Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 814
Bonhoeffer is best understood as a seeker and not as a builder of systems. His writings prior to his imprisonment show a thoughtful, intense person confronting the theological and personal problems created by Friedrich Nietzsche’s statement that God is dead. His personal quest came down to one key question: If...
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Bonhoeffer is best understood as a seeker and not as a builder of systems. His writings prior to his imprisonment show a thoughtful, intense person confronting the theological and personal problems created by Friedrich Nietzsche’s statement that God is dead. His personal quest came down to one key question: If belief in God was no longer viable, what remained of Christianity?
To Bonhoeffer, the doctrines, practices, and church structures of the past had been meaningful in their own time but were rendered useless by the advances of reason, science, and modern urban civilization. Theologically, Bonhoeffer’s main concern was the relevance of Christianity in an urban-secular age. The problem, as he saw it, was twofold: Belief in an all-powerful, personal God who was active in the world had evaporated, and organized churches had replaced Christian commitment with a religiosity characterized by modest demands, easy forgiveness, social respectability, and promises of better things in the life to come.
Bonhoeffer found the answer to his quest in the life and teachings of Jesus, which he sought to apply to his own time, stripped of the theological interpretations placed upon them. The challenge of the church, as Bonhoeffer saw it, was to make the teachings of Jesus relevant to an age which had rejected traditional Christian doctrines, practices, and values.
Bonhoeffer had a gift for expressing his theological ideas in striking terms which caught the imagination of his readers. “A world come of age” meant that modern man had outgrown the childlike concept of a personal God who intervenes in the affairs of men and who requires worship and devotion to maintain His goodwill. “Christ existing as community” referred to the church, which should apply the teachings of Jesus to the immediate hopes, needs, and sufferings of an uncaring and often cruel society. “Christianity without religion” meant that meaningless doctrines and rituals should be abandoned to deal with the real spiritual problems of modern man. “Cheap grace” was Bonhoeffer’s scornful term for the modest demands the church placed upon its flock; “costly grace” was a call to Christian commitment which involved real sacrifice and possibly even danger. “Jesus the man for others” defined the spirit which should infuse the life of the church and of individual Christians.
In a letter to Bethge (June 8, 1944), Bonhoeffer expounds his idea of the irrelevance of the traditional concept of God:Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the “working hypothesis” called “God.” In questions of science, art, and ethics, this has become an understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt. But for the last hundred years or so it has been increasingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything gets along without “God”—and, in fact, just as well as before.
His response to the decline of religion was to state (July 16, 1944) that man had outgrown the idea of a personal God: “God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him.” Bonhoeffer’s reaction (July 18, 1944) to the decline of the idea of God was to turn to the life and teachings of Jesus, where the essence of Christianity was to be found: Man “must therefore really live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. . . . Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.” Three days later, he wrote:I discovered later, and I am still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. . . . That is how one becomes a man and a Christian.
Bonhoeffer rejects the concept of a life beyond the grave as the Christian’s reward or compensation for the problems and frustrations of this world:The Christian, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself (“My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”), he must drink the earthly cup to the lees, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ.
Bonhoeffer displayed an unalloyed enthusiasm for life in the here and now. Instead of emphasizing sin and salvation, he believed that the church should call men to an active Christianity in all walks of life (June 30, 1944):It is true that Jesus cared about people on the fringe of human society, such as harlots and tax-collectors, but never about them alone, for he sought to care about man as such. . . . Jesus claims for himself and the Kingdom of God the whole of human life in all its manifestations.