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Speaking differently about God. The legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

by Frits de Lange

Reject God, Follow Jesus

Londen, Hyde Park , Speaker’s Corner, the place where anybody who thinks he has anything to say, can address the world. You just need a chair to stand on. You raise your voice and an audience gathers, ready for discussion. Politics is a hot item. But also the saving of the soul is a much-loved theme.  

My personal favourite is a man with the bill board ‘Christian Atheism’ around his neck and the text ‘Reject God but Follow Jesus’ at his feet. Surrounded by fanatic Muslims gesticulating with the Koran and Christian doom preachers, a remarkable presence. He cannot count on a large audience. Nevertheless, the man and his message, they deserve my sympathy. Because ‘Reject God and follow Jesus’, isn’t that - in a sense later to be qualified – a plausible direction for a Christian tradition that faithfully wants to stay close to its origin and at the same time wants to stay relevant for modern culture?

Western culture at the beginning of the 21th century is ready to believe in a different God than ‘God’. If church and Christian tradition want to stay of vital importance for people here and now, they have to account for that. More than that: perhaps Christians should rather make this belief in God after ‘God’ their own. At least, that is the hypothesis I want to explore here. In doing that, I think that the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer will be of great help. He teaches us to speak differently about God, and better too.

A new language - A paradigm shift

Recent European history of church and Christian tradition sounds as a story of decay. Churches massively loose members, especially under the younger generation. Sociologically it is interesting, to speculate on causes, trends and prospects of this so called ‘secularisation.’  Urbanization and modernization, a world view based on natural science, globalization and the cultural pluralism and relativism it takes with it, the mass- and consuming culture – many processes and phenomena are to mention. However, for someone in the ministry whose daily work – no, even more than that, whose vocation - consists in speaking about God, the crisis is reducible to a basic experience: the loss of relevance. In many circumstances speaking about God seems to be meaningless. It has lost contact with the centre of life. It no longer has the capability to orient, to inspire, to motivate. The Reformed confession that "the Proclamation of God's Word is God's Word" (Praedicatio verbi divini est verbum divinum, Confessio Helvetica) seems to be a presumptuous overstatement. Where is God? His presence sometimes seems to be limited to the pulpit.

The question is not how churches can reach the masses again; the question is how they can speak the Word of God in a powerful and liberating way (that means: relevantly, inspiring, existentially, motivating) for people today. It is my intuition, that the crisis the churches and Christian theology experience today is part of a process of religious transformation in modern culture.  Secularisation is not the end of Christian faith, but a more or less radical change in its shape and content. In my view, the task for theology is to describe and analyse this transformation adequately, and to develop creative proposals for a vital reinterpretation of Christian tradition. Theology should sketch a new paradigm, and put to the test new fundamental models of looking to reality, in which the gospel of Jesus Christ cab play a vital and liberating role again. This will entail a different language about the church, about the Bible. However, at the centre of this ‘paradigm shift’ also another language about God should be developed. We have to learn to speak differently about God. The doctrine of God therefore, should be the central theological question again for churches today.

This process will take several generations. We will perhaps experience the loss of familiar ways of believing, and mourn about images of God we have to leave behind. But we will also  experience joy in new revealing insights, hope on the renewal of our faith.

I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer can be one of our guides and a companion in this reorientation process. Theologically, as we shall see in a moment. But also spiritually. In his work no atmosphere of catastrophe, no ‘Titanic’ like rhetoric. Bonhoeffer speaks the language of desire, confidence and hope. He is expecting, as he writes in his ‘Thoughts on the Day of Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge’:

a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming - as was Jesus' language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God's peace with men and the coming of his kingdom.(LPP 102)

