Chapter 10: Transcendence According To Bonhoeffer

Encounter in Humanization: Insights for Christian-Marxist Dialogue and Cooperation
by Paulose Mar Paulose

Chapter 10: Transcendence According To Bonhoeffer

Earlier we found that the primary aim of Marx’s critique of religion and his atheistic position was the realization of the positive factor of transcendence. Marx maintained that in religion the content of transcendence is God, and the transcendent future is the power of God which comes to humanity and evokes a response. But Marx denied any sort of transcendence beyond the human. He was reluctant to identify transcendence with God because he understood the absoluteness of God to function as a limit, a restraint upon the otherwise unlimited field of human possibilities.

Marx held the view that dependence on a transcendent God and full human autonomy are incompatible. In contrast to religious understanding of transcendence, Marx asserted that human beings shape the universe and their own destiny, and human being is not any more the object of history but its subject and agent. The future to which people are moving is completely open to them. It is this possibility which enables the human being to move towards the future along an original road that entails freedom and choice that Marx calls transcendence.

The problem of transcendence has been one of the most critical issues in Christian theology. Traditionally transcendence and immanence have been viewed diametrically opposed to each other, perhaps with an undue emphasis on their incompatibility. The former was taken to express God’s otherness and distinctness from man, the latter his presence with and freedom for man. One of the rather obvious and unfortunate features of the history of theology has been the tendency to go to extremes in stressing either the immanence of God at the expense of His transcendence, or vice versa. If the nineteenth century liberal theologians concentrated on immanence, the neo-orthodox theologians of twentieth century so stressed God’s sovereign transcendence that any sense of His presence in the world was almost lost.

The interest in understanding and interpreting transcendence is found not only among Marxist philosophers and Christian theologians, but also in other intellectual communities. Culture analysts, psychologists, sociologists and others who probe the content and the dimension of human society have worked diligently to define the concept of transcendence. According to them, transcendence aims at total life fulfillment. They acknowledge that human life is not at all that it can be, and they attempt to devise ways to bring about total human fulfillment, using the categories appropriate to their particular scientific discipline. Transcendence means therefore the concrete resolution of social, economic and political problems as well as spiritual and psychic wholeness. Thus the desire for wholeness is understood as a basic human characteristic.

Whatever may be the definition of transcendence given by these secular thinkers, the objective is the same: to bring into being that which the human condition demands, i.e., the perfection of being. And it is more or less the same objective which contemporary theologians intend with their affirmations about the being of God and the nature of His activity in human history. When contemporary theologians speak of transcendence, their language is very much analogous to that of the humanists and other secular thinkers referred to -- though it is not quite the same. They approach the problem of transcendence in various ways: to reform the doctrine of God, to announce His death, to reduce theology to anthropology, or even to accept a pluralism of theistic and non-theistic beliefs in the church.

Generally speaking, the quest for the understanding of transcendence demonstrates that the critical issue for theologians is not to attempt a description of the nature and being of God but instead to attempt an exposition of the consequence of God’s activity in human history. In other words, when theologians affirm faith in the transcendent God of the scripture, they are affirming faith in the God who has acted in human history to make human beings whole and redeem them from their sins. Transcendence is not just the description of the inner metaphysical being of God. Rather it refers to an event, that historical event witnessed to in the scriptures, which brings about the restoration of health, i.e., reconciliation, to humanity. As William Johnson suggests, "transcendence has little to do with the nature and attributes of God but has everything to do with the consequence of God’s activity in history, that is, to introduce a transcendent dimension to human life." 1

Having looked at the understanding of transcendence in the thoughts of secular thinkers and contemporary theologians, we shall now examine Bonhoeffer’s own treatment of the subject. For Bonhoeffer, the perfection of being is achieved through the transformation of human life by the redemptive activity of the transcendent God, who identified himself with human beings in order to effect wholeness. He offers a view of transcendence which is not identical with a particular metaphysic, but which leaves the human being in free play within the reality of his historical existence. It is crucial to his thinking that the unbridgeable gap between the transcendent God and the created order is bridged by the incarnation. Neither announcing the death of God nor reducing theology to anthropology, Bonhoeffer is trying to protect a very specific and concrete understanding of the incarnation from either dualism or immanentism, so that Christ may be known as the present Christ who assures God’s presence to reality and reality’s presence before God. He interprets transcendence in terms of human sociality. For Bonhoeffer, the other human being, as an ethical subject in community, is the form of both the otherness and the presence of God. The Christian God is He who is other in His being -- for and being -- with man.

