‘religion alone will destroy you…’

I’ve recently become quite interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concept of a ‘secular interpretation’ of the Bible (it’s also been referred to as a ‘religionless Christianity’)…

It’s something I’ve been indirectly exposed to before; David Dark, at the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College in 2005, was the first to bring to my attention the absurdity of the catch-phrase ‘engaging culture’ (‘Too late!… You’re in it.’), or the idea of ‘sacred’ v. ‘secular’ – both ideas that point toward the concepts presented by Bonhoeffer.

In Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer speaks of how ‘religious people speak of God when human knowledge… has come to an end,’ of our tendency to place God at the boundaries of our life – beyond the limits of our intellectual understanding, our emotional capacity, our physical well-being – where we may reach for Him when it is convenient for us. In this way God becomes nothing more than a deus ex machina ‘for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure.’ This becomes a bigger problem as these boundaries are expanded, as they are pushed outward by stronger, more capable humans with more knowledge and less apparent dependence upon Him. Bonhoeffer continues:

‘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… 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.’

While David Dark destroyed the ‘sacred’ v. ‘secular’ dualism (for me, anyway) by putting into clearly understood speech something I had previously perceived – I can’t say ‘understood’ – only vaguely, Bonhoeffer (sixty years earlier, I might add) carried this idea much further. After centering God in our lives (in the midst of our lives, so that His presence invades every aspect of our human existence), how may we interpret and apply the Word which was breathed by Him for our lives? And what does that look like in our lives? I don’t believe Bonhoeffer ever had the chance to publish finished works on the subject, as he died in prison less than a year after these letters were written, but he further expounds on the beginnings of this idea as follows:

‘To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age outlined above, which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness [ref: Matthew 8:17]. This will probably be the starting-point for our ‘secular interpretation’…

‘Jesus asked in Gethsemane, ‘Could you not watch with me one hour?’ That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

‘He must therefore really live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a ‘secular’ life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. 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.’

Some of what Bonhoeffer writes, admittedly, is hard for me to swallow. To think of God as ‘weak,’ or ‘suffering,’ is to me initially an alien and unorthodox idea – until I remember that it was through meekness, servitude, and in the end resignation to a human death (in order to defeat Death through resurrection) that Christ, ‘fully man and fully God,’ fulfilled God’s purpose of reconciliation with – and redemption of – His creation.

It seems that while he was imprisoned, Bonhoeffer was rarely able to go into too much detail with his theological explorations (he often concluded letters prematurely so they could be sent out that same day); this is one subject that does receive a good deal of attention. You can read the letters in which he specifically deals with this ‘secular interpretation’ here. He’s writing to his best friend of this concept which even he is in the process of sorting out and working through, so it follows to reason that when one reads these letters there is plenty for one to sort out and work through for oneself…

more links of pertinence and general interest:
‘sacred’ v. ‘secular’ in music
some of david dark’s writings
FFM 2007

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3 comments

  1. Andy

    Good stuff. You’ll also want to read Maritan’s “Art and Scholasticism”. It has a whole chapter on Christian music and art that helped me blow up the nonsense of duality.

    In it, he makes the point that art shouldn’t be “Christian” or not, it should just be. A Christian should write a song with the goal of making it a “CHristian” song. That makes poor art.

  2. kevin

    Funny, I was just about to recommend the same chapter out of Maritain’s book as andy from the earlier comment!

    I really like your reflections on this subject. I do think there is an appropriate distinction made between nature and grace (developed slowly from Augustine through the later middle ages – most famously in the thinking of Aquinas). It defines for us on the level of knowledge precisely the extent of our human understanding alone and where revelation is necessary to know something more. But this idea is far from any sort of sacred/secular distinction that you are talking about and I think it can be reconciled with the thrust of your ideas (or Bonhoeffer’s for that matter). But I think the ability to make distinctions on certain levels is appropriate and necessary.

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