This is a theme that emerged from an exchange of comments with Stephen K. A search on Google brings up quite a few articles related to Dietrich Bonhöffer. This one is an example – Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity.
What does the idea of “religionless” Christianity mean? The closing down of all churches? The running down of the priesthood and finally the suicide of institutional churches? My own mind asks one further question – Why not forget about Christianity once an for all and worship our bank accounts, cars and electronic gadgets? The thing we often hear is “I’m spiritual but not religious“. Very often, people are just that.
Is it, or should it be, the proper of Christianity to break with both Judaism and Paganism and express itself in a secular life guided by some moral ideas of Christ from the Gospels? It is not easy to get at what Bonhöffer is really trying to get at in the quote in the posting linked to above.
First of all, the scandal of churches collaborating with evil regimes just to keep their influence and property is one of the greatest obstacles to faith. It appears that Pope Pius XII is innocent of accusations of collaborating with the Nazis, but many bishops did and many innocent people died. The plug is pulled for what we believed underpinned our faith. Once that is gone, only atheism remains – or does it? Bonhöffer asks the question differently:
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 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?
I too have asked this question, and the only answer I can come up with is a kind of silent monastic or quasi-monastic witness. Do we have a right to withdraw from the “world”, or do we have to trash religion, go and live in a city and get involved with politics and humanitarianism?
Was the Redemption and salvation about being free from religion, ie: the empty ritualism of the Scribes and Pharisees? It’s a thought that can come into our minds. Was that the intention of Christ? No one has one single answer. On the other hand, religion seems so fragile, especially in a world that has trashed it. Our living in a godless world devoid of beauty or even humanity would bring us into a state of sharing Christ’s sufferings. Perhaps I would recommend that some religious bigots should live in places like Evry or the “working (unemployed) class” suburbs of Paris, Lyons and Rouen and spend their Lent in complete nihilism, far from churches. Perhaps they would be nearer to God in that desert than ever before.
How does the slogan go? Wear a hoodie!
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 method or other, but to be a man–not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.
Perhaps it all seems rather boring. We trash churches and religious art, all the monuments that lie around us. Alternatively we resign ourselves to the “museum of religion” being a permanent reproach, taunting us and forever bringing our sins before us. The idea that the Gospel is simply being about being good persons, law-abiding and with qualities of empathy and compassion, seems to reduce it all to a tedious moral code. Yet another moralising sermon and a return to the eternal hollowness.
Such thoughts make us relativise issues of liturgy and church furnishings. Should religion be hidden? I continue to celebrate Mass and do my priestly duties, but my religious life is hidden because it is absolutely senseless to make it public, provocative, and add to the scandal of religious symbols meaning something completely different and opposed to my inward convictions. For me to walk about with a cassock and very short hair would convey the message to many people here in France of far-right politics – to which I am opposed in the name of humanity, freedom and life. I experience many of the things that drove Bonhöffer to such a radical way of thinking, stopping a little way short of the nihilism of Nietzsche.
One of the themes of Lent is making our inner spirituality and humanity match what we do outwardly. Religion is vain when empathy and all human qualities are absent, when it is incoherent – as with the Pharisees or a “religious” person collaborating with the Nazis or other totalitarian regimes in the century of my birth.
Certainly, if religion is not to be trashed, we need to go through a real scouring-out and renewal of our inward life and our willingness to be human and humane. We need to heed the criticisms made against Christians, for our hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty, cognitive dissonance, lack of care for others and our general “your death is my life” attitude. It is up to us. Very little is left.
Perhaps, some American soul might challenge me and ask me why I remain in Europe. Why not go to America where people are still religious and would pay me to be a full-time parish priest? I answer like the Germans who did not flee in the 1930’s because it was their country, like the Russians who stayed and suffered from persecution under the Communists. I am an Englishman, a European, and have no desire to move to America. Apart from the fact my wife would be against it, I find the present economic and political tendencies in the USA very frightening. The present situation with the US and Russia over Crimea is also very scary. The worst part is not knowing which side is the real enemy.
I go on because I know no better way. Perhaps I should have lived my life a different way, but I didn’t. I can only be where God has called me to be (otherwise I would be elsewhere). Why rack ourselves with that much speculation? Life is irrational at the level of our defective and fallen powers of reason. Sometimes we get the short end of the stick. It happened to Bonhöffer as he bravely walked to the gallows at Flossenbürg. Thus we participate in God’s suffering – and his Resurrection.