Chapter 9: Religionless Christianity

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

Chapter 9: Religionless Christianity

The concept of Religionless Christianity has been one of the most controversial subjects in Bonhoeffer’s theology. Surprisingly, Bonhoeffer himself used the expression "religionless Christianity" only in the famous letter of April 30, 1944. Mention has already been made that Bonhoeffer’s theology, especially as it was developed in the prison letters, has been under vigorous criticism. It is disappointing to note that many critiques of Bonhoeffer see him only through the eyes of the so-called "radical theologians" who have misrepresented his thoughts. This is not a fair approach to his thinking. Bonhoeffer should have a hearing on his own merits. If we miss the dialectical nature of his theology we miss the whole point. Paul Lehmann, a good friend of Bonhoeffer during the pre-war days, has pointed out that,

The so-called "Death of God" theologians are perhaps the most conspicuous of Bonhoeffer’s misrepresentation. They have seized upon the Letters and Papers from Prison with such avid and hasty enthusiasm as to have provided an American parallel to those German enthusiasts who have, all but launched a "Bonhoeffer School". On the continent, "the world come of age", "religionless Christianity", "true worldliness" have tempted Bonhoeffer’s former pupils, now in theological faculties or church administration, towards cultic passions. In the United States, these same phrases have been appropriated as a kind of quintessential, "new essence of Christianity" which claims Bonhoeffer for the tradition of Nietzsche and celebrates him as a forerunner of a theology without God. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that both cultic and atheistic celebrations of Bonhoeffer are grievous distortions of his thought and spirit. When the prison papers are read and reflected upon, with due regard for Bonhoeffer’s exegetical and theological writings, there is no informed and responsible way claiming Bonhoeffer for a theology without God.1

The death-of-God theology, in the narrowest possible sense of the term, points to the teachings of the American triumvirate -- Thomas Altizer, William Hamilton and Paul van Buren -- who stirred up quite a bit of public commotion and whose work is now almost of no value. These theologians consider Bonhoeffer as the thinker whose seminal thoughts have provided the basic inspiration for their own theological stand. In his book The New Essence of Christianity, Hamilton says that "My essay as a whole is deeply indebted to Bonhoeffer, and may be taken as a theological response to the coming of age of the world as he has analyzed it."2 Hamilton and associates are surely interested in Bonhoeffer, but whether they understand him rightly is a different question. In any case, Bonhoeffer aficionados will not subscribe to the theory of making him the spiritus rector of the death-of-God theology. It is not our purpose here to interpret the death-of-God theologians but to examine, as briefly as possible, how their theology is basically different from that of Bonhoeffer.

The death-of-God theologians declare that God is dead. When they speak of the death of God they are not just referring to the God of the Greek metaphysics, or the inadequate imagery that has characterized Christian concepts to speak of God, or the false gods of pagan idolatry. They are speaking of the death of the Christian God Himself.

At this point we have to question whether these theologians are authentically ‘radical’. The term ‘radical’ (radix) actually means "pertaining to the roots" or "going to the foundation of something". A Christian theologian, if he is to be radical, should go back to the New Testament roots of Christianity. The death-of-God theologians are not at all radical in this sense, since their starting point would seem to be the rejection of biblical belief in the living, eternal God. They have carried certain tendencies in theology to their own conclusions, and it would be more appropriate to say that they are radicals in the jargon where that word means ‘extremist’. Whereas the thrust of Bonhoeffer’s theology is his Christocentric concept of reality, it would seem that these self-styled radicals are promoting some kind of "Jesus cult". The title The Christian Century gave to Hamilton’s review of van Buren’s The Secular Meaning of the Gospel: "There is no God and Jesus is His Son" rightly points out the paradoxical nature of this strange theology.3

In contrast to the death-of-God theologians, Bonhoeffer was a radical theologian, for the scripture was the basis of his theology. In Ethics Bonhoeffer said:

In Jesus Christ we have faith in the incarnate, crucified and risen God. In the incarnation we learn of the love of God for His creation; in the crucifixion we learn of the judgment of God upon all flesh; and in the resurrection we learn of God’s will for a new world. There could be no greater error than to tear these three elements apart; for each of them comprises the whole.4

To interpret this fundamental message of the Gospel to the man come of age was the mission of Bonhoeffer. The expression "death of God" never appears in Bonhoeffer’s writings. He speaks, instead, of life "before God" in the world without the God-hypothesis and by means of the "secret discipline" (which Hamilton scarcely mentions and Altizer interprets as a need for silence). It is the ‘metaphysical’ God of religion, the deus ex machina, the "working hypothesis," that Bonhoeffer rejects.

