Psalm 45

"I recite my verses to the king"

Psalm 45 is a marriage song written for the Davidic king. The poem praises his physical beauty and martial prowess. The queen-to-be is also praised and encouraged to take the king's hand. Given all this, I don't think Psalm 45 is in anyone's Top 10 list. The song is too specific to the royal court, and some of its gender assumptions make it fall a bit flat for many modern readers. It's just hard to see yourself in the poem. 

And yet, throughout Christian history these songs have been interpreted as describing the wedding of Christ with his church. Israel's covenant with God is routinely described as a marital bond. Revelation describes the New Jerusalem as "the bride of Christ."

Within Protestantism, these marital metaphors remain pretty much metaphors, and thin ones at that. But within the Catholic mystical tradition, the bridal and erotic imagery of Scripture has been used to describe the soul's passion and longing for God. Consider the most famous treatise in the Christian mystical tradition, St. John of the Cross' The Dark Night of the Soul. John of the Cross' discourse is a commentary upon an erotic love poem entitled "Stanzas of the Soul." Here is the poem as translated by David Lewis:
In a dark night,
With anxious love inflamed,
O, happy lot!
Forth unobserved I went,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and in safety,
By the secret ladder, disguised,
O, happy lot!
In darkness and concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In that happy night,
In secret, seen of none,
Seeing nought myself,
Without other light or guide
Save that which in my heart was burning.

That light guided me
More surely than the noonday sun
To the place where He was waiting for me,
Whom I knew well,
And where none appeared.

O, guiding night;
O, night more lovely than the dawn;
O, night that hast united
The lover with His beloved,
And changed her into her love.

On my flowery bosom,
Kept whole for Him alone,
There He reposed and slept;
And I cherished Him, and the waving
Of the cedars fanned Him.

As His hair floated in the breeze
That from the turret blew,
He struck me on the neck
With His gentle hand,
And all sensation left me.

I continued in oblivion lost,
My head was resting on my love;
Lost to all things and myself,
And, amid the lilies forgotten,
Threw all my cares away.
St. John of the Cross uses this poem for the rest of The Dark Night of the Soul to expound upon "the way and manner which the soul follows upon the road of the union of love with God." The lover goes out into the night for a moonlight tryst with the Beloved. This romantic rendezvous with the Beloved is the regulating metaphor for The Dark Night of the Soul

And if you're familiar with the bridal and marriage Psalms, like Psalm 45, along with the Song of Songs, all of this imagery is perfectly natural and expected.

Jesus Has This Effect On Dead People

I was recently reminded of an exchange out at the prison that I shared here a few years ago. 

In our study we were in Mark discussing the healing of Jairus' daughter.

Casey, one of the inmates, was sharing his observations, and while he was talking he said this:
"Jesus has this effect on dead people."
Casey was connecting the raising of Jairus' daughter with the healing of the woman with the issue of blood (which occurs in the midst of the story). Both women are dead, one physically, the other socially and ritually. Jesus comes into contact with each woman, bringing both to life.

As I noted when I first shared this story, Casey's observation startled me. Stopped me dead in my tracks with its simplicity and truth. So many of us have been brought to life, because Jesus has this effect on dead people.

Teaching My Students to Pray

Two years ago, I made the intentional decision to pray before all of my classes. I'm in agreement with Andrew Root: the most critical and pressing spiritual formation task facing the church today is teaching ourselves how to pray. 

To be clear, this isn't about some pious "add-on" to make my class "Christian." It's not really even about practicing a "spiritual discipline," some grueling work we engage in to become better Christians. Prayer is, rather, simply an enchantment. As I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, prayer helps us overcome our pervasive attention blindness, bringing the dancing gorilla into view (if you don't know what I mean by "dancing gorilla," read the book). Prayer is vision and perception. Cleaning the dirty windows. Prayer recovers our lost sacramental ontology.

Prayer is also good medicine. A balm for the heart, a salve for our hurts. Every time I pray with my classes after the "Amen" there is soft but audible sigh. I wish you could hear it. Some cool cloth has been placed upon a fevered brow. A moment of relief and respite found in the middle of a hard and difficult day. A stream appearing in the middle of the desert. 

Be Alert!

Out at the prison we were in the book of 1 Peter. One of the many things we talked about was the theme of alertness.

You see this theme emerge early in the letter in 1.13. Here's how the CSB renders the verse:

Therefore, with your minds ready for action, be sober-minded.

Most translations have something similar to the idea of "preparing your mind for action." The more literal NKJV makes the underlying idiomatic expression in the Greek more clear:

Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober.

As you likely know, given first-century dress, the long skirts of male clothing were pulled up and tied off prior to military action. "Girding up the loins" freed the legs for action, getting excess cloth out of the way so that you wouldn't trip over it. Obviously, since modern readers of the Bible don't do much "girding up the loins" anymore, the idiomatic expression doesn't communicate very well. Consequently, translations go with something like "preparing the mind" for action.

