Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Modern Christianity, cont'd.

The movement began about the thirteenth century (I”m not going to get involved in an argument about the exact date) towards the autonomy of man (in which I should include the discovery of the laws by which the world lives and deals with itself in science, social and political matters, art, ethics, and religion) has in our time reached an undoubted completion. Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God.’ In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become increasingly true of religious questions: it is becoming evident than everything gets along without ‘God’—and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.

Roman Catholic and Protestant historians agree that it is in this development that the greatest defection from God, from Christ, is to be seen; and the more they claim and play off God and Christ against it, the more the development considers itself to be anti-Christian. The world that has become conscious of itself and the laws that govern its own existence has grown self-confident in what seems to us to be an uncanny way. False developments and failures do not make the world doubt the necessity of the course that it is taking, or of its development; they are accepted with fortitude and detachment as part of the bargain, and even an event like the present war is no exception. Christian apologetic has taken he most varied forms of opposition to this self-assurance. Efforts are made to prove to a world thus come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of ‘God.’ Even though there has been surrender on all secular problems, there still remain the so-called ‘ultimate questions’—death, guilt—to which only ‘God’ can give an answer, and because of which we need God and the church and the pastor. But what if one day they no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered ‘without God’? Of course, we now have the secularized offshoots of Christian theology, namely existentialist philosophy and the psychotherapists, who demonstrate to secure, contented, and happy mankind that it is really unhappy and desperate and simply unwilling to admit that it is in a predicament about which it knows nothing and from which only they can rescue it. Wherever there is health, strength, security, simplicity, they scent luscious fruit to gnaw at or to lay their pernicious eggs in. They set themselves to drive people to inward despair, and then the game is in their hands. That is secularized methodism. And whom does it touch? A small number of intellectuals, of degenerates, of people who regard themselves as the most important thing in the world, and who therefore like to busy themselves with themselves. The ordinary man, who spends his everyday life at work and with his family, and of course with all kinds of diversions, is not affected. He has neither the time nor the inclination to concern himself with his existential despair, or to regard his perhaps modest share of happiness as a trial, a trouble, or a calamity.

The attack by Christian apologists on the adulthood of the world I consider to be in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third place unchristian. Pointless, because it seems to me like an attempt to put a grown-up man back into adolescence, i.e., to make him dependent on things on which he is, in fact, no longer dependent, and thrusting him into problems that are, in fact, no longer problems to him. Ignoble, because it amounts to an attempt to exploit man’s weakness for purposes that are aline to him and to which he has not freely assented. Unchristian, because it confused Christ with one particular stage in man’s religiousness, i.e., with a human law.

[There follows a fascinating but particular discussion of Protestant teachings from an historical perspective which may be a bit opaque if you don’t know all the players (Heim, Althaus, Tillich, Barth) that comes down to this observation about Bultmann:]

Bultmann seems to have somehow felt Barth’s limitations, but he misconstrues them in the sense of liberal theology, and so goes off into the typical liberal process of reduction—the ‘mythological’ elements of Christianity are dropped, and Christianity is reduced to its ‘essence’—My view is that the full content, in clouding the ‘mythological’ concepts, must be kept—the New Testament is not a mythological clothing of a universal truth; this mythology (resurrection, etc.) is the things itself—but the concepts must be interpreted in a way as to not make religion a pre-condition of faith (cf. Paul and circumcision). Only in that way, I think will liberal theology be overcome (and even Barth is still influenced by it, though negatively) and at the same time its the question to be ultimately taken up and answered….Thus the world’s coming of age is no longer an occasion for polemics and apologetics, but is now really better understood than it understand itself, namely on the basis of the gospel and in the light of Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 8 June 1944


  1. I preface this remark with an observation that I know you don't need, but which I feel is important to make. I am a great admirer of Bonhoeffer, both of his life and his thought. In that I know I am rather commonplace. If I criticize him, it is from the third balcony of the peanut gallery.

    "In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become increasingly true of religious questions: it is becoming evident than everything gets along without ‘God’—and, in fact, just as well as before."

    In this Bonhoeffer seems, to me, to pioneer a widespread common contemporary attitude, but one that still strikes me as fundamentally mistaken. It is the idea that the questions that science answers are in essence no difference than those which religion addresses, that the religious orientation will wither away as surely as magic or astrology.

    This is the attitude that sees, say, the Galileo affair as a "setback" for religion. The trial of Galileo was indeed a scandal that continues to be waved in the face of Christians. But I think it was also an important, if painful, advance in the self-understanding of Christians about what the faith is really about. The best example, of course, is found in the person of Galileo himself, who articulated the relationship between scientific inquiry and the Catholic faith in terms that were finally picked up and approved by Leo XIII some centuries later.

    Neither do I share Bonhoeffer's assurance that the "average person" is losing his need to look to God in the face of disappointment, frustration, guilt and death. If the polls show that the churches are shrinking, they also show that spirituality outside of them is not.

