Toward the end of his life, while in a Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a well known Lutheran theologian, wrote some tantalizing letters to his friend Eberhad Bethage where he wrestles with what he calls “religionless Christianity.”The letters in question were written in 1944 not long before he was executed by the Nazi’s. What did Bohhoeffer mean by Religionless Christianity?
Here are some of the words from those letters:
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 toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. 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.”….
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.
I realize that I have picked but a few of Bonhoeffer’s words in his letters but I believe these are at the heart of his dilemma. To me these words mean that what we do is more important than what we claim membership to. It seems that Bonhoeffer was looking over seventy years in the future when he said there “even those who honestly describe themselves as religious do not in the least act up to it”. Bonhoeffer seems to be saying that the word “religious” has taken up a different meaning than when it was originally defined.
Unfortunately the words “Christian” and “Religion” are almost just too entwined to be separated but that is indeed what B0nhoeffer seems to propose and I agree with him in that regard. Religion seems to be more closely linked to a club membership than to the teachings of Jesus. So to be a Christian does not necessarily mean being religious.
In closing I want to paraphrase his last words. It is not a passive religious act that makes a Christian, but the participation in the work Christ left us to do. Someday the words Christian and religion may come to mean the same thing but that will take work on our part. When we as “religious” people quit insisting on strict adherence to man-made set of “beliefs” but instead act on the words of Jesus then “religious” will once again come to mean something to the world. Until then I am happy to practice “Religionless Christianity”.