Friday, April 23, 2010

Religionless Christianity

Joseph Loconte reviewed a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. The review suggests that some of those who admire Bonhoeffer have misunderstood just where he stood: "...he made unreserved obedience to Jesus—in every realm of life—the mark of authentic belief. 'If we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path.'" More from the review:
In April 1933, during the early months of Nazi rule in Germany, the "Aryan Paragraph," as it came to be called, went into effect. A new law banned anyone of Jewish descent from government employment. Hitler's assault on the Jews—already so evidently under way in his toxic rhetoric and in the ideological imperatives of his party—was moving into a crushing legal phase. German churches, which relied on state support, now faced a choice: preserve their subsidies by dismissing their pastors and employees with Jewish blood—or resist. Most Protestant and Catholic leaders fell into line, visibly currying favor with the regime or quietly complying with its edict.

Such ready capitulation makes the views of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young Lutheran theologian in Hitler's Germany, all the more remarkable. Within days of the new law's promulgation, the 27-year-old pastor published an essay titled "The Church and the Jewish Question," in which he challenged the legitimacy of a regime that contravened the tenets of Christianity. The churches of Germany, he wrote, shared "an unconditional obligation" to help the victims of an unjust state "even if they [the victims] do not belong to the Christian community." He went further: Christians might be called upon not only to "bandage the victims under the wheel" of oppression but "to put a spoke in the wheel itself." Before the decade was out, Bonhoeffer would join a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and pay for such action with his life. ....

Since the 1960s, some of Bonhoeffer's admirers have seized upon a phrase from one of his letters—"religionless Christianity"—to argue that he favored social action over theology. In fact, Bonhoeffer used the phrase to suggest the kind of ritualistic and over-intellectualized faith that had failed to prevent the rise of Hitler. It was precisely religionless Christianity that he worried about. After a 1939 visit to New York's Riverside Church, a citadel of social-gospel liberalism, he wrote that he was stunned by the "self-indulgent" and "idolatrous religion" that he saw there. "I have no doubt at all that one day the storm will blow with full force on this religious hand-out," he wrote, "if God himself is still anywhere on the scene." .... [more]
Book review: Bonhoeffer - WSJ.com