The Church in Crisis: The Religionless Christianity of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In the final two years of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote several letters from Tegel prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge in which he spoke of the need for what he referred to as a “religionless Christianity.” “I shall not come out of here a homo religiosus!,” he declared vehemently in a note dated November 21, 1943. “My fear and distrust of ‘religiosity’ have become greater than ever here. The fact that the Israelites never uttered the name of God always makes me think, and I can understand it better as I go on.” On April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer offered one of his most famous and controversial statements on the meaning of discipleship in what he elsewhere called a “world come of age.” “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today,” he wrote. “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore.”

Piety and religiosity had not vanished from German society in Bonhoeffer’s day (any more than they have from American society in the present, confounding the secularization theories of several generations of sociologists of religion). Yet this very fact, Bonhoeffer concluded, was itself ironically symptomatic of the irrelevance of religion to the problems facing most men and women. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it,” he wrote, “and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’” Under these circumstances, what did it mean to be a follower of Christ? In the aftermath of the failure of the institutionalized churches and self-professing believers in Europe to withstand the onslaught of totalitarian ideologies—indeed, in the light of the church's own authoritarianism and its ability to carry on uninterrupted even as the ground fell out from under it, with hymns being sung and sermons preached without pause amid the march to war—the question that now confronted Christians was one of first things.

Did the very language of spiritual inwardness, of evangelism, of apologetics, and of churchly authority that had marked Western Christianity from its beginning still make any sense? Was it the task of believers to somehow refill the vessels of a failed Christendom project that had been thoroughly corrupted by political evil with lost or forgotten meanings? Or were believers now called to bear witness to Christ in a secular age in radically new ways, and not as “religious” persons at all? Did “religion” itself need to be left behind as a historical stage, a human construct and sociological phenomenon, that was in no sense synonymous with the presence of the living Christ in the world and in history? But if so, what would such a “religionless Christianity” even begin to look like?

“Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world,” Bonhoeffer wrote to Bethge on July 18, 1944. Three days later, after learning of the failure of the Officer’s Plot to assassinate Hitler—a plot in which he had been complicit and for which he would be executed at the age of 39 when his role was uncovered by the Gestapo—Bonhoeffer wrote of the “this-worldliness” of the Christian faith:

“During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not ahomo religiosus, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man…I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian.”

We do not know how Bonhoeffer might have developed these highly allusive ideas had his life not been cut short. His enigmatic and provocative words have often been pressed into the service of agendas Bonhoeffer himself would have resisted, from liberal death-of-God theologies to highly conservative forms of evangelical Protestantism. Yet there are perhaps a few lessons we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s witness as we face the abuses of power, the smallness of heart and mind, and the betrayals of leadership that have led to mounting crises in our own day—both inside and outside of the church.

How can we be faithful disciples of Jesus in the midst of unsettling new realities, in which by faith we trust that God is still at work? How can we be certain of Christ and speak meaning into the lives of our fellow human beings when we can no longer put our trust in church officialdom or attach our confidence in the Holy Spirit to the outworn habits of religious thinking and speech that mark our church structures? How can we testify to the living Christ when "religion" itself turns the Word of God into a dead letter and takes on the marks of dehumanizing “kingly authority”?

For Bonhoeffer, the answers to these questions lie not in any nostalgic retreat to the past. He ultimately refused the path of shoring up decaying institutions and exhausted forms of piety. Rather, Bonhoeffer insisted, believers must now repent of the power and control game that they have been playing for far too long. They must instead enter with fear and trembling into the dangerous drama of Christ’s kenosis—his self-emptying and co-suffering identification with all of humankind. The God-forsaken God of religionless Christianity is a living God. But this God is no longer to be found in our stagnant and increasingly debased institutional forms. Rather, Bonhoeffer challenges us to consider, Christ is now paradoxically to be found at the margins, in desolate places, and in and among “secular” people, who in certain ways stand closer to God than the religious themselves.