According to Bonhoeffer, to believe in the God of Western theism is to rely upon a false image of God. Therefore he rejects this kind of God-hypothesis. He is very particular to make this rejection, because to him one of the most important aspects of a deeply worldly and committed life is a right theology of God and a clear withdrawal from the false religious outlook of the past. In one of the most significant of all his remarks Bonhoeffer said:

....we have to live in the world esti deus non daretur (even if there were no God) and this is just what we do recognize-before God. God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark. 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.5

There are important points to be noticed in this last statement. First, God is spoken of in conjunction with the "without God". Second, the intellectual honesty of modern man and the testimony of Christian faith meet in a unique way. This means that the world in its adulthood "is no really better understood than it understands itself, namely on the basis of the gospel and in the light of Christ."6 The meeting of the intellectual honesty of modern man and the testimony of Christian faith is a necessary theological conformation. The faith is a presupposition for the intellectual honesty; for maintaining one’s ‘adulthood’ and "standing fast", confronting reality with an intellectually honest view, is possible only "before God". It is evident, then, that Bonhoeffer had no intention of constructing a theology by eliminating the living God of the Bible after the manner of the death-of-God theologians. It would be more appropriate to say that while Altizer, Hamilton and van Buren were concerned about the "death of God", Bonhoeffer took the issue with religion.

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.

Barth said that it is only the forgiving and reconciling presence of God in human religion that can give it reality, and that this is to be found only in Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and human being. He tells us therefore that human religion has no worth nor truth in itself. Since a way has been opened up into the presence of God in and through Christ, all previous religions, or religions outside of Christ, are displaced and robbed of any claim to truth. Justification by grace reveals that religion can be the supreme form taken by human sin. This applies to Christian religion as well. Through sin and self-will the Christian religion may become merely a form of man’s cultural self-expression or be the means whereby man seeks to justify and sanctify himself before God. This is the basis of Barth’s attack upon nineteenth century religion and upon all self-centred, self-conscious pietistic religion.

Barth, however, does not deny the universality of religion. He emphasizes the need for charity and caution in the evaluation of religion. God speaks through the Christian faith not because of any superiority of Christian religion, but because of His grace. In contrast to revelation, which is God’s self-offering and self-manifestation, a religion is "a grasping which is not true reception". Barth writes:

If man tries to grasp at truth of himself, he tries to grasp at it a priori. But in that case he does not do what he has to do when the truth comes to him. He does not believe. If he did, he would listen; but in religion he takes something for himself. If he did, he would let God Himself intercede for God: but in religion he ventures to grasp at God.7

According to Barth, faith is the response to God’s revelation of Himself as Lord in Jesus Christ, a revelation in which the initiative rests firmly with God. If through religion man had been able to find God, this revelation would not have been necessary. The very fact of revelation proves religion to be inadequate, and now the whole field of religion must be looked at in the light of this fact. Barth also says that the theologian’s task is to try to discover what status of religion is from the point of faith.

Apart from faith religion becomes idolatry. In a typically lengthy footnote, Barth goes on to describe with great insight how religion is thought of as idolatry in the Bible. Religion is also unbelief because it is man’s attempt to find justification and sanctification for himself on his own terms. This is a self-centered way of erecting barriers against God. Our pious efforts to reconcile God to ourselves must certainly be abomination in His sight. Barth makes his position clear in this statement:

unbelief is always man’s faith in himself. And this faith invariably consists in the fact that man makes the mystery of his responsibility his own mystery, instead of accepting it as the mystery of God. It is this faith which is religion. It is contradicted by the revelation attested in the New Testament, which is identical with Jesus Christ as the one who acts for us and on us. This stamps religion as unbelief.8

Barth again and again emphasizes that the church exists as the church not insofar as it possesses some inalienable human form but only as it lives by divine grace. Whenever it tries to create an animating principle of its own, the church ceases to be the church of Jesus Christ and becomes an organ of that religion which is the enemy of faith.

Now we turn to Bonhoeffer. He 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.

