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.

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

Leave a Reply