Want a taste of what my dissertation is about? Read these two passages (Dissertation Dispatch, 2020-04-03)

What does “religion” mean? Great question!

I’m writing my dissertation on Barth, Bonhoeffer, the Bible, and “religion.” However, getting clear on just what Barth and Bonhoeffer meant by “religion” is a huge challenge. It’s what I devoted my entire writing sample to examining, and I plan to devote an entire chapter of my dissertation to the topic.

Neither Barth nor Bonhoeffer used the word “religion” in the way that we’re prone to use the word in everyday speech today. According to Merriam-Webster, “religion” means:

  • the state of a religious (example: a nun in her 20th year of religion)
  • the service and worship of God or the supernatural
  • commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
  • a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
  • (archaic) : scrupulous conformity : CONSCIENTIOUSNESS
  • a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

According to Donald McKim’s The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, “religion” is

A term with a variety of definitions. Religion includes ritual, social, and ethical elements combined with belief in an unseen world and often a deity. Beliefs may be expressed through myths or doctrines.

For Barth? Religion is idolatrous “unbelief” or “faithlessness” (Unglaube in German). For Bonhoeffer? Well, as Ralf Wüstenberg has noted, Bonhoeffer’s description of “religion” changed over time, but in his Letters and Papers from Prison, he described religion in the following ways:

1. Religion emphasizes inwardness.

2. Religion emphasizes conscience.

3. Religion is a temporary phenomenon.

4. Religion is manipulative and exploitative.

5. Religion minimizes human strength/knowledge/autonomy and instead focuses on human weakness, ignorance, and boundaries/limits/limitations.

6. Religion is metaphysical, otherworldly, and escapist.

7. Religion is privileged.

8. Religion is, like circumcision, no longer a condition for salvation.

9. Religion posits a false “God” (a “deus ex machina,” “working hypothesis,” and “stopgap”) on the other side of human boundaries (a shrinking area, as humanity matures) in order to solve human problems.

10. Religion is driven by anxiety.

11. Religion is individualistic.

12. Religious language has lost its power.

13. Religion is a particular posture towards life, capable of being exemplified, not only by pastors, but also by existential philosophers and psychotherapists.

14. Religion is a partial and segmented posture towards life.

15. Religion ignores the world’s increasing godlessness.


Now, to get a taste of what I’m working with, I think that the following two passages from Alister McGrath’s The Christian Theology Reader (5th edition) are helpful.

McGrath gives the following prefatory remarks to the Bonhoeffer excerpt:

In this letter from Tegel prison, in which he was imprisoned during the final stages of the Second World War, the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45) spoke of the new challenge to Christianity in a world in which the existence of God is not taken for granted. He identified a central theme of Christianity, which distinguishes it from all other religions, in its focus in the sufferings of God in Christ. Bonhoeffer was one of the most vigorous critics of the idea that human “religiosity” is a point of contact for the gospel. The theme of a suffering God was of major importance to Bonhoeffer, as this passage makes clear. Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp in April 1945. (McGrath, 45)

Here’s the excerpt from Bonhoeffer (PDF).

I’ve drawn the text below from my Logos edition of Bonhoeffer’s works. This is from Bonhoeffer’s letter to Eberhard Bethge on July 16, 1944.

