Renewing the Mediating Power of Christ with Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard

While I am often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people—because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it is particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable)— to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course. Dietrich Bonhoeffer[1]

As soon as Christ’s kingdom makes a compromise with this world and becomes a kingdom of this world, Christianity is abolished. But if Christianity is in the truth, it is certainly a kingdom in this world, but not of this world, that is, it is militant. Søren Kierkegaard [2]

We are living through a period in which Christian belief is proving implausible if not impossible. This cultural/political moment seems, for many, to have exhausted the possibility of keeping the faith, perhaps because of personal injustices suffered or because of the exposure of the underbelly of religion gone bad.  As I see it unfold all around, I completely understand the particular circumstance of friends, acquaintances and former students in their turn from the faith, and by “understand” I mean I feel what they are feeling. The Christian complicity in racism, in religious nationalism, in deadly stupidity, combined with a loss of trust in church institutions and the personal wounds inflicted by the same, is crisis invoking. At a more basic level, there is a huge question mark in front of God’s love, control and providence, and a feeling that the Christian message is implausible, irrelevant and inconsequential.

If ever there were someone who understood and dealt with a similar crisis of faith, it must have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, partly due to his work with German counter-intelligence, was aware he was living through the complete failure of the church during what would come to be called the Holocaust or Shoah. It was a period in which the church and Christians had not only failed but had, in part, enabled the “final solution” – thus he calls for a new form of the faith called “religionless Christianity.” Christian anti-Semitism was the basis of German and National Socialist anti-Semitism – which is one reason why Bonhoeffer felt that he could no longer speak the name of God and presume to be communicating. Bonhoeffer would propose his religionless form of the faith in the face of what he considered the end of Western Christianity. In his religionless Christianity, along with his notions of “cheap” and “costly” grace, worldliness, obedient faith, the need for personal choice, the rejection of institutionalism and German idealism, he is following Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard too had faced a complete collapse of trust in the institutions of the church and had turned, not to reform so much as an abandonment of Christianity as he knew it. Both Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard speak of a costly grace that bids one come and suffer and die with Christ, as opposed to a triumphalist Christianity that presumes personal safety, comfort, and security as part of the faith. The idea, however, that may best sum up both thinkers, both in their relationship to others and in their understanding of how the Christian, in spite of the failure and complete absence of the church and authentic Christianity, is the notion of Christ’s mediating power in the life of the Christian. Both turn to the existential experience of the individual and the need for Christ to stand in immediate relationship to the “I” so as to mediate God, self, and the world.

My claim here is not without controversy at any level: some see no connection between the two thinkers, some would not make the connection between Bonhoeffer’s relgionless Christianity and Kierkegaard’s anti-Christendom, some see a contrast between Kierkegaard’s focus on the individual and Bonhoeffer’s focus on the community of the church, but more importantly what is contested is that these two thinkers are conjoined in an effort toward the emergence of a new form of the faith as seen in the mediating role of Christ. Afterall, Kierkegaard eschews any role as a reformer and Bonhoeffer is true to his Lutheran context, never envisioning anything more than the church in which he was raised – or so the argument goes.[3] What I would argue (following Mathew Kirkpatrick, among others) is, not only are Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard conjoined in their major categories and focus but they both envision a reform of the definition of faith, beginning with an abandonment of the established church and a reworking of what it means to be human as this is mediated by Christ.  

