Bonhoeffer painting

See part one. See the comments in part one for some good thoughts and questions from others.

This is the second and final installment of my exploration of Bonhoeffer’s “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity, found in his prison letters. I am more critical in this post — certainly, more questioning. Some of the footnote comments may be of interest, to alert those who ignore footnotes.


Bonhoeffer acknowledges that Barth was the first to recognize the mistake of “making a space” for religion in modern life, illustrated by the apologetic theologies discussed in the previous post. But, according to Bonhoeffer, Barth failed to guide us in the “non-religious interpretation of theological concepts,” which is necessary for a responsible theology today. Bonhoeffer bemoans Barth’s “positivism of revelation.”[1] What does this mean? As far as I can tell from Bonhoeffer’s brief comments, Barth failed to carry through his criticism of religion. He stopped at his criticism of these false apologetic strategies, but in their place he offered the received dogmatic material of the church’s faith. “Positivism” was sometimes used as a label for any conservative theology that subordinated itself to a given and stable authority, namely the Bible and derived confessional standards.[2] Thus, the theological task is the explication of this material, the enterprise known as dogmatics, often valuing precision of expression and analytical rigor. We do not know exactly what Bonhoeffer has in mind, but he is clearly not happy with this turn in Barth. And he uses Barth as an example of neglecting the task at hand. (We have to leave to the side whether this is fair to Barth.[3]) This task is to interpret Christian concepts into non-religious concepts, thereby rendering them more truly faithful to Christ. Why does Bonhoeffer see this as such a pressing matter? Because only in this way can modern man encounter God again, confronted with the demand of love in every situation. Thus, it is ultimately an ethical concern for Bonhoeffer, as we would expect from his previous writings. And as such, these prison letters on “religionless Christianity” can be seen as having strong continuity with his prior treatments of ethics as encounter and decision, not law and duty.

But, what are we to make of this “non-religious interpretation of theological concepts”? It is here that criticisms can emerge. In many (not all) of these statements, the “non-religious” appears to be a norm and authority for Bonhoeffer – a norm and authority derived from the world as such. So, as we see, Bonhoeffer has been discussing his impression of reading a book on physics, realizing that, as he later states, “Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God.’”[4] He will elsewhere describe this as “the world come of age.”[5] That is true, of course, insofar as it goes — for a large segment of European society, and we would not want to recover the various defensive theologies that have attempted to deal with this.

But why does Bonhoeffer then suppose that the (post)metaphysical assumptions of this “non-religious man” are determinative for the church’s proclamation? Is this not just another apologetic theology? This is the curious thing about Bonhoeffer’s account of how the church must now relate to secular man. It is remarkably uncritical about this non-religious man, to whom the church must address its liberative Word. A good illustration is when Bonhoeffer recognizes that the concern for “personal salvation” is a question that has “left us.”[6] And, thus, the church should leave it as well. I am wary of how Bonhoeffer handles this. We do not have to endorse everything that may be associated with “personal salvation,” but Bonhoeffer fails to question whether this leaving behind of concern for matters of personal salvation may be an indictment of modern man, an illustration of his rebellion. More to the point, here is another instance where Bonhoeffer simply presents, without question or criticism, that “people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more,” as he stated earlier.[7]

Bonhoeffer appears to be endorsing, without sufficient criticism, the maturation of Western philosophical and social development. Indeed, Bethge notes that in June of 1944, “coming of age” appears in his letters for the first time, a term which he held “with noticeable joy” and which, according to Bethge, “he had learned from Kant.”[8] As such, Bonhoeffer is taking modern philosophical anthropology and using it as a norm for the theological task of the church. That, at least, is my critical reading of these particular statements. But, what about his ethics and Christology?

