Religionless Christianity

Religionless Christianity. (Bonhoeffer post # 2)

Religionless Christianity may seem like a contradiction.  It’s not.  Christ did not seek to establish a religion, but to speak for the oppressed and downtrodden, as well as to save our souls.  He and his first followers sought to establish communities in the midst of empire. 

The term “religionless Christianity” belongs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and because Bonhoeffer was murdered before he developed his ideas, it has sometimes been mistaken for something like the death of God.  Not so.

Bonhoeffer, as noted in a previous post, was 39 years old when he was executed by the Nazis in Flossenbürg concentration camp in 1945.  He co-founded the Confessing Church in 1934 when the German Lutheran Church adopted the Aryan paragraph, in which converted Christians were barred from the church.  But he was murdered because he was involved in the plot to kill Hitler. 

Bonhoeffer believed that the church will always submit to the state.  The situation in Germany was extreme, Hitler eventually appointing the Reichsbischof of the Evangelical Church, the state Church. 

But Bonhoeffer’s view of history was longer than that.  Ever since the 13th century, the Western world has found less need for the “God hypothesis,” as he called it.  Everyone from Machiavelli to Hobbes to Galileo, and every discipline from science and technology to medicine and law, created worlds with no place for God.  The world, Bonhoeffer declared, has “come of age.”  In some ways this is good, as people take responsibility for their own fates instead of blaming God. 

The co-optation of the Christian church began with the Roman Emperor Constantine (circa 300 AD), says Bonhoeffer, but its role as servant of empire has never changed.  One might ask whether things are different now, and the answer is yes, but not better.  In the Islamic world, it’s not always clear if religion serves the state or vice-versa.  In any case they are all mixed up.  In the United States, we still ask God to bless our soldiers as they go off to kill people.  War may sometimes be necessary, but it should not be confused with the work of the Lord.  Something about people, it seems, can’t help seeking God’s justification for killing other people.   

Karl Barth

Barth is generally regarded (at least by Wikipedia) as the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century.  While their views diverge, Barth’s view of the relationship between Christ and church inspired Bonhoeffer.

Jesus simply has nothing to do with religion. The meaning of his life is the actuality of that which is actual in no religion, the actuality of the unapproachable, unfathomable, incomprehensible. (Barth, p 94)

But whereas Barth sought an experience of the divine, Bonhoeffer turned to life in this world.

No redemption, or not my Sunday school class

For Bonhoeffer, religion is no longer about redemption.  Religionless Christianity is interested in two things: prayer and righteous action.

Bonhoeffer came to admire the Old Testament (as Christians call it) more and more because it is not a teaching of redemption.  “Myths of redemption search outside history for an eternity after death.” (Letters, p 336)  Emmanuel Levinas,  whose thought converges with Bonhoeffer’s in surprising ways, calls Judaism “a religion for adults,” because there is no personal salvation at the end.  Our job is to care for others in this world.  Bonhoeffer agrees. 

No one ever taught me this in Sunday school.

Prayer and righteous action

What would remain of Christianity after its outer trappings have been stripped away?  


Bonhoeffer believed that intercessory prayer (prayer on behalf of others) created a sense of empathy and solidarity with the people one prays for.  “In prayer,” said Bonhoeffer, “I move into the other man’s place. I enter his life…his guilt and distress.  I am afflicted by his sins and his infirmity.” (Sanctorum Communio, p 133).  Only if we identify with the suffering of others will we act to make their lives better

I wish it were so.  My experience with prayer is that it just as often lets people off the hook.  “Oh, those poor people in Yemen.  I must remember them in my prayers.”  Well, that’s nice, but it’s not going to help them.  Bonhoeffer doesn’t share my cynicism; he thinks prayer leads to action.


Bonhoeffer didn’t believe that prayer generally or usually leads to action.  It leads to action only when we understand God properly.  God is not strong, but weak.

