The Myth of Modern Disenchantment

The disenchantment of the world with modernity may be on the order of Jesus’ depiction of the emptying out of one unclean spirit, leaving a vacuum then occupied by a multiple of seven. Like the idol maker in the book of Isaiah, the (dis)enchantments of modernity are a force so potent as to blind its adherents to their enchanting role, in animating and calling into existence what has no existence of its own. The secular or modern, are propped up by blindness to the animating force of human perception. It is easy enough to demonstrate the factual error (that modernity has dispelled the occult), what is more difficult is to reveal this trick of reifying from out of nothing an entity with God-like powers of determination. But the myth of modernity might be approached from these two directions: the factual error equating secularity with the occlusion of the spiritual, and the oxymoronic manner in which animating spirits are traded for an animate culture.

This latter is hard to see as it is hidden in plain sight, as the language of “secular” and “modern” fall into cultural reification picturing something like a sui generis animate force. This cultural reification tends to empty the world of human agency, historical causality, and ideological genealogy, to suggest the modern “arose” as a unique epoch unlike any other.[1] The story can be told in any number of ways: Descartes discovered the foundation of reason; Newton dispelled the occult with a mechanical understanding; the laws of nature explain, determine and create everything; and modern science has eliminated the need for God. As a result, we moderns now know there are no ghosts in the machine and we can trust in reason, science, and progress. In this modern age people no longer believe in magic and spirits as the myths have been dispelled, the gods have died, nature is subjugated, and instrumental reason, mechanistic materialism, modern science and medicine now rule. While there are still backward people in certain parts of the world and society, gripped by myth, animism and superstition, for moderns the world has been de-animated, myth has ended, and superstition is no more. A new form of human individual has arisen, as the old foundations have been erased, and a new form of thought and reason have been set in place. The world is forever changed and we moderns can march boldly forward, knowing that progress is an inevitable force unleashed by modern reason and science. There is a clean break with the past as a new age, unlike any that preceded it, has arisen.

What may not occur to the adherent of the modern myth, is that the work of religious myth is now performed by the secular myth. The world may have been emptied of one form of animate power, but now law, culture, and progress are the “new” animating forces (not so new but the force of law that has always been at work). To imagine a rupture has occurred, and a new age has dawned, is to be blind to history and how culture takes flight from its social moorings, in the projections of human agents. This blindness is illustrated in both Orientalism and capitalism.

The myth of the modern animates notions of the progressive West and the backward East. Orientals are stuck in the past, subject to nature, having not yet thrown off superstition, while the Occident is progressive, enlightened, and driven by reason rather than passion. The Easterner and African are still in early developmental stages (the premodern), while the West is modern, mature, a light set on a hill. Progress moves from East to West, so that Westward movement is advancement, while a visit to the East is a return to the past. The Easterner is driven by religion, and superstition undergirds Eastern political structures, while in Western secularism, the state is driven by humanitarian, democratic, principles and not religion.  

Eugene McCarraher in, The Enchantments of Mammon describes as his subtitle describes it, “How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity.” McCarraher suggests that, rather than disenchantment, modernity is simply one more “misenchantment” (as I have explored here). “Far from being an agent of ‘disenchantment,’ capitalism, I contend, has been a regime of enchantment, a repression, displacement, and renaming of our intrinsic and inveterate longing for divinity.”[2] McCarraher is refuting the story of Max Weber, in his supposition that capitalism is a disenchanting force, and he appeals to a series of counter descriptions.[3] According to David Brooks, acquisitiveness stems from a “sacramental longing,” a desire to enter “a magical realm in which all is harmony, happiness, and contentment.” Or as historian Steve Fraser puts it, in the stampede for consumer goods slumbers “a sacramental quest for transcendence, reveries of what might be.” Thomas Carlyle, speaking of 1840’s industrial England, perceived “invisible Enchantments” which left owners and workers alike, “spell-bound” by “the Gospel of Mammonism” in which money possessed and bestowed its “miraculous facilities.” Marx and Engels wrote of the capitalist, in The Communist Manifesto, as “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world he has called up by his spells.” In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes of “the fetishism of commodities,” and of the attribution of human or supernatural qualities to manufactured goods. Even Weber, after tracing the supposed disenchantment which arises with the Protestant Reformation, writes that “many old gods ascend from their graves” avatars of the “laws” of the market animated by the spirits of “the gospel of Mammonism.” Capitalism, Walter Benjamin informs us, is a “cult” with its own ontology, morals, and ritual practices whose “spirit . . . speaks from the ornamentation of banknotes.”[4]

McCarraher maintains this is not hyperbole or metaphor but that capital bears similar enchantments to a world animated by spirits and deities. As he explains, capitalism is its own sort of cult with its own liturgical codes and high priests, or those who have mastered the arcane art of the deal.