I assume this Baptism Letter to be crucial in Bonhoeffer's theological evolution. As a persistent - although critical - ally of Karl Barth's dialectical Word theology, Bonhoeffer had developed his own version of a theology which creates room for a speaking God.  Accordingly, the Baptism Letter refers to the liberating power that lies in the Word of God. But at the same time, Bonhoeffer observes in this text the actual impasse in the church' s speaking of God's Word. In his critical analysis of the reasons for that impotence, we meet a modern and secularized theologian, who sharply diagnoses the failure of Christianity before a changed world. The letter was conceived after more than one year of captivity in Tegel, May 1944. It originates from the period in which Bonhoeffer pressed his friend Eberhard Bethge progressively with his new gained theological insights on a ‘world come of age’ and a ‘non-religious interpretation of biblical concepts’. ‘What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today’, he writes as a running start to those theological explorations, in the famous and crucial letter bearing date April 30, 1944 (LPP 88).  His interest obviously is not merely sociological (in Christianity), but theological in the meaning of Christ for us today. We will return to these reflections later on. In the following days Bonhoeffer must have composed this Baptism Letter.[1] The preaching of God's Word in a – what he calls – ‘non-religious’ world - it is this combination of Reformation orthodoxy on the one hand and cultural sensibility on the other, that makes Bonhoeffer's writings still intriguing and inspiring documents.
The Baptism Letter opens with the observation that in Western civilisation radical changes are coming about, which will imply the definite end of bourgeois culture. When the child that receives baptism today will be grown up, Bonhoeffer states, the bourgeois form of life will be "a vanished world." Apparently, an era is closing. Although Bonhoeffer is considering himself doubtless as a product of this era, he does not want to look back in a nostalgic way; on the contrary, he directs his view hopefully to the future. He is convinced of the fact that the spirit, which has proved it self to be reliable in the past, will also survive the new age. "The old spirit, after a time of misunderstanding and weakness, withdrawal and recovery, preservation and rehabilitation, will produce new forms." This assurance makes that Bonhoeffer comes to meet the future with tranquillity. "So there is no need to hurry; we have to be able to wait", he writes (italics added). (LPP 97) "The old spirit will create itself new forms", but when that will happen, and how, and in which shape this forms will finally manifest themselves we do not know yet. We shall have to wait for it confidentially.

Attentive reading shows that Bonhoeffer does not plead for a theological break with Christian tradition. On the contrary, according to him our earlier words still possess a revolutionary potential. Bonhoeffer seems rather to assign to traditional faith a meaning surplus than a lack of meaning. God does not keep silence; Bonhoeffer's confidence in the God who wants to express his Word through the mouth of people seems unbroken. The day will come that it will be spoken again, shocking, liberating and redeeming. Language almost explodes, when Bonhoeffer expresses the revolutionary power of the Word of God. Hearing Jesus' Gospel is a shocking event that transforms one's entire being, because it represents a confrontation with the liberating and gracious reality of God.

Supranaturalistic theism – thinking in two spheres 

In order to open up oneself for this reality, not only an open heart is needed, but also some cool brains. In his letter and papers from prison after April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer develops  sharp observations on European Christianity: ‘Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the “working hypothesis” called “God”.  (…) it is becoming evident that everything also gets along without „God“  - and, in fact, just as well, as before. (…)  „God“ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.’ (Letter of 8 June, 1944, WE 356/ LPP 113)  His diagnosis is hard: ‘God’ does not matter any more. He has become an empty symbol at the edges of life, filling up the gaps.  Gaps in our knowledge:  God as an explanation for what we don’t know yet. Gaps in our morality: God as a substitute for our conscience, as a final authority in an ethic not yet ready to stand on its own feet. Gaps in our technology: God as magician who hears our prayers that we send up when our technique fails. This ‘God’, according to Bonhoeffer, does not make a religious sense anymore.

It seems to me that we should join Bonhoeffer in his farewell to this ‘God’. We should want to live as „humans who manage our lives without him”. [als solche, die mit dem Leben ohne Gott fertig werden.]’  (Letter from July 16, 1944, LPP 129/ WE 394). For most Westerners, this ‘God’ represents no reality any more. The classical three letter symbol for the transcendent and ultimate power has lost its religious vitality in our culture. The unifying center in which once a whole culture concentrated all her fears, desires and aspirations, has often become a powerless idée fixe, a fetish for religious interest groups, a therapeutic cuddle god. Yes, in some subcultures ‘God’ still functions as an idea, a group idol that binds religious communities together.  But is this idea still capable of being the awesome GOD?  Does this symbol still represent the powerful, energetic centre of religion, the vital locus that draws religious energy towards itself, the experiential source of salvation?

In my view, this state of affairs means theologically that we should drop the metaphysical construction of supranaturalistic theism that supported this God talk intellectually. What Nietzsche called the ‘death of God’ stands for the slow and painful farewell to a conventional way of thinking and experiencing God. Beyond Nietzsche however, we should be eager to create new symbols and images of God that might conceive divine presence and its gracious  activity nowadays.

