Dietrich Bonhoeffer and “religionless Christianity”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“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.

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7 thoughts on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and “religionless Christianity””

  1. I am currently rereading Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. His proposal for a religionless Christianity has been in the back of my mind for the past few years. I am interested in reading your opinion on this. You allude to the confusion surrounding the term, but I wonder whether you think a religionless Christianity (as spelled out in your post) is possible for “traditional” Christians (ie. Christians who participate in liturgical worship, subscribe to creeds, have dogma, etc.)? I have noticed that both progressive Christians and non-denominational Evangelical Christians have praised Bonhoeffer’s proposal, but I keep thinking that Bonhoeffer is proposing more of a change in approach and language than structure. What do you think? Does Bonhoeffer’s proposal have relevance for traditional Christians? I definitely agree that the gap-filling theologies need to go.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      As I understand it (reading around the topic), Bonhoeffer didn’t think that “religionless Christianity” necessarily meant an end to the “traditional” Christian churches – provided they were able to adapt to the new reality. As you say, it was about approach rather than structures.

      I would say that many aspects of “liturgical” Christianity come out well from the “checklist” in my post. For example, the pattern of “Mass – Office – devotion” which I’ve discussed before comes out well in terms of avoiding the “episodic”, “subjective”, “individualistic”, excessively “interior”, and so on. And of course, Bonhoeffer was a great lover of the Psalms.

      And if Bethge is right, and Bonhoeffer has to be understood within a Lutheran context as building on Luther’s distinction between “religion” (as a human work) and “faith” (as a divine gift), then that would still seem to leave a central place for preaching and the sacraments. See also his suggestion that the life of the church would be “limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men.”

      1. Your post on the threefold rule and the influence of Benedictine spirituality is interesting. I 100% agree with Bethge that Bonhoeffer needs to be read in the context of his Lutheran faith. This is part of the reason why I’m asking. It seems like he uses religion in the way Kierkegaard used the term Christendom although Kierkegaard definitely emphasized personal sanctification more than Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer’s approach to Law/Gospel is similar to Kierkegaard’s approach to the Ethical/Religious stages. What I find attractive in Bonhoeffer’s proposal is the concept of a church that exists for others and is not so concerned with self-preservation. He tries to retain a balance between individualism and church. The recent pew survey got me thinking again about Christianity in a secular world. A lot of the responses to the survey have been negative which is understandable. But I see this as a kind of opportunity. I suspect that Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity would retain a place for discipline not to attain personal sanctity but to be an effective disciple in the world. I don’t think it’s right to divorce his prison letters from Ethics or Life Together that emphasize discipline (prayer, fasting, etc.) These things would probably do the world much good and would be in agreement with Thornton’s threefold rule. We might be effective missionaries then if we weren’t so busy worshiping ourselves.

      2. Yes, I think the heart of it is “a church that exists for others and is not so concerned with self-preservation” – which also means Christians who live for others rather than being concerned with our self-sanctification.

        A couple of good quotes from a book I read last year:

        The law’s end ruins Christianity as a teleological religion, since Christ crucified cannot be a desirable goal for anyone. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’ sounds like gibberish in the legal scheme, but it means there is no goal humans must reach in Christ’s new kingdom; instead, once the law ends, one can truly begin to live – freely – without any purpose in the sense of a path to perfection. (p.223)

        And:

        Lutherans ruin the idea that good works have any standing before God, but does that mean that there is no such thing as a good work? God forbid! […] God does not need good works, he does not collect or count them or hold them in a treasury; good works are for the person who needs them, whom Scripture calls, ‘the neighbor.’ […] Before Christ’s arrival the direction of sacrifice was from the sinner up to God – vertically. ‘But now,’ it is made horizontal, and is a sacrifice acceptable to God but made to the neighbor.

        I think both those quotes are essentially talking about the same thing as “religionless Christianity” – what Bonhoeffer meant when he said that the task of a Christian in a religionless world is just to be a human rather than some kind of homo religiosus.

        A friend put this well once in some comments by email, which I’ll summarise here:

        True (ie God pleasing) earthly righteousness is always seeking the good of our neighbor. How do we know we have done good for our neighbor? Simple: We let them be the judge of that! Our Old Adam hates that!

        Sacrificial works are about my personal goodness, and dutifully monitoring that of others. It is also about avoiding having others judge us. Our Old Adam loves this! […]

        Earthly righteousness that truly pleases God has only two tests: 1) does it do no harm? and 2) does it look (as judged by our neighbor) like love has been done? Like life looks better?

        I think that’s the really critical point: as a general rule, it is our neighbour who is best placed to assess whether we have actually shown love towards them; that we have been “the church for others”, rather than just discharging our “religious” duty.

      3. My impression on this topic from reading much of Bonhoeffer recently is that he evolved away from prescriptive, punched out, paint by numbers solutions ( “religious”) that allow human beings to have a sense that they are “controlling God” more than pursuing our responsibility to respond to God moment by moment. This does not exclude any of the spiritual disciplines or the scriptures as irrelevant. But it avoids the legalistic, self-justifying arrogance of the Pharisee. This is especially profiled in the ethical and spiritual debate of strict pacifism vs. killing Hilter. No scriptural prescription is available, only a deep sense of the leading of God . It is both unnerving to some Christians ( “what? Outside the Bible? God forbid!”) as well as freeing to know God works beyond the prescriptive or “the religious” , even though spiritual disciplines are valuable and useful. Is this part of what he was trying to address.?

      4. Yes, that makes a lot of sense, and also underscores how Bonhoeffer has to be understood within his Lutheran context: there being more than a dash of Law and Gospel to his distinction between “religion” and “religiousness”.

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