I've been teaching Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Tegel or Prison Theology to my undergraduates. Teaching the Tegel material has some challenges to it since the old Harper edition that is well within a student budget lacks some material and the Fortress edition is hardback and priced completely out of reach. But that aside, probably one of the most challenging parts of Bonhoeffer's theology is the third chapter of his book outline for religionless Christianity in his August 3, 1944 letter. This chapter concerns Christian community.
The challenge comes from the theological necessity Bonhoeffer draws for Christians to abandon any church property, building, pastoral salary, and presumably any other ... what? After pages of reflection on spirituality, criticism of long-standing traditions of the concept of God's power, Bonhoeffer comes to some conclusions about the institutional shape of Christianity and urges them to abandon any form of place, whether a church building or even perhaps any kind of direct public presence whatsoever, which nowadays would include presence in any kind of public, whether spatial, virtual, or networked.
Many Christians accept most of Bonhoeffer's attempt to formulate a Christianity suitable to a post-secular age where religion has disappeared all together. It is all very well to run with him on the theological concepts or his "nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts," which is the bulk of his reflections. But his final insistence that Christian community exist permanently in borrowed rooms is quite difficult to sign on the dotted line. It's enough of a shock that this outline is usually dismissed as Bonhoeffer's fragmentary and inchoate thoughts that he did not have enough time to develop.
Actually, this church-without-place is part and parcel of any Christianity without religion.
Bonhoeffer's idea of a religionless age corresponds to many currents of thought in reflection on the secular and post-secular. Instead of lamenting the increase of the "none's" or the decline of the cultural influence of Christianity, Bonhoeffer takes secularization as the key to Christians becoming a community for others, to truly become the body of Christ.
The basis of this idea is that of religion. Though Bonhoeffer seems to rely on the critique of religion that comes from Karl Barth and others, for him religion is any social or cultural arrangement that pushes God to the gaps of life, to the periphery. This means that a religious use of Christianity pushes God into a compartment -- a restricted sphere of life, whether it is the soul, whether it is a set of practices called discipleship, or some gap of human knowledge about how the mind works or how the universe came into being. A world come of age, or a wholly secular and therefore post-secular world has no gaps in it. There is no place for God to hide out. Whether it is the person who is anxious over death or has lost a great deal, there is no need for God there. There is a fully worldly explanation for this or that and so God is not in the picture at all. This is the process known as differentiation according to theorists of secularization.
For Christians to obtain a separate sphere where they do their thing on their own is to perpetuate the God of the gaps. It is to carve out a niche for God where none need be. And, for Bonhoeffer, what this means most of all is that it betrays the claim of Christ on the whole of life, to use his idiom. Strangely, for God to be pushed out of the world is for God to be in the world. This pattern seems to combine strange fabric: God is with the world when God is without the world. The pattern Bonhoeffer finds is the pattern of the crucified God. And so for God to be God, the suffering God who alone can save the world, Christians must be public only in serving others. Bonhoeffer perhaps betrays his liberal theological heritage here even as he fulfills it. This "life for others" is the fulfillment of the arcana, the secrets that Christians hide from view: the Eucharist and Scripture. To Bonhoeffer reading Scripture out loud profanes it because its use is only in bringing its hearers to live for others. The Eucharist is hidden and never made visible since it is only seen in the life of the baptized. Only the service, only the life for others is the publicity of the otherwise hidden church.
Only by being utterly secretive about Christian liturgy (Scripture, Eucharist, baptism) can Christians be public in a secular age.
It is as if Christians ought to take the guise of Strider, covered over and without place.
- All that is gold does not glitter,
- Not all those who wander are lost;
- The old that is strong does not wither,
- Deep roots are not reached by the frost.