The Church Beyond Religion

11 Apr

Here is the text of the paper I presented at the Adelaide symposium on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Future of Christianity—on April 11th, 2015.  It may be that I will work it up into a paper for publication, so please treat this as a draft. I imagine there are also some errors (there usually are!) There is one place where I have not been able to provide the correct reference, in the new translation of Bonhoeffer’s works (the volume is out from the Library, and that’s a good thing, someone else is working on DB.)

Anyone, here is the paper, and I do really hope that we can have a good conversation about this immensely important topic.

The Church Beyond Religion: some positive implications of a ‘religionless Christianity’.



Recent scholarship has shown a renewed interest in the meaning of Bonhoeffer’s cryptic concept of a ‘religionless Christianity’. Bethge’s original explanation of what Bonhoeffer meant by ‘religion’ largely suggests what a Christianity beyond religion would not be. The interest in this paper is to explore some positive constructions.

We begin with Bonhoeffer’s proposal in Ethics that the church is Christ taking form or shape in the world. What then do we make of the proposal that the basic life of the church is prayer and working for justice?

Peter Rollins, in The Divine Magician, has proposed ‘anti-religion’ as the key to understanding Jesus and his mission. This proposal is strongly consistent with Bonhoeffer’s thought.

This paper proposes two other essential elements: the stories of Jesus and discernment, on that basis, of the presence and purposes of God in the present society—specifically in terms of the mission of the Spirit in the world.

Together these ideas offer some positive directions for the life, work and spirituality of all the people of faith—a church fundamentally centred on the Protestant idea of the priesthood of all Christians, a church beyond religion.





Recent scholarship has shown a renewed interest in the meaning of Bonhoeffer’s cryptic concept of a ‘religionless Christianity’. Tom Greggs has argued that Bonhoeffer, although critical of Barth’s ‘positivism of revelation’, was not so much wanting to separate himself from Barth’s theological project as to urge that Barth’s critique of religion needed to go further.[i] In this paper I am interested to explore two aspects of this challenge: first, to clarify as best we can what Bonhoeffer might have meant by ‘religion’, in order to consider what it might mean to be ‘religion-less’, and on that basis to try to describe some positive implications for the church today, in a time which might well be described as an age ‘beyond’ religion.


In his classic biography, Bethge includes an essay in which he discusses what Bonhoeffer might have meant by the term religion: “The New Theology, An Essay”.[ii] It is a fairly negative picture. My interest is in a list of elements or characteristics of ‘religion’, which he suggests Bonhoeffer was opposing. These are as follows:

  1. Metaphysics: here he means the idea of God as in some sense postulated and demanded by an understanding of the world. We will return to this shortly.

Bethge says Bonhoeffer “wants to get rid, for the sake of God, of the ‘religious’ trappings, i.e., an objectification of God that is conditioned by a particular age.”

  1. Individualism: Bonhoeffer was very critical of the individualist thrust in pastoral care, in piety, even in existential theology.
  2. Partiality: for this we might even use the expression sectional concern. The suggestion is that in recent history religion has carved out an area of life which it defines as its preserve, and defends that, a domain over against other areas of life.
  3. Deus ex machina: As Bethge sees it all religion depends on this concept, the idea that God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc., standing outside the world and able to operate upon it, as if it is a machine. As a result, religion become like a chemist shop, pointing people to the answer to their problems: take this remedy and all will be well. In fact such religion is dangerously deceitful, even in its piety: it fails to show just how godless it is. It involves an attempt to escape from life.

In contrast the Bible directs us to God’s powerlessness and suffering, in and with the world. Again, we will return to this idea shortly.

  1. Privilege: Throughout its history the Christian religion has been continually perverted into a form of privilege. Faith becomes a possession, a way of distinguishing between people, a system of power relations, etc., often used to justify exclusion or violence against others not of the group.
  2. Tutelage. Closely related to the privileged character of such religion is the role of acting as the ‘guardian’ of people and of society. This element is perhaps especially evident in those institutions that have been persistently monarchical and patriarchal, claiming to be the conscience of the nation and so forth.
  3. Dispensability: This was in fact Bonhoeffer’s starting point, in some of the letters—the idea that religion can in fact be done away with, while Christians themselves have allowed their faith to become a Sundays-only activity, and their lives so fundamentally un- or perhaps a-Christian. Christianity has become ‘mere’ religion.