    Bonhoeffer's interesting comment about psychotherapy being "secular Methodism" for the elite takes on a different implication in a society like ours where the decline in formal religious affiliation is mirrored by growing numbers in therapy. This may reflect a decline in religion, but not a decline in the fundamental anxieties that remain with us, and which, in my view, are considerably less well remedied by the explosion in therapeutic methods and the wide expansion of the use of psychotropic drugs.

  2. I want to put up more of Bonhoeffer's remarks to provide as much context as possible before I comment extensively (which is not to say I don't appreciate your comments), but I will say that, in part, Bonhoeffer is viewing this from a pastor's point of view.

    And what he touches on, especially in your last two paragraphs, is what I've come to call "vulture theology:" the church's redoubt that, when everything fails, (especially in death), you have to come back to us for those "ultimate questions" (I don't know if Tillich had formulated his "ultimate concern" in 1944 or not, but I hear it in Bonhoeffer's discussion).

    From the point of view of the church having a weltanschauung, which I understand by Bonhoeffer's reference throughout these letters to "religion," I think he's dead on. And, if you stop there (as some do, even in seminary), you think you've reached the dead end, and it's atheism.

    But Bonhoeffer doesn't stop there. What he is addressing is how the world thinks, and that weltanschauung, he says, must be considered "on the basis of the Gospel and in the light of Christ."

    But as I say, I want to flesh that out more fully, for purposes of discussion. So if all I do is post these for a while, it's not because I find them fully authoritative (although, being a confirmed existentialist, I really like his critique of existentialism! There is something there germane to my larger point....)

  3. I will therefore follow the counsel of Edmond Dantès: Wait and hope!

  4. No, keep commenting. I find some value in Bonhoeffer, but not absolute value.

    But I do read him quite differently than I would have 30 years ago.

  5. I generally stay out of theological discussions because I lack the background. But I'm skeptical about the idea that modernism represents some kind of adulthood of the human species, I think it's more like an extension of adolescence if not infancy. I doubt that human culture matures. I just had a discussion on the verge of an argument with my 17-year-old niece about her beliefs about second wave feminism, for which she has learned a good deal of disdain by reading "third wave feminist" blogs and articles. She has, though, not read the original sources of second wave feminism, which aren't really much as she imagines them to be. I recommended that she read Shirley Chisholm instead of some theorist or other. Of course the kids figure they've made a great leap forward, invented the wheel and fire but what they have now grew out of what was done then, neither were adulthood, a final maturation. Both of them were the people of their time responding to conditions of their times.

    The relative little of Bonhoeffer I've read is a light on his time and experience, a particularly brilliant one, that continues to provoke thinking and still addresses things that are important. I don't agree with him about the ability of people to get on perfectly well without God, I think the history of his time showed that doesn't really work just as the history of the American left in the last several decades shows that if people don't have a religious reason to resist selfishness, they won't resist selfishness and self absorption. He was in the middle of a catastrophe brought on by people who had done that in about as extreme a form as is imaginable. The only potent and effective means of fighting that is a form of religion that requires treating other people as you would have them treat you. Noting that is more complex to articulate will be effective.

  6. My hermeneutic of Bonhoeffer leads me to read his statements on "adulthood" and "getting along without God" with more than a bit of mordant irony. He is explaining the world as it understands itself; he is not describing the world as it truly is.

    All pastoral relationships start with complete honesty about those being served (the congregation, the individuals). I read Bonhoeffer as a pastor himself, and as one doing an honest assessment of his "congregation." If he is going to pastor to them, he has to understand them as they understand themselves.

    I have something of the same understanding about his desire to remove religion from Xianity, although I think that is part of a conversation begun in the 19th century. You can see how this is gonna take awhile....

  7. Another important point is to understand what exactly Bonhoeffer means by "religion."

    If I understand correctly, Barth, in his strong opposition to natural theology, categorized all attempts of man to seek God as "religion"--a designation not meant as a compliment. By contrast, for Barth, Christianity is the call of God, the seeking of humanity by God.

    This is a coherent description, but it rather distorts the ordinary meaning of the term "religion." This distinction has now become such a cliché that it's not uncommon to hear some Christians occasionally insist that Christianity is not a religion, because "religion is of man."

    In "Discipleship" Bonhoeffer doesn't (I think) make so much of this, but his use of the term "religion" is usually pejorative--it refers to mere belief, system, theology.

    So when Bonhoeffer refers to "religionless Christianity"--well, I'm still not sure what exactly he's intending. All we can be sure about, I think, is that it's not the cultural/civil religion of 19th century liberalism, nor the elaborate cult of Catholicism, nor the ethical secularism of our "new atheists."

  8. I have an idea what he means, from a pastoral point of view (because so much of what Bonhoeffer identifies in the letters resonates with my brief pastoral experiences); but that's still as hard to pin down as a definition of "religionless" Xianity.

    I'm gonna work on it, though.....