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A Dialogue with Dietrich: In Search of Church

by Dr. Kevin Brown


Preface: Me and Dietrich

I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer can be considered a genesis theologian for our post Modern world.  This does not mean he is a post Modern theologian or that he speaks directly to the post Modern world, only that one finds, particularly in what is referred to as his “prison theology”, a line of thinking that struggled with many of the issues we see in the Christian Church today, including the relationship between Church and State, the differentiation between religion and faith, a new understanding of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, dealing with the struggle between fundamentalism and secularism, and questioning the emphasis of orthodoxy over orthopraxy while touching upon what one might term orthopathos.

This is not to suggest that Bonhoeffer provides a clear blueprint for those of us in the local church today who struggle with these issues.  On the contrary, what Bonhoeffer provides most provocatively for us are his own incomplete reflections and struggles with these issues.  He is a human who, like all of us, cannot be separated from his time and place; some of his writings, particularly those of a personal nature, read as rather Victorian in tone; his experience as a participant in the local church was, relatively speaking, limited and his family situation provided an economic security and freedom not available to most local pastors.  At the same time, his position of privilege provided him a vantage point from which to view of the failures of the church of his time, and not just the State sanctioned Church or the Nazified Deutsch Cristen Church, but of his own Confessing Church as well.  While one must be cautious not to overstate the case, it can be argued that those events which occurred in Germany during the period 1933-1945 and contributed to the failures of the church as an institution at that time are not dis-similar to circumstances we face in our nation and church today.  If we take the time to understand his context and reflect on his insights in light of that time and then reflect on similar issues relative to our own current context, the struggles of Bonhoeffer can provide us with insights into our own situation.

Dietrich BonhoefferOver the past thirty years I have had many, many conversations with Dietrich Bonhoeffer;  not the types of conversations that one sees in the movies, with a long-dead person appearing as a ghost, nor the dream conversations where the sage from the past shows up to provide direction to the student.  No, they have been the conversations that most of us have had with great minds of the past, whose words and actions stir something in us.  In these types of conversations, we read their words, reflect on their thoughts, study the actions of their lives, and then pause to reflect, to think, and to ask questions about the action and meaning of our lives. 

I first became acquainted with Dietrich Bonhoeffer while serving as campus minister at New College/University of South Florida and the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. In 1981 I took it upon myself to read Letters and Papers from Prison as part of my Lenten discipline.  Each day I read selections of his work and like so many other before me, I became absorbed. This quickly led to his other works, to the life of Martin Niemoeller, and to a great interest in the Church Struggle (Kirchenkampf) in Germany during the Nazi years.  Over the years my reading of Bonhoeffer led me to other theologians (such as Luther, Barth, and Niebuhr) who had influenced him, or upon whom Bonhoeffer had influence (such as the “God is Dead” theologians of the Sixties and the Liberation theologians of Latin America and South Africa).  My personal library was soon filled with Bonhoeffer’s works, each book containing yellow highlights, pencil marks, exclamation points (for both positive and negative reasons) and all kinds of notes in the margins.  In times of frustrating distress or moments of reflective pause, I would find myself returning to these texts, reading again his words, considering my response, making new notes in the margins, further refining my thoughts to his words.  Bonhoeffer’s words … my reflections … and then more of his words; over the years I began to look forward to those moments with Dietrich, anticipating it as one does a dialogue with a trusted friend and colleague.

Over time the dialogue with Dietrich expanded to include my personal close friends, conversation groups (such as the International Bonhoeffer Society and the UCC group Confessing Christ), academic seminars, travel in Germany and interviews with those who knew him personally, interaction with the German Evangelical Church of the Union (today the Union of Evangelical Churches), and finally the opportunity to live and study in Berlin under the auspices of the International Bonhoeffer Society as a Bethge Resident Scholar,.  I was offered the privilege to give myself completely to Bonhoeffer related studies, a rare opportunity for a local church pastor and one for which I am deeply indebted to the Bonhoeffer House in Berlin and the International Bonhoeffer Society.  So each day I read, thought, interviewed and wrote; the dialogue continued as I filled notebooks with musings, reflections, and responses to what I was reading and hearing, for not only did I have the opportunity to read much of Bonhoeffer’s primary work and a great deal of the secondary literature surrounding him, but I also had the privilege of speaking with people who actually knew him and/or studied with him, such as Ruth-Alice von Bismark, Werburg Doerr, Rudolf Weckerling, Konstantin von Kleist-Retzow, Franz von Hammerstein, Hermann Niemoeller, Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann and his wife Fritzi, Renate Bethge, and Bishop Albrecht Schoenherr.  Sadly for me I never did have the opportunity to speak personally with Eberhard Bethge, the friend and confidant of Dietrich who is recognized as THE authority on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.   During my time in Berlin I practically lived in the Bonhoeffer Haus in Charlottenburg, and each day I journeyed up the stairs to what had been Dietrich’s attic room in the house on Marienburger Allee and sat quietly at his desk, gazing out the window through which he had gazed during those tumultuous times, letting all that I was learning just simmer within me.  In addition it has been my privilege over the past decade to interact with recognized Bonhoeffer scholars such as Bishop Wolfgang Huber, Pat Kelley, Michael Lukens, Renate Wind, Clifford Green, Mary Glazener, Steve Haynes, John Godsey, Craig Slane, F. Burton Nelson, Ralf Wuestenberg, Barbara Green, Gabe Fackre, and Geoffrey Kelly, and to travel to various sites related to the life of Bonhoeffer under the guidance of Pastor Marlan Johnson.  It is to all these folks that I owe gratitude for the genesis of this manuscript.

Copyright © 2012 Kevin Brown


Introduction: Text and Context

"What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.  The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and consciousness – and that means the time of religion in general.  We are moving towards a completely religionless time ..." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his friend Eberhard Bethge on 30 April 1944.)

