Drawn to the Religionless


I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.” While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people — because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable) — to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course. Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail — in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure — always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina. I’ve come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letter to Eberhard Bethge, 30 April 1944

* * *

More from Bonhoeffer and one of his last letters today. I’ll admit that I was rather startled to read the words above. Not that I object to his sentiment, but given that my favorite Bonhoeffer book is Life Together, with its sublime consideration of Christian fellowship and intentional community, it is striking to hear him speak like this.

But I love this passage. I can relate.

Bonhoeffer complains here that religious people often speak of God when they can’t think of another answer for the unexplainable or when they express a need for God to provide some lack they perceive. However, as answers become available or solutions apparent, God no longer fits in the equation. Christians then have two choices: they can stubbornly cling to their old interpretation or forget it, chalk it up to limited knowledge in the past and find another insoluble matter of today for which God is the only answer. In this way we (for I am one of these religious folks too) constantly find ourselves “trying anxiously…to reserve some space for God.” Talk of God at times seems forced, born of fear that we might somehow steal glory from him if we embrace human capacity, knowledge, or achievement.

On the other hand, at times there can be a sense of ease when speaking of God to non-religious folks as God comes up naturally in conversation about matters of life.

14-Huntington-Beach-SP-03I have found this to be true in my work as a hospice chaplain. When I enter a home, I often find myself among non-observant people. They don’t speak religious language or have religious habits. Most are just ordinary Midwestern folks who have lived in nominally Christian, common sense realistic environments and who have spent their years working, raising families, and dealing with the ordinary stuff of life.

And these are the things I talk with them about. I notice the pictures and knickknacks in their homes. I learn about their family backgrounds, significant events in their lives, their work, their hobbies. I try to take interest in what interests them, even if it’s something about which I don’t care much.

Sometimes we talk specifically about God, usually when they bring it up. In the context of a friendly talk about life I discover that people are often keen to consider spiritual or religious matters. As we converse, I stay away from jargon and try to keep it simple, but it’s amazing to me how these discussions can plumb the depths, even if the language remains basic.

I guess the point is that most of these folks haven’t learned the unwritten rules of religious discourse that pious Christians develop. They don’t feel pressured to insert God into a sentence or into their view of a situation just because it is expected. They are not worried about being seen as team players. Nor are they anxious to defend God. Unlike the Sunday School child, they don’t think every answer has to be “Jesus.” But they almost always welcome someone who will listen to them, pray for them, and speak kindly to them, and in that context spiritual language finds its natural place in our conversations.

Bonhoeffer notes that religious people tend to focus on matters of sin, guilt, and death — the “boundary” matters which only God can take care of. I wouldn’t deny that such things must be addressed, nor can I imagine that he as a Lutheran pastor would do so. But I hear him saying that perhaps we Christians spend so much time at the boundaries that we are missing God’s presence in “man’s life and goodness.”

As a result, the “God” we are speaking of in our God-language may not be truly representative of the Creator and Incarnate One who redeemed us that we might be fully human and not less.

40 thoughts on “Drawn to the Religionless

  1. Very observant, DA.

    Related to the “upper/lower story” illustration is our culturally conditioned “subjective/objective split”. I’m thinking that “conversion” is a reality when and the process of being delivered from our binary way of thinking.


  2. Robert F wrote;

    ” Only a theology which sees humanity and God together rather than in opposition can speak a language that has any authenticity in the modern situation.”

    Yes, union with God, not separation from God.

    Too much of our systematic theology begins with us being separate from God. I’m sure that DB’s Lutheran systemolgy began with separation. Where we begin in this determines the journey.


  3. Some good thoughts today.

    I know that 2 of my 3 favorite people to hang with have been a Wiccan and an atheist that was living with her boyfriend at the time. We knew where each other stood, and sometimes that even came up in our conversations. But it wasn’t forced – I wasn’t befriending them just so I could put another notch on my Bible. As such we could share genuine friendship, not a “friendship” that was nothing more than a foot in the door so I could hit them with the gospel somewhere down the line.


  4. Well, it’s easier to be honest in a forum like this because like AA/NA/OA it’s anonymous. I’m not worried my comments here will become a topic of conversation among people I know IRL>


  5. No kidding. I could wax poetic all day about this stuff, but when it comes to putting it into practice, it’s an uphill battle.


  6. Most of what’s written here (the article and comments) seem to fit how I think Jesus would see things. “Jesus-shaped spirituality” does NOT mean “religion-shaped spirituality.”