Now for a few more thoughts on our topic. I’m just working gradually toward the nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts. I am more able to see what needs to be done than how I can actually do it. Historically there is just one major development leading to the world’s autonomy. In theology it was Lord Herbert of Cherbury who first asserted that reason is sufficient for religious understanding. In moral philosophy Montaigne p 476 and Bodin substitute rules for life for the commandments. In political philosophy Macchiavelli separates politics from general morality and founds the doctrine of reason of state. Later H. Grotius, very different from Macchiavelli in content, but following the same trend toward the autonomy of human society, sets up his natural law as an international law, which is valid etsi deus non daretur, “as if there were no God.” Finally, p 477 the philosophical closing line: on one hand, the deism of Descartes: the world is a mechanism that keeps running by itself without God’s intervention; on the other hand, Spinoza’s pantheism: God is nature. Kant is basically a deist; Fichte and Hegel are pantheists. In every case the autonomy of human beings and the world is the goal of thought. (In the natural sciences this obviously begins with Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno and their—“heretical”—doctrine of the infinity of the universe [der Welt]. The cosmos of antiquity is finite, as is the created world of medieval thought. An infinite universe—however it is conceived—is self-subsisting, “etsi deus non daretur.” However, modern physics now doubts that the universe is infinite, yet without falling back to the earlier notions p 478 of its finitude.) As a working hypothesis for morality, politics, and the natural sciences, God has been overcome and done away with, but also as a working hypothesis for philosophy and religion (Feuerbach!). It is a matter of intellectual integrity to drop this working hypothesis, or eliminate it as far as possible. An edifying scientist, physician, and so forth is a hybrid. So where is any room left for God? Ask those who are anxious, and since they don’t have an answer, they condemn the entire development that has brought them to this impasse. I have already written to you about the various escape routes out of this space that has become too narrow. What could be added to that is the salto mortale back to the Middle Ages. But the medieval principle is heteronomy, in the form of clericalism. The return to that is only a counsel of despair, a sacrifice made only at the cost of intellectual integrity. It’s a dream, to the tune of “Oh, if only I knew the road back, the long road to childhood’s land!” There is no such way—at least not by willfully throwing away one’s inner integrity, but only in the sense of Matt. 18:3, that is, through repentance, through ultimate honesty! And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world—“etsi deus non daretur.” And this is precisely what we do recognize—before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. Thus our coming of age leads us to a truer recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as those who manage their lives without God. The p 479 same God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34!). The same God who makes us to live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God, and with God, we live without God. God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence but rather by virtue of his weakness and suffering! This is the crucial distinction between Christianity and all religions. Human religiosity directs people in need to the power of God in the world, God as deus ex machina. The Bible directs people toward the powerlessness and the suffering of God; only the suffering God can help. To this extent, one may say that the previously described development toward the world’s coming of age, which has cleared the way by eliminating a false notion of God, frees us to see the God of the p 480 Bible, who gains ground and power in the world by being powerless. This will probably be the starting point for our “worldly interpretation.” (DBWE 8:475–80)

McGrath then adds the following “comment” to the reading:

Bonhoeffer wrote this letter from prison shortly before his execution. The letter deals with the vulnerability of approaches to religion and theology which proceed on the assumption that humanity is intrinsically religious. For Bonhoeffer, the Nazi experience had called that presupposition into question.

The letter deals extensively with the issue of the autonomy of the world, and the apparent powerlessness of God, which Bonhoeffer regarded as exhibited on the cross. Bonhoeffer’s brief account of intellectual history since the Middle Ages is concerned to bring out how the world has come of age and lives as if there were no God.

Note that the German song title referred to in the text is to be translated as “If only I knew the way back, the long way to the land of childhood.” The Latin slogan etsi Deus non daretur (“as if God is not given”) was used by the Dutch writer Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) and is widely seen as marking a recognition of the growing importance of secular trends in the west.


Here’s McGrath’s prefatory remarks for the Barth passage:

The Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) developed a distinction between “religion” and “revelation,” arguing that the former is a human attempt at self-justification and the latter is God’s contradiction of human preconceptions about God through divine grace. Barth argues that Christianity loses sight of its distinctive identity if it allows itself to become a “religion,” which Barth interprets as a human construction. (McGrath, 496)

Here’s the excerpt(s) from Barth (PDF).

I’ve drawn the text below from my Logos edition of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. These passages come from §17, “The Revelation of God as the Aufhebung (traditionally translated “abolition”) of Religion.” It might be helpful to note that the Leitsatz (the thesis statement, if you will) for this section reads: “The revelation of God in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the judging but also reconciling presence of God in the world of human religion, that is, in the realm of man’s attempts to justify and to sanctify himself before a capricious and arbitrary picture of God. The Church is the locus of true religion, so far as through grace it lives by grace.”