Simultaneously, Bonhoeffer attempts to ground this concept of autonomy in his Christology, perhaps circumventing my above criticism. As Bethge notes, “The genesis is his Christology; the cross of Christ not only judges and delivers the world, but also give it freedom to be what it is in its own worldly structures.”[9] And this takes us back to his criticisms of existentialism and theologians like Bultmann and Tillich who failed to account for how “Jesus claims for himself and the Kingdom of God the whole of human life in all its manifestations,” not just man in crisis.[10] So, for Bonhoeffer, it is Christ who liberates us to live freely and joyfully in this world, and therefore this Western autonomy is properly Christian. But, we must ask, is it just a coincidence that modernity, in its own ever-progressing quest for man’s autonomy and success in doing so, is fulfilling this properly Christian anthropology? In other words, it seems that Bonhoeffer has two approaches, two starting points even, which have not been correlated or reconciled. The one originates from the phenomena of modern human life as such, and the other originates from the person and work of Jesus Christ. If Bonhoeffer had more consistently located his “religionless” project in the latter, instead of appearing to give undue weight to the former, then perhaps he could avoid censure from those of us who are wary about his proposals in these letters.

Lastly, I must mention his interesting, albeit perplexing, comments on Bultmann’s demythology project. Bultmann has appeared elsewhere in the letters, but here is perhaps the clearest statement:

Bultmann seems to have somehow felt Barth’s limitations, but he misconstrues them in the sense of liberal theology, and so goes off into the typical liberal process of reduction – the ‘mythological elements of Christianity are dropped, and Christianity is reduced to its ‘essense’. My view is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must be kept – the New Testament is not a mythological clothing of a universal truth; this mythology (resurrection etc.) is the thing itself – but the concepts must be interpreted in such a way as not to make religion a pre-condition of faith (cf. Paul and circumcision).[11]

I find this perplexing, because I really do not know what he means. He wants to retain (in some sense not defined) the miraculous and mythological but interpret them in a non-religious, non-metaphysical way, which is what I thought Bultmann was doing! And the concern about not making these metaphysical assumptions (a world where virgin births and bodily resurrections can happen) into “preconditions of faith” is at the heart of Bultmann’s project, as far as I understand it. So how exactly is Bonhoeffer retaining the mythological? Behind this question is the question of what Bonhoeffer means by “metaphysics” in his criticism of “religion.” I have noted the ethical concern, but there seems to be more. Bethge claims that, in Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, “Metaphysics here means a conceptualization of the message within the philosophical framework of both the Greeks and the idealistic philosophers of the nineteenth century.”[12] That’s pretty standard. If that is the case, then what precisely in this metaphysics must change in Bonhoeffer’s reinterpretation into non-religious categories? That is the big, glaring question to which I do not see any satisfying answer, nor does Bonhoeffer even give an attempt to answer this question. I am no fan of Bultmann’s project, but is Bonhoeffer really all that far from him?

But, as I said at the beginning of the previous post, these are suggestive reflections in the form of letters, while being imprisoned by a genocidal regime! They are not theological treatises, as we are accustomed. As a result, we are left with a lot of questions.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition, SCM Press, 1971; Touchstone, 1997), 328.

[2] Not to be confused with “logical positivism,” a philosophical movement of secular post-metaphysical scientism. In theology, “positivism” can also indicate a theology that eschews natural reason, as in Paul Janz’s definition: “Positivism in theology is any position that seeks to uphold the integrity of transcendence (or revelation) by giving up the integrity of reason or of natural enquiry” (Janz, God, the Mind’s Desire [Cambridge University Press, 2004], p. 5; Qtd. in Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma [IVP Academic, 2014], p. 80).

[3] It seems especially odd to criticize Barth in this way, given Barth’s creative and ingenious reworking of the Christian tradition: to wit, his comprehensive rejection of natural theology and his reworking of the doctrine of election, to name two areas where his “novelty” is most criticized to this day. In a letter to Eberhard Bethge, Barth wrote that “positivism of revelation” is “a concept still incomprehensible and unintelligible to me.” See Fragments Grave and Gay (London: Fontana, 1971), 119-122.

[4] Bonhoeffer, ibid., 325. The book is The World-View of Physics by C F Von Weizsacker and referred to on p. 311, ibidem.

