The End of Religion?
THE RELIGION OF THE END OF RELIGION
The contemporary French atheist historian Marcel Gauchet proposed the idea that Christianity is “the religion of the end of religion” in his book The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion (original French title: Le Désenchantement du monde. Une histoire politique de la religion, Gallimard, Paris, 1985). Together with fellow French atheist and philosopher Luc Ferry, he recaptured this idea among others in Le Religieux après la religion (Grasset, Paris, 2004).
The idea that the Judeo-Christian traditions play a major role in the secularization of western society is not new. It has been adopted time and again by researchers and intellectuals who each highlight different aspects of this process. German atheist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) goes so far as to say that “only a Christian can be a good atheist and only an atheist can be a good Christian” in his book Atheism in Christianity. Bloch’s quote is reminiscent of accusations directed at Christians from time to time in Antiquity, namely that Christians were atheists. One finds a good example of this in The Martyrdom of Polycarp (2nd-3th century AD), an early Christian work recounting how Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was burned to death at the demands of a crowd that screamed against Christians
Away with the Atheists; let Polycarp be sought out!
The reaction of the pagan crowds becomes especially clear from the point of view of René Girard’s reading of the biblical stories. Girard claims that “Christianity destroys mythology”. He convincingly argues that the Judeo-Christian scriptures eventually reveal the scapegoat mechanism as the cornerstone of ancient religious communities and their sacrificial rites. Hence it is not surprising that the gospels repeatedly denounce the importance of sacrificial rituals, for instance in Mark 12:33: “To love Him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices…” Referring to the prophetic traditions of the Old Testament, Jesus clearly reacts against a certain understanding of sacrifice – Matthew 9:13: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice…’” (see for example Hosea 6:6: “For I take pleasure in love, and not in sacrifices; and in the knowledge of God more than in burnt-offerings…”; or Psalm 51:16-17: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise…”).
Perhaps it’s better to speak of a Christianity transforming religion and mythology than of a Christianity destroying them. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says (Matthew 5:23-24): “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” So, instead of sacrifice being a means by which people try to resolve a crisis, it becomes a means by which people say grace for a peace they obtained by taking up their own responsibility.
The apostle Paul radically relativizes religious regulations and rituals – for instance in his letter to the Colossians (2:16-23): “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
No wonder the early Christians were called ‘atheists’!
TRANSFORMING HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS:
FROM KARMA TO GRACE
The system of do ut des or quid pro quo as the main way to relate to others and to God is abandoned by Jesus. From the perspective of the gospels, a heavenly situation is a consequence of one’s actions, it is not the ultimate goal. The goal is to love others, even if this implies that one is not loved by others in return – although of course one loves guided by the hope that one will be loved (see: “Give and you shall be given…”, Luke 6:38). From this perspective one loves not in order to gain a reward in ‘heaven’, but the experience of Love has ‘heavenly effects’. A life of charity is guided by the question “What can I give to others who I don’t necessarily need (to others outside my usual circle of friends)?” That’s what Jesus is saying, among others, in his parable of the good Samaritan. We usually tend to pay attention to people who give us something that we seem to desire: some sort of recognition, comfort, a good feeling, nurturing, love and understanding. But other people are more than mere means to satisfy our needs and desires. If we only focus on what we are missing – on a ‘yin’ side that has to be complemented by a certain ‘yang’ – then we run the risk of walking passed the other we don’t seem to need to fill our voids, but who is in need himself.
The reality of charity and grace breaks through the balanced harmony of mutual friendships (see Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:27-38). The story of grace disturbs the story of karma. It implies that we are willing to approach others out of freedom, and not because we depend on them to fulfill certain needs. It implies that we are willing to give ourselves to others from the fullness of our personality, sharing the qualities and talents we discovered in ourselves and dared to accept. That’s why, during the Catholic sacrament of marriage, weds are asked: “Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?” That’s why Saint Francis prays: “Grant that I may not so much seek to be loved as to love…” For if we only seek to be loved, we will sooner or later take sides with the powerful to gain social recognition against the victims of the establishment.
Anyway: heavenly, paradisiac, indeed ‘peaceful’ situations which are based on sacrifice and scapegoating impulses are condemned by the Christ of the gospels. Jesus questions ‘natural’ ties of loyalty (Matthew 10:34-36: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”). We should never accept injustices, even if they are produced by our friends or relatives.
That’s why one could say, within this context, that “Christianity destroys religion” – the term religion referring to a “sacrificial system”. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) became very aware of the difference between sacrifical religions of the atheist Nazi regime and certain churches on the one hand, and the non-sacrificial ‘religion’ of Christ on the other.
DIETRICH BONHOEFFER’S RELIGIONLESS CHRISTIANITY
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who actively opposed the state-controlled German Evangelical Church under Adolf Hitler. He co-founded the so-called Confessing Church. Because of his political involvement, he would eventually be imprisoned. On April 5th 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and taken to Tegel prison in Berlin. After a stay in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, he ended up at Flossenburg, where he was hanged on April 9th 1945. He was 39 years old and died just 23 days before the end of the Second World War.
