Brian McLaren, one of the key influencers of the emerging church, recently responded to a seminary student’s query regarding whether Dietrich Bonhoeffer's thoughts on religionless Christianity are being worked out in that movement. He said:
“As you know, "the emerging church movement" is very diverse and maybe more of a conversation than a movement, so I'm quite certain many folks associated with things emerging wouldn't know much about Bonhoeffer, and others of us would be deeply interested in him and in this intriguing concept, and would see ourselves as trying to work it out in practice.”
McLaren’s reply speaks firstly to the fact that the emerging church is not just a singular, easily definable movement that would universally embrace a concept like “religionless Christianity.” However McLaren also suggests that there are streams of the emerging conversation that would be interested in this. I am interested in McLaren’s response here, since this seminarian’s question is the same as my own. I want to know both what Bonhoeffer likely meant by the phrase “religionless Christianity,” and also whether we can perhaps see an example of it being worked out within some elements of the emerging church.
“What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today… We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more… if therefore man becomes radically religionless what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?… How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity – and even this garment has looked very different at times – then what is a religionless Christianity?” (Bonhoeffer 1971, 279-280)
Bonhoeffer goes on to develop some of his own answers to these questions in his subsequent letters, and yet much of his thought on the matter remains skeletal at best. The crux of his discussion seems to hinge on three key terms: “religionlessness” or what he prefers to call the “world coming of age,” “religion” itself, and finally his “non-religious interpretation of Christian doctrine.” Much has been made of these terms over the past sixty years, and many writers tend to project their own ideas onto Bonhoeffer without carefully considering what he actually meant. Thus, in order to avoid falling into this trap myself, I thought it would be prudent to turn to the source closest to Bonhoeffer, namely Bethge, to see what he understood these terms to mean in their original context.
World Come of Age
The “world coming of age” is Bonhoeffer’s preferred term for what we would call the general trend of “secularization” in Western cultures over the past 500+ years. According to Bonhoeffer, the world no longer needs the “God hypothesis” to help us make sense of morality, politics, science, psychology, etc. (360) God, as a metaphysical concept that helps us bridge the gaps in those areas where human reason breaks down, has been increasingly pushed to the margins and made irrelevant and superfluous. For Bonhoeffer the point here is not merely blind faith in human “progress,” but rather “autonomy.” Humanity is “growing up” and becoming responsible, rational, autonomous “adults” who can think and judge for ourselves without the crutch of religion to fill in the gaps. (Bethge 1968, 98)
What is truly unique in Bonhoeffer’s thought, however, is that, in contrast to most other Christian thinkers, he sees secularization as a good thing – indeed as a culmination of the Christian worldview. (Bethge 1967, 77) As Bonhoeffer himself puts it, “Our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him… Before God and with God we live without God.” (Bonhoeffer, 360) For Bonhoeffer this coming of age meant liberation from all the idolatries of “religion,” and a restoration of God to the center of life, rather than its margins.