Now from this brief and helpful sketch, we can also get some insight into what Bonhoeffer might have meant by a Christianity beyond religion. What seems vital to add, however, is that Bonhoeffer did not actually set out to critique religion as such, but rather offers a theological critique, which becomes a way of explaining the difficulty with ‘religion’ and indeed a basis for distinguishing Christianity from ‘religion’. It is vital to note these implications, to save us from that entirely misguided reading that led to talk of ‘the death of God’.

Bonhoeffer points to the world’s ‘coming of age’, which does away with a false conception of God ‘and opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible.’ The hypothesis of God as one who ‘explains’ the world has become entirely unnecessary; but that means, Bonhoeffer writes, that ‘God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.’[iii] Here we see that the critique of religion has to be understood theologically, and indeed Christologically. This is about the way of God as ‘weak and powerless’, which is yet the only way that God can help us, not by standing outside the ‘machine’ pulling levers for the privileged, religious groups or individuals, but by becoming ‘a man for others’, a suffering, servant Christ. This is the way God has a place in the world.


With this theological and Christological focus, then, I turn to ask what it might mean to be the church ‘beyond religion’. The first part of my response draws upon the bold assertion we find in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics that the church is Christ taking form in the world.[iv] The challenge, however, is to consider what this might actually mean, in a ‘secular interpretation’, or in a time ‘beyond religion’. On one occasion Bonhoeffer suggested that what was required was essentially two things: prayer and working for justice.[v] The difficulty I see with this proposal, however, is that it implies so much that is essential if prayer and work for justice are to be sustained. To whom should we pray and for what should we pray? What is the nature of this justice, for which we might work? Both these concepts and practices need nuance, which in turn invites theological reflection in many directions—moral, spiritual and ultimately Christological.


To this end, in another paper I have described what I suggest are three basic and inter-related elements of Bonhoeffer’s vision of the life of faith ‘beyond religion’, which I will summarise here.[vi]

For Bonhoeffer, as for Barth, faith is not our own creation, but is primarily a response to something, or someone, else. Faith is more than the adoption of a series of beliefs about God. It is a response to God. As a result, all belief statements must be held lightly, since they may signify the character of God, as religious symbols, but they must never take the place of God. The same is true of the church and any other religious community or group. The church is not the object of our faith. We may practice our faith through the life of the church, but the church is neither the object nor even the source of our faith.

Thus from Bonhoeffer’s earlier work and in light of the centrality of Christology in his thought, we see the first element here is discipleship. A faithful response to Jesus Christ means that the disciple is just that, a follower, a learner, one who is not in control or claiming any special knowledge. There is an essential humility in this situation. Greggs has suggested that Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’ implies the elements of ‘anti-idolatry’ and ‘anti-fundamentalism’, each expressing this humility.[vii]

A second feature of faith beyond religion is community. The literal meaning of community is ‘life together’, a common life. In Bonhoeffer’s earlier ministry, this meant the possibility of Christians living in intentional communities, sharing a daily life of prayer, work and a level of mutual ethical accountability.[viii] In his later thought, however, Bonhoeffer’s concern moved to a much broader interest in how we live in the world as such. It is the world at large which is the context of Christian living, not the ‘community of faith’, the church. This development arises from the radical conviction that there is no longer a ‘sacred’ and a ‘secular’ sphere. This is part of what is meant by the ‘end’ of religion, but that does not mean the end of the ‘sacred’, or the impossibility of living by faith. Rather it means that all of life, in every sphere of activity and concern, is seen in the light of Jesus Christ. This, as several scholars have shown, is for Bonhoeffer the consequence of his Christology. ‘Living in one sphere’, Keith Clements has argued, is a central motif in Bonhoeffer’s theology.[ix] There is no separate part of life that is ‘the spiritual’ realm or the preserve of ‘religion’.