Bonhoeffer, however, differs from Barth when the issue of the religious a priori becomes more pointed. Barth acknowledges man’s research for God from below as the height of human endeavours. Although man’s reaching out to God, in religion or in philosophy, will not be successful, it still has its place in human achievements. Barth does not deny that man has an inherent tendency for religion. Religion is one rooted in his divine origin in that:

The religious relationship of man to God which is the inevitable consequence of his sin is a degenerate form of covenant relationship, the relationship between the Creator and the creature. It is the empty and deeply problematical shell of that relationship. But as such it is a confirmation that relationship has not been destroyed by God, that God will not be mocked, that even forgetful man will not be able to forget Him.9

In the midst of all his criticism of religion, Barth still finds religion as an inescapable element in human consciousness. There is an a priori element behind the manifold expression of religion in human history. Barth agrees that this a priori element is not important when it comes to the validity and justification of religion. But Bonhoeffer goes a step further. He denies the religious a priori completely, and it is here that he opens up a new dimension beyond Barth’s theology. In contrast to Barth’s exclusive emphasis upon revelation, Bonhoeffer brings faith and obedience into focus as the correlatives of revelation. Thus he is able to speak existentially where Barth spoke exclusively in terms of revelation. It is this focus on faith and obedience that enables Bonhoeffer to reject totally that ‘religion’ which Barth mildly distinguishes from revelation.

Faith and obedience thus emerge as the important existential motifs of Bonhoeffer’s theology, especially in The Cost of Discipleship. By bringing close to faith such a concept as discipleship Bonhoeffer stresses the human side of the event of revelation:

From the point of view of justification it is necessary ... to separate them [faith and obedience], but we must never lose sight of their essential unity. For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.10

We cannot make a chronological distinction between faith and obedience, nor determine which is the logical consequence of the other. It is evident from this that Bonhoeffer never denies the theological primacy of the revelation.

Faith for Bonhoeffer is not a priori, not something always there in man waiting to be discovered: "Faith itself must be created in him."11 Just as revelation is an event in time and in a concrete situation, faith also is an event that takes place at the critical moment of man’s decision. It is true that God’s call gives rise to faith, but faith never occurs without man’s being responsible for it. Just as revelation is contingent upon God’s will, faith is also contingent upon man’s responsible decision in response to the call.

This is the reason, Bonhoeffer says, that religionlessness is hopeful. 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..."12 Faith is thus rooted in God’s freedom.

Faith addresses persons with an eye to their humanity and has no other aim than that they should be really human. Being a Christian does not add anything to being a human being, but puts our humanity into force. "The Christian is not a homo religious, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man. The basis of faith is "enduring reality before God." Thus defined faith is concrete and finds worldliness at once both a necessity and a gift.

(Man) must live a ‘secular’ life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. He may live a ‘secular’ life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). 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 methods or other, but to be a man not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us.13

This is a new thought in Bonhoeffer, whereas he had earlier thought that one can acquire faith by trying to lead some sort of holy life. The following lengthy quote illustrates the point.

I remember a conversation I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor. We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with our lives. He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it’s quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn’t realize the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it... I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this- worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world- watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian.14

Thus the enduring of reality makes one a "whole man"-- not "man on his own", but "man existing for others". Bonhoeffer’s main contention is a triumphant assertion that faith works through love to free the Christian for action in the real world. The man of faith is released from self-preoccupation, on the religious level; as well as on other levels, to identify with his neighbour in the day- to- day affairs of the world, the place m which he knows God and enjoys life.

If Bonhoeffer were merely formulating this concept of faith on the basis of premises derived from cultural-historical analysis, he would be indistinguishable from many liberal theologians. For the weaknesses of liberal theology was that it conceded to the world the right to determine Christ’s place in the world; in the conflict between the church and the world it accepted the comparatively easy terms of peace that the world dictated.

Thus it was Bonhoeffer’s conception of faith that enabled and compelled him to take his stand against religion. He was convinced that theology has a message to the world only when it proclaims, from the perspective of faith, the maturity of the world and the religionlessness of man. The world may certainly grow mature, but "the world must be understood better that it understands itself."15 Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion is actually a call to maturity and religionlessness addressed to the contemporary man.

Bonhoeffer’s prison letters reveal three themes which are very close to him and which provides a glimpse of what he meant by ‘religionless Christianity". These themes are "Holy Worldliness", "Theology of Responsibility" and "Secret Discipline". We have already touched on these themes, but now we shall examine them more closely as Bonhoeffer develops them as guidelines for the life style of the "religionless Christian" who believes, in contrast to Marx, that his humanity becomes meaningful only in obedience to his Lord.

