A research paper recently submitted in my Introduction to Christian History course at the School of Divinity, Wake Forest University, begins with these words:
It has become an unavoidable reality that the American Christian church is dying slowly. For many, the church’s unmovable positions have made them a relic of the past. In addition, many Christians and atheists alike are watching the spread of an extremist form of right-wing American Christianity rooted in American symbolism, patriotism and flag waving… . This is not the first time empire has paired with religion, however. When Constantine signed the Edict of Milan in 313, Christianity and Empire first were paired. A new wave of religion started, transforming the church from a belief of the oppressed to a tool to oppress.
The words took my breath away, not only because of their insightful assessment of Christianity past and present, but also because they were written by an individual pursuing a call to Christian ministry, eyes wide open about the American ecclesiastical future. No doubt a portent of Bonhoeffer moments yet to come.
If you’re counting, this is the sixth and final installment in a series focused on certain “Bonhoeffer moments,” a demand for gospel courage and action arising amid our collective national angst, generated by a life-destroying pandemic, long-festering, near irreconcilable, religio-cultural, political, and racial fissures exacerbated by a presidential election, the ticking timebomb of climate chaos, and a discordant social media ethos so pervasive and siloed as to make truth increasingly elusive.
I’ve long believed that Christians, especially now in the land of the free and the home of ever-increasing death threats, face moments when the gospel of Jesus asks more than we could have anticipated when God’s good grace initially overtook us, enacted in infant baptism and confirmation, or when we made a “public profession of faith,” wading into cold running rivers or heated fiberglass baptistries to hear the name of God spoken over us.
No, the USA is not National Socialist Germany in 1943 when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and ultimately executed for his anti-Nazi dissent. But neither was Germany in 1935 when Bonhoeffer became director of the underground training-school-cum-seminary in Finkenwalde, Germany, initiating his original Bonhoeffer moments. Some 85 years later, the words of that Wake Forest seminarian sent me running to Letters and Papers from Prison, and this 1943 missive from Bonhoeffer to his friend Eberhard Bethge:
What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience — and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by “religious.”
Phrases like “religionless time,” or “religionless Christianity” describe some of Bonhoeffer’s most intriguing and controversial theology, ideas later coopted by certain Death of God theologians, or various conservative Christians who denounced it as a sellout to secularism. More probably, it was Bonhoeffer’s assertion that the devastation of World War II and the capitulation of the Nazi-enabling German Evangelical Church had undermined the gospel so blatantly by its faulty witness that a “religionless Christianity” was all that remained.
For Bonhoeffer, such power-oriented connivance between church and state, historically initiated by the Roman emperor Constantine in 313, set in motion an unholy alliance that transformed Christianity from “the belief of the oppressed to a tool to oppress,” as the Wake Forest student described it. It sold its soul for a mess of state-sanctified pottage, forgetting or ignoring “who Christ really is.”
“We’d best ask how our religio-political alliances have stoked a ‘religionless Christianity.’”
As 2020 turns to 2021, and before Christians in America start blaming secularism for the burgeoning religious disengagement of the so-called “nones,” we’d best ask how our religio-political alliances have stoked a “religionless Christianity” of persons claiming to be “spiritual but not religious,” many deserting our churches like the plague.
In a recent Washington Post essay, columnist Michael Gerson echoes this concern, writing: “When prominent Christians affirm absurd political lies with religious fervor, nonbelievers have every reason to think: ‘Maybe Christians are prone to swallowing absurd religious lies as well. Maybe they are simply credulous about everything.’”
On our way to and through 2021 and beyond, dare we confront Bonhoeffer’s question for ourselves. Do we know “what Christianity really is?” It’s an interrogative worth confronting even — no, especially — if we think we already know the answer.
We might ask that question within the broader American culture. Are we defining and living out Christianity in ways that lead individuals to distance themselves from Christian churches?
“Have we supposed that those who attend our various congregations know ‘what Christianity really is?’”
We might ask it in our churches. Have we supposed that those who attend our various congregations know “what Christianity really is?” How can we be so sure, particularly in COVID America when Christian community is essentially virtual?
Whatever else, we must ask it of ourselves. In, or for, our own lives, “what is Christianity really?” Where will our renewed response to that question take us in the days and years ahead? Is our initial entry into Christian faith a simple transaction that settles everything in this world and the next, no muss, no fuss, or is that only a beginning?
With that in mind, and just for the heaven of it, I went back to Harvey Cox’s classic work, The Secular City, revised edition,1966, a study that in many ways expanded on Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” with the assertion that “secularization represents an authentic consequence of biblical faith,” a claim no less controversial than Bonhoeffer’s.
Describing the nature of that biblical faith, Cox cut to the gospel chase, writing, “Jesus presented people with himself as a decisive event in their own biography and in the history of which they were a part. In the context of this new event, both Jesus and the apostles issued a summons to respond. This summons was always highly specific, especially with Jesus. He expected people to drop their nets, get out of bed, untie a horse, invite him to dinner. No one could doubt either that something momentous had occurred or that something quite definite was required of (them).”
Cox concludes: “Permanent revolution requires permanent conversion.” Whatever else it may be, surely that’s what Christianity really is. Constantine be damned.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
Other articles in this series: