Engaging Post-Christian Culture: Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity

This guest post is by Prayson Daniel. Prayson, who blogs at With All I Am, has been using Faithlife Groups since 2012, and created the Natural Theology group. Prayson is from Tanzania, and he earned his BA at Harvest Bible College. He is currently pursuing his graduate studies at Aalborg University in Denmark. Prayson’s greatest desire is to inspire others to admire God through critical thinking.

What does engaging post-Christian culture mean?

“What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words—whether with theological or with pious words—is past, as is the age of inwardness and of conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether. We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ aren’t really practicing that at all; they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We have approached a “religionless” age. Some call it a post-Christian world. Ethics and politics are no longer directly influenced by religious beliefs. For many self-describing Christians, their lives show no visible difference from unbelievers—they are not engaging post-Christian culture.
“What is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?” was the question that persistently bedeviled Bonhoeffer during his solitary confinement ward at Berlin-Tegel Military Detention Center. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his participation in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Tegel was where he spent his last eighteen months in the world he saw coming of age. He was executed on April 8, 1945.

During his time in Berlin-Tegel, Bonhoeffer wrote his final letters to those closest to him, and explored the most pressing questions in his final days. These writings are available to us as Letters and Papers from Prison. In his letters and notes, the question arose, what is Christianity today? In his correspondence with his best friend, Eberhard Bethge (April–July 1944), Bonhoeffer offered some of the most bewildering and exciting questions and ideas to help Christians faithfully engage with a “post-Christian” world.

Bonhoeffer asked, “How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?” and, “Is there such a thing as a religionless Christian?” He answered these questions with “the nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts.”

What is religionless Christianity?

Bonhoeffer wrote: “If religion is only the garb in which Christianity is clothed—and this garb has looked very different in different ages—what then is religionless Christianity?”

In order to present Christianity in a world that has “come of age,” Bonhoeffer invites us to strip Christianity of all nonessential elements. He invites us to rethink our churches, our congregations, our sermons, our liturgies, and our Christian lives. He invites us to “nonreligiously” reinterpret “the concepts of repentance, faith, justification, rebirth, and sanctification.”

In order to be a missional church in a “religionless world,” Bonhoeffer wants us to ponder how we can talk about God, presupposing religious metaphysics. Like Søren Kierkegaard, he wants us to think of Christ not as an object of religion, but as a living passionate subject who is the lord of every being. He wants us to think first and foremost about proclaiming God’s righteousness and kingdom on earth, saving souls.

What matters is not the beyond but this world, how it is created and preserved, is given laws, reconciled, and renewed. What is beyond this world is meant, in the gospel, to be there for this world—not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystical, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. —Letters and Papers from Prison

For those of us who are interested in natural theology, Bonhoeffer is important for two reasons: his concern with the true relationship between God and scientific knowledge, and his solution to the problem of pain and suffering.

The true relationship between God and scientific knowledge

Bonhoeffer’s idea of religionless Christianity not only opens a door for us to reach a post-Christian world, but it can help us understand the true relationship between God and scientific knowledge.

Our God, according Bonhoeffer, is not deus ex machina—a mechanical being that appears just in time to solve our insoluble problems. He is not a being that we evoke as an explanation of the inexplicable due to our epistemic limitation. He is not a being that we only call upon to offer us strength when are powerless and weak.

If God was such a being, then he is no longer needed in our world that is learning to solve its own problems (or at least, to believe it can). Such a God is “pushed further away and thus is ever on the retreat.”1

Bonhoeffer wants us to “speak of God not at the boundaries but in the center, not in weakness but in strength, thus not in death and guilt but in human life and human goodness.”

He wrote: “When I reach my limits, it seems to me better not to say anything and to leave what can’t be solved unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the “solution” to the problem of death. God’s “beyond” is not what is beyond our cognition! Epistemological transcendence has nothing to do with God’s transcendence. God is the beyond in the midst of our lives. The church stands not at the point where human powers fail, at the boundaries, but in the center of the village.”2

Bonhoeffer want us to find God not in our epistemological gaps but in what we thoroughly understand. We are to find God “in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants to be grasped by us not in unsolved questions but in those that have been solved.”

This means we are to live our lives in religionless Christianity “etsi deus non daretur” [as if there were no God]. He stated:

“The same God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The same God who makes us to 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.”3

The solution to the problem of suffering

Bonhoeffer saw and experienced the unmistakably face of pain and suffering during the Nazi’s reign in Germany. His address of human suffering is not that of a philosophical armchair reflection, but that of a deeply affected participant in suffering. He doesn’t express classic defenses such as John Hicks’ soul-making theodicy or Alvin Plantinga’s freewill-defense.

Understanding Christianity in times of prevailing evil is what moved Bonhoeffer. His solution reflects his religionless reinterpretation of Christianity. In this reinterpretation, God is not called upon to solve the problem of pain and suffering as if he was deus ex machina, but we as Christians are called to participate with God in powerlessness and weakness. He wrote, “God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us.”

Engaging a post-Christian culture involves leaning into God

Bonhoeffer believed that the difference between a heathen and Christian is that in the former people call upon God to solve their problems while in the latter, God calls upon his people to participate in their problem. He explains:

That is the opposite of everything a religious person expects from God. The human being is called upon to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world. Thus we must really live in that godless world and not try to cover up or transfigure its godlessness somehow with religion.4

“The world come of age is more god-less and perhaps just because of that closer to God than the world not yet come of age.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Learn more about engaging post-Christian culture in Letters and Papers from Prison. Get the book.

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  1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. 2010.
  2. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. 2010.
  3. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. 2010.
  4. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. 2010.
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