Religionless Christianity

This is a theme that emerged from an exchange of comments with Stephen K. A search on Google brings up quite a few articles related to Dietrich Bonhöffer. This one is an example – Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity.

What does the idea of “religionless” Christianity mean? The closing down of all churches? The running down of the priesthood and finally the suicide of institutional churches? My own mind asks one further question – Why not forget about Christianity once an for all and worship our bank accounts, cars and electronic gadgets? The thing we often hear is “I’m spiritual but not religious“. Very often, people are just that.

Is it, or should it be, the proper of Christianity to break with both Judaism and Paganism and express itself in a secular life guided by some moral ideas of Christ from the Gospels? It is not easy to get at what Bonhöffer is really trying to get at in the quote in the posting linked to above.

First of all, the scandal of churches collaborating with evil regimes just to keep their influence and property is one of the greatest obstacles to faith. It appears that Pope Pius XII is innocent of accusations of collaborating with the Nazis, but many bishops did and many innocent people died. The plug is pulled for what we believed underpinned our faith. Once that is gone, only atheism remains – or does it? Bonhöffer asks the question differently:

The questions to be answered would surely be: 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 now 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 those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, 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?

I too have asked this question, and the only answer I can come up with is a kind of silent monastic or quasi-monastic witness. Do we have a right to withdraw from the “world”, or do we have to trash religion, go and live in a city and get involved with politics and humanitarianism?

Was the Redemption and salvation about being free from religion, ie: the empty ritualism of the Scribes and Pharisees? It’s a thought that can come into our minds. Was that the intention of Christ? No one has one single answer. On the other hand, religion seems so fragile, especially in a world that has trashed it. Our living in a godless world devoid of beauty or even humanity would bring us into a state of sharing Christ’s sufferings. Perhaps I would recommend that some religious bigots should live in places like Evry or the “working (unemployed) class” suburbs of Paris, Lyons and Rouen and spend their Lent in complete nihilism, far from churches. Perhaps they would be nearer to God in that desert than ever before.

How does the slogan go? Wear a hoodie!

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man–not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.

Perhaps it all seems rather boring. We trash churches and religious art, all the monuments that lie around us. Alternatively we resign ourselves to the “museum of religion” being a permanent reproach, taunting us and forever bringing our sins before us. The idea that the Gospel is simply being about being good persons, law-abiding and with qualities of empathy and compassion, seems to reduce it all to a tedious moral code. Yet another moralising sermon and a return to the eternal hollowness.

Such thoughts make us relativise issues of liturgy and church furnishings. Should religion be hidden? I continue to celebrate Mass and do my priestly duties, but my religious life is hidden because it is absolutely senseless to make it public, provocative, and add to the scandal of religious symbols meaning something completely different and opposed to my inward convictions. For me to walk about with a cassock and very short hair would convey the message to many people here in France of far-right politics – to which I am opposed in the name of humanity, freedom and life. I experience many of the things that drove Bonhöffer to such a radical way of thinking, stopping a little way short of the nihilism of Nietzsche.

One of the themes of Lent is making our inner spirituality and humanity match what we do outwardly. Religion is vain when empathy and all human qualities are absent, when it is incoherent – as with the Pharisees or a “religious” person collaborating with the Nazis or other totalitarian regimes in the century of my birth.

Certainly, if religion is not to be trashed, we need to go through a real scouring-out and renewal of our inward life and our willingness to be human and humane. We need to heed the criticisms made against Christians, for our hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty, cognitive dissonance, lack of care for others and our general “your death is my life” attitude. It is up to us. Very little is left.

Perhaps, some American soul might challenge me and ask me why I remain in Europe. Why not go to America where people are still religious and would pay me to be a full-time parish priest? I answer like the Germans who did not flee in the 1930’s because it was their country, like the Russians who stayed and suffered from persecution under the Communists. I am an Englishman, a European, and have no desire to move to America. Apart from the fact my wife would be against it, I find the present economic and political tendencies in the USA very frightening. The present situation with the US and Russia over Crimea is also very scary. The worst part is not knowing which side is the real enemy.

I go on because I know no better way. Perhaps I should have lived my life a different way, but I didn’t. I can only be where God has called me to be (otherwise I would be elsewhere). Why rack ourselves with that much speculation? Life is irrational at the level of our defective and fallen powers of reason. Sometimes we get the short end of the stick. It happened to Bonhöffer as he bravely walked to the gallows at Flossenbürg. Thus we participate in God’s suffering – and his Resurrection.

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5 Responses to Religionless Christianity

  1. Stephen K says:

    What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.

    But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression……

    God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village…

    To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man–not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life

    Dear Father, I’ve highlighted above what I think are key concepts expressed by Bonhoeffer in the letter extracts you referred us to. I am not sure he was dispensing with liturgy, or religious acts, as I was not, but rather subordinating them in the order of being. The way much religion operates and has operated for a long time is mechanical, magical and manipulative: our forms and rites are attributed divine power shared vicariously by those who administer them – the number and intensity of our oraisons, offices and oblations are said to make us good or acceptable in the sight of God, the church, and others – we gnash and grind our teeth over words and theology. I think Bonhoeffer may have been trying to grapple with the very basic fact or level of our physical existence, and how it is that which grounds our brotherhood and our creaturehood, rather than some refined intellectual abstraction about such things or some human artifice, such as our elaborate forms of piety and prayer can be or regarded. In other words, liturgy is good, but serves the essence, not constitutes it.