Ronald Osborn is a wandering philosopher and the author of "Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering" (IVP Academic, 2014) and "Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy" (Cascade Books, 2010).

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7662
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in Adventism, the folly runs something like this-
1919 Bible Conference revisited
Answers to Questions on Doctrine
prophetess of Heath
Don McAdams, on Great Controversy
Brinsmead and the use of Drs Ford and Heppenstall to turn him around
Glacier View
why Jesus Waits
The election of Ted Wilson
The booing of an immediate past President of the GC.
Dogma of 6thousand years
Women’s ordination
Now domination of a new Council of Trent

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Prepare for the Diet of vege-Worms, and the Mark of the Beast Bull…

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There are some persons today who take presumed Bonhoefferism to what has been dubbed its ultimately totally contradictory limit; which in reality may not be self-contradictory at all . They call themselves “Atheists who believe in God”, This five-word sentence is meant, firstly, to signify that they believe “God” to be HUMAN ,not a supernatural entity, as indeed, on reflection they point to numerous references so confirming in the very Bible. Apart from the genetic similarity announced in Gen. 1: 26, and God taking refuge in the shade from the heat of the day, and the human emotions displayed by God: love, anger, revenge, compassion, impatience, repentance at the necessity to chastise his H. sapiens creatures severely, and his promise of rescuing those who contribute to the development of human progress in ethics/morals , and science, his mating with a Jewish teenager, and finally his body plan (head atop a columnar spine, hands, feet for bipedal locomotion and so on . These people believe in a theistic GOD/ YAHWEH as an actual entity existing in heaven(somewhere in the “sky”)who is real and yet virtually immortal by the high science of his home planet. Atheists who believe in God even have, and are currently displaying on their website(Rael.org) videos(modern implements for making notes) of Yahweh giving his opinions on various parts of the Bible, as to which are of value and which are not. So had Bonhoeffer survived till these days he may well have been intrigued by these new revelations. The Adventist Church hierarchy will face a torrid time trying to hold on to ye olde scriptural traditional interpretations, but for in one sense the GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT was a good thing in that the church cannot claim infallibility but must from 1844 be always open to, as George Knight puts it, “gfreater Light”

Excellent essay!

Was it not Derrida who spoke of a ‘religion without religion’? When Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead”, he was not proclaiming that he had become an atheist. What he did mean was the death of all totalizing ideologies, that is, ideologies (theological or secular) who claim to be the overarching principle that explains everything. He proclaimed the death of all all kinds of ‘reductionisms’ - religious or scientific, that reduces everything to one formula, with their notions of rational certainty, cocksureness and universality - shutting down questioning and critique.

The SDA movement is just another historically and culturally conditioned form of religion; just one more interpretation, among many, and it has no exclusive right to absolute truth.

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Driving home last night, I was in a somber mood, reflecting on the breaking news that was posted here yesterday. At the same time, I was listening to an interview of an atheist philosopher, Alain de Button, who was arguing for the value and relevance of religion for the secular world. He doesn’t believe in God, but thinks secular modern culture has little to offer humans when it comes to wisdom and meaning. He loves hymns, church architecture, and even sermons, preaching secular version of them to the community he has founded called “The School of Life,” where they get together to study philosophy/literature, sing, and form relationships. (I’ve also been fascinated with secular communities like “The Sunday Assembly” and “The Oasis Network” which seem to be versions of de Button’s community.)

Christians disavowing religion and atheists vouching for it. We live in interesting times!

All this to say, I’m sympathetic to Bonhoeffer’s prison ruminations, but also think humans are deeply religious animals. We gather together for rituals, find meaning in symbols, sing together, tell stories…and even come up with beliefs. I don’t know if we’ll ever outgrow that!

But to your point, there seems to be something seriously wrong with the current way we have organized ourselves and the people we have put in power, raising challenging questions about the nature of fidelity to the faith and faithful. In such times, I think it’s essential to stay connected to kindred spirits and local worshiping communities that have not bowed the knee and attempting to fight the good fight. Oddly, the issues we are currently debating, important as they are, tempt us to narrow our focus on the many other things Jesus was concerned about and the needs of people in the real world. I find it instructive that Jesus, for most his ministry, pretty much ignored the temple in Jerusalem, the seat of privilege, politics, and power. He only entered it to clean it out.

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Ron,

Heartfelt thanks!

You ask: “How can we be faithful disciples of Jesus…when we can no longer put our trust in church officialdom or attach our confidence in the Holy Spirit to the outworn habits of religious thinking and speech that mark our church structures?”

One way is to CONTINUE BEARING WITNESS. Doubt and discouragement lurk at the door–at my door–and if Bonhoeffer said, as he did in Discipleship, that only the obedient believe, he might also have said: only the WITNESSES to truth hold on to it.

You bear a persistent and compelling witness. I am moved by it and strengthened by it; we are ALL the richer for it.

Chuck

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This concept is so foreign to fundamental evangelical protestantism that I imagine that few SDAs these days have the capacity to understand it. Much less, put it into practice.


Addenda:
A system that is bound to a forensic God cannot appreciate the ultimate martyrdom of one’s self unto Christ, even unto death - martyrdom - if need be. Something we, collectively, can NOT know!. Especially admitting the denomination has not the wherewithal to bar the gates of Heaven exclusively to themselves.

It is unconscionable to imagine that the Saints who have gone before will have to submit to theoretic justification for submitting to a blasphemy: declaring when God has to come again at such-and-such a time. How can the Truth vindicate such!?

It is only our present this-worldly crucifixion that assures us of our place in New World of the Kingdom. Only thus sacrificed are we entrusted of God’s perspective and perceive how trivially the world disguises the snares of its designer the Deceiver. (I swear, there are some I’d never suspected!)

Lord, have mercy.

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Those who have chosen to place their loyalty to any organization cannot at the same time choose the Holy Spirit as their guide. “Organized religion” is an oxymoron: the Holy Spirit cannot be organized nor can the wind; it goes where it will.

Christ never pledged loyalty to a religious organization; His loyalty was to the Father. Those whose loyalty and trust are in a church have been gravely disappointed. But when they have faith and trust in God first and foremost, they may choose to divorce the church for disloyalty but never divorcing their faith in God. No organized religious organization should ever replace God; it will guarantee many disappointments. “Put not your trust in princes…”

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To all those in the SDA hierarchy who are obsessed with power and authority; who, in their self-inflicted strong piety, define themselves as “God’s highest authority on earth”, clinging to apparent strong metaphysical theological constructions, ponder this:

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1. Cor. 1.25)

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Thanks Ron! A refreshing read!

I have been thinking about one of our “decaying institutions and exhausted forms of piety”–the Communion Service. Instead of joining together in corporate fashion once a quarter for the purpose of serving the community–and that might best embody what it means to wash another’s feet–we congregate in our insular houses of worship, wet our feet, eat a cracker with a shot of Welch’s Grape Juice, and delight in the delusion that we are participating in Jesus’ suffering. As we compare the Christian life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who did participate in Jesus’ suffering, to the tired ritualism of many modern Seventh-day Adventists, we can come to appreciate the timely importance of Ron Osborn’s excellent essay.

We had an opportunity in San Antonio to rethink what the Communion Service can mean in our historical context. A trio of male headship theorists squandered that opportunity by advocating that only ordained males be allowed to officiate the Communion Service. Whereas Bonhoeffer embodied service and sacrificial love, others have chosen to be exponents of self-exaltation and hierarchical power. And our well-intentioned rituals, tired as they most certainly are, continue to suffer as a result.

