Musings on Religionless Christianity

My thoughts on this topic were stirred by an amazing sermon by Landon Saunders at this year's ACU Lectureship. Landon (whom I've never met but is a good friend of some good friends) spoke of the pivotal time in his ministry when he decided to base his ministry on the "outside." Landon spoke of taking the gospel out of the hands of the religious brokers and placing it in the hands of the outsider. But to do this Landon said he needed to gain the confidence of the outsider. Landon observed that the first thing one has to do to gain credibility on the outside is to "speak the truth about religion." Whatever religionless Christianity is it is this: It pitches its tent on the outside and speaks frankly about the failures of religion.


From How (Not) to Speak of God concerning the Costa-Gavras film Amen (pp. 63-64):

The film explores the failure of the Catholic and Protestant Churches when confronted with the terror of the death camps during the Second World War. We are presented with two religious figures, a Protestant youth pastor and a Catholic priest...The response of the priest is of particular interest. At one point he wonders aloud to the Cardinal whether it would be possible for every Christian in Germany to convert to Judaism in order to stop the horror, for the Nazis couldn't possibly condemn such a huge number of powerful and socially integrated people at that stage of the war. The idea is, of course, utterly rejected. Then, in complete frustration, and with a crushing sense of obligation towards the persecuted, the priest takes his own advice. In tears he turns from that which he loves more than life itself--his own faith tradition--and becomes a Jew. By taking on the Jewish identity he suffers with the persecuted, voluntarily taking his place on the trains that run to Auschwitz.

For this priest, the singularity of the horror required an unprecedented action, one which cut at the heart of his tradition. It was his very tradition (or rather his interpretation of that tradition) that demanded that he should give up that tradition...The most powerful way for this priest to affirm his Christianity is to lay it down...And so this priest gives up his Christianity precisely in order to retain his Christianity.


A recent comment I left on my friend Chris Heard's blog:
I sometimes wonder if the most Christian act I can muster is the rejection of Christianity. To reject Christianity in the name of Christ as it were.

If so, I guess I’d be a Christian atheist.


My favorite parts from Bonhoeffer's letters (some slightly edited):

People as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore.

Those who are "religious" don't act up to it.

"Christianity" has always been a form of religion.

Are there religionless Christians?

How do we speak of God without religion?

Is religion a condition of salvation?

I'm reluctant to mention God by name to religious people.

The church stands in the middle of the village.

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way.

Live in the godless world without attempting explain its ungodliness in some religious way.

Live a "secular" life.

The Christian is simply a man, as Jesus was a man.

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19 thoughts on “Musings on Religionless Christianity”

  1. As defined by Dictionary dot com Christianity is "the state of being a Christian," so I guess I get confused when you say, "to reject Christianity" would make you a "Christian atheist"...

    Sounds like you'd be rejecting what you are claiming to be. Is that a sense of self-hatred!? ;)

    If one rejects what they are, are they still that?

    I guess to sort of answer my last question myself, I can go back to some interesting Oprah episodes I've watched lately [HA!] which were on transgendered individuals.

    The guests on the show would state how they would live the early years of their lives rejecting who they were as they felt they were being forced to live in a way in which they had to try to fulfill the role of the gender they were biologically born into. At the same time, they felt that internally they were of the opposite gender, only trapped in a body of the "wrong" biological make-up. With this being the case, whether they were rejecting their biological make-up or not, inevitably they still were male or female (genetically).

    How exactly I got from Christianity to transgendered individuals can be the mystery of the workings of my mind....HA!

  2. Richard,

    Religion is a filter through which we see the world. It is an acquired method of explaining the events that happen to us. It is not true in a strict sense although it may contain truth. In fact, it may obscure more than it illuminates. Some love the feeling that religion gives or the sense of community or the certainty one can have in difficult times. Others find it doubtful whether or not one can have a purpose in life or a moral center without religion.

    Richard, I have questioned much about Christianity and religion in general having been raised a Christian and rejecting it in my 20's. Not being as smart as Bonhoeffer, I mistook the religion for the truth and the trappings for the essence. It took me years to realize that there is no true religion. Just as everyone speaks a native language, everyone also is raised in a native religion. They all can't be "true". The concept of truth only sets up a need for others to be wrong which creates division. For those who immerse themselves deeply into a religious truth, there is the risk of loosing their humanity.

    I may have traveled too far a field to find religion meaningful to me. If I had caught on sooner I may have not felt the need to jettison the whole package.
    I do, however, find that I still have the capacity for love, joy, morality and compassion for others. In Bonhoeffer's words I can simply be a man as Jesus was a man. It is this discovery which keeps me interested in this blog site and in those who express faith and are good, kind people. I find religion can lead to a moral life except for when it enables the opposite. So I think you are right on the mark when you suggest that you could be a Christian atheist (or maybe an atheistic Christian?) in the same vein as DB positing a religionless Christian.