1. Holy Worldliness. For Bonhoeffer, holy worldliness is the only genuine form of holiness possible for the contemporary Christian -- anything else is an illusion. He means by this a complete dedication to life, a commitment to one’s own potential and to the needs of the world. The idea of holy worldliness can be found early in his thought, in Ethics, where we find the theological presupposition of this concept.

That God loved the world and reconciled it with Himself in Christ is the central message proclaimed in the New Testament. It is assumed there that the world stands in need of reconciliation with God but that it is not capable of achieving it by itself. The acceptance of the world by God is a miracle of the divine compassion.

In the body of Jesus Christ God took upon himself the sin of the whole world and bore it. There is no part of the world, be it never so forlorn and never so godless, which is not accepted by God and reconciled with God in Jesus Christ. Whoever sets eyes on the body of Jesus Christ in faith can never again speak of the world as though it were lost, as though it were separated from Christ; he can never again with clerical arrogance set himself apart from the world. The world belongs to Christ, and it is only in Christ that the world is what it is.16

In the prison writings we find Bonhoeffer’s insistence upon "a full life", the severe criticism of fellow prisoners who "miss the fullness of life and the wholeness of an independent existence", and a constant return to the theme of involvement in the world -- these give some indication of the direction in which Bonhoeffer’s thoughts move. Dag Hammarskjold Wrote: "In our era, that road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action."17 This is precisely what Bonhoeffer means by the term "holy worldliness". He believed that the ability to move freely, amiably, and intensely in the present can only come of a commitment to the future and to the eternal He described this commitment in the "Stations on the Road to Freedom:

Faint not fear, but go out to the storm and the action, trusting in God whose commandment you faithfully follow; freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.18

Again, in the book he intended to write, the final chapter was to begin:

The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the freewill offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.19

Bonhoeffer never equates holy worldliness with any virtue, but with a mind and soul open wide to the world’s affairs. Within his notion of holy worldliness, he suggests three qualities which describe the Christian’s relationship to God: knowing God in the blessings He sends us; relating to God in strength, and not in weakness: and sharing with God in His suffering in the world. He considers each of these qualities as important characteristics of the Christian, living a holy life before God in the world.

The first quality is that of knowing God in the blessings He sends us. Bonhoeffer says, "The intermediate theological category between God and human fortune is, as far as I can see, that of blessing."20 God’s blessing, whether it be health, fortune, or vigour, forms a central concern in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Our response to God’s blessing is central and crucial: "I believe that we ought so to love and trust God in our lives, and in all the good things that he sends us, that when the time comes (but not before!) we may go to him with love, trust, and joy. "21

The second quality which Bonhoeffer describes and to which he summons us is that of strength. "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."22 God’s blessing may well be the source of this strength, but it is man’s responsibility to nurture and develop it. On another occasion Bonhoeffer remarks that according to St. Paul, God not only wishes us to be ‘good’, He wishes us also to be strong. Speaking of his cellmate in prison, who used to laugh at others for whining while he himself moaned, Bonhoeffer says:

I told him in no uncertain terms what I thought of people who can be very hard on others and talk big about a dangerous life and so on, and then collapse under the slightest test of endurance. I told him that it was a downright disgrace, that I had no sympathy at all with anyone like that.23

The third quality is that of sharing with God in His suffering in the world. Although God wishes human beings love God from the centre of their lives, in their joys and blessings, it is also true that God wishes people to remain faithful in suffering. Of this quality Bonhoeffer wrote:

Not only action, but also suffering is a way to freedom. In suffering, the deliverance consists in our being allowed to put the matter out of our own hands into God’s hands. In this sense death is the crowning of human freedom. Whether the human deed is a matter of faith or not depends on whether we understand our sufferings as an extension of our action and a completion of freedom.24

Bonhoeffer very often uses the phrase "participating in the suffering of God in the world". From the poem "Christians and Pagans" we get clue of what he means:

Men go to God when he is sore bested,

Find him poor and scorned,

Without shelter or bread,

Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;

Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.25

This concept of "participating in the suffering of God in the world" is rooted in Bonhoeffer’s Christology. Christ did not come in glory and lay claim to a worldly throne. He was born in a stable and died on a cross. For Bonhoeffer it was the suffering and powerlessness of Christ that made God real for him. One can speculate that the whole prison experience was instrumental in making vivid for Bonhoeffer this dimension of the Biblical faith. In that context it was meaningless to think of the ‘religious’ God who solved the unsolved problems. What was meaningful was faith in the God revealed in Christ who was suffering with him in the world. He identifies Christian suffering with his most intense participation in God’s life:

Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving; that is what distinguishes Christians from pagans. Jesus asked in Gethsemane, ‘Could you not watch with me one hour?’ That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world.26

The radical identification of our suffering, the intense life of this world, with participation in Christ marks a major tenet of Bonhoeffr’s notion of holy worldliness.

