In my first post, I used the word "religion" to describe one of the ways human beings have tried to solve their own personal problems and the problems of the world. I also said it hadn’t worked.
Yet, most people would view me as "a religious person," and I am in fact a Christian and a member of a church. Perhaps some clarification is in order.
I’m using "religion" in the sense that it was used by people like Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "religion" is the strictly human attempt to "get to God," to "justify ourselves," and to give our lives meaning.
Bonhoeffer, in a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge (Letters and Papers from Prison) on April 30, 1944, spoke of his peace of mind and how it was leading him to a new evaluation of his faith:
You've no need to worry about me at all, as I'm getting on uncommonly well - you would be surprised, if you came to see me. People here keep on telling me (as you can see, I feel very flattered by it) that I'm "radiating so much peace around me," and that I'm "always so cheerful," - so that the feelings that I sometimes have to the contrary must, I suppose, rest on an illusion (not that I really believe that at all!). You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to; and this is where I miss you most of all, because I don't know anyone else with whom I could so well discuss them to have my thinking clarified. What is bothering me incessantly is the 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 "religious."
Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the "religious a priori" of mankind. [N.B. Bonhoeffer (with Kierkegaard and Barth--see below) has in mind Schleiermacher's concept of the basic religious intuition that he (Schleiermacher) thinks is common to all human beings.]
"Christianity" has always been a form - perhaps the true form - of "religion." But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was 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 all previous ones, is not calling forth any "religious" reaction?) - what does that mean for "Christianity?" It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our "Christianity," and that there remain only a few "last survivors of the age of chivalry," or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as "religious." Are they to be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them our goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don't want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for 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 this garment has looked very different at different times - then what is a religionless Christianity?
Barth, who is the only one to have started along this line of thought, did not carry it to completion, but arrived at a positivism of revelation, which in the last analysis is essentially a restoration. For the religionless working man (or any other man) nothing decisive is gained here. The questions to be answered would surely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God - without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even "speak" as we used to) in a "secular" way about "God?" In what way are we "religionless-secular" Christians, in what way are we the εκκλησια, those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case 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 the secret discipline, or alternatively the difference (which I have suggested to you before) between the penultimate and ultimate, take on a new importance here?
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The Pauline question whether περιτομη [circumcision] is a condition of justification seems to me in present-day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation. Freedom from περιτομη is also freedom from religion. I often ask myself why a "Christian instinct" often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don't in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, "in brotherhood." While I'm often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people - because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it's particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable) - to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course. Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail - in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure - always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina. I've come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man's life and goodness. As to the boundaries, it seems to me better to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the "solution" of the problem of death. God's "beyond" is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village. That is how it is in the Old Testament, and in this sense we still read the New Testament far too little in the light of the Old. How this religionless Christianity looks, what form it takes, is something that I'm thinking about a great deal, and I shall be writing to you again about it soon. It may be that on us in particular, midway between East and West, there will fall a heavy responsibility.
Now I really must stop. It would be fine to have a word from you about all this; it would mean a great deal to me - probably more than you can imagine. Some time, just read Prov. 22.11, 12;† there is something that will bar the way to any escapism disguised as piety.
All the very best.
[†Some have suggested that Bonhoeffer meant to refer to Proverbs 24:11-12 ("Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, 'Behold, we did not know this.' does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not requite man according to his work?"), but I think it is more logical to believe that he meant Psalms rather than Proverbs, thus referring to Psalm 22:11-12 in the German Bible, which correspond to verses 10-11 in English ("On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help."), and expressing that this verse would "bar the way to any escapism."]
What Bonhoeffer had found was that, in the most dire circumstances, there was something sustaining him that was deeper and sturdier than religion – than "religious practices." What was it? It is too easy to simply say "it was his faith in Jesus Christ." Many "religious" people would make the same claim – yet it was indeed, as Bonhoeffer pointed out, their religion, their Christianity, in fact, that led them to act in ungodly ways.
I won’t try to unpack his "religionless Christianity" phrase here, though it’s worth a great deal of contemplation. I want only to deal with the concept of "religion," and to determine why it hasn’t done what so many think it ought to do.
When Soren Kierkegaard, the "Great Dane" – a profoundly committed Christian and one of the most profound thinkers of his era – examined the general state of religion in Denmark in his era (1813-1855), he found it to be empty of real, honest discipleship. Everyone wanted to be (and was) a "Christian," but no one wanted to follow Jesus. Denmark was part of "Christendom," but this rendered discipleship to Jesus impossible. So, though his language distinguishes between "Christendom" and "Christianity," this distinction is the same as that between "religion" and "discipleship."
