Bonhoeffer on “Non-Religious Interpretation,” part 1

March 14, 2015

Bonhoeffer in 1939

Bonhoeffer in 1939

I will attempt the impossible. In the course of two blog posts, I will try to understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s infamous proposals for a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. There is a vast literature of academic discussion on Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, especially these particular letters from April to July of 1944, and the continuity or discontinuity with his earlier works. For the sake of blogging brevity (my go-to excuse!), I will have to ignore most of that.

Below is part one, and I will soon post a follow-up next week, discussing Bonhoeffer’s cryptic complaints about Barth’s “posivitism of revelation.” There, I will register some criticisms, not surprisingly.

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In a letter to Eberhard Bethge from prison in Tegel, 30 April 1944, Bonhoeffer signals some new developments in his theological reflections, which then reappear in subsequent letters. And it is best that we label these as “reflections” or even “musings,” given the suggestive and piecemeal nature of this epistolary material. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer intends them to be taken seriously, as the most recent fruit of his fertile mind. He is quite aware of the radical nature of these suggestions, warning Bethge that he “would be surprised, and perhaps even worried by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to….”[1] What are these thoughts and conclusions? They deal with Bonhoeffer’s proposal for a “religionless” Christianity, or better yet, a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. We will look closely at the precise way in which Bonhoeffer expresses himself, focusing on this question of non-religious interpretation.

Bonhoeffer has spent his life discerning who is Christ and especially who is Christ for the church and for us today. He is imprisoned for his own commitment to the sole lordship of Christ and his demand for us now. He informs Bethge that these questions have been “bothering him incessantly,” and it appears that the pressure to revisit these questions anew has come from his assessment of the society of his day. As Bonhoeffer sees it, “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more.”[2] But what does he mean by “religious”? His explanation is grounded in the recent philosophical and cultural developments of Western society. There was once a “religious a priori,” according to Bonhoeffer, which supported and sustained religious man, which is to say virtually every man in religious society.[3] This a priori is the metaphysical foundation, or background, or framework upon or through which religious man understands himself and his relation to God. As such, it provided the “plausibility structure,” to borrow from Peter Berger, for how the divine exists and interacts with the finite realm. It also provided the inwardness or self-consciousness of religious man in relation to spiritual matters, where God is a necessary and vital corollary. This religious man is disappearing, according to Bonhoeffer, and so the church must ask, “How do we speak of God – without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even ‘speak’ as we used to) in a ‘secular’ way about ‘God’?”[4] Moreover, this metaphysics for the last nineteen hundred years, in Bonhoeffer’s view, has led us to consider ourselves as “specially favored,” as belonging to another reality other than the concrete world to which we belong.[5] And, thus, there is a moral component to Bonhoeffer’s criticisms, namely that this metaphysics distracts and takes us away from our neighbor who wholly belongs to this world with us.

In a subsequent letter to Bethge, written on the same day, Bonhoeffer continues with his reflections about a Christianity without religion, further clarifying what he has in mind. It is here that Bonhoeffer expresses his dissatisfaction with apologetic theology and faith, where God only appears as the cause or sufficient explanation for the unknown or inexplicable. As Bonhoeffer explains:

Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail – in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, wither for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.[6]

The problem with this sort of religious faith is that the boundaries are ever decreasing as humanity advances in its knowledge of the world. This God of the gaps is a desperate attempt to “reserve some space for God,” even as the gaps continue to close.[7] But more importantly for Bonhoeffer, it places God on the boundaries of life, in the ignorance or in the weaknesses of our fragile life. This is even true of those existentialist theologies that have acknowledged the failure of “the God of the gaps” approach.

In this other type of apologetic theology, God is the explanation for our guilt or sense of alienation. And, thus, the popular existentialism of Bonhoeffer’s day appealed to the “ultimate questions” of death and guilt, to which only God can provide a satisfying answer.[8] For Bonhoeffer, the world is generally quite happy and content with itself, and so we have the amusing situation when an existentialist theologian like Tillich “sought to understand the world better than it understood itself.”[9] All of these strategies fail, according to Bonhoeffer, because they are all making God into the answer to our problems, whether intellectual or existential, instead of having God first and foremost as the “center of life” itself and in its entirety. This is the God of life and love, not just death and guilt.

