Bonhoeffer and Religious Pluralism: Towards a Dialectic of Christocentric Ontology and Christocentric Alterity

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The reality of religious pluralism in our modern societies is a matter of urgent concern for Christian theology. This article aims to make themes in Bonhoeffer’s theology useful for religious pluralism. The two themes explored are Christocentric ontology, which describes the transformation of believers into the form of being that is called being for others, and Christocentric alterity which recognizes Christ as the center of the world and acknowledges the boundary of divine transcendence as emerging in the encounter with the religious or non-religious other. Making use of Bonhoeffer’s engagement with Karl Barth, this article rejects John Hick’s epistemological pluralism in favor of Christocentric ontology while placing its own constructive proposal alongside the work of Tom Greggs and Gavin D’Costa as a third option based on the Bonhoeffer’s theologia crucis. Lastly, the dialectic between Christocentric ontology and Christocentric alterity is discussed in order to clarify the function of the claim that Jesus is Lord within the context of the pluralism proposed in this article.


1. Introduction

The question of how to engage a pluralistic society remains a pertinent one for theology. There is the philosophical question of truth claims. If the claim is that the Christian faith should be radically pluralistic, how well does it perform in the face of the counter-claim that such pluralism is not demanded? In other words, the claim is itself an absolutizing exclusivist claim. There is also the wider problem of a decentering of oneself and one’s religious convictions by engaging in pluralism. How does one do so as a Christian when being a Christian actually implies subscribing to the confession that Jesus is Lord? Next to the philosophical and confessional dimensions, however, is the greater urgency of the fact that our societies are characterized by such a pervasive plurality of beliefs, world views, and spiritual practices that embracing a pluralistic stance becomes the condition of possibility for religious dialogue if not religious existence. Moreover, our Western societies depend on a successful model of pluralistic existence for their well-being. For the Christian Church, the alternative to effective pluralism is being marginalized and become a subculture that has lost all relevance.

The answers people give to the question of pluralism usually range from a holding on to the absolute claim of the lordship of Christ to an admittance of defeat in the face of the postmodern deconstruction of any claim to exclusivity. Proposals are usually constructed along a continuum that ranges from exclusivity to inclusivity to pluralism. Such proposals are measured with regard to how firmly truth claims are held or how one participates in the saving act that takes place.[1] There is a similar somewhat parallel axis that stretches from non-relative absolutism to absolute relativism. Typically relativism and pluralism go together just as absolutism and exclusivism seem to form a preferred combination.

Typically, approaches in Christian theology will resort to pneumatology to formulate an inclusivistic answer to the challenge of pluralism. If Christ represents the absolute claims to lordship over all, one can still find in the work of the Spirit in the world valuable movements toward God that are related to this lordship in various degrees of preciseness. In the approach suggested in this article, however, the focus will be on Christology. As will become clear, even though Christology typically has a focus on cognation with its emphases on the eternal Word becoming flesh and on exclusivity because of the unicity of Christ, there is a resource within Christology that can be taken into a completely different direction.

In taking a specifically Christological approach, an alternative to the question of pluralism emerges that de-emphasizes the epistemological question in favor of a performative Christocentric exocentricity that is ontological and hermeneutical in nature.[2] In this approach the truth question is subdued (although never erased) in favor of an existential enactment of the truth. The basic elements of such an approach can, this article suggests, be found in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This article aims to describe the contours of a proposal for such a pluralistic approach for Christian theology and praxis. These are no more than contours, since the pluralism suggested here is consciously incomplete. It embraces the paradox of engaging the pluralistic debate through self-erasure and considers it an initial but required step.

The argument needs to be prefaced with four important observations regarding the use of Bonhoeffer in this article. (a) Bonhoeffer’s theology is not merely recounted or analyzed. The aim is not to simply regurgitate Bonhoeffer’s theology but to make his thought useful for a specifically urgent question of our time: How should the Church engage a pluralistic world? How may one fruitfully participate in the interfaith dialog? (b) Important patterns and themes in Bonhoeffer’s thought will be used. As a result, it may look like his thought is used as a systematic whole. Bonhoeffer’s thought, however, is too fragmented for that and too much inspired by the events of his life to treat it as just one thing. There are however recurring patterns in his thought and these inform the constructive proposal of this article. (c) Often, people writing about Bonhoeffer, will engage him only on his later and more popular works. It is the express intention to draw from his academic work as the roots of his intellectual development lie there. Bonhoeffer cannot be properly understood without reference to his intellectual development. (d) It is not suggested that Bonhoeffer’s early theology was already pluralistic in nature. It is not the intention to portray Bonhoeffer as the pluralist but that elements in his early theology lend themselves to pluralism especially given the direction in which his theology developed later on in Ethics and the prison literature.

Instead of the typical approach of John Hick that applies the Kantian critique of knowledge to religious ‘apperception’ and then proceeds to provide analogies between religions as to their perception of the divine, thus defining the objective and goal of these religions as lying beyond their own constructs and speech acts, another approach will be pursued here that begins with the radical claim of the unicity of Christ. In its execution, however, this approach loses its opacity, i.e. its exclusivity, in service of the religious other. This is in line with the reality that Christ’s lordship emerges and becomes evident in his self-effacing servanthood. Hick’s position requires one to occupy a second position, next to one’s religious commitment, that potentially undermines the central reality of one’s own religion.[3] My proposal via Bonhoeffer is not an epistemological solution but a performative pluralism, that eclipses this problem and does justice to the central tenets of the Christian faith while yet radically opening itself up to alterity and plurality. What will become clear in the course of this article is that the early theology of Bonhoeffer particularly in its critical dialogue with Barth offers, as theologia crucis, a genuine contribution to the discussion of religious pluralism, esp. there where it is set in relief to the Kantian similarity in the epistemologies of Hick and Barth.

Two recent approaches come to mind that seek a similar engagement with the pluralistic question by a way of a retrieval of and emphasis on the exclusivist truth claims in the Christian faith. One is Tom Greggs’ engagement with pluralism through the theologies of Barth and Bonhoeffer in his Theology Against Religion[4] where Barth and Bonhoeffer’s theologies are used to decenter theological discourse. The other is Gavin D’Costa’s The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity,[5] which enters the inter-faith discussion by way of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Greggs and D’Costa are rather interesting in that their excellent and rigorous studies reject a facile modernist pluralism and from the particular resources of Christianity retrieve those resources needed for authentic pluralist dialogue.[6] Like this article, their proposals seek to suggest a praxis to give their proposals a certain embodiment. I see the current proposal positioned alongside these two, except that its contribution is based on the theology of the cross. Toward the end of this article these two theologians will be briefly looked at again.

