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. 

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

Leave a Reply