Religionless Christianity: An Introduction
Near the end of his letters to his student and dear friend, Eberhard Bethge, from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer began to conceptualize of something he called religionless Christianity. Scholars have debated for many years what Bonhoeffer meant by religionless Christianity. Below are three quotes taken from those letters that, I believe, begin to lay the foundation of religionless Christianity. These quotes and my reflections are not meant to be an exhaustive analysis of religionless Christianity but simply a brief introduction.
“So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us 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. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matthew 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”
One of the paramount foundations to religionless Christianity, for Bonhoeffer, is an appeal for the Christian to live as if God is no longer the given–to live without God. With God no longer a given, the Christian is to live much more responsibly, without apathy in waiting for God to carry out restoration. Bonhoeffer witnessed many of his fellow German Christians apathetically at best and actively at worst aid the Nazi regime. While in the pits of prison, Bonhoeffer insisted that for the Christian to live responsibly, to live in a way that vehemently resists fascism, the Christian is to live as if God is not the given.
Responsibility for the Christian, as Bonhoeffer writes the letter in prison, does not come without its consequences.
“[Redemption myths] try unhistorically to find an eternity after death . . . [For them] redemption . . . means redemption from cares, distress, fears, and longings, from sin and death, in a better world beyond the grave. But is this really the essential character of the proclamation of Christ in the gospels and by Paul. I should say it is not. The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope is that the former sends [a person] back into . . . life on earth in a wholly new way . . . The Christian, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself . . . he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ. This world must not be prematurely written off; in this the Old and New Testaments are at one.”
To live responsibly as if God is not a given implicates that the Christian will suffer–that the Christian will “drink the earthly cup to the dregs,” as Bonhoeffer poetically suggests. The redemptively responsible Christian is not one who longs to escape this world but enters more fully into its suffering. Just as Jesus lived in a way that implicated a crucification, the Christian is to live in a way that threatens the powers-that-be so much so that death is their only answer. Liturgically, religionless Christianity is a daily and lived remembrance of Ash Wednesday, in which the Christian is to live in a way that remembers and returns to the dust from which they came.
Thus far, Bonhoeffer has only discussed religionless Christianity in personal, theological, and ethical categories. However, the faith community is an essential element to the life of religionless Christianity.
“The questions to be answered would surely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? 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’? In what way are we ‘religionless-secular’ Christians, in what way are we the ἐ -κλησία, those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favoured, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an 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 the secret discipline, or alternatively the difference (which I have suggested to you before) between penultimate and ultimate, take on a new importance here?”
It is here that Bonhoeffer asks his most radical questions, with his question of the meaning of church, sermon, and liturgy being the most threatening question to the status quo of western Christianity. It is here Bonhoeffer recognizes that much of the German church, from its architecture to its sermons, had homogenized itself to the Nazi regime. Therefore, Bonhoeffer envisions that in order for a church to bear its responsibility to more fully enter into the suffering of the world, its ecclesial structure needs to utterly be overhauled.
Many have asked why I am interested in the emergent church. Many of those who are skeptical of my emergent leanings assume my affinity for the EC is because of its theology on universalism, atonement, etc. (I speak as if the EC is a monolithic theological entity, void of an diversity, which is wholly untrue but for the sake of brevity, I speak of the EC as such.) I truly believe the emergent church’s radical nature is not its theology of universalism, atonement, etc. but its ecclesiology. For example, the ecclesiology of Solomon’s Porch, a church associated with the EC, adopts a few values from various ecclesiologies from different traditions; however, Solomon’s Porch largely attempts not to evolve from one church tradition to another but to create its own tradition altogether. Some may disagree entirely that it is possible to create its own tradition altogether; however, that has not halted Solomon’s Porch from attempting. It is this inventive spirit that I believe is at the core of Bonhoeffer’s question of what a church, sermon, and liturgy may mean in a religionless world.
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