Over the years as I have engaged in discussion with others about the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer I would frequently ask the question, “But how do we apply his concepts to the everyday life of the local church?”  It is this “So what?” question that is so vital to us who live and work in the world of applied theology, particularly with the context of the local community of faith.  Often the answer was a surprised silence, as though such a question had never been considered.  An incredible amount of work has been done in academic circles around Bonhoeffer’s theological work, and popular writers have dealt with his remarkable personal life and ministry, but no one seemed to be able to give me a solid answer to that “So what?” question.  This struck me as odd, since Bonhoeffer was not only a committed academic theologian but also a dedicated pastor, deeply concerned about the concrete community of faith, the living Body of Christ, and sought the material incarnation of his intellectual theology.  His work was not meant to be only theoretical, but applied as well.  I experience him not simply as an interesting theoretical theologian from the past, but as a living, breathing example of applied theology.

For the greater part of my career I have served as a local church pastor and thus bring the eyes, ears, and needs of the local church pastor to my reading and reflection.  This book is not meant to be a scholarly treatise on the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; I do not claim prescient knowledge of Bonhoeffer’s life or specific intent when he wrote certain words, particularly those found from the last part of his life, while in prison.  I do not desire to force him into an ideological mold, to seek to re-construct him in my own image or to make of him a “hero of the cause” as attempted by others, for to do so is disingenuous and would be a dishonor to the breadth of his thought; neither have I spent years tracing down the exact nature of such influences as Barth, Dilthey, Luther or Kierkegaard but rely upon expertise of others in those areas for that insight.  What I do know is that his words strike me, in various and sundry profound ways; and I use his life and thought on the church as it existed in his time and place as a reflection on the life and thought of the church as it exists in my context today.  As Eberhard Bethge has pointed out “when he (Bonhoeffer) was silenced for good at age 39 he began to speak more loudly than ever.” [1]  And thus it is that although it is sixty-five years after his death, because of the hard work of so many dedicated scholars, I am able to participate in the lectures of Professor Bonhoeffer, to experience the sermons of Pastor Bonhoeffer, and to share in the intimate correspondence between the man Dietrich and his family, friends, and fiancé. 

Perhaps what makes Dietrich Bonhoeffer such a great attraction for believers all along the theological continuum is that his foreshortened life prevented him from composing a systematic theology; but thanks to the incredible effort of such editorial groups as the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works – English what we do have today in well-documented form are his completed works (such as Sanctorum Communio, Act and Being, Discipleship, and Life Together), compilations of lectures and works in progress (i.e. Ethics, Creation and Fall, Christ the Center) and a host of other snippets, random thoughts, and pieces of ideas (such as Letters and Papers from Prison and other collections of his voluminous correspondence).  Despite its’ enormity and the clear lines of consistent thought contained with, this collection is as others have said, an “irregular theology” and one must be wary of claiming a new dogma from these collections.  Bonhoeffer’s own words testify to the incompletion not only of his manuscripts but also of his ideas[2].  He was not able to complete a systematic theology, and although there are clearly established links between his early works and his later musings, his theology at the time of his death was still in the process of formation.

Thus it is that folks representing all shades of the theological spectrum can claim Bonhoeffer and his text as their own, and this is both good and bad.  It is good in that it bespeaks the universality of Bonhoeffer ‘s thought, and bad since there is too often a tendency to speak for him, as though we know exactly what he would say in specific situations today, to claim the words of the Christian martyr Saint Dietrich as a sort of final authority on certain matters.  Such behavior is irresponsible, for as has been said so often for so long, one cannot remove the text from the context, either historical or doctrinal. 

Let me provide an example of removing Bonhoeffer from his context. I once had an argument with a colleague who bluntly stated, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer was as pro-life as you can get.” The phrase “pro-life” is in our current 21st century American context loaded with a meaning that is very different from that of 1933-45 Germany and one cannot remove Bonhoeffer’s writing about abortion as recorded in Ethics from that specific time and place in history. He was writing in the context of the State claiming to have the right to end or prohibit “life unworthy of life” and thus at issue for Bonhoeffer relative to abortion in 1930’s Nazi Germany was the limit of legitimate government action. The State (one of the four mandates) had declared that the natural order of God’s creation included race (which Bonhoeffer saw as an ideological illusion and not an ontological reality) and Bonhoeffer’s discussion must be placed in the context of the Nuremberg laws, which sought to create a master race. Thus his argument must be seen in a legal context about rights and duties and the limits of State power versus individual rights. (Thanks to Carl Rasmussen,  attorney and Bonhoeffer scholar, for fleshing this concept out fully.) This is not to suggest that it is implausible to use Bonhoeffer’s arguments in Ethics as a foundation for “pro-life” arguments today, only that it is intellectually dishonest to state Bonhoeffer was “pro-life” without contextually qualifying that statement to a great degree. The works of Bonhoeffer provide us with compass points which might be applied in specific situations (though let me quickly add this is not to suggest that he was a situational ethicist), rather than clear directions which might be interpreted as universal doctrine or dogma.

This use of his text without context (thus creating a pretext) can be seen to be true in many situations today; for example to say that because Bonhöeffer made the choice to participate in a plot to kill Hitler he would always be in favor of political assassination is to disregard both the context of Nazi Germany and his deep spiritual struggle and ultimate conclusion. To state the case bluntly there is a significant theological and moral difference between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and those who murder physicians for carrying out abortions.  To use Bonhoeffer’s “view from the underside” as a rationale for violent revolution or a particular economic theory is to disregard his deep Lutheran roots and respect for the State as one of the Mandates.  To declare that his musings on non-religious interpretation serve as a sign of his own developing non-foundationalism is to ignore his deep commitment to Christ as Center.  Text cannot be removed from context.  We simply do not know for certain what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say in any particular specific situation today.  We can however, use his words and experiences as a point of departure for our own struggle for understanding in the 21st century.  For me, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both through his personal life and his theology, serves as a sort of “Everyman” to whom I can turn in my role as a local church pastor struggling in what I understand, in North America, to be a post Modern and post-Christendom era.  So while this manuscript reflects our dialogue, in no way do I claim that my answers to the questions posed here are the answers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  They are conclusions I have reached from my own understanding – imperfect as that might be – of Bonhoeffer and his work.

