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Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity in Its Christological Context: An Interview with Peter Hooton

Q: We’re excited to talk with you about your new book which explores Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of religionless Christianity. What initially drew you to Bonhoeffer as a topic for research, specifically his incipient thoughts on religionless Christianity?

PH: I enjoy his company. His writing is always fresh for me and I love his imagery. This, from Ethics, for example: “There is no part of the world, no matter how lost, no matter how godless, that has not been accepted by God in Jesus Christ and reconciled to God.” Bonhoeffer’s growing understanding of Christ’s inclusiveness greatly appeals to me, as does the tension in his thinking between ideas of human sociality—his rejection of “individualistic social atomism”—and the sense of aloneness before God—the conviction that Jesus’s followers “are always completely alone, single individuals who can act and make decisions finally only by themselves.” These are powerful ideas if you take them seriously.

The concept of a religionless Christianity appeals not least because, at first blush, it would seem impossible. Paradox is always beguiling. And for those of us who tend, like Bonhoeffer, to approach the words “religion” and “religious” with some caution, the idea that there may in fact be such a thing as “religionless” Christianity will always be worth exploring. Religionless Christianity emerges quite naturally from Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion. We have thus first to understand what it is about “religion” that he dislikes before we can begin to imagine Christianity without it. Many religious people, when they can see clearly what has been rejected, will be reassured by what remains. And what remains is also then so much easier to see.

Q: It seems as if scholarship has been wrestling with deciphering what Bonhoeffer meant in his articulation of religionless Christianity for decades.  How do you see your work differing from other scholars who have taken up this theme?

PH: The best way to answer this question is briefly to describe the shape of the book, which is I think new to a degree. I saw this project as a journey to be taken with Bonhoeffer and I decided quite early on that we would take it stage by stage, methodically. The book has six chapters which are intended to bring the reader progressively closer to an understanding of what Bonhoeffer meant by the phrase “religionless Christianity” when he came finally to introduce it in 1944, just months before his death. The first chapter considers Bonhoeffer’s historical premise—the belief that we are “approaching a completely religionless age”—in a present-day Western sociohistorical context. The second explores his understanding and critique of religion. The third examines the religionless Christianity of Bonhoeffer’s prison writings in the light of his earlier Christ-centred theology. The fourth explores, and expands on, Bonhoeffer’s approach to nonreligious interpretation. The fifth reflects on the place of mystery and paradox in Bonhoeffer’s thinking and on the importance of preserving a sense of personal wholeness in the face of life’s otherwise always fragile assumptions of purposeful coherence. The final chapter brings the critique of religion and Bonhoeffer’s christocentric theology together in an account of religionless Christianity which further underscores its consistency with key elements of his earlier work. The book aspires to present religionless Christianity not as fragment or aberration but rather as a lucid and persuasive contemporary theology. And it does this always in the presence of the question which inspired Bonhoeffer’s own theological journey from beginning to end—the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” I don’t think religionless Christianity has been presented in quite this spacious and holistic way before.

I should perhaps add that, although the chapter on mystery, paradox, and wholeness may seem a bit of an outlier in this context, it actually helps to emphasize something very important about religionless Christianity. And this is that we are speaking here of Christianity without religion; we are not talking about Christianity without God. The mystery of God becoming human is the heart of religionless Christianity, just as it is the heart of all Bonhoeffer’s theology.       

Q: You begin your book noting that if Bonhoeffer was wrong about the dawning of a completely religionless age, then he may also have been wrong about the necessity for a religionless Christianity. How do we go about evaluating Bonhoeffer’s appraisal of history today?

PH: If we look just at Bonhoeffer’s own historical context, we could be forgiven for thinking that his pessimism about the future of religion was simply a product of his own unsettled and violent times. But he was in fact taking a much longer view. Bonhoeffer explains his position in the prison letters. Historical developments have fostered a progressive decline in the significance of religion in the West. A centuries-long “movement toward human autonomy” has attained “a certain completeness” in his time. The world can now be understood perfectly well without God. Human reason and science are sufficient for this purpose.

