BONHOEFFER’S CHRISTIANITY WITHOUT RELIGION IN ITS CHRISTOLOGICAL CONTEXT. By Peter Hoon. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic (Rowman & Littlefield), 2022. 211 pages.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lives as a martyr. His death came in April 1945 at the hands of the Nazis as World War II drew to a close. He was only thirty-nine when he died by hanging. His story has been told by several biographers and his works have been made available to everyone in English translation. Despite his relative youth, he left behind a considerable amount of material, both published and unpublished. As a result, Bonhoeffer turned out to be one of the most influential theologians of the past century and a half. This is true even though his theological understandings never reached a point of completion. It is perhaps this incompleteness that has lent itself to the diversity of interpretations of the work over the years, as well as its use by people from all religious and even political backgrounds. For example, conservative evangelicals, some of whom are Christian nationalists, have relied on his efforts to resist the Nazis as fodder for their acts of resistance, especially when it comes to attempting to ban/discourage the abortion. At the other end of the theological spectrum, in the 1960s “Death of God” theologians found appealing to his prison letters and essays that alluded to a world without God. Then there are the pacifists who have used his thoughts on nonviolence. Some simply tried to make him an American evangelical conservative (ala Eric Metaxas).
Over the years, my theology and practice have been deeply influenced by the writings of Bonhoeffer. I started reading his works (Cost of Discipleship) in college and continued to read them through seminary (I took Lewis Smedes’ “Ethics of Bonhoeffer” course) and beyond. I have read most of the biographies and several more specialized studies. I bought the complete set of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works and keep them handy so I can refer to them when needed, especially when preparing sermons (the scripture index in the index volume is very helpful!). I have always appreciated studies of his life and works that illuminate rather than obscure. This is the case of two recent biographies of Ferdinand Schlingensiepen and Charles Marsh, which are particularly good. To these studies is added that of Peter Hooton Bonhoeffer’s Christianity without religion in its Christological context. Hooton’s book is a specialized monograph, focusing on one dimension of Bonhoeffer’s theological explorations. Although written for a scholarly audience, I found it very accessible.
As for the author of this book, Peter Hooton is involved in the field of public theology at the Australian Center for Christianity and Culture on the Canberra campus of Charles Sturt University. Before that, he was a career diplomat working in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the South Pacific. He holds a doctorate. from Charles Sturt University and is part of the university’s “Center for Research in Public and Contextual Theology”.
Hooton’s book appears to be based on his doctorate. thesis at CSU. In it, he focuses on Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on Christianity without religion. This vision of Christianity is particularly present in Bonhoeffer Prison letters and papersas well as his Ethics. These works, all more or less incomplete, appeared at the end of his life. They suggest themes and possibilities for further exploration had he survived the war. It was above all in his letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge that an imprisoned Bonhoeffer explored the possibility of a Christianity without religion. Although when he wrote about Christianity without religion, he did not embrace atheism. Rather, he envisioned what an uninstitutionalized Christianity might look like. He was of course not alone in this, as Karl Barth wrote about Christianity outside of religion, which Barth believed to be a human endeavor. For Bonhoeffer, this Christianity without religion would speak to a mature world, that is to say a world which in a post-war world would have lost its innocence and its naivety. Bonhoeffer’s view of such mature Christianity, as the title of the book suggests, was deeply rooted in Bonhoeffer’s Christocentric view.
Hooton points out that Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion was linked to Barth’s. His older contemporary suggested that religion is a human act of seeking God, which is a futile effort because God is quite another. However, God is met as an act of grace as God reaches out to humanity. Early in his theological career, Bonhoeffer placed more emphasis on the Church as a means of encountering God. We see it in books like Sanctorum Communio, his first doctoral thesis. However, in the 1940s he envisioned what theology might look like in this new world order outside the realm of the church. Like Barth, Bonhoeffer never suggested anyone separate from the Church. However, he began to believe that the church is not the cure for the world’s ills. Although he resonated with Barth’s criticism of religion, Bonhoeffer did not fully embrace Barth’s view. Bonhoeffer called Barth’s views “revelation positivism”. Nevertheless, he agreed with the broader criticism of religion, and that criticism was Christological in nature.