Regardless, the point is to prepare yourself for mental combat. This theme echos through 1 Peter:
"Be alert and sober-minded" (4.7) 

"Be sober-minded, be alert. Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour." (5.8)
Prepare your mind for military action. Be alert. Be sober-minded. Why? Because we are engaged in a spiritual battle.

This call to alertness parallels the call for watchfulness in the gospels. We must be watchful so that we won't be taken unawares by the coming of the kingdom. 

In short, there is the steady drumbeat in the Scriptures calling us to mental preparedness, alertness, watchfulness, and vigilance. Our mental life is contested territory. Our thoughts are a battleground. 

Given this, we prepare our minds for action.

Apocalyptic Mysticism: A Film with The Work of the People

In 2019 Travis Reed and I got together to film some conversations for The Work of the People

If you know Travis' work, you're aware of his talent in capturing and expressing spiritual and theological messages in short films. Travis has done films with Richard Rohr, Brene Brown, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Miroslav Volf, and Stanley Hauerwas, to name a few. But so many others as well. Take some time to browse all the films at The Work of the People. You'll be overwhelmed by the riches Travis has captured and curated. 

Travis has been releasing videos of our wide-ranging conversation from 2019 and I'd like to share links to these over the next month or so.

The Work of the People is supported by a subscription-based model. So you'll only be able to view, with each film I share, the first two minutes as a preview. If you'd like to access the whole films, along with every other film at the site, it's only $7 a month for a personal subscription, which you can cancel anytime.

Here's a link to the film entitled "Apocalyptic Mysticism." 

As you'll see in that clip, in 2019 I was making my way toward the book that would become Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age. I didn't use the phrase "apocalyptic mysticism" in the book, but "apocalyptic mysticism" is the book's regulating idea. 

Specifically, by mysticism I mean an experiential encounter with God, "bumping into God" as I say in the film preview. Here's how I make the contrast between belief and experience in the Introduction to Hunting Magic Eels:

The issue is the difference between belief and experience. Belief is intellectual assent and agreement with the doctrinal propositions of faith. Experience exists prior to and drives belief. Experience gives birth to belief. It’s hard to “believe” in God if belief isn’t naming something in our lives, something we’ve felt, sensed, seen, or intuited. As the Christian mystical tradition teaches us, life with God is more about knowing than believing. The mystics didn’t believe in God; they encountered God.

So it’s crazy to demand or expect beliefs from people (or ourselves) where there is no experience. Without an experience of God, belief has no content, no reference, no object. No way to get to “Yes!” Demanding belief without experience is asking people to believe in nothing, for the word God would be hanging in thin air, pointing to a gaping hole in a person’s life. Belief without experience is an empty bucket, making it a very useless, discardable thing. But if there’s water in the bucket, if our beliefs are carrying precious experiences of Thanks, Help, and Wow, well, you’re going to hold onto that bucket for fear of spilling the water, especially if you’re standing in the middle of a disenchanted desert dying of thirst. I’d like us to spend less time talking about the bucket and start filling it with water.
Concerning the apocalyptic in apocalyptic mysticism I mean the way our attention and perception "unveils" or "reveals" deeper truths. (The word apocalypse means "to reveal" or "to unveil.") In Hunting Magic Eels I describe mystical encounters as primarily an act of seeing. Here's a passage describing this also from the book's Introduction:
We think religion is a matter of belief. [Andrew] Root points out that something deeper and more fundamental is going on. Faith is a matter of perception. Faith isn’t forcing yourself to believe in unbelievable things; faith is overcoming attentional blindness. Phrased differently, faith is about enchantment or, rather, a re-enchantment: the intentional recovery of a holy capacity to see and experience God in the world. Without this ability, pervasive cultural disenchantment erodes our faith, and we’re seeing the effects all around us, in our homes, in pews, and in the culture at large...

God is there, but we’re going to have to retrain ourselves to see. I like how Marilynne Robinson describes this in her novel Gilead: “It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light...Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.” Enchantment starts with this willingness to see. As the Christian mystic Simone Weil said, “Attention is the only faculty of the soul that gives access to God.” Disenchantment isn’t about disbelief. Disenchantment is a failure to attend.
That's apocalyptic mysticism.

Psalm 44

"Wake up, Lord! Why are you sleeping?"

These lines in the Psalms, calling out the Lord for sleeping on the job, are some of the most startling, daring, and risky in Scripture. The poet cries out to rouse a drowsy God. 

My earliest research in the area of psychology of religion concerned attachment to God, how attachment-related dynamics describe our experiences of God. For example, attachment bonds can be haunted by anxieties rooted in fears about the attachment figure being available to us or abandoning us. When we worry about the availability of the attachment figure we might grow excessively clingy or needy. We might become jealous and never want them to leave our sight. We might grow angry when the attachment figure isn't as responsive or attentive as we'd like. 