‘Imitation’, ‘the following of Christ’, this precisely is the point from where the human race winces, here it is principally that the difficulty lies, here is where the question really is decided whether one will accept Christianity or not. If pressure is brought to bear at this point, and a strong pressure–in that same degree there are few Christians. If at this point a convenient accommodation is made (so that Christianity becomes, intellectually, a doctrine), many enter into Christianity. If it is done away with entirely (so that Christianity becomes, existentially, as easy as mythology and poetry, while imitation is exaggeration, a ludicrous exaggeration), then Christianity widens out to such a degree that Christendom and the world almost correspond, or all become Christians, then Christianity has triumphed completely–in other words, it is done away with. [Soren Kierkegaard, Judge for Yourselves!, trans. Walter Lowrie (London: Princeton University Press, 1944), 197.]
This has to be said; so be it now said.
Whoever thou art, whatever in other respects thy life may be, my friend, by ceasing to take part (if ordinarily thou dost) in the public worship of God, as it now is (with the claim that it is the Christianity of the New Testament), thou hast constantly one guilt the less [than others in Christendom], and that a great one: thou dost not take part in treating God as a fool by calling that the Christianity of the New Testament, which is not the Christianity of the New Testament.
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Yes, such is the fact : the official worship of God (with the claim of being the Christianity of the New Testament) is, Christianly, a counterfeit, a forgery. [Soren Kierkegaard, Attack Upon Christendom, trans. Walter Lowrie (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956), 59. Italics original.]
Does Kierkegaard’s description of 19th century Copenhagen apply to 21st century America? Perhaps. Likely. Certainly. And this is, precisely, why "religion" does not "work." "Religion" is what we humans invent, in the west, to keep ourselves protected from the risks of actual discipleship. Following Jesus can be dangerous, you know! I mean, if we really "take up the cross and follow him . . ." – where was he going with his cross? Uh, I’m not sure I want to go there. Or so our reasoning goes, all too frequently.
For Karl Barth (d. 1968), religion is precisely what opposes God’s revelation of himself. It contradicts it, effectively blocking it by anticipating it – i.e., by forming a "mold" designed to receive the molten revelation which would force the revelation into its preconceived shape. The revelation, then, would not be free to "be itself"; it would be changed by its reception, and in fact would, therefore, no longer be God’s revealing of himself.
From the standpoint of revelation religion is clearly seen to be a human attempt to anticipate what God in His revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human manufacture. The divine reality offered and manifested to us in revelation is replaced by a concept of God arbitrarily and wilfully evolved by man. . . .
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From the standpoint of revelation, man’s religion is simply an assumption and assertion of this kind, and as such it is an activity which contradicts revelation–contradicts it, because it is only through truth that truth can come to man. 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 talks. If he did, he would accept a gift ; 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. Because it is a grasping, religion is the contradiction of revelation, the concentrated expression of human unbelief, i.e., an attitude and activity which is directly opposed to faith. It is a feeble but defiant, and arrogant but hopeless, attempt to create something which man could do, but now cannot do, or can do only because and if God Himself creates it for him : the knowledge of the truth, the knowledge of God. [Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1/2, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 302-303.]
"Religion," then, may fulfill the role assigned to it by Marx or Nietzsche – it can keep people "under control," to some degree. But it is superficial – it will not, it cannot change the person at his or her most basic level. It can keep behavior "in check" through fear and inhibition, but it won’t change anyone.
Which it precisely why "religion" "doesn’t work." It hasn’t solved the world’s problems because it can’t. Fear and domination only go so far toward keeping people "in check."
Not to mention the fact that, with far too great a frequency, "religion" has cultivated fear not of consequences of bad behavior but of "enemies," and has encouraged violence upon these "enemies." Christianity is no less guilty than any other religion--witness the Crusades, the violence in Northern Ireland, or even the American doctrine of "Manifest Destiny" which declared that it was God’s plan for "us" (the white Europeans of Christian faith) to own all of the land from Atlantic to Pacific, and which underwrote the genocide by which it was accomplished.
Of course, some would protest that these actions were not the result of "true Christianity." Barth, Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard would all agree. But this only highlights the problem: the "truth" of any religion can be perverted, subverted and/or subsumed under and to serve the purposes and ideological agenda of a group or nation.
And it is not only the "false believers," or those who intentionally pervert and subvert, who are responsible. It is all too frequently the "true believers" who are responsible. The early church historian Eusebius, for instance, was so enamored of the Emperor Constantine that he could not perceive how the triumphalism of the church in this era would subvert its theology and use it for the purposes of underwriting the agenda of the empire. Eric Hoffer’s book True Believer, expounds on the power of mass psychology in the form of nationalistic fervor to move "true believers" to almost unthinkable actions [Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (New York: Harper and Row, 1951.)]. Any great (or non-great, for that matter) system of thought, true or not, can be manipulated toward such ends. Christianity is no exception.
So what? I believe it is important that we Christians take a good look at how Christianity has become a "religion," i.e., how it has been subverted to serve our nationalistic and economic agendas. In part, we need to repent of that. Further, however, we need to do so in order to exonerate the one we call "Lord." I think we owe him at least that much.