2. Theology of Responsibility. Bonhoeffer had already dealt with this theme in an academic way in his Ethics, where he spoke of the structure and pattern of responsibility. Like all of Bonhoeffer’s themes, responsibility has a Christological foundation. It is grounded in Jesus Christ’s being as being-for-others. It has its foundation "in the responsibility of Jesus Christ for men, on the basis of our knowledge that the origin, essence and goal of all reality is the real, that is to say, God in Jesus Christ." For Bonhoeffer, responsibility is a response to "the reality which is given to us in Jesus Christ." As early as in the doctoral dissertation he asserts that man is not man in and by himself but only in responsibility to and for another.

Thus, Bonhoeffer defines responsibility as "the total and realistic response of man to claim of God and of our neighbour."27

It is rather difficult to find an actual definition of responsibility in the prison letters. However, the importance Bonhoeffer placed on responsible action in a Christian’s life may be recognized in the following passage:

We will not and must not be either outraged critics or opportunists, but must take our share of responsibility for the moulding of history in every situation and at every moment, whether we are the victors or the vanquished. One who will not allow any occurrence whatever to deprive him of responsibility for the course of history -- because he knows that it has been laid on him by God -- will thereafter achieve a more fruitful relation to the events of history than that of barren criticism and equally barren opportunism. To talk of going down fighting like heroes in the face of certain defeat is not really heroic at all, but merely a refusal to face the future. The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live.28

On several occasions Bonhoeffer equates the whole or conformed man with responsible man. In the Baptismal sermon he wrote:

For your thought and action will enter on a new relationship; your thinking will be confined to your responsibilities in action. With us, thought was often the luxury of the onlooker, with you it will be entirely subordinated to action. "Not every one who says to me ‘Lord’, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven", said Jesus (Matt. 7:21).29

Like holy worldliness, responsibility characterizes the Christian church which has torn out its religious roots.

Bonhoeffer interprets reality by means of his theology of responsibility. Bonhoeffer would agree with Marx in saying that the real is the place of one’s responsibility -- there is no other place. Apart from the intervention of responsibility, the real is mere illusion: "... action comes, not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility." To be responsible means to answer to someone for something. But, in contrast to Marx, for Bonhoeffer this means answering to God for the real. The place for one’s responsibility is precisely the place where one is ontologically rooted in the real. And yet, one’s responsibility for the real is not to the real itself, as Marx would have it, but to God in one’s personal relation to Him.

Bonhoeffer believes that only by being responsible to God can we be responsible for the real in all its profundity and fullness. He would agree with Marx that to be responsible to God without at the same time being responsible for the real means alienation. But at the same time he corrects Marx when he says that the real is not self-explanatory -- Jesus Christ is the reality. Without conforming to that reality, responsibility is a Sisyphean endeavour.

3. Secret Discipline: Bethge has pointed out that though the phrase "secret discipline" occurs only twice in the prison letters, it was not as peripheral for Bonhoeffer as the infrequency of the phrase might suggest. It will be appropriate to say that as a means of describing holy worldliness and responsible action, Bonhoeffer chose the unusual phrase "secret discipline". It appears for the first time in the famous letter of April 30, 1944:

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 secret discipline Arkandisziplin, or alternatively the difference.., between penultimate and ultimate, take on a new importance here?30

Then, following his criticism of Barth’s positivistic doctrine of revelation, Bonhoeffer says:

There are degrees of knowledge and degrees of significance; that means that a secret discipline Arkandisziplin must be restored whereby the mysteries of the Christian faith are protected against profanation.31

