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.

Trouble is, people still have need for the God hypothesis.  They just turn it around.  God is co- opted so that he serves strictly human affairs. For example, armies still march off to kill their enemies in the name of God.  War may sometimes be necessary, but it should never be confused with the work of God.  Something about people, it seems, just can’t help seeking God’s justification for killing other people, even when God plays what is otherwise a small role in their daily lives. 

What do the trappings of religion mean in a religionless world?

What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world?  How do we speak of God without religion?  One thing we do know.  Most people secretly, or not so secretly, suspect that personal salvation is a myth. 

Hasn’t the individualistic question about personal salvation almost completely left us all?  Aren’t we really under the impression that there are more important things than that question? (Letters, p 286)

Don’t forget that statements like this are in letters to his friends, mostly Eberhard Bethge, written while Bonhoeffer sits in prison, knowing he might be executed, as he was.  Letters are like thinking out loud.  What we want to know is the direction of Bonhoeffer’s thinking in the last two years of his life.  We should not expect justification for his statements, nor elaboration.  That’s a matter for books and articles, not letters. 

One important thing we learn is that Bonhoeffer’s religious beliefs toward the end of his life were remarkably different from those at the beginning.  Some dismiss his late beliefs as “a few bone fragments” to be picked over by academic vultures (Haynes, p 107, quoting Eric Metaxas).  I think they are the most exciting and tantalizing aspect of his work.

Barth: all or nothing

Karl Barth was the most influential theologian of the twentieth-century, arguing that religion and God have very little to do with each other. 

Religion is unbelief; religion is a business, one has to say: the business of the godless man.  (Church Dogmatics, vol. 1)

For Barth, religion is the enemy of revelation.  Without Barth, Bonhoeffer might never have developed the concept of religionless Christianity.  Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer disagreed, not with Barth’s indictment of religion, but his substitution of doctrine.   

Barth was the first theologian to begin the criticism of religion, and that remains his really great merit; but he put in its place a positivist doctrine of revelation which says, in effect, ‘Like it or lump it’: virgin birth, Trinity, or anything else; each is an equally significant and necessary part of the whole, which must simply be swallowed as a whole or not at all. That isn’t biblical. There are degrees of knowledge and degrees of significance; that means that a secret discipline must be restored whereby the mysteries of the Christian faith are protected against profanation. (Letters, p 286, his emphasis)

What secret discipline?  What mysteries?

I’ve puzzled over the “secret discipline” for a couple of years now.  In my first post on religionless Christianity, I said I thought it was the Eucharist.  Now I think it refers to accepting the complete otherness of God: that he can’t be understood in terms of human categories, but must be experienced in an entirely new way.  Experienced, not understood; intuited, not known.  In this way we respect the mysteries of the Christian faith by not trying to make too much human sense out of them, allowing them to remain enigmatic. 

A letter to his Godson

In a letter to his Godson on the day of his baptism in May, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote that by the time he is grown up, Christianity will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men.  “All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.” Until then “the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair.” (Letters, p 300)

I simply don’t understand this.  I think it’s related to Bonhoeffer’s claim that we must live as though God didn’t exist.  The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34).  The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we continually stand.  But he is a strange God, or rather a God whom Christians have yet to understand.

God lets himself be pushed around 

God allowed himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross.  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.  Not by virtue of his power–which is merely the projection of human self-assertion onto God–but by virtue of his weakness and suffering (Letters, pp 360-361).

Only the suffering God can save us.  As Christians it is our obligation, and privilege, to care for the weak and suffering above all else.  We care for them as we care for God. 

            Seeing from below

How might we put this way of thinking into practice?  We must learn

to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled—in short from the perspective of those who suffer. (Letters, p 18)

The church should give its property away to those in need, and “the clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of its congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling.”  (Letters, p 382)

And lest we think Bonhoeffer gone all secular on us, he concludes

If Jesus had not lived, then our life would be meaningless, in spite of all the other people whom we know and honour and love. (Letters, p 391)


Bonhoeffer says not enough about religionless Christianity for us to understand precisely what he meant.  I don’t think he truly knew, but it doesn’t matter.  Like Barth, Bonhoeffer is trying to get religion out of the churches.  The church is the enemy, killing the Christian spirit and putting ritual become stale in its place.  Bonhoeffer’s and Barth’s experience of the complete capitulation of the German church in the face of Hitler must have influenced their views.

Unlike Barth, Bonhoeffer is far more interested in how Christians would act in the world.  They must form communities, that much is clear, but the details remain abstract.  Likely they would resemble the first ekklesia, a term generally translated as church, but originally referring to a few  friends meeting in the homes of their principal members, often wealthy widows.  How it might foster a larger community is unclear.  But the principle this community would be based on is familiar one.  As Christ put it, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)  Originally home-based, the church must reach out to those in need; if not it is no more than a social club.  Prayer, properly understood, reminds us that we belong to this larger world of need.


Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol 1.1, Sections 1-7: The Doctrine of the Word of God.  T&T Clark, 2010. [original 1932]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged edition, edited by Eberhard Bethge.  Simon and Schuster/Touchstone, 1971.

Stephen Haynes, The Battle for Bonhoeffer.  Eerdman’s, 2018. 

Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy.  Thomas Nelson, 2010.

Harmat von Sass, “Between the Times – and Sometimes Beyond: An Essay in Dialectical Theology and its Critique of Religion and ‘Religion.'”  De Gruyter Open Access, 2020.  https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/opth-2020-0104/html  [on Barth]


8 thoughts on “What is religionless Christianity? #2”

  1. “Now I think it refers to accepting the complete otherness of God: that he can’t be understood in terms of human categories” – surely, that statement negates the content of all religions that place God in a human context.

  2. But what do they tell us ?
    A still small voice
    A burning bush
    Some authentic encounter ?
    God was not what they expected,,.a mighty wind etc
    God can’t be caught and studied.
    But he or they impinge on humans at times.

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