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[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition, SCM Press, 1971; Touchstone, 1997), 279.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 280.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 281.

[6] Ibid., 281-282.

[7] Ibid., 282.

[8] Ibid., 326.

[9] Ibid., 327. Bonhoeffer would later refer to this as “clerical tricks” (p. 346).

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See part two.

50 Responses to “Bonhoeffer on “Non-Religious Interpretation,” part 1”

  1. james said

    Hi Kevin. Glad you are taking a swing at this. I am quite interested in Bonehoeffer’s musings on this point. It is clear that he is disillusioned by the German Christianity of his day, which was clearly lacking, especially in relation to the plight of the jews. As the God of the gaps shrank, what was left except a limpwristed piety that kept many Germans indifferent to the war crimes of their own country. Why would he not believe that the Christian a priori was teetering on the brink of collapse? I think his critique needs to be understood in the historical context of the German church of that time.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, the failure of the church is surely influencing these reflections, and he is making incisive criticisms of the piety of the church, as you note. But, he is also focused, especially in these letters, on German/European society as whole, which is where the controversy arises. Is Bonhoeffer saying that our concepts must now be conditioned by modernity, or is there a more specifically christological basis? I will touch upon this in the follow-up post.

      • james said

        I am not sure bon is saying that our concepts must now be conditioned by modernity just because he is critiquing the religious a priori. I wondered if he was critiquing the way modernity has shaped the religious a priori. That for him there is a compromise implicit in existentialist Christian faith that must be overcome. Of course, this was his critique of Bultmann. But i do not understand what he meant when he said Bultmann did not go far enough with his project. Is this a kind of hope for a mystical, via negativa that goes beyond existential faith to lead the individual to the “wholly other”? Is this then similar to Ricoeur’s “second naivete”?

        On Metaxes, i have not read him either but was interested in the critiques made by Clifford Green of Christian Century and Victoria Barnett of Contemporary Church History Quarterly. Also the helpful lecture by Wheaton lit. prof. Roger Lundin on Bonhoeffer entitled “A Life on its Own.” He is a popularizer and certainly writes from an existentialist a priori!! ha ha…i thought i would point out that irony.

      • Kevin Davis said

        I would like to say that B. was critiquing the way that modernity has shaped the religious a priori, and that is certainly true if we are talking about his moral criticisms. But I find B. far too uncritical about this religionless man in a “world come of age,” especially in regard to metaphysics and theological assumptions of such a man. I’ll deal with this, albeit too briefly I’m afraid, in the follow-up post.

  2. When Bonhoeffer’s ‘Letter and Papers’ are open to passages about his ‘religionless Christianity’ for a society where few have implicit faith in received beliefs, my first readerly questions are– (1) to precisely what ‘religious Christianity’ is he opposing it?; (2) what problem does he see in continuing to be ‘religious’ oneself? I look forward to your thoughtful posts on this interesting concept.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Unfortunately, we do not have much by way of specifics or illustrations to know what precisely Bonhoeffer has in mind, which is why his prison letters have been prone to a lot of speculation. I think the follow-up post may help a little in answering those questions.

  3. Joel said

    Eric Metaxas got a lot of heat for his biography trying to remake Bonhoeffer as an American evangelical. Do you think he deserved it?

    • Kim Fabricius said

      I haven’t read the Metaxas biography. It was published in the same year (2010) as the Ferdinand Schlingensiepen biography and I opted for the latter. But if the review of the Metaxas biography by Victoria Barnett, who is the General Editor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition is even close to accurate and fair, I made the right choice — and the answer to your question is a resounding Yes.