Attachment anxiety is one way to frame the lament of Psalm 44. For example, in a scale my colleague Angie MacDonald and I created called the Attachment to God Inventory (a widely used instrument that has been translated in to numerous languages) we ask questions to assess various symptoms of attachment anxiety:
Angry protest: Getting angry if the attachment figure is not as responsive as we wish they would be.
Example AGI item: “I often feel angry with God for not responding to me when I want.”

Preoccupation with relationship: Worry, rumination, or obsession with the status of the relationship.
Example AGI item: “I worry a lot about my relationship with God.”

Fear of abandonment: Fear that the attachment figure will leave or reject you.
Example AGI item: “I fear God does not accept me when I do wrong.”

Anxiety over lovability: Concerns that you are either not loved or are unlovable.
Example AGI item: “I crave reassurance from God that God loves me.”

Jealousy: Concerns that the attachment figure prefers others over you.
Example AGI item: “I am jealous at how God seems to care more for others than for me."
Again, we could frame the lament of Psalm 44 as an expression of attachment anxiety. And yet, I've come to think that attachment theory isn't the best model for thinking about lament in the Psalms.

Specifically, I'm uncomfortable framing the lament of Psalm 44 as pathological, as an expression of relational dysfunction To be sure, there is angry protest, fear of abandonment, and anxiety over lovability in the lament of Psalm 44. But these fears are real and legitimate complaints, rather than expressions of an insecure attachment. 

Because of these concerns, framing lament as pathological, in 2007 I published my Summer versus Winter Christian model of religious experience. In this model, lament isn't framed as dysfunction but is, rather, a normal and expected experience of faith. In that article I quote Walter Brueggemann's assessment from his book The Message of the Psalms:
It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented…It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to me, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the larger number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about an incoherence that is experienced in the world…I believe that serous religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgement of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s “loss of control.”
Again, we are tempted to think that lament is pathological, that "acknowledgement of negativity" in our relationship with God, like the angry protest of Psalm 44, is an act of "unfaith." But as Brueggemann goes on to say:
The point to be urged here is this: The use of these “psalms of darkness” may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith
That is the jolt of Psalm 44, how crying "Wake up!" to God is a daring expression of bold faith.

Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity: Part 7, Retrospective Reflections

In 2010, when I first shared much of this material about Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity, I was a very different person. I thrilled to Bonhoeffer's vision of Christ as "the man for others." And I wholly agreed with Bonhoeffer's claim that "the church is the church only when it exists for others." At the time, I identified as a liberal, progressive Christian, and Bonhoeffer's vision of a religionless Christianity, our "being there" for others, resonated with my humanistic values and social justice concerns.

And yet, if you've followed this series, I was alert enough in 2010 to attend to Bonhoeffer's discussion of the arcane and secret discipline in his theological letters. This aspect of Bonhoeffer's thought has been largely ignored. But this part of Bonhoeffer's vision has taken on increased importance in my own life since 2010. I now identify as a post-progressive Christian. My season of deconstruction, evidenced in the early years of this blog, gave way to a season of reconstruction. I still believe, with all my heart, that the church is only the church when it exists for others. But more and more, I think the discipline of the secret is necessary to sustain that vision. 

As we've seen, Bonhoeffer was alert to the temptations of liberal humanism. As Bonhoeffer wrote, he didn't want his religionless vision of Christianity to become "the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious." Rather, faith was to be "characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection."

However, it's fair to ask, what is the connection between discipline and being there for others?

Here's my best answer.

Bonhoeffer's vision of "being there for others" is radical. Bonhoeffer is calling for a radical availability to the world. The vision is deeply kenotic and cruciform. Christ, as the man for others, gives his entire life away. And we, as the church, are called to do the same. But what can possibly sustain such radical self-offering, self-giving, and self-donation? As I describe in The Slavery of Death, as finite creatures in a world of scarcity, our worries about self-protection and self-preservation are real and pressing. Consequently, we hesitant at the boundary of sacrificial love. We recoil at the demands of love. The costs are too steep. 

What we require, at the boundary of love, is a metaphysics of hope and a community of support and care. As Bonhoeffer says, we need constant knowledge of death and resurrection. For if love only ever involves my diminishment and death how can that love become joyous and sustainable?

This is why I believe the discipline of the secret is absolutely necessary for a church seeking to exist for others. If Christ calls us to die in existing for others that call is sustained by the hope of the resurrection and in our shared life together. Prayer and righteous action go hand in hand, each sustaining the other. 

I think those who want to reduce Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity to ethical social justice action in the world miss the radical Christological vision of "being there" for others, the cruciform nature of this lifestyle and its associated cost. Missing this cruciformity, they overlook all that is necessary to make a lifetime of self-donation sustainable, joyful, and hopeful. Back in 2010, when I first wrote this series, as a deconstructing, progressive, social justice Christian, I thrilled to how Bonhoeffer's letters and papers described a church that existed for others. This remains my vision. And yet, fourteen years later, I'm increasingly aware of how our life together in the church, as we celebrate the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, makes our radical availability to the world joy-filled and hopeful and, therefore, sustainable. 

