American Evangelicals commonly say, “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship—a relationship with Jesus Christ.” I tire of hearing this platitude precisely because it is a platitude. Overuse, however, does not mean a platitude lacks truthfulness. In this case, the platitude contains a kernel of truth but risks oversimplification. While I cannot trace the exact genealogy of this platitude, I suspect that it is a vulgar distillation of “religionless Christianity,” an idea first proffered by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Jeffrey Pugh, a professor of religious studies at Elon University, has a written a book that unpacks the idea. In Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times, he offers this concise and cogent definition: “Religionless Christianity is life lived for others without claiming cultural or spiritual privilege” (p. 94). Jesus and Jesus alone equips us for an other-centered and this-worldly life. He is also the way that saves us from the religion trap. Bonhoeffer writes in Letters & Papers From Prison:
The key to everything is the “in him.” All that we may rightly expect from God and ask him for, is to be found in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with what God, as we imagine him, could do and ought to do. If we are to learn what God promises, and what he fulfills, we must persevere in quiet meditation on the life, sayings, sufferings, and death of Jesus.
Pugh reflections on the above passage:
What do we find when we do this? We don’t find a system of doctrine or even right thoughts about God, but we do find God’s desire to become manifest in the midst of life. Where religion separates the world into two spheres, sacred and secular, we find the God who calls us to understand it all as sacred, as sacramental, holiness incognito, which we make known through our willingness to manifest this grace. We find a living faith and not a religion that ties itself to national or ethnic identity, or psychological projections of what we wish for God to be. We find a God who is known no longer in tribal or parochial ways, but is truly universal, transcending historically conditioned boundaries. And yet here is an irony to ponder—one of the most central embodiments of this vision is in the religion of Christianity. How can it not be tainted by the force of culture, individualism and projection? Christianity itself can never be truly pure in this sense (p. 91).
The religion that Bonhoeffer was seeking to deconstruct is the habit of heart that allows us to approach the world without love, even while declaring that we are doing just the opposite. But the religionless Christian does not seek to protect her own space at the expense of others, or distort the truth to fit her culturally induced notion of who is in and who is out. Authentic faith, Bonhoeffer writes, causes us to place ourselves in the midst of our enemies, not seeking to destroy them, but to bring reconciliation to them as God has brought reconciliation to us. Religionless Christianity is life lived for others without claiming cultural or spiritual privilege (pp. 93-94).
What might a religionless faith look like? Pugh says:
Love recognizes that truth does not come in stories that will the death of my brother and sister in the name of God, or the idols of secularity, security and wealth. The willingness to walk in the steps of the Crucified means a desire to create the space for those whose religion is different, whose identity is different, wherever we may be on the planet. These spaces will be the spaces of peacemaking and reconciliation (p. 94).
Pugh then quotes quotes a lovely insight from Miroslav Volf’s book, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity.
Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happen to us must be done by us. Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others in ourselves and invite them in—even our enemies.
This is not a cheap grace, it is a costly grace. We fear the religionless faith because it makes us vulnerable in the world the way God is vulnerable in the world and who is like unto God? But the character of faith is found in the lived character of its adherents and if we wish merely to ape the world and employ our gods to fight for us then let us not cling to the fiction that we are following Jesus Christ. For nowhere does Jesus allow for the legitimizing of political gains by violence. Christian religion may allow for this, but Jesus does not. This is the reality of a faith without religion that Bonhoeffer struggled with so throughout his life (pp. 94-95).