In contrast to the visible, worldly life of the Christian in the realm of the "things before last" (penultimate), there must be a hidden, disciplined life of devotion and prayer that is grounded in the belief on the "last things"( ultimate). These form the dialectical poles of Christian existence -- the worldly life always requiring the nourishment of the secret discipline and the secret discipline always sending a man back into the world. Thus the identification of the Christian with the world is not at all to be associated with the loss of his identity. The dialectic between the identity and identification of the Christian is the underlining thought behind the phrase "secret discipline". As Bethge put it, "If... non- religious interpretation means identification (with the world), then arcane discipline is the guarantee of an identity".32

The profound meaning implied in the phrase "secret discipline" can be better understood in the light of The Cost of Discipleship. The book may sound as if it emphasizes the Christian’s separation from the world; but it never leads to the point of any lack of responsibility to it. As we make a survey of the whole book we find two major tensions which can be considered as an interpretation of the term "secret discipline."

The first tension is that of the problem of the Christian in the world. There are statements which show a negative approach to the world:

The world is growing too small for the Christian community, and all it looks for is the Lord’s return. It still walks in the flesh, but with eyes upturned to heaven, whence he for whom they wait will come again.33

At the same time there are also statements like, "The only way to follow Jesus was by living in the world." The Christian has to lead the life in terms of his secular calling; an idea Bonhoeffer takes from Luther’s notion of vocation. Envisaging the confusion this tension might create, Bonhoeffer gives an interpretation to it:

We must face up to the truth that the call of Christ does set up a barrier between man and his natural life. But this barrier is no surely contempt for life, no legalistic piety, it is the life which is life indeed, the gospel, the person of Jesus Christ.34

The second tension is the inherent conflict of the hidden yet visible character of Christian life. Jesus Christ said: "Let your light so shine before men." (Mt. 5:16) In the following chapter we read: "Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your father who is in secret."(Mt. 6:6) Here also Bonhoeffer offers his interpretation:

Our activity must be visible, but never be done for the sake of making it visible... That which is visible must also be hidden. The awareness on which Jesus insists is intended to prevent us from reflecting on our extraordinary position. We have to take heed that we do not take heed of our own righteousness. Otherwise the ‘extraordinary’ which we achieve will not be that which comes from following Christ, but that which springs from our own will and desire.35

Secret discipline does not divide life into compartments, either metaphysical or inward. It maintains relationship with God while disengaging mankind from the falsely supernatural character that often marks such a relationship. Secret discipline is not just a diplomatic strategy to deal with the world come of age, but a costly discipline. Its ultimate assurance is that in Jesus Christ on the cross, God and reality form a unity that is indivisible. As Andrew Dumas points out,

The secret discipline is... a reminder that man following after Christ is subject to the whole of reality, and cannot be content with only a portion of the world around him that has become tolerable and manipulable under his direction. To have come of age, to be religionless, implies this secret discipline of struggle, which for the Christian is the very secret that God shares with man.36

Those who attack Bonhoeffer criticizing that his faith was perverted during his last days should remember these words which reflect his secret discipline:

...even if we are prevented from clarifying our minds by talking things over, we can still pray, and it is only in the spirit of prayer that any such work (intellectual discussion with the world and risk saying controversial things) can be begun and carried through.37

The importance Bonhoeffer placed on worship and prayer can be better understood in the context of the first instance where he speaks of the secret discipline. There he asks the question:" What is the place of worship and prayer in a religionless situation?" The question may sound paradoxical, for we consider worship and prayer the most important activities that distinguishes a religious person from a non-religious one. Here we have to remember one criticism Bonhoeffer makes on religion. He says religion relates to one department of life only, one which is in contrast to the world. It is a particular area of experience or activity into which a man may turn aside. It is this assumption against which Bonhoeffer poses the question. However, this does not mean that Bonhoeffer does not want any one to go to church or to say prayers. He wrote from prison:

I have often found it a great help to think in the evening of all those who I know are praying for me, children as well as grown-ups. I think I owe it to the prayers of others, both known and unknown, that I have often been kept in safety.38

J.A.T. Robinson summarizes Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on this question with these words:

The purpose of worship is not to retire from the secular into the department of the religious, let alone to escape from "this world" into "the other world" but to open oneself to the meeting of the Christ in the common, to that which has power to penetrate its superficiality and redeem it from its alienation. The function of worship is to make us more sensitive to these depths; to focus, sharpen and deepen our response to the world and to other people beyond the point of proximate concern (of liking, self-interest, limited commitment, etc.) to that of ultimate concern; to purify and correct our loves in the light of Christ’s love; and in him to find the grace and power to be the reconciled and reconciling community. Anything that achieves this or assists towards it is Christian worship. Anything that fails to do this is not Christian worship, be it ever so ‘religious’.39

It was acts of devotion that pushed Bonhoeffer into the world. He was a worldly man, but radically Biblical about his worldliness. Bonhoeffer was right in his assessment of the direction in which a Christian must move. Unless a Christian has the secret discipline as a presupposition of holy worldliness and responsible action, any distinction between being in the world and being of the world disappears.

