A church for today: Thinking Bonhoeffer style

Dietrich Bonhoeffer began a critique of Christianity while he was in a German prison during World War 2. The idea had a short-lived development and can be followed in the posthumously released Letters and Papers from Prison.
Religionless Christianity
In it Bonhoeffer began a stock take of Christianity, considering where it has got us and what it still offers. From the outset he proposes that what we are now faced with is the need for a religionless Christianity in a world that had effectively become post-religious (and therefore, effectively, post-Christian).
He begins,
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. Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the ‘religious a priori’ of mankind… But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all… then what is religionless Christianity? [279-280]
Christianity as Religion
For Bonhoeffer Christianity as a religion operates two ways; metaphysically and individualistically:
  1. Metaphysically it locates God beyond, outside, behind, this world. God, crudely speaking, descends from his distant (outer) space into enter our space, when we are in need of him.
    “God becomes as superfluous as a deus ex machina” [282] – the being we allow to enter when human ability has reached it’s boundary; when we are in need of an explanation for (as yet) unexplained phenomena. God is a God of the gaps (and the gaps are slowly getting filled in as mankind expands its boundaries).
  2. Individualistically it tends toward inwardness and conscience. God’s business is with man’s inner, personal, private, emotional problems and failings.
    “Religious people speak of God when human knowledge has come to an end, or when human resources fail – always exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.” [281-282] The way the doctrine of ‘justification by faith’ is pushed, is enough for us to see that, God sorts out our personal sins so we may receive personal salvation. Redemption has been removed from its biblical context and now has come to mean “redemption from cares, distress, fears, and longings, from sin and death, in a better world beyond the grave.” [336]
According to Bonhoeffer this is what the religious Christian church has been offering.
I can’t help but feel this is the Christianity I, and many others, have been offered.
I picked up a card from a church a while ago. It read like this.
“Confused? Hungry? Thirsty? Lonely? Empty? Tired? Lost? Here’s the answer! Jesus Christ.”
It may just be me but I think this falls into the definition offered above.
Now don’t get me wrong, true, fully developed Christianity has much to offer anyone that feels like this. Heck, I often feel like this! But if that’s all we advertise Christianity as, it falls into line with the Waterstones Mind, Body and Spirit feel-good crutches!
And guess what? People will no doubt end up preferring the other options because, for one, they have to go to church. (However, that’s a whole other story.)
A World Come of Age
Bonhoeffer pushes this further by asserting that we live in a world come of age.
Epistemologically, ethically, politically, morally, philosophically, scientifically we have developed in such a way, Bonhoeffer writes, that can live quite comfortably “etsi deus non daretur, ‘even if there were no God’” [359].
The above religious God had no place in these areas because, along side them, each of the others offers an approach just as acceptable.
Furthermore, the practices of psychology and therapy, he noted, have developed in such a way so as to provide comfort for man’s inner, private live. The religious God is pushed out further again.
We see this today. Contemporary society is thoroughly post Christian. Christianity is not needed because the God it offers is unsatisfactory and has been succeeded by more useful thought categories.
Many Christians lament this.
I don’t. Christianity did not cope well in Christendom. It became religious, it became institutional, it became associated with other politics, it became wealthy. In all of this it began to forget itself – it often forgot that its chief goal was to foreshadow the coming kingdom of God, it often forgot to demonstrate how places can look when Christ is King. It conceded these roles much more often than it displayed them (though there was, and still is occasion, thankfully, when what is to make Christianity distinctive can be seen).
What the Church could offer
In the current religionless climate Christianity, and the church with it, now has an opportunity to undergo a transformation. Religious Christendom is collapsing, the religionless nature of society (for that is what it is) offers us a chance to dream of what Christianity, and the church, can be in this world now. It offers us a chance to re-evaluate and assess what exactly it is that we offer.