God’s participation in Christ, his identity with Christ, meant for Bonhoeffer that God chose to become weak and powerless so as to identify with and represent the suffering of this world.  Bonhoeffer believed, and I think he was right, that this vision of a weak God who depended on humans to do his work in this world was a uniquely valuable aspect of Christianity.  God not only speaks for the outcast; he became one (Letters, p 17).


Bonhoeffer knew that a category such as God’s omnipotence was not to be seen as an authentic experience of God’s nature, but was our understanding of power extended out into the world. (Pugh, 99)

Prayer leads to righteous action when we understand that if people are going to be saved from lives of living hell (I’m thinking of Yemen, but there are many living hells, some private), then other people are going to have to save them.  Our prayers should ask for the strength and courage to care for others, and support others who do, for no one else is going to do it for us. 

What happened to the church?

Sometimes it seems that for Bonhoeffer we could get by on prayer and social service agencies.  Not so.  His alternative to the church seems to be small ecclesiastical communities such as Finkenwalde, the illegal seminary he established for the Confessing Church from 1935-1937, when it was closed by the Gestapo.  There students and faculty lived together as well as studied and worshiped together.  His experience there was the basis of his book, Life Together.

Perhaps the best contemporary, or at least recent, model is the Christian base communities in El Salvador and elsewhere, including Eastern Europe, associated with liberation theology.  The theological stance of these communities is that of Bonhoeffer, in which God becomes man in order to speak

from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless and oppressed, the reviled—in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. (Letters, p 18)

Another possibility, especially in the city, would be intentional communities in which people would be united in aim, not location, coming together in prayer and to donate their time, energy, and skills to others.

The secret

Bonhoffer writes of the “secret discipline” that constitutes prayer and worship in the absence of religion.  “In prison, he seems to be moving back to the community in Finkenwalde,” implying that God’s self-revelation is realized most fully in “the community that was able to keep the discipline of the secret.” (Pugh, pp 144-145) 

Pugh thinks the secret is the Eucharist.  I think the secret is best expressed in God’s weakness, for anytime God becomes part of the world he becomes an icon of power.  Still, Pugh is not far from this view. 

The community formed by the discipline of the secret is able to ask the world why it remains oblivious to the screams of its victims. (Pugh, 150)

What happened to God?

Does Bonhoeffer still believe in God? Yes, the question is how he believes.  It depends on whether you  focus on The Cost of Discipleship (original 1937), or the late Letters and Papers from Prison, collected after his death less than ten years later.  In Discipleship, Bonhoeffer’s belief is conventional, if severe.  In Letters, Bonhoeffer believes in an unconventional God, similar in some respects to the God of Emmanuel Levinas—that is, knowable only through the suffering of the other person.   As Bonhoeffer puts it,

the transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation. (Letters, p 381)

The transcendent is here and now, in the desperate needs of others. 


Karl Barth, The Word of God and Theology.  T&T Clark, 2011.  (original 1924)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.  Macmillan, 1963.  [German original 1937]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged edition.  Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, 1971.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church.  Fortress Press, 2009.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.  SCM Press, 2012.

Emmanuel Levinas, A religion for adults.  In Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism.  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997,

Jeffrey Pugh, Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times.  T&T Clark, 2008.


4 thoughts on “Religionless Christianity”

  1. This is a complex and interesting view of Christianity & quite the opposite of what I was taught because the Church way of controlling people by fear.And it certainly frightened me yet I am drawn to certain people like Bonhoeffer so there was something good but few
    seem to get to this stage.I did see a film about El Salvador which was based on some nuns being raped and murdered no doubt with the aid of the USA’s weapons
    But after a few years the Church suppressed the priests who tried to help the people there.They should be saving souls not lives
    as if one could have a soul while acting like that
    Hitler was a Catholic and was not excommunicated
    The purpose of the Church had become to ensure its own survival
    That is not unusual in other institutions.

  2. Christ is always on the cross saying, “Father forgive them to they know not what they do” we don’t get it

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