Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Religionless Christianity

I became acquainted with the life and works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Simpson College. Bonhoeffer was the German Lutheran pastor who took part in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Born in 1906, he was 27 years old when Hitler ascended to power in 1933. In 1941 he was recruited to join German Army Intelligence (the Abwehr) as a double agent, a cover to resist the Nazis. As an Abwehr agent he was able to travel freely about Europe, and, for example, helped Jews escape to Switzerland. When the assassination attempt failed in 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested. Imprisoned in several locations, he was finally transferred to the Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was executed in 1945, just days before the camp was liberated by the Allies. He was 39.

Bonhoeffer’s works include Creation and Fall, Life Together, Ethics, and his most famous work, The Cost of Discipleship, which contains what is probably his most famous quote:

Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Religionless Christianity

In 1953, eight years after his death and two years before I was born, Letters and Papers from Prison was published in English, and the most famous phrase to emerge from this book is probably “religionless Christianity.”

“Religionless Christianity” has been the subject of a lot of discussion. Under the limited conditions of interrogation and imprisonment, Bonhoeffer was unable to fully develop the idea of religionless Christianity, but we have a good idea of where he was headed with it. (Click the link above.) He asked, “If religion is only a garment of Christianity – and even this garment has looked very different at times – then what is a religionless Christianity?”

For Bonhoeffer, religion included what we ordinarily think of when we use the word: church, worship services, prayer, doctrine, sacraments, sermons, even our usual use of the word “God.” By the 1970’s the idea of religionless Christianity had become very popular, even among Evangelicals. A popular bumper sticker, “I Don’t Have Religion, I Have a Relationship,” vaguely resembled the language of Bonhoeffer, even though the people with the bumper stickers likely had as much religion as anyone else.

The Failure of Christian Religion

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was witnessing the monumental, abysmal failure of religion in Germany. Germany was the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. It was the home of Martin Luther and the Lutheran church. Germany was the home of Pietism and the Moravians. Yet when it came to the horror of National Socialism and the Cult of the Fuhrer, the Christian religion utterly failed. Christianity had failed. The Protestant and Catholic churches did not roll over and play dead, but rolled over and showed they were dead.

People may say, “No, Christianity was not dead. Perhaps the European churches were dead, but many individual Christians, for example, hid and protected Jews. Corrie ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself illustrate the fact that Christian religion did not fail.”

I have to reply, “No, the Christian religion did fail.” Individuals, Christian and not, did come through, but Christianity failed. Christianity failed to repent of the anti-Semitism that Hitler built upon. In fact, Martin Luther nurtured the religious and cultural scapegoating of the Jews that Nazi propagandists refined and used so effectively.

Failure to Encourage Independent Thinking or Moral Courage

Religion failed to foster the critical thinking and independence of mind necessary to see through the hateful, irrational rhetoric of the Nazis. In fact, the Lutheran and Catholic churches encouraged and survived on the uncritical groupthink that led to the Holocaust.

The Christian religion failed to nurture ethical or moral courage, or the ability to think independently of authority. In fact, the Christian religion encouraged habitual, unthinking submission to “duly constituted authority” as the foundation of its own power.

It is no wonder that Bonhoeffer asked, “What is a religionless Christianity?” He faced the crude, hateful malignancy of his nation, and his religion offered him no resources, no solution. Yet he was a Christian. He was a Lutheran pastor and, more importantly, a disciple of Jesus Christ. But religion had failed. Christian religion failed to stop the genocide against the Jews, and failed to give the German people any spiritual, ethical, or moral resources to resist the propaganda of Nazism.

I came to Dietrich Bonhoeffer early in life, but came to his discussion of “religionless Christianity” a bit later. Yet I have, and have practiced for many years, something akin to religionless Christianity. I don’t think I’m self-deceived in that belief, although I have as great a capacity for self-deception as anyone else.

Resisting Groupthink and the Herd Mentality

In a very important ways Bonhoeffer was like Jesus, Paul, and the Hebrew prophets. Bonhoeffer was not afraid to stand outside the religious mainstream, not afraid to resist herd mentality, popular prejudice, and groupthink; he was not afraid to risk punishment for his actions. As a pastor he led an illegal, underground seminary to nurture in future leaders the courage, independence of mind, and critical thinking necessary for faithful obedience to God. I don’t think I need to tell you that I deeply admire Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s self-sacrifice and Christ-like example.

At Simpson I had a Southern Baptist professor who thought Bonhoeffer was wrong to participate in the assassination conspiracy. He cited the Romans 13 passage which enjoins believers to obey the government.  I guess that is understandable. His field of specialty was not Christian Ethics or Church History.

Personally, I’ve always been grateful to Bonhoeffer for following his conscience as he did. His example, his martyrdom, are more valuable to me than some missing literary output.


About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
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5 Responses to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Religionless Christianity

  1. Ed Rogosky says:

    Once again, Mr. Goetz, I will disagree with your statement. A great deal can be attributed to the actions of the group and you even refer to the “herd mentality”, yet you seem to want to punish Hitler and ignore the actions of the German people who were acting upon his vision. It is my contention that without the people to follow him, Hitler would have stayed a frustrated painter/artist and not the leader of the people. By analogy, you would blame the President of the USA when Congress votes against th wihishes of the President.



  2. Fred Conwell says:

    If Jesus is not preached as my Lord and Savior, I will not affiliate with that congregation. As a recovering Cathoholic, church now is only a venue for building my relationship with Jesus.


  3. Keith Osterberg says:

    Thoughtful stuff, Ron. I know there are limitations to this blog format, but I wish you had said more about how Bonhoeffer reconciled (or indeed could not reconcile) his actions as a co-conspirator in a plot to assassinate Hitler with his belief in and determination to follow Jesus Christ. I’m not a Bonhoeffer scholar, but my understanding is that he thought assassinating Hitler was not doing God’s will, but rather was a personal act of patriotism in which he hoped to rescue his country from a despot.


  4. Jesusland says:

    And humanism failed the victims of Stalin and Mao.


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