In a previous post, I critically examined the claim of contemporary atheists that religion, and more broadly a lack of reason, has been a predominant cause of evil in history. In response, I argued that evil in religion was an expression of deeper causes rooted in human nature, so abolishing religion would not address the fundamental problem of evil. In addition, I argued that reason itself could not be a solution to evil because reason was too easily used as a tool of self-interest. However, even after accounting for the deeper causes of evil, there remained a difficult question: what good is religion if it does not actually make human beings better?
This question faced one Christian pastor who was horrified by the easy accommodation of Christian churches in Germany to the Nazi party in the 1930s: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer’s response to the tragic development of Christianity in Germany will be examined briefly here.
Contrary to the claims of many atheists, the Christian churches in Germany were not exactly steadfast allies of the Nazis. Leading Nazis despised Christanity because of its alleged superstitions and it’s compassion for the weak, and in the long term Hitler wanted to abolish Christianity. However, Hitler knew he could not undertake too many battles at once and he did not want to cause division and turmoil in Germany while he needed national unity. On the other hand, the Christian churches, while opposed to a number of elements of Nazi doctrine, wanted to survive, and largely agreed with Hitler’s policy of restoring German greatness. So both sides struck a bargain, in which the Nazis permitted the continued existence of the churches as long as they did not challenge the secular authority of Hitler and the Nazis. Moreover, a “German Christian” movement arose which attempted to reconcile Christianity and Nazism.
A number of leading Christians rebelled at this corrupt bargain, among them Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the founders of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer initially attempted peaceful resistance to the Nazis, later fled to the United States, but then returned to Germany in 1939. Bomhoeffer made contacts with anti-Nazi resisters in German military intelligence, some of whom were involved in various assassination plots against Hitler. When this underground movement was discovered, Bonhoeffer, already imprisoned by the Nazis, was hanged in April 1945.
In historical retrospect, Bonhoeffer is recognized as being one of the few Christian leaders in Germany who bravely resisted the Nazis and was willing to sacrifice his life for his Christian ideas. As such Bonhoeffer is an inspiration to many, but it’s impossible to recognize the other side of the Bonhoeffer phenomenon — the fact that he was a definite minority, that most German Christians went along with the Nazis willingly and even participated in some of the Nazis’ greatest crimes. This problem plagued Bonhoeffer’s conscience and provoked him to write a number of letters and essays espousing a newly reformed Christianity he called “religionless Christianity.”
Fundamental to Bonhoeffer’s argument was a concept he adopted from Karl Barth, that of “religion as idolatry.” Idolatry, according to Barth and Bonhoeffer, occurs when human beings reject the “infinite qualitative distinction” between the absolute goodness of God and the flawed nature of man, and instead worship a god that is created in the image of man. Under idolatry, human beings worship themselves, their nations, their political parties, and their churches, claiming that these human organizations speak for God or are carrying out God’s will, even when the greatest of crimes are being committed. In his posthumously published Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer noted, “. . .my fear and distrust of ‘religiosity’ have become greater than ever here. The fact that the Israelites never uttered the name of God always makes me think, and I can understand it better as I go on.”
It is important to note that Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” was not a rejection of faith in God and Christ but a rejection of attempts to claim divine status for ordinary humans and human institutions. In Bonhoeffer’s view, we don’t need the institutions of religion, which are easily subverted and perverted for evil purposes. We simply need faith in God, worship, and prayer. The church itself is secondary and not nearly as important as the individual’s relationship to God.
For Bonhoeffer, “religionless Christianity” was in part an attempt to make the best of a bad situation. With progress in the sciences and technology making the universe more understandable and life easier to endure, human beings no longer needed God to explain certain mysteries or to cope with suffering. According to Bonhoeffer, man was “grown up” and could solve many of his problems with technology. It was no use invoking a “God of the gaps” to account for the remaining problems of humankind, because science could well eventually solve many of those problems as well.
What science and technology could not solve, however, was mankind itself and its tendency to evil, especially when acting in social organizations. The Nazis excelled with science and technology — they built cutting-edge weapons such as jets and rockets, and their extermination camps were highly efficient in murdering millions at the lowest possible cost. Man could conquer nature, but how was man to conquer himself? Christianity in Germany should have been able to address this problem, but the churches only sought self-preservation, and the worship of God was perverted into worship of the German nation and the Fuhrer. The core meaning of Christianity was lost. Only the shell of Christianity, in the form of the rituals and the churches, remained.
What was the core meaning of Christianity? In Bonhoeffer’s view, Christianity was fundamentally about attaining a new life by existing for others and participating in the sufferings of Jesus. In Bonhoeffer’s words: “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. . . . The ‘religious act’ is always something partial; ‘faith’ is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life. Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.”
Bonhoeffer’s view of the future of the Christian Church was quite radical. In his notes for a book he was writing while in prison, he wrote:
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 free-will 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. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not under-estimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.
Bonhoeffer’s views would probably appeal today to people who reject the label “Christian” and instead call themselves “followers of Jesus.” These people are unhappy with the narrow-mindedness of many Christian churches and their involvement in politics; many of these “followers of Jesus” do not even go to church. But they are drawn to Jesus’s teachings and the example of his love and self-sacrifice.
As for myself, I find a lot of merit to Bonhoeffer’s view of “religionless Christianity.” But I also see several obstacles to its widespread adoption. For one, Bonhoeffer’s vision does not appeal to those outside the Christian faith. Bonhoeffer was fairly insistent that the Christian faith was not just another religion, but in fact a replacement for all religions. God revealed himself in Christ, and that was that. Second, the question of what God requires of us when we face particular political and social controversies is not going to be clear all the time, or even most of the time. People of legitimate and honest Christian conscience may find themselves on opposite sides when faced with questions of war, the duties of the citizen to their government, the proper economic policy, the justice of the laws, etc. At best, Christ provides general guidance, not specific guidance, and even good Christians may find themselves on different sides of an issue because of different views on the specifics of policy. Finally, the notion of living for others and suffering with Christ is a noble goal, but extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most people. We rightly honor Bonhoeffer for following Christ in martyrdom, but how many of us are really willing to become martyrs? Few, I bet. Still, even if we only emulate Christ partially and imperfectly, I suppose that is better than nothing, and considerably better than emulating the wrong person.