  7. A few months ago, I attended a Bible study where each woman was encouraged to name something in her life that she considered her “cup” that she would have God remove – referring to Jesus’ prayer that “this cup be taken from me …not my will but Thine be done”. Every woman in the room except for me responded by saying that there was nothing like that in her life and that she was unbelievably blessed. I, too, am wonderfully blessed by my relationship with God, but I still have cups! I said nothing at the meeting, and I did not return to this study. I prefer talking to the 7-11 clerk about ice on the windshield, cars that won’t start, and cranky customers. When the time comes, I’m sure will talk about God. It will be an honest conversation.


  8. “in him we live and move and have our being! ” That is so, turnsalso, and yet our daily worries and stresses make us forget this. I know I forget this. I would love to do all things with love, but often I am doing well just to not make something worse.


  9. Thanks for your comments, MelissatheRagamuffin. I haven’t been a part of AA, OA or those other groups, but from everything I read and hear, they really are the place where people can be the most honest and get the most support. Even at internetmonk, it’s the posts where people share their fears and doubts that seem to free up the commenters to also reveal things about themselves that they do not usually reveal.


  10. > Although I can agree that Christianity is not about asending to God by our own merit,
    > I think that it is not wise state that God hates religion.

    Yes, but you will not win. This is a specific rhetorical use of the term “religion” necessary to construct a tidy world where everything is sliced into two categories: grace and law.

    Christ criticized some people for empty displays of religiosity and for status seeking – and for some that becomes a criticism, even a repudiation, of all manner of everything.

    > All of these things, the sacraments and the ritual surrounding them, are Religion.

    Agree. But if you don’t believe a human soul/mind has even the merit or capacity [or need?] to be even pointed….

    > Saying “God hates ‘Religion’” simply comes off as a way of saying “I don’t follow dead
    > traditions, I have a personal, emotional, connection with god.”

    Yes, and buried in there is the subtext that others do not, or they have at least a lesser or tainted relationship – as they insist on Works.

    >I get what you are trying to say, but I don’t think that the way you are slamming “religion” is helpful.


    >Christianity is a religion,

    Yes, it is.

    > Christ is given to us through the means of that Religion.

    It falls apart here: “means” == Works == Not-Grace -> False-Religion

    The statement is “what ‘we do’ to ascend to Him” – because in this world view all acts [aka Works] are essentially Magic, they are to “ascend”. There is *no room* for any act to be anything other than Witchcraft. But I do not take communion, pray, meditate, study, or care for my neighbor in order to “ascend”. The disconnect on this is fundamental.


  11. I’ll admit, the last Bonhoeffer post went entirely over my head, even with the carefully-crafted reflection by CM.

    This post brought it to light, I think. While we once cried out to the Lord for seasonable weather, healing from our illnesses, a good harvest, and so much more that I can’t come up with now, we don’t do that anymore. We look at the forecast, see the doctor, go to the supermarket, and so on, and these changes force us to reconsider what we are in relation to the God that made us. Ours is not a God of the gaps, constantly on the retreat from one unsolved mystery to the next, but the sovereign ruler of all. We can’t (or need not) seek him only at the extremities because doing so means we miss his immanence and personal nature–indeed, in him we live and move and have our being! The Incarnation shows us that God is interested in EVERYTHING about us, even our most menial, day-to-day tasks, like the work we do or the fun we have, and he wants us to reflect him in all these things. So we, being partakers in the divine nature, can redeem the time we live in and sanctify the world to its Maker and King, our glorious calling, our share in the work of redemption. Fear of avoiding hell is all well and good, but our goal in the spiritual race is not just a negation of the bad, nor attaining bliss or prosperity, but transformation.

    Abundant life, not in carnal terms, but something even beyond them. I think that’s something to motivate in the days of “mature humanity.” Being formed into the image of the supreme Good (rather, that which goodness is measured by), and in the process, making everything we touch better too.


  12. I think this is also why a lot of people prefer the recovery communities such as AA, NA, OA to a church community because they are so honest, and they foster honesty.

    When I was in OA I said many many things I would NEVER say in my faith community because in OA there was no judgement. My faith community is all about judgement in spite of what you may say. Someone leaves his spouse for another person – that’s okay. But, admit you’re struggling with doubt – OMG! Let the religious platitudes and telling me how I’m just not spiritual enough begin.

    It was also nice to know that anything I said in an OA meeting was going to stay there. There’s loads I don’t tell to my faith community because I don’t want it to be the subject of the next Ministry and Oversight meeting which is really not much more than a sanctified gossip session.

