Bonhoeffer grew out of and left behind.

And so, there are two Bonhoeffer's. Pick the one you like.

There are others, however, who make the argument for continuity between the early and late Bonhoeffer's. Conservatives tend to miss, it is argued, the liberal impulses in Bonhoeffer's early writings, lines of theological inquiry that the church struggle interrupted. Liberals, by contrast, tend to miss Bonhoeffer's emphasis on the "arcane discipline" in Letters and Papers from Prison, focusing too narrowly on, and thereby distorting, "religionless Christianity."

Eberhard Bethge, the man who knew Bonhoeffer best, makes the argument for consistency in his biography of Bonhoeffer. If you'd like a summary of this argument read my six-part series on Bonhoeffer "Letters from Cell 92."

All that to say, this was the issue I was pondering last month in Germany. Is it possible to reconcile the early and later Bonhoeffer? More specifically, what did Bonhoeffer mean by "religionless Christianity"?

I'll share the idea I was kicking around in the next post.

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