The thing that keeps coming back to me, is what is Christianity, and indeed what is Christ for us today? The time when men could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or simply pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience, which is to say the time of religion as such. We are proceeding towards a time of no religion at all; men as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not in the least act up to it, and so when they say “religious” they evidently mean something quite different.
Our whole 1900 year old Christian preaching and theology has always been a patter-perhaps a true patter-of religion. But if one day it becomes apparent that this a priori “premise” simply does not exist, but was an historical and temporary form of human self expression; ie we reach the stage of being radically without religion-and I think more or less the case already, else how is it, for instance that this war (WWII), unlike any of those before it, is not calling for any “religious” reaction?-what does it mean for “Christianity”
It means that the linchpin is removed from the whole structure of our Christianity to date, and the only people left for us to light on in the way of “religion” are a few “last survivals of the age of chivalry” or else one or two who are intellectually dishonest. Would they be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group and none other that we are to pounce, in fervour, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them the goods we have to offer? Are we to fall upon one or two unhappy people in their weakest moment and force upon them a sort of religious coercion?
If we do not want to do this, if we had finally put down the western pattern of Christianity as a mere preliminary stage to doing without religion altogether, what situation would result for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of even of those with no religion?
If religion is no more than the garment of Christianity-and even that garment had very different aspects at different period-then what is religionless Christianity?
What is the significance of a Church in a religionless world?
How do we speak of God without religion, ie without the temporally influenced presuppositions of metaphysic, inwardness, and so on?
In what way are we the Ekklesia, those who are called forth, not conceiving of ourselves as specially favoured, but as wholly belonging to this world? Then Christ is no longer an object of worship, but something quite different, indeed and in truth the Lord of the world.
The Pauline question whether circumcision is a condition of justification is today, I consider, the question whether religion is a condition of salvation. Freedom from circumcision is at the same time freedom from religion. I often ask myself why a Christian instinct frequently draws me more to the religionless than to the religious, by which I mean not with any intention of evangelizing them, but rather, I might almost say in brotherhood. While I often shrink with religious people from speaking of God by name-because that Name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I strike myself as rather dishonest (it is especially bad when others start talking in religious jargon; then I dry up completely and fell somehow oppressed and ill at ease)-with people who have no religion I am able to speak of God quite openly and as it were naturally.
Religious people speak of God when human perception is (often just from laziness) at an end, or human resources fail; it is really always the Deus ex machina they call to their aid, either for the so called solving of insoluble problems or as support in human failures-always, that is to say, helping out human weakness or on the borders of human existence. Of necessity, that can only go on until men can, by their own strength push those borders a little further, so that God becomes superfluous as a Deus ex machina. I have come to be doubtful even about talking of “borders of human existence” It always seems to me that in talking thus we are only seeking to frantically to make room for God.
I should like to speak of God not on the borders of life but at its centre, therefore not in death but in his life. On the borders it seems to me better to hold our peace and leave the problem unsolved. Belief in the Resurrection is not the solution of the problem. The church stands not where the human powers give out, on the borders, but in the centre of the village. That is the way it is in the Old Testament and in this sense we still read the New Testament far too little on the basis of the Old.
April 30th, 1944
It is important to realize that Bonhoeffer’s use of the term “religion” takes its origin from Karl Barth’s treatment of the subject. He was fully in sympathy with Barth’s endeavour to distinguish religion as a human activity from the authentic tidings of the true God. Bonhoeffer also accepted the view that religion as historical phenomenon was the fruit of human speculation.
Bonhoeffer starts, like Barth, from the fundamental principle of justification of the sinner by grace alone. This justification removes from us all false props, all reliance upon external authorities, and all refuge in worldly securities, and throws us not upon ourselves but upon the pure gracious act of God in His unconditional love, so that the ethical and religious life are lived exclusively with Jesus Christ as the centre.
For Bonhoeffer the affirmation of faith is the negation of religion. Freedom from religion liberates faith to be attentive to the call of God; freedom of faith is the freedom received of God. Quoting Barth, Bonhoeffer effectively asserts that “… the relationship between God and man in which God’s revelation may truly be imparted to me, a man, must be free, not a static relationship…” Faith is thus rooted in God’s freedom.