March 27

Bonhoeffer: Religionless Christianity

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear Sermon only

John 4:5-42


We have a full, free Monday evening dinner here at Marsh Chapel. Last Monday our volunteer cook lavishly prepared a sprawling delicious Greek meal, from olives to baklava. Yummie.

Thirty years ago some of us likewise took turns cooking. My grandmother used to serve a Sunday chicken dinner (biscuits, pies, creamed onions) which served as a model for what a couple of us tried to cook. We failed. Eberhard Bethge and his wife were with us. But with the potatoes too done and the chicken undone (it wasn’t much fun, close to none), not all the conversation stuck. Some did. Bethge was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, a spiritual brother who wrote Bonhoeffer’s biography. Over semi cooked chicken, he told us about the German Lutheran Pastor, martyr, and theologian. He held up his fork, and stabbed the air to make his points, in English only mildly clothed in a German accent. With the dessert in disarray, much of the brilliance of the conversation disappeared into the din of noise from Broadway. Phrases remain in memory, or in stylized imagined remembrance. Cost of Discipleship. Cheap Grace. Man for Others. World Come of Age. Religionless Christianity.

We have dedicated five Sundays of Lent 2011 at Marsh Chapel to lifting up, remembering the voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The burned potatoes and rough chicken were served 35 years ago. Bonhoeffer was hung 32 years before we met Bethge over dinner that night. April 9 1945 in Flossenburg, Bonhoeffer was martyred, a conspirator in the failed attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler, having lived his last two years in prison, having been engaged but never married, having inspired a generation of young students to Christian service, having written books that only now, perhaps, can we fully appreciate.

Bonhoeffer grew up in the height of western culture, an acculturation and liberal inheritance he continuously affirmed. He challenged that culture, not at its depth, but at its height, not at its weakness but at its strength, not at its worst but at its best. People ask: how can you preach at a non sectarian University? The reply: where else is real preaching possible? People ask: how can you preach in utterly secular New England? The reply: where else is anyone really free to hear the gospel? People ask: how can you preach to sleepy, bleary eyed 20 year olds? The reply: who better to judge our worth for the future? Bonhoeffer would probably agree. Christ is not to be found on the periphery, but in the heart, at the height of human history and culture. He is not Lord of religion, but Lord of life. Christ is the very center point of human life. This season we remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in whose life and writings a liberal legacy is honored, Christ Jesus is loved and affirmed, and at least in potential human culture istransformed. No wonder, given our commitments here at Marsh Chapel, we turn this month to him.

With a warmth and grace undeserved in the face of a junior varsity meal, Eberhard Bethge prayed with us, one fine evening, in 1976. Of all the phrases from that dinner hour, religionless Christianity was the most memorable. We heard about someone who desperately wanted his students to move from religion to faith. From religion to faith, from Christian religion to religionless Christianity. Maybe you are ready to make that move this morning? Listen for the gospel in Scripture and in History and in Life.


One lone woman at one old well is here to help us.

In a region well versed in religious difference and dispute, our Lord is pictured in John 4 cutting through religion. For Samaritan simply substitute ‘other’, religious other. If Nicodemus reminds us that we are free, and he does, the Samaritan woman reminds us that we are responsible, and we are. Freedom gives birth to responsibility. Jesus leaves the familiarity of Judah. He crosses, on this memory, multiple lines. He crosses the geographical line. He crosses the gender line. He crosses the racial line. He crosses the status line. He crosses the religious line. Our woman spells it out. You, a Jew: I, a Samaritan.

Jesus Christ is the Lord of life, not the Lord of religion. He calls us from religion to faith, out of false consciousness into a whole new way of being.

Spirit and truth, spirit and truth.

Our lone woman knows her Samaritan religion: Samaria, Jacob, ancestor, marriage (she knows marriage better than Elizabeth Taylor), holy mountain, Messiah. She is not a Jew and she is not a Christian, but you can substitute for her religious vocabulary any number of similarly developed religious tongues. She knows religion. Jesus offers her faith. Jesus offers her the religion of unreligion. The Lord offers us the religion of unreligion.

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is not easily blended with his counterparts in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Rather than projecting our own needs for uniformity out onto these ancient, holy, mysterious, puzzling and powerful writings, we first to listen to them. Listen. We need to let the Bible speak to us. Now, the Jesus of John 4 is a very different Jesus. He sees into others’ minds. He knows things without being told. He divines the secrets hidden in the heart. He stands alone and in public view with a woman, a Samaritan woman, a troubled Samaritan woman. This Jesus is guided along in a lengthy mystagogical conversation, full of riddles, double entendres, hidden meanings, mysterious silences. He offers living water. In none of this does one find a single correspondence with the earlier three quests for Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John’s is an entirely different Jesus. So, asked one bright student, which is true?

Excellent question.

And here is an answer. They all are. They all truly represent the actual historical experience of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, which various little communities in his fledging church did have of him. All four are historically accurate. With accuracy they describe the Jesus known in the actual lives of the communities of Mark, forty years after Calvary; Matthew, fifty-five years after Calvary; Luke, sixty years after Calvary; and John eighty years after Calvary. They give us grace and freedom to sense Jesus, as they did, present among us, as He was among them. He is risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

John’s Gospel is roughly the same distance from Jesus in time as we are from Bonhoeffer in time, about 80 years, from the thirties to 10—110 or 2010.


Are you ready to move from religion to faith? Are you ready to drink from the living water? Are you open to spirit and alive to truth?