 Its sacramentals consist of fetishized commodities and technologies— the material culture of production and consumption. Its moral and liturgical codes are contained in management theory and business journalism. Its clerisy is a corporate intelligentsia of economists, executives, managers, and business writers, a stratum akin to Aztec priests, medieval scholastics, and Chinese mandarins. Its iconography consists of advertising, public relations, marketing, and product design.” Capital is “the mana or pneuma or soul or elan vital of the world, replacing the older enlivening spirits with one that is more real, energetic, and productive.[5]

The evidence suggests there has not been disenchantment, or an occlusion of the occult, but its reinforcement. As pointed out by Jason A. Josephson-Storm, not only the enchantments of mammon, but the new age has also ushered in crystal healing, energy balancing, chakra yoga, tarot readings, wicca covens, witches and warlocks, ghosts, near death experiences, psychics, extraterrestrials, miracles, etc. A 2005 Gallup poll found that a third of Americans believe in ghosts, while a YouGov survey in 2015 found that 48 percent of Americans believe people can possess one or more types of psychic ability (e.g., precognition, telepathy, etc.) while 43 percent agreed with the statement “Ghosts exist.” As Josephson-Storm concludes, “taken together it appears the majority of Americans are at least open to the idea of ghosts and psychic powers, while a not-insignificant number believe in necromancy.”[6] This then supports his larger point “that the human sciences have internalized the modern project” in “the notion of ‘modernity’ itself as the sign of a pure rupture or difference. In this way modernity has functioned as a master paradigm or episteme—what I have been calling a myth.”[7]

I presume that all that falls short of Paul’s exposure of the animating, enchantments of the law, will displace God with subordinate mythical powers. The reification of idols, the letter of the law, Jew/Gentile, male/female, slave/free, are all of one piece with the enslaving elementary principles, thrones and political powers. The human tendency is to construct a counter reality, in which the human artisans are blind to their role of manufacture – whether a piece of metal, a principle, an ideology, culture, or the ego. Like Aaron’s explanation to Moses, the golden calf was not shaped by human hands, it miraculously emerged from the fire and all were forced to worship with its “natural” appearing. Modernity as a final explanation is made of the same stuff as Aaron’s idol, and the deconstruction and exposure of this means of manufacture is an apocalyptic reordering of human understanding of reality.

[1] See Jason A. Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[2] Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (p. 4). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] McCarraher, 3.

[4]McCarraher, 3-5.

[5] McCarraher, 5-6.

[6] Josephson-Storm, 24.

[7] Josephson-Storm, 309.

Is The Secular Another Form of the Symbolic?: Charles Taylor and Paul’s Gospel

Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, provides three possible meanings for secularity: (1.) a divorce between religion and politics, as public spaces have mostly been emptied of God. (2.) religious belief and practice are no longer the norm. (3.) belief in God is one option among many, and may not be the easiest option.[1] While his is the most authoritative work on the secular, and at some level is an irrefutable recounting of the emergence of the peculiarities of modernity, nonetheless each of these meanings have been challenged. As Jon Butler bluntly states it, “All three of Taylor’s “secularities” are problematic and probably wrong.”[2]

In regard to thesis (1.), Butler argues that in most of the world, including the United States, many if not all parts of Europe, most of the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Latin America, it is hard to discern the divorce between religion and politics. In regard to thesis (2.) he argues, it is not at all clear that decline in belief typifies the United States, Latin America, the Middle East, or South Asia. Butler acknowledges there have been shifts with such things as the rise of conservative Protestantism, Pentecostalism (in Latin America) and decline in mainline denominations and “irritation” of traditional Catholicism.

Butler’s main argument is in regard to thesis (3.). He argues that Taylor has not made it clear for whom “conditions of belief” have changed, not accounting for the experience of ordinary people. In Butler’s critique, Taylor tends to slide unnoticeably between the realm of ideas (the realm of intellectuals) and experience (a shared imagination), blurring the difference. He suggests a category between or beyond belief and unbelief, namely “religious indifference.” At a time when public disbelief might result in punishment or death, of course, most everyone is going to profess belief, but this may hide indifference. “After the formal Christianization of the Roman Empire and well into the early modern period, unbelief and behaviors seemingly supportive of unbelief became criminal. Paganism and heresy; not just atheism, brought gruesome punishment and death. Long before Luther or Calvin, Church and government tortured, burned, and executed critics and reformers.”[3] The Church and its political backers had to resort to force and authority to sustain Christian belief long before the 1500’s, as belief did not seem to be nearly as irresistible as Taylor imagines. Apparently, it was not “virtually impossible not to believe.”  

A wide variety of literature demonstrates, in Butler’s account, that “the Church needed the support of secular authorities to sustain even a tentative, if also powerful, hold on the religious commitment of ordinary people before 1500. Rather than belief being axiomatic, as Taylor argues, it was contingent and threatened from inside as well as outside.”[4] Belief, however, was not primarily challenged by unbelief, according to Butler, as unbelief speaks of actually caring about religion. Isn’t it as Max Weber argued, that just as some are not musically inclined most may not be religiously inclined, one way or another? “In highly different ways, Taylor misses something important about ordinary religious practice—that indifference, born of many different causes, may be more important to difficulties faced by religion in many ages, including the ages Taylor insists were axiomatic for religion in the West, than unbelief and the formal expressions of irreligion that attract great thinkers.”[5]

Taylor’s project may accurately trace the history of ideas and the thoughts of intellectuals and those working within a philosophical tradition, but this does not necessarily capture the experience of the majority.