First there is a turn from the mediating role of the established church. In the article, “This Must Be Said, So Let It Be Said,” Kierkegaard encourages a boycott of the church “Whoever you are, whatever your life is otherwise, my friend—by ceasing to participate . . . in the public divine service as it now is . . . you always have one and a great guilt less—you are not participating in making a fool of God by calling something New Testament Christianity that is not New Testament Christianity.” Kierkegaard calls for the destruction of the established church, “Yes, let it happen. What Christianity needs is not the suffocating protection of the state; no, it needs fresh air, persecution, and—God’s protection.” He compares the clergy to stockholders in a company where the best dividends will be paid out to those who avoid the harsh truth of the gospel. In The Moment Kierkegaard not only denounces the clergy for having discarded authentic Christianity but declares that the state church has made Christianity’s existence impossible. For by employing the clergy the state gives these professional stockholders a vested interest in maintaining the situation. As Kirkpatrick notes, throughout The Moment, Kierkegaard describes the clergy as “parasites,” “wolves,” “swindlers,” “criminals,” “forgers,” “soul-sellers,” “oath-bound liars,” “perjurers,” “hypocrites,” “cannibals,” “thieves,” “huckstering knaves,” etc.[4] He pleads with his readers:

But one thing I beseech you for God in heaven’s sake and by all that is holy: avoid the pastors, avoid them, those abominations whose job it is to hinder you in even becoming aware of what true Christianity is and thereby to turn you, muddled by gibberish and illusion, into what they understand by a true Christian, a contributing member of the state Church, the national Church, and the like. Avoid them . . .

Kierkegaard, by the time he writes this, no longer believes that Christianity exists in Christendom, and that Christendom actively inhibits Christianity. There is no longer any Christianity to reform, Kierkegaard argues in his own voice.  

This whole junk heap of a state Church, where from time immemorial there has been, in the spiritual sense, no airing out—the air confined in this old junk heap has become toxic. Therefore the religious life is sick or has expired, because, alas, precisely what worldliness regards as health is, Christianity, sickness, just as, inversely, Christian health is regarded by worldliness as sickness. Let this junk heap tumble down, get rid of it; close all these boutiques and booths, the only ones that the strict Sunday Observance Act exempted . . . and let us once again worship God in simplicity instead of making a fool of him in magnificent buildings. Let it again become earnestness and cease to be play . . .

While this harsh conclusion might be tempered by Kierkegaard’s earlier statements, it remains that he sees only one way forward – and that is through the “single-individual” immediately dependent upon Christ.

In my previous blog (here) I demonstrated Bonhoeffer’s acknowledgement of the failure of the church. In Letters and Papers from Prison he indicates the Christian religion has for 1,900 years rested on the false belief of some sort of instinctive “religious a priori,” in which humankind is naturally endowed with an innate perception of God. Religion has been a garment in which authentic Christianity has sometimes been cloaked and the concern has been with its portrayal of God as a strong, transcendent figure, standing beyond the world. The cloak must be shed, according to Bonhoeffer, because the trappings have displaced the substance. Bonhoeffer calls for the church to sell its land, to cease paying the clergy – who should seek support in free-will offerings or through secular jobs. In Christology, Bonhoeffer attacks the church for its elitist message, such that “for the working-class world, Christ seems to be settled with the church and bourgeois society.” By 1940 with the essay “Guilt, Justification, Renewal,” Bonhoeffer’s understanding is even more severe: “The church was mute when it should have cried out, because the blood of the innocent cried out to heaven.” The guilt of the church is such that it has misused the name of Christ, attempting to secure itself rather than take a dangerous stance alongside the suffering. He concludes, the church is only the church when it is there for others, so the church has failed to be the church.

Both Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer turn to a more immediate understanding of Christ’s mediation. It is not through the institutional church or the clergy, but it is Christ within the individual and their perception of the self and world where Christ mediates. As early as Act and Being (his second dissertation), Bonhoeffer reflects Kierkegaard in the notion that transcending the limits of a world “enclosed in the I” is the beginning of a true experience of God. “A ‘genuine ontology’ requires an object of knowledge—a genuine Other—that ‘challenges and limits the I. The ‘being of revelation’ is just such an object of knowledge. It does not depend on the I, whose being and existing it precedes in every respect.” In this “being of revelation” human knowledge is suspended in “a being-already-known.”[5]

Kirkpatrick claims, “For both Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, everything concerns the ability to say “I,” and that before God.”[6] Kierkegaard’s psychological writing is forged around the idea that the individual only becomes an authentic (spiritual) self when “grounded transparently in the power that established it.” Both Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard describe individual participation in the Trinity; the Son, mediating relation to the Father through the Spirit. This becomes a possibility and reality through the guidance and imitation of Christ, a Kierkegaardian understanding deployed by Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer’s copy of the book, Sickness Unto Death, bore the marks of his heavy underlining, according to Kirkpatrick).