There are two patterns in Bonhoeffer’s thought that will be investigated in order to make them fruitful for an answer to pluralism. Both of these patterns are Christocentric in nature. The first pattern can be described as a Christocentric ontology. Christians are gathered in the community called the Church. Bonhoeffer describes the Church as Christ-existing-as-community. Christians are to be like Christ in the way they relate to each other in their communal praxis. This being like Christ entails a kind of being in the world. This being is not merely an adoption of a strategy or a memetic behavior but entails an ontological transformation of the believer. This pattern will take us to Bonhoeffer’s Habilitationsschrift, Act and Being (his post-doctoral dissertation).[7] The second element can be described as Christocentric Alterity. We find Christ in the other, whoever she may be. The otherness of the other is the location of the emergence of Christ. Therefore, whenever we encounter the other and the other’s religious otherness, we always remember that we encounter Christ in that other. This pattern of thinking is deeply connected with themes Bonhoeffer developed in his dissertation, Sanctorum Communio.[8] These two forms of Christocentrism in Bonhoeffer’s thought are the subject of the next two sections.

2. Christocentric Ontology

In his sketch for a book that Bonhoeffer wrote while in prison, he spoke of Jesus Christ as the ‘man for others’[9] whose followers are gathered together as the church, which ‘is church only when it is there for others’.[10] This being-for-others is not just internal to the Christian community but concretely focused on the secular world that denies Christ. After all, Bonhoeffer wrote his sketch less than two months after a letter in which he wrote about a world come of age and a religionless Christianity. It is meaningful to quote Bonhoeffer at length here:

Who is God? Not primarily a general belief in God’s omnipotence, and so on. That is not a genuine experience of God but just a prolongation of a piece of the world. Encounter with Jesus Christ. Experience that here there is a reversal of all human existence, in the very fact that Jesus only “is there for others.” Jesus’ “being-for-others” is the experience of transcendence. Only through this liberation from self, through this “being-for-others” unto death, do omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence come into being. Faith is participating in the being of Jesus. (Becoming human [Menschwerdung], cross, resurrection.) Our relationship to God is no “religious” relationship to some highest, most powerful, and best being imaginable—that is no genuine transcendence. Instead, our relationship to God is a new life in “being there for others,” through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendent is not the infinite, unattainable task, but the neighbor within reach in any given situation. God in human form. Not as in oriental religions in animal forms as the monstrous, the chaotic, the remote, the terrifying, but also not in the conceptual forms of the absolute, the metaphysical, the infinite, and so on, either, nor again the Greek god—human form of the “God-human form [Gott-Menschgestalt] of the human being in itself.” But rather “the human being for others”. therefore the Crucified One. The human being living out of the transcendent.”[11]

This lengthy quote is dense because it is a sketch for a book Bonhoeffer never managed to write. In less than a year he was going to be hanged. The text is rich with meaning and depth. In this passage, the Christocentric ontology shows up (being-for-others) and Christocentric alterity (the neighbor as the transcendent) is hinted at. In order to unpack this passage, it is imperative to go back to earlier times when Bonhoeffer wrote his second dissertation. This will help one see the underlying structure of the claims Bonhoeffer makes in this sketch and will reveal some of the unity between Bonhoeffer’s earlier and later work.

Bonhoeffer wrote Act and Being as an attempt to do justice to the concerns of the Barthian call for the nonobjectivity of revelation while seeking a way to express this nonobjectivity in a way that was quite different from Barth’s. Where Barth used an epistemological route to emphasize God’s otherness that was heavily indebted to Kant and thus idealism, Bonhoeffer developed a method that was deeply informed by an ontology shaped by Luther’s theology of the cross and articulated by means of Heidegger’s ontological phenomenology.[12] It is marked by a certain measure of realism. The initial concern with theological method (How can one still make meaningful claims about God in the post-Kantian era?) is transformed into a praxis of self-giving rooted in an ethical ontology. True to the theology of the cross and contrary to Barth’s concept of a Wholly Other God, Bonhoeffer emphasizes the actual, concrete, and tangible presence of God in Christ. The problem of God’s reality in the modern period is not solved, as far as Bonhoeffer is concerned, by the Kantian idea that God is simply not available for consciousness. Barth’s God is, like Kant but for different reasons, unavailable for human thought and only becomes manifest—and then only through grace—in a dialectical approach such as Barth works out in his Church Dogmatics. Bonhoeffer rejects this essentially idealistic approach for the simple reason that such a concept of God leaves God without permanent being in the world. It yields a concept of revelation that is not historicized. And where God is not genuinely present, salvation is at stake. Barth’s attempt to create an idealistic[13] thought system that does justice to the free revelation of a sovereign God is in Bonhoeffer’s thought therefore replaced with a realistic approach that sees revelation as something concrete and tangible, yet without it becoming something mastered by human reason.

The idealism of Barth over against the realism of Bonhoeffer, or—to remain with the terminology of Bonhoeffer’s Habilitationsschrift—Barth’s act-theology (God is not grasped/grasped in the act of knowing) is replaced by Bonhoeffer’s being-theology (God is present in Christ). This being-theology provides a way of thinking in which act (idealism) and being (realism) are synthesized. The act referred to in Bonhoeffer’s thought is now not the epistemological attempt of an autonomous self grasping the reality of God but the act of faith which is marked by trust and surrender. Instead of an act of self-mastery, whereby the subject draws for itself the boundary between itself and the unknown transcendent, one encounters an act of relinquishing of the self in faith, the outward movement of letting go of control. This act of faith is set in motion in response to the encounter with Christ or, technically speaking, the being of revelation. As per the theologia crucis, revelation equals the body of Christ, for that is how is God is present among humanity: Christ crucified. The act of faith draws the subject out of herself into the reality of Christ. Faith thus leads to participation in and with the body of Christ. Concretely this means that the believer participates in the Church, which is, as Bonhoeffer repeatedly says, Christ-existing-as-community. This reflection on faith and participation in Christ brings us to the ontological phenomenology of Heidegger.

Bonhoeffer’s engagement with Heidegger’s phenomenology in Act and Being was for the specific purpose of aiding a proper understanding of the Church, which in turn was to help thinking properly about how theological statements are formulated. Bonhoeffer writes: ‘This entire study is an attempt to unify the concern of true transcendentalism and the concern of true ontology in an “ecclesiological form of thinking.”’[14] He finds this true ontology by applying Heidegger’s ontology of being in Heidegger’s Being and Time[15] analogically for theology. Heidegger had caused a revolution with his insistence that Western thought had thus far simply overlooked the being of beings. He sets out to develop another way of human knowing of the world to overcome the calculated categorization of modernist rationalism. He posits Dasein as that form of being that is able to question the being of its own being. As such Dasein already participates in what it tries to come to know. Dasein proceeds to come to such an understanding by its existential embodied engagement with the world in which it finds itself thrown. Dasein uses what is at hand in order to express its care for the world. Dasein finds itself always already thrown into the world and typically simply part of the they.[16] Only by heeding the call of its own conscience toward authenticity away from the they can fulfill Dasein the meaning of its existence which ultimately is being-towards-death.