      I mean, apparently Metaxas not only “ignores the fact that many of Bonhoeffer’s ecumenical allies were precisely the kinds of ‘social gospel’ Christians .. that he so despises” (Barnett), he actually compares the fight of American evangelicalism against liberalism with the fight of the Confessing Church against the Reich Church! Moreover, he completely ignores the fact that Bonhoeffer explicitly rejected the call for a return to a “Christian world view” and “Christian values” that characterises American conservatives, and “also warned his students at Fikenwalde against the dangers of an individualistic ‘personal relationship’ to Christ” (Barnett).

      Of course Bonhoeffer was critical of theological liberalism and of America’s “Protestantism without Reformation”, but common cause with American conservative evangelicalism — forget it!

      Interestingly (as you may know), on a visit to the US, Bonhoeffer’s close friend and first biographer Eberhard Bethge, horrified at members of Jerry Falwell’s church proudly sporting their little lapel flags, actually compared the Religious Right’s identification of Christian faith with American nationalism to (you guessed it!) the ideology of the German Christians.

      So it’s good to know that more discerning contemporary American evangelicals, mainly younger, are much less inclined (on the personal level) to what Bonhoeffer called “salvation egoism”, let alone (on the social level) to this egregiously idolatrous exceptionalism.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Kim is right, based upon the reviews that I’ve read. Though I have not read the Metaxas book either. There is not much more that I can add to Kim’s comments. But I will say that these prison letters were even surprising to me. This is my first time reading them, though I’ve read Discipleship, Ethics, and Life Together. It is in the prison letters that we see the “radical,” “post-metaphysical” Bonhoeffer that the “Death of God” theologians, rightly or wrongly, would adopt and extend. It is far removed from American evangelical theology.

      By the way, I have read Metaxas’ bio of Wilberforce, and I loved it. His prose is lively and fun and often gripping, so I can see why his bio of Bonhoeffer was praised by so many. I assume that, with due criticism, it is a worthwhile read. I have read portions of Bethge’s massive biography, pertaining to Barth and the Confessing Church, and I would recommend that first, but I am sure that it is not nearly as accessible as Metaxas.

      • Kim Fabricius said

        Thanks, Kevin. Btw, here is a another citation from Barnett’s review that you might consider as you think about part 2:

        “Bonhoeffer’s central concern remained the life of Christian faith in the world, yet his understanding of Christianity had been shaken and altered by the failures of the church under Nazism. In 1942 he wrote of ‘a Christendom enmeshed in guilt beyond all measure’ and I personally think that any interpretation of his famous discussion of ‘religionless Christianity’ needs to start there.”

        Personally, I think that’s right. I think that whatever concerns Bonhoeffer had with metaphysical and even hermeneutical issues were driven by his cardinal theological concern, viz., the integrity of Christian social praxis vis-à-vis the bad faith (guilty conscience) of Christian social praxis. (Sociality, sociality, sociality — Christ-taking-form in the church-for-the-world: Bonhoeffer was, of course, a liberation theologian avant la lettre.) So (here’s a thought), taking a cue from the impact African American experience and African American church had on Bonhoeffer, and coupling it with Barnett’s observation about a “guilt beyond all measure”, if you want to explicate “non-religious interpretation” in a specifically US context, you might want to bear in mind our Original Sin of slavery, our history of racism, and its contemporary embeddedness in the New Jim Crow.

      • Kevin Davis said

        Thanks, Kim. I will keep all of that in mind.

    • It’s well written and engaging, but that critique is deserved. There are some good informative bits and some ‘re any exposition, but having read the prison theology for years now, I can firmly say that Metaxes left a lot out – tho we shouldn’t be so quick to ascribe to Bonhoeffer the status of a death of God theologian based on those writings. It’s not a systematic picture at all we’re given in the prison writing.

      • Kevin Davis said

        Right, we shouldn’t label him as a “death of God” theologian, but they are not entirely off-base in finding inspiration for their theology in these letters. We really don’t know what Bonhoeffer meant by “metaphysics,” and that is a big part of the problem with interpreting him here — but it is clear that he wants to secularize Christian concepts in some sense.