As Kierkegaard describes it, “Despair is a Sickness in the Spirit, in the Self” in which there is a refusal or failure to be a self. This despair has primarily to do with one’s relation within the self – between what he calls the relation between the body and the soul. “In the relation between two, the relation is the third term as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation, and in the relation to the relation; such a relation is that between soul and body, when man is regarded as soul.” There is an antagonism built into the human self-relation which is definitive of the human disease.  The primary importance does not pertain to any one element of the relation (soul or body or the ego) but to the dynamics of the relation or to the negative unity (death drive) or to what Paul calls “the body of sin” or “the body of death.”

 The conflict between the law of the mind and the “I” (the ego) is constituted in the third term: “the body of death” or “the body of sin.” The body of death is an orientation of the “I” to itself with “itself” objectified through the law. The relation can be constituted in a negative unity (the body of sin or the body of death) but he also offers another possibility: The one “which constituted the whole relation.” “This formula [i.e. that the self is constituted by another] is the expression for the total dependence of the relation (the self, namely), the expression for the fact that the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that Power which constituted the whole relation.”

Kierkegaard’s psychological portrayal (as in Sickness Unto Death), of the immanent and immediate role of Christ’s mediating role pervades the thought and theology of Bonhoeffer. Kirkpatrick’s dissertation and book argue that Kierkegaard’s notion of the individual, including his understanding of love and the concept of mediation, are behind Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the individual in community and his notions of obedience and discipleship. Bonhoeffer, according to Kirkpatrick, fulfills Kierkegaard’s notion of a reformer as here is the single individual leading people in obedience through the mediation of Christ.

Despite his profound thoughts concerning the nature of community and the authority of the church, the foundation of Bonhoeffer’s theology is that of the single individual, drawn away from direct relationship with others into the mediation of Christ, bound to undivided relationship with God. [7]

The failure of the Church and the failure of Christianity in Christendom might be seen as something on the order of Paul’s thorn in the flesh realized corporately and universally. The church triumphant and the religious version of the faith (focused on defending God’s transcendent might), turn out to be the great weakness and failure of the Western form of the faith. In the midst of this failure Bonhoeffer envisions the emergence of a new form of the faith, largely based on his reading of Kierkegaard. While he never has the opportunity to spell this out (the Nazis kill him before he can even begin his projected work), what it most clearly revolves around is the understanding that Christ bids me come and die so that “I” can be overcome.

 In Christ, God’s self-revelation, we are brought to “the boundary of the being that has been given to [us]” and it is only here through “the God who became human” that we become human. Divine and human are not “two isolated realities” as God’s “vertical Word from above” neither adds nor subtracts “but rather qualifies this entire human being as God.” Jesus Christ becomes God for us and we become fully human in faith alone. In his Lectures on Christology Bonhoeffer says, “I can never think of Jesus Christ in his being-in-himself, but only in his relatedness to me.” At the same time, Christ is my limit – the boundary of my being and my true center. As the one “through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6), he is the mediator of every relationship with the Creator.[8]

The way forward in this time of crisis – or the way this time of crisis points – is to the realization that Christ only wants us to become “the human beings that we really are.” As Bonhoeffer says, “Pretension, hypocrisy, compulsion, forcing oneself to be something different, better, more ideal than one is—all are abolished.”[9] The realization is that we can only become truly “human before God” through the mediation of Christ in apprehending all things.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967), 141–42.

