What is religionless Christianity? #2

In a previous post, I explained Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea of “religionless Christianity” primarily in terms of its institutional structure, such as the absence of the church.  Here I try to explain the concept itself, while admitting that it still puzzles me.  Bonhoeffer elaborated the concept of religionless Christianity in the two years before his murder by Hitler’s Gestapo, and it was undeveloped at the time of his death.  I think it remains a puzzle for which we have, at best, no more than half the pieces. 

Religionless Christianity is based on “a world come of age,” which began with the Enlightenment (early eighteenth century).  Even before then, the Western world found less and less need for the “God hypothesis,” as Bonhoeffer calls it (Letters, pp 325, 360).  Every thinker from Machiavelli to Hobbes to Galileo, and every discipline from science and technology to medicine and law, created worlds with no place for God.  In some ways this is good, for in a world come of age people take responsibility for their own fates, instead of blaming God.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An unlikely hero

Dietrich BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer: an unlikely hero.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a German theologian who rejected theology, was an unlikely hero. Murdered by the Nazis for his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, one would never have guessed his ending from his beginning. 

His father was the most important neurologist in the most important hospital in Germany.  His twin sister Sabine was tutored by the daughter of Thedor Mommsen, Nobel prizewinner and classicist.  As a student he commuted to the Humboldt University of Berlin with his neighbor, Adolf von Harnack, the most distinguished scholar of the German Protestant Church.  Put simply, Bonhoeffer belonged to the Protestant elite. (p 45)

Bonhoeffer was financially dependent on his family almost his entire life.  When he wasn’t traveling, he generally lived at home.  Throughout his life he would mail his dirty laundry home, to be washed by servants, and returned by Deutsch Post.  When he was running an underground seminary during the Hitler era, his parents gave him an Audi convertible so he could more easily come home on weekends.  Not your average revolutionary. 

He would never disown the advantages of birth or pretend to have surpassed them. It was an aristocratic confidence, he would insist, that helped him see through propaganda and resist mediocrity. (p 74)

The statement is, I believe, absolutely correct.

A theologian at 15

At the age of 15 he read a two-volume book on the beginnings of Christianity, and began signing his name “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theol.” (p 17)  By the end of his life he would reject both theology and the university.  He was blessed with a large family and many friends, but never had a girlfriend.  Finally, at the age of 36, he became engaged to his 17-year-old niece, whose mother insisted they wait.  They never married; three months after his engagement he was jailed.  He met Eberhard Bethge, his first real friend, when he was twenty-nine, ten years before his death.  They were exceptionally close.  Bethge married another of Bonhoeffer’s nieces while Bonhoeffer was in prison.  Their first child was named after Dietrich. 

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Basics of Bonhoeffer

Basics of Bonhoeffer.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not a systematic thinker, and I’ve had difficulty finding the themes that connect his thought.  One problem is that his early writings, such as The Cost of Discipleship, differ from his latter writings, especially his Letters and Papers from Prison, written in the two years between his arrest and murder by the Gestapo when his link to the plot to assassinate Hitler was uncovered. 

I’ve focused on his Letters, which ask how a Christian is to live in a world that barely pretends to believe in God, a question that has become more pressing in recent years, at least in the Western world.  I believe these themes summarize the thought of the mature Bonhoeffer, who died at the age of 39.  To speak of the “mature Bonhoeffer” who died so young might sound silly, but by then he had been a mature thinker for years. 

An earlier post addresses The Cost of Discipleship; another post addresses his religionless Christianity.”

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer: can’t I just be a second-rate Christian?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: can’t I just be a second-rate Christian?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 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   Church failed to resist Hitler, accepting his choice for Reich Bishop of the Evangelical Church.  In effect, the Protestant church became an arm of the Nazi regime, even as some individual pastors and churches resisted.  The church also accepted the Aryan paragraph, in which converted Christians were barred from the church.   For this Bonhoeffer was not murdered; he was murdered because he was involved in the plot to kill Hitler. 

His most well-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, argues against cheap grace. 

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.  (Discipleship, p 47)

Cheap grace completely, and perhaps intentionally, misunderstands Martin Luther.

When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace. Luther had said that grace alone can save.  His followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship.  (Discipleship, p 53)

The obligation of discipleship is complete.  God asks everything of us, including our lives.  Bonhoeffer practiced what he preached. 

Can’t I just give some of my money away?

In Bonhoeffer’s account, giving everything means just that.  In a well-known Biblical story, a rich man goes up to Jesus and says that he has fulfilled the Ten Commandments, what more can he do?

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Matthew 19:21-22)

The man went away sad, I imagine, because he knew he was not going to give his wealth away and follow Jesus.  The Ten Commandments are easy compared to that.

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