Bonhoeffer, Religionlessness, and Cross Theology

I recently received a question from a good friend about Bonhoeffer’s use of the term religionlessness. He wrote “Some seem to be enamored with Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity. And I’ve read snippets here and there, say, from Letters and Papers, but I’m wondering if you have critiques or more clarified thoughts on what Bonhoeffer is and is not saying when using the phrase. That is, what interpretations of his phrase are just outright off base?”

Good question. Problem is that the question basically states the problem in Bonhoeffer research on this subject. The “snippets” my friend refers to are all there is. And you know how it is with snippets; they can easily become molochs in the hands of diligent word smiths who are tempted to serve their own imagination and agenda rather than do justice to the snippets and their writer.

As I was penning down my answer, some latent imaginings of my own started bubbling up, however. Perhaps more an Aha-Erlebnis, really. Some Bonhoeffer scholars takes Bonhoeffer’s talk about a religionlessness Christianity as something exclusively pointing forward. Most do not try to make the connection with Bonhoeffer’s early roots. It then constitutes an opening up of the confines of Bonhoeffer’s more confessionally oriented thought in the past toward a dialogue with secularity and atheism. Bonhoeffer then seems to be in the process of leaving theological discourse behind or at least being less bound to it.

But Bonhoeffer’ thought is way too rich and deep than to allow for an interpretation along the lines of such a facile unidirectional process. Yes, Bonhoeffer, was looking forward. Yet, in doing so, he reaches back. For a proper understanding of religionlessness we need to go to the roots of Bonhoeffer’s thought.

Bonhoeffer and Barth: Two Approaches to Religion

When my friend stated that he’d read snippets here and there he had actually read all there is. The term pops up something like two times in Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, 372, 500) and that’s it. The term appears together with concepts like “a world come of age” and “(this-)worldliness.” Some like to see a similarity between Bonhoeffer’s concept and Barth’s own criticism of religion. Yet, in these passages, Bonhoeffer critiques Barth’s “positivism of revelation,” as he calls it. Apparently Bonhoeffer and Barth do not see eye to eye when it comes to a critique of religion.

For Barth, religion is a manifestation of a particular form of rejection of God. His doctrine of revelation sees revelation as manifesting indirectly in the person of Christ. This indirectness is to safeguard any human lording over it, precisely as is done in religion. Revelation is and must remain characterized by its non-objectivity. Bonhoeffer, however, considers this concept of revelation impoverished and not doing justice to the genuine presence of God in Christ. Isn’t Christ the physical manifestion of God among us? How could we understand this as non-objective and indirect?

When Bonhoeffer talks about nonreligious Christianity, he goes a step further than simply providing a critique of the Christian religion as something that has objectified religion. In fact, his concept of a nonreligious articulation of the Christian faith is a positive one. It is something he seeks to establish. He consciously seeks to connect with the modern age. Whereas Barth’s position is a negative one, critiquing religion—thereby creating space for revelation, Bonhoeffer argues positively, facing something that is manifesting in his own age, namely the advance of secularity, in favor of a world-affirming theology and praxis that is able to connect with the secular world that is emerging.

So, Barth wants a form of nonreligiousness in order to make room for revelation (revelation is not religion), whereas Bonhoeffer strives to undo Christianity from religiousness, because religiosity is a hindrance, a kind of cultural baggage, in an effort to translate it for the modern age. For Barth religion and revelation are opposite concepts, for Bonhoeffer the opposition is in religion and religiousness.

Tom Greggs does some interesting work on this front in “Theology against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth.” Another source would be Bonhoeffer scholar Ralph Wüstenberg’s “A Theology of Life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity.”

Secularity and Beyond

As a concept “religionless Christianity” is intriguing and fascinating. Bonhoeffer never elaborated on it. He never renounced his faith or rejected his previous theology. So it seems that interpreting the term needs to be done within the framework of his general thought and theology. Yet, the term is pregnant with creativity and possibility. It has been useful if only because of the way it has inspired theologians to think into the future.

Personally, I think “religionless Christianity” can only be properly understood within the context of Bonhoeffer’s own Lutheran theology, esp. his theology of the cross. Regin Prenter, Danish Lutheran theologian, already wrote along these lines in the 60s (Regin Prenter, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth’s Positivism of Revelation,” in World Come of Age: A Symposium on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Ronald Gregor Smith, (Collins, 1967)).

It seems to me that Bonhoeffer thinks modernity through in all its consequences, Perhaps he does so a bit in a Bultmannian manner, accepting secularity as an unavoidable given. Of course there isn’t really any inkling of the postmodern avalanche that would come later, though, his own theological hermeneutics (Heidegger!) anticipates some of what was to come. So in that sense, the concept of “religionless Christianity” is a bit outdated if it is purely seen as an adaption to modernist secularity, but not if we look at the post-Christian turn Europe was going to take in the 1960s and later.

Cross Theology for a Post-Christian World

From another perspective, however, that of the theology of the cross, “religionlessness” continues to be more than only relevant; it is an important theological category. On the cross, God was pushed out of the world. And modernity’s lack of need for God or gods is a contemporary expression of this pushing out of God as happened with Christ on the cross.

Yet, taking the term “religionlessness positively, the incarnation points precisely to this utter process of God’s embodiment in the flesh of Christ in the sense that any metaphysical conceptualization of God (i.e. a religious figurehead whoe resides in heaven above) becomes somewhat redundant or unnecessary both in theological discourse and ethical praxis.

In Christ, God exists—expresses God’s character—as being for others. This not as a “religious” God but as the non-religious Giver of love and life. That is to say, the incarnation (which leads to the crucified flesh of God on behalf of the world) is itself the most religionless event possible. In a sense, modernity, with its agnostics and atheists, can’t outdo God when it comes to religionlessness. (Jüngel has a similar take on Bonhoeffer’s thought here. See his God as the Mystery of the World.)

So if modernity is the ultimate pushing out of the world of God, then that is also the place where God most intimately touches humanity by becoming in Christ the complete unreligious conceptualization/manifestation of Godself. God is this in the self-giving of Christ on the cross. When we understand the incarnation as a major move avant la lettre toward understanding God in a post-metaphysical way and also understand the cross as the radical self-giving of God on behalf of others we arrive at something that fits remarkably well within modern, postmodern, and post-Christian contexts.

I think that is what Bonhoeffer was after. He reaches back in order to move forward. Christians who are serious about following Christ should embrace these ideas of the religionlessness of Christianity, the worldliness of the Church, and the non-religious interpretation of theological concepts, because the point is that the reality of God in Christ be understood as relevant for the world today. This is cross theology for a post-Christian world!

This is pretty exciting and it means that more theology is needed in our secular age; not less.

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