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity. Translated and edited by Howard V. Hong, and Edna H. Hong. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 211.

[3] Both though attack the notion of a state church, with Bonhoeffer hinting to Barth, “Several of us are now very drawn to the idea of a free church.”

[4] I am utilizing Matthew D Kirkpatrick, Attacks on Christendom in a World Come of Age: Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and the Question of “Religionless Christianity” (Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 166) (Kindle Locations 6296-6302). Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[5] This is Peter Hooton’s summation from Act and Being, in the unpublished version of his dissertation.

[6] Kirkpatrick 7568

[7] Kirkpatrick 7530-7536

[8] “Lectures on Christology,” DBWE (Collected works in English) 12: 305, 353, Quoted from Hooton, 192 in Beyond, in the Midst of Life: An Exploration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity in its Christological Context, Dissertation submitted to St Mark’s National Theological Centre, School of Theology, CSU in 2018.

[9] Ethics, DBWE 6: 94. Ibid 193.

Religionless Christianity

Part of the contested legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer pertains to what he might have meant by a religionless Christianity. Both the “death of God theologians” and those who presume that, with this phrase, he was referring only to his particular and immediate context in Nazi Germany, seem to miss that Bonhoeffer is making a theological and biblical argument and not simply a cultural observation. Bonhoeffer presumes to find this religionless understanding, not simply in Germany or in a secular age, but in the Old and New Testament and particularly in the theology of Paul. My argument, made through his own statements in Letters and Papers from Prison, is that Bonhoeffer may well be working from within a German Lutheran framework, but he is picturing the emergence of a mature world Christianity which will abandon the religious sensibility, inclusive of various forms of Christianity (including those of his own immediate context), which has made impossible a true sharing in God’s suffering in Christ and thus a true experience of God. As early as 1934 he was convinced that “in the West Christianity is approaching its end – at least in its present form and its present interpretation.”[1] His development of a religionless Christianity is not a departure from his earlier vision nor is it necessarily a relinquishing of his Lutheranism, but it entails the emergence of something new in terms of fulfillment and maturity.

His first resource for speaking of this religionless conception is the Old Testament and the fact that “the Israelites never uttered the name of God.”[2] In prison he has undertaken a re-reading of the Old Testament and has read it two times. He recognizes that there is no discussion of the saving of souls or deliverance from out of this world, but the focus is this-worldly – the establishment of God’s kingdom and righteousness on earth.

Then, he finds in Paul’s depiction of passage beyond circumcision the modern-day equivalent of a passage beyond religion. Religion is no more a condition for salvation than circumcision, thus he can conclude, “Freedom from circumcision is also freedom from religion.” A right understanding of Paul would entail a moving beyond the defining characteristics and delimiting factors of religion.

Religion, he explains, “means to speak on the one hand metaphysically, and on the other hand individualistically.” Where religion is concerned with ontology and the saving of souls, Bonhoeffer claims, “Neither of these is relevant to the biblical message or to the man of today.” He characterizes religion as man’s attempt to find God and contrasts this with biblical revelation. The human word is pitted against the divine Word or the Logos of God.

His is an argument not simply about cultural interpretation but biblical interpretation. He asks, “fundamentally, isn’t this in fact biblical? Does the question about saving one’s soul appear in the Old Testament at all?” And his point is that the New Testament must be read against this Old Testament background. “Aren’t righteousness and the Kingdom of God on earth the focus of everything, and isn’t it true that Rom. 3.24ff. is not an individualistic doctrine of salvation, but the culmination of the view that God alone is righteous?”

So, a religionless Christianity is not an embrace, as an end in itself, of secularism and atheism, but these eventualities afford a correct reading of the Bible. With the rise of secularism Christianity can take its proper place, not at the boundaries of society but in the center of earthly and human concerns. The world come of age leads “to a true recognition of our situation before God.” This was always where Christ pointed. “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).”

