Barth, Kraemer, and Bonhoeffer on Religion: A Reflection

By West, Charles C. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Barth, Kraemer, and Bonhoeffer on Religion: A Reflection


West, Charles C., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


There is a difference between the twentieth century and the twenty-first. Today, religious expression is all around us, often in forms we marvel at, that we question, or that we find repellant. The question is: How do we understand and cope with them? How, if at all, is the Spirit at work here? In the twentieth century, religion itself was the question: What is its place in our knowledge of nature or, for that matter, in our knowledge of God?

My task here is briefly to compare three polemical answers to this twentieth-century question. It just may help us with the twenty-first-century question, too. Karl Barth (1886-1968), Hendrick Kraemer (1888-1965), and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) agreed in their basic perspective. First, religion is a human phenomenon. It is rooted in human hopes, fears, and desires and tries to relate them to ultimate reality--to God--whatever form this god may take. Second, it is the expression of sinful humanity in its highest form, both in seeking after God and in trying to capture God in terms that satisfy human longings and understanding. Third, for this very reason, religion must be sharply differentiated from revelation, which is God's self-communication with humans.

They would all share Barth's basic thesis in the Church Dogmatics (CD): "The revelation of God in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the judging but also reconciling presence of God in the world of human religion, that is, in the realm of human attempts to justify and sanctify (them)selves before a picture of God projected by their own ideas [eigensinnig] and according to their own desires [eigenwillig]." (1) Nevertheless, they differed and sometimes argued with each other. I believe that their differences come from the different "worlds of human religion" that they confronted and their different efforts to carry out their theological witness in these worlds.

Let me begin with Barth, who laid the foundation. He knew other religions were out there. Late in life, in CD IV/3, he wrote that Christian mission presupposes "that they will be valued and taken seriously," while bearing witness to the gospel that is "opposed to them in all its radical uniqueness and novelty." (2) But, he never analyzed another religion, not even the "new 'religions'" of Communism, Fascism, and Americanism that he identified in a 1932 article in The Student World. (3) His concern was to rescue Christianity--the church and its gospel--from its descent into the status of another "religion." In CD 1/2 he traced how this descent happened, first through sincere apologists who were trying to prove the truth and adequacy of Christian doctrine as the true religion, then to the eventual development of theology as a response to human religious aspirations and needs. (4) His intention was to restore Christian religion to its proper function, which it had from the beginning through the Reformation, as a human activity recognizing and responding to God's revealed judgment and grace in Christ. That, in his view, would be true religion. (5)

In this context we can place what he wrote in 1932 about the "new 'religions.'" He treated them as temptations for European Christianity. Pro-Nazi Christians were all around him in Bonn where he then lived. Soviet Communism, "fundamentally different from the very moderate and discreet movement which we knew, and still know, as 'social democracy,'" (6) seemed to have its Christian accommodators, too. Perhaps he meant the Living Church movement in the U.S.S.R., or Christian fellow travelers with the Communist movement in the West. He believed further that "'America' [had] even found a form of 'Christianity', which [had] been willing to be built right into its own system." This, too, was a religious temptation for many in Europe. "How easy it is," he lamented, "to adapt 'Christianity' in such a way, that a share in the dignity of the One God is given to the 'working class' or to the 'nation' or simply to the healthy, contented human individual. …

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