As stated above, for me a great strength of Bonhoeffer is that he sought to apply his theology to everyday life; he constantly insisted that the Church integrate orthopraxis (right action emerging from faith) into its’ orthodoxy (right belief from creedal confession), and I think towards the end of his life was really beginning to move towards the direction of orthopathos (right compassion) as foundational to both.  In this he anchors the Epistle of James, which constantly affirms both believing and doing,[4] with his theological understanding of Christ as the man for Others.   It is not always easy to integrate what we believe with what we actually do, and Bonhoeffer himself struggled with this issue: “I am learning to practice myself what I have said to other people …”[5].  Throughout his work, especially outlined in the essay After Ten Years, there is a constant emphasis on responsibility, particularly responsibility for others, whether that other is living today or will be living in the future.  We must choose to act responsibly, he argued; that is, for others, regardless of the threat to ourselves, even the threat to our very souls.  For Bonhoeffer such a decision is not made lightly, but only after deep consideration of consequences and the willingness to be responsible for one’s own choice.  Thus it is that each of us who admires Bonhoeffer must take responsibility for our own theological interpretation and understanding of his work in both theory and practice.

Since I agree with those who argue that theology is always contextual, I find myself reading the text from Bonhoeffer, seeking to understand it in light of his context and then wrestling with that same text in light of my context.  Here of course I reveal my post-Modern leanings, that of emphasizing text and context.   I am not simply a deconstructionist however, and think that much of Derrida and the other post-Modernists has been misunderstood: “Derrida tried to clarify his claim: ‘The phrase that for some has become a sort of slogan of deconstruction, in general so badly understood (‘there is nothing outside the text’), means nothing other than: there is nothing outside context.’”[6]  One can see hints of this thinking in Bonhoeffer himself, who in 1925 wrote in “A Paper on the Historical and Pneumatological Interpretation of Scripture” that “An examination of the contents can never be anything other than an interpretation of the tradition.”[7]  Thus it is that I wish to reiterate: given the sixty-five plus years separating my time from that of Bonhoeffer’s, not to mention the difference in cultural context, I do not pretend that I am speaking for Bonhoeffer today, but rather engaging with him in dialogue.

During his University years Dietrich wrote a paper on Luther and stated that “One can classify people according to the perspectives listed below.  The first type of person – and these are the majority – live out their years.  Others have a life history … The third type however, is the person of history.”[8]   When he wrote those words I doubt that he realized that he would emerge as the third type, a person of history.  As such, his life and work have become foundational for many in Christian faith and service today. 

I believe we must seek to incarnate Bonhoeffer’s thought, to move it beyond reflective consideration and into the realm of action.  I enjoy the world of ideas as much as anyone, but ultimately as a local pastor I must ask myself how his theology, or any theology for that matter, can be incarnated in day to day life.  That great teacher of homiletics, Dr. Fred Craddock, used to suggest to his students that at the conclusion of writing each sermon we ask ourselves, “So what?”  It is this “so what”, taken within the context of the world in which I live today, that I seek to understand and implement Bonhoeffer’s thought as I interpret it.  We have declared that the foundation of the Christian faith is Emmanuel, God with us, which is the mystery of incarnation; if one is unable to incarnate faith, to give it flesh, if one cannot translate the concepts of the mind into the actions of life then it seems to me that in fact one is acting irresponsibly.

All of that is not to say that this is a “how-to” book.  As I wrestle with questions from the Bonhoeffer corpus, I will at times provide concrete examples of where his thought led me in the context of my ministry, and there are notes and questions for consideration within your context, but no simple approach to incarnating Bonhoeffer’s theology.  I provide a text, an expanded dialogue of the text and context of Bonhoeffer, but each reader must provide his/her own context AND response. What I seek here is what so many others aim to do, which is to use his life and work as a starting place for my own life and ministry and I invite the reader to join in this dialogue and see where it leads us and where it leads you.  We shall never know if some of the directions in which his thought leads us would be satisfactory to him, or would instead cause him great consternation, but that is the risk of the journey and the legacy of a person of history.

Questions for Consideration:

1. Who is your favorite theologian?

2.  How is his/her context different from yours?

3. What ideas of that theologian do you find most attractive?

4. What ideas of that theologian do you find most distressing?

5. In the context of your situation, how do you live out the ramifications of that 


Copyright © 2012 Kevin Brown

[1] Ronald Gregory Smith, Ed., World Come of Age (London: Cox & Wyman, Ltd., 1967), p.22

[2] cf. the letter of 18 November 1943 in Letters and Papers from Prison and Dietrich Bonhöffer: His Significance for North Americans, p. 90

[3] Thanks to Carl Rasmussen,  attorney and Bonhoeffer scholar, for fleshing this concept out fully.

[4] Cf. James 1:22-27; and 2:14-19

[5] Letter to his parents dated 5 April 1943

[6] Smith, James K. A. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 52.

[7] DBWE vol. 9, p. 295

[8] DBWE vol. 9, p. 257


Our Changing World: Modernity to post-Modernity

"We thought we could make our way in life with reason and justice,
and when both failed we were at the end of our tether."

