Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity: Engaging a Post-Christian World

bonhoefferToday’s guest post is by Prayson Daniel. Prayson, who blogs at With All I Am, has been using Faithlife Groups since 2012, and created the Natural Theology group. Prayson is from Tanzania, and he earned his BA at Harvest Bible College. He is currently pursuing his graduate studies at Aalborg University in Denmark. Prayson’s greatest desire is to inspire others to admire God through critical thinking.

“What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words—whether with theological or with pious words—is past, as is the age of inwardness and of conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether. We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ aren’t really practicing that at all; they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We have approached a “religionless” age. Some call it a post-Christian world. Ethics and politics are no longer directly influenced by religious beliefs. For many self-describing Christians, their lives show no visible difference from unbelievers.

“What is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?” was the question that persistently bedeviled Bonhoeffer during his solitary confinement ward at Berlin-Tegel Military Detention Center. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his participation in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Tegel was where he spent his last eighteen months in the world he saw coming of age. He was executed on April 8th, 1945.

During his time in Berlin-Tegel, Bonhoeffer wrote his final letters to those closest to him, and explored the most pressing questions in his final days. These writings are available to us as Letters and Papers from Prison. In his letters and notes, the question arose, what is Christianity today? In his correspondence with his best friend, Eberhard Bethge (April-July 1944), Bonhoeffer offered some of the most bewildering and exciting questions and ideas to help Christians faithfully engage with a “post-Christian” world.

Bonhoeffer asked, “How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?” and, “Is there such a thing as a religionless Christian?” He answered these questions with “the nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts.”

What is religionless Christianity?

Bonhoeffer wrote:
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“If religion is only the garb in which Christianity is clothed—and this garb has looked very different in different ages—what then is religionless Christianity?”

In order to present Christianity in a world that has “come of age,” Bonhoeffer invites us to strip Christianity of all nonessential elements. He invites us to rethink our churches, our congregations, our sermons, our liturgies, and our Christian lives. He invites us to “nonreligiously” reinterpret “the concepts of repentance, faith, justification, rebirth, and sanctification.”

In order to be a missional church in a “religionless world,” Bonhoeffer wants us to ponder how we can talk about God, presupposing religious metaphysics. Like Søren Kierkegaard, he wants us to think of Christ not as an object of religion, but as a living passionate subject who is the lord of every being. He wants us to think first and foremost about proclaiming God’s righteousness and kingdom on earth, saving souls.

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“What matters is not the beyond but this world, how it is created and preserved, is given laws, reconciled, and renewed. What is beyond this world is meant, in the gospel, to be there for this world—not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystical, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” —Letters and Papers from Prison

For those of us who are interested in natural theology, Bonhoeffer is important for two reasons: his concern with the true relationship between God and scientific knowledge, and his solution to the problem of pain and suffering.

The true relationship between God and scientific knowledge

Bonhoeffer’s idea of religionless Christianity not only opens a door for us to reach a post-Christian world, but it can help us understand the true relationship between God and scientific knowledge.

Every quote in this post comes from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Right now, you can get it for 40% off!

Our God, according Bonhoeffer, is not deus ex machina—a mechanical being that appears just in time to solve our insoluble problems. He is not a being that we evoke as an explanation of the inexplicable due to our epistemic limitation. He is not a being that we only call upon to offer us strength when are powerless and weak.

If God was such a being, then he is no longer needed in our world that is learning to solve its own problems (or at least, to believe it can). Such a God is “pushed further away and thus is ever on the retreat” (Letters and Papers from Prison).

Bonhoeffer wants us to “speak of God not at the boundaries but in the center, not in weakness but in strength, thus not in death and guilt but in human life and human goodness.” He wrote:

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“When I reach my limits, it seems to me better not to say anything and to leave what can’t be solved unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the “solution” to the problem of death. God’s “beyond” is not what is beyond our cognition! Epistemological transcendence has nothing to do with God’s transcendence. God is the beyond in the midst of our lives. The church stands not at the point where human powers fail, at the boundaries, but in the center of the village.” —Letters and Papers from Prison

Bonhoeffer want us to find God not in our epistemological gaps but in what we thoroughly understand. We are to find God “in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants to be grasped by us not in unsolved questions but in those that have been solved.”

This means we are to live our lives in religionless Christianity “etsi deus non daretur” [as if there were no God]. He stated:

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“The same God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The same God who makes us to 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.” —Letters and Papers from Prison

The solution to the problem of suffering

Bonhoeffer saw and experienced the unmistakably face of pain and suffering during the Nazi’s reign in Germany. His address of human suffering is not that of a philosophical armchair reflection, but that of a deeply affected participant in suffering. He doesn’t express classic defenses such as John Hicks’ soul-making theodicy or Alvin Plantinga’s freewill-defense.

Understanding Christianity in times of prevailing evil is what moved Bonhoeffer. His solution reflects his religionless reinterpretation of Christianity. In this reinterpretation God is not called upon to solve the problem of pain and suffering as if he was deus ex machina, but we as Christians are called to participate with God in powerlessness and weakness. He wrote, “God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us.”

