As society in Germany deteriorated, Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized that the church, in her present form, was incapable of standing strong for Jesus. The church certainly had “religious forms”, but those forms actually “restricted” the church.[1] Bonhoeffer believed that a day would come when the church would be freed from these religious forms: “indeed, evidences are clear that Bonhoeffer welcomed the secular forces in the world, and saw in them a growing liberation from man’s enslavement to religious forms—a liberation to be fuller men in Christ.”[2] 

Near the end of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, he was able to begin to articulate his concept that the world was in a transition to a day when the real meaning of Christianity would be finally realized:

 In one of his last letters to Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer described a book which he was preparing to write, The Essence of Christianity, on the world’s coming of age, the dissolution of religion, and the “real meaning” of the Christian faith. Obviously such a book would have been invaluable in clarifying Bonhoeffer’s thought in the critical area of “religionless Christianity” and a “non religious interpretation of biblical concepts.” Unfortunately, he was never able to finish the book.[3]   

It was unfortunate because The Essence of Christianity would have been Bonhoeffer’s “most mature important thought.”[4] On April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer described in a letter Bethge his thoughts on “religionless Christianity.”[5] Bonhoeffer was concerned that church people in Germany were content to simply wear a thin “garment” of Christianity.[6] Yet, a day is coming when people will realize how helpless they are with such a garment:


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 towards 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”…How this religionless Christianity looks, what form it takes, is something that I’m thinking about a great deal…[7]


Kelly and Nelson offer the following definition and understanding of “religionless Christianity”:


(It) refers to a new “form” of Christianity in which people of a genuine Christian faith would live in a more open, constructive relationship with the world. In this process, religion itself, considered and historically conditioned, transient, dying form of Christianity, would undergo drastic changes as faith is freed from its more Westernized, self-serving constrictions and emphasis on inward piety and empty rituals.


…Bonhoeffer had criticized religion for its having inflicted on people a psychic posture of weakness and immature dependence and for having encouraged individualistic, self-centered attitudes toward God and others. Christians living a “nonreligious” form of Christianity, on the other hand, would draw on the example of Christ, the “man for others,” and live in a paradox of being called out of the world while belonging wholly to it.[8]


“Religionless Christianity” is connected with costly grace and obedience to the Jesus’ call to radically follow him. However, the church structure of Bonhoeffer’s day hindered Christians from doing so. Thus, the structure had to change:


From the prison letters, one can deduce that Bonhoeffer was calling for a complete restructuring of ecclesiastical offices and for a reshaping of the churches so they can become more like Christ, divested of their possessiveness and encouraged to live only to serve others.


Such a Christianity, with its church, Sacrament, and sermon still needed the “discipline of the secret,” in order for Christians to be completely engaged in a more “silent” life of prayer and dedication to social justice. In this way Bonhoeffer hoped that a new form of Christian church would come into being.[9]


It is in this framework of “religionless Christianity” that helps us to understand how Bonhoeffer was able to stand fast during severe trials. Even though the time was harsh and dangerous, Bonhoeffer saw this as an opportunity for the church to be revised and repaired.[10] Even from his days as the director of the Finkenwalde Seminary, he looked forward to the revitalization of the church.[11] Bonhoeffer longed for the day to come when the church would no longer be self-serving and cowardly. 


[1] Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 196


[2] Ibid.


[3] Ibid., 194.


[4] Ibid.


[5] Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 282.


[6] Ibid., 280.


[7] Ibid., 279, 282.


[8] Kelly and Nelson, eds., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom, 547-548.


[9] Ibid.


[10] Rasmussen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance, 45.

[11] Kelly and Nelson: The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 158.