God in the center: Bonhoeffer on our religionless culture

May 28, 2018

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.

Matthew D. Hamilton

Matthew D. Hamilton earned his B.A. in Pastoral Ministry from the Moody Bible Institute and more recently completed his M.A. in Theological Studies from Princeton Theological Seminary where he concentrated on religion in society. He engaged most deeply with St. Augustine and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Interested in the intersection of historic … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24