Of course, belief; unbelief; and skepticism have been the stuff of philosophical argument for centuries. But at best, indifference receives little attention and even less analysis. It shows up mainly in accounts of ordinary beliefs, attitudes, and behavior and usually in brief discussions of lay absence from religious observance, whether formal, as in church or synagogue or mosque services, or informal, as in discussion of popular leisure or otherwise ‘secular’ culture. Typically, absence, and certainly indifference, are noted, often with some alarm, but little dissected.[6]

Part of what is at stake in the reading of secularity, is what to make of the supposed post-secular. If the secular was equated with a detached rationalism, mind/body dualism, individualism, the privatization of religion (connected to individualism), and these modern categories are now collapsing in the post-modern age, does this mean there is an opening for religion and God? Or in fact, is the indication (with Butler and others) that there was always something else, perhaps something deeper at work, which secularism and its critique only touch upon? If this is the case, then the emergence of the religious in this post-secular age, raises questions about what this might mean.

In a Pauline critique of the human predicament, the shared human problem is not irreligion, levels of religious belief, or the possibility of believing otherwise (Taylor’s secularization thesis). In spite of the Protestant notion that belief or unbelief is fundamental, which in turn has given rise to conceptions of the secular (with its notions of various dualisms and private religion), Paul does not locate the fundamental human problem with religion/irreligion or belief and unbelief. For Paul the fundamental human problem is bondage to deception due to the orientation to the law. Whether the law is from God, from nature, or from the angels, is not Paul’s concern, but the problem is this symbolic order, taken as primary, creates a gap, alienating humans from God and enslaving them to a lie. The law is not itself the problem, but the primacy given to the law. This law, or symbolic order, might be connected to the Jewish law, though Paul is specifically arguing this is not simply a Jewish problem but the human problem. In turn, the divisions and dualisms that mark every human (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female) due to their entanglement with various symbolic orders, are addressed by Jesus Christ.

Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Lacan are among those who recognize that Paul is engaging a universal and fundamental predicament, in which the human Subject is structured by this orientation. Lacanian theory is committed to the “reality” of Paul’s description of the problem, eschewing Paul’s picture of the solution in Jesus Christ. The result of this orientation, in Paul’s description, is not unlike the isolated individualism, the evacuation of the reality of God, and the creation of a polity (the city of man, this dark world, the principalities and powers) described in Taylor’s version of the secular. None of which is to deny the value of Taylor’s project, and is even an affirmation of several of the fundamental trues he has hit upon. It is simply to qualify and set this understanding in a larger frame, along with Butler, to suggest that the impetus behind the modern shares a genealogy that is universal.

The danger is that to isolate the secular as a peculiar epoch in human history, is to pit the secular against the religious in a dialectic that is not only factually wrong, but misses the manner in which the symbolic, be it sacred or secular, displaces the divine reality. That is, the conception of secularism may be the peculiar thing about the secular, and not the underlying reality called secularism. This concept is lent a force that characterizes the human tendency to assign primacy to the law or the symbolic. The danger is in reifying the secular as if it has the power claimed on its behalf, as if it is the law ordering human reality.

This shows itself in the slowly evolving undermining of Paul’s radical gospel. Where Paul pictured the Christian believer as entering a new society in the church, where the old reigning socio-cultural order does not pertain, the rise of the “secular” is simultaneous with a caving in to the primacy of this order. For the first Christians, Christ was Lord, and it was understood that professing and acting on this faith may mean death at the hands of the state. Then in a Constantinian Christianity there was a divide, with “the religious” referring to monks, friars and nuns, devoted full time to the religious life, as opposed to the “secular clergy,” who would have to occupy two distinct realms. [7]

Skipping forward 1000 years, Henry VIII becomes head of the state church “with the power of the national state embodied in the king (the state-church). It was to the King’s ‘laws and decrees’ that the subjects made absolute submission, not to the Bishop of Rome.” This in turn led to a direct contradiction of Paul’s picture of freedom from the law. Obedience to the king was equated with obedience to God, and was thus an acting out of holiness. No longer is there a departure from the reigning social order but subsumption of the church into this order. “Obedience of a servant to a master, of a wife to a husband, of a pupil to a teacher, of a subject to a prince, of lower degree to higher degree, was analogous to the obedience of a Christian to God. The whole deferential social order was wrapped in divinity and teleologically determined by God’s scheme of redemption.”[8] This church/state order is, after all, “ordained by God” (in this understanding).