Although religion has obviously not come to an end in the 75 years since Bonhoeffer’s death, its significance in Western countries has continued to decline. This is perhaps less evident in the United States than elsewhere. In my country, Australia, for example, a bare majority of the population (52 percent) now identifies as Christian. Thirty percent of Australians ticked the “no religion” box in the last census. And less than one in ten Australians attend church weekly. Much of Europe is in a very similar place. We do not live in a religionless age but we do live in a largely secular one whose distinguishing features—pragmatism, reductionism, individualism, humanism—make it increasingly hard for people, simply and confidently, to believe in God. Even religious people are now at most partly religious. As Gerhard Ebeling said some fifty years ago, people are religious only “in the religious province of their being, whereas for the rest over broad stretches of their life their existence is in fact as non-religious as any.” Christianity now makes its way in a Western world whose inhabitants (including many of those who still choose to call themselves religious) do not depend on God in any significant sense of that word. Our present is not the future Bonhoeffer predicted but it is sufficiently like it to support a broadly positive assessment of his historical premise.

Q: Your book reads religionless Christianity alongside more modern accounts of secularization theory. In what ways does Bonhoeffer differ from these accounts given his unique understanding of the West and the West’s centrality in Bonhoeffer’s conception of religionless Christianity? In the same vein, what is the import of religionless Christianity for those outside the West? 

PH: Mainstream secularization theory assumes modernity always to lead to secular outcomes, while contemporary variations are more inclined to see plurality and choice as modernity’s primary characteristics. I think Bonhoeffer would have been comfortable with either of these approaches. Secularization really didn’t seem to worry him. He speaks in Ethics of “the great process of secularization” which he understood to be approaching its end in his day and this he took to be essentially good for Christians. It hastened their maturity. He uses the words Mündigkeit—maturity; “of age-ness”—and Autonomie interchangeably in the prison letters.

Bonhoeffer’s notion of religionless Christianity drew strength and purpose from the progressive secularization of Western civilization, although the words “West” and “Western” probably oversimplify what, in Bonhoeffer’s mind, and from an early twentieth century German perspective, was a complex phenomenon. Michael DeJonge points out that, in the Ethics fragment “Heritage and Decay,” Bonhoeffer used the term westlich only in adjectival forms and always to the exclusion of Germany. He used westlich to refer to western neighbours such as France, Holland, and England but, when he talked about these countries and Germany together, he used a different word—Abendland. Bonhoeffer could not accept the Anglo-Saxon claim to see the West as an expression, exclusively, of the liberal-democratic tradition—with which Germany could not identify—and to recognize only one kind of freedom: a freedom from interference and tyranny. Bonhoeffer argued for a more complex idea of freedom for some larger purpose. While, though, Bonhoeffer’s concept of freedom is, I think, critical to a proper understanding of his religionless Christianity, I don’t believe his reflections on the possible shape of post-war Europe to be now of other than historical interest.

Does religionless Christianity have a value outside the West? I don’t know. Bonhoeffer’s example and theology have certainly been influential in the Global South, notably in the development of liberation theology. But in countries where the word “religion” still fits seamlessly into general conversation, and especially in countries with growing Christian populations, a religionless form of Christianity will seem unnecessary and out of place. Whether it has a role to play anywhere depends of course on how it is read. Religionless Christianity will always be misunderstood by those who assume they can read it from its title.

Q: Bonhoeffer’s concept of religionless Christianity is in many ways birthed from his long-standing views and accompanying critique of religion. What do you see as the key elements to Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion, and how is it informed by other theologians he is in dialogue with?

PH: Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion owes much to the early theology of Karl Barth. It was Barth who helped him understand the difference between faith, as God’s gift, and religion, as mere human invention. As Barth put it, we have died with Christ to religion and its laws and now stand before God as people “who have passed from death to life.” Barth’s significance for Bonhoeffer declined in the 1930s as Bonhoeffer was drawn more and more deeply into practical church and political activities. But he is there again in the prison letters which, despite their criticism of Barth’s failure to grasp the religionless implications of his own pioneering critique of religion, are still grounded in the conviction that religion simply cannot bring us into the presence of God. Only the grace of God, which has nothing to do with religion, can do this. There is no human path to God.

But there is, of course, more to Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion than this. In one of the prison letters, he speaks of “the crucial distinction” between Christianity and all religion. Matthew 8:17—“He took our infirmities and bore our diseases”—makes it very clear, he says, that “Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence but rather by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” This distinction—between the powerful but contrived God of religion and the compassionate, vulnerable God of the gospel—lies at the heart both of Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion and of his concept of religionless Christianity. Other elements of the critique—the religious preoccupation with personal salvation; the failure to understand that Jesus Christ claims the whole person and not just some religious part of us; the tendency to see God as the solution only to problems we have yet to solve; and religious assertions of privilege, hierarchy, and domination—all are enlivened, shaped, and molded by this distinction.

