Today is the seventieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While in prison, he wrote a series of letters to his close friend Eberhart Bethge in which he began speculate about “religionless Christianity.” While this notion has received considerable attention over the decades beginning in the 1960s, his words remain as challenging and questioning in the twenty-first century as they did when he wrote them while imprisoned for his participation in an assassination plot against Hitler, and as World War II was coming to an end:
Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the “religious a priori” of mankind. “Christianity” has always been a form–perhaps the true form–of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless–and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any “religious” reaction?)–what does that mean for “Christianity”? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our “Christianity,” and that there remain only a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the Western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity–and even this garment has looked very different at different times–then what is a religionless Christianity?