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Charlotte Pence

People of religious faith carry a burden of belief around with them. In recent years, Americans have witnessed a rise in the maligning of Christians and dismissals of their faith and practices. I have come to believe this burden isn’t constrained to time or shifts of culture.

Some argue that the past few decades have resulted in a more secular society where citizens substitute a pursuit of moral truths for selfish endeavors. However, I don’t think the 21st century is the culprit for people of faith being put on the defense for their beliefs.

Religious groups felt isolated long before Twitter was an idea in anyone’s mind, and they will continue to. The call to a life of religious belief is a lonely one; it will set you apart, but it promises to give back much more. Separation is an anticipated sacrifice. It is a companion to the decision to live for a purpose higher than the mere physical world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor active during Hitler’s regime, repeatedly put his life at risk to decry injustices happening within Nazi Germany; he even lost his life doing so. But just like Christians today, he grappled with questions of how best to engage.

Examine Bonhoeffer’s concept of “religionless Christianity.” While he was imprisoned in Germany, he wrote letters to his friend, Eberhard Bethge, asking, “What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world?” He wanted to understand how people of faith should interact in the world without getting bogged down in inaccessible theology or swayed by non-religious values.

To be “religionless” while still religious means to engage with the secular world while maintaining one’s cherished belief system. This shouldn’t lead to religious doctrines being replaced with more world-friendly ideas. Instead, Bonhoeffer told Christians they ought to meet non-religious people where they were—all while sharing the love of Christ.

It isn’t only Christians who are at risk of being sequestered by the louder voices of the culture. Religionlessness is a complicated concept and best broached alongside people who share the desire to live a life of faith, even when their specific beliefs differ from one another.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), photographed in 1939.
Ullstein Bild / Getty
How the murdered theologian came to be a symbol in American politics.

The Battle for Bonhoeffer
Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump
by Stephen R. Haynes
Eerdmans, 208 pp., $19.99

You can tell a lot about people by their heroes. After all, people model themselves after their heroes—and sometimes model their heroes after themselves.

That’s the basic premise of Stephen R. Haynes’s The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian executed in 1945 at the age of 39 for joining a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, lives on today as a hero for American Protestants across political and confessional boundaries. Different readers and biographers of Bonhoeffer have made different things of him—so strikingly different that in 1964 theologian Harvey Cox famously called Bonhoeffer “a veritable Rorschach test.”

Bonhoeffer wasn’t always a hero for American evangelicals. For two decades after his death, his legacy was the near-exclusive domain of liberal theologians attracted to the concept of “religionless Christianity” that Bonhoeffer developed while on death row. For those so-called “death-of-God” theologians, he was a prophet of a happy future in which Christianity would outgrow many of its traditional beliefs and practices. Needless to say, fundamentalist and evangelical Christians were unamused.

But as death-of-God theology started to, er, die out, the growing evangelical movement began to claim Bonhoeffer as one of its own. New interpretations of Bonhoeffer and his ideas emerged in the 1980s and ’90s. Haynes sorts these into four types: Bonhoeffer as a “Critical Patriot” showing liberal Protestants how best to critique their own government; Bonhoeffer as a “Righteous Gentile” whose advocacy for Jews models Jewish-Christian relations to this day; Bonhoeffer as a “Moral Hero” whose ecumenical battle for conscience transcended particular religious traditions; and the “Evangelical Bonhoeffer” whose Bible-believing Christianity can be weaponized in today’s cultural battles.

Each new Bonhoeffer has required more abstraction than the last—and because each has relied heavily on the broad outline of his life (and, more importantly, the story of his death) for symbolism of heroism and holiness, the actual details of his life and his writings have taken a back seat. It wasn’t Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas but the model of his self-sacrifice that demanded emulation, asking of every American, as Haynes puts it, “What are you doing to arrest this ongoing assault on innocent life?” As for which “ongoing assault,” well, that’s up to the reader. In recent decades, Bonhoeffer’s example has inspired right- and left-leaning Americans alike, all insisting that if Bonhoeffer lived today he would be on their side. Haynes documents Bonhoeffer’s postmortem crusades against abortion, the Iraq War, President Bush, President Obama, and finally, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

In this back-and-forth deployment of Bonhoeffer’s legacy, Eric Metaxas’s bestselling 2009 biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy has a special place. Metaxas’s book and his subsequent attempts to employ Bonhoeffer to critique the Obama administration are significant not so much for changing anyone’s view of its subject but for amplifying the “Evangelical Bonhoeffer” in its public role. Dismissing prior Bonhoeffer scholarship as “a terrific misunderstanding,” Metaxas made a Bonhoeffer from scratch, one who (as evangelical reviewer Andy Rowell put it) “looks a lot like an American evangelical—an extraordinarily courageous American evangelical.”

Thanks in large part to Metaxas, the phrase “Bonhoeffer moment” became a powerful call to arms, especially for politically conservative Protestants. And as Bonhoeffer’s symbolic importance grew, the need for facts, either about him or about present realities, diminished. In the battle over religious liberty, for example, Haynes notes that evangelical leaders used the phrase “Bonhoeffer moment” almost without context. “Elaboration was unnecessary,” he explains, “because these leaders shared with their audiences an intuitive understanding of the expression.” The fact that the real Bonhoeffer might have disagreed strenuously with any number of the uses to which his name was being put doesn’t matter in the least.

At this point in the book, it looks like Haynes is about to ask why: Why do we still tie our political disputes today to the (usually far more dramatic) struggles of the last century? Why do the real details of those times matter so little to those who invoke them today? Why do our causes need to piggyback on the credibility of older ones?

But Haynes doesn’t ask. Instead, his narrative and argument collapse into the very misuses of Bonhoeffer that he criticized in the first half of the book. His analysis of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision about same-sex marriage struggles to retain scholarly neutrality, and the closer the story gets to the 2016 election, the more it relies on personal views and anecdotes.

By the end, Haynes’s scholarly project is altogether abandoned.

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 30 September 2016 | Ronald Osborn

In the final two years of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote several letters from Tegel prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge in which he spoke of the need for what he referred to as a “religionless Christianity.” “I shall not come out of here a homo religiosus!,” he declared vehemently in a note dated November 21, 1943.  “My fear and distrust of ‘religiosity’ have become greater than ever here.  The fact that the Israelites never uttered the name of God always makes me think, and I can understand it better as I go on.”  On April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer offered one of his most famous and controversial statements on the meaning of discipleship in what he elsewhere called a “world come of age.”  “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today,” he wrote. “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore.”

Piety and religiosity had not vanished from German society in Bonhoeffer’s day (any more than they have from American society in the present, confounding the secularization theories of several generations of sociologists of religion).  Yet this very fact, Bonhoeffer concluded, was itself ironically symptomatic of the irrelevance of religion to the problems facing most men and women. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it,” he wrote, “and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’” Under these circumstances, what did it mean to be a follower of Christ?  In the aftermath of the failure of the institutionalized churches and self-professing believers in Europe to withstand the onslaught of totalitarian ideologies—indeed, in the light of the church’s own authoritarianism and its ability to carry on uninterrupted even as the ground fell out from under it, with hymns being sung and sermons preached without pause amid the march to war—the question that now confronted Christians was one of first things.

Did the very language of spiritual inwardness, of evangelism, of apologetics, and of churchly authority that had marked Western Christianity from its beginning still make any sense? Was it the task of believers to somehow refill the vessels of a failed Christendom project that had been thoroughly corrupted by political evil with lost or forgotten meanings?  Or were believers now called to bear witness to Christ in a secular age in radically new ways, and not as “religious” persons at all?  Did “religion” itself need to be left behind as a historical stage, a human construct and sociological phenomenon, that was in no sense synonymous with the presence of the living Christ in the world and in history?  But if so, what would such a “religionless Christianity” even begin to look like?

“Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world,” Bonhoeffer wrote to Bethge on July 18, 1944.  Three days later, after learning of the failure of the Officer’s Plot to assassinate Hitler—a plot in which he had been complicit and for which he would be executed at the age of 39 when his role was uncovered by the Gestapo—Bonhoeffer wrote of the “this-worldliness” of the Christian faith:

“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 ahomo religiosus, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man…I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one.  By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.  In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian.”

We do not know how Bonhoeffer might have developed these highly allusive ideas had his life not been cut short. His enigmatic and provocative words have often been pressed into the service of agendas Bonhoeffer himself would have resisted, from liberal death-of-God theologies to highly conservative forms of evangelical Protestantism. Yet there are perhaps a few lessons we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s witness as we face the abuses of power, the smallness of heart and mind, and the betrayals of leadership that have led to mounting crises in our own day—both inside and outside of the church.

How can we be faithful disciples of Jesus in the midst of unsettling new realities, in which by faith we trust that God is still at work? How can we be certain of Christ and speak meaning into the lives of our fellow human beings when we can no longer put our trust in church officialdom or attach our confidence in the Holy Spirit to the outworn habits of religious thinking and speech that mark our church structures?  How can we testify to the living Christ when “religion” itself turns the Word of God into a dead letter and takes on the marks of dehumanizing “kingly authority”?

For Bonhoeffer, the answers to these questions lie not in any nostalgic retreat to the past.  He ultimately refused the path of shoring up decaying institutions and exhausted forms of piety.  Rather, Bonhoeffer insisted, believers must now repent of the power and control game that they have been playing for far too long.  They must instead enter with fear and trembling into the dangerous drama of Christ’s kenosis—his self-emptying and co-suffering identification with all of humankind.

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Michael Gerson

The current ferment of American politics has brought comparisons to Europe in the 1930s, with echoes of leaders who stoke anger against outsiders and promise a return to greatness through the application of a strong man’s will.

The analogy is hardly exact. Lacking the economic chaos and fragile institutions of Weimar Germany, America has fewer footholds for fascism. But the reaction to fascist darkness in the 1930s produced a figure, a bright light, who should guide us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who resisted the Nazis and the influence of Nazism in his own church. He spoke out on behalf of German Jews, was implicated in a plot against Adolf Hitler’s life, was imprisoned, wrote and ministered for years from confinement, then was led naked to the execution ground and hung with a noose of piano wire, just weeks before the end of World War II.

As a theologian, Bonhoeffer was farsighted. Modern Western societies, he argued, were becoming “radically religionless.” It is not possible to re-impose this consensus, and mere nostalgia is pointless. But religion – in Bonhoeffer’s view, a changeable form of “human self-expression” – is not the same as faith. “If religion is only the garment of Christianity – and even the garment has looked very different at different times – then what is religionless Christianity?”

It is a question that could occupy a theologian’s entire career. Bonhoeffer’s was cut short at age 39. But it is worth noting one thing he did not find outdated. He believed that Advent and the story of Christmas speak directly to the modern world.

The appeal of Christmas to a prisoner, from one perspective, is natural. Christmas upends the normal calculations of power and influence. “He takes what is little and lowly,” said Bonhoeffer, “and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. … He loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

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By

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?

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Bonhoeffer painting

See part one. See the comments in part one for some good thoughts and questions from others.

This is the second and final installment of my exploration of Bonhoeffer’s “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity, found in his prison letters. I am more critical in this post — certainly, more questioning. Some of the footnote comments may be of interest, to alert those who ignore footnotes.

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Bonhoeffer acknowledges that Barth was the first to recognize the mistake of “making a space” for religion in modern life, illustrated by the apologetic theologies discussed in the previous post. But, according to Bonhoeffer, Barth failed to guide us in the “non-religious interpretation of theological concepts,” which is necessary for a responsible theology today. Bonhoeffer bemoans Barth’s “positivism of revelation.” What does this mean? As far as I can tell from Bonhoeffer’s brief comments, Barth failed to carry through his criticism of religion. He stopped at his criticism of these false apologetic strategies, but in their place he offered the received dogmatic material of the church’s faith. “Positivism” was sometimes used as a label for any conservative theology that subordinated itself to a given and stable authority, namely the Bible and derived confessional standards. Thus, the theological task is the explication of this material, the enterprise known as dogmatics, often valuing precision of expression and analytical rigor. We do not know exactly what Bonhoeffer has in mind, but he is clearly not happy with this turn in Barth. And he uses Barth as an example of neglecting the task at hand. (We have to leave to the side whether this is fair to Barth.) This task is to interpret Christian concepts into non-religious concepts, thereby rendering them more truly faithful to Christ. Why does Bonhoeffer see this as such a pressing matter? Because only in this way can modern man encounter God again, confronted with the demand of love in every situation. Thus, it is ultimately an ethical concern for Bonhoeffer, as we would expect from his previous writings. And as such, these prison letters on “religionless Christianity” can be seen as having strong continuity with his prior treatments of ethics as encounter and decision, not law and duty.