How is the coming generation to live? Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion and the search for a new pattern of Christianity arise from this question. The phrase "religionless Christianity," which Bonhoeffer uses with much caution, may sound misleading. But, as it was said earlier, Bonhoeffer does not reject the idea of the church. He finds value in the church, but at the same time calls for a radical reform. In other words, the concept of religionless Christianity is to be taken as a challenge to the renewal of the church, a challenge found again and again in Bonhoeffer’s last writings. In this regard, he has not moved far from the position he had taken in Sanctorum Communio. For him, religionless Christianity was not just a field of theological exploration, but the concern of his lifelong efforts. He put this concept before the church as a challenge that the church enter into the world with more vigour than she ever has before. We shall conclude the discussion of religionless Christianity with these words of John A. Phillips, which echo the challenge of Bonhoeffer:

"Religionless Christianity"... is Christianity which has had the proper meaning of transcendence and witness to the Transcendent restored to it. It does not turn man back upon his life in the world and his face towards God, but rather directs him towards God and the world at one and the same time. God, the Transcendent, is active in this world. Therefore the Christian can and may and must live in this world and, by doing so, bear witness God in this world.40



1. Union Seminary Quarterly Review, Vol.XXI, No.3, 1966, p.365.

2. William Hamilton, The New Essence of Christianity, op. cit., p. 12n.

3. The Christian Century, Vol. LXXX, No. 40, 1963, p. 1208.

4. Bonhoeffer, Ethics op. cit., pp. 130 f.

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

6. LPP, op. cit., p. 329 (8 June 1944). ". Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, op. cit., Vol. I, Part 2, p. 302

8. Ibid., p. 314.

9. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, op. cit., Vol. IV, Part 1, p. 483.

10. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, op. cit., p. 69.

11. Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, trans. by Bernard Noble (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 47.

12. Ibid., p. 81.

13. LPP, op. cit., p. 361 (18 July 1944).

14. LPP, op, cit., p. 369f (July 1944). It is quite conceivable that in this passage Bonhoeffer has in mind Marx’s statement: (It is easy to be a saint if one does not wish to be a man).

15. Ibid., p. 328.

16. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, op. cit., p. 204.

17. Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, trans. by Leif Sjoberg and W.H. Auden (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1964), p. 122.

18. LPP, op. cit., p. 371 (‘Stations on the Road to Freedom’)

19. LPP, op. cit., p.382 f ("Outline for a Book’)

20. LPP, op, cit., p. 374 (28 July 1944).

21. LPP, op. cit., p. 168 (18 December 1943).

22. LPP, op. cit., p. 28 (30 April 1944).

23. LPP, op. cit., 204f (2 February 1944).

24. LPP, op, cit., p. 375 (28 July 1944).

25. LPP, op. cit., p. 348f ("Christians and Pagans")

26. LPP, Op. cit., p. 361 (18 July 1944).

27. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, op. cit., p. 245.

28. LPP, op. cit., p. 7 ("After Ten Years").

29. LPP, op. cit., p. 298 ("Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of D.W.R. Bethge").

30. LPP, op. cit., p. 281 (30 April 1944).

31. LPP, op. cit., p. 286 (5 may 1944).

32. Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, op. cit., p. 783.

33. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, op. cit., p. 303.

34. Ibid., p. 106.

35. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, op. cit., p. 175f.

36. Andre Dumas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian of Reality, op. cit., p.201.

37. LPP, op. cit., p. 379 (3 August 1944).

38. LPP, op. cit., p. 392 (21 August 1944). Also see, his little book Life Together (op. cit.). Here he emphasizes the importance of prayer, thanksgiving, scripture reading, meditation, sacraments and work in a Christian’s life.

39. J. A. T. Robinson, Honest to God (Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1963), pp. 87f.

40. John A. Phillips, The Form of Christ in the World, op. cit., p. 189. The American edition of this book has the title Christ for Us in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).