    Well, at least this is a rough translation of the thesis my instincts tell me is what Christianity is struggling with in our modern time, or should. I don’t know whether Bonhoeffer would put it quite in the terms I have. There is nothing wrong with aesthetic taste(s): there is no reason why we should not build sacred temples and churches that embody certain ideas and emotions – Gothic arches are very effective and pleasing on a number of levels – but the mistake we who are inclined to be religious often make is to elevate our tastes and familiarities to critical truths and virtues, and religious discord and evil – which Bonhoeffer confronted – is the result. In other words, a key challenge for homo religious is how not to let his/her religious form petrify his/her reverence to God; for homo christianus it is how not to let it petrify his/her service in love and mercy to others.

    Your instinct or idea about some form of quasi-monastic witness seems to me to reflect the same kind of hunger or desire for directness, as well as space for contemplation, peace in heart and outlook. The difficulty is that we cannot escape the difficulties and sufferings of living. But perhaps Bonhoeffer is saying that the only real Christ is the one who is manifested when we cease self-pitying and begin being of service – in the liturgy of aiding others in their suffering, whatever it is, as we have it in our power to do.

    • ed pacht says:

      The essence of liturgy, of dogma, and of rules of life and morality is not prescriptive. They do not, and cannot make us righteous. They are not divine nor can they guarantee us contact with the divine. Religion (from a Latin word for ‘rule’) is a human response to the divine, its forms devised by human beings and therefore (even if infused with divine inspiration) limited by the limitations of the human mind.

      Christianity is not a religion in this sense (though it certainly finds expression as a religion). It is not belief in certain propositions that makes one a Christian, nor is it the practice of certain rites or obedience to a certain moral code. That was the way of the Pharisees. “You search the scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life, but they testify of me,” said the Lord, highlighting his many other claims that what matters is our relationship with Him — everything else derives from that, not the other way around.

      A relationship with Jesus, however, does not exist unless it is expressed, and it is not expressed without forms. Doctrine, liturgy, and morality are not prescriptive, but they are expressive. By their fruits we know them. Our response to His presence has much to say about what our relationship is, and, for that matter, about whether there is one and about who it is that we claim to know. Our response is the visible and practical expression of our contact with the numinous, and such a contact requires such a response.

      The witness of Tradition is principally that it is the response to an unchanging God, a deity who is not capricious, who is the God, not of one age only, but of all time. The growth of tradition is a witness that God does, indeed, maintain a living presence in a church that has to live in time. To carpenter together a liturgy, or a theology, or a morality, in disregard of Tradition would, in my opinion, reduce God to a timebound creation of man whose continuous operation over time is irrelevant.

      At least this is a part of how I see it. I’d best stop here.

      • Stephen K says:

        ed, another wonderful encapsulation of things from you. Don’t “stop here”! I agree with what you say, although your last sentence of your fourth paragraph needs some further consideration perhaps. I tend to think nothing is indispensable, even tradition. But then, nothing is all one way or the other. You know, in some respects, you and I are not far apart at all.

      • A relationship with Jesus, however, does not exist unless it is expressed, and it is not expressed without forms.

        This is the one notion that prevents me from going off at a tangent towards “religionless Christianity” – which for many of us would just become religionlessness without the Christianity bit. Then it is a short step to atheism. Then all that is left is so-called matter, which according to discoveries in quantum physics seems to be only illusion, everything being pure energy and consciousness.

        It’s not easy to keep up a relationship with my mother since she passed away last year. She doesn’t phone me any more, and all I can do is to remember her, look at her photo from time to time and pray for her each day at Mass. How easy is it to keep a relationship with Jesus if there is nothing other than our imagination and ability to auto-suggest?

        The idea of the liturgy perpetuating and actualising the presence of Christ and the Christ-Mystery that works in a metaphysical and ontological way seems to be essential for Orthodox and Catholic Christians. Otherwise there is nothing but a kind of following the Gospel as a kind of moral Little Red Book.

        We can tone down the “religion” bit as a check to see if we give priority to the spiritual life and human empathy. That is a good ascetic exercise. But, getting rid of religion (any act of communion between man and God) just reduces us to materialism.

        If we are universalists, being without religion might not make any difference to our lot after death (the persistence of our consciousness outside the brain). But we have still to face the issue of evil and our hope beyond it.

        We should be careful before trashing the last chasuble from the to-be-demolished sacristy! 😉

      • ed pacht says:


        I think it was Chesterton who pointed out that tradition is the giving of a vote to our ancestors. I would agree that traditions (note the plural!) are dispensable, but would assert very strongly indeed that consciousness of and respect for Tradition as a concept and as the voice of the past is not. It would seem to me the height of arrogance to claim (as moderns so often do) that the past doesn’t matter and, of course, can easily be discarded.

        The Buddhist/New Age notion of ‘being in the moment’ has a great deal of merit, but is so very often misconstrued. If ‘the moment’ is seen as merely the present moment, the vision is depressingly shallow. Flip Wilson, the rather irreverent American comedian, satirized it well with his “Church of What’s Happening Now” and a “relevance” that is ultimately without meaning. The “moment” in which one is to be is not temporal, not time-bound, but the eternal moment in which the I Am is, in which past, present, and future are hardly to be distinguished.

        Tradition, then, is a recognition that the past is an integral part of the moment in which we exist, that what has been still is, that the voices of that past still speak. It is also (if rightly see) a recognition that the witness of the past is not immutable, that the present does indeed speak to the past and modify the heritage, and that the Tradition that speaks to the future may not be precisely what we have seen it as.

        God is in the eternal moment. “Before Abraham was, I am.” What I mean in speaking so disparagingly of a disregard for Tradition is the attempt of a contemporary society to restrict Him to contemporaneity. If we carpenter together forms we are entirely comfortable with, we do exactly that. He won’t fit into our conceptions. Anything that does is simply not God.

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