Theology Under the Gallows

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a very famous Christian. Most Christians know of him, and books continue to pour off the presses. In serious theological circles, he is taken seriously. My wife even found a book of his poems written in prison (they’re not particularly good). But it is Letters and Papers From Prison, first translated into English in 1953, that has captured a wide audience. In 1997 Touchstone Press brought out a new greatly enlarged edition. I remember carrying around the earlier, thinner version while a student at the University of BC. It was rather cool to be reading him in the 1960s (even better if you had Kierkegaard’s Either/Or in your other hand), and I recall being shaken by some of his more audacious thoughts. Since re-reading him two years ago, I realize that he was pretty prudish and old-fashioned around relations with women, marriage and sexuality. Poor Maria! She was only in her late teens when Dietrich proposed to her, and she had to de-code those very shy and reserved poems to her. Probably the nasty censors wouldn’t have permitted too much eros!

Yet Bonhoeffer is gutsy and courageous in life (after all, he opted to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler and was a member of the Confessing Church that resisted Hitler). One might expect that his theologizing under the gallows would shake us up. There he is in a prison looking outward at his Church that didn’t exactly take a radical ethical stand at the most opportune of moments. When I had another look at what I had underlined in Letters, I realized that I had been struck once again with the now famous letter written to his good buddy Ebehard Bethge on 30 April, 1944. In this letter he begins with the yearning for the ordinary of the imprisoned. Ah, to stroll arm and arm with Maria, with you and Renate (Eberhard’s wife). He urges Eberhard to keep a “stout heart” and “his wits about him” so that “nothing will scare us.” He tells him that “God is about to accomplish something that, even if we take part in it either outwardly or inwardly, we can only receive with the greatest wonder.” Dietrich is sad that he can’t be with Eberhard (he seems more intimate with him than Maria); he also consoles his friend that he is doing “uncomingly well”, even radiating peace outwardly.

Then he drops a bombshell. He warns Eberhard that he might not like the direction of his theological thought. What is eating his heart out and tormenting his spirit? This question: “what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience—and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people 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 they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religion’.” One might think that Bonhoeffer is merely suggesting that belief in the supernatural will decline until it is barely visible. But something much more profound is at stake: French philosopher Marcel Gauchet (The Disenchantment of the World: a political history of religion [1997; originally published in French in 1985]) states that: “Religion’s demise is not be ascertained by declining belief, but by the extent of the human-social restructuring. Though this restructuring originated within religion, it escaped from and reversed its original religious orientation.”

These are tormenting questions for faith-communities. Bonhoeffer thinks the pietistic orientation of most German Christians had prepared the spiritual soil for the Church’s accommodation to Hitler. Lutheran pietism worked with a dualistic world-view that designated the inner life of the person as Christ’s abode and urged believers to accept the existing political order as appointed by God. Bonhoeffer’s pronouncement of the end of inwardness is a mighty blow to the last resting place of religion in a secular age. He also thinks that the claim for the superiority of the “Christian conscience” disintegrated before the raging golden calf of National Socialism. The failure of “Christian ethics” to awaken the majority of German Christians into action against Hitler’s fascist regime was the nail in the coffin of a Christianity now depleted of moral energy and resolve.

What could Bonhoeffer mean by a “completely religionless time”? Today as we scan the geo-political landscape we might say, “Well, Dietrich, you certainly got that wrong!” Look at all those people in the churches! Look at what some people claiming to serve Allah are doing to their enemies! Look at all those Pentecostals with their arms raised to the heavens crying out for help! But considering more deeply, and reading further in this infamous letter, we learn that Bonhoeffer is challenging the deep-rooted western idea (articulated profoundly by Schleiemacher in the late 18th century) that human beings are innately religious—that is, we have an essential, primal component that senses its dependence on god. As Bishop John Robinson put it his naughty little book, Honest to God (1963), “(T)he Church has based its preaching of the gospel on the appeal to religious experience, to the fact that deep down every man feels the need for religion in some form.” This need, then, could be understood as the desire to stand on metaphysically-rooted solid ground.

Bonhoeffer then asks what if this need for God is “a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless—and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to the previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction)—what does that mean for Christianity?” Answering his own question, Bonhoeffer states: “It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has been up to now been our ‘Christianity”, and that there remains only a ‘last few survivors of the age of chivalry’, or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as ‘religious.’” One is reminded of Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith” who looks like a tax collector.

This is under-the-gallows theology. Bonhoeffer has had the foundation of his daily life kicked out from under him. Detached from the comforts of everyday life, this theologian, now age 38, is able to discern a culturally foundation-less Christianity. The “conditions of belief” that enabled the upward gaze have been battered and eroded over the last five centuries—Bonhoeffer’s “God of the gaps” receded from having anything much to explain or do with the way the world is ordered leaving us poor mortals here below to figure out how to live without smashing each other up too much. The “religious socialists” in Europe and “social gospellers” in the US and Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries could still offer humanity the view that God was at work in social change (even using the German Social Democratic Party as his instrument) and transformation, creating moral order and social justice.