Bonhoeffer’s analogical use of Heidegger’s ontology focuses on two aspects: (1) Dasein participates already in what it attempts to know. (2) This knowing is achieved through practical existential engagement with Dasein’s practical environment. The analogy works as follows. Just as Heidegger’s Dasein participates in the Being of beings by way of its existence, Bonhoeffer’s believing Dasein participates in the being of revelation through the act of self-surrendering faith. As noted above, this being of revelation is the body of Christ, the real locus of God’s presence among us. This body of Christ finds its concrete continued existence in the Church. A believer participates in the spiritual community and thus already is part of that which she asks about: What and where is the revealed God? The answer is You and Here.[17] How is the nature of this being discovered, then? Here the analogy with Heidegger continues. Just as Heidegger’s Dasein discovers its Being by engaging the world, i.e. by doing what Dasein typically does, believing Dasein discovers revelation, God, and Christ by doing what is essential to it: being the Body of Christ. This is Bonhoeffer’s ontological-hermeneutical answer to the question of revelation. One sees here how important one’s understanding of revelation is for engagement with the world in which faith is to find its expression.

Where in Act and Being the ontological-hermeneutical answer primarily serves in the context of the question of revelation and the search for theological method, the door has here been opened toward a new form of existence in which faith is expressed not primarily in doctrines but in the praxis of Jesus’ Body. This is Bonhoeffer’s “twist” on the theologia crucis, a twist that was already implied in Luther’s own discourse,[18] but now rediscovered and reworked by Bonhoeffer in the context of 20th century theology and philosophy. It was to have great ramifications for his theological development. It compelled him to be a Christian who practiced what he preached and he found himself increasingly on the side of those who are oppressed. Act and Being, as a study on theological method, had led Bonhoeffer toward opening theological discourse to a Christological ontology that involved hermeneutical praxis.

If Christ is the man-for-others then those who participate in Christ are to express that being for others. They are only in Christ if (or to the extent that) this being of Christ is indeed expressed. If you want to know revelation or wonder who Christ is, says Bonhoeffer, there is only one way of acquiring such understanding: you have to become like Christ and take on his form of existence in the world. The knowing is in the praxis which is a praxis of self-discovery. With Christ, a very specific and world-transforming ontology has entered the world. This ontology is one of self-giving, being-for-others, and self-effacing. It is not about a form of behavior or the adoption of a posture, but an ontological transformation toward a new kind of being in the world: being for others.

Returning to the quote from Bonhoeffer’s book sketch in prison with which this section began, one can now see how Bonhoeffer returns to the theology of the cross:

‘That (i.e. general belief in God’s omnipotence) is not a genuine experience of God but just a prolongation of a piece of the world. Encounter with Jesus Christ.’ Christ is indeed God’s revelation and as such the presence of a new ontology: ‘here (…) is a reversal of all human existence, in the very fact that Jesus only “is there for others”. Jesus’ “being-for-others” is the experience of transcendence.’ And believers participate in the new ‘being of Jesus,’ which is not a relationship to some God in heaven but ‘our relationship to God is a new life in “being there for others,” through participation in the being of Jesus.’

This form of being must now be made useful for the question of pluralism. It is one thing to say that the Church is Christ existing as community[19], but quite another that such being can be a resource for inter-religious dialogue. If the Christological ontology is one of self-giving and being-for-others, what does this mean for Christian engagement with those of other faiths and those of no faith? Traditionally, such engagement has been described as taking place on the level of discourse. Epistemologies have been developed to facilitate various forms of inclusion or exclusion and various modes of dialogue. A prime example is of course John Hick’s work in the 70s.[20] At its heart, the engagement with a pluralistic reality is not of an epistemological nature. It is not primarily found in arguments or mental constructs. Doing so is subsuming pluralistic engagement under the rubric of apologetics and logic. It is to enter the fact-value split that separates moral and logic elements in intellectual discourse. When this occurs in the pluralistic dialogue, the result is at best an intellectual stand-off or at worst an imperial effort of subjecting other faiths under one’s power. This is the way of the world and not the way of Christ. The ontological reality that Christ represents—and with Christ, Christ’s followers as Christ’s Body in the world today—is one of self-giving. It is that specific being that is not turned in on itself or draws reality into itself but seeks to exist for the well-being of others. The Christian claim of new life in Christ through death to self can only be lived out. Its truth depends on its ontological demonstration. In its very existence this form of being exemplifies the self-giving of Christ to the world. The lordship of Christ is that lordship that expresses itself in servanthood to the world in all its religious diversity. The name of Christ comes to its fullness in the self-effacement of those who speak that name. The purpose of Christ is fulfilled when this name is hardly heard but all the more expressed in the self-giving of Christ’s Body. Just as Christ’s body was given over to decay after Christ spoke the words: ‘It is done!’ so the Body of Christ today will have accomplished its task only in its self-erasure on behalf of the other. It is not that Christ is subsumed under the world process or that Christ’s claim to lordship is annulled. Rather, the answer to the question ‘Why are you giving yourself?’ is always answered with the whisper: ‘Christ called me to follow.’ But Christ’s claim is never asserted over the other and only comes to fulfillment in the silence after Good Friday. That is where we are today. The Church may await the restoration of all things, but is now called to be the self-giving Christ who dies on the cross for the world. This is the meaning of the theology of the cross for us today.[21]

Christocentric ontology, then, entails that the reality of Christ is ontologically manifested in the being of the Church community and that this ontology of self-giving manifests itself as such in the inter-religious dialogue thus providing the basis of a specific form of pluralism rooted in the being of Christ. This is how Bonhoeffer’s early theologia crucis in Act and Being is made useful for the pluralism debate. There is, however, another source available in Bonhoeffer’s theology which combines elements of Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio with later ideas.