And finally, looking back at this series here in 2024, I would also observe that all is not ethics. Since 2010, and largely due to my prison work, I have rediscovered grace. On Easter I shared a bit of that story in a video at church. You can watch it here at the 50:53 mark.

One of the problems I discern in the progressive Christian turn against penal substitutionary atonement is the eclipse of grace, reducing the cross to ethics. To be clear, I share concerns with certain expressions of penal substitutionary atonement. But when you work with a prison population you come to see, first-hand, the transformative power of forgiveness and grace. A Christianity that is reduced to ethical action in the world misses the gospel of grace. Your shame has been overcome. Your guilt undone. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God does not treat us as our sins deserve. As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our transgressions from us. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. You have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. By his wounds you have been healed. 

Beyond ethics, this too is the gospel. And I've come to believe that our "being there" for others means inviting a soul sick world into this grace.

Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity: Part 6, The Man for Others

We've made quite a journey through Dietrich Bonhoeffer's theological letters from prison. We began by considering the central, Christological preoccupation of the letters and then moved through the three dominant themes of the letters:
1. The World Come of Age
2. The Nonreligious Interpretation of Christianity
3. The Arcane Discipline
In light of our analysis of these themes, we can now circle back to try to answer the central question of the letters: Who is Christ for us today?

In each of these posts we've been examining how Bonhoeffer was trying to create a this-worldly spirituality, a spirituality that is to be found in the center of life. As Bonhoeffer wrote in the very first theological letter:
April 30, 1944

To Eberhard Bethge:

...God's "beyond" is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.
God's transcendence, God's being "beyond," has nothing to do with other-worldliness. God's transcendence, God's way of being "beyond," is to be found "in the midst of our life." Following God, the church, therefore, isn't to be found at the edges of this world, as the religious doorstep to some other-worldly heaven. Rather, the church is to be found, with God, "in the middle of the village." As Bonhoeffer wrote on July 21: "By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities."

All well and good, but what are we to do there in the middle of the village? How do we experience transcendence in the middle of "life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities"? According to Bonhoeffer, we encounter God in the middle of life when we are there for our neighbors: "The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation."

It is in this "being there for others" that marks the Christian. The goal of the Christian life isn't to become "religious": "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." Thus, we finally come to the answer of the Christological question: Who is Christ for us today?
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).
Jesus' transcendence is found in his "being there for others." Through his incarnation, death, and resurrection Jesus becomes radically available to humanity. Consequently, Christian faith becomes "participation in this being of Jesus." Summarizing all this, in the notes he left behind for the book he was working on, Bonhoeffer gives us his most succinct answer to the Christological question:
Jesus is "the man for others."
Given that answer, Bonhoeffer expects the church to follow suit:
The church is the church only when it exists for others...The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.
One of the best descriptions of what this might look like, a church existing for the sake of the world, comes from a letter Bonhoeffer wrote in June, 1944 to Eberhard and Renate Bethge commenting on 1 Peter 3.9:
God does not repay evil for evil, and thus the righteous should not do so either. No judgment, no abuse, but blessing...Blessing means laying one's hand on something and saying, Despite everything, you belong to God. This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: may God's blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer. We have received God's blessing in happiness and in suffering. Yet those who have been blessed can do nothing but pass on this blessing; indeed, they must be a blessing wherever they are.
That might be the best summary of what a "religionless Christianity" looks like. It is being a blessing to others wherever you are, in the middle of life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. We lay our hands on others and say "Despite everything, you belong to God; be blessed." More, we suffer with our neighbors making our lives available to them, "not dominating, but helping and serving."

This is a lovely and beautiful vision of the church. And yet, to many all this sounds a lot like "the social gospel," a liberal, humanistic, social justice focus on doing good in the world. The church should simply "be there" for others. And yet, in our close reading of Bonhoeffer, we've seen how his appeal to the secret disciplines of prayer, worship, and hearing of the Word of God within the community preserve the sacred mysteries of the faith. The "religionless" aspect of the faith--our "being there for others"--is "religionless" only from the perspective of the outsider. As Bonhoeffer said, before God and with God (as experienced and enjoyed in the secret discipline) we live without God in the world (in a non-religious "being there" for others in the midst of life).

But why, it still may be asked, is it necessary to keep these connected, the secret discipline and being there for others? Isn't being there for others sufficient? Why keep messing around with prayer and the Word of God if being there for others is the entire point? As I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, isn't Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity in danger of the mystical-to-moral shift, making goodness ("being there" for others) the goal of faith? And if so, don't the mysteries of faith as cherished within the secret discipline become increasingly irrelevant and superfluous? 

I'll turn to these questions in the next and final post of this series.

Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity: Part 5, The Arcane Discipline

Eberhard and Renate Bethge named their son after Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In May of 1944 Dietrich Bethge was to be baptized. From prison Bonhoeffer wrote a baptismal homily for little Dietrich, just as he had written a wedding homily from prison for Eberhard and Renate's wedding.