Bonhoeffer, Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of Dietrich Bethge, May 1944

Scholars, historians, popular writers, and those of us simply trudging daily through life recognize that we are now living in a world of rapid, continuous and radical change.  The proverbial undersea earthquake has gained speed and size beyond our capacity to understand, control or ignore. The shaking began over 500 years ago with the rumblings of the Renaissance and the eruption of the Enlightenment, gained speed with the political revolutions in America and France, gained size with the Industrial Revolution and continues to crash down on us today with cloning, microchips and the internet.  The detritus of the storm is mind-boggling as globalization has resulted in a re-thinking of the sovereignty of nations, with a concomitant counter movement that seeks to reinforce old loyalties, such as England refusing to convert to the Euro, France voting against the EU constitution, and the emergence of a new coalition of “anarchists” united in their opposition to globalization; images found in the new video are rapidly replacing the written word as the most common means of communication; the speed of light has allowed us to move dramatically towards a “paperless” virtual monetary system while the porous nature of our current economic boundaries has led to porous geographical boundaries; and the end of the Cold War with its loss of the “balance of power” has resulted in an imbalance of power, as small bands of fanatic believers have discovered that they are able to hold the world’s remaining so-called “superpower” hostage through terrorism and fear.  

The religious landscape, particularly in terms of the historical institutional dominance of mainline Protestant Christianity in Europe and North America, is not immune to this cultural change.  Everyone involved with the institutional church today recognizes that faith and religion in America is in a time of dramatic transition.  Historical mainline denominations are haemorrhaging members, and while more conservative traditions claim growth, studies suggest that in fact all of institutional Christianity in North America and Europe, regardless of confession, is in decline.  “The United States appears to be going through what many see as an unprecedented change in religious practices.  Large numbers of American adults are disaffiliating themselves from Christianity and from other organized religions.[1]  Polls indicate that while nine out of ten Americans consider themselves Christian and 45% of respondents claim to attend worship on a weekly basis, those who actually go out and count heads argue the figure for actual attendance is more likely around twenty percent.   The results of another poll showed that while 159 million people practice Christian religions in America only 63% of those actually belong to a house of worship.[2]  This suggests that there are significant numbers of self-identified Christian believers who do not belong to organized churches.[3]  One might identify him- or her-self as Christian, or self-report affiliation with a particular tradition (e.g., “I was baptized Methodist”) but in fact have no regular interaction with that tradition in its institutional form.  At the same time these people experience no anxiety or intellectual contradiction in this fact.  In Twenty-first Century America it has become a truism that one does not need to belong to a church, i.e. "religion", to be a Christian.  This suggests that there does exist in many people a deep spiritual hunger and search for meaning, which should not to be confused with a classic notion of religion or an “a priori” Christian faith.   Keith Ward writes:

“Spirituality, the cultivation of exalted states of consciousness, may thrive in the borderlands of our culture, but religion, the organized official cult of worship of God, is dying.  This is most obvious in Europe, where places of pilgrimage have become tourist attractions, churches have become architectural monuments, and religious rituals have become performances to be observed by anthropologists with camcorders.  But in America, too, while popular religion remains strong, there is a widespread intellectual revulsion against organized religion.”[4] 

Many Americans see themselves as “religious” or “spiritual” and “Christian” but their definition of “religious,” “spiritual” and “Christian” differ radically from that of those inside the historical institutional Christian Church, who are either completely unaware or resistant to this changing definition.  It has been said that the leaders of the Orthodox Church in Russia were debating liturgical garb as the Bolshevik Revolution exploded around them; might it not also be true that those of us inside the institutional Church in America are just as myopic?  Religion in our western world is changing and those who live and work in areas of organized religion are left with the struggle of how to understand and respond to this seismic change.  Those of us on the inside of institutional Christianity today must recognize that the church as we have known it has entered a new season and may rapidly cease to exist in its current form in the western world.  I believe that we in the traditional Christian institutions are called to respond to the current cultural shifts occurring among those of a spiritual persuasion, focusing on new living realities rather than old, ghostly battlegrounds. 

We begin by recognizing that religion is a form of faith which means that we recognize it as an organized structure around which humans shape their understanding of questions such as the nature of God, good and evil, eternal life, and the relationship of one human being to another.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his essay Outline for a Book argues for this definition of religion and holds that religion as a form is changeable, as it is always linked to a certain period of intellectual history.  So it is to be expected that religion is always affected by the shock wave of cultural change and in fact should be understood as developmentally linked to current culture.  Religion is part and parcel of the culture in which it exists and Bonhoeffer understood religion as therefore historical.  Religious movements fit themselves into the existing social conditions of their time and therefore are often transformed from an alternative movement within society into simply another means to reinforce the patterns of good citizenship extant within that culture. In the 30 April 1944 letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer  referred to religion as the “garment” of Christianity, and in a sermon on Romans 12:11 he states that “nothing existing in time is divine, absolutely nothing, not even the church, not even our religion.  All of this is subject to transience, and yet all that is transient of the individual contains a piece of God’s will, a piece of eternity.”[5]   Bonhoeffer also used the enigmatic phrase “world come of age” when discussing religion.  Some have suggested that by this phrase he was arguing that we are capable of living without God, a Modernist concept which holds that humanity is capable of its own salvation without God.  Such an argument neglects to consider Bonhoeffers deep faith in God and his adherence to the traditional Lutheran understanding of grace.  Rather than saying we no longer need God, Bonhoeffer speaks “primarily of the impossibility of articulating the traditional idea of God in the contemporary world because the mind of western man has simply outgrown it; of ‘a psychological stage of development in which religion and its attempt to keep man in strings is dismissed as childish.’”[6]  Just as Jean Piaget theorized the stages of cognitive growth, Erik Erikson argued for stages of psychosocial development, Lawrence Kohlberg provided a template for stages of moral development, and James Fowler made the case for developmental stages of faith in individuals, so Bonhoeffer argues that society as a whole is evolving and changing or “maturing”  in its own growth.  Concomitant with that maturity has emerged the release from “religion” as it has traditionally been understood.   So according to Bonhoeffer, while religion and Christianity in whatever its current incarnation contains a “piece of eternity,” over time religion becomes man’s attempt to reach God, leading to “the idol of our hearts, which we have formed after our own image.”   We inside the Church must understand this foundational change in understanding of the nature of religion in our time.  Bonhoeffer was calling the Church of his time to a new conversion, to “grow up” if you will, and that call echoes to us seventy-five years later. 

