Religionless Christianity: High Gravity Pt. 3 (Bonhoeffer)

Before diving into week three of our exploration of Radical Theology we would do well to review what we’ve discusses thus far. Week one we looked at Paul Ricoeur’s essay on the critique of religion where he highlighted the necessity of wrestling with the critique of religion leveled by the three masters of suspicion (MoS), Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. At their core, all three MoS showed us that underneath religion, something unhealthy or oppressive is often going on whether it be a lust for power, a deep-seated and unacknowledged hatred of people who are different than us or an attempt to cover over our fear of death. In week two we looked at Heidegger who, in his examination of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, attempts to discover the primordial Christian experience. For Heidegger Christianity is, rather than mental assent to a set of doctrines,  primarily a way of being in the world. We took a look at Heidegger’s rejection of abstraction when it comes to thinking about God. Rather than speculating about the metaphysical nature of the capital ‘B’ Being of God, we ought to temporally enact God in the here and now.

This week we are discussing excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison. These were letters that Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend of his while he was detained in a prison prior to his execution by the Nazis. The fact that these are letters makes them incredibly personal and intimate; the reader really gets a glimpse into the heart of Bonhoeffer, his deepest reflections and struggles.

It is in these letters that Bonhoeffer introduces an idea that has come to be known as “Religionless Christianity.” Nine themes were highlighted by Pete in our lecture, three of which I would like to discuss here.

First, Bonhoeffer argues that the God of religion, Christian religion included, is often imagined as a deus ex machina, which is a term used in theater or film to describe a character that is lowered down onto the stage as an angel or a god in order to resolve some sort of problem or tension in the plot before being lifted back up out of the scene. In his own words:

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, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.

Thus, for Bonhoeffer, the god of religion is also the god of the gaps. In other words, God exists in the areas that we do not understand, the “gaps” of our knowledge. This is best illustrated in the religion-science dialogue. The more scientists figure out about the world, God is increasingly pushed out of the picture. As our knowledge increases, the “gaps” that we place God in become smaller and smaller. In some areas it seems that the gap has disappeared altogether. For example, when evolution became the scientific community’s primary way of understanding how life on earth came to be as it is today God or, as Bonhoeffer would put it, the deus ex machina, was rendered unnecessary.

The religion-science debate is not the only area in which the deus ex machina functions . For Bonhoeffer the deus ex machina is being worshipped where ever God is affirmed as the “answer to life’s problems, and the solution to its needs and conflicts.” The God of religion, then, is a conceived of as a cheap answer to all of life’s difficult questions, that which provides us satisfaction in a world that can often leave us feeling less than satisfied. In short, the deus ex machina is our guarantor of meaning.

It’s not difficult to identify the deus ex machina at work in the church today. The four spiritual laws are a way of trying to convince people that they have a problem so that they can then accept the god who is the answer to that very problem. Or, to use another example, our testimonies can often fit into the following template:

  • [Insert story about how awful your life was before you met Jesus]
  • [Insert story about how you met Jesus]
  • [Insert story about how awesome your life is now that you’ve met Jesus]

Bonhoeffer noticed that, and this is the second point, in his own time it seemed as if people were moving away from a need for the god of religion or the deus ex machina. As scientists continued to explain more and more of how the world worked and modern political theorists developed ways for society to order itself in an equitable manner there was no more felt tension that needed to be resolved by inserting God into the equation. Thus, Bonhoeffer argued that the religious epoch had come to an end.

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the ‘religious a priori’ of mankind. ‘Christianity’ has always been a form – perhaps the true form – of ‘religion’. But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless – and I think that that is already more or less the case – what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?

This leads to Pete’s third point (and our final one…for now):  for Bonhoeffer the end of religion does not spell the end of Christianity. In fact, Bonhoeffer saw the death of the religious god as a necessary phenomenon, something that needs to take place, in order for the true essence of Christianity to emerge.

So what might a religionless Christianity look like? How might we conceive of God without falling back on the deus ex machina?

These are, I think, incredibly important questions for the Church to consider. They will have to wait for another post.

Until then some questions for reflection:

In what way have you seen the deus ex machina functioning in the Church or, even closer to home, in your own life?

Do you agree with Bonhoeffer’s cultural analysis when he says that the religious epoch has come to an end?

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6 responses to “Religionless Christianity: High Gravity Pt. 3 (Bonhoeffer)

  1. I’ve experienced several deus ex machina moments in my life, but they have come in the context of an ever-present God. The temptation is, of course, to only follow God when the going gets tough (the old no atheists in foxholes argument) – but it is much more rewarding to follow God all the time. It gives those moments meaning, texture. In fact, I’m pretty sure I would have missed those moments of God in-breaking in a unique way if I wasn’t already attempting (albeit feebly) in that stream of his love and grace.

    And so here’s my question back: Is deus ex machina necessarily wrong or bad? If it is the only way we experience God, certainly. But in the context of a life lived in orientation towards God, I’m not so sure. Especially when I’ve experienced it myself, and I have seen the lives of others changed dramatically by God. Of course, dramatic change for the better is not the only way God impacts people, but I think it is one of the ways.

    As for Bonhoeffer’s belief in the end of religion, I’m not so optimistic. Institutionalized religion is ultimately about power, and we as human beings are addicted to power. Sometimes I have hope when I read quotes from Pope Francis II, or when I see real faith and grace emerge in unexpected places, but ultimately I think that there will always be those who seek to twist God’s framework to their own ends, attempting to maintain power and control through whatever means available.

  2. Jordan, I think the deus ex machina is a framework for how one understands God all the time rather than a way God acts sometimes. Bonhoeffer’s critique is aimed at those who view God as the answer to unanswerable questions or the solution to unsolvable problems. Such a way of looking at God relegates him to the margins of our lives, where we run out of resources to make sense of our circumstances. Instead, God is to be found in the center of our lives; not in what we don’t know but in what we know.

    To clarify, I don’t think this excludes God acting in dramatic ways in our lives our drastically changing the direction of our lives. What I was trying to show with the testimony template example was that I think Christian culture often puts pressure on us to iron out all the wrinkles in our post-conversion life because, it is expected, God is supposed to have taken care of all our problems by now. It’s not that life transformation doesn’t take place post-conversion. The transformation that ought to take place post-conversion, I would say, is towards a fuller embrace of life with all it’s complexities, ambiguities, and difficulties rather than an escape from these things.

    And as for the end of religion…I agree with you. Religion as Bonhoeffer describes it is alive and well (especially here in the States). I think, in light of this fact, Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion is absolutely relevant for us today. I think the way forward is for the Church to stop trying to dig in its heals against the onslaught of secularism but rather to begin to explore what a more secularized form of Christianity might look like–a Christianity that embraces the best thinking of our time (scientific, political, ethical, psychological, etc.) even if this thinking doesn’t claim to be “religious” or “Christian” or have God as it’s source.

  3. Pingback: Living As If God Did Not Exist: High Gravity pt. 3.5 (Bonhoeffer) | garret menges blog

  4. Pingback: Christianity without Religion, Deus Ex Machina, Evangelism | mnphysicists theological blog

  5. Pingback: The Ground of All Being – High Gravity Pt. 4 (Tillich) | garret menges blog

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