      • ‘We really don’t know what Bonhoeffer meant by “metaphysics,” and that is a big part of the problem with interpreting him here — but it is clear that he wants to secularize Christian concepts in some sense.’

        There is definitely a problem there – I suspect, based on his reference to 12th-13th century as being when man ‘came of age’ that he has *some* form of scholastic metaphysics in his sights, but as you note, none of these things are carefully defined or discussed. The safe route would be to take him as simply trying to say how we can be Christians and have something to say to the world when God isn’t a given – stop trying to plug up apologetic/existential ‘gaps’ with God, stop trying to make man feel guilty when he’s oblivious to it, and simply live in faith in the world. That seems to be the safest option. But, again (again) this may not be the case – he speaks of Bultmann ‘not going far enough’ but then he also writes about how the mythology ‘is the thing’ of Christianity. Does he want us to return to the God of the Bible – revealed in weakness, operating in ways that are foolish to the world because of that weakness – or does he (as he almost seems to hint at) want us to do away with god-talk altogether and simply live in the world in faith?

        Part of this also turns on the issue of the ‘secular’. You see that a lot, in guys like Charles Taylor, James KA Smith, etc – but who has pronounced us to be residents of a ‘secular’ age? No doubt our everyday experience may reflect a deepening secular-ity, but so what? Experience may be (and often is) wrong – why do we need to make the faith fit into our experience of the world as secular? There’s a lot of baggage here that needs to be opened and subjected to scrutiny when it is all too often simply taken to be truth.

  4. Bobby Grow said

    I read the Metaxas bio of Bon when it came out, and its appeal lies in Metaxas’ ability to write, not in his representation of Bon. In fact the Bon presented by Metaxas felt way too much like me and not enough like the German Christian that Bon was.

  5. Can Bonhoeffer’s meditations on religionlessness survive the failure of Max Weber’s secularization thesis?

    • Kevin Davis said

      That’s a good question, but of course many people are far from convinced that Weber’s thesis was wrong. In fact, it is still alive and well in our cultural assumptions.

      • Robert F said

        Peter Berger, who is a great admirer of Weber, nevertheless believes the secularization thesis was wrong, though he believed it himself in his younger years. He now says that secularization only succeeded within a narrow band of ruling elites around the world, influenced by and educated in Western culture, but failed everywhere else. Berger also says that where secularization has stalled, pluralization has become a powerful social force in many places around the world. This presumably has much to do with the rapid developments of communication technologies.

      • Weber’s hypothesis was that the increasing social rationalization of modernizing societies would leave no place in them for the ‘charismatic’ order of religion. As others here have implied, it was conventional wisdom after the Second World War. In the 1950s, it prompted Henry Luce to publicize the work of a young Billy Graham in his new magazine Time. In the long 1960s, it inspired Harvey Cox’s Secular City and the ‘death of god’ theology of Altizer et al. But by the 1980s, the steady rise to power, first of Ayatollah Khomeini and then of President Reagan, was recognized as rarely decisive refutation of Weber’s idea. Surging support for Catholicism and Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe, and for Pentecostalism in Africa, South America, and Asia buried an already dead idea. Some modern people were obviously rejecting secularization; their religions were adapting to very modern societies in unexpected ways; they were taking power in advanced states.

        Thereafter, such eminent scholars of religion as Martin Marty, Robert Bellah, Charles Taylor, Rodney Starke, Christian Smith, and yes Peter Berger built careers explaining to the AAR, the ASA, (and the CIA) what sorts of functions religions now have in modernizing societies around the world. And today, because responsible analysts know that Weber was wrong, they are not at all surprised that the Islamic State successfully recruits engineers, programers, etc from Western nations, including this one. Nor that the leadership of Al Quaeda comprises many from the very technocratic elites who by Weber’s (and Bonhoeffer’s) reasoning should have been thoroughly post-religious. Nor that rapid urbanization in developing countries is accompanied by surging interest in Islam, Pentecostalism, Hindu bhakti cults, etc. Indeed, it is just because Weberian secularization has failed even in the US that frustrated New Atheists publish propaganda and ridicule believers to exorcize by other means the religion they love to hate. If Max Weber had been right, Bill Maher might have been funny.