A word used to describe seismic shifts in life and culture is paradigm.  Simply put, a paradigm is the driving force normative to social operations and development.  Historians and other commentators have argued that over time the driving force of society, that is, its paradigm, changes.  For example, there was a tremendous shift that occurred in American life between the first and second half of the 19th century.  The former period was a time when most of the people lived on the farm; the latter period, fuelled by tremendous immigration and powered by the Industrial Revolution, propelled tens of thousands of people away from the farm and into the cities.  The paradigm moved from rural agrarian to urban industrial. Obviously this concept of paradigm shift influences changes in individuals, for a culture consists of multiple individuals and it is their collective experience and response that fuels the change in all aspects of culture.   We are now in a moment of transition away from what many have referred to as Modernity into something new and still ill defined – a current cultural paradigm shift.  But before we reflect on this new paradigm and its specific impact on the Christian faith and institutions, let us have some working definitions of the characteristics of the Modern era, particularly those characteristics that are important for comparison and contrast to our current transitioning religion and faith context.

Copyright © 2012 Kevin Brown


[1] Religious – Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, August 2006

[2] City Where University of New York: 2001

[3] “We Stand on Faith,” Newsweek (August 29-September 5, 2005), pp. 48-49

[4] Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2002), p. 2

[5] DBW 10:513

[6] John Phillips, The Form of Christ in the World (London: Collins, 1967), p. 169


Our Changing World: Modernity 

The foundational belief of Modernity is that science and technology are the means whereby humanity can achieve a utopian future and reality is restricted to observable, explainable laws of nature. In addition Modernity affirms the basic goodness of humanity and that knowledge is by itself objective and liberating which means that if one knows the objective truth then one can be freed to do the right thing. These affirmations contradict basic foundations of orthodox Christian theology, such as the belief that all humans are born in sin and that it is only grace which liberates, that there is “mystery” which is beyond rational explanation and accessible only through revelation, and that events such as the Resurrection are “once and forever” and thus inexplicable and non-reproducible. The resultant controversy between Faith and Reason was therefore to be expected since “science” had in fact become a new religion and therefore served as a contender against the Church as the arbiter of ultimate truth in the Western World. The institutional Church, bound as it is to culture, began to adopt this method of thinking, illustrated by such devices as the “critical methods” approach to Biblical studies, and God was moved to the boundary of reasoned understanding. As our scientific knowledge relative to those boundaries of reasoned understanding became further and further extended, the need for a metaphysical God became less important. Reason replaced Faith and in fact became a new form of religion. Scientific knowledge rather than spiritual knowledge became the ultimate power, that is, the new means to salvation. So the Christian “God of Salvation” often was and remains in conflict with, or replaced by, the rational “god of Science”.

Dietrich BonhoefferOver time cracks in this Modern paradigm began to appear and the god of Science was found to possess feet of clay. Modernism certainly brought many advances and new understanding to our world but many complications came with those advances. With the hope of technology came the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; with advances in science came increased environmental degradation; with the ability to sustain life came the need to re-define “life;” with advances in chemistry came unexpected chemical mutations. Emphasis on the autonomous self has led to rampant individualism and a commercial mentality; the focus on individual freedom, so important in the Modernist project, has produced new idols, particularly in the context of the United States, such as self-centeredness hiding behind the mask of personal autonomy, Darwinian forms of free market capitalism covered by the cloak of the mythic self-made man, and political ideologies masquerading as Christian theologies. All of these are related to what one might term the “idolatry of Increase,” the belief that nothing has ultimate value unless it produces increase, whether that increase is in the number of members, global proliferation, financial assets, or attendance at Sunday worship! The cultural spill over from Modernism has enormous and still unsolved ramifications: Marriage is no longer a normative pre-requisite for childbearing, much less co-habitation. It is not expected that a person will have a single career or work for a single company for his/her entire life. Globalization mandates a new definition of sovereignty. Islam has moved fully into Western consciousness and the former hegemony of liberal European and North American Christianity is fast being replaced by a more conservative Christianity that is emerging from South America and Africa.

The god of Reason has been found to be as fickle as any pagan god of antiquity. Foundational to science and reason in the Modern period is the belief that there exists a “meta-narrative” or objective ultimate worldview. Basically this means there is a single unifying story to which all other stories relate. In this perspective Truth is singular and universal and not culturally embedded or diverse. Theology as the Queen of the sciences also held this viewpoint, that there existed a single objective Truth about God and that reason would lead us to that truth and ultimately to salvation. Accompanying this singularity is an emphasis on the rational, autonomous self, by which the thinking subject can view the world dispassionately and thus discern ultimate reality. A critique of Modernism argues that at its worst this approach is imperialistic and violent, as it seeks in the name of “Truth” to impose a single meta-narrative on the entire world. Historical examples in the United States include keeping Africans in slavery based on the Truth of the superiority of Caucasians and eradicating Native Americans based on the Truth of Manifest Destiny. Current examples include religious Fundamentalists of Islam and Judaism seeking to eradicate each other in the name of their respective Truths; and the American war in Iraq, which in the name of freedom (held as an ultimate truth in our society) invaded a sovereign nation and deposed its leader, never understanding that the people of that nation lived from a completely different meta-narrative, that is, from a different understanding of Truth. Thus according to this critique of Modernism, history is not an objective science but a rhetorical construct reflecting the particular ideology/world view of those with competing truth claims - the winners write the history.

As those truth claims of previous generations that served as a compass providing direction and a signpost providing assurance of the correctness of the journey, crumble in the face of their resultant complications, long-standing institutions simply work harder at what has always worked for them, and the Church, on both left and right sides of the aisle, is certainly to be counted among those institutions, doing what they have always done as the institution plummets in a death spiral, the downward curve of religion in the Western world.