Bonhoeffer wrote the baptismal homily at the same time he was writing his theological letters. So it's not surprising that some of those ideas were expressed in the homily he wrote for Dietrich Bethge's baptism. Toward the end of that homily Bonhoeffer wrote:
Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men.
When we think about Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity" it is often assumed that what Bonhoeffer was proposing was a demythologized, humanistic vision of Christianity, a Christianity stripped clean of any religious ritual or metaphysical content and reduced simply to prosocial ethical behavior, what Bonhoeffer calls in his homily "righteous action among men." And as we described in the last post, Bonhoeffer was refocusing Christianity upon human affairs when we described "true transcendence" as being the "neighbor within reach." True transcendence is "being there" for others, just as Christ was and is there for the world. And yet, in his baptismal homily Bonhoeffer cites two characteristics of Christianity: prayer and righteous action.

This pair might seem puzzling. Where does prayer, of all things, fit in with a religionless Christianity and a this-worldly spirituality? Isn't prayer and worship the epitome of other-worldly religious ritual?

Such questions bring us to the third phrase that reoccurs in the theological letters: "arcane discipline." We've already discussed the first two phrases--the world come of age and religionless Christianity--as they swirl around the central question of the letters "Who is Christ for us today?" But what is the "arcane discipline" and how does it relate to everything we've already discussed? 

In many ways, I think this issue, the role of the arcane discipline, is the key that unlocks the full vision of Bonhoeffer's theological letters. Unfortunately, however, this is the very part of the letters that is generally passed over and forgotten.

As Bonhoeffer worked through his ideas concerning his "nonreligious interpretation" of the faith, he expressed the worry that his "religionless Christianity" would be flattened into a form of liberal humanism. You see this contrast and worry in one of the last theological letters:
July 21, 1944

To Eberhard Bethge:

During the last year or so I've come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man...I don't mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound worldliness, characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection.
Note here Bonhoeffer's worry that a religionless, this-worldly Christianity would become shallow and banal, a spirituality for the "enlightened," the busy, the comfortable and the hedonistic.

So, how do we prevent this shallow banality? Bonhoeffer speaks of a spirituality "characterized by discipline" and by "the constant knowledge of death and resurrection." But what does this mean?

The phrase "arcane discipline" occurs just twice in the theological letters, but it does emerge in the very first letter of April 30:
April 30, 1944

To Eberhard Bethge:

How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even "speak" as we used to) in a "secular" way about "God"? In what way are we "religionless-secular" Christians, in what way are we...those called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case, Christ is no longer the object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? What is the place of worship and prayer in a religionless situation? Does secret discipline...take on a new importance here?
We see how Bonhoeffer is struggling with the role of worship and prayer in his "religionless-secular" Christianity. He calls here worship and prayer the "secret" or "arcane" discipline. Connecting the threads, the "discipline" that supports Bonhoeffer's religionless expression of faith in the world is worship, prayer, and the reading of the Word. 

However, it fair to ask, wouldn't these spiritual disciplines import an other-worldliness back into the faith? Wouldn't these activities make Christ an "object of religion," the very thing Bonhoeffer is pushing against? We can observe Bonhoeffer straining toward an answer in the letter above, asking if the disciplines of worship and prayer might take on a "new importance" within his vision of a religionless Christianity. 

Bonhoeffer continues to struggle with these issues in a letter written a few days latter:
May 5, 1944

To Eberhard Bethge:

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; I mean that, not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystic pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Let's pause here, in the May 5th letter, to again point out Bonhoeffer's worry that his vision of a this-worldly, religionless Christianity would become "anthropocentric," "liberal," and merely "ethical." Bonhoeffer can see that some might think that his religionless Christianity is simply warming over the liberal Christianity of his German professors which he had so passionately rejected when he discovered Barth and the Bible. To push against that liberalism and humanism Bonhoeffer wants to ground his religionless Christianity in "the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ." We've already seen how this looks. In the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection Christ becomes radically available to the world. Not in an ethical sense, but in a communal, even ontological sense (more on that in the final and last post). 

The letter continues...
Barth was the first theologian to begin the criticism of religion, and that remains his really great merit; but he put in its place a positivist doctrine of revelation which says, in effect, "Like it or lump it": virgin birth, Trinity, or anything else; each is an equally significant and necessary part of the whole, which must simply be swallowed as a whole or not at all. That isn't biblical. There are degrees of knowledge and degrees of significance; that means that a secret discipline must be restored whereby the mysteries of the Christian faith are protected against profanation. The positivism of revelation makes it too easy for itself, by setting up, as it does in the last analysis, a law of faith, and so mutilates what is--by Christ's incarnation!--a gift for us. In the place of religion there now stands the church--that is in itself biblical--but the world is in some degree made to depend on itself and left to its own devices, and that's the mistake.
Having worried about a humanistic liberalism, where Christianity is reduced to the ethical, we can now see Bonhoeffer turning toward Barth and the temptations from the other side, "a positivistic doctrine of revelation," a "like it or lump it" approach to Christian faith. We can't force feed a world come of age long lists of metaphysical beliefs--virgin birth, Trinity, etc.--without that leading to a "profanation" of the faith. A "like it or lump it" approach to Christian faith, we might say, makes God too available to the world. People confess things they don't really understand. Shades of Kierkegaard here: Where everyone is a Christian, no one is a Christian. 