God wants us to live in the world without the religious hypothesis of God. This is why God let himself be pushed out of the world on the cross, so that we would stand before him in full authenticity. “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.” He is not with us as a stop-gap or as the Big Other, present in oppressive strength. “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 is not religiosity Christ calls for but shared suffering. “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.” This is true conversion: “not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event, thus fulfilling Isa. 53.”

This is no system of belief in abstract doctrine or in comprehending God in his omnipotence, as all this accomplishes is an extension of religion. Genuine experience of God begins with an encounter with Jesus Christ. The encounter with the one who “is there only for others” transforms the world and every aspect of belief as this is a true encounter with God. This means attaining to the transcendent is not a striving after the infinite or attempting “unattainable tasks,” as the transcendence of the neighbor encounters us in any given situation. The “man for others” turns us to the neighbor to find the immediate manifestation of the transcendence of God. God in human form is the true encounter with the divine, not the remote and terrifying. “Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others’, through participation in the being of Jesus.”

Bonhoeffer does not hesitate to challenge what he calls the misdirection of the Apostles’ Creed (proving once again he is not thinking only about his context but the church universal). The problem with the Apostles creed is that it begins with the wrong question. “‘What must I believe?’ is the wrong question.” This does not pertain to the true faith of Christianity and we should not, he warns, entrench ourselves as Barth and the Confessing Church would have it, behind questions of doctrine and belief. We should not, “like the Roman Catholics,” let the church do our believing for us by simply identifying with the church. “The church is the church only when it exists for others.” Just as the Christian is only a follower of Christ when he exists for others, so too with the church. To make a start the church “should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling.” The church and its people “must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.” It must show and tell what it means to live in Christ by witnessing to this existence for others. “It must not under-estimate the importance of human example; it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.” Here is the way belief works – not through abstract doctrine but in deed and power. This is how we “believe in such a way that we stake our lives on it.” This God who bids us come and die is only disclosed in this narrow way.

This marks the difference between the God of religion and the God of Christianity, as man in his distress imagines a God who can fill in the gaps in his weakness, while Christianity directs us to a God of suffering love. As long as humankind only experiences God as a security blanket he cannot know the God of the Bible. The false conception of God is exposed in man recognizing his own strength, and to fully acknowledge the godless world and by so doing share in God’s sufferings. The non-religious God is only revealed with a full acknowledgement of the godless world, and it is in this way that one comes nearer to God. So the strange paradox develops: “The world that has come of age is more godless, and perhaps for that very reason nearer to God, than the world before its coming of age.” This godlessness affords the opportunity to know God as he is revealed in weakness and shared suffering in Christ. In forsakenness there is a turn, in Charles Taylor’s language to the immanent frame, but this is where Bonhoeffer imagines Christianity always directed us. “It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored.”

Bonhoeffer makes it clear he is not speaking of provisional measures or from the perspective of theological liberalism but from a new theological understanding. His claim is that theological liberalism, in its demythologizing tendencies has still not gone far enough, in that it is simply attempting an abridgement of the Bible. What is called for is a “theological” re-conception of the Bible. Not a demythologization so much as a holistic re-enchantment, in which what is above this world is made immanent – the very intent of creation, incarnation, crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now there is an unfolding of the Gospel, not in Hegelian terms in which the world come of age is a historical achievement, but in biblical terms in which the Gospel is bearing universal fruit for all of the world. This fruit is the possibility of a religionless Christianity.

He describes the origins of this possibility, much as Taylor does secularism, as originating in the thirteenth century with the rise of human autonomy, the development of science, social and political developments (including art, ethics and religion), such that there is a “completion” in which man has learnt to deal with himself “without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God’.” So “it is becoming evident that everything gets along without ‘God’ – and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.” This God confined to religion, though, needs to be pushed out so at to arrive at a more mature understanding.

