We ended our last discussion of Bonhoeffer by noting that the end of religion or the death of the religious god understood as the deus ex machina is a prerequisite for the emergence of the radical essence of Christianity.
Thus, I want to ask the following question in this post: What might the Church look like without religion?
I want to highlight three things about Bonhoeffer’s vision of a religionless Church: the first one has to do with our theology (how we understand God) and the second two have to do with our praxis (how this theology or understanding of God is enacted in the world).
So theology first. According to Bonhoeffer’s cultural analysis, society lives without any need for God. Another way to say this is that our society has become thoroughly secular (this claim definitely reveals Bonhoeffer’s cultural and temporal context, although to some extent it still applies to our own). A great deal of modern people live as if there were no God. The way the Church has traditionally responded to this secularization is by attempting to carve out sacred space in a world that’s proving to be utterly profane. The Church has continued trying to find some area of life that is ‘unknowable’ or ‘mysterious’ to us and place God in this ‘gap’ of human knowledge or experience. For Bonhoeffer, this approach is doomed to failure. Instead of attempting to defend the god of the gaps, the deus ex machina, Bonhoeffer argues that the Church should, along with society, begin to live as if there were no God. In his own words:
And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [as if God did not exist]. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
It becomes clear at this point that Bonhoeffer’s theology is thoroughly Jesus-centered. Specifically, the suffering of Jesus as described in the four canonical gospels is very important for his understanding of God. For Bonhoeffer, the cross forces us to acknowledge that the God of Christianity is a God of weakness and powerlessness. Ours is a God who suffers with humanity rather than standing far above the earth in utter transcendence, immutability and omnipotence.
So, if God has let himself be pushed out of the world and exists in the world only by means of his suffering with us then how are we to live in the world in light of this fact?
One of the ways forward that Bonhoeffer suggests is that we must begin to talk about God without religious language. He brings up the work of New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann at this point who’s project was to “dymythologize” the New Testament. In essence, Bultmann believed that the truth of the gospel was couched in mythological language (resurrection, ascension, miracles, etc.) and so the task of the modern theologian was to get behind the culturally-bound myth in order to unveil the irreducible and universal truth behind it all. For Bonhoeffer, Bultmann’s project did not go “too far” (something that many conservatives accused Bultmann of doing) but rather, did not go far enough. Bultmann attempted to chuck language of miracles, ascension, etc. out the window but he kept language of God. Bonhoeffer suggests that God, too, must be demythologized.
[Aside: Pete mentioned something interesting at this point in the lecture. He said that people love to demythologize hell but that we hesitate to do the same with heaven. In other words, it’s in vogue to talk about hell as a “this-worldly” reality, something that should be understood, not as a place that bad people go to after death, but as a way of life in the here and now that people choose to live in; a life of selfishness, suffering and pride (think Rob Bell in Love Wins). But heaven? Are we willing to demythologize heaven? Are we willing to give up heaven as a place that we go to after we die? The same could be true about Satan who, in many liberal circles, is not understood as a metaphysical being but rather as more of a force or a set of systems and structures that work to create division, rivalry and war between various people groups. But God? “Oh yeah,” say the demythologizers, “God is still a metaphysical being.” Could there be a double standard operating here?]
To demythologize God, I think, is to speak of God in a way that has everything to do with this world. We cannot relegate God to an other-worldly or heavenly realm. Bonhoeffer connects with Heidegger here as they both call us to move away from abstraction and metaphysical speculation.
This leads to the last thing I want to highlight from Bonhoeffer: the Church after religion is utterly “this-worldly” and must exist for the world. Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the incarnation is that God has, once and for all time, taken up residence here on the Earth in all its suffering, messiness and dirtiness. Additionally, the resurrection, rather than being an escape from this world, is God’s way of sending a renewed humanity back into the world. Again, Bonhoeffer in his own words:
The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope [that saves humanity to an other-worldly paradise] is that the former sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way which is even more sharply defined than it is in the Old Testament. The Christian, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself (‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’), he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ. This world must not be prematurely written off; in this the Old and New Testaments are at one. Redemption myths arise from human boundary-experiences, but Christ takes hold of a man at the centre of his life.
Thus, to be Christian is not to rise above this world but to be fully human in the world. The Christian recognizes the divine in the here and now, in mundane, every day tasks and in encounters with our neighbor. The Christian suffers with the world to the very end rather than retreating to a paradise in an attempt to escape from the world. The Christian lives without using religious language to describe God because God, rather than being a metaphysical capital ‘B’ Being of omnipotence up in the sky, is to be found in the depth of human experience right here, right now–in suffering and table fellowship and folding laundry.
The way Bonhoeffer puts it, “God would have us know that we must live as [people] who manage our lives without him.” Once we accept this, we are freed up to fully embrace life with all its imperfections and as we do so we find God in the midst of our daily living.
Religion, as it is defined by Bonhoeffer, has us looking for God in a blissful heaven that’s out of this world. The radical Christian affirmation, however, is that God forsook this heavenly bliss to come and dwell among us. God isn’t to be found anywhere but right here in our midst. The transcendence of God is immanently present.