A related concern Bonhoeffer expresses in his letters about "a positivistic doctrine of revelation," a "like it or lump it" approach to Christian faith, concerns how evangelism becomes like shouting propaganda at an increasingly post-Christian culture. The Christian faith has to be "swallowed whole or not at all" in the sales pitch of evangelism.

What Bonhoeffer envisions, by contrast, is the arcane discipline communicating and instilling the mysteries of the faith, mysteries that have to be slowly learned over time and from within the community of the faith. For, as Bonhoeffer says, in the Christian faith "there are degrees of knowledge and degrees of significance." Some things are deeper and truer than other things, and faith is a process of maturation as we go deeper and deeper into the mystery. 

In short, Bonhoeffer describes the arcane discipline as both a protection and deepening of the mysteries of the faith. This vision is not the demythologized humanistic, liberal, ethical vision that many assume "religionless Christianity" to be. Here, rather, is a radically this-worldly faith that is sustained by the sacred mysteries of faith experienced within the community. 

Bonhoeffer's best description of what all this looks like comes from a lecture he gave in the summer of 1932 in Berlin. It was his first mention of the "secret discipline" and it remains the best description he gave of how the secret discipline sustains the church as a "word of recognition between friends" and how the doctrines and rituals of the faith should not be used as "propaganda and ammunition" against outsiders seen as "enemies." Rather, the church should be silent and allow her actions to speak more loudly than any evangelistic sales pitch:
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 Christian 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.
Here, in my estimation, Bonhoeffer's entire vision comes into view, how "prayer" and "righteous action" relate to each other, how "the discipline of the secret" supports a "religionless Christianity" in a world come of age. For Bonhoeffer, "confession of faith" is "a word of recognition between friends." The mysteries that sustain the community are for "the  Christian gathering of those who believe." But among those on the outside of the church, all these see is righteous action, "the deed which interprets itself." Witnessing this religionless goodness, the world come of age comes to "long to confess the Word." But that Word is private, "a matter between God and the community, not between the community an the world."

What we find here is an Inside/Outside dynamic. Inside the Christian community the mysteries of God are our sacred possession. The Word of God is not to be used as evangelistic propaganda nor as a weapon against enemies. All the outside world should see from the Christian community is the religionless deed which interprets itself. 

More simply, Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity looks religionless depending upon where you stand. On the inside, the confession of faith is a word exchanged among friends. On the outside, the confession of faith is the deed which interprets itself. 

Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity: Part 4, What Is "Religionless Christianity"?

In the last post we discussed Bonhoeffer's understanding of the "world come of age," 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. 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, 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 and with 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 finds particularly problematic:
May 5, 1944

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.
Bonhoeffer 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. This was Bultmann's concern in his project of demythologization. 

But what does Bonhoeffer mean by individualism? Basically, it is the religious focus on sin and personal salvation. As the May 5 letter continues:
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?
We can see what Bonhoeffer is driving at. When Christianity becomes focused upon metaphysics and individualism it turns its attention away from this world to become preoccupied with the other-worldly issue of personal salvation, going to heaven or hell. In the language of the old country song, you become so heavenly minded you are no earthly good. The issue here is the same problem we encountered in our analysis of the world come of age. Christianity-as-religion pulls the Christian out of the world, getting us to focus on heaven rather than the concerns of this earth. 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...
So, what is the solution here? Well, what we need is an interpretation of faith that is "nonreligious," an interpretation of faith that creates a this-worldliness. That is what Bonhoeffer is trying to achieve with his vision of a "religionless Christianity," a faith that moves Christians deeper into the world.

What would this nonreligious interpretation look like? Bonhoeffer gives a hint as 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.
What's fascinating here is how, as we also saw above, Bonhoeffer turns to the Old Testament for inspiration for a "worldly" interpretation of Christianity.  As Bonhoeffer observes, there is very little other-worldliness in the Old Testament. When the Psalms speak of salvation they are asking for salvation here and now. In a similar way, when the Psalms cry out for justice they are asking for justice here and now. God's interests are totally absorbed with this world, right here and right now. 

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 also like how The Message renders John 1.14:
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.
In sum, a religionless Christianity isn't about a godless faith but is, rather, trying to envision a form of Christianity that embodies 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, 1944

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...
But 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 the sacred in the midst of everyday life: 
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 is a stunning conclusion. True transcendence isn't escaping this world, becoming concerned about heaven or hell. True transcendence is the "encounter with Jesus Christ" in "being there for others." True transcendence is "the neighbor who is within reach." I don't encounter God in my heart (the individualism of personal salvation) or in heaven (a metaphysical location), I encounter God in "being there for others." Because this is how Jesus was found among us in the Incarnation. With us and for us. Here is a this-worldly, John 1.14 transcendence. A "nonreligious" Christianity. The Word is flesh and blood and lives in my neighborhood.

