Article May 28, 2018

God in the center: Bonhoeffer on our religionless culture

Imprisoned near Berlin in 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned a famously enigmatic letter to his disciple and confidant, Eberhard Bethge. Bonhoeffer, noting the changes in the world around him, observed that people were becoming “radically religionless” and wondered aloud, “How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well? Is there such a thing as a religionless Christian? If religion is only the garb in which Christianity is clothed—and this garb has looked very differently in different ages—what then is religionless Christianity?”

Summarizing his concerns, Bonhoeffer wrote, “The question to be answered would be: What does a church, a congregation, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life, mean in a religionless world?”

What is “religionless Christianity?”

Bonhoeffer’s apprehension still speaks to us today as every week brings a new report or survey showing diminishing religiosity in the United States and across the West. But Bonhoeffer’s comments also present challenges. Most notably, what does Bonhoeffer mean by “religionless Christianity?” Is this a radical departure from Christian orthodoxy, a heretical musing toward the end of a saint’s life, or something beneficial, some insight to aid American Christians in a secular world?

To understand the direction which Bonhoeffer leads us, we must understand how Bonhoeffer defines “religion.” Bonhoeffer scholar and editor of The Bonhoeffer Reader, Clifford J. Green, explains Bonhoeffer’s conception of religion in a preface to the infamous letter:

‘Religion' for Bonhoeffer does not mean the church institution and its various beliefs and practices, as if a 'religionless Christianity' would abandon congregations, clergy, worship, prayer, sacraments, the Bible—what people usually understand by religion. Bonhoeffer does not define religion by these forms, in an institutional way; he defines it, rather in an operational or functional way—it is a certain way of behaving, feeling and thinking, a particular psychic posture.

Deus ex machina

While Dr. Green’s insights help us understand what Bonhoeffer is not rejecting, we are left with more questions. What is this “certain way of behaving, feeling, and thinking?” What does Green mean by a “particular psychic posture?” Bonhoeffer’s letter makes these comments clear. “Religious people speak of God at a point where human knowledge is at an end (or sometimes when they’re too lazy to think further), or when human strength fails. Actually, it’s a deus ex machina they’re always bringing to the scene.”  

Bonhoeffer criticizes and rejects a particular orientation toward God. Consider the famous novel and movie War of the Worlds. Aliens have invaded the world and are thoroughly dominating human resistance. We humans have absolutely no response: our knowledge and strength have run dry against infinitely more powerful foes. To solve this dilemma, H.G. Wells inexplicably introduces an element completely foreign to the plot. Spontaneously, the invading Martians simply die and retreat as Earth’s unfamiliar bacteria destroys them. This is a deus ex machina, a miraculous intervention that consoles human tragedy.

Bonhoeffer believes we, for hundreds of years, have treated God the same way—when we cannot explain some phenomenon, or when we shutter at our own finitude, we hypothesize God, creating some comfort for human ignorance and weakness. What happens after we die? From where did life come? How do we know right from wrong? To answer these questions, we imagine a being we call “God.”  

These thoughts are not necessarily bad, but they place God at the boundaries of human life. And inevitably, humans become knowledgeable and powerful enough to push these boundaries further back, diminishing the intellectual need for God. Hundreds of years ago, for example, we may have attributed long life to individual righteousness and God’s favor; today, we often assume some conglomeration of medicine, dieting, exercise and genetics produces long life, and we no longer must assume that God continues or ends our lives. Thus, God becomes less necessary as we have alternative explanations via science or philosophy.

God in the center

Thus, when Bonhoeffer rejects “religion,” he is criticizing that “we leave room for God only out of anxiety,” only when we encounter something unknowable, like human origin. To the contrary, Bonhoeffer wants “to speak of God not at the boundaries but in the center.” Rather than running to God only when martians genocidally invade our world—or more poignantly, when we face crises in our personal lives—Bonhoeffer wants personhood, the church, and the Christian life to always revolve around God, even when life apparently makes sense without God.

Bonhoeffer illustrates this God-centric life in another letter to Eberhard Bethge written shortly after his initial comments about religionless Christianity. Bethge had written to Bonhoeffer, concerned that his love for his fiancée eclipsed his love for God, as he finds himself constantly thinking about her. Rather than criticizing him, Bonhoeffer surprisingly praises him using a musical analog: “God, the Eternal, wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of cantus firmus to which the other voices of life resound in counterpoint.”

In music, a cantus firmus melody runs the duration of a song, and all other notes revolve around it. While the composer writes other melodies, each note operates relative to this consistent, baseline melody, harmonizing with and complementing the steady refrain to create a beautiful song. In employing this metaphor, Bonhoeffer wants Bethge to understand that his good love for his fiancée does not compete with his love for God but flows from and complements it. Bonhoeffer thus thrusts God to the center of Bethge’s loves, refusing to consider God only at life’s margins.

Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity thus does have import for us today. As people no longer need God to explain their world or ease their anxiety, they opt out of religion. But Bonhoeffer does not believe God became flesh simply to answer our questions or reduce our stress. Rather, his “religionless Christianity” challenges us.

Instead of thinking of God only in moments of crisis or simply relying on the Lord to solve our unanswerable questions, religionless Christianity challenges us to a comprehensive “existence in discipleship” where we refuse to shove God to the boundaries of our lives. We thus reconsider how we engage the world—how we work or study, how we parent or befriend, how we serve or vote—as Christ, who commands that we selflessly love God and neighbor, comprehensively centers our lives.