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.
I 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.