Ephesians 3:10-11 presents a clear account of why the church exists
“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This purpose was that God would
“bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” Ephesians 1:10
With this in mind, let us catch Bonhoeffer’s vision for how to speak of where the church lives out its vocation,
I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness… The church stands, not at the boundaries, where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village. [282]
Let’s drop the pretense; people don’t care much for personal salvation, they have other options. People don’t have much time for a deus ex machina, the need for one is slowly fading further away.
If God is bringing unity “to all things”, the above characteristics of the Christian religion are unbiblical and we urgently must rework how we understand ourselves.
What people need is to see the God who is never far, ever present, working in the world currently, through the church. What we need to demonstrate is that Jesus calls the whole man to follow him and subsequently have his life transformed, Jesus never asked for just our cognitive, inner, private world.
It is here we must see that we are not “saved” to get out of this world. We are “saved” for this world.
The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the hope… in a better world beyond the grave… is that that the former sends a man back into the world in a wholly new way. The Christian has no last line of escape from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ, he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ. [336-337]
We offer this, we don’t offer escapes, we don’t offer an easy freedom when we are “Confused? Hungry? Thirsty? Lonely? Empty? Tired? Lost?” with the answer all you need is Jesus. We implore potential disciples to know that they must face these thingswith Jesus. Just as he asked his disciples to sit with him in Gethsemane as he experienced his “Confused, Hungry, Thirsty, Lonely, Empty, Tired, Lost” final night.
Religionless Christianity today does not balk from all that is around it, offering a supposedly pain free haven, that in the end falls merely as a platitude. It enters the pain. It enters the mess and allows those in it to lament with Jesus, as he did in Gethsemane. It is in the realization that “only the suffering God can help” [361] we come to know the surprising hope of resurrection and new life.
The church must come out of its stagnation. We must move out again into the open air of intellectual discussion with the world, and risk saying controversial things, if we are to get down to the serious problems of life. [378]
The church must speak out regarding economics, politics, social crises, even the covert murder of terrorists. Not with a meddling hand, or a desire to control or get its own way, but out of it’s responsibility to make known the multi-dimensional wisdom of God, which has appointed Jesus king over heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18, Acts 2:36, Phil. 2:9-11, Col. 1:15-20) and whom the church now represents (Acts 1:8).
This wisdom bears down on all rulers and authorities in the global village and announces peace and justice (Luke 4:18-21), salvation, deliverance, a defeat of and an exodus from sin and death (Luke 9:31). This wisdom declares we can know something of the hope of new life (John 20:31) as it bursts forth now and have faith we will experience it fully in the renewed heaven and earth (Revelation 21). The church is to reflect and anticipate in the now that which shall be known fully in the yet to come.
Much more can and should be said presently but in an attempt to wrap this up in some way now (in the hope of writing a bit more later) I’ll ask a question.
Does anyone need what the church offers?
The answer is of course, yes. But only if it takes stock and ditches the foolish enterprise of the Christian religion.
We need to recover what it means for the Christian church to exist at the middle of society.
We need to fully comprehend the religionless-ness of society and not lament or fear it but approach it and sing for the liberation it offers us from ways of existing that have robbed us of our urgency.
May we recover above all what it means for God to be at the centre of life and the focal point of all space, time and matter.
May we learn to speak of Jesus as king, as lord, as saviour of the world in the now and the yet to come.
May we know that our savior, lord and king does not offer us a cheap escape from the pain of life but asks us to follow him, even in our pain, onto a tree, where we find ourselves spent out with him, and then gloriously and surprisingly raised in his new life.
Finally, may we cease fighting for our existence and position in society in any form that exemplifies the above religious qualities. The world has grown up, so must the church.
I will close with the words of Bonhoeffer, which speak as much to our church today as they did to his, in his own time.
Our church, which has been fighting in these years for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world… Our being Christian will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. All Christian thinking must be born anew out of this prayer and action… It is not for us to prophesy the day when men will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom. [300]