Despite Seventh-day Adventist profession of opposition to Roman Catholic heresies such as Real Presence, we have not been able to resist the itch to codify in FB 16 a belief that “Christ is present” during the Communion Service. In contrast to this language in FB 16, Scripture sets forth that the purpose of the ceremony is to remember One who is no longer with us: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19. So in response, I have been thinking about writing an essay that can explicate a justification for this aberrant language in FB 16. Drawing on the exemplary work of Eelco Runia, Frank Ankersmit, and Hayden White, we can observe that the Communion Service is a monument of the past, and that such monuments make the past, which no longer exists, present. Runia’s famous book, Moved by the Past, discusses the human yearning to make the past present in our daily lives. But what I find interesting in Ron’s essay is Bonhoeffer’s yearning to be moved by the present. It is not Jesus’ past suffering that Bonhoeffer wishes to participate in but Jesus’ present suffering. Bonhoeffer no doubt was influenced by the rise of historical consciousness that was largely situated in Germany during the 19th and early 20th centuries. And he must have possessed historical consciousness. Considering our misplaced nostalgia for biblical times, the Victorian Era of Ellen White, and the 1950s in America, and further considering the sad reality that only a handful of Seventh-day Adventists possess historical consciousness, Bonhoeffer calls us to live in the here and now, in our unique historical context.

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For Bonhoeffer, the way to be “Christian” and “religious” in his time and place was to break with the established church and support the “confessing” church, to break with a puerile church which capitulated to the “world” of the Nazi regime. Only because theologians like Barth and Bonhoeffer and others were willing to be truly critical of the regime AND the church, could they have borne so faithfully their witness which inspires us to this day.

How, then, are we Adventists now to be like Bonhoeffer? That depends on where we live and the challenges to being “faithful.” It is not identical in the US with what may be required in So. America, or Europe, or Asia or especially the Middle East. What worldly powers are forcing the church to be the “sanctified community” Bonhoeffer envisioned?
In Europe it may be the increasing hostility towards a refugee catastrophe unmatched since WWII. In Asia it may be economic priorities, or genocidal starvation by dictators hungry for world power. In the Middle East it is an increasing fundamentalism in Islam which lusts for encompassing power through violence so abhorrent we in the civilized world can hardly believe it. In the USA, whatever it is (and there are several prominent candidates), it must include the following (shades of Nazi Germany): the persecution of “inferior” races, LGBTQ persons, government refusal to care for the most vulnerable in the name of national security, unjustified spending on armaments to ensure the military-industrial complex is cared for, and so on and so on. “Give us eyes to see” what we do not wish to see. . .

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In the closing verses of the Bible, where it all gets summarized and tied up, we find an extraordinary picture of the “bride” of Christ. All through the Bible, we have been pointed to community through ritual, possible only within cocooned religiosity. The Hebrews certainly believed that, having divided the year into ceremonial markers that further divided the month and the week. They wove “religion” into the fabric of their every-day lives, expressed through community. Christians followed suit and developed a liturgy to be repeated within a community that did the same. But when we come to the Book of Revelation, we find a statement that defies all this communal search for God. Maybe it’s just that by the time history winds up here on earth, the conditions of society will be (are) so messed up that the communities we called “religious” can’t be distinguished from the communities of trade and function, so that Christians will have shed the religiosity.

As Adventists we are very familiar Revelation 14 where those three angels rain their judgments on the religious establishments of earth; and we imagine ourselves to be excluded from the dire consequences of ignoring their pronouncements. We fail to read what leads up to those frantic angels, maybe because what is revealed there, goes against everything we have come to believe about our historic place within the religious community. We end each of our “Revelation seminars” with a summons to “come” join our particular brand of religiosity, while verse 4 of that chapter describes Christ’s followers as having shed organization to “follow the Lamb wherever He goes”.

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The Book of Revelation is about contrasts.