For many in the generation of our parents and (grand) grandparents, the traditional symbol ‘God’ stood for a person like super power, who governs the universe out of a second, hidden reality above or behind the reality we live in. It presupposes an ontological dualism, which divides reality into two spheres, nature and super nature, a worldly and a divine reality. God as an ultimate Power intervenes in our world by breaking miraculously the rules of nature. Supranaturalism defends an interventionist conception of God’s active role in the world.  

In modern discourse however, there is only one world, a reality which people structure dialogically with their language, a symbolic universe rooted in social and cultural conventions and practices, for which they are responsible themselves. In our life world based on science, technology, and democracy, there is neither place for a God magician, nor for God as an absolutist monarch. Bonhoeffer did foresee with lucidity the end of this supranaturalistic world view, and draw theological consequences out of it. Not only in his letters and papers form prison. In his Ethics already, he speaks about the ‘the colossal obstacle’ that the thinking in terms of two spheres represents to our reflection on the powerful reality of God. ‘Since the beginnings of Christian ethics after the times of the New Testament the main underlying conception in ethical thought, and the one which consciously or unconsciously has determined its whole course, has been the conception of a juxtaposition and conflict of two spheres, the one divine, holy, supernatural and Christian, and the other worldly, profane, natural and un-Christian. (…) Reality as a whole now falls into two parts, and the concern of ethics is with the proper relation of these two parts to each other.’ (Ethics, 168)  That the sacred and the profane meet and confront each other is a distinguishing mark of any vital religion. However, both, the sacred and the profane, are in the history of Europe powerlessly isolated in their own sphere. The confrontation between them is regulated, formalised, and institutionalised. In the language of the Reformed tradition: their confrontation has become law like (gesetzlich).  

How modern people, who do not want to withdraw themselves as monks from the profane world (the medieval ‘solution’ for escaping the uneasiness of the sacred), can take part in the experience of the divine? By withdrawing themselves into the private sphere. Their inner citadel functions as the religious refuge for the sacred in the modern world. An inner worldly, though invisible space, the monastery cell of modern people. There they spiritually lick their wounds, inflicted in the profanity of secular life (a kind of transcendence outside in); there they feed their secular personality with ‘inspiration’ (a kind of transcendence inside out). The relationship between the two spheres however, has become so thin and powerless, that it lost all meaning.

Bonhoeffer develops a severe critique on this thinking in two spheres. Not just because it is philosophically untenable, but first and for all because theologically it contradicts the experience of God’s active presence according to biblical witness. An experience, which also inspired the Reformation. So Bonhoeffer states:  ‘There are no two realities, but only one reality, and that is the reality of God, which has become manifest in Christ in the reality of the world. Sharing  in [teilhabend an] Christ we stand at once both in the reality of God and the reality of the world.’ (Ethics, p.169-70).  ‘There is no place to which the Christian can withdraw from the world, whether it be outwardly or in the sphere of the inner life. Any attempt to escape from the world must sooner or later be paid for with a sinful surrender to the world.’ (Ethics, p. 172) ‘The cultivation of a Christian inner life, untouched by the world, will generally present a somewhat tragicomical appearance to the worldly observer. For the sharp-sighted world recognizes itself most distinctly at the very point where the Christian inner life deceives itself in the belief that the world is most remote.’ The interior as a place for God is an illusion. What seems to be private in this ‘inner world’ is public; what seems to be sacred is profane.

In the prison letters Bonhoeffer returns to the vain effort of modernity to save the sacred by reserving the private inner sphere for it. He does not need Freud to acknowledge that the interior is not the dwelling place of the sacred and the divine, but the place where all our weaknesses, frustrations and obsessions meet. ‘The displacement of God from the world, and from the public part of human life, led to the attempt to keep his place secure at least in the sphere of the “personal”, the “inner” and  the “private”. (…) The secrets known to a man’s valet [die Kammerdienergeheimnisse] – that is, to put it crudely, the range of his intimate life, from prayer to his sexual life – have become the hunting ground of modern pastoral workers.’ (Letter of July, 8, 1944; LPP 123/ WEN 377).