Andre Dumas has pointed out that "transcendence runs the risk of excelling God outside of reality, and of debasing the worth of creation as a second-rate imitation of the true realm of essences."2 By the use of the concept of "this-worldly transcendence" Bonhoeffer avoids this risk. He speaks of God not above reality, but at the point of hidden presence in reality. The incarnation is in one place where the Christian can understand God’s transcendence. As a result transcendence does not create a division between earthly appearances and heavenly essences.

Bonhoeffer reformulated the concept of transcendence in such a way that he rejected the doctrine of God popularly associated with much of the history of theology. He replaced it with an understanding of transcendence which is focused upon the humanity of Christ and the participation of the disciple, through Him, in the life of the world come of age. Bonhoeffer, thus, responds to Marx that faith in the transcendent God is not a fleeing away from the affairs of this world, on the contrary it is taking full responsibility of the reality of this world.

We shall now see how Bonhoeffer spoke of the transcendence of God as he expounded in his Christology. According to Bonhoeffer, Christology is utterly concrete in its orientation. In Christ the Centre Bonhoeffer asserts that

God in timeless eternity is not God, Jesus limited by time is not Jesus. Rather, God is God in the man Jesus. In this Jesus Christ God is present. This one God-man is the starting point of Christology.3

For Bonhoeffer, Christology is a doctrine of God as well as of the humanity of Jesus, for Jesus Christ is God present in the humanity of Jesus. He expresses the difference between transcendence and immanence in terms of the two questions he introduces in his Christology lectures:

The question Who? is the question of transcendence. The question How? is the question of immanence. Because the one who is questioned here is the Son, the immanent question cannot grasp him. The question of transcendence is the question of existence and the question of existence is the question of transcendence. In theological terms: man only knows who he is in the light of God.4

Traditionally Christology has wrongly phrased the question of the incarnation as the question of how to bring together an eternal, infinite God and the temporal, finite man Jesus. With Bonhoeffer’s concrete biblical- theological question Who?

..... the whole problem of Christology is shifted. For here the point at issue is not the relationship of an isolated God to an isolated man in Christ, but the relationship of the already given God-man to the likeness of man. This God-man Jesus Christ is present and contemporaneous in the form of the ‘likeness’, i.e., in veiled form, as a stumbling block (scandalon).5

When we restrict ourselves to the biblical-theological question Who? and look only to the scripture for the answer we discover that:

Christ is Christ not as Christ in himself, but in his relation to me. His being Christ is his being pro me. This being pro me is in turn not meant to be understood as an effect which emanates from him, or as an accident; it is meant to be understood as the essence, as the being of the person himself.6

Here we have the essence of Bonhoeffer’s Christology that the very being of Christ is his being-for-man, in the community. This passage is highly significant, for here we find a Christological idea which is similar to the ‘religionless’ Christology of the prison letters: the very being of Christ is his "being there for other".

"A Christology which does not put at the beginning the statement, ‘God is only pro me, Christ is only Christ pro me’, condemns itself."7 Here Bonhoeffer refers to the essential unity of the act and being in God and in Christ. If God were not pro me He would not have acted in terms of revelation and made Himself known to us in Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were not pro me He would not be God incarnate. This means that Christ cannot be thought in isolation, as a Christ in Himself, but only in his relation to us, because the purpose of God’s humbling Himself in Christ was to have this relation to us, to be pro me. This does not, however, mean that God and Christ depend for their existence on me. Bonhoeffer makes it clear when he says that Christ is both "the one who has really bound himself to me in free existence", and "the one who has freely preserved his contingency in his ‘being-there for you’." 8

In Bonhoeffer’s Christology lectures, one point clearly stands out: only a person can be authentically transcendent. Transcendence, thus, is a personal-ethical, concept. This emphasis on the personal ethical aspect of transcendence is not new in Bonhoeffer’s thinking. From the very beginning of his theological career, Bonhoeffer interpreted transcendence in socio-ethical terms. His notion of transcendence, together with the concept of person, was introduced for the first time in the "Communion of Saints". There we find the pregnant thought which prefigures Bonhoeffer’s later Christological usage of these terms:

...the concepts of person, community and God have an essential and indissoluble relation to one another. It is in relation to persons and personal community that the concept of God is formed. In principle, the nature of the Christian concept of community can be reached as well from the concept of God as from the concept of person.9

The question "Who is Christ for us today?" which we find in the prison letters can be traced back to earlier statements of Bonhoeffer.