The American experiment attempted to separate what Henry and history had welded together, but this separation was based on the dualism between body and soul, the same dualism which had coopted Paul’s gospel. William Penn formulated the difference in his separation of church and state:

Religion and Policy, or Christianity and Magistracy, are two distinct things, have two different ends, and may be fully prosecuted without respect one to the other; the one is for purifying, and cleaning the soul, and fitting it for a future state; the other is for Maintenance and Preserving of Civil Society, in order to the outward conveniency and accommodation of men in this World. A Magistrate is a true and real Magistrate, though not a Christian; as well as a man is a true and real Christian, without being a Magistrate.[9]

Serving God is an inward affair, and obeying the magistrate or being a magistrate in no way impinges on this inward reality. According to John Locke, “The care of Souls cannot belong to the Civil Magistrate because his power consists only in outward force: But true and saving Religion consists in the inward persuasion of the Mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.”[10]

Thus in the American experiment the state controlled the body, and religion was concerned with the inward self, and the two realms do not overlap. What this meant in practice is that the church was consigned to a “spiritual realm” which was thought not to pertain to the political. “People make an ‘inward judgement’ about truth and salvation, and on such matters one cannot be compelled to believe by outward force. There is this assumption of the inner mind as distinct from the outer body, religion being aligned with the inner working of the mind, and civil society with the outer, with the body. The magistrate has nothing to do with religion in this sense, because it is harmless to the state.”[11] It works in a way similar to State Shinto in Japan, in which one Christian described being forcibly convinced that Shintoism and honoring the Emperor were non-religious, and then he says, we were all forced to bow to the Emperor as part of Christian worship. So too in a Christianity which concedes the realm of the body to the state, obeying the laws of the state is at once non-religious and bodily, and a means of coercing obedience to “God’s ordained order.”

Though the Americans attempted to throw off the domination of the state over religion, they did so in part, by conceding to the state the bodily, outward, and coercive (violent) realms. Certainly, there was a focus on the centrality of the individual, her rights, and access to the natural law of rationality, and this along with the role of religion is a continuing tension. This might be a peculiarity of the secular, but it is a peculiarity based upon the lie of absolute individualism (an isolated, self-determined autonomy), accompanied by notions that inward and outward, body and soul, mind and body, church and state, inhabit separate realms. It is the lie the gospel would expose, but more than that it is the unreality from which it delivers.  

[1] My summary of the list from Jon Butler, “Disquieted History in A Secular Age” in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Craig Calhoun, eds. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010) 195.

[2] Butler, 195.

[3] Butler, 200.

[4] Butler, 204.

[5] Butler, 209.

[6] Butler, 209.

[7] Timothy Fitzgerald, “Encompassing Religion, privatized religions and the invention of modern politics” in Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formation, Timothy Fitzgerald ed.  (London: Equinox Publishing, 2007) 220.

[8] Fitzgerald, 224.

[9] Penn, William. 1680. The Great Question to be Considered by the King, and this approaching Parliament, briefly proposed. and modestly discussed: (to wit) How far Religion is concerned in Policy or Civil Government, and Policy in Religion? With an Essay rightly to distinguish these great interests, upon the Disquisition of which a sufficient Basis is proposed for the firm Settlement of these Nations, to the Most probable satisfaction of the Several Interests and Parties therein. (By one who desires to give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. and to God the things that are God’s.] (microfiche). Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland. Quoted in Fitzgerald, 211.

[10] John Locke, 1689. A Letter Concerning Toleration, (2nd edn. London) 11. Quoted in Fitzgerald, 214.

[11] Fitzgerald, 214.

Experiencing God or Experiencing Nothing

For God created us in such a way that we are similar to Him (for through participation we are imbued with the exact characteristics of His goodness), and from before the ages He determined that we should exist in Him.[1]

Maximus the Confessor

Ours is a secular age in that direct experience of God is mostly unavailable. The Bible directly equates truth, wisdom, life, love, and light with Christ (and with experience of Christ), but the tendency is to soften this or to make it metaphorical. We seemingly no longer have direct access to God in the development of the virtues, in the experience of love, in the development of wisdom, or in peace of mind. To say what disrupts experience of God (the actualization of “existing in Him”), is part of an exercise in regaining this experience, but in brief, Christ is displaced as his own medium, his own reality, his own wisdom, and his own logic. Philosophy, human wisdom, human experience, and human logic (centered on nothing but themselves) become prime reality, and in Christian theology (popular and academic) Christ is made to fit an already existing frame and foundation.

Escaping the Obstacle of Ontotheology

The postmodern critique of ontotheology permanently dispels the notion that propositions, doctrine, or philosophy, can (in phallic/masculine form) “say it all” or lay its own foundation. The point is not to promote irrationality but reason cannot lay its foundations or encompass prime reality. What this has meant for theology, is that the person of Christ as foundation takes on a singular significance – Christ is a logic and reality that cannot be fit to an already existing frame or laid on another foundation. Examples of the significance for theology of the turn from ontotheology are the work of Stanley Hauerwas (in his turn to ethics), James McClendon (in his development of a practical theology), a return to the work of Karl Barth, and in Catholicism the new theology (nouvelle théologie) focused on escaping scholasticism. Historically the shift might be characterized as the difference between Origenism and Augustinianism, or in broad terms (too broad, but containing some truth) the difference between eastern and western theology. The general turn is one that joins faith and practice, and as with my work on the doctrine of sin and salvation, the impetus is to describe the work of Christ in real world terms.  

