“Religionless Christianity” is one of the resonant phrases (along with “the church for others” and “the world come of age”) which emerged from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “prison theology”, and which have intrigued many Christians ever since.
Bonhoeffer’s death prevented him from developing these ideas further or making it clearer what “religionless Christianity” means or looks like in practice. In many ways, the phrase has become a blank screen onto which Christians have projected their own ideas about what the church should look like.
Sabine Dramm’s book Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction to his Thought provides a helpful, brief exposition of Bonhoeffer’s prison theology. As I’ve described here, Dramm is particularly good at showing how the prison theology stands in continuity with what Bonhoeffer had been saying before his arrest – including in his unfinished Ethics, but also in books such as Discipleship – rather than being a sharp departure from his earlier theology.
Dramm demonstrates that Bonhoeffer’s “non-religious interpretation of Christianity” does not imply “a renunciation of every type of cult” (i.e. of corporate worship or personal devotion), but is about “Christian life in a non-religious world”; a world in which it is no longer self-evident that people have “a sort of religious antenna” (pp.199f.) However, it is still left unclear as to what “religionless Christianity” actually looks like.
This essay by Will Abbott describes some of the attempts that have been made to unpack Bonhoeffer’s phrase, by scholars including Bonhoeffer’s friend Eberhard Bethge, Clifford Green, Larry Rasmussen and Paul Ricoeur. One recurring theme is the rejection of the “God of the gaps” concept, including the final “gaps” of metaphysics and personal interiority. Others include “the centrality of christology” and (picking up on another of Bonhoeffer’s phrases) “the idea that Christianity is directed towards others in the world.” Bethge, in particular, links it to Luther’s distinction between religion as a human work and faith as the work of God.
For me, the most useful part of Abbott’s essay is the “checklist” he provides for assessing which elements of Christianity are “religious” or “religionless” in the sense intended by Bonhoeffer:
- Is it episodic? Does it focus on crises in people’s lives, and ignore their ordinary existence?
- Is it parochial? Does it relate only marginally to people’s lives?
- Is it subjective? Does it focus on private issues?
- Is it individualistic? Does it ignore the bonds of community and focus on a person’s relationship to God to the exclusion of that person’s relationships with other people?
- Is it otherworldly? Does it ignore life here and now to focus on a paradise to come?
- Is it intellectually dishonest? Does it attribute to God what can be explained otherwise?
- Is it humiliating? Does it demean the value of a human being?
- Is it self-centred? Does it focus a person’s attention in him- or herself, to the exclusion of others?
- Is it gap-filling? Does it use God solely to explain something we can’t currently explain otherwise?
- Is is interior? Does it focus exclusively on a person’s internal, affective state?
This list isn’t intended to be applied rigidly – “it is quite unlikely that something will be rejected for meeting only one of them” – but provides a basis for thinking critically about our life as a church. To take one example: for Bonhoeffer, an example of “religion” was the tendency to turn to God only in times of trial or distress (a tendency that, in the terms used above, may be “episodic”, “individualistic”, “self-centred” or “parochial”); the absence of this tendency among his fellow prisoners, even during “the nightly torment of air raids,” was one of the observations that led Bonhoeffer to his belief in a “post-religious” humanity. “There are no atheists in foxholes” is thus a religious statement in this sense.
Another example (this time of the “intellectually dishonest” or “gap-filling” aspects of religion) might be the tendency described by Bonhoeffer, when he asks rhetorically whether the church’s remaining target market amounts to:
a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as “religious”. Are they to be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce in fervour, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them our goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? (Letters and Papers from Prison, p.280).
This is brutal stuff, but are we quite sure that our churches’ “evangelistic” strategies are entirely free of such thoughts?
Where all this leaves us isn’t clear, and perhaps never may be. But Bonhoeffer’s sketched-out thoughts on this subject can continue both to challenge and inspire us. To end on a more positive note, for Eberhard Bethge (as summarised by Abbott) “religionless Christianity” amounts to “living for one’s contemporaries”; resolving “to stay in contact with the world around [us], rather than flee to some otherworldly realm.” In short, it is:
the commitment to live in the world and for the world, listening to the world’s needs, and responding to the world in the world’s own language.