But, what are we to make of this “non-religious interpretation of theological concepts”? It is here that criticisms can emerge. In many (not all) of these statements, the “non-religious” appears to be a norm and authority for Bonhoeffer – a norm and authority derived from the world as such. So, as we see, Bonhoeffer has been discussing his impression of reading a book on physics, realizing that, as he later states, “Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God.’” He will elsewhere describe this as “the world come of age.” That is true, of course, insofar as it goes — for a large segment of European society, and we would not want to recover the various defensive theologies that have attempted to deal with this.

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Bonhoeffer in 1939

I will attempt the impossible. In the course of two blog posts, I will try to understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s infamous proposals for a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. There is a vast literature of academic discussion on Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, especially these particular letters from April to July of 1944, and the continuity or discontinuity with his earlier works. For the sake of blogging brevity (my go-to excuse!), I will have to ignore most of that.

Below is part one, and I will soon post a follow-up next week, discussing Bonhoeffer’s cryptic complaints about Barth’s “posivitism of revelation.” There, I will register some criticisms, not surprisingly.

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In a letter to Eberhard Bethge from prison in Tegel, 30 April 1944, Bonhoeffer signals some new developments in his theological reflections, which then reappear in subsequent letters. And it is best that we label these as “reflections” or even “musings,” given the suggestive and piecemeal nature of this epistolary material. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer intends them to be taken seriously, as the most recent fruit of his fertile mind. He is quite aware of the radical nature of these suggestions, warning Bethge that he “would be surprised, and perhaps even worried by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to….” What are these thoughts and conclusions? They deal with Bonhoeffer’s proposal for a “religionless” Christianity, or better yet, a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. We will look closely at the precise way in which Bonhoeffer expresses himself, focusing on this question of non-religious interpretation.

Bonhoeffer has spent his life discerning who is Christ and especially who is Christ for the church and for us today. He is imprisoned for his own commitment to the sole lordship of Christ and his demand for us now. He informs Bethge that these questions have been “bothering him incessantly,” and it appears that the pressure to revisit these questions anew has come from his assessment of the society of his day. As Bonhoeffer sees it, “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more.” But what does he mean by “religious”? His explanation is grounded in the recent philosophical and cultural developments of Western society. There was once a “religious a priori,” according to Bonhoeffer, which supported and sustained religious man, which is to say virtually every man in religious society. This a priori is the metaphysical foundation, or background, or framework upon or through which religious man understands himself and his relation to God. As such, it provided the “plausibility structure,” to borrow from Peter Berger, for how the divine exists and interacts with the finite realm. It also provided the inwardness or self-consciousness of religious man in relation to spiritual matters, where God is a necessary and vital corollary. This religious man is disappearing, according to Bonhoeffer, and so the church must ask, “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’?” Moreover, this metaphysics for the last nineteen hundred years, in Bonhoeffer’s view, has led us to consider ourselves as “specially favored,” as belonging to another reality other than the concrete world to which we belong. And, thus, there is a moral component to Bonhoeffer’s criticisms, namely that this metaphysics distracts and takes us away from our neighbor who wholly belongs to this world with us.

In a subsequent letter to Bethge, written on the same day, Bonhoeffer continues with his reflections about a Christianity without religion, further clarifying what he has in mind. It is here that Bonhoeffer expresses his dissatisfaction with apologetic theology and faith, where God only appears as the cause or sufficient explanation for the unknown or inexplicable. As Bonhoeffer explains:

Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail – in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, wither for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.

The problem with this sort of religious faith is that the boundaries are ever decreasing as humanity advances in its knowledge of the world. This God of the gaps is a desperate attempt to “reserve some space for God,” even as the gaps continue to close. But more importantly for Bonhoeffer, it places God on the boundaries of life, in the ignorance or in the weaknesses of our fragile life. This is even true of those existentialist theologies that have acknowledged the failure of “the God of the gaps” approach.

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