Q: Does Bonhoeffer’s conception of religionless Christianity trouble the normative hermeneutical method in Bonhoeffer scholarship which stresses both unity and continuity in Bonhoeffer’s corpus? How do we reconcile the newness of Bonhoeffer’s theological thought in prison with the fact that many of the elements that inform his thinking are already present in his early work?

PH: Bonhoeffer’s concept of religionless Christianity is intended to facilitate a Christian response to life in a world where God is no longer necessarily seen as an essential element of human self-understanding. It is the product of a “world come of age” and incorporates Bonhoeffer’s now fully developed critique of religion. It begins with a question—the familiar “what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?”—and is driven by Bonhoeffer’s strongly felt need to bring Christians to an authentic understanding of their condition. God wants us to know that “we must live as those who manage their lives without God.” God “consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross.” God is now “weak and powerless in the world” and can be with us and help us only in this way. It is precisely this autonomous coming of age that “frees us to see the God of the Bible, who gains ground and power in the world by being powerless.”

Most scholars would, I think, accept Ernst Feil’s description of Bonhoeffer’s theology as a unity within which there is “development and unfolding.” While Eberhard Bethge finds in Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison signs of “a decisive new beginning in April 1944,” he can also clearly see in them evidence of Bonhoeffer’s earlier thinking. The key elements of his prison theology—its affirmation of the life of faith lived wholly in the world; its subordination of power to weakness; the idea that “only the suffering God can help;” and the promise of new life in Christ’s “being there for others”—are all firmly grounded in Bonhoeffer’s earlier theology, including his overarching vision of one reality in Christ.

In the “Outline for a Book,” which accompanied one of the last of the letters from prison, Bonhoeffer declares simply that God is the “encounter with Jesus Christ.” So much of his theology is captured here. The idea, for example, that whatever else and more God may be and surely is, we can only truly know the God who became human. The rest is speculation. Here, too, we meet Christ the mediator—the one who stands before God on my behalf and between me and every “other.” In Jesus Christ we recognize our true humanity as something shared and never solitary. Our sense of I-ness is grounded exclusively in relationship—with God, and other people. Life is thus innately social and necessarily involves accepting responsibility for others. Human freedom, too, is comprehensible only as a relation. In Jesus Christ, God chooses to be free for rather than from human beings and this means that their freedom, too, as human beings made in God’s image, can only be a freedom for others. There’s more to be said about this, of course, but I hope I’ve given you some idea of what I’m talking about.  

Q: What is the role of nonreligious interpretation in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of religionless Christianity?

PH: Bonhoeffer believed the work of shaping practical expressions of a new, religionless form of Christianity demanded new ways of thinking and speaking about the Christian faith. Religionless Christianity depended both on a certain way of understanding the human encounter with God and on language capable of conveying this understanding to an audience which, for the most part, knew little of Christian scripture and tradition. Nonreligious interpretation would play a critical role in establishing religionless Christianity. By finding new ways of explaining theological and biblical concepts, nonreligious language must do what Bonhoeffer believed religious language could no longer do. It must tell people “what it means to live in Christ and follow Christ.” It must bear witness to the identity and relevance of Jesus Christ in “a world come of age.”

Bonhoeffer knew this wouldn’t be easy. He left us only one reasonably clear example of nonreligious interpretation in the prison letters when he equated “repentance” with “ultimate honesty.” I’m sure though that Bonhoeffer would have taken us further down this path if he had had the chance to do so. I believe, too, that the work of nonreligious interpretation must go on if we are to treat Bonhoeffer’s concept of religionless Christianity as fully functional theology rather than as fragment or historical artefact.

Where to begin? Bonhoeffer’s prison letters include lists where we find the words faith, repentance, reconciliation, justification, sanctification, among others. But the lists are almost certainly provisional. He is thinking aloud at this stage. The challenge for us, as I’ve said, is to find language that is not only compatible with Bonhoeffer’s emerging sense of a Christ-centred, religionless Christianity but also intelligible to people whose sense of the divine has been attenuated by the dominant assumptions of our age. I take some small steps in this direction in chapter four.

Q: A byproduct of your exploration of religionless Christianity is a fascinating discussion on the burgeoning inclusiveness in Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology. You note that while the early Bonhoeffer was convinced that Christ was present only in the church-community, he is compelled to modify this understanding. How does religionless Christianity motivate this turn towards an alternative understanding of church, and what does it mean for future interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology?

