Living As If God Did Not Exist: High Gravity pt. 3.5 (Bonhoeffer)

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.


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?

Dasein, The Second Coming and The Nature of God: High Gravity Pt. 2 (Heidegger)

Week two of High Gravity is complete and so it’s time to digest a bit of what was discussed. We looked at the German continental philosopher Martin Heidegger in his work entitled “The Phenomenology of Religious Life.” In this work Heidegger begins to outline his philosophy of phenomenology which he later expands in his magnum opus Being and Time. He does so by examining Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians through his own philosophical lens.

Heidegger is not easy to understand. In fact, if it weren’t for Pete and Tripp’s conversation about this work I would have been left in the dark concerning what he was trying to accomplish. The reason why Heidegger is so difficult to understand is because he creates new language in an attempt to get us thinking in ways that we’re not used to thinking.

Much of Heidegger could be understood as a critique of the scientific worldview of the post-Enlightenment era. What science had us do was examine the relationship between objects. The scientist (subject) examined natural phenomena (objects) in order to come to an understanding of the way the world works. Heidegger saw this way of looking at the world as fundamentally flawed. For Heidegger, before we even begin to experience the world through the subject-object lens we find ourselves fully immersed in the world.

A few examples that Pete used to illustrate this point:

When a carpenter uses a hammer it is almost as if the hammer doesn’t exist for the carpenter; it simply becomes an extension of his own self. It’s not until the hammer breaks that the hammer is then examined as an object by the carpenter.

In the same way, when you’re video chatting with a friend over the internet you can almost forget that you are separated by a distance. It’s not until your internet cuts out that you remember that you are talking at a screen.

So this sense of being fully immersed in the world, what Heidegger called dasein (a German word literally meaning “being there”)is fundamental for Heidegger.

In order to play out what Heidegger means by dasein he turns to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. In looking at this letter Heidegger is not concerned with what Paul believed about God but rather, how Paul experienced the world and how Paul was experienced by his community.

In this part of our lecture there were a number of things that struck a chord for me. I’ll share two.

For Paul, the past and the future collapse into and are embodied in the present moment. Thus, the notion of conversion for Paul, rather than being something that happened in the past, lives on as a living memory in the present.

In the same way, the second coming of Christ is not discussed as an objective future event in Paul.  In fact, in 1 Thessalonians Paul does not speculate about when the second coming will take place. Doing so would be a mistake because when something is relegated to the future you can distance yourself from it and remain unaffected. For example, if I’m my homework is due in two weeks then I can put it off until the night before. This is precisely what Paul is trying to avoid. So rather than speculating about the time of the second coming, Paul simply assumes that his audience experiences its immanence in their own lives and then calls them to be affected by this experience. The second coming for Paul is something that lays claim on the present moment; it’s embodied in the life of the believer in the here and now.

Another way of putting all of this is that Heidegger sees in Paul a move away from abstraction (the second coming will happen at some point in the distant future) to temporal enactment (how are you living the second coming right now?).

This comes out in the way Heidegger conceives of God as well. Rather than speculating about the metaphysical nature of God, Heidegger is more interested in the way God is experienced by the Christian in everyday life and the way in which God is embodied in the life of the believer. The word “Being” is not a word that Heidegger would have us use to describe God because in doing so we would fall back into the subject-object distinction that Heidegger wants to avoid (I, the subject, examine and attempt to understand God the capital ‘B’ Being [object] ). This radical rejection of God as Being lays the foundation for later thinkers like Caputo to imagine God in other terms (like God as “Event” – cf. Caputo’s The Weakness of God).

Ultimately, this all comes back to dasein, our full immersion in our own existence.

Anywho, Heidegger was fun. Next week we look at Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity.

Identity Politics and the Cross: Peter Rollins on the Scapegoat Mechanism

I’ve written a bit in the past on the scapegoat mechanism. This is the idea that one of the ways human communities function is by uniting in hatred against a designated “other”, the result being that this chosen victim is usually excluded from community or, at worst, killed sacrificially in order to keep the peace.

Peter Rollins, in a recent response to a critique of his Atheism for Lent project, made an interesting observation about the way that the scapegoat mechanism has functioned in the church, particularly in relation to the way the church has responded to the gay community’s cry for justice and equality:

This is why the liberal strategy of opening up communities to previously scapegoated others is not, in itself, sufficient. In religious terms we can note how some conservative churches are beginning to open up to the possibility that gays and lesbians can be equal members of their community.  Just as they eventually learned to reject explicit racism and sexism now they are gradually learning to overcome heterosexism. But the problem is that the fundamental structure of scapegoating is not broken in the acceptance of the latest “other,” and if the underlying scapegoat mechanism is not decommissioned then new “others” will always arise to protect the group from its own internal conflicts.

There will always be an other as long as we refuse to face ourselves. For example in some of these groups gays and lesbians are now being accepted as long as they embrace the idea of lifelong monogamous marriage. This means that those, gay and straight, who don’t accept that lifestyle for themselves can be excluded as immoral, corrupt and a threat to the institution of marriage.