In an article written while he was in the United States, Bonhoeffer spoke of Christ as "the personal revelation, the personal presence of God in the world".10 Again, in the same article, he brought together the three important conceptions --person, transcendence and God:

The transcendence of God does not mean anything else than that God is personality, provided there is an adequate understanding of the concept of personality... For Christian thought, personality is the last limit of thinking and the ultimate reality. Only personality can limit me, because the other personality has its own demands and claims, its own law and will, which are different from mine and which I cannot overcome as such. Personality is free and does not enter the general laws of my thinking. God as the absolutely free personality is therefore absolutely transcendent... Where can I find his inaccessible reality which is so entirely hidden from my thinking? How do I know about his being the absolutely transcendent personality? The answer is given and must be given by God himself, in his own word in Jesus Christ, for no one can answer this question except God himself, in his self-revelation in history, since none can speak the truth except God.11

In the prison writings Bonhoeffer interpreted God’s transcendence in concrete, social, ethical, I-Thou terms. He believed that whatever is to be said of God’s transcendence is what we can say of the biblical Christ. This man provides us with a norm which is concrete and ethical. In Ethics, Bonhoeffer says that it is to Christ, and Christ alone, that we look to see God. Any apprehension of the ‘beyond’ of God is an apprehension of the ‘beyond’ which we see manifested in the man Jesus. Christ means that God is to be found in the midst of the world and nowhere else.

Because Bonhoeffer understands the world only in the light of its reconciliation in Christ he can speak only of a "this-worldly transcendence". "It is now essential to the real concept of the secular that it shall always be seen in the movement of being accepted and becoming accepted by God in Christ."12 The transcendence of God is to be understood by Bonhoeffer’s lifelong and characteristic metaphor "God at the centre of life". The ‘beyond’ of God is not only God-in-the world revealed in Jesus; it is God-and-the-world reconciled in Jesus. In Christ we not only see God in the center of life; we also see God as the reconciler of life. Divine transcendence is revealed in Christ, and it is revealed as reconciliation. The "beyond" of God is reconciliation at the centre of life. Bonhoeffer again says: "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."13 The God of the Bible encounters human being in the midst of worldly activities, at the strongest point. Bonhoeffer, thus, brought to his "non-religious" project a resolutely non-metaphysical notion of divine transcendence.

God’s transcendence in the realm of knowledge is the beyond in what man knows, not the stopgap in what he does not know. Bonhoeffer emphasizes this strongly when he speaks of Christ that "he certainly didn’t ‘come’ to answer our unsolved problems".14 The ‘beyond’ of God is not to be understood as metaphysical transcendence. The God who is to be understood in the man Jesus is "at the centre of life".

Bonhoeffer’s attempt to interpret the transcendence of God in a anon-religious’ way reaches its climax in his "Outline for a Book". There he asks the question, "Who is God?" and answers,

Encounter with Jesus Christ. The experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that "Jesus is there only for others". His "being there for others" is the experience of transcendence.15

All that we know of God is the "being there for others" which characterizes the Jesus of the Gospels. This "non-religious" concept of Jesus as "the man for others" is certainly not a humanist or ethical reductionism. Rather, it is an interpretation of God’s transcendence in terms of the proclamation that Jesus is the Christ. In other words, the transcendent is met in the concern for others as given to us in the life and way of Jesus. This new understanding of transcendence has serious implications to our faith. God is not to be found in an abstract belief about His omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Feuerbach and Marx criticized that God is a projection of man’s ideals. As long as we place some abstract ideas in place of God their criticism holds true. God is not the idea we have of Him. Rather, we find the ground of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence in Jesus’ "being there for others".

Faith, Bonhoeffer says, is participation in Jesus’ freedom to be for others. For Bonhoeffer, freedom is the distinctive characteristic of Christian life. To participate in the being of Jesus is to be free, and thus transcendence is experienced in human life as liberation. This is not a freedom from any particular set of restrictions but it is a freedom for others. As early as 1932, Bonhoeffer insisted that human freedom be understood in strictly social terms as man’s freedom for others.16 According to Bonhoeffer, freedom functions as a middle term between transcendence and acts of love. Freedom is rooted in God and Jesus disclosed God’s freedom as freedom for human beings.17 This freedom provides the necessary human conditions for effectively caring for others. Jesus maintains this freedom to be for others even to the point of suffering and death. In this freedom from self, says Bonhoeffer, is to be found all that we can know of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.

Our relation to the transcendent God is the reconciliation seen m Jesus’ freedom to live for others Our relation to God, whose transcendence is reconciliation seen in Jesus’ freedom to live for others

is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable -- that is not authentic transcendence -- but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others’, through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbour who is within reach in any given situation. God in human form -- not, as in oriental religions, in animal form, monstrous, chaotic, remote, and terrifying, nor in the conceptual forms of the absolute, metaphysical, infinite, etc., nor yet in the Greek divine-human form of ‘man himself’, but ‘the man for others’, and therefore the Crucified, the man who lives out of the transcendent.18

God’s transcendence is manifested not in ‘religion’ but in a new orientation of human being toward life: existing for others after the pattern and in the power of Jesus’ utterly selfless life.