    When my dad died – the first person I called was my sponsor because she would listen to how I was feeling or even just stare at the walls with me. My faith community – well, they wouldn’t shut up about how there’s a reason for everything, find comfort in the Lord, blah, blah, blah…

    When I got hit by a car and couldn’t even sit up. It was people from OA who came to see about me. My faith community was too busy engaging in their endless naval gazing and looking at somebody’s slide show of a trip to Kenya.


  13. I think DB was sensing the tendency of people in his time – and ours, because of our philosophical heritage – to split reality into 2 storeys: the material and everyday in the lower, the “spiritual” and anything that might have to do with God in the upper. The phrases DB uses, and some of the sensibilities expressed in the comments so far as well, echo the consciousness of that split. Reality isn’t really like that, but in perpetuating the lie of the split, we do a lot of psychic damage to ourselves (and others), and remain in various kinds of darkness… Yes, the 2-storey view of things is something that Francis Schaeffer talked about a lot. Fr Stephen Freeman takes the idea, with acknowledgement to FS, and runs with it – or, if you will, deconstructs it… That’s what all of his writing is ultimately about.



  14. Although I can agree that Christianity is not about asending to God by our own merit, I think that it is not wise state that God hates religion. As Christians we recieve Christs true body and blood on a regular basis, we are washed in the name of Christ through baptism, and we hear and recieve Christ’s spoken word. These are all rituals which Christ has given to us, some of these rituals have human tradition surrounding them, but these traditions point us to Christ. All of these things, the sacraments and the ritual surrounding them, are Religion.

    In a world where people are increasingly willing to accept a god as a subjective spirituality, statements like “God hates religion” tickle the ears of those who are do not want a real Christianity, that is, Christ given to us through Word and Sacrament, but rather want an emotional, etheral expierence that not grounded in the Death and Ressurection of Jesus.

    Saying “God hates ‘Religion'” simply comes off as a way of saying “I don’t follow dead traditions, I have a personal, emotional, connection with god.” I get what you are trying to say, but I don’t think that the way you are slamming “religion” is helpful. Christianity is a religion, and Christ is given to us through the means of that Religion.


  15. Chaplain Mike, I appreciated this perspective. I would hope that talking to others about God’s centrality to life is an area that both so-called “liberals” and so-called “conservatives” could agree on. All the goodness in life and all the kindness in people comes because God is so gracious and good. I would love to be more open, honest, and enthusiastic about Christ with everyone, including people who don’t have faith in Christ — especially them.


  16. I think what it could be that draws you, Chaplain Mike, to the non-religious is that they are not posing or putting on a show for you. Many religious people feel compelled to out-religion their associates. My own mother would do that, putting on airs of much more holiness than she otherwise exhibited with her close friends when her pastor showed up (the word insufferable comes to mind). I would imagine it’s common. Certainly when my father comes to visit, I am far, far more scrupulous in keeping kosher than I am normally. Fortunately he has a sense of humor (good grief! It’s just bacon it’s not like I caught you with hashish!)


  17. I really believe we have put on glasses for a long time that see some as saved, but most as lost. That is a gospel of bad news with a good suggestion. I don’t almost say in brotherhood, I say in brotherhood. The true light gives light to every man.

    All are saved, some are not. That really ought to make us stand up straight and take a close look at the very subjective reality of us being willfully or persistently in resistance to that love. And for people who have been granted faith, we ought to abandon attitudes about us being some kind of exclusive group, and acknowledge the truth about us just being part of a centered set. And that set, in knowing our loving God, is way bigger than we can imagine. The boundaries that have been constructed around different forms of Christianity are more man-made than those made for God’s family. Being exclusive or inclusive matters, because it is insidious, and gets into every fiber of one’s being. I think if we could look into a list of Christians over these many centuries who are considered inclusive, we would find ourselves in very good company.

    I’ll quote Newbigin …..”My position is exclusivist in the sense that it affirms the unique truth in Jesus Christ, but it is not exclusivist in the sense of denying the possibility of salvation of non-Christians; It is inclusivist in the sense that it refuses to limit the saving grace of God, but it rejects the inclusivism which regards religions as saving vehicles; It is pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but it rejects a pluralism which denies the uniqueness and decisiveness of what God has done in Jesus Christ”.


  18. I’ll take it one step further; I’m sure it’s just me, but in the past, overlapping my most observant church-going days, in fact, I often felt most comfortable talking about God and related religious topics at the corner bar. And apparently the comfort was mutual, as more than one barkeeper / regular customer became regulars at my church as well, no old-fashioned evangelism required.

    On the other hand, the preface “in my quiet time with The Lord today” and subsequent religious-speak is eventually going to kill me.