Bonhoeffer sharply analyses the ontological dualism presupposed by supranaturalistic theism. Its separation between the profane and the sacred has, in my view, enormously contributed to the impoverishment of our experience of reality. God has been put at a distance, light years away from where we live our lives, in his own separated divine sphere. So far away, that the gulf in between seems unbridgeable.

The weakening of ‘God’

There is another reason why supranaturalism has become meaningless in our experience. For it is closely related to a symbolic political world, that does not fit any longer our democratic sense of life. ‘God’ represented a super power, who governs the universe like an absolute sovereign, according to his whimsical will. This monarchical thought structure has become an atavism in democracy. We do not think authority any more in terms of inferior and superior (‘Unten’ and ‘Oben’), but in terms of ‘acknowledged’ or ‘imposed’. Authority that does not legitimize itself morally is not recognized. In such a symbolic world a ‘God-somewhere-up-there’ dies as religious symbol. He has lost his power and authority. And he cannot play a public role in structuring the public life in society anymore. Democratic egalitarianism does neither leave room in the long run for a powerful role of monarchy in the political system –  at most, a symbolic function - , nor for monarchy as a religious world view.

The dominant forces in modernity want to structure society (and reality, in the broad sense) in terms of one world, humanly accessible. Ontological dualism does not fit this outlook.

In prison, Bonhoeffer analyses the developments in natural sciences that lead to modernity. He - still a defender of a rather conservative, authoritarian politics – hardly recognized, however, the political history of democratization that lead to the same outcome.[2] In the democratic world order of the 21st century, also ‘God’ has to move from court to parliament.  The Monarch-God is forced to abdicate.

So the powerful position of the ‘God’ of conventional Christendom in our symbolic universe is paled and marginalized. With the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo we might describe the history of God as a history of weakening. Once a vital symbol, it crumbles into the dimension of private life. ‘God’ becomes a ‘toothless tiger’ (Kuitert), a teddy bear god (Winnicot). The three letters don’t stand any more for the ultimate and powerful centre of integration of the totality of spheres of life, a collectively experienced moral authority, a shared ideal of the good life. ‘God’ lost his power. A weakened God.

How bad is this? Here our story comes to a decisive turn. For Bonhoeffer, who describes this process in prison as ‘the displacement of God from the world, and from the public part of life’.(LPP 123, Letter from 8 July 1944 [Die Verdrängung Gottes aus der Welt, aus der Öffentlichkeit der menschlichen Existenz.’], WE 377) is convinced that this process of weakening is not happening accidentally. ‘God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without God.’ LPP 129, WE 394, Letter from July 16, 1944. Italics added).  Obviously, the weakening of God is not a catastrophe. From a Christian point of view, it should even be defended. God self is actively involved in the history of his own dethronement. As once the Old Testament prophets, Bonhoeffer tries to re-describe history in terms of Gods active presence, by giving a relevant meaning to an apparent loss of meaning.   

What did Bonhoeffer mean, in writing down the following enigmatic phrases? ‘The God who lets us live in the world without the hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.’ (Letter from July 16, 1944, LPP 129f ./ WE 394)  Apparently, the historical dynamics that lead us to a world come of age liberates us also from a false image of God. Simultaneously, it opens up our eyes for the biblical God, who regains authority in the world by his weakness. Obviously a secularizing dynamic is inherent to the internal logic of the history of Christian faith. Christianity itself contributed to the weakening of ‘God’.  

Christian faith is a paradoxical religion. A non-religious religion, to speak with Bonhoeffer. A ‘religion that leaves the land of religion behind’, like Israel Egypt, as the French philosopher Marcel Gauchet wrote. For Christian faith puts at its centre a figure, the God-human Jesus Christ, who dethrones ‘God’ in his humiliation at the cross and at the same time glorifies the human in his resurrection. In the Christian narrative, Jesus Christ becomes the source and standard of every possible experience of transcendence.  By taking the story of Jesus’ life course as central myth, Christianity in fact seals the end of monarchical political religion.  Whoever saw me, he saw the Father (John 14,9)  The Father of Jesus gets an ordinary human carpenter face, sacred in its profanity. 