        Obviously, traditional religious observance has declined in some of the US and most of Northern Europe. Half of the congregations in the US mainline have 50 or fewer members. But globally, such regions and religions seem to be the exception rather than the rule. And more salient to the OP here, this decline is most strongly correlated, not to intellectual factors (cf ‘man come of age’), but rather to changing family structure and dropping fertility (cf Mary Eberstadt 2014. How The West Really Lost God. Templeton Press). Efforts to explain such local decline with a more modest form of Weber’s thesis are not attracting widespread support.

        Today, we need to explain the salience of Bonhoeffer’s meditation on ‘religionless Christianity’ in a way not expected in, say, the 1960s. If Bonhoeffer was not echoing Weber’s famous thesis, then what other cause-effect relation was he asserting? If he saw a threat to religion in a technologically advanced society, then should theologians in Cairo and Tehran be blogging about ‘religionless Islam’? Should those in Johannesburg or Santiago be worried? If the author of Communio Sanctorum, Life Together, and Christ the Center actually saw a problem peculiar to Western Christian societies, then what was it, how did it come to be, and why hasn’t it happened elsewhere? Is ‘religionless Christianity’ simply a high church Lutheran phrase for Zwinglianism in a concentration camp? After all, it is not impossible–is it?– that the null hypothesis is true here, that a gifted and doomed theologian we have come to regard as prophetic nevertheless had no oracle for us.

  6. Cal said

    Thanks for writing this up Kevin.

    I’m also curious on what Bonhoeffer means when he talks about “man come of age”. That makes me almost laugh when taken at face value. I’ve loved Ellul’s demolition of such belief found among liberational theologians. We still believe in magic, witch doctors, gods and spirits. We just call them different things.

    I try not to laugh when I hear atheists lampooning strawmen of the Lord and then making innane comments about the myth of progress and the priesthood of science. Bonhoeffer is right to reject a god-of-the-gaps. But he takes his contemporary world too seriously.

    cal

    • Looking back over Bonhoeffers prison writings, he does define his terms a bit more carefully than I recalled – man coming of age = man learning to live without God as a working hypothesis. God is not a given as it was in, say, the medieval period. This seems true if we are a bit too taken with the myth of the enlightenment, but if we subject it to questioning it doesn’t hold up as well.

      • Cal said

        Then that is what I find silly and contrary to reality.

        Yes, the high theology of the Middle Ages, whether truly Christian or a Pagan synthesis with the god of the philosophers (whether Aristotle, Islam, or Plato), had the consensus that there must only be one true God. But, what did the common people think? The Cult of the Saints raises questions.

        For sake of argument, I grant there was a social consensus there is really one God at work. That’s probably fair to say.

        However, we’ve not abandoned God, but manufactured all the old pagan gods. Whether Apollonian in vestiges of science, reason, progress, or Dionysian in orgasm, death, violence, the modern world is equally superstitious. Just because we dress it up as reasonable and scientific does not drain the magik quality of it.

        Consider how people think about dieting, food and exercise? Or consider how people speak of biology, psychology, evolution and progress? The Hegelian-speak of History judging? The quasi-mysticism of getting in touch with the Cosmos and knowing we’re all made of stars? Our literature is splattered with these gods. Instead of coming from another realm they come from another planet. Instead of being in our soul, they’re in our genes.

        It’s not that we don’t believe in a god anymore. We believe in too many!!

        We can’t even escape prayer! We have vestiges of “You’re in our thoughts”. What??

        cal

      • Cal said

        Suffice to say: I think Bonhoeffer got hoodwinked in his attempt at sincerely addressing the world. We’re more infantile than ever. We don’t need a non-religious Christ. We need Christ the Conquerors, burying all the gods in His death!

      • Kevin Davis said

        Thanks, Cal and Joshua. You guys are probing in the same way that I have been.