3. Christocentric Alterity

The quote from Bonhoeffer’s sketch for a new book that was used at the beginning of the previous section has another thematic element. Bonhoeffer writes:

‘Our relationship to God is no “religious” relationship to some highest, most powerful, and best being imaginable—that is no genuine transcendence. Instead, our relationship to God is a new life in “being there for others,” through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendent is not the infinite, unattainable task, but the neighbor within reach in any given situation. God in human form. Not as in oriental religions (…) but also not in the conceptual forms (… but) rather “the human being for others.” Therefore the Crucified One. The human being living out of the transcendent.’[22]

Being related to the transcendent God has two sides for Bonhoeffer. One the one hand it is being for others. This was discussed in the previous section where it is rooted in Bonhoeffer’s Christological-ecclesiological ontology of Act and Being. Being in relationship to transcendence is quite literally being available for other people through this particular mode of being that is manifested in and with Christ. The other aspect of transcendence is perhaps more surprising. Transcendence is the neighbor who is near to us at any given moment. Bonhoeffer literally refers to the neighbor as ‘God in human form.’ Toward the end of the book-sketch Bonhoeffer seems to conflate both aspects: The ‘human being for others’ who lives ‘out of the transcendent’ lives toward and for the transcendent, which is the neighbor, ‘God in human form.’ The being-for-others is specifically related to the Crucified One (and therefore the theologia crucis) while the neighbor-as-transcendent is related to the incarnation (‘God in human form.’) but also against the background of the same theologia crucis. It is necessary once again to turn to the earlier works of Bonhoeffer and understand how these claims are rooted in Bonhoeffer’s earlier work and what exactly is meant here before one can make them fruitful for a constructive pluralism.

As early as Sanctorum Communio Bonhoeffer developed a distinctive relational approach to the other in order to overcome the mastery of the object by the subject as is typically the case in modernist epistemology. Bonhoeffer says—perhaps worded too much in the radical otherness of personalism: ‘One person cannot know the other, but can only acknowledge and “believe” in the other.’[23] For Bonhoeffer, ‘the ethical personhood of the other is neither a psychologically comprehensible fact nor an epistemological necessity’[24] It is only in community that ‘In infinite closeness, in mutual penetration, I and You are joined together, inseparable from one another forever, resting in one another, intimately participating in one another, empathizing, sharing experiences, bearing together the general stream of interactions of spirit.’[25] Of course, in Sanctorum Communio Bonhoeffer ultimately still speaks of the Christian community. But even there he already casts his net wider than merely the members of the Church community, as can be seen in the way Bonhoeffer takes issue with Karl Barth on this very topic of the relation to the other. Bonhoeffer writes: ‘But now we are told that the essence of love for our neighbor is “to hear in the other the voice of the One.”’ Bonhoeffer does not appreciate that the other is merely a cypher for God, that the other is merely instrumental in our desire to please God and God alone. Bonhoeffer’s response, though tucked away in a footnote, is powerful and deserves to be quoted at length (the numbers in parentheses are to Barth’s Epistle to the Romans:

We hold that love really does love the other, not the One in the other—who perhaps does not even exist (double predestination, Barth, 452)—that precisely this love for the other as other is meant “to glorify God” (453). Who gives Barth the right to say that the other is “as such infinitely unimportant” (452), when God commands us to love precisely that person? God has made the ‘neighbor as such’ infinitely important, and there isn’t any other ‘neighbor as such’ for us. The other is not merely “parable of the wholly other,” a “proxy of the unknown God” (452); rather, the other is infinitely important as such, precisely because God takes the other person seriously. Should I after all ultimately be alone with God in the world? Should not the other through God’s command be infinitely affirmed as a concrete human being? We are not talking about an ‘eternal soul of the other’, but about God’s willing of the other, and we believe that we can take God’s will seriously only in the concrete form of the other.[26]

From this moment on, one of Bonhoeffer’s sustained critiques of Barth is carried out in his affirmation of created reality and concrete embodied existence as having its own right to existence, its own divine affirmation, its own alterity and transcendence.[27] In Act and Being Bonhoeffer extends the notion of radical alterity to the question of theological method. Agreeing with Barth that the transcendent is a boundary and that a concept of God needs to be employed that safeguards God’s nonobjectivity, Bonhoeffer continues to reject Barth’s approach to transcendence. God’s non-objectivity is not to be safeguarded by an epistemological chasm but in the mystery of Christian community where Christ’s body becomes manifest in and among the concreteness of embodied believers. Two motifs are joined here. One is the divine command to love the neighbor and the other is the radical affirmation this command receives in the concrete bodily presence of the suffering Christ.

Bonhoeffer’s sustained insistence on the importance of the other, the world, the penultimate, concrete embodied reality, etc., is always a combination of the command to love the other (and thus to live out being-for-others) and the interpretation of the other and the world as genuinely transcendent. This transcendence needs to be understood not merely in a Kantian way (as removed from the grasp of consciousness) but in terms of the encounter with God. We encounter God in the world and in the other because—notice the theology of the cross once again—in Christ God has become human, dwells with us, and affirms the world and bodily reality in the most radical way possible. The ethical boundary between the You and I of Sanctorum Communio is eventually transposed into the boundary of divine transcendence: in the other we encounter God. It is for this reason that Bonhoeffer fulminates against the tendency to conceive of two separate worlds, the sacred and the secular.[28] He says:

‘There are not two realities, but only one reality, and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world. Partaking in Christ, we stand at the same time in the reality of God and in the reality of the world. The reality of Christ embraces the reality of the world in itself.’[29]

With this Bonhoeffer is not expounding a natural theology, for ‘the world has no reality of its own independent of God’s revelation in Christ.’[30] He also emphasizes that ‘that which is Christian is not identical with the worldly, the natural with the supernatural, the revelational with the rational. Rather, the unity that exists between them is given only in the Christ-reality, and that means only as accepted by faith in this ultimate reality.’[31] However, ‘it is a denial of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ to wish to be “Christian” without being “worldly.”’[32] As such Bonhoeffer issues a rather strong claim of Christ on the world: ‘the whole reality of the world has already been drawn into and is held together in Christ. History moves only from this center and toward this center.’[33]

One encounters a potential problem for our pluralistic concern here in Bonhoeffer’s theology. In Ethics Bonhoeffer writes

‘Only that which participates in Christ can endure and overcome. Christ is the center and power of the Bible, of the church, of theology, but also of humanity, reason, justice, and culture. To Christ everything must return; only under Christ’s protection can it live.’[34]

One notices that the claim of Christ’s lordship over the world is strongly affirmed. Bonhoeffer can do this in part because in the world he lived the secular was opening up as a world come of age, but not yet as a pluralistic world of many faiths competing with each other in the public square. Moreover, one notices that Bonhoeffer asserts this unity of the world and Christ and lordship of Christ over the world on the basis of the theology of the cross which is God’s self-giving in Christ extended through the Church. And he states that this is a matter of faith. So, though the claim is strong, it is both historically conditioned by Bonhoeffer’s own context, cast in the form of the cross, and therefore only visible through the eye of faith.