Realization of Christ as Prime Reality and as Salvation

I presume the defeat of sin and evil in salvation is describable phenomenologically and psychologically. First, in Christ’s confrontation with sin and death, we can describe his defeat of these categories in historical, psychological, systemic, and corporate terms. Second, we can describe incorporation into Christ and defeat of the categories of sin and evil. The implication of the incarnation is that there is a universally shared human predicament and resolution addressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Two things come together – the plane of human reality is a final reality in that God in Christ enters this plane of reality, and the universally shared failure addressed by the incarnation is corrected or being made right on this plane of reality. This is not to exclude mystery, but we can describe how the mystery of Christ takes hold in life, in love, in virtue, and in wisdom. We can, as with the historical person of Christ, experience and describe what it means for divinity and humanity to be joined in one person. This is the profound truth of Christ that exceeds every other truth. There is no logic or reason that can begin to approach this truth – it is a truth of a different order.

A practical way in which the singularity of Christ shows itself is that the Christian faith provides a diagnosis and solution to the human predicament that is unique, especially as it involves the incarnation. Even before consideration of the incarnation, a distinguishing mark of the Judeo/Christian faith is the seriousness of embodiment and death. This is one of the things that ties Judaism and Christianity together – the reality of history and embodiment. The death and resurrection of Christ addresses the human predicament, not by introducing another reality but by resolving the problem of death through resurrection. This contrasts with most every other religion, (many of which deny death by one means or another). Either there is innate immortality of the soul (downplaying embodiment), or material reality is unreal (as in Hinduism it is maya), or people do not stop living at death but survive as disembodied spirits or souls (as in animistic religion and ancestor worship). The problem of death is not to be solved on another plane of reality (or through death denial) but through incarnation, death, and resurrection.

The Subject of the Lie  

The resolution to the problem of death is aimed at formation of a new Subject. Theology and psychology merge in the description of a peculiar form of the human Subject which exists by virtue of a primordial disturbance – the Subject of the lie. Sin creates a wound or cut or obstacle in nature which constitutes one form of human subjectivity. Into the realm of immediate sense experience and “natural” animal copulating, a gap or obstacle has been introduced which constitutes the Subject. Sin, in this understanding, is not something which Adam or anyone “falls into,” as if they were fully functioning Subjects prior to the event; rather in the deception described in Scripture and psychoanalysis, sin is the passage into human subjectivity (the Subject that is self-constituting).

In brief, Jacques Lacan takes up the Freudian death drive and argues the human Subject arises around pure negation or absence, such that evil, death and absence are originary. Slavoj Žižek extends this, through Friedrich Schelling, to demonstrate how God and all things arise from an originary evil (Immanuel Kant’s “radical evil”). Surprisingly, Augustine, who also develops the notion of evil as privation, points to radical evil at the heart of the human Subject.

Augustine depicts an ineffable absence within himself. His depiction of stealing pears is clearly modeled after the Genesis story of the fall, as he indicates: “How like that servant of yours who fled from his Lord and hid in the shadows!”[2] As Pantanteleimon Manoussakis indicates, “Contrary to Greek ethics, evil for Augustine is not a mistaken choice, vice is not ignorance, and sin is not a category of epistemology that could be regulated and rectified by degrees of knowledge.” Augustine does not reference an outer temptation or anything on the order of the serpent. He is fully aware that his action was evil. “In fact he goes a step further – and this adds a whole new dimension on the problem of evil – for his theft lacked any reasonable motive; his transgression was “for no reason … there was no motive for my malice except malice.”[3]

Augustine’s description of evil goes against the Aristotelian notion that every human action is aimed at some good. “Not only there was [sic] no good that motivated Augustine’s action in the garden of Thagaste, but not even what Aristotle would call the apparent good: ‘No, I mean more: my theft lacked even the sham, shadowy beauty with which even vice allures us.’”[4] Evil is not accounted for, but is its own cause. It is the groundless ground. It has no explanation and is not intelligible and to imagine otherwise would, in Augustine’s estimate, amount to a defense of the necessity of evil.

Ontotheology, propositionalism, Platonism, foundationalism, or the fallen Subject, are made of the same stuff as Augustine’s thieving Subject. To imagine that Christ can be set on another foundation is to assign ontological priority to this nonentity.