Religion limits the role of God to a stop-gap, a resource “when human knowledge has come to an end, or when human resources fail” so that the God of religion 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.” The world come of age is one in which human limitations are narrowed so that a place for God is simultaneously restricted. With scientific, sociological, and psychological progress there seems to be no end to human self-sufficiency, but for Bonhoeffer this is not bad news for Christianity as it affords a severing of Christianity from religion.

Rather than continually trying to preserve space for God and attempting through apologetics and metaphysics to keep human-kind attached to its adolescence, the world come of age calls for a mature faith. “The attack by Christian apologetic on the adulthood of the world I consider to be in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third place unchristian.” It is pointless as there is no returning to a previous age or the possibility of creating dependence in place of an achieved independence or to create a problem where there is no problem. It is ignoble because it amounts to an attempt to exploit a weakness which secular man knows nothing about. He maintains it is “Unchristian, because it confused Christ with one particular stage in man’s religiousness, i.e. with a human law.”

Rather than exploit a non-existent weakness or attempt to smuggle God into a “last secret place,” in a world come of age humankind needs to be confronted at its place of strength. Bonhoeffer explains, “I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness.” Rather than setting God at the boundaries and utilizing him for a stop-gap for human weakness now the faith of the Bible can be reconceived with God at the center of the world. While there will always be the delimitations of human finitude, and those things which prove insoluble, it is better to let the religious inclination to fill in these silences cease. It is better, Bonhoeffer maintains, “to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved.”

To live with God at the center is to give up “any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one.” To live in this world with God will mean “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.” Only in this way can we “throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane.” Here is true metanoia – a conversion from out of religion in which one becomes a mature Christian. “How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?”

So, for example, rather than conceive of resurrection as the “solution” to the problem of death, and rather than conceiving of God’s transcendence in epistemological terms, these categories need to be read into the world. Resurrection and God are not simply future and beyond our cognitive faculties, but God’s transcendence and resurrection need to be the ordering principles of society – set not on the periphery but “in the middle of the village.” This, Bonhoeffer explains, is how to read the New Testament in light of the Old and this is the initial shape of this religionless Christianity.

This new religionless faith will disempower former ways of speaking and a new vocabulary will arise, centered on prayer and righteous human action. Bonhoeffer projects a time in the life of the next generation (the life of Bethge’s son whom Bonhoeffer would have baptized if not imprisoned and is the occasion for which he lays this out) in which “All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.”

Is he speaking here of simply provisional change or is he in fact thinking of this time as a complete reformation of the church? He says, “By the time you have grown up, the church’s form will have changed greatly. We are not yet out of the melting-pot, and any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organization will merely delay its conversion and purification.” I suppose one could read this as a focus on Germany and the German church, but Bonhoeffer seems to be describing a worldwide emergence of something new. “It is not for us to prophesy the day (although the day will come) when men will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it.”

He does not claim to have worked out the details of this reordered world and this new humanity with its new way of speaking, but he most certainly sees it as a deep grammatical shift. “It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom.”

It would seem to be an unnecessary narrowness that refuses to see this as the culmination of Bonhoeffer’s earliest, Barthian, refusal of religion, his long reimagining of God and community, and the beginnings of an enacted eschatological formation of a new sort of humanity. He says as much with his quotation of Jeremiah, “They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it” (Jer. 33.9). He concedes, “Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time.” His prayer for young Dietrich Bethge would seem to be his prayer for every Christian and for the church universal: “May you be one of them, and may it be said of you one day, ‘The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter till full day’ (Prov. 4.18).”

He speaks in his description of this religionless Christianity of something new emerging, something of which he only has a rough conception, but it involves a new experience of God, a new type of humanity, and a new form for the church universal. I believe his vision is one that we need to build upon as we resist the return to religion.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, London, 1933–1935, ed. Keith Clements (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 81.

[2] All quotes hereafter are from, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (ed. Eberhard Bethge; New York: Touchstone, 1997).