    Rick T.

  3. Hi Kim,
    How you doing?

    I don't think I hate myself:-) Actually, I was trying to be a bit paradoxical and provocative with the "Christian atheist."

    What I'm exploring here is this: What if the best way to move through the world would be to say "I don't really believe in God" while being Christ in the world?

    Why would a person do this? Well, it would allow you to approach people with no baggage. You sidestep 2000 years of religious crap and bloodshed and approach people freshly.

    That is, it seems almost impossible to approach people as a Christian or to mention God without all kinds of associations, most wrong or unhelpful, rushing to people minds. Maybe refusing to represent oneself as Christian or religious gets around all this. Maybe the words "Christian" and "God" have been exhausted and depleted. I think this is what DB was getting at: Live a "secular" life. Speak of God in non-religious terms. (And the word "God" is, decidedly, a religious term.)

    However, the whole thing might be more confusing and paradoxical so as to be nonsensical.

  4. Christian atheist :)

    Yes, yes, yes.

    I don't even care if anyone calls me a Christian anymore. I just care about Jesus. It's getting simpler the older and stupider I get. Do the paradoxes ever end????

  5. Hi Rick,
    Just as I was posting to Kim I wondered if "Atheistic Christian" was closer to what I was after. (And I should note that Peter Rollins in his book How (Not) to Speak of God discusses how Christians are a/theists, so this whole playful paradox isn't really new to me.)

    On a personal note, as I think I've said before, I think rejecting Christianity for moral reasons is very reasonable. Christianity can be such a snake pit. I look at Christians on TV and think "I share the same self-descriptor as these people? We couldn't be more dissimilar." When talking to a "secular" person I spend most of my time clarifying how I'm not "that kind of Christian." Which makes me think (as per my post) if the word "Christian" just isn't helpful anymore.

    Regardless, I think you and I largely share the same worldview. Which I think most people would find baffling, that a Christian and an atheist could see eye to eye.


  6. Hi Sue,
    One hopeful sign I see among my students is that exact attitude. They just don't care anymore about labels or churches. They just want to follow Jesus. Which I find refreshing (I love how in their Facebook profiles under Religious Affiliation many of them simply write "Jesus."). These students just cut the knot and move past so much of the garbage I was dealing with in the college, religiously speaking.

  7. Dr. Beck: I'm doing well, thanks! I hope you and your fam are doing well also!

    Awww, yes, got ya. I assume by "being Christ in the world" you are meaning behaving in a Christ-like manner?

    I can see the benefits one might anticipate by leading an "'I don't really believe in God' while being [Christ-like] in the world" lifestyle.

    The baggage connected to many labels can be so detrimental in itself.

    Not to long ago I used to use the self-defining label of agnostic, but nowadays when I hear my friends reference me in such a manner I find myself thinking I don't know that I care for that label anymore. I guess it's that I feel one's thoughts and beliefs are too unique to be coined in one-word categories that are used to depict MANY people. That seems rather cookie-cutter like to me.

    Atheist has so many stereotypical thoughts and images that come to mind when someone is labeled as such.

    Agnostic has so many stereotypical thoughts and images that come to mind when someone is labeled as such.

    Christian has so many stereotypical thoughts and images...

    Stereotypical thoughts, stereotypical images, can all weigh one down.

    When asked "what can drive a person to be a 'good person' without having Christ or religion in his/her life" I have always simply responded with "values."

    No matter WHAT our different labels are, I feel we are all driven by our own personal values. So it is with this thought that I believe that one is no different from anyone else (Christian, Atheist, Agnostic, etc) in that they are living a life based on their own value system.

    So I suppose if one values reaching out to others concerning his/her Christ-following beliefs, yet they strive to avoid the baggage attached to labeling his/herself as "Christian" then I'd agree that "the best way to move through the world would be to say 'I don't really believe in God' while being Christ in the world."

    BTW...I enjoyed your usage of the phrase "religious crap"....HA! It made me laugh!