What then did Bonhoeffer mean by “religion?” For Bonhoeffer “religion” is a negative term, something that Christianity needs to move beyond, and while his use of it is nebulous and hard to pin down, (Wustenberg 1998, 29) Bethge indentifies five characteristics of religion that emerge from Bonhoeffer’s discussion in his Letters. First, religion is individualistic. According to Bonhoeffer, religion moves God from the world into the “personal” and “inner” and “private” sphere, (Bonhoeffer, 344) causing the religious person to become so preoccupied with their own interior states that they neglect caring for others. (Jenkins 1962, 34)
Second, religion is metaphysical, by which Bonhoeffer is referring to the elaborate conceptual framework developed in conjunction with both Greek philosophy and later with nineteenth century idealism by which God is described and defined as something separate and above and apart from this world. Bonhoeffer claims that this framework now primarily serves to insulate the believer from the truly revolutionary and this-worldly message of the gospel. (Bethge 1968, 54-55)
Third, religion is provincial. In a secular world, religion is increasingly pushed to the margins of life and society, called on occasionally for vestigial ceremonial functions – holidays and the like, but otherwise only occupying an ever diminishing sphere of human existence. (Bethge 1967, 79)
Fourth, religion is the deus ex machina. God is called in only when human reason or resources reach their limit. God becomes a god-of-the-gaps, a solution to life’s problems and turned to only out of weakness or need. However, as Bonhoeffer points out, this can only go on until humans push the boundaries of their limitations out a little further, making God that much more unnecessary and superfluous. (Bonhoeffer, 281-82)
Finally, religion creates a privileged class of insiders who see themselves as uniquely blessed by God and thereby set themselves over and against any outsiders – the reprobate, unbelievers, etc. This exclusivism gets expressed in “the patronizing, feudalistic character of Christian institutions and creeds [which] had transformed the freeing majesty of the powerless servanthood of Christ into power-structures of sterilizing dependencies.” (Bethge 1968, 56)
Non-religious Interpretation of Christian Doctrines
If Bethge is right about Bonhoeffer’s description of “religion”, then a “non-religious” Christianity would be non-individualistic, non-metaphysical, non-provincial, non-deus ex machina, and non-privileged. What it would be in a positive sense, on the other hand, is more difficult to define, especially since Bonhoeffer didn’t live long enough to fully flesh this out. A few things, however, can be gleaned from his letters. For instance, he talks about wanting to speak of God “not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weakness but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness.” (Bonhoeffer, 282) In other words, Bonhoeffer wanted to move beyond a provincial, god-of-the-gaps, to a God who was to be found in all aspects of life, whether overtly “religious” or not. Rather than the metaphysically transcendent God who is “beyond” this world, Bonhoeffer wanted to locate God’s transcendence in his very presence in this world and especially in the human other. (381-82)
Finding God in the midst of life also means, however, that God is present in our weaknesses and sufferings. Bonhoeffer’s non-religious interpretation is a theologia crucis insofar as the God who is found in the totality of life is also found on the cross. (Bethge 1967, 81) It is only in God’s powerlessness and suffering, not in omnipotence or control, that God can help us.
This leads to the third aspect of Bonhoeffer’s non-religious interpretation, which is its Christological focus on Jesus as the “man for others” through his participation in our humanity in all our limitations and weakness. This lifts Jesus out of a merely out of a merely speculative or metaphysical realm and places him squarely in an ethical, existential and theological context. (Bethge 1968, 69) It also defines our own relation to God – we are to live “a new life in ‘existence for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus,” (Bonhoeffer, 381) both individually and communally. As Bonhoeffer says, “The church is the church only when it exists for others…The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.” (382-83)
What Religionless Christianity Is Not
Given some of the incorrect ways the term “religionless Christianity has since been appropriated by others, it is also important to say what it is not. First, it is not pure secularism that rejects Christian belief altogether. As Bethge points out, Bonhoeffer’s non-religious interpretation was always a Christological interpretation, and “religionlessness” for him does not mean mere atheism, but a turning from a religion on the margins of life to Christ who is with and for us in the center of life.
Similarly, Bonhoeffer is not rejecting theology or doctrine, nor trying to replace these with a purely ethical Christianity. Instead, he is trying to reformulate Christian doctrine in a way that will be relevant for a world that has moved beyond the need for “religion.” (Lehmann 1968, 27-35)
Nor is Bonhoeffer merely rejecting the institution of church. While he does offer critiques of a church which is supported by and in collusion with the power of the State, the worship and sacraments of the church are still, as always, central for him. (Bethge 1967, 82) In all of this, then, Bonhoeffer is not merely offering a facile critique of Christian worship, institutions, or theology, but is instead presenting a far more thorough rethinking and reformulation of all of these for our secular world.
