Bonhoeffer wrote these words to his friend Eberhard Bethge whilst contemplating what he had called “religionless Christianity”. This type of Christianity, the letter explains, is not dependent on those things that we normally associate with “religion”, such as our private understanding of the supernatural, or the way we inwardly experience spiritual things. It is something completely different, and, in Bonhoeffer’s words, would make it possible for Jesus Christ to become “the Lord of the religionless as well.”
Some of us may object here. The words “secular” and “religionless” seem out of place, don’t they?
But let us note that “secular” derives from the Latin saeculum, a word frequently used in ancient Latin to describe this world. If I may borrow the Reformed theologian R C Sproul’s simple explanation of the term: It “generally referred to the temporal mode of our existence, the ‘now’ of our present life”.
The Secular Life of Jesus Christ
With this in mind the word loses some of its stigma. In fact, one cannot help but conclude that this type of “secular speech” about God is what the incarnation of Jesus Christ was all about. Not only his human birth but his life, miracles, teaching and death revealed God in a way that was much more “secular” than the way in which his religious contemporaries, notably the sect of the Pharisees, presented God.
Consider this for a moment: “God is spirit”, we read in the Bible. The word “spirit” is somewhat nebulous, especially if you are not a very religious person. It sounds like a mixture between a ghost and a disembodied vapour, and is not exactly what we would call a “descriptive” term.
The Bible also says that God is invisible. “No one has ever seen God”, we read in John’s gospel. That doesn’t really help. And neither does Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome, when he says that God’s judgments are “unsearchable” and his paths “beyond tracing out.”
We can carry on, but I’m sure you get the point. God is not exactly “from this world”. He is, as theologians oftentimes refer to him, the “wholly other”. We could say that he is hidden from us and beyond our human comprehension.
This may help you to understand Bonhoeffer’s strange reference to the “religionless”. It is the business of religion to try and connect people to this seemingly evasive and mysterious God, to build a bridge or ladder between heaven and earth. Clearly such an effort requires one to step out of this world into some or other “space” where such a connection can be made.
And so the history of religion is also a history of trances, and visions, and deep meditations, and pilgrimages to strange places, and meetings with angelic beings, and religious clothes that are as “wholly other” as the God who is intended to be encountered whilst wearing them, and strange buildings, and otherworldly sages who can mediate all of the above between men and gods, and…
Again, I am sure you get the point. The list is simply too long to carry on.
The problem with all of this is the age-old one that has haunted schoolteachers for millennia: Not everyone has the same aptitude. Some people are simply not religiously intelligent. They don’t feel anything at séances. They don’t like humming monks. They don’t have any desire to live on a mountain and grow a grey beard. They don’t get “the other side.”
Jesus’ incarnation changed all of this. Instead of waiting for us to “find him”, he found us. He crossed the divide. He stepped into our “space”. He connected heaven and earth. He was the “Word” who became “flesh”. His life was not a vapour, but one lived out for 33 years in the dust and dirt of this world.
The result was nothing short of phenomenal. The schoolteacher problem was solved. Even the religionless could see him, touch him, speak to him. He brought heaven to earth, and so those who could never reach heaven was given the opportunity to enter it. His audience was not restricted to people who spend their lives in the temple, but included those on the outside of it.
In fact, people who weren’t even welcome in the company of the religious intelligentsia became his disciples.
And so, whilst Christ solved one problem, he created another one. By touching those on the outside of religion, he made the religious mediators on the inside of it obsolete.
This explains why they eventually killed him, but that’s another story for another day. Suffice it to say that Christ made it possible for the religionless to accept him as Lord of their lives.
The Secular Calling of the Saints
This brings us back to Bonhoeffer’s question. This “incarnational calling” was not unique to Jesus Christ. “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you”, he said to his disciples. The idea has become somewhat clichéd, but it is nevertheless true that the ministry of the Christian is also (or should be!) an incarnational one.
We, too, are to speak about God in a secular manner. Along with Bonhoeffer we must ask: How can we do so?
This is indeed the BIG question: How does one speak about God in a way that is understandable to human beings made of flesh and blood, living on planet earth, confined to space and time? How do we faithfully continue the incarnational ministry of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, and offer his Lordship to those on the outside of “religion”?
The Purpose of this Blog
I hope that I have not only inspired you to consider this question together with me, but that I will also assist you in answering it. In fact, this section of the Romans blog is dedicated to doing just that. Together we will explore the implications of what it means for the “Word” to become “flesh”. Whilst most of us are quite familiar with the term, few of us have taken it to its logical conclusion, especially as it relates to “speaking about God”.
For the “Word” to be incarnated, two things are necessary. Firstly, we need to understand exactly how Jesus Christ’s incarnation caused the “death of religion”. Christ revealed a way to God that is different to the “religious way”. What I have said above is but an introduction to this mind boggling teaching of Scripture. It is found throughout the New Testament, and it calls for exposition, understanding and application.
The one book that tackles this issue, in an extraordinary manner, is Paul’s letter to the Romans. Romans reveals the purpose of the Mosaic Law like no other document in history, and then proclaims boldly: “Christ is the end of the law.” In Romans we see the “fulfillment of the law” (referred to by Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount”) expounded in a way that leaves the understanding reader speechless, and pretty much spoiled for religious efforts for the rest of his or her life.
The first purpose of this blog, then, is to study the book of Romans in order to gain an understanding of its intended message.
Secondly, it was not only the content of Christ’s message that revealed the Word, but also the mode in which it was delivered. As mentioned above, Jesus did not only speak the Word, He became it. We learned Christ by hearing and seeing Him, not only by hearing Him (as is unfortunately the case with so much modern theology and preaching).
What this means is that Romans should ideally be understood at a level which transcends mere “hearing” or “reading”. A student of Paul’s letter to the Romans must be allowed to somehow “enter” the story of Romans, to become one with it, to travel through its chapters in the very way one would walk through the city of Rome, to experience it vividly and memorably.
Herein is the second purpose of the blog: To take the rather “abstract” truths of Romans and “incarnate” them. Not only will this simplify the study of Romans, but it will also set a precedent for studying the rest of Scripture. This “Big Picture” method of study will be expounded here, and it will be shown to be a way of thinking and reasoning that is in line with God’s universal revelation of Himself, and so as a method for both Scriptural interpretation and “incarnational ministry”.
The way in which this will be done is explained on the About page. I will not elaborate further on it here.
To arrive at the conclusions above I have had to travel through many churches and denominations, and be exposed to many expressions of Christianity, ranging from the fiercest Christian fundamentalism to groups on the cultic fringe.
In the same way I have had to adjust my attempts at communicating the gospel effectively, time and again.
It took a journey (now well into its third decade) to teach me that we learn best through journeys. Some of my journey I will share here, and I hope to hear from others who can relate. And, of course, I hope that you will join me on this journey through Romans.
There is much more to say, but I will do so in the next posts.
May the Lord of the religionless bless you with his presence and wisdom!