    CM, thanks so much for this series on Bonhoeffer. I so often feel I alone am having these thoughts and feelings. Bonhoeffer writes as though he’s peeked directly inside my brain.


  19. Perhaps we should be drawn to “religious” people as much as “religionless”. This is what I struggle with. I get so irritated with those I think live in the “Christian bubble” I forget that they are our brothers and sisters. I’ve got to be careful with the attitude of “I thank you that I am not like other people.”


  20. The more comprehensive phrase comes to us in the even more annoying form of “It was a TOTAL God thing.”

    A coworker and I have managed to downgrade this to “It was a partial God thing.” This always makes us laugh on the one hand and on the other might be a more accurate depiction of reality in a universe that is not identical to its Creator.


  21. Some of the kindest, most giving people I’ve had the privilege to know are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and of no particular beliefs at all. One of my dear friends was an atheist, and that person was more sympathetic/empathetic than a lot of us xtians… Far more so than me at times. I learned a lot from them, and that’s equally true of the other folks I’ve mentioned.

    Conscience isn’t restricted to xtians – for which I’m deeply grateful, as we tend to make a mess of things (from the Crusades to pogoms to the culture wars) more often than not.

    Also, I have a hunch that one reason some people felt threatened by Jesus is that he simply refused to engage in the “religious-speak” of his time and locale. That does tend to make people uneasy, if only because downto earth, direct ways of communicating are so essentially uncompromising, honest and just plain *real.*


  22. Jesus was notorious for hanging out by preference with the folks that good decent church people looked down on. He was also notorious for ragging on the most upright of those church people. If I had to pick out a word occupying the center of that divide, it might be “dogma”.


  23. A neighbor has a “it’s a jeep thing..you wouldn’t understand”. Man, I’d love to ding that that thing with my troglodyte twenty year old beater..


  24. > My biggest problem with religious people is that they always try to say what they
    > think will make them sound the most spiritual and holy instead of being honest

    Is this impulse limited to Religious people in anyway? This impulse plays itself outside of the religious context abundantly. It may not be to appear “spiritual”, but “in the know”, “included”, “hip”,…

    Charitably [and I fail at that virtue frequently] I try to remind myself that our over-culture is one of speech and not silence. One often, by convention, feels compelled to “say something”; this compulsion often results in poorly considered quippyness. Perhaps this impulse is fed [something, anything, must be fed to survive] by our overall negativity and our stingyness with compliments and other positive statements – leaving people in chronic doubt regarding their self-worth, value, and position. There does seem to be some kind of positive correlation between self-confidence and keeping quiet.


  25. > It doesn’t jibe that the ‘religious’ should be suffocatingly boring.

    Fortunately, they are not.

    There are those who have turned religion into a kind of partisanship, an identity – and they are often suffocatingly boring, and burdensome in the way this article describes. Using christian-speak, and the god-in-the-gaps, is much more like a ship flying a flag than it is about discussion; which is why it feels so flippant and dismissive [a conversation is about, at least to some degree, the participants in the conversation – flag flying is just about the ship]. However, I do not think “religious” describes that. I know numerous souls on the other side of the spectrum who are dreary and heavy in almost entirely the same way – just with different terms. Mention the wrong thing and you’ll get a quip about psychology or some such, just in order to dismiss the matter; as compulsively as a Christianite drops Jesus quips.

    Much of what drew me to “religion” was religious people. They were more engaged, notably different. Religious people are some of the most vital people I know. Maybe they are not “my religion”, but the correlation stands, at least for me. But, and it took me years and many bumps to figure this out, Religion is a serious business to these vital people – and something that is serious is dealt with respectfully, in the correct place, and not dragged around behind them at all times like a child’s favorite toy.


  26. > It seems dismissive and disrespectful

    It seems so because it is so. Ugh, I despise that one; the completely inappropriate times people have dropped that slogan…


  27. My biggest problem with religious people is that they always try to say what they think will make them sound the most spiritual and holy instead of being honest – to the point that they’re even trying to sound more holy than the Lord Himself. I know there are some Friends here locally that I would just love to tell them that if they were anymore full of poo that I’d actually be able to smell them.


  28. A phrase that seems to me to sum up the worst of the “Christian-speak” you mention is “It’s a God thing.” Boy, that rubs me the wrong way. It seems dismissive and disrespectful while at the same time shrugging all attempt at understanding off onto a distant deity-type object.

    I’ll go make a soothing cup of tea now . . .


  29. What I take away from this is a balance…..mentioning God as our deep and daily reality, with the same lack of pretense and matter-of-factness with which we would discuss our spouse, children, and even pets. If the only time you mention His name is in the face of all other words failing (death, disease, unemployment, divorce) then He becomes a magical talisman we take out of pocket when all else fails.