The new life which is participation in the transcendence is experienced chiefly as powerlessness and suffering. God at the centre of life is revealed most clearly and decisively in the cross of Christ.

God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, in which he is with us and helps us... Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.19

All those in a ‘non-religious’ world, who out of full human responsibility for others experience weakness and suffering, participate in the cross and hence in the transcendence of God. Thus, Christian faith is not merely a belief in a concept called transcendence, but the appropriation of that transcendence which is "the experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that "Jesus is there only for others."20

Marx and Bonhoeffer emphasized the autonomy of the human being. But in the search for such autonomy of the human being Bonhoeffer was not so much removing God from the world’s affairs as searching for God’s real presence in that world. Whereas Marx found God as standing in the way of human freedom and autonomy, a barrier to human emancipation, Bonhoeffer believed that God granted human freedom and autonomy by making Jesus the point of disclosure for His transcendence. Whereas Marx defined transcendence as the human beings’ possibility to move towards the future with freedom and choice, so that they could shape their own destiny, Bonhoeffer gave a this-worldly interpretation of transcendence in which the experience of transcendence is Jesus "being there for others". We already found that Jesus being there for others means that the transcendent is met in the concern for others as given to us in the life and way of Jesus and our faith is nothing but "participation in this being of Jesus". Transcendence, thus, refers to the transformation the sovereign and eternal God has effected upon the concrete human situation in terms of reconciliation, redemption, the restoration of health, the healing of social and political divisions etc. Transcendence therefore is an ongoing process. Accordingly, transcendence must be grasped, not as it has so often been in the past, in spatial terms referring to the God "up there" beyond the affairs of human life, but specifically in terms of what God has effected historically, and is doing now, on behalf of human beings.

By introducing the concept of this-worldly transcendence, by no means is Bonhoeffer writing off the transcendence of God in favour of His immanence. Rather, he believes that the idea of incarnation is conceivable only where there is both transcendence and immanence. And yet, in the incarnation God has affirmed the world and history in such a way that it is impossible to confine our apprehension of Him to a mythological or metaphysical elaboration of the event of incarnation. There should be some logical way of interpreting that event to the modern "non-religious" man. This is precisely what Bonhoeffer does by introducing the concept of this-worldly transcendence. He makes use of the humiliation of Jesus as the basis of his plea for a this -- worldly understanding of transcendence. Jesus is the man in whom God reveals Himself, and He reveals Himself by absenting Himself in His power and glory. In this way, God reveals to us the this-worldly nature of His transcendence. And faith, in the full sense, can be understood only as human response to this revelation. Our relation to God, then, is a new life and not ‘religion’ in the traditional sense of the term; it is freedom to act responsibly for our neighbour’s good, and not a ‘religious’ relationship to a metaphysical being.

The importance of Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of transcendence is that he gave it a profound sociological, and thus this-worldly dimension. Instead of defining the relationship of the individual to the transcendent God solely in spiritual and individualistic ways, by employing the concept of this-worldly transcendence he challenged the individuals to a "transformation of all human life" and thus to struggle for the transformation of society by participating in Jesus’ "being there for others". The world isolated in its own autonomy, which does not take seriously the revelation of God in this Jesus Christ, is only a utopia of ambitious persons. For "the world has no reality of its own, independently of the revelation of God in Christ".21



1. William A. Johnson, The Search for Transcendence, op. cit., p. 151.

  1. Andre Dumas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian of Reality, op. cit., p. 116.

3. Bonhoeffer, Christ the Centre, introduced by E. H. Robertson, trans. by John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 46.

4. Ibid., pp. 30f.

5. Ibid., p. 46

6. Ibid., p. 47.

7. Ibid., p. 48.

8. Ibid.

9. Bonhoeffer, The Communion of Saints, op. cit., p.22. See also, pp. 33 and 127-30.

10. Bonhoeffer, "Concerning the Christian Idea of God", GS, Vol. III, p. 104.

11. Ibid., p. 198f.

12. Ibid.

13. LPP, op. cit., p. 282 (30 April 1944)

14. LPP, op. cit., p. 381 (Outline for a book)

15. LPP, op. cit., p. 312 (29 May 1944)

16. Cf. Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, op. cit., pp. 37 ff.

17. Cf. Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, op. cit., pp. 90 f.

18. LPP, op. cit., p. 381 ("Outline for a Book")

19. LPP, op. cit., p. 360 (16 July 1944)

20. LPP, op. cit., p. 381 ("Outline for a Book")

21. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, op. cit., p. 197.