Christ the Foundation and Wisdom of God: Experiencing God

This then sends us back to the Bible and patristic sources, in order to describe the peculiar logic and experience found in Christ. According to Maximus the Confessor, Christ is not a truth among other trues but is the foundation of truth:

For the Word, who created all things, and who is in all things according to the relation of present to the future, is comprehended both in type and in truth, in which He is present both in being and manifestation, and yet He is manifested in absolutely nothing, for inasmuch as He transcends the present and the future, He transcends both type and truth, for He contains nothing that might be considered contrary to Him. But truth has a contrary: falsehood. Therefore, the Word in whom the universe is gathered transcends the truth, and also, insofar as He is man and God, He truly transcends all humanity and divinity.[5]

The Word has his own “being” and “manifestation.” There is no natural logic or philosophical logic or natural reason which can comprehend the fact of the God/Man. This is not a truth established over and against falsehood, as there is no “contrary” dialectic which establishes this truth. This is a logic all its own and an experience of a different order. He is his own manifestation in the life of the believer. He “transcends” the truth and all humanity and divinity and all conceptions of the same. The person and work of Christ is its own point of departure. No other logic or reality mediates Christ, as he constitutes a logic and reality, and he alone mediates himself. But inasmuch as we become Christ, we too enter in to this reality which has no genealogy, no precedent, no explanation, other than Him.

Maximus illustrates the point with the example of Melchizedek:

He alone in this respect is mentioned by Scripture, probably because he was the first who through virtue passed beyond both matter and form (which may be understood as his being without father or mother or genealogy), and by knowledge he surpassed all things subject to time and the age, things whose temporal existence began with their creation (for creation did not deny them their being in time), without stumbling over them in his mind as he followed his divine course, which is perhaps what having neither beginning of days nor end of life means. And so transcendentally, secretly, silently and, to put it briefly, in a manner beyond knowledge, following the total negation of all beings from thought, he entered into God Himself, and was wholly transformed, receiving all the qualities of God, which we may take as the meaning of being likened to the Son of God he remains a priest forever. For every saint who has made exemplary progress in beauty is thereby said to be a type of God the giver. Consistent with this principle, the great Melchizedek, having been imbued with divine virtue, was deemed worthy to become an image of Christ God and His unutterable mysteries, for in Him all the saints converge as to an archetype, to the very cause of the manifestation of the Beautiful that is realized in each of them, and this is especially true of this saint, since he bears within himself more prefigurations of Christ than all the rest.”[6]  

Melchizedek, like Christ, cannot be reduced to matter or form or genealogy. He cannot be reduced to a particular age and time, as he is beyond this form of material creation and has been taken up into God himself. He has been “transformed” – receiving “all the qualities of God” and being made in the likeness of Christ. But what is true of Christ and Melchizedek is true of every saint as the Beauty of Christ is “realized in each of them.” The experience of Melchizedek is open and available to all imitators of Christ.

Maximus completes the thought with a final appeal to Hebrews and the depiction of the singular reality establishing a different order of Subject:

If, in addition to these things, he should also deny himself, having lost his life, according to the divine voice, which says: He who loses his own life for my sake, will find it— that is, whoever casts aside this present life and its desires for the sake of the better life—will acquire the living and active, and absolutely unique Word of God, who through virtue and knowledge penetrates to the division between soul and spirit, so that absolutely no part of his existence will remain without a share in His presence, and thus he becomes without beginning or end, no longer bearing within himself the movement of life subject to time, which has a beginning and an end, and which is agitated by many passions, but possesses only the divine and eternal life of the Word dwelling within him, which is in no way bounded by death.”[7]

The life and Subject that would find itself, ground itself, father itself, or constitute its own presence, is cast aside for a different order of reality and experience. The Word of God vivifies and creates a new Subject, who through putting on virtue and knowledge enters a different order of existence in and through “His presence.” So the follower of Christ, like Christ, is no longer a creature of a particular family and genealogy, and is no longer a Subject of time but puts on the full likeness of Christ as he possesses “divine and eternal life” and “is in no way bounded by death.”  

Jesus Christ is an economy and a reality, and the only access to this economy and reality is through Him. Putting on Christ is to put on the wisdom and virtue of God. The wisdom of Christ is Christ. The virtue of Christ is Christ. The love of Christ is Christ. The hypostatic joining of deity and humanity in Christ is repeated in the saint who experiences immediate union with God in Christ, not through an ecstatic departure but through a union of the human with the divine. The created nature is brought to its full limit and potential and is thus preserved through the Word.  

In summary: the divine and human brought together in the person of Jesus Christ is the mystery that is repeated in the salvation Christ brings. Christians comprehend this salvation – that is, it exists on a historical and earthly plane of reality – we see the God-Man Jesus Christ acting in history, defeating sin death and evil (the experience of nothing) and so too the experience of salvation can be described in terms of human transformation and experience.

[1] Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua, Volume 1, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 7.38.

[2] James J. O’Donnell, Augustine Confessions, vol. II (Oxford, 2012), 126-7. Cited in Pantanteleimon Manoussakis, “St. Augustine and St. Maximus the Confessor between the Beginning and the End” (Peeters Publishers, Studia Patristica, 2016) 2. Published in Academia edu –

[3] Ibid, Manoussakis. The Augustine quote is from Confessions, II 4.9.

[4] Manoussakis, 3, Citing Augustine’s Confessions, II 6.12.

[5] Maximus the Confessor, The Ambigua, Volume 2, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 37.8.

[6] Ambigua, 10.45

[7] Ambigua, 10.48.