What on earth is ‘religionless Christianity?’ (cited in Clifford Green, The Sociality of Christ and Humanity, Missoula: Scholars Press, 1972; wherein are found this and following page numbers and citations from his book; my reliance on Dr Green in this section of the sermon is open, substantial, and grateful). 315

First, it is a faith that recognizes and honors the strengths and capacities of human beings. Later in life, in prison, Bonhoeffer could balance his earlier emphasis on submission of the will and ego with a fuller appreciation for human beings in a world come of age. He is proud of his urban culture and its traditi
on, which brings both freedom and responsibility.

Bonhoeffer refuses to turn back the page from modern life. He accepts the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and human autonomy as heightened in our time. In his famous phrase, man has come of age. Science, technology and social organization have given us security and confidence (even though they have created their own problems): knowledge, power and control. DB is particularly focused on insurance; man can insure himself against everything except against man.

Bonhoeffer affirms human strength: scientific research, industrial and farming technology, medicine, social and economic planning, insurance. (Green, 308)

While he saw the weakness of liberal theology (‘it conceded to the world the right to determine Christ’s place in the world’.), he never forgot its strength (‘it did not try to put the clock back’. ) (Green, 307)

“In the (prison) Letters we find a clear theological affirmation of the strengths of the mature ego which is liberated and shaped by Christ for the service of others, especially in responsibility for corporate, political life.” (Green, 335)

Second, religionless Christianity is skeptical of religion. Perfect for Universities, for young adults and for New England! Precisely ideal for Marsh Chapel! But what does he mean by religion? We proceed carefully here, for he means something different than we expect.

Beware religion, or a religious outlook, that is episodic, peripheral, subjective, individualistic, otherworldly, dishonest (intellectually), humiliating and self centered. (C Green summary, 313-318). It is all that diminishes, chains, and harms the human being. But faith is something else, lived in the context of the community of faith, THE CHURCH, (to which we turn next week).

Bonhoeffer’s view of religion is in a way similar to that of some famous critics, that religion infantilizes. If religion is keeping you from growing up, religion is not a good thing. Innocence and holiness are not the same thing. Hold onto this verse: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Third, religionless Christianity takes as its aim a grown up faith, a mature, fully human way of being in the world. Faith means maturity. Faith is reliance upon God. Faith is freedom from narcissism and freedom for responsible existence for others.

Christ is the man for others. We are to live as he did live, a man for others, or as we would put it today, a person for others.

Christ crucified and weak thereby creates room for human strength, freedom, independence, responsibility and integration—in short, maturity. (Green, 320). Human problems have human solutions. So, we must find a way to live safely with nuclear energy, or dispense with it. So, we must find a way to live peaceably across ancient middle eastern religious differences, or suffer the consequences. So, we must find a way for workers and owners to honor one another, or be ready to pay the price in endless strife. What did Paul write? If you bite and devour one another, take care that you are no consumed by one another. (Gal. 4)

Bonhoeffer’s words carry a paradoxical power. His sense of responsible freedom, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman together, is compelling: God lets us know that we must live as men who can manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who leaves us alone. Before God and with God we live without God. 321 Sin consists in the lack of faith needed for commitment to free responsibility. 325


We have these weeks of Lent 2011 committed ourselves to listen for the Gospel by which we are saved in Scripture and Tradition and Reason. Jesus invited the Samaritan woman to a religionless faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer made his appeal for a religionless Christianity. How shall we apply gospel truth to our own lives?

Having turned in exegesis to John and in exposition to Bonhoeffer, we turn again for application to Franklin Littell, the first Dean of Marsh Chapel, who was not in the habit of mincing words. One ongoing application for those of us who have been seized by the confession of the church, who have been loved by the faithfulness of Christ, is to look again, to look long, to look hard at the Holocaust. We have yet to understand what happened to Christianity in the dark abyss, the hellish, ghoulish fire of Auschwitz. Almost alone, Littell continues to ask what the ongoing repercussions are for Christianity, for the possibility of future Christianity. Her reminds us unsparingly of what happened religiously in an ostensibly Christian country:

Nazism was in no sense a revolt against ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’. Neither was it ‘secularist’. Quite the contrary…The Fuhrer and other party orators made constant reference to ‘divine providence’, ‘spiritual renewal’, ‘moment of decision’, ‘immortal destiny’…and the like. Many of the party hymns were simply new words written to popular gospel songs, with the same brass bands marching and evoking from crowds the same emotional response. The key question, and here the issue of ‘heresy’ arises, is why the millions of baptized and confirmed Christians had no sense that they were now responding to visions and programs antithetical to the biblical faith. (F Little. The Crucifixion of the Jews. 70)

Coda:Elie Wiesel

Two years after the dinner with Eberhard Bethge, a few of us were privileged to meet a scholar who had just been hired at Boston University, Elie Wiesel. Our 1979 dinner with him in New York came before we had read anything of his work, and was in the home of Robert McAfee Brown. He was very kind and very quiet. Now we have spent since 2006 almost 5 years in Boston. The lectures Wiesel gives every fall, here, provide a profound moral compass, a serious historical point of reference, for the rest of our educational work, and especially for the preaching of the gospel. Hear again the end of the most striking passage from his book, Night, and the memory of a child who was hung:

“For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. Behind me I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?”

And I hear a voice within me answer him: “Were is he? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows. . . ” (Night, 78)

How are we to live with faith in earshot of this passage? Our Lutheran Pastor, Teacher, Witness struggled against this hell. His life gave life to his words: “The responsible man … tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God… we are moving toward a completely religionless time…the profound this worldliness of Christianity… the Christian is… simply a man as Jesus was a man…I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes, failures and experiences and perplexities.” (Green, 328).

Receive the gospel:

“The hour is coming and now is when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…The hour is coming and now is when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:21)

~The Reverend Doctor Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel


Comments are closed.