      • Robert F said

        Yes, Cal. Even where institutional religion has diminished, in Europe mostly, but also to a degree in the U.S., human beings are as religious as they ever were. The gods will not be denied, except by the God and Father of Jesus Christ.

    • Robert F said

      I’ve often wondered how Bon, in the midst of a such cataclysmic war providing such strong evidence to the contrary, could have come up with the idea of “man come of age.” It’s counter-intuitive, if what he meant was that humanity had come into maturity.

      But coming-of-age does not necessarily mean achieving maturity, except in the merely legal sense. One may be beyond adolescence, but far from maturity; I remember what it was like to be eighteen. Perhaps this is what Bon. had in mind.

  7. Is Bonhoeffer’s puzzlement at history moving toward religionlessness simply that of a state church postmillennial? Did his Lutheran Old Perspective on Paul give him fewer resources for understanding the apparent absence of God than the P-NPP of, say, Douglas Campbell or Chris Tilling?

  8. Any utopian idea of church aside, I agree with Bonheoffer, Kevin. Great to read this summary. Well written and much needed, in my opinion.

    As far as Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer goes, it is way more accessible. I’ve read it and had no real issue with it.

    {I’m still waiting on $79+ order of Eberhard Bethge’s biography to arrive.}

    I also get the criticism of Metaxas, but as I’ve said on here once before on a Bonhoeffer/Metaxas comment thread, it says a lot about the lefty intellectual elite, who claim Christianity, and yet have so much faith in the appearance of academic prowess.

    Especially when they spring from some hypocritical ‘theological superiority’ in order to damn the right; getting so hung up about Metaxas’ book, for example, that they fail to see that their attempts to to claim Bonhoeffer as their own only betray their own self-interest.

    The left, not unlike the right, both supress, but like the right in recent decades, the left are in need of having their foundations shaken.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, I have many complaints about the left’s lack of self-criticism, which is a recent phenomenon and contrary to the true liberal spirit. When you’ve become a hegemony in certain sectors of society, that is apparently what happens, both left and right.

      • Joel said

        I’ve found that many theological liberals (and “progressive evangelicals”) often congratulate themselves on being such brave and subversive prophets and so above politics while seldom saying anything that would actually make the mainstream secular left uncomfortable.

        And no, throwing “intersectionality grenades” or joining into public shamefests or finding ways to make things problematic doesn’t make you bold and subversive. Those things are about as countercultural now as rock music – whatever rebellious power it may have once had, it’s very mainstream now.

        Not saying this is universal or that it always goes with being a politically liberal Christian, but I’ve seen it pretty often online.

        Of course the right has big issues too (I don’t even know if I’m a conservative), but that’s for another time.

      • Joel said

        (I don’t know if I’m a political conservative, that is – though even a theological one would have to be qualified)

      • Joel said

        (And just to be clear, I’m not talking now about the Metaxas bio or its reception).

      • Kevin Davis said

        seldom saying anything that would actually make the mainstream secular left uncomfortable.

        Yes. I agree entirely with your observations and sentiments. “The world will hate you” is not the modus operandi of most Christians who identify with the left. Rob Bell’s recent interview with Oprah is a frighteningly clear example. And, yes, conservatives can be accused of the same in the recent past.

      • Useful self-criticism is led by smart leaders acknowledged to be effective both in their movements and in the real world (eg Billy Graham, John Stott; Reinhold Niebuhr, William Temple). A bit to my surprise, neither side has that right now. Historians will weigh and sort the causes– the sexual revolution drove some prominent, conscientious liberals (Richard Neuhaus, Robert Jenson) into a Right corner where they were mostly ignored; the expansion of the evangelical opinion-space is producing purist pundits rather than the tested field-commanders who ultimately matter to the wider society; the formative years for leaders on both sides were in a rather different America and world; etc. But at the moment, nobody on either side has the gravitas to say– “This criticism of our work matters. I take it seriously. So should you.”