The Contrast Between Luther and Maximus

There is a move among Finnish and Scandinavian theologians in general to draw parallels between the theology of Martin Luther and Maximus the Confessor. While such parallels are interesting, it might be more interesting and necessary to first state the obvious differences.

Maximus and Luther are working with two different notions of salvation and atonement, with Luther more focused on the individual and Maximus on cosmic salvation (see my blog explaining Maximus here). Luther holds to an Augustinian notion of original sin and his theology is slanted if not defined by his focus on forensics.

Is his focus on forensics or on law versus grace definitive of his theology, such that there is no ontological understanding or access to divine essence? One might argue the point, but this is not an uncommon conclusion about his theology, which stands in contrast to Maximus picture of access to the divine essence in creation and incarnation. Is imputed righteousness characteristic of Luther’s theology, such that it all is defined in legal or theoretical terms? Some Lutherans might argue otherwise and this may not be fair to the fulness of his theology, and there are those (such as the Finnish theologians) who argue Luther had his own notion of apocatastasis, but what can be said is that Calvin comes in the wake of Luther and Calvin’s theology is forensic (and Luther’s is commonly perceived as being of a similar order). On the other hand, Maximus follows Origen and the early church in his depiction of theosis (perhaps not entirely absent in Luther) – bringing to maturity in the second Adam the race of the first Adam through divinization. Maximus sees this as a present reality unfolding toward the eschaton.

 Luther’s theory of the two kingdoms allows for full participation of the Christian in the necessities of state violence, including the violent suppression of peasants, Jews, and heretics. The peace of Maximus, the enacted theosis in the life of the believer, the cosmic context of virtue grounded in the incarnation of Christ, stands in contrast to Luther’s picture of the Christian life as an unending (violent?) struggle with sin.

Maximus’ picture of salvation is holistic and unified (grounded as it is in the reality of the Trinity) while Luther depicts a split individual struggling with sin, living in two different kingdoms, such that the spiritual and hidden kingdom of God momentarily serves the immediate and practical necessities of the earthly kingdom, allowing this ethic to dictate the lived Christian ethic. Luther affirms the necessity of violence and maintains that people of faith are to be the instruments of violence. After all, “The deviancy of some would call down punishment on all. At a certain point, God even owes it to himself, as it were, to his honour, we might say, to strike.”[1]

Luther tended to demonize his enemies with a violent and abusive rhetoric (which is not to ignore that he often spoke of love), and there is no question that his antisemitism is imbibed by the creators of the Holocaust. Maximus depicts salvation as the destruction of death, and this is the resource and reality out of which the Christian is to live. Monk Maximus would die at the hands of the state and it is not entirely implausible that, given the right circumstance, the ex-Monk Luther might have approved.

But this cursory list of contrasts does not get at the world of difference between Maximus notion that creation is incarnation and Luther’s semi-nominalism. For Luther, God, in his essence is hidden from us, and we do not live with the resource of access to the immanent Trinity. For Maximus, God is revealed in Christ and this is the truth not only of salvation but of the purposes of creation. Luther’s theology lays the groundwork for modernity[2] while Maximus’ theology is the culmination of a premodern theology, pointing toward a very different sort of world order. The enchantment of the world in light of Maximus’ Christo-logic (which is not any old sort of enchantment or magic) and the disenchantment of the world in light of Luther’s direct attack on indulgences and magic, and the secularism implicit in Luther’s thought and theology gets at the fundamental difference. And of course, this is not to attribute (blame/credit) all of secularism to Luther, but again, his theology seems to have enabled secular developments.[3]

As Charles Taylor describes it, Luther reversed the fear factor in his attack on indulgences and on the magic the church could enact (a needed disenchantment):

A great deal of Catholic preaching on sin and repentance was based on the principle that the ordinary person was so insensitive that they had to be terrified into responding. . .. But just this cranking up of fear may have helped to prepare people to respond to Luther’s reversal of the field.[4]

We can locate Luther within the context of nominalism – as nominalism defines both what he is for and what he is against and it is in a nominalist context that he makes these arguments. The father of nominalism, the way of the modern (via moderna), William of Ockham (1287-1347), denied the existence of universals (nominalism indicates we have only the names), which was an underlying foundation for Thomas (1225-1274) and Scotus (1266-1308). Consequently, Ockham would stress the importance of the will (God’s and man’s) over and above the intellect.[5] Luther will challenge the role of human will, attacking what he sees as semi-Pelagianism.

Luther believes that God’s absolute power renders the efficacy of the human will entirely useless. Or in terms of human understanding, it is not as if God can be aligned with the good (as we know it) as God is determinative of the good and so the good must be aligned with the (arbitrary?) will of God.