PH: Bonhoeffer made his initial position clear in his doctoral dissertation when he said that because community with God “exists only through Christ” and Christ is present “only in his church-community,” then community with God could exist “only in the church.” It followed that anyone who was not in the church was effectively excluded from the life of Christ. Bonhoeffer was never entirely comfortable with this position and was obliged, by the logic of his own Christology, gradually to moderate his understanding. Because Jesus bore the whole of human nature, because, in him, the form of humanity was created anew, and because, through him, all human beings, without exception, were reconciled with God, it necessarily followed that Jesus Christ was present in every human being and the church had a responsibility to reflect this understanding.

Christ, though, was in no way diminished by Bonhoeffer’s progressive change in orientation. The power of Christ’s love was not compromised by the universality of his embrace, which now reached into the most hidden and godless corners of the world. But the nature of Christian life itself had changed for Bonhoeffer. The church was always, for him, more than simply “this or that building with the bell tower.” Christians still enjoyed the benefits of church-community, but there was a very real sense in which the whole world was now their church, because it was there, and not just in Christian fellowship, that the encounter with Jesus Christ took place. The true measure of faith was no longer fidelity to a particular religious institution, but rather a genuine willingness to share, wholeheartedly, the burden of Christ’s love for all humanity.

It may be possible to read Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology in this self-consciously christological way without the benefit of his religionless Christianity, but I don’t think I would have reached quite these conclusions if my focus had been elsewhere. There is an important sense in which Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity—far from being the tantalizing promise of things denied us by an untimely death—actually rounds out and brings to completion a thoroughly contemporary theology of Christian inclusiveness which has profoundly positive implications for the church today.        

Q: What is the import for religionless Christianity today? Can we think with, and perhaps beyond, Bonhoeffer’s conception of religionless Christianity in view of our current moment? Particularly, I am thinking about the profanation or appropriation of the sacred in service of geopolitical agendas. For example, Trump’s recent photo op holding a Bible on the steps of a church.

PH: Does religionless Christianity have a contemporary value? Yes, I believe it does and I’ve already had something to say about this with respect to the church. Religionless Christianity won’t of course mean anything to atheists and to uncritically religious people. But it has, I think, much to offer those who stand self-consciously in what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the Jamesian open space”—where they find themselves buffeted by the shifting winds of belief and unbelief—and the many others, both religious and nonreligious, who simply find themselves in this space from time to time. Bonhoeffer spares these people a choice of two unsatisfactory alternatives: the choice between a self-enclosed, entirely secular humanism and an ultimately unconvincing otherworldliness. In Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity, a worldly life of constant decision, risk, and responsibility is held in tension with a genuinely transcendent Other. In this context, Christ’s death and resurrection point not to new life in some other place but rather to a new way of living—of “being for others”—in this one.

Bonhoeffer believed that Christians may confidently place their trust in a God “who is weak and powerless in the world” because they know God, so understood, to be loving and faithful. They know also that the God whose absence is so keenly felt by once religious people is not, and never was, the God before whom they stand continually. They know that “only the suffering God can help” because only in the presence of the crucified and risen Christ does the human encounter with God take place. In this religionless confession of faith, Jesus Christ is not imposed on others but rather presses the claim of the other on us. We meet Christ in other people and see there the grace of God at work in every act of love and human kindness. We reach a new understanding of the abiding presence of Christ in every human being.

There is, though, a balance to be struck between a broadly inclusive religionless Christianity and what Bonhoeffer called the “arcane discipline” which shields and preserves the mysteries of the faith in the liturgical life of the church. Bonhoeffer was always critical of the casual and derisory exploitation of the mystery of Christ by a skeptical and self-regarding world. This is, of course, perfectly exemplified in Donald Trump’s cynical, ill-judged, and bizarre appropriation of the sacred for his own domestic political purposes. Such behaviour is not easily changed. The important thing is to see it for what it is and to draw the appropriate conclusions.

Q: What are you working on now that Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity in Its Christological Context has been published?

PH: No books at the moment. I have a couple of articles—one on Bonhoeffer’s ethic of responsibility and another on the “common good”—which I hope to have published in journals this year. I also have a book chapter on Gandhi and Bonhoeffer in the pipeline and am doing some work on the public value of Christianity for Australia today.

 

Peter Hooton is responsible for the Research Secretariat which undertakes work in public theology at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture on Charles Sturt University’s Canberra campus. He is a former career diplomat with experience in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the South Pacific. He has a PhD in Theology from CSU and is a member of the University’s Public and Contextual Theology Research Centre.

Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity in Its Christological Context is published by Lexington Books/Fortress Academic. It is available from online marketplaces and is also for sale on Lexington Books own website (https://rowman.com).