Copyright © 2012 Kevin Brown


Our Changing World: post-Modernity

So we now find in a transitional moment, a time in which virtually all thinking people agree represents a changing period in the Western world.  There is disagreement about how we should label this period, but it is most commonly referred to as "post-Modern" (po-Mo).  Some argue that in fact post-Modernism is simply an extension of Modernism, an extension beneficial primarily to higher economic classes:

“Postmodern theology is nothing else than a new variant of modern theology; it accepts the criterion of plurality as a central criterion for Christ’s presence in the world … For the majority of people life is still determined by the processes of modernization, rationalization and economization.  For the majority of people the project of modernity – freedom from need and oppression – is not at all fulfulled simply because a class analysis rightly applies to a theorectical construct that is true for many variants of “postmodernism.”  Postmodernism is a meaningful ideology for those who profit from the affluence of affluent societies.”[1]

 Still others, such as Kevin J. Vanhoozer suggest that, “there is no such phenomenon as postmodernity … there are only postmodernities.”[2]   But regardless of the theoretical validity of these arguments against or limiting post-Modernism, in this time of cultural change in our Western world we cannot avoid the realities of that shift within the context of the institutional Christian church. The intellectual and theoretical aspects of post-Modernism may or may not have any long-term impact on the theoretical and theological foundations of Christianity as a faith tradition, but the existential and applied aspects of post-Modernism are having a tremendous impact on the current incarnation of the institutional Christian Church, that is, its form.  Thus while one can argue about the staying power of post-Modernism as a philosophical system, one must at least accede to the reality of the “post-Modern condition” in which we live.  

There is great disagreement as to the exact moment of birth for this post-Modern period, about when we experienced the collapse of the promise of rationality alone, the means of salvation in the time of Modernity.   Philosophers and theologians suggest a variety of possibilities, including George Hegel and his book Phänomenologie des Geistes  (The Phenomenology of the Spirit – 1804);  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels with The Communist Manifesto in 1848[3]; William James and his 1904 work “Does Consciousness Exist?” which set the stage for his pragmatic approach: “The truth is that which works.”; Alfred North Whitehead’s “Science and the Modern World” (1925); or the radical “death of God” theologies of the 1960’s.  Those from the discipline of history argue for other dates and events as the beginning of the post Modern period, or at least the collapse of the Modern period, including May 1919, when the photographing of a solar eclipse provided empirical evidence for Einstein’s theory of Relativity; January 1942, when Nazi leaders gathered in the suburb of Wannsee, outside Berlin, to discuss the Endlosung der Juden Frage ("The Final solution to the Jewish question") which led to the intentional and mechanistic destruction of 6 million Jews and 6 million other human beings in Europe, plus as many as 40 million other “casualties of war”; or August 1945 with the dropping of atomic bombs, when the greatest technological achievement of the 20th century became the greatest terror for the coming generations.[4]

I want to suggest that rather than pointing to a particular moment in time, which is singular, linear and very much a Modernist approach, it is more helpful to speak of a gestation period of forty years, which I argue exists between 1905 and 1945.  Science and reason in the Modern period emphasized the rational, autonomous self, by which the thinking subject can view the world dispassionately and thus discern ultimate reality.  It is with this particular perspective that we must now wrestle, and I think it was during this period that cracks in the ultimacy of science appeared. 

In the lore of Albert Einstein, 1905 is referred to as his annus mirabilis – his miracle year.   It was in this period that he wrote five papers that produced a foundational change in our understanding of physics and are still producing innovations a century after he penned them.  Of particular interest for us here is his special theory of relativity, which led to new understandings of the space-time continuum and provided the foundational concepts for modern chaos theory.  His work undermined the Newtonian understanding of the world, which was primary to the rational or modernist perspective.  Simply put, Einstein made the case for the lack of a single ultimate truth, demonstrating that Truth or Reason, at least in the scientific worldview, was ever changing. This means that, with the knowledge currently at hand, there exists no meta-narrative to which all other narratives are connected.  One must be quick here to add, however, that even Einstein himself none the less always sought a “unifying theory,” or meta-narrative.

The resultant disorder of relativity was experienced not only in the scientific community but also within world events of the next forty years, with the epicentre in Germany, and remains problematic for us today.    This is not to suggest that Einstein’s work led directly to two world wars, the atomic bomb, post-Modernism, and terrorism, only that there is serendipity in his discoveries, linked as they are to a new scientific Weltanschauung or world view which ultimately led to the dissembling of the belief of salvation through rationality alone, which represents the collapse of the Modernist project.

Ultimately what matters more than any theory about a single calendar date or an extended gestation period is to recognize and admit that Modernism, with its emphasis on strictly linear thinking, developmental evolution, salvation through rationality, and the search for a single, culturally unbiased absolute truth, is crumbling, both in society at large and within the institutional Church.  The paradigm in both institutional Christendom and society is shifting and we now live in the midst of that change, which is as much cultural and practical as well as intellectual and theoretical.  Our continued failure to respond to this change will continue to result in the disintegration of the institutional Church as we know it. 

Post-Modernism is most often identified with a school of thought referred to as non-Foundationalism which represents an opposition to the Modernist notion of a single meta-narrative.  Non-Foundationalism posits no ultimate truth or meta-narrative beyond autonomous experience and linguistic interpretation.  While the Modernist holds that there does in fact exist in the cosmos a single universal truth, the post-Modern non-Foundationalist argues there is no ultimate Truth, but rather many truths, all of which are culturally limited.  The former seeks to define Truth with a capital “T” while the latter discusses it in terms of “truths” with a small case “t”.  This approach to intellectual understanding leads to many other problems and evidence suggests that Bonhoeffer himself gave at least some thought to this conundrum, as a handwritten note circa 1925 found in his copy of Schleiermacher’s On Religion states: “If everything is true, then the concept of falseness is abolished; as a result, so too is the concept of truth, i.e., all attributes disappear into infinity.”[5]  At its best non-Foundationalism becomes cultural relativism, at its worst nihilism.