To conclude, let's return to the question that is guiding Bonhoeffer's letters: Who is Christ for us today? Notice how focused Bonhoeffer is upon Christology in his discussion of "religionless Christianity." Bonhoeffer isn't trying to invent an atheistic, humanistic "death of god" version of Christianity. Bonhoeffer is, rather, trying to locate Jesus. And Bonhoeffer locates Jesus in the world, in our "being there for others," in the "neighbor who is within reach." And in that analysis--"Jesus is there only for others"--we get very, very close to the answer to the question that has been haunting Bonhoeffer's letters.

"I Order You, O Sleeper, to Awake"

Below is from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday, but I feel it also communicates the hope we experience here on Easter Sunday:
Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

Psalm 43

"hope in God"

In the new paperback edition of Hunting Magic Eels there are four new chapters. One of those chapters is entitled "Live Your Beautiful Life." In that chapter I describe a new ailment facing our modern world: hopesickness:

We live in a hope sick world. We see this hope sickness everywhere. Hope is hard to come by, rare and diminishing. And has hope wanes, human flourishing wanes. Personally and collectively. Our emotional, social, and political lives are visibly sick, and much of our suffering is due to a loss of hope.

Consider how, in 2020, a new category of death was introduced by the economist Anne Case and Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton. In their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Case and Deaton analyzed why life expectancies in the United States had begun to fall, for three years successively for the first time since 1918. The cause was traced to a sharp uptick in what Case and Deaton have named “deaths of despair,” deaths due to suicide, drug overdose, and liver disease due to alcoholism. In the US, deaths of despair have been increasing over the last decade by 50% to over 300%, depending upon demographic group.
I go on to describe how our pervasive hopesickness creates a teleological vacuum in our lives. That is to say, we need to live toward something, for something. With the fading of the Christian eschatological imagination in our world a transcendent telos, purpose, goal and end for our lives has evaporated. Beyond deaths of despair, we also sense this vacuum in the pervasive listlessness, shallowness, and boredom of modern life. We don't know what life is for anymore. As I describe in the new chapter in Hunting Magic Eels, this is exactly where capitalism wants you--godless and bored. For the godless and bored are perfect marks for the pseudo-teleology created by an economy of craving. Lacking a sacred telos, we crave, and that craving creates a "for" that satisfies our teleological minds. That the cravings created by capitalism are shallow and fleeting, and fail to fully satisfy our teleological hunger, is precisely the point. There are other products and experiences you must buy. You are pulled forward in time, creating the illusion of teleology, as you hop from desire to desire, craving to craving. Restless dissatisfaction, a perpetual teleological jonesing, is how our economy of craving sustains itself. Teleological addicts are created to keep us clicking, scrolling and buying.

All that to say, when the Scripture tells us to "hope in God" we're not talking about wishful thinking or playing harps in heaven. We are talking how the human mind works. We're talking about mental health. The brain is teleologically oriented, pulled forward into life by its desires. Those desires can be tethered to transcendent, sacred ends or left vulnerable being hijacked by consumptive patterns of craving and addiction. The teleological hole in your life is experienced as either transcendent fullness or the itching insatiability of restless cravings. 

That's the choice, the fork in the road. You enter the day vulnerable to powers hell bent on hijacking your dopamine reward pathways to turn you into a teleological addict, or you can hope in God.

Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity: Part 3, A 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, Bonhoeffer'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...
Again, 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. Humanity is, pragmatically speaking, on its own. God is "pushed more and more out of life." Bonhoeffer also describes this as leaving the "tutelage" or "guardianship" of God to enter the "adulthood of the world."

In all this, Bonhoeffer seems to be articulating a version of the "secularization hypothesis" as articulated by thinkers like Freud, Marx, Feuerbach, and Nietzsche. According to the secularization hypothesis, as humanity "matures" it will become increasingly non-religious and secular. Bonhoeffer seems to be making a similar argument. That said, while we are moving into an increasingly post-Christian culture in the West faith and spirituality remain pervasive. As I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, some call this the "myth of disenchantment." 

All that to say, standing here in 2024 it's unclear how much Bonhoeffer would want to revisit his analysis about the "world come of age." He might want to take back some of his diagnosis, or at least give it some critical nuance, which would have some downstream impact upon his vision of a "religionless Christianity." As we ponder Bonhoeffer's enigmatic letters from prison, we need to keep this issue in mind: Bonhoeffer's sociological assessment of a "world come of age" might have been mistaken, or at least too narrow.

Having offered these caveats and pushing on, 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. In resisting the secularization 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: "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 good thing for it allows us to see the God of the cross, the weak and powerless God here in the midst of us.