But the muddy, bloody and gas-filled trenches of WW I and burning fires of Auschwitz in WW II shattered any optimistic hope. Many wondered if God had vanished into a dark hole–not giving a damn about who dies, suffers or lives. The pugnacious Swiss-German theologian, Karl Barth, abandoned his pre-WW II utopian socialist vision of a Jesus present in the great social movements of the time for the mighty cathedrals of dogmatic theology. There he wrote millions of words to convince his jaded generation that they had to believe really hard that only God could speak his Word to us across the mighty ditch separating the divine and the earthly. Barth warned us not to identify the transcendent One with any of our earthly actions. He urged us not to try to find traces of divine light in nature. And we had better not listen to critical historical scholars too intensely, either. The other mighty German theologian, Rudolf Bultmann, retreated into the idea of an existential, mystical encounter with Jesus as the only way Christianity could stay alive in the secular, demythologized, scientific world. Bultmann at least took the world before him seriously. So did young Dietrich.

The secularization of western society over the past four hundred years has disenchanted the world of people and nature. This is Weber’s great theme; it has been assimilated into our language. Any notion of an animating spirit residing in natural objects dissipated in the icy winds of sceptical reason. The transcendental dimension of life had been lowered into the world, where if Habermas is right, modern consciousness translated metaphysical truths into earthly language that is publicly accessible (such as the notion of the universality of scientific and moral truth claims). The best of Judeo-Christian dogmas had incarnated itself in modern forms of human rights, defence of the dignity of the person and communicative action. That’s the gist of Habermas’s controversial notion of “translation.” Marcel Gauchet’s brilliant idea that the “Western world’s radical originality lies wholly in its reincorporation, into the very heart of human relationships and activities, of the sacred element, which previously shaped this world from the outside” develops Bonhoeffer’s grand intuition of the “end of religion” in a compelling manner.

Bonhoeffer’s questions anticipate the intense contemporary debate around the meanings of secularization, secularism and the secular. To live in a secular age is to live without the presupposition that the world we inhabit in the present has a primal, divine origin. That is, the worldly order has been commanded from Above and demands complete obedience. What Bonhoeffer senses in his prison cell is that, in Gauchet’s words, “We were no longer within the framework of an order handed down unchanged in its original entirety.” In pre-State societies, the world had an invisible foundation, and nobody could imagine challenging the primal order. But with the appearance of the state in human history, the Divine is lowered to the earth and embodied in an earthly representative. Here’s the rub: now the representative is in league with the invisible commander and the subjugated ones can start questioning whether the representative is really doing what the “invisible legislator” (Gauchet’s phrase) desires. The sacred is no longer invisible.

In Living Without God (2008), Ronald Aronson argues that despite opinion polls that indicate that lots of Americans say they believe in some sort of God out there, “The polls also hide the fact that almost all modern lives have become overwhelmingly secular, meaning that, in both industrial and postindustrial societies, government, the media, corporations, shopping, entertainment, sports and leisure, the health-care industry, a vast array of counselors, experts and teachers, and endless personal rational calculations have occupied most of the ground that religion and religion-suffused activity used to occupy. Modern life itself has consigned religion to a non-rational inner space, except when shared with one’s co-religionists. Today, even intensely religious lives are mostly secular most of the time.”

Bonhoeffer thinks that Barth’s movement inside the circle of revelation (simply believe without question) pushes his burning questions to the side. That is, for the imagined “religionless working man (or any other person) nothing decisive is gained here.” Bonhoeffer wonders how Barth can actually speak of God, if we have up to now, been speaking of him with metaphysical presuppositions, inwardness and so on, when these supports have either eroded or vanished. These concerns have to do not with the fact that so and so doesn’t believe in a realm beyond the material. Rather, the question of such a realm’s existence does not enter the mind or the mentality of human beings inhabiting the secular age. One cannot think these things—given the conceptual apparatus available in Western culture in its evolved post-Enlightenment form—that has gradually stripped all transcendental reference points from science, culture, the arts, and religion itself. For Gauchet, the irony is that, “thanks to religion, a society with no further need for religion arises.” Still, one must read Gauchet, slippery French intellectual he is, carefully, for he thinks that while the age of religion may be over, “we should not doubt that, between private religious practices and substitutes for religious experience, we will probably never completely finish with the religious.”

Given this situation, Bonhoeffer wonders “what kind of situation emerges for us, the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity—and even the garment has looked very different times—then what is a religionless Christianity?” Bonhoeffer believes that Christians may be called to belong wholly to the world—a kind of incarnational presence that must speak for itself. In this situation—it seems that the Christus Victor of the medieval church would become the face of the vulnerable.

Dietrich signed off on his famous letter, and then found that he needed to add a bit more. He worries very much that Christians speak of God too easily, too facilely. They seem too chatty and cheery and know too much. Bonhoeffer would counsel more silence before the ineffable. He is—famously—profoundly bothered that “God” has been used by us in our weakness. He states: “I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weakness but in strength, and therefore not in death but in man’s life and goodness…. God is the beyond in our midst.”

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at Athabasca University. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.




Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.