So what exactly does this mean for existing religious groups and communities? I suggest that Bonhoeffer’s theology calls for the formation of communities of disciples, engaging with the whole of life as the invitation to follow Jesus, to live in the presence of God. At the heart of such communities, as we have mentioned, would be two things: a commitment to prayer and to justice.[x] As Jeff Pugh explains, when religion functions to justify in God’s name the existing political order, it rests easily or naively with the suffering of others. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ, grounded in ‘the suffering God’, overturns this religion and calls forth a new and radical form of faith, in solidarity with the powerless.[xi]

The question remains, however, exactly what it means for such communities to engage in serious and constructive action in the world today. As Bonhoeffer clearly saw, there are situations where justice demands immediate action to obstruct the systems of violence—‘to put a spoke in the wheel’.[xii] But it must also be said that Christian faith needs a renewed vision of the positive objectives of our life in society. This I suggest is the third essential element in the life of faith beyond religion. What do we hope to build and to preserve, not just to obstruct and oppose?

Once again we return to the Christological focus: when Bonhoeffer says that God allows himself to be pushed out of the world, he adds ‘onto a cross’. It is this element of his thought that provides both the crucial direction for our response. It is Jesus who is crucified, the one Bonhoeffer described as the man for others. But it is Jesus as God, not simply as a good and exemplary man. To be able to discern the justice of God and the basis of our prayer, including our prayer for justice, we need both to maintain the stories of Jesus and the story of Jesus—Jesus as the Christ, Jesus as the one in whom God is ‘powerfully’ powerless, transforming the machinations of religion and politics into an economy of grace. Here we see the justice God wills, the justice we may pray and work for, the justice of God. The church after religion must be a Jesus-storying community, not just telling the stories but living the story.


Peter Rollins has presented just such a vision of the life of faith ‘beyond religion’. His recent book The Divine Magician offers both the theological foundations and some indications of what this might mean for contemporary communities of disciples.[xiii]

It is not possible here to summarize the entire argument of the book, but only to note the main direction and some of the relevant implications. Rollins begins with a simple analysis of a magic trick he used to play, making a coin disappear and then re-appear. His fundamental argument is that ‘the core proclamation of Christianity is precisely … a vanishing act’.[xiv] Just as, indeed, the risen Jesus disappeared from the view of the Emmaus two, so indeed it is the entire message of the Bible that in every place where people might think they have captured God, they will find that God is not there. Rather, that thing is a no-god. When the Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus dared to enter the Holy of Holies in 63 BCE, he declared it empty. There is no place where God is captured. The veil of the temple is torn; the tomb is empty; the risen Jesus disappears from view, precisely when those who seek him realize that he truly is risen.

Rollins, who has reflected deeply on Bonhoeffer’s thought, argues that the Eucharist is the event in which we participate, again and again, in this divine disappearing trick: we receive and eat the body of Christ, and it become something else again—us. Now we are the body of Christ.

In this and other works, Rollins’ argument is that the mission and message of Jesus was to call Israel to see the reality of its faith and its God, but that, paradoxically perhaps, the core of this tradition was that no thing, no place, no doctrine, no part of creation can contain the reality of God. There is no sacred object, and sin is precisely the pursuit of such an object, an idol: whether a piece of fruit or a sacred cow or a temple, or any thing at all, including, Rollins says, a cross. God is a no-thing, a no-god, and faith in God is thus the end of all religion. Religion offers us sacred objects, as if these will deliver us salvation, life in all its fullness.

Actually, what Jesus offers us is just that fullness of life, but it comes through the end of ‘religion’, the abandonment of all claims to worthiness or special favour before God. How blest, Jesus says, are those who know they have nothing to offer, who know their poverty before God, who know their need of God (Matt. 5.3).

Jesus spoke of his own destiny in terms of the end of the Temple (John 2. 19): not as a means of destroying it, or doing away with the Law, but rather as a way of fulfilling the Law; he would build the Temple again, and again, and again, as his body is received and disappears and yet becomes, again, a living body.

This all-too-brief sketch of the direction of Rollins’ argument helps us to see how he envisages a church, communities of Jesus-followers, after religion. A colleague of mine in Melbourne spoke very critically of Rollins’ extreme Protestantism; actually, as one in the Anabaptist tradition, I see it as his strength. At the end of the book, he writes of ‘the vanishing ‘priest’ and ‘the disappearing pastor’.[xv] What he means is that the life of the church is to be centred upon the lives of the people, all the people—the proper meaning of the word ‘laos’, ‘laity’. All the people are the church and all their lives are to be the life of the church.