In this work we are going to explore concepts of the institutional Church in the Twenty-first Century with an understanding of post-Modernism as a historical/sociological perspective for the finite institutional Church, which must be placed in distinction to the philosophical approach of non-Foundationalism.  This is important because I do not want to suggest that Bonhoeffer himself was inherently post-Modern in a philosophical sense, for he was not.   Bonhoeffer  is clearly a product of the Enlightenment, deeply indebted to traditional Lutheran thought, and thus clearly “foundational” in his thinking.  As Floyd and Marsh have pointed out, “the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is at its core a critical theology of modernity …” but “there is no doubt that Bonhoeffer is a theologian of modernity in an extraordinary sense.”[6]  Certainly Bonhoeffers own words in his Ethics serve witness to his belief in a foundational Truth: “Thus there are not two sets of values, one for the world and one for Christians.  Rather, there is only one word of God, demanding faith and obedience, which is valid for all people.”[7]  Bonhoeffer was a Modernist in the sense of believing in a single ultimate Truth, though his words of 1925 – “An examination of the contents can never be anything other than an interpretation of the tradition”[8]  presage those of Derrida relative to text and context and may give us a clue about his own early pondering relative to what we see today as the post-Modern shift.  Thus while Bonhoeffer does not necessarily provide us with an apologetic for Foundationalism, what he does offer to us are the glimpses of a man standing between and wrestling with, two worlds, the Modern and the post-Modern.  I do not argue that Bonhoeffer had prescient knowledge of the changes ahead for the western world, but I do think it plausible that he recognized and experienced for himself much of what we have come to understand as the post-Modern crisis in the Church.  The crisis in Germany inculcated by the rise of Nazism accelerated and exacerbated the crisis in the institutional Church of that time, a crisis which we experience, albeit motivated by different forces, today. 

This is an important distinction, because in Bonhoeffer’s theological thought a direct result of the Fall is that humanity is prone to self-justification (cf. Creation and Fall and Ethics).  Ideology – any ideology – is an indication of our fallen condition, our “disunion” with God and thereby always self-interested and self-regarding (Luther’s cor curvum in se – the heart turned in upon its’ self).  In contrast to this, Christ as the new Adam exists as the “man for others”, the one whose heart is turned not in on itself but outwards towards others.  For Bonhoeffer it is only through Christ (the Word - Logos, reality) that we are justified and thus we must be ever mindful that all thinking is potentially subject to fallacy, that is, self-interest.  So, utilizing this theological understanding, post-Moderns within the institutional Church might argue that in fact there exists a single foundation, a universal Truth or ultimate reality, which is called Christ and interpreted through the Christian narrative, but it is the experience of that reality and interpretation of that Truth that differs, not the ultimate Truth itself.  “For now we see in a mirror, dimly but then we will see face to face … Now I know only in part then I will know fully…”[9]  Thus one might argue that if an error of Modernism was claiming that ultimate truth can be grasped then an error of non-Foundationalism is to claim that an inability to grasp must necessarily mean that there is no ultimate truth. 


Earlier we saw that Bonhoeffer understood religion as something which entered history as a substitute for faith and thus in his view “faith and religion apparently emerge as historical antitheses.”[10]  This follows the Hegelian concept of thesis – antithesis - synthesis and sets the stage for a new understanding of Christianity in the post-Modern world.  Bonhoeffer referred to this new synthesis as religionless Christianity.   The distinction Bonhoeffer makes between faith and religion is vitally important as we consider this notion of religionless Christianity, a phrase used in a letter of 30 April 1944 to Bethge and repeated in his July/August1944 “Outline for a Book.”   During this same time period he also wrote of “non-religious interpretation of biblical concepts”, an extension of his earlier thoughts relative to Luther.  As the wider cultural paradigm shifts from Modern to post-Modern to whatever shall follow, it is here that my dialogue with Bonhoeffer leads me to argue that in this time of competing paradigms within both our wider culture and the local institutional church, a thorough understanding of religionless or non-Religious Christianity[11] can be of great benefit to those of us who love the local institutional Church. 

In our ever increasingly complex world, we witness a desire to find simple answers, represented on one side by the thesis of fundamentalism or religious faith of many stripes and the antithesis of secularism or what one might term irreligious faith on the other side.  These two concepts form a structural opposition and although they might seem philosophically at odds, they are in fact foundationally and functionally the same, as both have the individual self (the “I” or das ich) as the center.  The focus in religious fundamentalism is the self in relationship to God (a vertical axis that emphasizes personal salvation and purity) while the focus in irreligious secularism is on the self as central and autonomous in relationship to others (the horizontal axis that emphasizes the primacy of my needs/wants/desires over those of the other who exists in the relationship).  One can of course argue that there are positive elements in both fundamentalism and secularism, but here we are exploring the dark side of each, with the “me-first” attitude inherent in each.  An understanding of religionless Christianity establishes a new synthesis between relationship with God (vertical) and relationship with others (horizontal) – the classic faith/works continuum – and emphasizes the self as integrated only in its relationship to others, rather than self as autonomous from others.

This continuum of religious-nonreligious-irreligious serves as a new synthesis in Western Christianity and may be applied conceptually to this shift from Modernity through post-Modernity.  In my own thinking these concepts should be applied only within the context of the institutional Christian Church in Europe and North America, since they are at a different stage of development than the institutional Christian Church in other areas of the world.  It would be arrogant and quite meta-narratively Modernist to suggest that this is necessarily the case in such areas as South America, Africa and Asia, since their experience of Christianity is currently very different from that in the aforementioned continents.  This same continuum of religious-nonreligious-irreligious can also be applied conceptually to the institutional Church as it struggles through the clash of ideologies which accompanies the paradigmatic shift from Modernity through post-Modernity. 

