The Influence of Bonhoeffer’s “Religionless Christianity” on Radical Theology
As best I can remember, I wrote this paper sometime in 2016.
This paper will compare Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concept of “religionless Christianity” with the radical (or “death of God”) theology, demonstrating that radical theology it is the logical outworking of his thoughts on religionless Christianity—even if Bonhoeffer himself would have been shocked to see such a development. Of course, many groups have appropriated Bonhoeffer as their own, even if he was not. Bonhoeffer’s brave faith, in the face of Nazi persecution, imprisonment, interrogation, and execution—as opposed to the capitulation to Nazism of the majority of German Protestants in his day—appeals to a broad swath of Christianity, including evangelical conservatives, mainline liberals, liberation theologians, and even the radical or “death of God” theologians. Indeed, as Pugh has said, both pacifists and Mike Bray, the notorious abortion clinic bomber, invoke Bonhoeffer’s example in their causes.
Neatly compartmentalizing Bonhoeffer’s views is difficult. Bonhoeffer can appeal to so many because the focus of his writings changed over the course of his experience, moving from a call to Christ-centered piety, to his remarks to Eberhard Bethge, “that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur (as if God did not exist).” Moreover, Bonhoeffer did not live long enough to systematize his theology, synthesizing his earlier thinking with that of his prison letters. Bonhoeffer was also ambiguous in many of his thoughts—perhaps, again, not living long enough to more fully develop his line of thinking or to clarify when others have wrongly appropriated his views. As Weikart demonstrates, Bonhoeffer was neither an atheist, as the radical theologians have painted him, nor an evangelical, as popular Christianity has painted him.
Bonhoeffer in His Own Context
To understand, to the extent that is even possible, how Bonhoeffer’s views may comport with radical theology, it is best to try to get some sense of his own context. Clearly, by his own association with the Confessing Church and the tone of so many of his writings, it is easy to sense that Bonhoeffer was appalled at the reaction to Nazism of the majority. Sadly, the bulk of Protestants in Germany embraced Nazism, and incorporated it into their churches. The revulsion Bonhoeffer feels at society’s “religiosity” is no more apparent than when he tells Bethge, “I will definitely not come out of here as a homo religious! Quite the opposite: my suspicion and fear of ‘religiosity’ have become greater here than ever.”
According to Metaxis, a recent, noted Bonhoeffer biographer, “Bonhoeffer is more like a theologically conservative evangelical than anything else. He was as orthodox as Saint Paul or Isaiah, from his teen years all the way to his last day on earth.” The reality of the theological ground to which Bonhoeffer stakes his claim seems somewhat different, at least from the conservative evangelical standpoint from which this paper unapologetically approaches both the task of theology.
Though Bonhoeffer rejected much of Protestant liberalism, it was the intellectual milieu of his theological education. This view meant, of course, that Bonhoeffer—like any German theological student of his day—was steeped in the philosophical likes of Nietzsche, Kant, Ritschl, Heidegger, and Freud, to name a few. Indeed, in a writing of August 3, 1944, he described himself as, “a ‘modern’ theologian who has nevertheless inherited the legacy of liberal theology…”
Bonhoeffer did not emphasize biblical criticism and even considered it unimportant or even dangerous in an expositional setting, such as church ministry. However, he generally shared with Protestant liberalism a rejection of biblical inspiration in favor of biblical criticism. As for “demythologization,” Bonhoeffer seems to have believed that Bultmann was on the right track, but wrote to Bethge, “My opinion of it today would be that he [Bultmann] went not ‘too far,’ as most people thought, but rather not far enough.” Bonhoeffer continued, explaining that not only should Bultmann have tackled problematic myth, but “religious concepts,” as well. What Bonhoeffer means by this, as in much of his prison writings, seems unclear to the reader.
The influence of Barth’s neo-orthodoxy is also very clear in Bonhoeffer’s life. Barth was a friend and mentor to Bonhoeffer, and the latter makes mention of Barth throughout his prison letters and papers, even if critically, at times. Despite the numerous and theologically varied movements that claim Bonhoeffer as their prophet, he is probably best described as a liberal theologian, strongly influenced by Barth’s “neo-orthodox” brand of liberalism.
A Religionless Christianity
What we know of Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” comes from his written musings to his friend and student, Eberhard Bethge. Certainly, his writing in such books as Ethics and The Cost of Discipleship were already powerful critiques of the state of the Christian religion, especially as practiced in Nazi Germany. In Ethics, Bonhoeffer criticizes the failure of ministers to act in response to persecution, because it did not affect their own congregations.