  8. Hey Richard

    Some really interesting thoughts... one's that I have been wrestling with for a while. Maybe it would be helpful to distinguish between our propositional set of beliefs, our actions, and our "posture" towards 'God,' 'others' and the world as seen in a reflective response. Now, one extreme reaction would be to say that ONLY the actions or beliefs matter. Beliefs being the only thing that matters leads to the popular evangelical attitude towards faith (albeit possibly not theologically correct). Actions being the only thing that matters does not acknowledge the guiding framework that our beliefs take in shaping action, and conversely does not recognize the contingency nature of our actions (we aren't always fully in control). The idea of posture towards 'god' others and the world however is the space in between the two. It is the space where the input into posture (actions and beliefs) are picked apart, reflected upon, etc. It is enabled by a higher order cognition available to human beings (perhaps like Hollander's notions of thinking loops, or Harry Frankfurt's idea of second order desires). Posture lives in the aftermath of the experience of the first two notions. Beliefs (and the extent to which we are cognitively able to believe certain things) are somewhat a given based on things outside of our control (plausibility structure- family, friends, cognitive capabilities, etc.). With actions, though they are under control to a certain degree, I want to think in terms of action as that which has already taken place. In psych terms, action and beliefs take place at time 0, posture at time 1, and action and beliefs again at time 2. Posture then serves to act as a guiding mediator of reflection in our lives. This is perhaps where religionless Christianity operates. Through this we see how our beliefs do and do not impact our action, we see the limitation of language, we acknowledge that are crafted by that which falls out of our realm of understanding, etc etc. However, through all this we still maintain a reflective and engaged posture and seek to understand these actions through the lens of love, justice, and hope. Through all of this, we are cultivating and developing a posture of humility, conviction, morality, and ethical sensitivity. Though posture shapes our action and beliefs, it may be equally as difficult to capture it within them.


  9. Richard,

    In a few days, I will be posting on my blog some reflections which run parallel to your posts on Bonhoeffer's "religionless" Christianity.


    George C.

  10. There is a paradox that keeps popping up in these discussions:

    Richard and many of this blog's readers appear to be backing away from doxastic Christianity in favor of Christianity based on praxis. And yet there are a fair number of words and thoughts and even expressions of religious orientation coming out of the blog. The exchange between Sue and Richard above is a fair case in point.

    Sue: "I don't even care if anyone calls me a Christian anymore. I just care about Jesus."

    Richard: One hopeful sign I see is that exact attitude [in some of my students]."

    Now I do not note this to criticise it, but to explicitly suggest that it just might be right on target...

    I have long noticed about myself that the more convinced I am that I am "right," the easier it is for me to be a jerk to a person who disagrees with me. Furthermore, the more that I care about a belief the more likely it is that I will feel justified in being a jerk--perhaps even feel obligated to be one!

    And this does not seem to be unique to me: How else does one explain that all varieties of religion and "ism" seem to be implicated in war and hate crime (are there exceptions anyone can cite?)?

    A (second) paradox results: That which matters most to human beings--the best from each individual person's perspective--brings out that person's worst.

    If this is so, the only way to inaugurate a religion of love in the world would be by (1) attaching it to a tradition that defines any attempt to represent the Supreme Good as idolatry and (2) making the actual representation of that religion a depiction of sacrificing the Supreme Good in an act of love...

    In short, a religion of love would have to be iconoclastic of all ideals, philosophies, religions, "values," ideologies, etc., in order to break humanity of its terrible habit of doing really nasty things in the name of really good intensions.

    It is my belief that Christianity--rightly understood--does that, though I certainly sympathize with the desire to step away from a name so loaded with contrary baggage...

    BTW: In this light I see many atheists as Christians unawares. That is, they back away from the belief because of the baggage when the aim of the faith--properly understood--is to get a person to back away from the baggage of belief. :)

    So, you go girls and guys who are backing away from doxis in favor of praxis (and sincerely believing that you're right)--so long as you don't forget the central doxis, that your Supreme Good is sacrificed in the name of love--something that is very foolish apart from faith...


  11. Peter,
    I really like the tripartite structure of belief, action, and posture. Obviously, "posture" is the innovation here on your part and, it seems to me, the critical part that is missing in the orthopraxy and orthodoxy discussions. In my own mind, I've been kicking around kenosis as the critical ingredient, but simple "emptying" has no telos. But a notion of "posture" fills that in a bit.

    I'll be looking out for it!

    I just love this part: "In short, a religion of love would have to be iconoclastic of all ideals, philosophies, religions, "values," ideologies, etc., in order to break humanity of its terrible habit of doing really nasty things in the name of really good intensions...It is my belief that Christianity--rightly understood--does that..."

    Thinking along with you...

    A paradox for me is that ethical practice doesn't just spring ex nihilo, beliefs are the essential launching pad. But beliefs once deployed, tend to get in the way later on down the road. Beliefs are critical but they are more a means than an end. For example, to say "I believe Jesus is Lord" is, if simply a propositional statement, morally and religiously irrelevant. It's just a string of symbols. Too many Christians think that is what belief/faith is: Do you string the symbols the same way I do? But saying "I believe Jesus is Lord" is not mere symbol shuffling, it's placing Jesus as the moral goal, guide, teacher, coach, judge, and arbiter of one's life. Or, as James said, "faith without works is dead."