[5] Ibid., 329, 341, 361.

[6] Ibid., 286.

[7] Ibid., 279.

[8] Eberhard Bethge, “Bonhoeffer’s Christology and His ‘Religionless Christianity,’” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 23:1 (Fall, 1967), 68.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bonhoeffer, ibid., 342.

[11] Ibid., 329. In an earlier letter (p. 285), he criticizes Bultmann for “abridging the gospel” by separating God and miracle, both of which must be interpreted “in a ‘non-religious’ sense.”

[12] Bethge, ibid., 66. Bethge describes the ethical concern as “to relocate genuine transcendence in this world – in the person next to me” (ibid.).


Image: Painting of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (source)

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.


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.


[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).


See part two.

Faith Without Apologetics

August 26, 2014


The defense of the faith (apologetics) along evidentiary or rational lines is not entirely without merit. It can serve a certain negative role, as in the way historical Jesus research can rule-out patently false postulates. To use Sarah Coakley’s examples,

Thus, for instance, if a self-proclaimed Christian believer avers that Jesus was not a Jew (a denial on which so much hung in the twentieth century), or if she insists that Jesus tells her that being obedient to him should rightly result in worldly influence and financial success (a supposition not absent from certain forms of twenty-first-century spirituality), we may appropriately object, not only on intra-Christian biblical ground, but also on historical grounds that this cannot be the same Jesus who lived and taught and walked about and was crucified in Palestine at a known period in the first century C.E.” (Seeking the Identity of Jesus, eds. Gaventa and Hays, p. 312)

Coakley is speaking to the broader usage and legitimacy of historical argumentation, not apologetics directly, but I believe the principle applies there as well. The purpose of her essay, which is brilliant, is to move past the exegetical impasse represented by the Bultmann/Käsemann debates of the 1950’s. But that is not the purpose of this post.

As with any basically competent student of Barth, I have spent considerable time negotiating the value of apologetics and the legitimacy of historical “foundations,” to the extent that is even allowed. Not happy with the metaphysical collapse into existentialism, the presumed last safeguard for Christian faith within much of twentieth-century theology (culminating at the popular level with the “death of God” controversy of the 1960’s — watch this documentary — and continuing today among self-styled radical/apocalyptic types), I am nonetheless convinced that theology is much better without apologetics on the front end. This pertains to the whole “freedom” and “joy” of theology, which are sure watchwords for an approaching Barthian!

Apologetics frequently belies an anxiety at the subjective level and a profound diminishment of God at the objective level. I have touched upon these matters in the past, in a piecemeal fashion, but I won’t argue the point at present, for the simple reason that I do not have the time. Let me just offer these reflections from Henry Sloane Coffin:

To us likewise the prophet [Isaiah] would say that a burdensome religion is a false religion; that a god whom we conceive in doctrines which we force ourselves to believe and which we struggle to safeguard, with whom we have fellowship in forms we must spur themselves to keep up, and whom we serve in duties our consciences strap on their reluctant backs, is a man-made idol, not the living and true Lord, of heaven and earth. Religion that is a load is not comradeship with the Most High God. Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you. The test by which one may discover whether he is dealing with an idol or with the living God is this: Do you feel yourself carrying your religion, or is it carrying you? Is it a weight or wings?

A Christian’s beliefs are not ideas which he compels his intellect to accept; they are convictions — ideas which grip and hold him. They seem to come with hands and arms and to grasp his reason; he is aware of being lifted and carried along by them. The Truth takes him off his feet, and he is conscious of resting on it, rather than on ground of his own choosing.

[Joy in Believing, ed. Walter Russell Bowie, pp. 8-9]

Beautiful. “Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you.”


Image: “Feeling Cheeky” by Olivia Bell. I wanted an image to capture the joy of theology, so I went with this! Do check-out her other work. It’s great.


