As Dietrich Bonhoeffer formulated his religionless interpretation of Christianity during his imprisonment in Tegel during the Second World War one of the intriguing ideas that he proposed was, what he referred to as, the ‘secret discipline’.
The secret discipline is first outlined and discussed as Bonhoeffer considers,
What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy,
a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we
speak of God – without religion, i.e. without the temporally
conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot even ‘speak’ as we used to) in a ‘secular’ way about ‘God’? In what way are we ‘religionless-secular’ Christians, in what way are we the ecclesia, those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favoured, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? What is the place of worship
and prayer in a religionless situation? Does the secret discipline, or alternatively the difference between ultimate and penultimate, take on a new
The question here is – when Christianity embraces that Christ is Lord of the world, not simply or exclusively the church – how does a ‘secular’ and public faith, and all that it contains, look and take shape? What is ultimate and penultimate? What beliefs, doctrines and practices are primary? What beliefs, doctrines and practices are secondary?
Shortly after this first mention of the secret discipline, and the questions Bonhoeffer poses because of it, it gets mentioned a second time in relation to a critique of Karl Barth.
Karl Barth was the first theologian to begin the criticism of religion… but he put in [religion’s] place a positivist doctrine of revelation which says, in effect, ‘Like it or lump it’: virgin birth, Trinity, or anything else; each is equally significant and necessary part of the whole, which must simply be swallowed as a whole or not at all. That isn’t biblical. There are degrees of knowledge and degrees of significance; that means that a secret discipline must be restored whereby the mysteries of the Christian faith are protected against profanation.
At the heart of what Bonhoeffer is communicating here is the point that there is a time when we keep aspects of Christian belief quiet. We do not package all of our beliefs, doctrines and practices and say to someone interested in the Christian faith, “this is all that you must believe – otherwise there’s no chance.” This, for Bonhoeffer, is just plain wrong.
The proposal calls us to consider what we believe and to recognise some of it is significant, some of it is not; some of it is comprehensible, some of it is not. Some of it is ultimate; and some of it is penultimate.
If we live in a time in which the virgin birth is an aspect of Christian belief that simply is not understood then we call upon the secret discipline and we keep the doctrine quiet. Not for palatability’s sake but to protect it from profanation – until such a time as is appropriate for bringing it out into the open.
We could apply this to more though, e.g. Trinity, creation, justification, models of atonement and so on. This is the nature of the religionless interpretation of Christianity. How do we articulate and set boundaries for a faith that impinges upon all people? If the ‘Like it or lump it approach’ is unacceptable, what is our criterion for presenting and expressing the Christian faith? When and at what time do we keep some doctrines, beliefs and practices quiet or secret? What and where might this apply today?
Christ is Lord of our world, all of it. Our faith is secular; there is no spiritualized haven to which we retreat. Our faith is public and requires articulation at all times – what is ultimate and what is penultimate? What is do we protect and what do we not?
What we believe, our doctrines, our practices, are only truly doing their job when they help us find our life in the God revealed in Christ. What are these today?