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.” 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.” 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.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, London, 1933–1935, ed. Keith Clements (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 81.
 All quotes hereafter are from, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (ed. Eberhard Bethge; New York: Touchstone, 1997).