Especially powerful is the “cheap grace” that Bonhoeffer sees prevalent in the church:
Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace! That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Without question, Bonhoeffer’s experiences in Nazi Germany—particularly the stark failure of the church to respond to the evils of Nazism and his own time of reflection in the prison environment—shape his views of a religionless Christianity. From Bonhoeffer’s standpoint, and understandably so, Christianity, at least with all of its modern religious trappings, is an abject failure—a far cry from the New Testament’s gospel message.
“Religionless” Foundations: Letter of April 30, 1944
Bonhoeffer’s first use of the term “religionless Christianity” appears in his letter to Bethge of April 30, 1944, where he writes: 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.”
Bonhoeffer argues that the entirety of Christian history finds its basis in a “religious a priori,” a sense that people are innately religious, as history might suggest. But, Bonhoeffer wonders, what if this is simply not true, and there is no such a priori religiosity? In fact, Bonhoeffer suggests that there is no such religious a priori and that modern people simply cannot be religious anymore, at least in the sense that Christianity has viewed religiosity. But Bonhoeffer does not see, in this letter, the irrelevance of Christ—rather, he muses about it looks like to follow Christ, to talk about God, without metaphysical presuppositions, and religious trappings. How does life in Christian community survive the loss of its foundations of religiosity?
Bonhoeffer suggests no answers, but he knows these are among the questions to be answered. Among Bonhoeffer’s concerns about religiosity is the tendency of religious people to bring God into the picture as “deus ex machina”—as the solution when insurmountable problems arise or human knowledge fails. Yet often, he notes, human beings do push past the seemingly impossible, setting new boundaries for human ability, and relegating God to superfluity. Religious people bring God in only at the boundaries of life, Bonhoeffer thinks, when God should be at the center, in everything.
In his musings, Bonhoeffer seems to be concerned about a God who is only some sort of cosmic last ditch, when He should be there not just in human weakness, but in human strength.
More on Religionless Christianity: Letter of May 5, 1944
In this letter to Bethge, Bonhoeffer addresses his feelings that Bultmann’s demythologization should have included a separation of religious concepts from the true gospel message. He muses that “religious”—and unbiblical—concepts of God always include metaphysics and individuality, which says Bonhoeffer, are irrelevant to the Bible’s message for modern humanity. For Bonhoeffer, “religious” interpretations of the Bible are always about individual salvation, rather than the more important questions of the Gospel’s meaning for the world as a whole. He criticizes Barth, for a “like it or lump it” view of revelation.
In other words, according to Bonhoeffer, Barth felt it was necessary to accept as revelation either the entire package of Christian religious dogma, including the virgin birth, and the Trinity, or nothing at all. Bonhoeffer felt this was unbiblical. Rather, Bonhoeffer tells Bethge, the whole of Christian dogma—faith, repentance, justification, and sanctification—must be reinterpreted in a non-religious, or “worldly” fashion.
A World Come of Age: Letter of June 8, 1944
In this letter to Bethge, Bonhoeffer elaborates more on why he believes that modern people can no longer be religious, even if they want to be: they live in a “world come of age.” The world of modernity is a post-Enlightenment world, where science and reason trump the metaphysical, the mythical, and the supernatural. Humanity has come to a point where it does not need to invoke God for all that it does not understand because, thanks to the sciences, it does understand the reasons for many once unexplainable phenomena. To Bonhoeffer, the religious church clings to God as an explanation when the world already knows better and, to him, it is almost insulting.
As he writes to Bethge:
I consider the attack by Christian apologetics on the world’s coming of age as, first of all, pointless, second, ignoble, and, third, unchristian. Pointless— because it appears to me like trying to put a person who has become an adult back into puberty, that is, to make people dependent on a lot of things on which they in fact no longer depend, to shove them into problems that in fact are no longer problems for them. Ignoble— because an attempt is being made here to exploit people’s weaknesses for alien purposes to which they have not consented freely. Unchristian— because it confuses Christ with a particular stage of human religiousness, namely, with a human law. 
Evaluating Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity in a World Come of Age
Schneider succinctly sums up the crux of what Bonhoeffer’s question: “How shall we bear witness to the incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ in a world which has seen the rapid inculcation of secularization? If old forms and patterns have become obsolete, what, if any, new patterns and attitudes must be developed for the proclamation of the Gospel at this juncture in history?” It is a question that Bonhoeffer does not answer, however. He is convinced that, even in a completely secular society, the message of Jesus Christ still has strong relevance. However, religion—a man-made institution—is no longer the proper messenger.
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