Bonhoeffer believed that the difference between a heathen and Christian is that in the former people call upon God to solve their problems while in the latter, God calls upon his people to participate in their problem. He explains:

“That is the opposite of everything a religious person expects from God. The human being is called upon to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world. Thus we must really live in that godless world and not try to cover up or transfigure its godlessness somehow with religion.” —Letters and Papers from Prison

There is so much wisdom and bewildering ideas in Bonhoeffer’s letters and papers he wrote while in prison. I hope I have awakened a hunger in you. Join my Faithlife Group, Natural Theology, and together let’s explore, learn, and be challenged by Bonhoeffer’s powerful letters and papers from prison.

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“The world come of age is more god-less and perhaps just because of that closer to God than the world not yet come of age.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Every quote in this post comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Right now, you can get most of Bonhoeffer’s works for 40% off!

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The Natural Theology Faithlife Group (led by Prayson Daniel) is going to dive into this book together soon—grab yourself a copy and join the group here!

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Comments

  1. says

    Apart from the accidents of history, Bonheffer would be speaking of reiligionless Judaism or Islam or Hinduism, rather than Christianity, depending on where he happened to be born. Any form of these, stated atheistically, would not be a serious attempt to understand the religion or its sacred texts. And all such restatements of these faiths would be an example of undisciplined analogizing. I was saying, then, Bonhoeffer has not given us anything we need to take seriously as a valid interpretation of Jesus Christ and his gospel.

  2. says

    Well stated! Whether one agrees with Bonhoeffer or not, what strikes me about Bonhoeffer is that he raises these questions out of a real life experience of Nazi Germany where the church and its language had been co-opted by the government. Something we might want to consider in our own time and context.

  3. says

    Well stated! Whether one agrees with Bonhoeffer or not, what strikes me about Bonhoeffer is that he raises these questions out of a real life experience of Nazi Germany where the church and its language had been co-opted by the government. Something we might want to consider in our own time and context.

  4. says

    Bonhoeffer's Christocentric stance is displayed much more systematically in his "Cost of Discipleship", a profound study of the Sermon on the Mount in which he calls us from a religious cheap grace to a radical following of Jesus epitomized in the statement: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him, 'Come and die.'"

  5. says

    Bonhoeffer's Christocentric stance is displayed much more systematically in his "Cost of Discipleship", a profound study of the Sermon on the Mount in which he calls us from a religious cheap grace to a radical following of Jesus epitomized in the statement: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him, 'Come and die.'"

  6. Christopher Potts says

    “God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us.”

    Our strength — His strength through us — only comes from our awareness of our weakness in this world. It is 180-degrees from how the world normally views strength and weakness.

    “That is the opposite of everything a religious person expects from God. The human being is called upon to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world. Thus we must really live in that godless world and not try to cover up or transfigure its godlessness somehow with religion.”

    Our tendency much of the time is to desire heaven on earth. For example, we naturally gravitate towards spiritual “country clubs” where “outsiders” are permitted but not really welcome. It is a challenge for us to realize that our Lord want us to engage with a godless world which includes personal pain, suffering, and sacrifice.

    “Bonhoeffer believed that the difference between a heathen and Christian is that in the former people call upon God to solve their problems while in the latter, God calls upon his people to participate in their problem.”

    Amen! God is not the magical wand-waver who makes our problems disappear. As our Master, he befriends us and helps us act like adults in trusting Him as we together solve the challenges we face.

  7. says

    Bonhoeffer boldly states his openness to "religionless Christianity." He advocates this as the hope of the future; and he defines this term as a "godless" and "atheistic" practice. So logically, either his advocacy of costly "grace" and Christ's "call" to discipleship have been abandoned as a real devotion to the living Lord (to whom all will answer in eternal judgment) or, from the outset, these words have been reduced to nothing more than figures of speech within a system of thought constructed from his own imagination.

  8. Jason Traxler says

    I have a general knowledge of Bonhoeffer and, therefore, must qualify my observations. When I think of religion, I think of something more than a manner of worshipping the Triune God of my faith. I think of religion as a way of life. As such, most people approach their lives with their own personalized religious fervor regardless of the diety they focus on for spiritual value. As a Christian, my Triune God has set forth laws for living and the gospel for adjudicating those laws in my daily life. Those laws are my way of life, my religion, if you will. Furthermore, His inspired Word, as it has come down over the ages not the politically correct rendition some pseudo Christians use today, is my religion, or the way I live my life.

    Bluntly, you can love your neighbor as you love yourself without believing in my Triune God and claim it as your religion or way of life. You are practicing a Christless religion. On the other hand, if you claim belief in the Triune God but do not live His laws, you are practicing religionless Christianity or what I believe to be false Christianity. Bottom line, you cannot believe in the Triune God without accepting His Laws and Gospel.

  9. says

    Bobby Garringer Bonhoeffer uses the term Religionless Christianity to take Christianity out of the concept of organized religion or institutional (denominational) Christianity to bring it back to the basics of its conception in the death of Jesus on the cross and His resurrection. Bonhoeffer remained a committed Lutheran to his death and remained firm to his belief that Jesus was both human and God and died to save the world until his execution.

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