        Absent that leadership, it would be refreshing to see both the presenters and the evaluators of emergent ideas discuss them in a mutually responsive way. Alas, it would also be heroic virtue. Presenters might take the views of their hearers seriously, but market segmentation for publishing profit discourages this. Evaluators might take fewer easy shots at the ‘fish in a barrel’ (eg, Rob Bell), and seriously engage the strongest arguments (eg Robin Parry’s and Thomas Talbott’s), but this is far more risky to a pundit’s reputation for partisan purity. Their audience could demand that all voices at least speak to the same data, but identity politics polarizes the public precisely on what should count as data. I think sometimes about those who would not travel with Jesus’s disciples, but who cast out demons in his name.

    • The sort of Christian that Bonhoeffer was belongs to a time and milieu that only God wholly remembers. If Metaxas has written an evangelical hagiography of Bonhoeffer rather than a critical biography, is it any less valuable?

  9. Robert F said

    The disappearance of “religious man” that Bonhoeffer was speaking of was really the disappearance of European “religious man.” He was not really seeing the rest of the world when he was formulating his radical ideas. It’s no wonder, given how looming were the European issues and crisis that had caught him up, added to the traditional myopia of Europeans when looking beyond their own boundaries. He was speaking to and about Europe as if it was the whole world. He can be forgiven for seeing things this way from his German prison, facing imminent death, with a seemingly apocalyptic war waging around him.

    But the reality on the ground, which we are able to recognize now, is that the world has never been more religious. The secularization that many ” Western” sociologists were auguring in the 60’s and 70’s has been limited mostly to Europe and North America, with an outpost here and there around the world (China is a separate case, and does not fit with the kind of secularization looked for by Western intellectuals). In the Global South, religious assumptions about the world, and the close sense of the supernatural, are very alive and well. Secularization has stalled, and has not denuded most of the world of its sense of the numinous and otherworldly. For most people in most places, the world is still enchanted with the supernatural.

    • Yes. And even in the ‘global north’ the data do not quite show the effect that secularization was expected to cause. For example, in England belief is higher than participation– about half the population say they identify with Church of England beliefs and values, but fewer than 10% attend their parish church. This is obviously serious malaise, but it’s not the fading of faith that Weber predicted and that New Atheists yearn to see. Does Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless(ness)’ fit such adherence without visible observance?

      • Robert F said

        Yes, I think Europeans remain religious; they, however, are not big on commitment to religious institutions. People continue to believe that the world is filled with gods, because human beings are innately religious. Was it Calvin or Luther who spoke of human beings as idol factories?

      • Robert F said

        “Does Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless(ness)’ fit such adherence without visible observance?”

        To the degree that Bonhoeffer thought that such religionlessness eschewed the deus ex machina, it cannot.

      • Each alternate causal explanation of religionlessness invites a different *sort* of reading of Bonhoeffer: (a) religion withers away because it lacks a social function, so that what survives of it, if anything, does so in a new social dress; (b) religion withers away as common knowledge becomes increasingly dissonant with its cognitive demands, so that what survives of it, if anything, is a cognitively easier mutation; (c) Christian belief withers away when the familial, relational metaphors of Father and Son become strange to a population that is not deeply ‘familiar’ [Eberstadt], so that what survives of it, if anything, is what makes moral sense to intentional non-parents.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, the Euro-centrism of Bonhoeffer’s analysis is abundantly evident, and I have friends from Africa (yes, I have some friends from Africa) who would say that it is basically worthless for them and their congregants. My pastor is working on a PhD in African theology (Kwame Bediako, et al.), and he would say the same. In Africa, they are quite happy with the old metaphysics — angels, miracles, bodily ascensions, and all that jazz.

  10. Robert F said

    “And, thus, there is a moral component to Bonhoeffer’s criticisms, namely that this metaphysics distracts and takes us away from our neighbor who wholly belongs to this world with us.”

    Ah, but neither we nor our neighbors belong wholly to this world; to truly attend to our neighbor, we must recognize that neither they nor we have needs oriented only to this world.

