Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 70 years later: Living With God Without God in a World Come of Age


2015 is a significant year for World War Two remembrances—the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Holland, the liberation of concentration camps like Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and of the end of the war itself.

For Christians, it is also a time to remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, theologian and opponent of Hitler who was executed by the Nazis 70 years ago, on April 9, 1945.

Arrested in 1943, Bonhoeffer wrote many letters while in prison to his friend, Eberhard Bethge.

In the letters, later published in the book Letters and Papers from Prison, he speculated about what faith would look like in a world where people no longer seemed to have any need for God—a time that seems very much like our own.

“In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt,” he stated, adding that “it has also become increasingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything gets along without God—and, in fact, just as well as before.”

“As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, God is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.”

In what he called a “world come of age,” where humans have learned to deal with all questions of importance without reference to God, Bonhoeffer suggested that Christians would need to develop a new way of thinking about their faith and God.

This new way, he said, would lead “to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him . . . Before God and with God we live without God.

Since he was killed before he could flesh out his enigmatic ideas, they have puzzled theologians and others for decades.

Some have interpreted him calling for a new kind of believing that abandons most tenets of the Christian faith, or even predicting the death of God. But most theologians agree that the central question Bonhoeffer was trying to address was: How can Christians proclaim their faith in a world where many people no longer have need of God?

At a time when Canada is becoming increasingly secular, and faith is being pressed to the margins, this is a relevant question—especially for those who feel that faith is being threatened or even attacked. 

Some seem too long for the days when Canada was seen as a “Christian nation,” and where the church held a prominent role.

But Richard Beck, a professor at Abilene Christian University, suggests that Bonhoeffer actually saw these changes as good thing—not something to be wished away.

“Christianity, to be Christian, needs the world to come of age,” Beck writes. ”For only in the world come of age can Christians fully understand both God and the gospel.”

And what is that understanding? For Bonhoeffer, he says, it is the crucifixion of Jesus, the act where God became weak and powerless and let himself suffer and die.

In this world, there is no room for what Bonhoeffer considered a “false conception of God"—God as a strong and powerful ruler—but rather the "God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness."

So how should Christians live out their faith in this world come of age? By serving others, Bonhoeffer says.

God, he wrote, is to be found not out there, in some other-worldly plane, but in what he called a “this worldliness,” or "in the midst of our life" and all its “problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities."

The church, he went on to say, is only the church “when it exists for others . . .  the church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.”


I’m no theologian, and I can’t possibly do justice to the issues Bonhoeffer raised in this short space. But it seems to me that his ideas, written in a prison cell 70 years ago at the height of Nazi ideology and oppression, can help people of faith navigate the issues that dominate our time and age today.

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