Immanent transcendency: theology becomes christology

In that kind of religion in the end ‘GOD’ must crumble into ‘god’. By binding ‘God’ in the story of the incarnation inextricably to the humanity of Jesus (kenosis), Christian faith abolishes the spatial distance between the divine and the human. God abdicates his throne and religion ‘democratizes.’ The experience of transcendence becomes inner worldly. ‘The beyond is not what is infinitely remote, but what is nearest at hand,’ as Bonhoeffer writes (LPP 136; ‘Das Jenseitige ist nicht das unendlich  Ferne, sondern das Nächste.’ WEN 408). With this orientation, Christian faith pushes towards a mutation in the history of religion. Religious notions such as ‘worship’ and ‘salvation’ undergo a structural metamorphosis. Not a blind submission to a heavenly power, but the experience of friendship and suffering in the discipleship of the human Jesus – that is what is to be called divine. Christian faith humanises religion, by giving a religious value surplus to ordinary life. ‘God is beyond in the midst of our life.’ LPP 91, Letter of April 30, 1944/ WE 308: ‚Gott ist mitten in unserm Leben jenseits.’)

Bonhoeffer’s theology gives an account of this paradoxical non-religiosity of Christian religion. The question how the incarnation, the story of God becoming human (Menschwerdung, as Bonhoeffer writes consequently), affects our relationship with the divine, is his theme, from the beginning until the end. In prison Bonhoeffer sketches an outline for a book he wanted to write. The first chapter should deal with modernity, with the deconstruction of the supranaturalistic God as its conclusion. ‘God as a working hypothesis, as a stop-gap for our embarrassments, has become superfluous.’ (WEN 413/LPP 138) The second chapter was planned to be more constructive. It should offer a new entry for faith in God based on the incarnation. ‘Who is God? Not in the first place a general belief in God, in his omnipotence, etc. That is not a genuine experience of God, but part of the prolongation of the world. Encounter with Jesus Christ. (…) His „being there for others“ is the experience of transcendence. (…) God in human form (…) „the man for others“, and therefore the Crucified. The man who lives out of the transcendent.’ (LPP 139/WEN 414)

To Bonhoeffer, theology and Christology became almost synonymous. His whole theological existence consisted in engaged reflection on the God incarnated, crucified and resurrected. To him, Christology not only represented a part of theology, a locus in the doctrine of redemption. It forms the heart of theology, because Christology is the key to the understanding both, God and reality.[3] The book never came about. But we do have enough material in hands to get more then an outline of Bonhoeffer’s reconstruction of a non-supranaturalistic God. For already in Ethics, Bonhoeffer does not limit himself to a critique on the thinking in two spheres. He also sketches a genuine Christian alternative. What does the fact that God became human in Christ mean? That there exist no longer two realities, the sacred and the profane, but that the reality of God went into the reality of the world and accepted it as his own. There is but one reality, and that is the reality of God-in-Christ. The Word became flesh. The God above us became the God among us. God is present in our reality, stronger even: he encompasses, includes our reality. Therefore, ‘All things appear distorted if they are not seen and recognized in God.’ (Ethics, p. 163)

In Ethics, Bonhoeffer elaborates an ontology of the incarnated transcendence, in which God-in-Christ functions as the logos, the basic structuring principle.  We cannot interpret reality, he says, without reading it through the lenses of incarnation (that leads us to a yes to humaneness), crucifixion (that leads us to a no to evil), and resurrection (that brings us hope for the future). These three Christological principles function in Ethics as a kind of categorical grid in the Kantian sense of the word, through which reality gets structured and receives meaning.  

Radical implications for the act of faith do follow. In supranaturalism, belief in God consists in holding to be true the proposition: God exists in heaven. To get into relationship with him is only possible by applying for his intervening power in the act of prayer. Being ontologically separated from God, incidentally faith opens up a possibility to get in contact with him.  If, however, our reality is encompassed by God’s reality, as Bonhoeffer says, then the act of believing consists in participation with our whole existence in this reality.  Faith no longer means: holding for true (assensus), but is an act of fiducia: an existential trust in, a total surrender to this reality.

Participation in the reality of God, as Bonhoeffer conceives it, looks synonymous with what St. Paul called ‘living in Christ’.  Christian ethics asks how we can live ‘in God’.