As I have noted, Bonhoeffer’s vision was deeply Christological. For Bonhoeffer, God meets us in Christ. While he did not reject his Lutheran theological foundations, he tended not to focus on the Trinity. On the contrary, according to him, the God who is for us will be met in Christ. So his main question was about who Jesus is for us today. It makes us wonder who we are in relation to others. Interestingly, he finds an anchor for his worldly Christianity in his reading of the Old Testament, which has become increasingly worldly oriented. As Hooton notes, Bonhoeffer’s theology was becoming progressively more inclusive over time. This more inclusive vision appears for the first time in his posthumous publication Ethics. In this work we see a movement in his thought, a move away from the powerful God of religion towards a God of weakness who reveals himself in Christ on the cross.
According to Hooton, as Bonhoeffer moved forward in this non-religious, Christ-centered view, he also began to consider a non-religious interpretation of the Bible. Bonhoeffer does not abandon traditional biblical/theological terms like cross, sin and grace, but he begins to search for other terms that better express the concerns of this new non-religious era. It’s not so much the words themselves as how these concepts are understood. One of the concepts he seeks to rethink is repentance, which he speaks of in terms of ultimate honesty. For Bonhoeffer, “ultimate honesty” is ultimately a change in perspective on life and God, so that we join Jesus in being for others.
As he elaborated the implications of his Christianity without religion, he rejected mysticism but not mystery. Hooton writes that “Bonhoeffer believes that the main task of theology is to respect and preserve the mystery of God. Nowhere perhaps is the significance of this task more evident and more difficult than in Christology, which rests on the assumption that God became man. This cannot be objectively proven” (p, 135).
So how can we have Christ without religion? That’s the question Bonhoeffer asked himself in prison. Here he is, imprisoned for his role in resisting possible execution. So how do you deal with life essentially without God? That is, without the mighty God of religion. Here he turns to the God revealed in Jesus, the weak and powerless God. With this, he proclaimed that the church must recognize that the age of religion is over. As Hooton notes, religion continued in ways Bonhoeffer might not have envisioned. Nevertheless, his criticism of religion continues to push us.
Hooton reminds us throughout that Bonhoeffer’s theology is incomplete. It raised more questions than it provided answers. We don’t know where he would have taken things if he had survived. Although he developed a “Sketch for a Book”, which provides clues to the kinds of ideas he intended to develop further, this sketch never became the book hoped for because his life took been cut short. So Bonhoeffer is something of an enigma, giving us possibilities that are never fully developed. Yet these possibilities have lent themselves to others to develop. Whether they are true to Bonhoeffer’s vision is not always easy to say. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer continues to speak in our time.
We are fortunate today to have several useful biographies with this comprehensive set of translated works by Bonhoeffer. These works allow us to explore Bonhoeffer’s thought on religion and a world that has come of age. Hootons Bonhoeffer’s Christianity without religion in its Christological context offers another useful guide to Bonhoeffer’s theological vision. As Hooton reminds us, Bonhoeffer doesn’t fit our standard categories of conservative or liberal very well. This has allowed people to appropriate his works for a variety of political causes, ranging from supporting the bombings of clinics where abortions are performed to pacifism. As reading Hooton helps us understand is that Bonhoeffer ultimately provides fertile ground for others to explore what it means to be religionless and yet deeply rooted in Christology. The question then is whether Bonhoeffer’s argument for Christianity without religion is convincing at this point. In response to this question, Hooton writes that Bonhoeffer is “particularly useful here because he spares us the choice of two unsatisfactory alternatives: a choice between earth and heaven; the choice between an inward-looking, entirely secular humanism and an ultimately unconvincing otherworldly transcendentalism” (p. 188).
What we have at Hooton’s Bonhoeffer’s Christianity without religion in its Christological context is another useful introduction to Bonhoeffer’s theology. By emphasizing the relationship between his understanding of religion and his Christology, Hooton helps us understand how Bonhoeffer can be useful to our current conversations about the role of Christianity in an increasingly polarized contemporary world. We do this even as we still wonder where he could have taken things. This is, I suppose, as it should be. So let’s read on and ponder Bonhoeffer’s message in conversation with performers who seek to honor his legacy!
This review originally appeared on BobCornwall.com.
Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Michigan, he serves as general minister in Troy. He holds a doctorate. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books, including his latest books: Called to Bless: Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots (Cascade Books, 2021) and Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, 2n/a Edition, (Energy Publications, 2021). His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be viewed at www.bobcornwall.com.