For our question of pluralism this means that one needs to understand that the context of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics is not that of the pluralism we face in our time. The principles of transcendence, faith, and theologia crucis however, may guide one in making Bonhoeffer’s thought fruitful for the question of religious pluralism today, rather than the specifics of Bonhoeffer’s attempt to understand the new world of nazism and emerging secularism from the perspective of the cross. The most important result from the above discussion is that the notion of Christ as the center of reality—as based on the theology of the cross— is now connected with Bonhoeffer’s understanding of transcendence as the other, namely God in human form—as based on the incarnation. This yields a very rich concept of Christocentric alterity that next to the previously developed idea of Christocentric ontology may guide us in the formulation of a Christian pluralism in the spirit of Bonhoeffer.

4. A Performative-ontological Approach Instead of a Cognitive One

This article is primarily concerned with an appropriation of the theology of Bonhoeffer for pluralism. In order to do this, however, it is helpful to draw a parallel between Bonhoeffer’s dialogue with Karl Barth[35] and a comparison of the current proposal with the pluralism of John Hick. Barth’s God is revealed in Christ and is in this the opposite of religion, while Hick sees all religions as mere human conceptions of the Real. It is true that Barth was an ‘exclusivist’ to the point that even Christianity as religion was excluded from God’s self-revelation, while John Hick’s pluralism eschews any form of exclusivism or even inclusivism. So it is clear that Barth and Hick operate on opposite ends of the pluralistic spectrum. Yet both Barth and Hick frame their theologies by way of a Kantian methodology. For their systems to work they need to put God (or whatever that is) on the other side of the knowable. Ultimately, God is the noumenal Wholly Other (Barth) or the (unknowable) Real (Hick).[36] Their objectives may be radically different, but they make use of the same concept of non-availability of the Ultimate via the Kantian noumenal-phenomenal distinction. Barth does it to make God available only on God’s terms while Hick does it to make God available on as many terms as religions may come up with.

One of Bonhoeffer’s sustained criticisms of Barth throughout his writings was that Barth articulated the non-objectivity of God in a such a way that distance was emphasized over presence. For Bonhoeffer, Barth’s theological method was characterized by an idealistic approach that sought to prioritize revelation by way of an epistemological trajectory. Barth’s dialectical method was an expression of that. Over against this approach, Bonhoeffer in his Act and Being laid out a methodological approach that focused on revelation as presence rather than distance. In keeping with a classical theology of the cross, however, Bonhoeffer emphasized the presence of God in the body of Jesus Christ. This God is have-able and graspable, without this surrendering the principle of the non-objectivity of God. After all, the theologia crucis is a deconstruction of human reason avant la lettre. Christ is the God that one cannot think nor accept on the basis of human logic. The free grace of God is repulsive to a humanity that is cor curvatum in se. Bonhoeffer extends the concept of Christ’s body to the ecclesial concept developed in his dissertation Sanctorum Communio of ‘Christus-als Gemeinde-existierend.’ The Body of Christ is alive and well. Revelation is present (non-objectively) as the hermeneutical realm that believers participate in ontologically and as the performative community that is the Body of Christ in the world.

Just as one can see diverging lines of theological thought between Barth and Bonhoeffer: act versus being, modernist epistemology versus hermeneutical participation, distance versus presence, so one can see a similar tension between Hick’s pluralistic proposal and the present one. Hick’s proposal is characterized by a totalizing claim (even when it attempts to do the opposite). The claim is something like: all religions are equally valid since they all have the same source, same object, and same purpose. But in order to make this work, all religions have to agree with Hick that they are all wrong in thinking their theological systems correspond directly with the Ultimate. Hick’s proposal demands that religions accept that behind their object of worship is another, hidden reality. One must come to acknowledge that there is the Wholly Other Real. Hick’s thought, like Barth’s, runs along an epistemological axis.[37] The problem of religious diversity is solved by way of a logical system. This system is in itself, however, exclusivist and totalitarian.[38] Where Bonhoeffer counters Barth’s Wholly Other God with one who can actually be touched, the proposed pluralism of this article counters Hick’s unknowable Real behind all religions with one whose knowable reality can be recognized, experienced, and lived out, namely, the Crucified One. It is precisely the contribution that emerges in Bonhoeffer’s critical dialogue with Barth that is the source of the current proposal’s rebuttal of a totalitarian pluralism as proposed by Hick. Both Hick and Barth are formidable thinkers whose work is invaluable. Yet, precisely by presenting Bonhoeffer’s theological method of Act and Being as a critical response to Barth, it becomes clear in what way the unique form of theology of the cross in Bonhoeffer becomes an important ally in formulating a pluralism that does justice to the particularity of the Christian faith as self-giving.

The current proposal, then brings Bonhoeffer’s two Christocentric centers together in a dialectical relationship. It does this on the basis of the theology of the cross, which brackets any notion of a hidden God and instead focuses on the givenness of God in Christ. This is a post-liberal and postmodern approach that involves the typical aspects of Bonhoeffer’s thought of the ontological hermeneutics of self-involvement on the one hand and phenomenological alterity of the divine transcendence of the neighbor on the other. Simply put: we are to be like Christ and in doing so recognize and encounter Christ in the other. One wants to be sympathetic to Hick’s intentions and acknowledge that he is right that we, because of the reality of the pluralistic world village we now indwell, need to crack open the claim of exclusivity executed by truth claims. But just as Bonhoeffer did not agree with the way Barth sought to counter German liberalism by way of a modernist Kantian epistemology so this article takes issue with Hick’s attempt to combat exclusivist truth claims by means of a rival epistemology that is both modern and exclusivist. Rather, just as Bonhoeffer honored Barth’s concern—doing so, however, by way of a radically different approach—we need to do justice to the pluralistic concerns of today, but execute this concern in a radically different way.[39] The epistemological trajectory needs to be jettisoned. In its place comes an ontology of what Bonhoeffer calls a being-for-others. This ontology is complemented by an understanding of the religious other as marking the boundary of divine transcendence.

In Act and Being Bonhoeffer worked out a specific form of the theologia crucis in which the revelatory presence of God in the body of Christ is emphasized. There is more to the theologia crucis that is relevant for our project. Luther taught that the hidden God, i.e. God as not revealed, is of no concern to us.[40] A Christian should only look to the God she knows as the Father of Jesus Christ.[41] Taking a quick glance, in this context, at Hick’s pluralism, one notices immediately that Hick takes refuge to a hidden God who, unknown to all religions, turns out to be the Real that is worshiped. Whoever engages in the hidden God speculates about an unknown god and set up his own god-concept. From the perspective of the theology of the cross this is an entirely useless exercise. A theologian of the cross, however, starts with God on the cross and doesn’t look behind it. In short, the only God Christians know is the God they encounter in Christ. The encounter with this God in Christ leads us to ontological participation in giving ourselves away. This is Bonhoeffer’s reworked theologia crucis.[42] Being Christian means being for others. In terms of pluralism this means that our contribution to the process of inter-religious dialogue is that we are like Christ unto the other. This process is set in motion and fueled by the claim that we heard proclaimed over our lives: Jesus is Lord. But as we set out, in our ontological participation with Christ, that claim takes the form of kenosis. The claim is ‘emptied’ into selfless love.