‘Christian ethics enquires about realization in our world of this divine and cosmic reality which is given in Christ. This does not mean that ‘our world’ is something outside the divine and cosmic reality which is in Christ, or that it is not already part of the world which is sustained, accepted and reconciled in Him. It does not mean that one must still begin by applying some kind of ‘principle’ to our situation and our time. The enquiry is directed rather towards the way in which the reality in Christ, which for a long time already has comprised us and our world within itself, is taking effect as something now present. And towards the way in which life may be conducted in this reality. Its purpose is, therefore, participation in the reality of God and of the world in Jesus Christ today, and this participation must be such that I never experience the reality of God without the reality of the world or the reality of the world without the reality of God. ‘ (Ethics p.167f., italics added)


Pan-en-theïsm? Surrendering to the other as a sacrament of God

The concept of God that Bonhoeffer here proposes radically differs from that of supranaturalism. One might call it a pan-en-theïstic concept. Everything lives in the reality of God, because we live in Christ. ‘All things appear distorted if they are not seen and recognized in God.’ (Ethics, p. 162) We cannot imagine this ‘to see in’ too literal. It helps to understand it by taking it spatial. To Bonhoeffer, God-in-Christ is the space in which ‘we live, and move and have our being’. (Acts 17, 28). Bonhoeffer’s pan-en-theism however, is not meant as a philosophical doctrine of God, based in a cosmological theory. It roots in the particularity of Gods revelation in Christ. How we ever might have thought about God, since the ‘Christ event’ we can discern in his narrative the contours of God. Jesus is the decisive sacrament of God. We participate in God only if we take part in the event of his story. For Bonhoeffer, asking for the good (the classical question ethics starts with) gets identical to the question how to participate in Christ, as the reality we live in. ‘Good is reality itself, reality seen and recognized in God’ (E 165).  ‘The wish to be good consists solely in the longing for what is real in God.’ ‘Only if we share in reality can we share in good.’ (E 163f .)

To take part in Christ is a sacramental experience. In his Ethics and in his letters and papers from prison, Bonhoeffer develops an outward oriented spirituality, in which having faith in God stands for taking part in his suffering in the world.  Life means to be involved in the incarnation of God. ‘Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world. (…) He must live a „worldly“ life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. (…) It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event’. (Letter from July 18, 1944, LPP 129f ./ WEN 395) The spirituality of the thinking in two spheres goes through a complete reversal: faith consists not in the partial withdrawal in private interiority, but in the total surrender (‘an act of life’) to life with others.  ‘Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.’ (Letter from July 18, 1944, LPP 131/ WEN, 396).

Living in the reality of God, how do we get part of it? In Bonhoeffer’s view, God is effectively present in human beings, being there for others.  That is the way he incarnates. He was fully present in Jesus, not because of a heavenly decision, but because of Jesus’ unconditioned ‘being there for others’.  The profane act of human surrender to others is filled with the sacred, for it is the essential movement in God himself. In Bonhoeffer’s theology, ethics now takes the role that in supranaturalism was reserved for metaphysics: the ethical dimension of human life becomes the immanent finding place of the transcendent.  In the ethical the human gets transparent for the beyond. ‘The beyond is … what is nearest at hand,’ we already heard. ‘God is beyond in the midst of our life.’ (Letter of April 30, 1944, LPP 91). Where do we find God? Not in the cognitive act of belief in a reality beyond our reality, but in the act of unconditional trust in which we surrender ourselves daily to the living with others. Devotion to others is a sacrament of God. God is to experience in, with and under the daily experience of being dependent on the life with others.  (cf. J. Moltmann, Der Geist des Lebens, 48ff.).


In conclusion

In his farewell to supranaturalistic theism and in his commitment to a christologically based pan-en-theïsm (or should one say: pan-en-christism?), Bonhoeffer is creating concepts that might help us to experience anew the active and salutary presence of God.  He has the courage to accomplish the break with a long tradition in which the God-above-us slowly weakened and died. He dares to speak of ‘we-in-God’, of immanent transcendence. His reflections are – and the judgment might be applicable to the whole of his theology – mostly essayistic, fragmentary, and provisional. On some points, we may have to go further than Bonhoeffer did.  For example, his concept of God needs more reflection and could be deepened in the direction of a pan-en-theistic image of God. His hesitations to do that are quite understandable; Bonhoeffer does not want to speculate about God behind the back of Jesus Christ. To Bethge he writes on August 21, 1944: ‘All that we may rightly expect from God, and ask him for, is to be found in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with what a God, as we imagine him, could do and ought to do.’ (LPP 142/ WEN 425). Nevertheless, though Bonhoeffer is right in saying that we do not know God otherwise than in Christ (epistemologically), God and Christ do not have to be mixed up with one another ontologically, at least if you want those two symbols not to function as synonyms (as Bonhoeffer sometimes does).  