One of the things Rollins has pointed out in his most recent book The Idolatry of God is that in too many instances has the label “Christian” become another identity marker that serves to distinguish “us” (those who are in, the blessed, the righteous, etc.) from “them” (the infidels, the heretics, the unrepentant, the sinners, etc.). Thus, the Church is just as guilty as “the outsiders” when it comes to playing the game of identity politics or utilizing the scapegoat mechanism to keep the peace.

The Church’s “other” has taken many forms. In the past it was slaves and women (indeed, there are parts of the Church in which the scapegoating of this “other” is still functioning). Today we could say that the Church’s “other” is the gay community.

Rollins points out that the answer to the church’s refusal to grant full acceptance to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is not to become more “open and affirming” (a badge that even progressives like to wear). The result of such action would merely be that we find a different “other” to scapegoat and unite against. Indeed, in many communities this is already happening. Gays and lesbians are welcome but not those who refuse to conform to our view of marriage and commitment (covenant, monogamous relationships only). Those who refuse to conform are then excluded in the name of maintaining our community’s boundaries defining who’s in and who’s out.

To become more open and affirming fails to challenge the underlying scapegoat mechanism that caused us to have an “other” in the first place.

Rollins argues that on the cross Jesus experienced the loss of all identity. As the community that gathers in remembrance of the one without an identity, the Church refuses to draw lines in the sand that separate “us” from “them.”

One of Paul’s radical insights was that he did not see the event of Christ as simply another identity to place alongside the others. Instead, he wrote of a different type of cut, one that cuts across all these concretely existing identities [Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female, etc.*]. In an unprecedented move, he wrote of how those who identify with Christ are no longer held captive by these categories… (pg. 106)

Jesus’ passion teaches us that the scapegoat mechanism is not to be utilized by those in the Church. Rather than finding unity in the sacrificing or exclusion of a chosen victim, the Church, as a community of those who identify with Christ’s loss of identity on the cross, gathers around a table where we break bread and remember our crucified Messiah. We are called not to play the game of identity politics.

For All You Batman Lovers Out There

I recently stumbled upon this Peter Rollins blog post (I have no idea who he is, by the way) and found it quite interesting. It discusses the whole concept of actually living out what we claim to believe by using the example of Bruce Wayne’s paradoxical lifestyle involving running a multi-million dollar corporation by day and then fighting crime by night. It is the capatalistic system, Rollins would say, and the corporations that fuel it, that have created the crime Wayne is attempting to combat.  The part of the article that really hits home for me is his analysis of our beliefs (I have bolded the section of the article that summarizes what I’m referring to). Are we actually living out the values and ideals that we deem important or are we just taking part in religious activities to clear our consciences and make us feel like we are actually making a difference?

Hmmmm…interesting thought…

Here’s the article:

Brecht once famously wrote, “what is the crime of robbing a bank compared to the crime of founding one?” Is this not the very sentiment that we must bare in mind as we watch Batman at work? By day he is Bruce Wayne, a wealthy industrialist, by night he is Batman, combing the streets of Gotham City for criminals to beat up and people to save.

His obsession with street crime arises as a direct result of witnessing his Mother and Father murdered by a thief. His Father was a philanthropist who attempted to help Gotham City by funding social projects and local charity work. Bruce, however takes a different approach and uses his wealth to fund a vigilante war on terror.

One could say that Bruce Wayne is fundamentally different from his Father in so much as the later concentrated on helping victims of crime while the former seeks to punish the perpetrators of crime. However, it would be more accurate to say that Bruce is merely continuing his Fathers business by different, but equally flawed, means.

Both are obsessed with the subjective violent eruptions that take place on the streets of Gotham City and both seek to address them. However, in the midst of all their activities neither pay attention to their own (sublimated) violence. This violence is that which has been objectified in the very economic structures that allow corporations like Wayne Industries to make such vast sums of money in the first place. Batman is unable to see that the subjective crime he fights on a nightly basis is the direct manifestation of the objective crime he perpetrates on a daily basis. The street crime is the explosion of violence that results from greedy, large industries obsessed with the increase of abstract capital at the expense of all else. It is not enough to hate subjective explosions of crime, one must turn ones attention to the ground that feeds these expressions.

Indeed one could say that it is the very philanthropic work of his Father and the crime-fighting of Wayne that actually provide the valve that allows them both to continue in their objective violence. What better way to feel good about yourself than volunteering at a local charity in the evenings (like his Father) or beating up on street criminals in the evenings (like Wayne). Such acts (like a prayer meeting, worship service or bible study) can recharge the batteries and make us feel like our true identity is pure and good when in reality it simply takes away the guilt that would otherwise make it difficult for us to embrace our true (social) self who is expressed in the activities we engage in for the rest of the week. The philosophy here is exposed as “do something so that nothing really changes”.

Perhaps then the next film will not have Batman running around beating up drug dealers and pimps (an impotent project anyway as there is only one Batman for the whole city), but rather dissolving Wayne Industries, setting up free health care and campaigning for radically different socio-political structures.

Mind you, it might not be as fun to watch (and I am very much looking forward to seeing the new Joker in action).