Where Rollins ends, however, I think we need to go further. The church beyond religion must recover the Reformation idea of the priesthood of all Christians. This is not primarily about people other than the ordained being permitted to undertake various tasks in the gathered worship service. Rather it is about the whole lives of all the people, together offered to God as worship. It is about work and home life, citizenship and recreation, all as the contexts of faith and all as mediums of salvation, that is of living deeply and fully, with God.

The people who carry this story of Jesus and the disappearing and re-appearing God, the God beyond all sacred objects and all religious forms, continually need to be guided into discerning who this God is, beyond religion, and what God is up to, in the world around us. What is needed here is an understanding of the presence and work of the Spirit, in the world around us. It is this discernment that will allow the church to be a community of disciples, in a religionless Christianity.

In a number of places I have considered Philip Rosato’s argument for the mission of the Spirit within and beyond the church: as life-giver, unifier, teacher and liberator.[xvi] I have sought to extend this argument in a number of ways, to identify the work of the Spirit as artist, healer and home-maker, for instance. In these ways, I am suggesting, the critique of religion is not only a negative thrust, saying what we can now do without. More than that, we are set free for what God is doing and what we can be doing in the world, with a vision of the fullness of life we may enter with joy and with God, here and now.

This I believe is what Jesus offers, in his life as well as his death and resurrection. This, too, was the vision of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: a church beyond religion, a life with God even as it is life in the world ‘without God’, that is without the God who has been made into a religious object. God never was limited to such a thing, but having been driven out of the world onto a cross, God now comes to us in the invitation of all life, all places and all people, to be a community of faith beyond religion.



Frank D Rees

Whitley College

University of Divinity



[i] Among the many contributions here are Jeffrey C Pugh, Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times, (London: T & T Clark, 2008); Ralf K. Wüstenberg, A Theology of Life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998); Peter Selby, ‘Christianity Come of Age’, in John de Gruchy (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 226-245, and Tom Greggs, Theology Against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth, (London: T & T Clark, 2011), especially Chapters 2, 3 & 4.

[ii] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary, ET by Eric Mosbacher, Peter & Betty Ross, Frank Clarke and William Glen-Doepel. (New York: Collins, 1970) 757-795.

[iii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to Eberhard Bethge, July 16, 1944, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8, English edition edited by John de Gruchy, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 473-480.

[iv] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics: p.83 “’Formation’ consequently means in the first place Jesus’ taking form in His church. … The body is the form. So the Church is not a religious community of worshippers of Christ but is Christ Himself who has taken form among men.” Get new edition reference

[v] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Thoughts on the day of the baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge’, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8, English edition edited by John de Gruchy, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 383 – 390.

[vi] Frank D Rees, ‘Beyond Religion: The Bad News, Other News, and the Good News’, The Pacific Journal of Baptist Research, Vol. 8, No. 2 (November 2013), 1 – 13; sees especially 11 & 12.

[vii] Tom Greggs, Theology Against Religion, 65 – 69.

[viii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).

[ix] Keith Clements, The SPCK Introduction to Bonhoeffer, (London: SPCK, 2010), 39 – 43.

[x] See Note 5 above.

[xi] Jeff C. Pugh, Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times, 101.

[xii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘The Aryan Clauses’ in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: letters, lectures and notes 1928 – 1936, Edited by Edwin H. Robertson, (London: Collins, 1965 & 1970) 221.

[xiii] Peter Rollins, The Divine Magician: The disappearance of religion and the discovery of faith, (New York: Howard Books, 2015).

[xiv] Peter Rollins, The Divine Magician, 5.

[xv] Peter Rollins, The Divine Magician, Chapter 9.

[xvi] Philip J. Rosato, “The Mission of the Spirit within and beyond the Church”, Ecumenical Review, Vol.41.3, 1989, 388-397; my own developments from Rosato’s initial argument are found in Frank D. Rees, ‘A Conversational Theology for a Conversational Church’ Asia Journal of Theology, Vol. 21, No. 1, April 2007, 32 – 49, and Frank D. Rees, ‘New Perspectives in Australian Spirituality: Sabbath beyond the church’, forthcoming in Colloquium, (May 2015 ?).

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