Several days ago, I read one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters written from Tegel Prison, Berlin. The whole letter is striking to read, and it contains the following, which I’ve been returning to and turning over in my mind ever since.
Is there any concern in the Old Testament about saving one’s soul at all? Is not righteousness and the kingdom of God on earth the focus of everything, and is not Romans 3.14ff., too, the culmination of the view that in God alone is righteousness, and not in an individualistic doctrine of salvation? It is not with the next world that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved and set subject to laws and atoned for and made new. What is above the world is, in the Gospel, intended to exist for this world—I mean that not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the Bible sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Letters to a Friend, May 5th 1944 (emphasis original).
The context is Bonhoeffer’s search for a way of proclaiming Christianity in a ‘non-religious’ sense. The same letter contains the remarkable assertion that Bultmann’s demythologising of the New Testament ‘did not go far enough’. However, Bonhoeffer is not aligning himself to liberalism, but aiming to think theologically in seeking to interpret and proclaim both God and miracles in a ‘non-religious’ sense. A religious approach, according to Bonhoeffer, focusses on the metaphysical (by which I take him to mean the ‘other-worldly’ or ‘spiritual’) and the individualistic. Bonhoeffer characterises ‘religion’ according to these two features, and ‘[n]either,’ he writes, ‘is relevant to the Bible message or to the man of today (my emphasis).’ Bonhoeffer’s concern is clearly about speaking the truth of Christianity into a society where the Christian religion has lost its ground, its footing. But he sees this as an opportunity to return to the truth of Scripture, since the Christian religion which is declining is not actually biblically-aligned, not actually focussed on the concerns of God’s revelation. Bonhoeffer describes a war-torn society as one where ‘individualistic concern for personal salvation has almost completely left us all’. People believe that there are more important things than bothering about that. It sounds monstrous to acknowledge that, he concedes, but it is an attitude that is perhaps even biblical. That is the context for the quote above.
I struggle to understand Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’. I don’t think of it as an attack on the Church per se. Bonhoeffer writes in the same letter of the place of religion being taken by the Church (that is, he writes ‘as the Bible teaches it should be’). I need to read more on Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionlessness’, but it strikes me that somewhere near its heart is a desire to free Christianity from conceptual frameworks that have more to do with religious culture and tradition than with the revelation of the Bible. Bonhoeffer wants to bring Christ from the religious ghetto of the Church (where the Church has become this) into all the world, into all of life, into all of culture. As a Reformed Christian, that chimes with my own outlook. It is true that we are, as Christians, erroneously in thrall to the idea of some other-worldly world as our hope. However, what is above the world does indeed, in the Gospel, exist for this world. If we can understand and proclaim that then, as Bonhoeffer writes in his letter of April 30th 1944, ‘Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, indeed and in truth the Lord of the world.’