  1. For the Churches to BEHOLD! The Lamb of God [who is a Lion] in the form of a lamb slain from the foundations of the world, and before the Throne.
    For the Churches to FOLLOW the Lamb where ever the Lamb goes.
    To Not become part of EMPIRE. To have different Values, different Behavior, different Goals than Empire.

  2. It addresses EMPIRE values, behavior, thinking, goals. The EMPIRE tri-unity of Satan, the many headed, horned, crowned beast from the sea with the head of the Lion ROARING!, the beast arising out of the land and demonstrating the same behaviors and goals. The False Church that has assumed EMPIRE behavior and riding on a beast.

We are called to Follow the LION who is really a LAMB. Not partake of Empire values.

In the Jewish Book of Common Prayer, this was on a side-bar on one of the pages.
“Jews who have seen EMPIRES come and go, are Witnesses to the inner decay wrought by corruption, injustice, and unbounded power.”

Is the SDA Church hierarchy taking on the values, behavior of the Wrong Empire?

Revelation 14 and 18 calls God’s children to not take part in EMPIRE participation.


What if somebody threw an Inquisition and nobody came?




Glacier View became Adventist shorthand for pain, dissension and division.
–Arthur Patrick

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Thank you for a timely and insightful reflection on Bonhoeffer’s witness. I think it potentially valuable to note that Bonhoeffer’s clearly critical assessment of “religion” was not a rejection of the validity of the Christian community of faith nor a polemic against “organized religion.” It was an indictment of the temptation to equate the Community of faith with the source of that faith and to assert the implication of the perfection of that community, a perfection which belongs to God alone. Far then from being a prophet of secularism Bonhoeffer instead asserted that to be faithful we must acknowledge the fallibility of our faithfulness. It is essential to remember that the creator of the phrase, “religionless Christianity” wrote Life Together.

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Thanks for this important reminder Daryll. I absolutely agree. However, I also think that the chronology of Bonhoeffer’s work is critical. His statements on “religionless Christianity” appear in his letters and papers from prison at the very end of his life. They give the distinct impression that he was questioning what it means to be “religious” or “Christian” in ways he wasn’t when he wrote Life Together and Cost of Discipleship. This is not at all to say that he was turning his back on Christ or abandoning Christian community.

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You are right to call attention to the chronology of Bonhoeffer’s writings. It is possible that the degradation of prison and the spectacle of “German Christians” had eroded an earlier apparent confidence in Christian forms of faithfulness. I think it unlikely that Bonhoeffer was the evangelical Christian Eric Metaxas made him out to be in his biography. The more accurate positioning of his theological understanding seems to me to be “neo-orthodox.” We might take his famous remarks about religionless Christianity to be a “more radical” critique of religion than even the one mounted by Barth in the Commentary on Romans but it’s not clear how any critique could be “more radical” than that one.

Another thing about the chronology of Bonhoeffer’s thought intrigues me. His dissertation was a study of the church. It is often the case that theological thinkers tend toward growing more conservative as they age. So here we have the very youthful Bonhoeffer, nurtured at the feet of Harnack, making the church central to his concerns. Perhaps that was a residual liberalism or it may have been the same intellectual judgment that led Barth to frame his thought as Church Dogmatics.

I applaud this essay because I admire Bonhoeffer as a Christian’s Christian. dietrich Bonhoeffer views about finding God while he was imprisoned, suggest ,I believe, that Christian religions are merely machines or tools that Christians use to “find the nuts”, to use an engineering jargon. these Christian “nuts” are of course, peace, love, courage in tough times, forgiveness, and joy, and a good moral character, etc. what bonhoffer and any theologian desires is to explain how God operates so that we can engineer a better God machine(religion?) that facilitates finding the “nuts” Going into the laboratory of the real world and coming up w/ valid new theories that can be proven by experience, is the essence of “this-worldliness” Christianity. for a Christian, perhaps the comparative relationship “as E=MC2 is to physics, so then is Jesus is to God” .

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