For Bonhoeffer, God’s participation in and with humanity and the world also took the form of radical affirmation of the world and embodied reality. As such, the world is already Christ’s and we encounter Christ in the other. The second pole of the dialectic, Christocentric alterity, is no less anchored in the theologia crucis because in faith we recognize divine transcendence in the other because—and only because—God came to the world in Christ. This second pole can give rise to listening and dialogue, however, only if and when the self-giving ontology that characterizes the being of Christ is manifested in those that engage the pluralistic dialogue. In other words, the cognitive aspects of a pluralistic engagement need to be firmly rooted in the performative ontology of being for the other.

4. A Christocentric Dialectic

Dialectic Christocentrism entails that Christ is the revelatory center which can only be understood cognitively if and when believers engage the relation and ontologically participate in the reality that is Christ. The other pole of the dialectic is that Christ is in the other, that Christ is the center of the world. This second pole is premised on the notion that in the incarnation the Word has become flesh, such that we recognize that in Christ God says Yes to the world; that the world already was and is borne and affirmed by the God who loves it. This dialectic implies two tensions at each pole that are in and of themselves dialectical in nature as well.

On the we-are-in-Christ pole of the dialectic, one can only truly be for the other and have true openness for the other when one does so christocentrically, which entails the implicit claim of Jesus’ uniqueness. This is not done in judgment on others in our pluralistic engagement. It is merely the internal acknowledgment that we can only truly give (and be a gift) when we become like Jesus. This is the one side of the tension of the dialectic. The other is that this claim becomes only true when its ontological structure as self-giving becomes manifest in the surrendering of one’s own life to the point of self-erasure. The epistemological claim of Christ as Lord virtually erases itself in the ontological structure of self-giving. The ontological self-giving needs to look back to be reminded under whose lordship it stands. It is a tension that cannot be solved but can bear fruit for truth and love when it is embraced. In the giving of ourselves for the world on behalf of and in name of Christ (such that we are erased), Christ is being made manifest fully. This is the manifestation of discipleship that calls the world to follow Christ.

On the Christ-is-in-the-world pole of the dialectic a similar tension emerges. On the one hand it is the world that we are to see in faith as the world that is already in Christ and claimed by Christ.[43] On the other hand this claim needs to be withheld for we are dealing with the ethical transcendence of the other in whom we encounter divine transcendence: God in human form. Who do Christians think they are to name that transcendence “being in Christ”? Perhaps one may approach this tension with words that Bonhoeffer spoke concerning universalism as early as Sanctorum Communio: ‘Justification and sanctification are inconceivable for anyone if that individual believer cannot be assured that God will embrace not only them but all those for whose sins they are responsible.’[44] Since Christians can only speak of God as Christ Crucified, it would be the gravest act of rejection to not see the other as in Christ. This claim however is not expressed toward the other as that would be a lording it over the other, treating the other as subject and not as a You. The claim is merely an expression of faith and hope. The experience of transcendence, however, invites the Christian to respect the other’s otherness, including the other’s belief system and religious commitments, for in and behind it God, whom the Christian only knows as the Crucified One, is manifested in human form.

5. Dialectical Christocentric Pluralism

Traditionally, pluralism concerns itself with harmonizing or relativizing truth claims about reality, the world, God, and the relation between God and the world such that different religions can harmoniously exist next to each other. The current proposal suggests that the search for truth as an absolute propositional claim about God and reality in the pluralism debate is an ill-fated one. All such attempts tend to become grasps for power in the form of privileging one’s own religion or one’s own solution to the debate (see Hick). However, departing, in this debate, from the theology of the cross, which presents truth as self-giving love, rather than a truth that requires assent, the discussion can genuinely be moved to a next stage.

Truth, conceived of as love, is the promise of faithfulness in being there for the other. Christ is the truth only because in Christ is found true self-giving love. It is not primarily a metaphysical claim but the divine promise of faithful presence in the form of an exocentric ontology: For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son. This is the Gospel. This is truth in so far this love is made manifest.

It seems to me that Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Christ’s presence in the Church and the believer and his understanding of divine transcendence as the neighbor, both traced from the sketch for a new book in the Letters and Papers from Prison back to his first two dissertations are helpful in outlining the contours of a dialectical Christocentric pluralism of self-giving.

It is no doubt true that the pluralism offered in this article is incomplete, for isn’t pluralism about relationality of a specific kind? And is not precisely reciprocity lacking in this proposal? The answer is that this is indeed the case. Necessarily so. The purpose of this article is to sketch the contours of a pluralism that upholds the otherness of the other through the particularity of the Christian faith. With the help of Bonhoeffer this has been accomplished by showing that the radical love that is manifested in Christ is the way in which both Christ’s lordship and the religious identity of the other are affirmed. The only way for us to do this is to model our engagement after the radical love of God in Christ. This, we have seen, is a unilateral self-giving. It is only in and through seeing the love of God through to the end in self-erasure on behalf of the other that this love is recognized as the divine love shown in Christ. Just as Christ’s unilateral self-giving did result in a bilateral and reciprocal relationship between God and humanity, so the unilateral love expressed in being for the other will ultimately result in recognition, reconciliation, and reciprocity. The description of what this looks like may fall outside of the purview of this article, but it certainly is what is to be expected. The unilateral being for others, however, has the temporal priority, since this is what it means to follow Christ and participate in Christ’s being.

This pluralism that really departs from Christian particularism and exclusivism dovetails with the proposals of Greggs and D’Costa but is also distinctly different. Where Greggs decenters Christian theology as always a mere human enterprise by making use of Barth’s insistence on the Otherness of God, i.e. by means of an emphasis on Barth’s Kantian chasm, this article not only decenters Christian theology[45] but also the self that constructs such theology. It does so in its advocacy of a turn to the embodiment of the Christ-reality that should be manifest in the Church. Where Greggs separates revelation and theology, the preference in this article is to allow for the possibility that revelation emerges in embodied praxis. Greggs makes use of Bonhoeffer’s later suggestions in his prison letters about a religionless Christianity. This is certainly a very valuable reading. What emerges from the analysis in this article of Bonhoeffer’s early work, however, are distinctly different patterns of thought in Bonhoeffer that are rooted in Luther’s theology of the cross. These patterns of Christocentric ontology and alterity, applied to the question of pluralism provide a different proposal toward religious pluralism.