  11. […] part one. See the comments in part one for some good thoughts and questions from […]

  12. […] part one. See the comments in part one for some good thoughts and questions from […]

  13. Kevin, I’m glad to see you’re continuing our conversation on here! First, I want to say I think you’re right in acknowledging that any interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s meaning is primarily speculation, because we don’t really know how much of Bonhoeffer’s theological inheritance (his dialectical background) he presumes to keep at this point. We can try and square his 1944 letters with his earlier writings, but they appear (again–speculation!) so different that it truly is hard to know what, precisely, he is in fact criticizing when he speaks of a “religionless Christianity.” And you’re right in pointing out their suggestive (rather than prescriptive) nature. He himself admits to it repeatedly.

    In light of that, I want to push back on where I think you’re going based on your last paragraph. You seem to imply that Bonhoeffer remained within the dialectical camp, but I don’t believe this is the case. Certainly Bonhoeffer was critical of the liberalism of Tillich, Bultmann, et. al. (he uses the term liberal and not, as you put it, existentialism). However, he spends more ink criticizing Barth in the same letters than on the other theologians combined. If we go back ten years to 1934, there was an important, yet much less-publicized, debate between the writers of the Barmen Declaration (Barth, Niemoller et. al.) on one side, and a handful of younger up-start pastors (including Bonhoeffer) on the other. The issue was over the inclusion, in the Barmen Declaration, of a statement about where the Confessing Church stood with regard to the Jewish question. Early on, there is record of Bonhoeffer having been frustrated with Barth’s silence on this issue in particular (Bonhoeffer’s own complicated history with regard to this issue notwithstanding). Bonhoeffer, perhaps, saw Barth as having his head stuck in the theological clouds, and, thus, ignoring the needs of God’s creation. Barth even admits this much in later reflection. Bonhoeffer, in criticizing Tillich in his 1944 letters, also says he thinks Tillich was more or less right in at least attempting to answer the needs of his time and place (however effective or orthodox such an answer was). And his primary criticism of Barth in those same letters, as you rightly note, is Barth’s use of religious terms to describe God’s reality, which seems to him to leave most of humanity in the dust.

    My point is two-fold. First, as critical as Bonhoeffer was of liberal protestantism, he was equally critical of Barth’s dialectical theology. As he sat in prison–a witness to the failure of the Church in all its forms in Germany (including the Confessing Church!)–he begins to take a new direction: a third way, neither Barthian nor Tillichian (of the time), though with elements of both. This is, of course, speculation, but I believe I’m on safe ground, based on Bonhoeffer’s own criticisms, and looking at the overall arc of his theological reflection. I don’t believe he knew exactly what this would look like, and I am unwilling to make such a claim, but I think it is clear that, as much as he did not take up the liberal torch, he also no longer stood in the dialectical school by the end of his life in 1945. Perhaps he’s the first post-dialectical theologian?

    Second, whatever Bonhoeffer’s theology was in 1944, it was centered on a Christological ethics. The only book-length writing he produced during that time was precisely this, and in it are the seeds of a new theology which contains both a high Christology and a radically non-religious interpretation of theological terms. In this sense, we must reject both Altizer and Cobb as inheritors of Bonhoeffer’s radical theology, and instead look more to Harvey Cox. Tillich, in fact, moves in this direction with his own systematic theology (as we talked about a few weeks ago, I see Tillich less in the liberal camp from which he came and more the father of radical theology into which he developed in the 1950’s and 60’s). Cox takes on Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity (using Tillich’s systematics) by doubling down on both the sovereignty of God over all creation, and the kingship of Christ (could it be any more Barthian?), but interpreted through secular language, and outside of religious institutions, with temporal, political implications (if you haven’t read his “The Secular City,” I encourage you to do so!). Personally, I think this is where Bonhoeffer was going. Here’s an interview with Cox about 25 years after he wrote “The Secular City,” and he gets at many of the things we’re exploring in this conversation:

    http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=206

    See you on Saturday.

  14. […] are my thoughts in response to Kevin Davis’s perceptive series on […]

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