    I do recall clearly that as a younger woman and less mature Christian, I could hardly use the words “God”, “Jesus”, or “the Lord” without feeling like I was discussing something hidden, personal, and deeply embarrassing, like sex or finances. I used cute little phrases like “the man upstairs” instead. Parenthood helped me overcome this shyness in talking about God [and all other private things, when talking to kids, but that is a different topic!] Honestly cannot remember why I was so reluctant to speak of the Lord……


  30. It doesn’t jibe that the ‘religious’ should be suffocatingly boring. The joy of the resurrection is lost there. That stayed, careful, pensive conversation lacks the flow and ease which are the hallmarks of actual pleasure in living. One of the things I missed when I quit smoking was going outside with the other smokers where a lot of the fun talk went on.


  31. I had an aunt who ‘didn’t believe’ and was very open about it. But she loved nothing better than to take us up into the state forests of Western Massachusetts for the day for hiking and swimming and berry-picking. Her old jalopy was called ‘Clem Cadiddle-Hopper’ (sp?), and held my aunt as driver, and tons of us cousins and a boot (trunk) filled with ham and turkey sandwiches and home-made root beer (the old yeast recipe) . . .

    she knew where all the fire towers were and she knew the rangers and we got to go up and have a look around through the telescope equipment . . . we felt so privileged. And once when we were driving home, she said something I will never forget . . . that the forests and the trees were, for her, a ‘religion’ . . .

    She was my favorite aunt. Part of it was that she was ‘real’ and part of it was that she ‘wasn’t phony’, and it has taken me a whole life time to understand how, for me, that those two characteristics aren’t identical. This post reminded me of my aunt with these words:
    ” the “God” we are speaking of in our God-language may not be truly representative of the Creator and Incarnate One who redeemed us that we might be fully human and not less.”

    I’m convinced that in her beloved forests, my aunt experienced the Creator in ways far more real than many do who use ‘God language’.


  32. I always go contrary to the usual beliefs of friends and family, so they are used to me mentioning God and the words of the Apostles. I understand your plight; however, I don’t know the answer to your problem other than to say what is in your heart as guided by the holy spirit. You may not get instant results, but believe me, the words of Christ get through. Our Hospice Chaplain was surprised by my attitude as I seemed the most skeptical, yet I was the only one to tell him how much joy he brought to my suffering Mother – and to the family at large. You will always have doubts, as this is the human condition, but you make a huge difference in peoples lives with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit backing you up all the way. I am at tears just thinking of the comfort brought to us by God through his Chaplain. May God bless you and help you with your work.


  33. I have always found this passage very powerful and challenging. In another place in LPP, Bonhoeffer says that perhaps until Christians find a new way to authentically talk about God and the things of God in the modern situation, it might be a good and salutary thing for us to keep silence, given the fact that the old religious code-language has fallen into such disrepute and has become so incredible to so many. These excerpts and others make it understandable why the radical theologians of the middle of the last century made Bonhoeffer their muse.

    I think that it is easy to miss that Bonhoeffer is concerned with two things: 1) dishonoring and dismissing the capacities and accomplishments of humanity apart from God, which involves playing to human weakness in a way that many in the modern situation find insulting and unbelievable; 2) dishonoring and dismissing God’s presence at the center of human life, in human strength and vitality, and finding him only at the periphery, in human weakness and limitation, as if God can only operate where humanity is weak.

    In a way, such concerns run afoul of one of the main themes of Lutheran theology, the theology of the cross, even though Bonhoeffer seems not to have been aware of this, and may not have recognized it, given his statement that God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. If we are to look for God not at the periphery, not at the boundary, but in the center of life, then we can not look only and always to the cross to find him; if modern human beings are incredulous of a God who can only exist where they are weak, they will rightly want to know where in the midst of life in its vitality they may find God, and they will be suspicious of attempts to show them where he is by pointing to that most emblematic of boundary situations, the cross.

    Only a theology of resurrection, which is a theology of life (see Moltmann), can address humanity at the center of life, not excluding death and boundaries, but embracing life with all its capacities and limitations. Only a theology which honors the natural capacities and achievements of humanity as a reflection and extension of the creativity and fecundity of the creator, rather than as a threat to the power and glory of God, has any chance of speaking to a humanity that has become aware of the extent of its power and mastery, for both good and bad. Only a theology which sees humanity and God together rather than in opposition can speak a language that has any authenticity in the modern situation. Anything else will sound forced and unreal not only in the ears of the secular world, but in our own as well.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: