When I was just a teenager, I was introduced to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by a wise Lutheran Pastor. I remember devouring Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together” and “Letters and Papers from Prison”. To this day, I credit Bonhoeffer for making me a Lutheran. While a great deal of water has flowed under a good many bridges since I was first enamoured of Lutheran theology, to this day I am grateful to that wise old Lutheran pastor who gave me my first taste of Bonhoeffer. Of late, there has been much ado about a little phrase that has been extracted from Bonhoeffer’s work: “religionless Christianity”.
(click here for full quotations from Letter and Papers from Prison)
“It is not for us to prophecy the day when men will once more ask God that the world be changed and renewed. But when that day arrives there will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious. But liberating and redeeming as was Jesus language. It’ll shock people. It’ll shock them by its power. It’ll be the language of a new truth proclaiming God’s peace with men.” Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace
Tragically, Bonhoeffer was executed before he had the opportunity to expand on his idea of Christianity beyond religion. The phrase “religionless Christianity” has intrigued agnostics, atheists, humanists, liberal christians and progressive christians. Eric Metaxas, author of “Bonhoeffer” dismisses the idea that Bonhoeffer was anything but a serious, orthodox Lutheran pastor right up to the end.
Despite the historical evidence of Bonhoeffer’s religious orthodoxy, the notion of religionless Christianity will not die. Bishop John Shelby Spong is among those who have tried to build on Bonhoeffer’s phrase and his book “Jesus for the Non Religious” has certainly moved the conversation along among progressive christians.
The dream of religionless christianity has moved well beyond Bonhoeffer as twenty-first century christians wrestle with archaic images of God and move beyond the religious trappings of traditional christianity. The notion of moving beyond religion has always intrigued me. Years ago, while studying Hinduism my professor offered a definition of God from one of the Vedas: “God is beyond the beyond, and beyond that also”. As I continue to explore the life and teachings of the man none as Jesus of Nazareth it becomes more and more evident that such a definition is compatible with his portrait of God. Jesus of Nazareth attempted to move his co-religionists beyond their religious images of God. What might our images of God become if we move beyond the idols offered to us by the religion of Christianity? Might we move toward images of God that more closely resemble the teachings of Jesus by moving toward a religionless christianity?
Sometimes we can better reflect upon our own tradition from the perspective of another tradition. In the video below, twentieth century philosopher and theologian Alan Watts explores the concept of the Religion of No Religion.
“Beyond the Beyond and Beyond that also.” Letting go of our images is the gift of faith that moves us beyond religion. I can hear Jesus call us to let go!
I believe it was Joseph Campbell who said, “Our last obstacle to God is our image of God.”