“(post)modernism, to put the matter in Bonhoeffer’s terms, has exposed a world come of age to an unexpected light, showing that it is indeed godless, and thereby bringing it closer both to God’s judgment and God’s grace.  By depriving the institutions, discourses, techniques, and social dynamics of modernity of all foundations, by shattering every assumption of rational certainty, stability, and security, by calling into question any attempt to assign the status of the given to its contingent impositions, (post)modern writers have helped us understand the modern world better than it has heretofore understood itself.”[12]

I do not argue that this particular schemata is necessarily what Bonhoeffer had in mind when he wrote of non-religious interpretation or religionless Christianity, for as Peter Selby has pointed out,

“The development known as ‘post-modernity’, the abandonment of any quest for an overarching narrative or conceptual framework for the encompassing of reality, does not come within the range of his (Bonhoeffer’s) concern; but what he has to say about the shape of Christianity applies equally – perhaps even more – to the questions raised by post-modernity, the aspect of present-day culture with which he is primarily concerned, the end of ‘religion’ …”[13]   

So it is that we now find ourselves in the institutional Christian Church facing this time of competing paradigms, the paradigm of religionlessness seeking a new understanding while the other two paradigms of fundamentalism and secularism seek to reinforce already established patterns of behaviour.  As stated above, as we experience a greater and greater degree of complexity in our existence there is a heightened tendency to seek simple, certain answers.  Complexity leads to insecurity and insecurity leads to a re-affirmation of old and comfortable patterns of behaviour.  This is normal in human experience for as we experience loss it is common to resist change and work even harder at replicating former patterns of behaviour.  This is a continuing reinforcement of Modernism, which was really quite anthropocentric since humanity’s use of science and reason was expected to create utopia.  It was only when our science or reason failed that we reach for the “God of the gaps” seeking some sort of magic to fulfill a need.  But once that need is fulfilled, we resume the self-reliant behaviour until once again confronted by limitation or inability and we return again to magic!

Thus it is that although the advances of Modernism brought a whole new set of problems within the traditional Church, we still want to hold that a Modernist understanding of the church and the world is the way to salvation.  Although we see and experience evidence of the post-Modern shift everywhere in society today, at the same time we see our churches resist the change and seek to return to some mythological “good old days”.  We admit to the thesis and to the antithesis, but as of yet are unable to discern a new synthesis.

So we too stand in between two worlds; the one we have known and the one that lay before us, still largely unknown.  Here I think that Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the text he provides within the context of his life can be of help to us today, as we wrestle with our text and context, and think in terms of both/and rather than either/or. 

All of us serving in local congregations have probably experienced the same conundrum; every Sunday we see in the pews people who can answer the catechetical questions, recite the doctrine, and quote chapter and verse of many scriptures, yet live lives dedicated to themselves only.   Yet in our wider communities we work with folks who may have little or no declared faith (Christian or otherwise), yet lead lives guided by a concept of living for others.  This is part of the post-Modern struggle that calls for a new understanding of the Church and Jesus Christ.  Bonhoeffer himself experienced this same intellectual struggle as he became more involved in the resistance movement against Hitler and the Nazi’s; Larry Rasmussen observes:

“In the resistance movement Bonhoeffer discovered that many non-Christians were doing what Christians should have been doing.  He found a community whose actions ‘corresponded with reality’ and thereby ‘conformed to Christ’s form in the world’ but whose perception, understanding, and articulation of reality was not christological.”[14]  

So now we find ourselves wrestling with this competition between Modern and post-Modern thought, between what, using Bonhoeffer’s phraseology, we can designate as religious and non-religious Christianity.  The Christianity that has been culturally established is not yet entirely dis-established,[15]  and we in the Church continue to support the idea of Christendom, a society and culture shaped by Christianity.  I believe this will only continue to result in the disintegration of the institutional Church.  We must not simply recognize and agree that we live in a post-christendom era, where society and culture are shaped by many influences, some Christian and some not, but respond to that reality as well.   In 1934 Bonhoeffer wrote prophetically: “... every day I become more convinced that Christianity in the West is coming to an end – at least in its previous form and its previous interpretation ...”[16]   So what?  If we do acknowledge this paradigmatic struggle within Christianity, including all aspects of her institutional and theological life, how do we label it and how do we adapt to it?  I suggest that Bonhoeffer has some clues for us in his concept of non-Religious Christianity.

Questions for Consideration:

  1. In what ways is your life different from that of your parents? 
  2. In what ways is your life different from that of your children?
  3. Do you think those differences are only technological or are they philosophical as well?
  4. Does your church have an American flag in the front?  Why or why not?
  5. What is the average age of members in your congregation?  What do you think that means?

 Copyright © 2012 Kevin Brown

[1] Floyd & Marsh, eds., Theology and the Practice of Responsibility (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994), p.11

[2] Kevin Vanhoozer, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Postmoder nTheology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 3

[3] “National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature.”

[4] cf. The Cambridge Companion to Post-Modern Theology, ed. Kevin Vanhoozer or Modern Times, by Paul Johnoson

[5] DBWE vol. 9, p. 215

[6] Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. and Charles Marsh, eds., Theology and the Practice of Responsibility (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 5

[7] Bonhöffer, Dietrich, Ethics, On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World, DB

[8] DBWE, vol. 9, p. 295

[9] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[10] Wüstenberg, Ralf, A Theology of Life, trans. By Doug Stott (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), p.51

[11] I hold the two phrases, non-religious and religionless, to be functionally equivalent and will use them interchangeably, depending upon the grammatical situation.

[12] Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. and Charles Marsh, eds., Theology and the Practice of Responsibility (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 41

[13] John W. de Gruchy (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 230

[14] Rasmussen, Larry, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Reality and Resistance (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), p. 169

[15] Floyd & Marsh, eds., Theology and the Practice of Responsibility (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994), p. 59

[16] Dietrich Bonhöffer Werke, 13.75