“Who is God?” in a religionless world

Owing to the theological provocations in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters from Tegel prison, scholars have observed an early and late Bonhoeffer, some arguing for continuity and others for discontinuity.  Martin Marty approvingly quotes from Ernst Feil, a Roman Catholic scholar, who maintains there is continuity across Bonhoeffer’s writings because “Christology remained the central theme.” Bonhoeffer’s answer to the urgent question “Who is God?” resonates with me in our religionless world.

Thus Feil reminds us that Bonhoeffer resisted seeing God as “the working hypothesis” or “the stop-gap” or a deus ex machina. He also rejected the concept of God’s work as “tutelage.” Never for him could divine transcendence refer only to what occurs “on the far side drawn by the boundary of death.” Relying too much on the witness of God as “the Almighty” had become a problem in the new context. When Bonhoeffer asked, “Who is God?” he was not answering the questions by reference to abstract belief in God, “in his omnipotence, etc. That is not a genuine experience of God, but a partial extension of the world.”

Feil noted the positive point by Bonhoeffer: “I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weakness but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in our life goodness . . . . God is the beyond in the midst of our life.” Here is where Christ, for him, came in: we know from Christ what transcendence is, thought Bonhoeffer, for he “takes hold of us at the center of our lives.” So, Feil says, “For Bonhoeffer God is always ‘God in Jesus Christ.’ His was not the God of religion but ‘the God of the Bible.'”

* * *

One of the last surviving letters makes clear that Bonhoeffer “derived true knowledge of God from the earthly Jesus, the historical Jesus Christ.” His letter quoted Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 1:20: “He is the ‘Yes’ pronounced upon God’s promises, every one of them. That is why, when we give glory to God, it is through Christ Jesus that we say ‘Amen.'” The key to everything for Bonhoeffer was the “in him.” Coming down to earth: “But the truth is that if this earth was good enough for the man Jesus Christ, if such a man as Jesus lived, then, and only then has life a meaning for us.” Suddenly, as Feil expounded in these letters, transcendence has become not a matter of “distance” or “beyondness,” but of “closeness.” So “Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography


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