Lesson 5: Letters and Papers from Prison (Part 2): Stocktaking of Christianity

Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from PrisonI thought the best way to report what Bonhoeffer meant by the need for a religionless Christianity in this world come of age would to be to use an outline he himself provides. At one point in the Letters, he reports he wants to write one more book, no longer than 100 pages with three chapters. The first chapter would take stock of the present state of Christianity.

His basic thesis is that our churches refuse to acknowledge that God is superfluous for explaining what is happening in our infinite physical universe. Whether they acknowledge it or not, they have been using the divine as a stop gap answer to questions that still baffle the sciences. When Bonhoeffer speaks of religion, he is referring to this deus ex machina at the edge of life to which we resort only when everything else fails. Because that happens less and less in the present society, most people cope very well without religion.

That does not mean Bonhoeffer thinks everything is going along just fine without God but rather, that people feel they have better things to do than bothering about their personal salvation after death. For instance, he notes technical organizations have replaced nature as our immediate environment. These human systems, as epitomized by the insurance industry, manage risk far more efficiently than traditional religion. However, they demand constant regulation, because society now has more to fear from human nature in than the physical environment. Nonetheless, the present church almost totally ignores her prophetic tradition that addresses this problem.

Bonhoeffer thinks this situation demands rethinking biblical Christianity. For 2000 years, churches were built on the premise that human beings are religious creatures needing the trappings of institutional religion. Our world come of age regards this as only an historical and temporary form of human self-expression. Religion is a garment Christianity can lay aside.

He acknowledges Barth began exploring what a religionless Christianity would be when he maintained Christianity is about faith that trusts God not the trappings of religion that often pass right over this. However, he feels Barth retreated when he defined faith as a take it or leave it form of revelation based on a positivist understanding of scripture. This shortcoming is reflected in the Confessing Church’s ability to arouse some interest in intellectual religious questions but inability to inspire much personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer appreciates Bultmann’s honesty but thinks he should have gone further than demythologizing conceptions such as miracles and the ascension. The present need is to rethink religious conceptualization altogether. For example, Bonhoeffer takes for granted the religious issues that currently divide church denominations are totally irrelevant nowadays. He might observe that some ideas provide common ground for Roman Catholic and Protestant theology, but maintains spending time on resolving these differences is a waste.

Bonhoeffer thinks this means seeing God transforming and controlling human nature. not at the edges but the center of life. The biggest failure of the churches is their inability
to take risks in the service of humanity, including especially their lack of courage in confronting the evil that threatens to destroy our world. They speak no prophetic message in the midst of a world war. They are helpless in combating abusive sexual behavior.

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3 Enlightened Replies

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  1. John Myers says:

    I think Bonhoeffer firmly places a mirror in front of us. We stand in this earthly prison and are now convicted. Better things to do? What could be more important than “bothering about” our personal salvation when we leave this world? If we deny it, we deny belief in God at all. And, yes – we get involved in intellectual religious arguments that completely miss the point. But, why? I’m sure vanity and narcissism are involved, but I think it also is somehow inconvenient to actually ‘feed my sheep’ as we have been instructed. Spreading the gospel means talking to people who need to hear the news (not people you like to sit next to on Sunday), providing an example for them, and actually serving them. I stand convicted myself as I do not live up to this standard each day. It seems we are always busy. But, we must try. We must recognize the opportunities God blesses us with each day. I agree that the biggest failure of church is the inability to take risks in service to humanity, which is actually what it is all about after all, right? The irony! We can’t take risks that would jeopardize the program – but, what is the program? Bonhoeffer haunts and taunts me. We may not be in the midst of Nazi evil, but we have much evil in our world nonetheless. We must act and not remain silent.

    • Fritz Foltz says:

      John, I really like the image of the mirror. I constantly felt Bonhoeffer was forcing me to look at myself. I am still wondering why now and why not back in the 60s when I read the martyr the first time. I think it must have to do with the present situation and that is scary.

  2. Fritz Foltz says:

    Paul wrote: Indeed Fritz did he ever outline/define/describe what blatant evil is? How to identify it?  Is it the Nazi party? NeoLiberalism? Trump?  The murderer down the road? The Chinese digital dictatorship? Or is it just banal at the end of the day we all become Eichmann’s with his trains? (el ar Hanna Arendt).  WW2 has shown us that good people go bad in a bad situation and so we have the banality of evil that is this potential in each of us.

    My reply: Blatant evil” is my term. I chose it to describe Bonhoeffer’s frequent observations in the three books I reread. I assume he was primarily thinking of the German Christian Church that had power under the Nazis. He seemed to use his situation as a perspective on the human condition. I was constantly amazed how right on he was relevant to our dilemma with Trump. While reading your options I kept saying to myself “all of the above”

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