Religionless Christianity and Vulnerable Discipleship: The Interfaith Promise of Bonhoeffer's Theology

By Jensen, David H. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring-Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Religionless Christianity and Vulnerable Discipleship: The Interfaith Promise of Bonhoeffer's Theology


Jensen, David H., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


Retrieving an invitation to interfaith dialogue from the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is as difficult as it is potentially misleading. Because the work of Bonhoeffer has been appropriated by so many strands in the last half of the twentieth century--from secular theologians and post-modernists to voices in liberation theology--one should be leery of any project that would force Bonhoeffer's thought into a mold that typifies a twenty-first-century problem. As much as the question and demand of interfaith dialogue constitutes a challenge for the new millennium, it was not Bonhoeffer's question. Though active in the worldwide ecumenical movement of his day, he did not explore the realm of interfaith encounter. At best, an interest in interfaith issues lurked on the periphery of his more explicit concern with intra-Christian understanding. (1) Therefore, to claim Bonhoeffer as an early prophet of interreligious dialogue would be as unwise as it would be inaccurate.

Nevertheless, one of the ongoing tasks of constructive theology is to listen to those voices of our collective past that lend wisdom to contemporary questions. Even if the topic of interfaith understanding was not an explicit theme of Bonhoeffer's early theology, the example of his subsequent political-resistance activity, the tenor of his prison correspondence, his reflections on a "religionless" or "nonreligious" interpretation of the gospel, and his demand for Christian solidarity with persons of difference might offer one model of approach, for Christians, to interfaith encounter. If we draw out some implicit themes in Bonhoeffer's early thought and connect them with his involvement in the resistance movement, we can see how these themes reached fruition in the prison correspondence: Bonhoeffer's distinctive contribution to the current dialogical scene is not an explicit theology of world religions but, rather, a vision of "religionless Christianity" (2) and vulnerable discipleship that not only encourage s interfaith encounter but also demands it as one aspect of the new life in Christ.

Bonhoeffer's Early Theology and Its Obstacles to Interfaith Encounter

If we are to claim the prison correspondence as a possible entree to interfaith dialogue, we first must come to terms with the troubling implications of Bonhoeffer's early theology. During the rise of National Socialism in Germany, Bonhoeffer did reflect on the relationship between Christians and Jews. Deciphering Bonhoeffer's position here is difficult and fraught with ambiguity. Some of his remarks mirror an uncritical adherence to problematic strands of Lutheranism that profess the conversion of Jews to Christianity to be the manifestation of divine providence. The early Bonhoeffer, in short, presents little fertile ground for nourishing interfaith understanding. His early tendency to see Judaism as a prelude to the Christian gospel, I would argue, is paralleled by a wooden appropriation of the Lutheran "orders of creation" and his early reluctance to embark on the path of political resistance. Though these political and theological stances were to change as Bonhoeffer became more immersed in the crises of his day, we need to expose some ugly strands of the early Bonhoeffer if we are to understand the interfaith promise of his later work.

On April 7, 1933, the Nazi regime enacted the Aryan Clauses, which forbade persons of Jewish origin from holding political or church offices. Bonhoeffer's reaction was quick, and his resistance to the Clauses was strong, resulting in his writing an essay, "The Church and the Jewish Question." Some of the theological underpinnings of his argument against the decree, however, reflect long-standing Christian biases that have inflicted long-festering wounds:

Converting Jews to Christianity and "blaming" the crucifixion on them are two sides of the same spurious argument that Bonhoeffer offered. Throughout this essay, Bonhoeffer drew on the writings of Luther. …

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