September 21, 2019

Another Look: Drawn to the Religionless

Nashville Cowboy (2017)

Another Look: 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, 21 July 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 omit doing 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.

Comments

  1. Robert F says

    I don’t encounter a lot of Christian religious language in my day to day life; for that matter, outside of the liturgy and specifically devotional group activities, I don’t encounter a lot of Christian religious language at my Lutheran church. But it is not uncommon for me to hear not necessarily Christian religious implications in the language people speak around me, for instance when they discuss why good things or bad things happen to themselves or others. There is usually a vague idea of karma, or something like it, involved in this kind of talk; and it seems to try to fill the same place that God-of-the-gaps Christian religious language does. Most of all it takes for granted an unswerving religious/philosophical belief in human agency, that people are responsible for most of what happens in their own and others lives, for their success and failures, their joys and suffering. As a result, when bad things happen, they are always looking for someone, or some bad action, to blame. This certainty that such a cause exists is their stand in for the God-of-the-gaps, and sometimes the language it leads to is just as repellent and discomfiting as God-of-the-gaps language.

    • Robert F says

      What seems to be missing in the language of many so-called religious and so-called non-religious people alike is the sense that at operation in the world is a goodness incommensurate with all human goodness and badness, beyond all deserving or cause-and-effect, something inexplicably good at the heart of things that plumbs every person and situation in ways that we can never put into our moral or karmic formulas. Yet there are people, both religious and non-religious, who speak and act in ways that seem to indicate that they know or have an intuition of this; whether they use religious or non-religious language is almost immaterial — they are islands of grace in the often unforgiving sea of human interaction.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > What seems to be missing in the language of many so-called religious and so-called
        > non-religious people alike is the sense that at … inexplicably good at the heart of things

        I feel that matches the feel of the current age which tends towards austerity and pessimism; religion appears to act more of an amplifier of mood than a generator.

        > Yet there are people, both religious and non-religious, who speak and act in ways that
        > seem to indicate that they know or have an intuition of this

        Yep.

    • Norma Cenva says

      Why not just a great big roulette wheel on which good and bad stuff happens to the good the bad and the ugly alike?
      The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes saw it that way and even concluded that it is what it is, and that there are no solid answers in this life.

  2. I used to be a smoker. When I quit there was one thing in particular that I missed. I missed going outside to the smoking area with the other smokers. There was often, not always, an edge to the conversation. A slight flaunting of decorum. Better jokes. More interesting adventures and maybe more tall tales. Smokers by their very existence as such were gamblers. Staid, polite and deferential – not so much. I have felt an almost identical feeling with Christians. I can’t wait to escape to something that smacks of normalcy and interest. Something with open possibilities as opposed to iron clad solutions. Something that acknowledges mystery, exuberance and imagination as opposed to stale repetitions. Of course there are Christians who are open and alive with the fruit of the spirit and a special joy to be with but I think I know what Bonhoeffer is talking about and have felt very much the same.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Something with open possibilities as opposed to iron clad solutions. Something that acknowledges
      > mystery, exuberance and imagination as opposed to stale repetitions

      Imagination for 1,000 Alex.

      • Throw in spontaneity and creativity, both true hallmarks of real spirit. Christians narrow the world into utter tedium. I once had a friend, a “brother in the Lord“ who came by to hang out at my house. He saw a science fiction book on my desk and said, “oh you read those kind of books“. I don’t need to elaborate on the various insinuations contained in that one short sentence. Needless to say, I was not in the “approved“ category. That was the last time I “fellowshiped” with him on a personal basis. The book he was criticizing was one of CS Lewis’ space trilogy.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          Truth!

          And in the spirit of fairness “Christians narrow the world into utter tedium” –> “Fundamentalists (aka: Evangelicals) narrow the world into utter tedium”. I offer that as a critique of some of my own circles; there are non-Christians aplenty who can be just as tedious, joyless, and withering. 🙂

          > Throw in spontaneity and creativity, both true hallmarks of real spirit

          Hallmarks or not, they make life vastly more enjoyable.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            And in the spirit of fairness “Christians narrow the world into utter tedium” –> “Fundamentalists (aka: Evangelicals) narrow the world into utter tedium”.

            Fundamentalists (AKA Evangelicals) have hijacked the word “Christian” without any modifiers to mean themselves and themselves alone.

            • Christiane says

              Headless,
              not all ‘evangelicals’ are ‘fundamentalists’

              today, someone verbally I.D.’s himself/herself as ‘Christian’, people do think the worst, sadly, as the whole gamut of images arises: proselytizing, anger, fearful, fear-mongering, pressuring, impatience with those who are ‘different’, or outright Islamophobia, outright Homophobia, misogyny, ad infinitum

              somewhere is a person patiently caring for a disabled child who can’t swallow easily, and it takes half an hour to slowly give sips of water from a glass . . . the ‘person’ doing this may not I.D. as ‘Christian’ but look at the fruit . . . the patience, the kindness, the caring . . . . and there you have it:

              ‘Christian’ is what Our Lord will recognize on the Day, it’s not some label we slap on ourselves because we are now sure of being ‘right’, and we have contempt for ‘those other sinners’, no.

              • Headless Unicorn Guy says

                Christiane, do you remember this Christianese tag line (which I heard a LOT during my time in-country):
                “I used to be Catholic, but now I’m CHRISTIAN(TM)!”

                (And you can substitute anything — Communist, Secular Humanist, Satanist — for “Catholic” without changing the meaning.)

          • Most certainly, Fundamentalists don’t have the market cornered on dullness and lack of originality. It’s just that their stated job description is to bring vitality to the world and I think that is exactly why Bonhoeffer was dismayed. You can call your religion whatever you want but if you bore the hell out of people they naturally become suspicious of your high and lofty assertions. Obvious joylessness and ennui are simply not in keeping with what we are about. Thanks for your thoughts Adam.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Throw in spontaneity and creativity, both true hallmarks of real spirit.

          Which you can only find when you get far far away from Christians(TM).

          I’m a “compulsive creative”, always bubbling over with something. For several decades after my time in-country, I could only create by putting every thought of God out of my mind; only then could things bubble up. Anything Christian(TM) acted as a damper/wet blanket; voices in my head and all.

          IMonk has had several postings about this phenomenon.

          • Oh, that’s terrible to have God the Creator become a HINDRANCE to your creativity!!! Hopefully you’ve moved beyond that unhealthy view!

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              More or less.
              Now my main problems are having to be psychologically alone in order to do anything creative (which dates from childhood) and drying up when I stress out.

              Also, there’s a large attrition factor in general; if I’m able to bring one-in-five of those bubblings into finished form, I figure I’m ahead of the curve.

              • Rick Ro. says

                One in five sounds like a good ratio to me and my experience! 😉

                And I hear you on the “psychologically alone” part.

    • Chris, you’re hitting them out of the park lately with your personal experiences. Your “hang out with the smokers” feeling – I totally understand what you’re saying. I think that’s why I prefer listening to secular music: 1) the musicianship and song complexity is infinitely better (my wife and I were commenting on the blandness of music that gets Christian airplay these days); and 2) it speaks more to what people are actually LIVING (for better or worse).

      That’s not to say I don’t like praise and worship songs. But I much prefer rock/alt rock/folk/etc etc. Much more interesting.

      Keep posting, dude!

      • Thanks RnR. I totally agree on the music. I can listen to ‘secular’ music with tears streaming down my face (the Irish in me) because I am in touch with Him.

  3. Robert F says

    It’s interesting that Bonhoeffer says what he does about Christian religious language and mentality in a culture that I can’t imagine was much, if at all, influenced by evangelical Christianity (in the American style). We should note that such God-of-the-gaps Christian religious language and attitude preexisted its specifically American evangelical iteration; it is not a uniquely American problem, but seems to be a longstanding problem of Christianity.

    • Of the religious of all stripes.

      • Robert F says

        Yes, of course, you’re right — it’s not just Christianity or Christians.

        • Christiane says

          no, not since the Incarnation, and Bonhoeffer was very aware of the consequence to the whole human race of all times because of the Incarnation, when Christ assumed our humanity to Himself in order to heal it, and then we humans were related to one another differently than before, much differently.

          it’s NOT just Christianity or Christians, no

  4. 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.

    This drives me a little bit crazy, since I am of two minds about it. On one hand, I feel perfectly OK just letting the Blodgetts live their Blodgett-y lives without pestering them too much about the demands of Jesus. After all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Even once you get outside the Heartland and into Diversity World®, you find that practitioners of other religions have pretty much the same laissez-faire attitude about religion that the Christians have. It’s all well and good in its place, honoring the demands of tribe and culture and all that, but business and its demands are primary. After all, bills have to be paid and the kids need to be clothed and educated. There is a devout Sunni Muslim I have a business relationship with. Of all the people I know, he is the closest to someone who practices his religion because he wants to cultivate a relationship with God. And I prefer Shi’a Islam to Sunni.

    Yet at the same time, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection aren’t really necessary if your goal in life is to live in a realistic, common-sense environment where the maximization of pleasure and the avoidance of pain is the primary goal. Even you, CM, have to admit that most of your non-religious contacts have been living off of borrowed capital, spending the last few coppers, as Solzhenitsyn put it, of the gold coins laid down by their ancestors. Their children and grandchildren won’t be living the same way. Man was meant to be divine, not mediocre, and Screwtape wins when man embraces mediocrity even if he refuses outright wickedness.

    I agree with you that the problem is that the scaffolding currently supporting our threadbare Christendom does not allow for the insertion of Jesus into human strengths and goodness. Revivalism really did a tune on that, especially with its insistence that you have to acknowledge yourself to be a pretty horrible person to be able to avail yourself of Jesus and the Church. Jesus started getting a reputation as a safe harbor for last-gaspers. As one person told me, ‘there has to be a place where you can meet Jesus other than at the end of your rope.’

    • You criticize the Revivalists, yet you share their low anthropology/theology. You believe that the connection between God in Christ and the human race can be severed by spending “borrowed capital”, as if God has put a limited amount of resources into the purse of humanity, so much and no more. Your God is a skinflint, just like the Revivalist’s.

      • Dana Ames says

        Robert,

        Mule can answer for himself, but I’d encourage you to read again, especially here:

        “…most of your non-religious contacts have been living off of borrowed capital, spending the last few coppers, as Solzhenitsyn put it, of the gold coins laid down by their ancestors. Their children and grandchildren won’t be living the same way.”

        I think Mule is talking about the sense that our lives are handed on to us, so more of knowing one’s place in one’s tradition (whatever that happened to be). With our modernist notion that we can construct our own identities without reference to our past – or anything else given to us, for that matter – we are adrift now, not living in the same way as our ancestors (for good as well as for ill). That goes for many of those who adhere to a “threadbare Christendom” – those who name the Name but don’t look like Jesus – a subset of which may be some of those who can only use religious jargon in their speech. (Others of those religious-jargon-using folks may truly look like Jesus, but for one reason or another can’t figure out how to drop the jargon.) If I’m missing something, I hope Mule will set the record straight.

        And then, this:

        “Man was meant to be divine, not mediocre, and Screwtape wins when man embraces mediocrity even if he refuses outright wickedness.”

        This is far from a low anthropology – and it’s Orthodox anthropology. It’s one of the many reasons I myself swam the Bosporus. I haven’t found any view of humanity than is higher than that of Eastern Christianity; I don’t think such a view even exists.