As Luther states it in the 19th Thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation: “Anyone who observes the invisible things of God, understood through those things that are created, does not deserve to be called a theologian.” God is not grasped through the being of the world (against the scholastics) but God comes to us only on the basis of promise or covenant, and this does not pertain to His essence or the essence of the world. As Taylor puts it, “God must always remain free to determine what is good. The good is whatever God wills; not God must will whatever is (determined by nature as) good. This was the most powerful motive to reject the “realism” of essences for Occam and his followers.”[6]

This sets up a peculiar Lutheran dialectic, in which faith stands over and against reason or in which the theology of glory is opposed to the theology of the cross. The theology of glory clings to works-righteousness while the theology of the cross is dependent on faith alone. Likewise, grace stands over and against law, yet grace needs the law that it might be understood to be a gift and not an accomplishment of the law. If the law “serves no other purpose than to create a thirst and to frighten the heart,” the gospel “satisfies the thirst, makes us cheerful, and revives and consoles the conscience.”[7] The “presumption of righteousness is a huge and a horrible monster. To break and crush it, God needs a large and powerful hammer, that is, the Law, which is the hammer of death, the thunder of hell, and the lightning of divine wrath” (26.310).[8] The greater the paradox, conflict, and struggle, all the better:

“All the works of God are in conflict with His promise, which nevertheless remains completely true and unshaken. . . . The marvelous counsels of God in governing His saints must be learned, and the hearts of the godly must become accustomed to them. When you have a promise of God, it will happen that the more you are loved by God, the more you will have it hidden, delayed, and turned into its opposite” (4.326).

As David Tracy describes it, “Luther’s notion of dialectic … is structured as a conflict of opposites that not only clash but imply and need each other.”[9] The dialectic, like any dialectic refers only to itself, so that what is known pertains not to any necessarily existing reality but to the language of dialectic.

God has his own autonomous purposes which are beyond human comprehension, but what can be known is what God has promised. For Luther, God is the cause of all things, while the human remains a passive recipient of God’s action. There is no free will for man in Luther’s estimation: “We do everything of necessity, and nothing by ‘free-will’; for the power of ‘free-will’ is nil, and it does no good, nor can do, without grace.”[10] According to Roland Millard, for Luther, “The sovereignty of God’s will necessarily excludes any causality on the part of the human person.”[11] Where Maximus describes a synergistic working of human will with the will of God, for Luther human will stands over and against the will of God.

In this understanding, Scripture no longer pertains to ontological necessity but to covenantal promise. Scripture is proclamation and promise so that rather than salvation history or ontological realism, for Luther the Word is a promise. The Word is the means by which God condemns sin and promises salvation (the law and the gospel). But this promise is had, not through the achievement of a real-world defeat of sin, but only on the basis of promise: “Sin is always present, and the godly feel it. But it is ignored and hidden in the sight of God, because Christ the Mediator stands between” (26.133). It is not that sin and the law are ever suspended or surpassed: “There is a time for ‘killing’ the flesh through the law, and a time for reviving the spirit through the gospel. Complacency and self-righteousness require the former, fear and despair the latter. The one ‘who masters the art of exact distinction between the Law and the Gospel should be called a real theologian’ (23.271; cf. 26.115).[12] Though Luther finds the Gospel partly revealed in the Old Testament and he finds the Law mixed in with the New Testament, his primary point is that the Law of the Old Testament stands over and against the Gospel of the New Testament.

Maximus notion of free will, his picture of the whole Bible and the whole world proclaiming the Gospel seems contrary to Luther’s sharp divide between Law and Gospel and between creation and Creator. Whether one agrees with the cosmic (universal) salvation of Maximus and his peculiar Christo-logic, or whether one prefers Luther’s faith alone and imputed righteousness, it would be a mistake to blend these two contrasting worlds without noting their stark difference. The two contrasting orders of salvation, revelation, and the God/world relation in Maximus and Luther represent two very different conceptions of Christianity and the world.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007) 42. An understanding Taylor links to Luther.

[2] By the same token, we might sight the history of modern Western philosophy as in some sense flowing from within the wake of Lutheranism. Is the dualism of Descartes (between faith and reason), or Kant’s split between the noumena and the phenomena (and the eventual turn to phenomenology), far removed from Luther’s two kingdoms and his interiorized Christianity? In fact, faith alone (sola fide) does not seem too far removed from German idealism. Luther’s focus on a groundless Word (not grounded in metaphysics) will come to resemble phenomenology and the linguistic turn in philosophy and society. While it is too simplistic to chalk this up to Luther, it is doubtful it could have happened apart from the Reformation instigated by Luther.

[3] At least this is the argument of Charles Taylor.

[4] Taylor, 75.

[5] Roland Millare, “The Nominalist Justification for Luther’s Sacramental Theology” (Antiphon 17.2 (2013)) 169-170.

[6] Taylor, 97.

[7] Luther’s Works Volume 23, p. 272 hereafter cited by volume and page.

[8] Stephen and Martin Westerholm, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation (p. 233). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[9] D. Tracy, ‘Martin Luther’s Deus Theologicus’ in P. J. Malysz and D. R. Nelson, eds, Luther Refracted (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2015): 109. Quoted in Mark Norman, “Luther, Heidegger and the Hiddenness of God” Tyndale Bulletin 70.2 (2019) 302.

[10] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 180.

[11] Millare, 172

[12] Westerholms, 234.

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).