In the previous post, I provided my lesson on Feuerbach and Nietzsche, taken from my Sunday school series on modernism and postmodernism. Here is the lesson on Michel Foucault, the widely influential French critical theorist:

Class 11: Foucault

Even though philosophy departments have moved in other directions (even back to both classical and modern metaphysics), Foucault is still alive and well within the various “studies” departments: cultural studies, women’s studies, religious studies, queer studies, pick-your-identity studies, and so on. Most importantly, echoes of Foucault can be heard across wide swaths of our culture today, with the millennials proving to be a highly receptive audience.

I did not record any audio for the lessons, so you do not have my running commentary. But, I think the slides are sufficient and hopefully of interest. This was one of the shorter lessons (in terms of the number of slides), because I spent extra time carefully explaining the technical terms in use and offering my criticisms at the end.


Image: Michel Foucault (source)

How about this answer:

Because millennials are self-entitled, self-absorbed, whining, largely pathetic excuses for humans entrusted with the propagation of our species. (I speak as a member toward the beginning of the “millennial” demarcation…early 80’s.)

I might want to nuance that answer a bit, but there’s more truth than hyperbole.

By contrast, you can read Rachel Held Evans’ response. You will never hear me say, “I tend to identify most strongly with the attitudes and the ethos of the millennial generation.” Of course you do — your blog has demonstrated that, time and again.

I was actually more annoyed by her apparent attraction to “high church” forms of the faith (Catholic, Orthodoxy, etc.) — because it appears more “authentic” — which is just another way of expressing the millennial obsession with the self’s “authenticity.” On that point, David Koyzis, at the First Things blog, hits the nail on the head.


Existentialism makes people feel smart. You don’t have to be particularly smart, and certainly not particularly well-read, but if you are one of the few enlightened ones who perceive the blind absurd competing with our illusions of optimism — then you are a cut above.

That’s how I psychoanalyze the rationale behind the Academy’s nominations for the Oscars, especially in the last few years. What makes this year’s nominees particularly interesting is not the movie nominees themselves (needless to say, a Jerry Bruckheimer film is not nominated), but that the one undeniably intelligent and, moreover, existential movie of the year — The Dark Knight — did not receive a nomination for best picture, best screenplay, or even best producer. It is truly incomprehensible. I can’t understand it except that the Academy simply will not recognize brilliance if the masses love it. It is as if popularity is a litmus test and the Academy knows that the masses cannot recognize excellence. There is surely no other explanation.

Or maybe The Dark Knight was too intelligent for the Academy. Maybe they just didn’t get it. Most of what passes for existentialism in the cinema is not actually dealing with authentic existential themes of moral dilemma. The “moral” as a serious category has long-been rejected by the artistic intelligentsia that forms the Academy. So when the Joker tries to reveal the absurd telos of created reality, linking this to evil as blind mechanistic forces — maybe that just went over the heads of the Academy. The masses may not know, either, what I just said, but they do, in general, take morality and its grounding (meta-ethics) seriously. The average person, I suspect, grasped the moral profundity in The Dark Knight, along with the cool action sequences. The Dark Knight took seriously that humans cannot be treated as means in a relative utility, even if such an ethic ultimately requires a hope beyond the absurd that runs adjacent with fallen humanity. There has never been a movie that dealt with these themes with the precision and power of The Dark Knight.

We should all protest the Oscars this year and not watch (of course, there has never been much reason to watch). The Best Motion Picture this past year was The Dark Knight, and everyone knows it. The Oscars have gotten it right in the past, a lot of times actually — Rebecca, My Fair Lady, The Godfather I and II, Rocky, Chariots of Fire, Amadeus, The Silence of the Lambs, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, to name a few. It is a shame they will fail to add The Dark Knight to that list.

Nietzsche while you jog!

October 11, 2007

Friedrich Nietzsche 

I came across some downloadable audio files (mp3 and other formats) of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil — the entire book. The sound quality is clear and the reader does a good job of not forcing his (the reader’s) personality on the recordings. This is a great alternative to those who are too busy/tired/lazy to read it. Here’s the link: