In 1944, the darkest of German Julys, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison to his friend and comrade, Eberhard Bethge. The Lutheran theologian had been arrested after the failed Wolf’s Lair attempt on Hitler’s life. Bonhoeffer had not directly participated in the plot, though he was certainly connected to those who did, and he had been instrumental in forming a “confessing church” that had resisted the capitulation of the Lutheran Church to the Nazi state.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer represented the best of 20-century Christians. His father was a psychiatrist, but he chose to follow his maternal grandfather’s profession, studying and teaching theology. At the start of the Second World War, he was a visiting professor at Union Theological in New York City. He could have remained there until the Nazi scourge was lifted from Germany, but Bonhoeffer felt that the Gospel compelled his return.
Like many an imprisoned intellectual, Bonhoeffer used his time in prison to ponder, specifically, current events in the light of the Gospel and its promise. He had long argued that Christians could not cling to a “God of the Gaps,” by which he meant the deity that we invoke when something can’t be explained. The problem with this approach is that most everything, eventually, is explained by us. What gap does that then leave for God?
In his letter, Bonhoeffer went even further. He proposed that Christians must begin to live etsi Deus non daretur (as if God were not a given). He essentially conceded that the modern world, one built upon science, technology and the liberties of democracy does not need God. It is accomplishing for itself what it once looked to God to do. He wrote:
Bonhoeffer saw an explanation for his 20th century in Martin Luther’s teaching of the two kingdoms, one heavenly and one earthly, that scarcely intersect with one another, and in another beloved theme of the reformer, the cross of Christ.
Notice that Bonhoeffer wasn't saying that God does not exist. He’s arguing that God’s apparent absence is a paradoxical sign of, what might be called, God’s humility, the humility that God showed when Christ died upon the cross. At the very moment when God acted most decisively in world history, Calvary, God appeared to be virtually erased in the world, as Christ’s lifeless body hung upon the cross.
In his new Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama (2016), journalist Kenneth L. Woodward sees a long line of American successors to the thought of Bonhoeffer’s God-less world. Though, unlike the martyred German, they were much more confident in the power of progress. He writes:
These works self-eviscerated liberal Protestantism in America, leaving behind empty sanctuaries and utterly secular universities. And with reason: If human progress itself is God’s agent of change, why does God, or humanity, need a church, need to hear a call to conversion?
What’s left of American—and increasingly global—Christianity composes two camps: Evangelicals and Catholics, both of whom reject the idea that human history always moves forward, that it ever evolves, becoming something invariably better.
The Christian faith does not teach an endlessly self-evolving humanity. The faith doesn’t say that men and woman are becoming just a little bit better with each passing age. And, without some editing, the church does not confess what Martin Luther King Jr. asserted in 1965: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” That arc doesn’t necessarily bend towards justice. To the contrary, it must be, and it was, bent toward justice in the mangled body of the God-Man.
Lots of Americans, and people around the globe, right now, feel scared and saddened. Lots of others are quite jubilant, believing that, long promised and ever-delayed, change is on its way.
This little passage from Malachi gathers up Gospel teaching. It still bespeaks the hope of Christians.
Yes, we can, and must, strive to make the world a better place. Yet we need to admit that our great secular schemes, movements in which humans marched etsi Deus non daretur, have failed: communism, facism, and, now perhaps, secular democracy.
I think Bonhoeffer was right. God does withdraw on the cross of Christ. There, God becomes something that evokes our pity. That’s where the journey back to God begins. In pitying the God of Jesus Christ, we come to love that God. And in loving God, we begin to pity ourselves, trying to live in a world without God, etsi Deus non daretur.
Malachi 3: 19-20a 2 Thessalonians 3: 7-12 Luke 21: 5-19