A further reflection on his pan-en-theistic inspired concept of God  – a second point – might also take away the suspicion that doing theology in the footsteps of Bonhoeffer definitely leads to a moralization of religion.[4] Does theology become ethics? No, one should better stress the opposite: ethics gets religious again. For the struggle for good and the combat of evil in which human beings are engaged, they are happening in the bosom of God. ‘Reality is the sacrament of the command of God,’ Bonhoeffer once wrote. (DBW 11, 334 [Zur theologischen Begründung der Weltbundarbeit, 1932]).

A persistent reproach made to Bonhoeffer, that also deserves further reflection – a third point - is that he exercises a Christological reduction that might narrow the theological perspective, especially in our globalising world of religious pluralism. Indeed, Jesus is the unique sacrament of God, we should say as Christians. In him we experience once and for all that and how God wants to be present in humanity. However, we should interpret this in an exemplary, not in an exclusive way. The Spirit of the Christ event is also present in other religions and cultures. I think Bonhoeffer’s Christ centrism should be rethought in this inclusive, encompassing way, more appropriate to our plural and globalising world, rather than in the exclusivist sense. There are times – as his one I was, I think - that one should say: ‘He who is not with me is against me’ (Lc.11,23), and there are times – as ours – that want should listen more to Jesus’ saying : Who is not against us, is for us.’ (Mc.10,40).

In conclusion: ‘Reject God, Follow Jesus’ – could that Hyde Park speaker’s motto also be  Bonhoeffer’s? Somehow yes, I think, at the condition that we won’t interpret the phrase to strictly. Reject God – indeed, we have to confirm the weakening and death of the supranaturalistic ‘God’; however, even after the ‘death of God’ we have to go on speaking about God. The experience of the sacred is still vital in western culture. The apparent presence of the divine asks for interpretation as a phenomenon in the human sciences and the science of religion, but also theologically in terms of theistic faith. Follow Jesus? Yes, if that means more than just imitating a man from Nazareth , living 2000 years ago. For Bonhoeffer, the name Jesus functions as the encompassing metaphor for that other God. The God with a human face, in which we live, and move and have our being.  ‘If we are to learn what God promises, and what he fulfils, we must keep reposing very long and very peacefully on the life, sayings, deeds, sufferings, and death of Jesus.’  (Letter of August 21, 1944, LPP 142/WE 425).  

‘Reject God, Follow Jesus’. The man in Hyde Park ’s Speakers Corner does not seduce the masses. His paradoxical message of a religion without ‘God’ works alienating. Muslim radicals and Evangelical doom preachers seem to be more successful with their conventional God talk. But the quantity of audience is a bad graduator for meaningful and powerful speech. The real question lies elsewhere. Is it gospel (good news both for bad people and people with bad luck) that sounds, or is it just bad religion (religiosity without salvation)? In Bonhoeffer one might hear gospel, something of that ‘new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming - as was Jesus' language’, which he was hoping for himself.

[1] It was sent out of prison as a substitute for the sermon and the sacrament, which he was not able to render to his new born nephew, because of his captivity.

[2] Probably Bonhoeffer stayed monarchist, and never became a democrat. Cf. Sabine Dramm, V-Mann Gottes und der Abwehr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer und der  Widerstand, Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh 2005, 199f . 2004f , 238:  ‚In  Frage steht nicht, ob Bonhoeffer konservativ war, sondern wie konservativ er war’. ‚Auf der breiten Skala zwischen elitärem und egalitärem Denken wäre Bonhoeffer politisch eher der elitären, theologisch eher der egalitären Seite der Skala zuzuordnen. In vieler Hinsicht war er bereits damals in theologischen und kirchenpolitischen Fragen im besten Wortsinn „progressiver“ als in politischen Fragen, Mit anderen Worten: Sein theologisches Sein war seinem politischen Bewusstsein voraus.’

[3] Cf. André Dumas, Une théologie de la réalité, Labor et Fides: Geneva 1968, p. 236.

[4] Cf. Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity. Rediscovering a Life of Faith, HarperSanFrancisco 2003.  Also from the same author, The God we Never Knew,  HarperSanFrancisco 1998.