Next to the Barthian/Reformed approach of Greggs there is the Catholic approach of D’Costa that considers the possibility of dialogue on the basis of a Roman Catholic Trinitarian theology.[46] There is an important connection here between the current proposal and that of D’Costa. After all, Bonhoeffer’s Christocentrism is always predicated on an implicit Trinitarian theology. True alterity is only possible on the basis of the balance of unity and diversity that one finds in the social Trinity. Seeing Christ in the other is dependent on a creation-affirming Christocentric pneumatology. Where D’Costa is concerned with providing the conditions for the possibility of an inter-religious dialogue that is consonant with the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, the position taken in this article is rooted in the tradition of the theology of the cross. The proposal here takes a more practical turn in its strong emphasis on the ethical,[47] thereby not eschewing the tension of a paradox that sees the exclusivist claim fulfilled in its erasure. All things considered, D’Costa at one point comes rather close to what in this article is called a dialectical Christocentric pluralism. He writes:

“The claims of the Holy Spirit’s presence is therefore an intra-Christian claim…. It indicates that in such engagements with non-Christian cultures, the church is called to be a sign of judgment and forgiving redemption, like Christ. It may also receive the “gift” of God from the Other, in a way that is only retrospectively discerned by the church, and might well be denied, or not so interpreted and understood, by that Other.”[48]

The ontological pluralism in this article, then, proposes that the claim of Christ’s lordship, i.e. the truth of Christ, is ontologically manifested in the self-giving of Christians to the world. ‘Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death.’[49] It is in the very self-erasure of the claim on behalf of others that the truth of the claim is ontologically manifested. Similarly, the other’s transcendence is radically upheld by the very acknowledgement of the incarnated presence of Christ in the other. The reverence and respect necessary for a proper pluralism are facilitated by and conditioned on the acknowledgement of divine presence in the adherent of another religion. With the words of Bonhoeffer concerning his own struggle with the question of apokatastasis: ‘We are unable to resolve this paradox.’[50] And: ‘But all statements in this regard only express a hope; they cannot be made part of a system.’[51] The claim is only manifested in its being given up and is yet the condition for the self-giving and is thus necessarily upheld at the same time. Only with such an ontology manifested can dialogue begin. The question remains how this pluralism can be made useful within the paradigms of other religions, but the simple answer is: it can’t and it shouldn’t. After all, this is a pluralism that is particular to the Christian faith; it is based on a theology of the cross. As such, this pluralism is incomplete, but consciously so. Just as true love in its self-giving is complete in its unilateral gift so this pluralism fulfills itself in self-erasure. But just as true love longs for recognition and reciprocity, this pluralism will lead to dialogue beyond the self-erasure.

The important point here made, however, is that in the end pluralism is not primarily an epistemological or a cognitive problem but an ethical one. And it is only engaged, as far as the Christian is concerned, by means of a Christological ontology of self-giving praxis and acknowledgement of divine transcendence in the other. What a dialogue might look like on the basis of such a Christocentric dialectic pluralism will have to be explored in another study.


Barth, Karl. Epistle to the Romans, Translated From the Sixth Edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

———. ‘Fate and Idea in Theology’. In The Way of Theology in Karl Barth: Essays and Comments, edited by H. Martin Rumscheidt, 25-61. Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1986.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Vol. 4 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

———. Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology. Vol. 2 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

———. Ethics. Vol. 6 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

———. Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church. Vol. 1 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

———. Letters and Papers From Prison. Vol. 8 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Dorrien, Gary. The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.

D’Costa, Gavin. The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity. New York: Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 2000.

Greggs, Tom. Theology Against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth. New York: T & T Clark International, 2011.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time: A Revised Edition of the Stambaugh Translation. Translated by Dennis J. Schmidt Joan Stambaugh. New York: HarperPerennial, 2010.

Hick, John. A Christian Theology of Religions: The Rainbow of Faiths. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works. 55 Vols. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1964.

Nah, David S. Christian Theology and Religious Pluralism: A Critical Evaluation of John Hick. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2013.

Rajashekar, J. Paul. “Luther as a Resource for Christian Dialogue with Other World Religions.” In The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology. Edited by Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L’ubomir Batka, 435-446. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

End Notes

[1] John Hick, A Christian Theology of Religions: The Rainbow of Faiths (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 18.

[2] It needs to acknowledged that the Christocentrism advocated in this article is not the only Christological approach. Notably Greggs’ approach, that aligns itself closely with Barth’s theology, is deeply christological in nature.

[3] Hick, A Christian Theology of Religions, 28-9.

[4] According to Greggs: “It is in this reconstruct of the relationship between secularism, pluralism, religion and God that this book wishes to explore in its constructive sections, in order to replace a dangerous vicious cycle of mutually reinforcing fundamentalisms with a virtuous cycle of more particularist but open expressions of faith: the integrity of the particular religionist is maintained, but there are new potentials for openness to the world.” Tom Greggs, Theology Against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth (New York: T & T Clark International, 2011), 18.

[5] Gavin D’Costa, The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (New York: Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 2000).

[6] D’Costa categorically rejects any and all pluralisms as they invariably revert to a form of exclusivism (D’Costa, Meeting of Religions, 4). When a pluralism is proposed in this article, it is done with the same understanding that all intentional pluralisms collapse into exclusivism and that any genuine pluralistic attitude that fulfills its promise will have to come by way of a retrieval of the exclusivistic particularities of one’s own religion.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology, vol. 2, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) (hereafter DBWE 2).

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, vol. 1, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) (hereafter DBWE 1).

[9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison, vol. 8, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010) (hereafter DBWE 8), p. 501.

[10] DBWE 8:503.

[11] DBWE 8:501.

[12] In my soon to be published article Bonhoeffer as a Subversive Reader of Barth I trace this line of interpretation back to a comparison of Barth’s Idea and Fate and Bonhoeffer’s Act and Being. #biblio

[13] The term idealism to describe Barth’s theological method (or religious epistemology) is used for three reasons. The first is that Barth is critiqued here out of the dialogue between Bonhoeffer and Barth. This, then, necessarily concerns the early Barth since Bonhoeffer never knew the later Barth. Secondly, McCormack, in his important study Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development, 1909-1936, calls Barth a realist who, esp. in his earlier theology, made use of a Neo-Kantian formulation of consciousness to develop the idea of God. That would make Barth a realist with an idealist epistemology. This certainly lines up with Barth’s own insistence that his theology is formulated along Luther’s theology of the cross (See Church Dogmatics I/1, 13) but in such a way that it has a slight preference for an idealist mode of thinking (See Barth’s essay Fate and Idea: Karl Barth, ‘Fate and Idea in Theology’, in The Way of Theology in Karl Barth: Essays and Comments, ed. H. Martin Rumscheidt (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1986), pp. 25-61. pp. 38-40). See also Gary Dorrien, The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), pp. 92-6.