        Cut the Mule some slack, dear poet…

        Dana

        • Robert F says

          I think most Christians have always adhered to a “threadbare Christianity”, Dana, naming the Name but not looking like Jesus. But however that may be, given Mule’s other iMonk comments and replies, I question how he envisions looking like Jesus . Mostly he seems to support adhering to a traditional sexual morality as the mark for determining whether the masses of people are emulating a life like Jesus’, or trying to follow his commands, while nonviolence, unstinting love of neighbor, voluntary poverty, what the Catholic Church calls the “counsels of perfection”, are left to the monastic few. That means that in his vision, adhering to traditional sexual morality is the capital that our “ancestors” have left to us, and from which we are borrowing to live; beside the fact that I doubt that most of them actually lived by the standards of such a morality, and therefore had little capital to bequeath us, I don’t think that this is a compelling vision of what it means to live like or follow Jesus for most people, now or in previous eras. And because of that I think it ends in the same place of hypocrisy and culture war that American Christianity has brought us to now.

          I will be glad to cut Mule some slack, Dana, asking only that he respond in kind.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > if your goal in life is to live in a realistic, common-sense environment where the
      > maximization of pleasure and the avoidance of pain is the primary goal

      For most humans lives that goal is a lofty one.
      A reality Theologians and Intellectuals are apt to forget.

    • –> “This drives me a little bit crazy, since I am of two minds about it.”

      Ah, the tension of “it could be this or it could be that.” Whenever I sense “tension” like that I know that I’m at a place God wants me to be. I also think tensions like this are more “philosophical” issues than what actual “truth” might be.

      I’ve seen people arguing over certain things being done in church as if God cared which side was right. I’ve come to the conclusion most of those arguments are philosophical preferences than actual God’s “truth.”

  5. Burro (Mule) says

    Reply posted on my blog.

    Always moderated, never imitated.

    • It’s not borrowed capital. The transcendent inhabits the hearts of human beings, and of humanity; it is inextinguishable. The divine “signals of transcendence” (to borrow a term from professional sociologist and amateur theologian Peter Berger) can be covered over and obscured, but they will find the light of day again, no matter how dark the night gets. The light that God gives by way of the human heart cannot be obliterated until every last human heart has stopped beating; and even then, the dead human heart is in the hands of a resurrecting God

      • Clay Crouch says

        Very well put. All I can do is trust and my track record in that department is far from stellar. If anything else is required of me, I’m lost.

  6. Today’s post reminds me of a quote from George Bernard Shaw (I think) who said he liked the Eiffel Tower because that was the only place in Paris where you can’t see the Eiffel Tower. I think at least one of Bonhoeffer’s goals was to see in a different way, to see the Godly from the perspective of the Godless, and the only way to do that is to stand with them, standing on the Eiffel Tower to see the rest of Paris.

  7. Christiane says

    if anyone needs a refresher on what Bonhoeffer was dealing with in his day, I recommend the Netflix film
    “Charite at War”

    how bad will it get for our own caged ‘border children’?
    I don’t know anymore.

    (don’t worry, J.B., I’m not going ‘off the rails’ tonight, well not entirely )

    • Christiane ~ you frequently mention the caged children/situation at the border. It is all very confusing to me and I feel I have nowhere to go to get the answers.

      I sense from you (and hundreds of tweets from others) that ‘Christians/Republicans/Conservatives’ are turning a blind eye to the situation. Here are my questions:

      -What source can provide true and accurate information? I have read reports that this was happening during Obama’s term, but the media didn’t cover it. The situation seemed to have exploded overnight. How in the world were detention spaces found, created, staffed, resourced, virtually overnight? What should be done with all these people and their children? How can we manage these great numbers without it becoming total chaos?
      -And what can I do? I am frustrated to no end by the shaming that people like me aren’t doing anything. Well, what would you have me do? I live in the rural Midwest. I don’t speak Spanish. I have no legal background. I work full-time and have a family. I am sincerely asking…what should I do?

      • You should just carry on feeling guilty and worrying about things you can do nothing about.

        Screwtape will be happy.