Thoughts on Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity: Part 2, How Jesus is Lord in a World Come of Age

I don't want to suggest that I'm offering anything new in this post as a way to think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity." It's mainly a way to think about and discriminate between rival interpretations and misinterpretations of religionless Christianity, about what it is and what it is not.

Again, if you're not very familiar with all the issues here, let me suggest you read my series "Letters from Cell 92."  There you can read the relevant passages from Bonhoeffer's letters and learn about the phrases "religionless Christianity," "the world come of age," "the arcane discipline," etsi deus non daretur (living "as if there were no god"), and "non-religious interpretation."

So, assuming some familiarity with the presenting issues, let me get right to the point.

There has been a tradition of interpretation regarding religionless Christianity that has used Bonhoeffer as a resource for doubt and deconstruction. For example, religionless Christianity was an inspiration for the death of god theologies that proliferated in the 50s and 60s. In this stream of interpretation, religionless Christianity is about belief and metaphysics. In this view, religionless Christianity is a Christianity that eschews metaphysics, a Christianity that discards or marginalizes creedal orthodoxy and privileges doubt, agnosticism, and even atheism. This is a "Christianity" that focuses less on belief than upon praxis.

This take on Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity is still popular. For example, this is how Peter Rollins uses Bonhoeffer for this project of pyrotheology.

The criticism of this line of interpretation, as a reading of Letters and Papers from Prison makes clear, is that Bonhoeffer didn't give up on Christian metaphysics, the creeds, and the gathered assembly of worship and prayer.

To be sure, Bonhoeffer was radically thinking through the relationship between the church and the secular world ("the world come of age"). More on that in a bit. But what seems clear, from Bonhoeffer's own faith, is that religionless Christianity and living in the world etsi deus non daretur isn't about doubt, agnosticism, and atheism, even if presented in Christian guise.

But if it's not that, then what is religionless Christianity all about?

Here's my take, stated concisely: Religionless Christianity isn't about belief, religionless Christianity is about lordship.

Specifically, it's a mistake to think that Bonhoeffer was using religionless Christianity to deconstruct Christian belief regarding the existence of God. Religionless Christianity is about how Jesus is Lord in a secular world come of age.

This observation should be obvious when we read the very first letter from prison where Bonhoeffer begins his inquiry into these issues. The question that motivated religionless Christianity was Christology, specifically how Jesus is Lord of a secular, non-confessing, non-religious world. Here's that very first letter, where Bonhoeffer sets out his questions, the relevant passage are highlighted and underlined:
April 30, 1944

To Eberhard Bethage:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience--and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as "religious" do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by "religious."

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the "religious a priori" of mankind. "Christianity" has always been a form--perhaps the true form--of "religion." But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless--and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any "religious" reaction?)--what does that mean for "Christianity"? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our "Christianity," and that there remain only a few "last survivors of the age of chivalry," or a few intellectually dishonest people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don't want to do all that, 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? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity--and even this garment has looked very different at different times--then what is a religionless Christianity?

...The questions to be answered would surely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? 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? 
Bonhoeffer is obviously wrestling with faith in a post-Christian context, a secular "world come of age." Many quibble with Bonhoeffer on that point, about if his diagnosis of a "world come of age" was accurate or justified. Regardless, we can see the issue Bonhoeffer was struggling with: How is Jesus "the Lord of the world" when most of the world aren't confessing Christians? Bonhoeffer states the issue quite clearly:
How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well?
Again, to restate my point, the issue about religionless Christianity isn't belief, but lordship. How is Jesus "the Lord of the world," even "the Lord of the religionless"?

In short, religionless Christianity is about how Jesus is Lord of the entire world, even the faithless, non-believing, non-confessing, religionless, secular world.

Now, the historical, traditional route to establishing Christ's lordship over the world was through power and coercion, the Constantinian, theocratic approach. Bonhoeffer sees the era of establishing that sort of lordship via a "Christian nation" as a part of Western history that is not coming back. Maybe so, maybe not. Regardless, the deeper problem here isn't a "world come of age" after the Enlightenment. The deeper problem with the coercive approach to lordship is that it builds its vision of lordship upon a flawed Christology. That's the key issue that preoccupies Bonhoeffer.

According to Bonhoeffer's Christology, on the cross Jesus is revealed to be "the man for others." Jesus establishes his lordship over the world through the weakness of the cross. As Bonhoeffer writes later on in his prison correspondence: 
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.
Jesus establishes his lordship over the religionless world by weakness, as the self-giving "man for others." Jesus doesn't rule from the top down in a coercive way. Rather, Jesus allows himself to be pushed out of the world onto the cross.

Notice a few things here.

First, and this really is a bold move, notice how Bonhoeffer's theology of weakness, his theologia crucis, creates and gives rise to the secular! The secular "world come of age" is created by Christ's lordship! That is truly a radical idea. My head spins. Since Christ rules via weakness, the world becomes religionless. The world is "secular" and "godless" because Christ rules from the cross.

In short, we live in a "godless" situation in the secular age not because of disbelief, but because of Christ's lordship being expressed in weakness. Christ is Lord of the entire world, even the religionless world, because Christ allows himself to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross.

And that, of course, changes how the church should relate to the world. If the godless, secular world is tightly intertwined with Christ's ruling from the cross, then it is inappropriate for the church to try to establish Christ's lordship over the religionless via power or propaganda. Bonhoeffer talks a lot about this in his letters. As "the man for others" Christ isn't Lord of the world by making the world serve him in a "religious" manner. Consequently, the church establishes Christ's lordship over the world by conforming the pattern of the cross: following the "man for others" the Christian community becomes "the church for others." As Bonhoeffer writes:
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.
There is much more to say, but I've set the basic idea before you.

Religionless Christianity isn't about deconstructing religious belief, doubting or denying the existence of God. Religionless Christianity is about lordship, about how Jesus is Lord of the entire world, even the Lord of the religionless, secular, post-Christian world.

Phrased differently, religionless Christianity isn't about doubt, it's about the cross.

And there's some radical stuff here, how a theologia crucis--God ruling the world in weakness--creates a "godless," secular world. Still, the godless situation, living in the world without God as the deus ex machina, isn't about God's non-existence, but about the shape of God's power in the world. Again, the issue isn't doubt, but the cross.

Jesus is Lord of the entire world, of the religion-filled and religionless, because Christ rules from the cross. Jesus is Lord as "the man for others," a lordship established in loving self-donation.

And the church that confesses "Jesus is Lord" follows her Lord. This church exists for others. This church does not dominate the world, but helps and serves the world.

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