Key for Bonhoeffer is combatting the "other-worldliness" that a religious/false conception of God produces. Before the "world came of age," humanity looked to the sky and away from this world in seeking petitions and favors from a distant deity. Religion becomes other-worldly and Gnostic. God is found "outside of" or "beyond" this world. It's this other-worldliness that Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity is trying to combat.

The world come of age helps here by denying other-worldliness, increasingly directing our attention toward "the secular," toward human life. And if you understand the incarnation and cross of Jesus, argues Bonhoeffer, this attention to human life is exactly where our attention should have been the entire time. 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." In this secular world, we, as Christians, come to live before God and with God etsi deus non daretur.

What might that look like? As Bonhoeffer writes on July 18, Christians follow God into the world where we are "summoned to share in God's sufferings at the hands of the world." As God became radically available to the world and suffered for it, so the church becomes radically available to the world and suffers for it. And that's the crucial point. The dynamic we see in the world come of age is the same movement of the theologia crucis, a "this-worldly" focus that creates a radical availability to the world. 

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, as it begins to clear the ground and position us to envision the true shape of the answer to the question: "Who is Christ for us today?"

Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity: Part 2, Who Is Christ for Us Today?

So, what does Bonhoeffer mean by "religionless Christianity"?

As noted in Part 1, there has been a great deal of speculation about Bonhoeffer's theological letters from prison. For example, many of the "death of God" theologians in the 1960s saw Bonhoeffer as their patron theologian. According to Eberhard Bethge, however, the man to whom the letters were addressed, the key to unlocking the enigmatic letters from prison is to focus on the central question Bonhoeffer raises in the very first letter from April 30:
What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.

In short, the central issue behind the letters is Christology, the question "Who is Christ for us today?"

More specifically, Bonhoeffer is wrestling with how Christ can be Lord in a religionless world. Later in the April 30 letter Bonhoeffer raises this question of Lordship:
If our final judgment must be that the Western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well?...How do we speak of God--without religion, i.e., without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even "speak" as we used to) in a "secular" way about God? In what way are we "religionless-secular" Christians, in what way are we those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? What does it mean for Christ to be Lord of a "religionless" world, a world "come of age"?
For Bethge, these questions are critical to understanding what Bonhoeffer was wrestling with. Bonhoeffer wasn't, as some have mistakenly assumed, trying to figure out a way to translate religious categories into a secular ("religionless") language to make faith palatable to modern persons. Rather, Bonhoeffer was trying to understand how Christ could be "Lord of the world" in a world that didn't recognize Christ's existence or seem to need him. In that kind of world, who is Christ for us? In his letters Bonhoeffer tries to crawl toward an answer.

Around the central Christological question--Who is Christ for us today?--there are three recurring themes in the theological letters. The first two themes we've already mentioned. The three themes are:

  1. The "world come of age"
  2. A "nonreligious interpretation" of Christianity (a "religionless Christianity")
  3. The "arcane discipline"
Most interpreters of the letters have tended to focus on Bonhoeffer's comments about a "religionless Christianity." This is only natural as these passages are the most shocking and explosive, theologically speaking. But according to Bethge, if we place "religionless Christianity" at the theological center of the letters we'll misunderstand Bonhoeffer's project. Again, for Bethge, to understand Bonhoeffer correctly we have to place the Christological question at the center of Bonhoeffer's concerns. "Who is Christ for us today?" is the center of gravity. Consequently, any discussion of a "religionless Christianity" has to orbit that central question.

Bethege places the Christological question at the center of the letters by mapping Bonhoeffer's themes --the "world come of age," a "nonreligious interpretation," and the "arcane discipline"--onto the three chapters Bonhoeffer sketched out for the book he was working on. Recall from the last post that the three chapters were "A Stocktaking of Christianity," "The Real Meaning of the Christian Faith," and "Conclusions." Bethge maps the three themes onto the chapters in the following way:

  1. A Stocktaking of Christianity: What is Christianity in a "world come of age"?
  2. The Real Meaning of the Christian Faith: The "nonreligious interpretation"
  3. Consequences: The practice of the "arcane discipline"
In the posts to follow we'll walk through each "chapter" to try to come to understand what Bonhoeffer meant by "world come of age," "religionless Christianity," or the "arcane discipline" in his quest to answer the question "Who is Christ for us today?" 

The important thing to do going forward is to keep the Christological question at the center of our investigations, returning to it over and over. Here is Bethge making this point: 
Bonhoeffer's theme entails setting out in order to discover the presence of Christ in the world of today: it is not a discovery of the modern world, nor a discovery of Christ from this modern world, but discovering him in this world...Hence this question governs Bonhoeffer's dialogue and must preserve, in the correct relation and proportion, the explosive formulas of the world come of age, nonreligious interpretation, and arcane discipline. Without the overriding theme of this question these concepts would fall apart and become stunted or superficial. As isolated intellectual phenomena, they have little to do with Bonhoeffer's thought; but within the christological perspective of his central theme they achieve their full and independent justification.
So, that's the question going forward: Who is Christ for us today?