  12. Okay, know that I am speaking from my heart when I say Christianity sucks! Or maybe its going to church and fellowshipping with Christians that suck! Sorry to be so blunt here, but this topic is no coincidence. As much as I agree with everyone here, I probably won't say anything that hasn't already been mentioned, so here is my soap box for the day...All I know is that I didn't grow up in the church and I didn't come in with any kind of religious garbage, but I had other garbage I was carrying in my heart, and instead of lightening the load they gave me more garbage to carry and it's stuff like what we have been talking about. First of all, I know I am not educated in theology, but that doesn't mean I should be excluded from dicussing it should it? I know I don't always have the look or the behavior of Jesus, but for crying out loud, HE'S NOT DONE WITH ME YET! I know that sounds cliche, but who do we think we are? I hate walking into a bible class whether its at a local congregation or a bible lectureship and hear the teacher talk about God as if he knew everything there is about God! We don't even know ourselves that well so How about some modesty when talking about God. I especially hate when teachers start talking as if they are the only ones who have the truth. Everyone else are idiots and too stupid to read the Bible for themselves. Give me a break! People who are desperate for God and change, are taken advantage of, and are given nothing to help in their new walk with God, except more worry, anxiety and heartache and disappointment! And then add the confusion of evil in the world while a good God is alive it's no wonder why people get angry at religion and become atheists. As much as I hate Christianity, because I do, I can't deny the existence of God and the beautiful story of the gospel. And it is God's holiness and love and his son why so many people do live and love..

  13. Richard,

    I'm definitely "with you" on beliefs being necessary yet becoming a problem along the way.

    It will be interesting to see what your take is on Tillich's version of what goes wrong, after you've had a chance to look into his thought.

    Thanks for the great posts!


  14. Roxanne,
    They say there is no theology, only biography. Thus, I believe your thoughts and experiences are very relevant and timely to this discussion. Thanks!

    I received my Tillich book from Amazon yesterday and I'm already digging in. So far, I really like what I'm reading. (My main philosophical mode is existential so Tillich's thought is very hospitable to me.)

  15. Hi Richard

    The bottom line for me is that it is intellectually dishonest for me to call myself a Christian now. I simply don't believe what Christians are said/known to believe. I also agree that it is a detriment in many cases to identify oneself as a Christian. I live in a northern Canadian community and am a minority amongst a largely Aboriginal population. To identify oneself as a Christian is to start off on the wrong foot. That is not the reason however for not identifying myself as a Christian... as I said it is foremost a matter of intellectual honesty. I have also lost interest in trying to redeem the term/label. I would rather spend my time and energy on being benevolent and a blessing than holding or defending the fort.

  16. I'm coming late into the discussion here, but I had to throw your way some crazy questions from my confused mind. I hope they make sense...

    I'd like to know if a label-rejecting Christian would go to a church service without identifying themselves as "Christian". And would they deny any official role within a church (including membership)?

    Also, is it possible for label-rejecting Christians to be drawn together as a church purely by praxis alone? Or would "church" also be rejected as a label? And if so, would church be so non-distinguishable that it really doesn't exist anymore?

    Why go to a "church" service?

  17. Another question, if you don't mind.

    I took this quote from your previous post: "It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life."

    What does it mean to participate 'in the sufferings of God in the secular life'?

  18. Hi Jim and Jerry,
    To address you comments more fully I think what I'd like to do in my next post is try to articulate what I think is salvageable in the idea of God and Christianity (and thus set up a rationale for intellectual honesty in belief and even going to church). I don't know if you'll find the argument persuasive, but you'll get to see one Christian think it through out loud. Which might be interesting.

    Jerry, regarding DB's quote about "participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life" I'm not sure what we was saying. If I could guess he is taking his cue from Philippians 2 where Jesus leaves the side of God to fully be with the world and to suffer along with it. I think DB is saying that the Christian shouldn't strive to "be with God" (in this life or the next) but to, following Jesus, "be with the world" as a lover, protector, and helper.

    But that is just a guess on my part.

  19. When I was growing up, religion and non-religious life seemed more segregated than today. Today our ministers get up and talk in a conversational manner. Back then they tended to have an oratorical style that was distinct from normal talking and sometimes we would call it a "preacher tone". It was, shall we say, religious. About the only ones who do it today are some televangelists who affect it on purpose for their market segment. I can even remember someone in the mid sixties, after we had heard Landon preach, say that he was trying to sound like Billy Graham. Well, if so, Landon was young and searching for his voice. By the early 70's, the next time I heard him, his style had changed to more what it is today.

    Also, when I was young, it was before the advent of youth ministers and the changes that said that you could be a Christian and still have fun too and be cool. Being religious in those days seemed to allow for a much more limited range of being and acting. Bonhoeffer and others since have said that is not how it has to be.

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