As McLaren suggested, there may be elements of the contemporary emerging movement engaged in this same kind of rethinking and reformulation that Bonhoeffer pointed to. But, to begin with, what exactly is this “emerging church”? Tony Jones, former National Coordinator for Emergent Village, defines it as “The specifically new forms of church life rising from the modern, American church of the twentieth century.” (Jones 2008, xix) He goes on to describe the emerging church as a mash-up of new kinds of faith communities and adventurous theology that seeks to engage with postmodern philosophy and culture and move beyond the weaknesses of both mainline and evangelical Christianity. (xviii-xix) As McLaren pointed out however, this means that the emerging church is not simply one thing, but a conversation consisting of many different streams depending on which aspects of contemporary Christianity are brought up for re-examination, whether worship practices, institutional structures, or theology. While often discreet, these streams do overlap, and indeed, as Phyllis Tickle has pointed out, the emerging church could also be called the converging church, inasmuch as it tends to embrace and recombine the many diverse traditions of Christianity in new ways. Thus, for instance, it is not uncommon to find charismatic Anglicans, Baptist Taize services, evangelicals for social justice, and Presbyterians holding jazz vesper services. As Tickle puts it, a new center is forming as Christians move beyond their former divisions to embrace more diverse expressions of the faith. (Tickle 2008, 123-144)
This convergence also points to the fact that the emerging church is not simply a new splinter group. Rather, it is a form of renewal that is happening at the outer edges of all segments of the Christian family, across denominations and among non-affiliated Christians, both inside and outside existing institutional structures. In fact, speaking of an emerging “church” may be misleading in this regard. It is perhaps more accurate to talk about emerging Christianity rather than a distinct emerging church.
For the purposes of this paper, then, I will focus on only the particular stream of emerging Christianity that seems most likely to be moving in the direction of Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity. For instance, McLaren points to Peter Rollins, a philosopher and emerging leader from Northern Ireland, as one example of someone who is explicitly trying to fill in and live out Bonhoeffer’s vision. Indeed, Rollins frequently cites Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity as a precursor to the kind of postmodern, emergent theology he himself is working on, (Rollins 2008, 102-104 and 2009, 62-64) and while he asserts that “other thinkers have done the work that Bonhoeffer signaled and hinted at,” Bonhoeffer is nonetheless an important transitional thinker who still has a prophetic voice for today. I propose that emerging thinkers like McLaren and Rollins, along with those influenced by them, reflect Bonhoeffer’s vision in at least three regards: theology, mission, and community.
Throughout his books Rollins develops an “a/theistic” theology where one is always in the position of disbelieving what they believe because God is always beyond what our theological propositions and metaphysical concepts can capture. (2006, 25-30) This is essentially the same direction Bonhoeffer is moving with his non-metaphysical Christianity. Similarly, Rollins, like Bonhoeffer, also locates God’s transcendence not in distance or remoteness or the unknown, but in immanence, in what Rollins calls “hyper-presence.” (23-25) Along with Bonhoeffer, Rollins affirms that God is found not at the margins of life, but at the center. The consequence of this for Rollins, as with Bonhoeffer, is that God’s presence and “power” is located in the weakness and suffering of Jesus. In this regard Rollins also moves us beyond provincial, deus ex machina religion, to a God who truly with and for us.
Emerging leaders like Rollins are not simply redefining our conception of God, they have also been speaking to how this conception informs the purpose of the church. If there is any term which unites almost all the various streams of the emerging conversation it is “missional,” which points to the idea that the church exists within the world for the sake of the world, not merely for its own sake. As McLaren puts it, “missional faith asserts that Jesus came to preach the good news of the kingdom of God to everyone… the gospel brings blessing to all, adherents and non-adherents alike.” (McLaren 2004, 110-111) This Christ-centered, missional approach directly parallels Bonhoeffer’s Christological vision of a non-privileged Christianity, a church that exists “for others” just as Jesus was the “man for others.”
Emerging Christianity goes beyond simply talking about these ideas however. While Bonhoeffer opened the door to the possibility of a religionless Christianity, a whole host of emerging faith communities are currently engaged in trying to actually live it out. As Rollins asserts, “I believe that we are beginning to witness the development of dynamic faith collectives which Bonhoeffer would have recognised as concrete manifestations of his lonely prison thoughts.” Rollins specifically mentions a handful of these by name, including his own Ikon community in Belfast. I could also personally list scores of other emerging faith communities that, in my opinion, are, to lesser or greater degrees, expressions of Bonhoeffer’s “Religionless Christianity”. These communities are focused on exploring 1) new post-religious theological directions, 2) a missional vision, and 3) authentic, inclusive life-together. While emerging Christianity is certainly too diverse to say that these characteristics are universally found among all emerging churches, these particular streams of it at least are legitimately recognizable as expressions of Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity.
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