OK, here’s Barth:

A theological evaluation of religion and religions must be characterised primarily by the great cautiousness and charity of its assessment and judgments. It will observe and understand and take man in all seriousness as the subject of religion. But it will not be man apart from God, in a human per se. It will be man for whom (whether he knows it or not) Jesus Christ was born, died and rose again. It will be man who (whether he has already heard it or not) is intended in the Word of God. It will be man who (whether he is aware of it or not) has in Christ his Lord. It will always understand religion as a vital utterance and activity of this man. It will not ascribe to this p 298 life-utterance and activity of his a unique “nature,” the so-called “nature of religion,” (CD I/2, 297–98)

Revelation singles out the Church as the locus of true religion. But this does not mean that the Christian religion as such is the fulfilled nature of human religion. It does not mean that the Christian religion is the true religion, fundamentally superior to all other religions. We can never stress too much the connexion between the truth of the Christian religion and the grace of revelation. We have to give particular emphasis to the fact that through grace the Church lives by grace, and to that extent it is the locus of true religion. And if this is so, the Church will as little boast of its “nature,” i.e., the perfection in which it fulfils the “nature” of religion, as it can attribute that nature to other religions. We cannot differentiate and separate the Church from other religions on the basis of a general concept of the nature of religion. (CD I/2, 298)

We begin by stating that religion is unbelief. It is a concern, p 300 indeed, we must say that it is the one great concern, of godless man. (CD I/2, 299–300)

Where we want what is wanted in religion, i.e., justification and sanctification as our own work, we do not find ourselves—and it does not matter whether the thought and representation of God has a primary or only a secondary importance—on the direct way to God, who can then bring us to our goal at some higher stage on the way. On the contrary, we lock the door against God, we alienate ourselves from Him, we come into direct opposition to Him. God in His revelation will not allow man to try to come to terms with life, to justify and sanctify himself. God in His revelation, God in Jesus Christ, is the One who takes on Himself the sin of the world, who wills that all our care should be cast upon Him, because He careth for us. (CD I/2, 309)

Religion is never true in itself and as such. The revelation of God denies that any religion is true, i.e., that it is in truth the knowledge and worship of God and the reconciliation of man with God. For as the self-offering and self-manifestation of God, as the work of peace which God Himself has concluded between Himself and man, revelation is the truth beside which there is no other truth, over against which there is only lying and wrong. If by the concept of a “true religion” we mean truth which belongs to religion in itself and as such, it is just as unattainable as a “good man,” if by goodness we mean something which man can achieve on his own initiative. No religion is true. It can only become true, i.e., according to that which it purports to be and for which it is upheld. And it can become true only in the way in which man is justified, from without; i.e., not of its own nature and being, but only in virtue of a reckoning and adopting and separating which are foreign to its own nature and being, p 326 which are quite inconceivable from its own standpoint, which come to it quite apart from any qualifications or merits. Like justified man, religion is a creature of grace. But grace is the revelation of God. No religion can stand before it as true religion. No man is righteous in its presence. It subjects us all to the judgment of death. But it can also call dead men to life and sinners to repentance. And similarly in the wider sphere where it shows all religion to be false it can also create true religion. The abolishing of religion by revelation need not mean only its negation: the judgment that religion is unbelief. Religion can just as well be exalted in revelation, even though the judgment still stands. It can be upheld by it and concealed in it. It can be justified by it, and—we must at once add—sanctified. Revelation can adopt religion and mark it off as true religion. And it not only can. How do we come to assert that it can, if it has not already done so? There is a true religion: just as there are justified sinners. If we abide strictly by that analogy—and we are dealing not merely with an analogy, but in a comprehensive sense with the thing itself—we need have no hesitation in saying that the Christian religion is the true religion. (CD I/2, 325–26)

And here’s McGrath’s “comment”:

Barth here takes a principled stand against the notion of “religion” as a human construction, rather than a datum of divine revelation. He insists that “religion” will continue until the end of time, as a necessary prop or support to faith. Barth’s concern here is to emphasize that, by the grace of God, this “religion” is transcended and surpassed by God. It is something neutral, not negative. Barth uses the German word Aufhebung, here translated as “abolition.” Yet this German term has a deeper sense, and could be understood to mean the “transformation” or even “sublimation” of religion. Religion, seen as a human construction and contrasted with divine revelation, certainly needs to be critiqued – yet Barth insists that it serves a useful role. (McGrath, 498)

By Joshua Steele

Anglican Priest, Managing Editor of Anglican Compass, Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at Wheaton College Graduate School.

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