[14] DBWE 2:32.

[15] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh, rev. ed. by Dennis J. Schmidt (New York: HarperPerennial, 2010).

[16] See Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 118.

[17] D’Costa similarly talk about a “…Christology which is also fundamentally an understanding that the church continues to be Christ to the world, or it is an utterly worthless “body of Christ,” (D’Costa, The Meeting of Religions, 117), while elsewhere he says that: “the church’s discernment of the Spirit actually generates new forms of practice and articulation in its non-identical repetition and reception of Christ’s gift of redeeming love,” (D’Costa, The Meeting of Religions, 128).

[18] See my unpublished dissertation: Name and url not disclosed for peer review purposes.

[19] DBWE 2:111-2

[20] I am primarily addressing Hick’s theology in A Christian Theology of Religions: The Rainbow of Faiths, cf. Hick, John. A Christian Theology of Religions: The Rainbow of Faiths. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995). It should be noted that even Hick’s work shows a rich development later on in which the epistemological aspect moves to the background. For a helpful overview see David S. Nah, Christian Theology and Religious Pluralism: A Critical Evaluation of John Hick, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2013).

[21] Greggs too suggests something rather similar when he speaks of the witness of the Church: “…this activity is not a preaching which is associated with any purism of the Word, but a preaching with our whole lives of the presence of the Spirit by the fruits He produces…,” (Greggs, Theology Against, 135).

[22] DBWE 8:501.

[23] DBWE 1:54.

[24] DBWE 1:54.

[25] DBWE 1:73.

[26] DBWE 1:169.

[27] It is not the purpose to offer a critique of Barth, but rather to allow the criticism of Barth by Bonhoeffer (who never knew got to know more than Volume I of Barth’s Church Dogmatics accentuate specifically those features of Bonhoeffer’s early theology that are relevant for the constructive pluralism offered in this article.

[28] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) (hereafter DBWE 6), 58.

[29] DBWE 6:58.

[30] DBWE 6:58.

[31] DBWE 6:59.

[32] DBWE 6:58.

[33] DBWE 6:58.

[34] DBWE 8:341.

[35] It is important to remember that any critique of Barth in this article always pertains to the Barth-Bonhoeffer-knew. That is to say that Bonhoeffer’s engagement with Barth goes no further than the first volume of the Church Dogmatics. In his later theology Barth certainly dealt, consciously or subconsciously, with Bonhoeffer’s critique.

[36] Hick, A Christian Theology of Religions, 57.

[37] What is critiqued here is Hick’s earlier epistemology. It must be noted that the later Hick is focused on a more soteriological centrism in which religions are assessed as to their salvific efficacy. But even here, the salvific seems to be judged according to an external standard that is located outside the specificity of each particular religion. Because of the focus and the limits of this article, I only critique Hick’s earlier epistemological orientation. Thanks to Dr. David Nah for pointing this out to me during a wonderful conversation and lunch. See also David S. Nah, Christian Theology and Religious Pluralism: A Critical Evaluation of John Hick (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2013).

[38] Cf. Greggs, Theology Against, 153-154, 157.

[39] As Greggs says “Instead, what is needed in the current political setting is an approach which takes seriously particularity and authenticity, and engages from within the unique specificities of an individual tradition in order to facilitate a genuinely political society—one of difference and plurality,” (Greggs, Theology Against, 154), and later or later: “Thus, what is required of theology is a particularist approach which presents, as being deeply innate to the particularism from which it arises, a positive openness towards the other in their otherness,” (Greggs, Theology Against, 157).

[40] As early as 1518 Luther states in his Heidelberg Disputation: “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened,” Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1964), 40.

[41] In this context it is important to make mention of an essay by Paul Rajeshekar in which he actually utilizes Luther’s concept of the Deus Absconditus, the Hidden God, by emphasizing the importance of the simultaneity of Luther’s dialectical pairs (e.g. Deus Absconditus simul Deus Revelatus est) in addition to Luther’s solas (sola fide, sola Scriptura, etc.) to develop a Lutheran engagement with inter-religious dialogue. The latter lead to exclusivity while the “simuls,” as he calls them, make a genuine reciprocal dialogue possible. This is an entirely wonderful argument. Even though this article shows that a Bonhoefferian concentration upon Deus Revelatus, namely the God on the cross, is already effective for a pluralistic engagement, Rajeshekar provides yet another way to engage in pluralistic dialogue with other religions while upholding the particularity of one’s own religion. See J. Paul, Rajashekar, “Luther as a Resource for Christian Dialogue with Other World Religions,” in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, eds. Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L’ubomir Batka, 435-446. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[42] One gets a clear picture of this when one connects Bonhoeffer’s passages of the Stellvertreter (vicarious representative) in Sanctorum Communio (DBWE 1:146-8, 155-7) with those that elaborate on the Church as Christus als Gemeinde Existierend (Christ existing as community) in Act and Being (DBWE 2:111-5).

[43] Greggs speaks of a “Christocentric world affirmation” (Greggs, Theology Against, 174).

[44] DBWE 1, p. 287.

[45] Greggs suggests as much since “revelation contradicts religion” (Greggs, Theology Against, 27), and since our theology is always no more than an attempt to approximate the reality of God, i.e. no more than an expression of religion, revelation contradicts theology. He further says “For the Christian who seeks to engage in theological articulation against religion, the recognition of the religious nature of theological speech is significant in forcing an awareness of the limits of theological speech” (Greggs, Theology Against, 181).”

[46] D’Costa, The Meeting of Religions, 3

[47] It must be said, though, that even D’Costa is very well aware of the kenotic implications of the participatory Christology proposed in this article when he says: “The theme of the Spirit’s perichoretic indwelling of the disciples is predicated upon the indwelling of the Son and Father introduced right at the very beginning of the gospel (Jn 1: 1, 18), such that the Spirit’s indwelling of the disciples will be enacted in their keeping the commandment of love— learning to love as Jesus had loved,” (D’Costa, The Meeting of Religions, 121).

[48] D’Costa, The Meeting of Religions, 128.

[49] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, vol. 4, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 87.

[50] DBWE 1:286.

[51] DBWE 1:287.

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