Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Religionless Christianity | Worldly God

From Bonhoeffer To Eberhard Bethge, April 30th, 1944
“Bonhoeffer introduced the term ‘world come of age’ (Mündigkeit) in a letter to Bethge on June 8, 1944. Borrowed from Dilthey, it referred to that ‘movement toward human autonomy that began around the thirteenth century,’ which has now, following the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, come to fruition. This coming of age of humanity meant that human beings have learned to live and manage their affairs without any reference to God. This is not only true in science, politics, law, and medicine, but more generally for daily life in its entirety. The term ‘’world come of age’ did not mean that the world or human beings were more moral. Nor did it mean that there was no residue of religion that attracted those who felt the need for such, or that there were no places in the world where religion still played a major role in the life of society. Rather, it means for the vast numbers of people, especially in secularized Europe, the ‘God hypothesis’ was no longer needed to explain reality and meet human need. Even failures and tragedies did not undermine such human self-confidence. Bonhoeffer anticipated that this process of secularization would continue unabated and spread more widely. Whether he has been proved wrong by the resurgence of religion in the past few decades has been widely debated by scholars, but current debates about God and the response to them have also demonstrated how much he has been proved correct on many of the issues.
Despite this historical development, the church and theology, in a last ditch attempt to shore up Christianity, resorted to an apologetic based on ‘ultimate questions,’ such as despair, sin, and guilt, to which God alone was the answer. In doing so, God was reduced to a deus ex machina who is only needed when everything else has failed, thus in effect pushed out of the center of human affairs to become the God of individual piety, bourgeois privilege, and a ghetto church, that is, the God of religion. Such an apologetic assumed a ‘religious a priori,’ that is, a religious long and a sense of weakness in human beings that could be appealed to in preaching the gospel with that in mind as the point of contact. But it was precisely this that Bonhoeffer questioned. By contrast, he wanted to speak of God at the center of life and address men and women in their strength, that is, their maturity and autonomy as responsible human beings.
These convictions were strengthened by Bonhoeffer’s daily meditation on passages from the Old Testament (notably the Psalms and the Song of Songs), which convinced him that biblical faith is focused not on redemption from the earth but on its sustainability, not on withdrawal from the world but on engagement with its life, not on asceticism but on a genuine appreciation of the body and sexuality, not on private piety but on engagement with the world. In fact, the more he read the Scriptures, the more he discovered that the God of religion was not the God of the Bible. God, Bonhoeffer provocatively insisted, wanted us to live ‘before God’ yet as people who can live without God. This, then, called for a ‘nonreligious’ interpretation of Christian faith…
The consequences of this for the church and for Christian life in the world were, as Bonhoeffer recognized, far reaching. For what is at stake in Bonhoeffer’s ‘nonreligious’ interpretation is not apologetics or even hermeneutics—that is, simply interpreting Christianity in a new historical context in a new linguistic and conceptual key—but a fundamental reorientation, or metanoia, that leads to an identification with Christ in his sufferings, and therefore to a different way of being the church-community in the world. If Jesus exists only for others, then the church must not seek its own self-preservation but be ‘open to the world’ and in solidarity with others, especially those who are oppressed and suffering…

Just as Bonhoeffer’s ‘this worldliness’ is not banal or superficial, so he insists that the need for the church to be ‘open to the world’ by existing for others does not imply surrendering either its identity or the profound mystery of its faith in Christ, for that would simply be another example of ‘cheap grace,’ or a confusion of the penultimate and the ultimate as he distinguished them in Ethics. For this reason, it was necessary that the church recover the ‘arcane discipline’ of the ancient church, whereby the mysteries of the faith are protected from profanation. In this way, prayer, worship, the sacraments, and the creed would remain hidden at the heart of the life of the church, not thrust upon the world in some triumphalist manner. In the world the church would be known by its service and its work for justice and peace rather than by the disciplines that sustained its life of faith, hope and love. In sum, as Bonhoeffer wrote on the occasion of Dietrich Bethge’s baptism, ‘we can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice among human beings. All Christian thinking, talking, and organizing must be born anew, out of that prayer and action.” (Excerpted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Works, volume 8, 23-30)

1 comment:

  1. I read that many years ago and I believe it with all my heart. I and my wife have tried to live that out but we end up doing it as a community of two. Very few people in American Christian culture understand what Bonhoeffer is saying. Many misunderstand and are offended. Seeing your post and knowing that you recognize the truth of it is very encouraging. Peace and God Bless.