Bonhoeffer’s spiritual and theological writings, not least those from the time of his captivity, became very influential. Of special note is Bonhoeffer’s mention of a “religionless Christianity”. Hermes Donald Kreilkamp elaborates on Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘Christianity’ (from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Prophet of Human Solidarity):
Religion, for Bonhoeffer, was worship which had little contact or concern with the deeper currents of life. It was religion fostered by the Enlightenment, religion which involved the worship of a God remote from human life and worship little concerned with biblical social teachings. For some it might include a feeling of admiration for the universe or nature, with the divine as the origin of it all, but it was a kind of religion which included little or no sensitivity to God’s immanence in the world here and now, much less a sensitivity to his involvement in human suffering. For others such religion might foster a comfortable feeling of inward piety, of calm and repose, but with little concern for the needs of the hungry or the poor. A renewed Christianity, Bonhoeffer was convinced, will slough off such religion, to be true to the ideals set by Christ its Lord and by James.
The philosophers of the age of Enlightenment had talked much about proving the existence of God by abstract reasoning, proceeding from various intellectual data or abstract principles. Such philosophers or theologians could spend hours showing the harmony of the universe and the unity of its laws, giving every indication of their divine origin. Such thinkers took religion as a quite natural phenomenon and considered it fitting to regard the being of such a God with awe, but they had little concern about how one actually went about, from day to day, worshiping such a God in human community.
Insofar as the Deistic notion of God and of religion took hold on the minds even of Christians, religion became simply an extolling of the glory of God in nature rather than an involvement with his struggle in human nature. As Bonhoeffer noted, the outcome even of the Lutheran reform was, unfortunately, not the perception of grace as something bought for us at a great price, but the notion of it as easily obtained, or, to use contemporary parlance, as cheap. What Bonhoeffer often pondered was what grace cost Jesus, and what it still costs to live as Jesus lived. Bonhoeffer reflected still more on the continuing need for renewal and reconciliation which, it seemed to him, his church refused to consider, choosing not to preach about, or to speak out on, the social injustices of the time – the needs of the poor and those in prisons and concentration camps.
Adam Ericksen of The Raven Foundation wrote a sermon, commenting on Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 98 and Luke 21:5-9, in which he refers to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the notion of “religionless Christianity”. Ericksen sketches out the context in which Bonhoeffer used this notion:
During the first half of the 20th century, there was a major German theologian. He was brilliant and his books, especially those on the great reformer Martin Luther, remain influential. As a man, he was well respected and well-liked by his colleagues and his students. He was gracious to his friends and his foes. He was known for being a mediator. He didn’t like the theological or political extremes and he avoided making radical statements. His name was Paul Althaus. Althaus was described by his colleagues as having “no character defects … he [exhibited] … a warm and humane personality. He was the perfect gentleman, friend and teacher.” (Robert P. Ericksen, Theologians Under Hitler, [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985] 79).
We tend to value moderation and especially as we look upon the present American political climate, we can appreciate Althaus’s spirit of moderation.
You and I, of course, can easily judge this not as moderation, but as extremely reprehensible. Still, Althaus and his colleagues saw him as a moderate, and according to his cultural context, in many ways he was. He critiqued some Nazi practices, but overall he was pleased with the political climate. Some theologians within Germany even thought Hitler would deliver the Kingdom of God. This sentiment was too extreme for Althaus, but he associated Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 with a religious sentiment. For Hitler gave the German people “a sense of unity, of calling, of obedience and of profound meaning in life, all of which are religious in nature.” (Ericksen, 85).
Rather than being a mediator, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a radical. He knew that his culture demanded a divided loyalty. Indeed, this was an apocalyptic moment in world history. Hitler came, saying, “I am he!” Jesus warned us about just such a person, but Althaus, like many German Christians, wanted both Hitler and Christ. But Bonhoeffer knew the way of Hitler was incompatible with the way of Christ. Like the early Christians had to choose between Caesar and Christ, Bonhoeffer knew that his 20th century Germans had to choose between Hitler and Christ. There could be no middle ground; there was no room for moderation.
Racist Nazi laws defined the Jewish people as less than Volk; indeed, as less than human. This, as we know, led to the most horrific genocide the world has known. And it was supported by many religious people.
If this is what religion does, Bonhoeffer asserted, then the world needed a “religionless Christianity.” Rather than emphasizing “religion” Christianity should emphasize the God revealed through Christ. A Christ centered Christianity has nothing to do with a religion that devalues human beings and makes them into victims. Rather, a Christ centered Christianity means that Christians would confront abuses of power and stand with the victims of political regimes. Bonhoeffer wrote that Christians, and the church, are obliged to do just that. He wrote, “In the first place, [the church] can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, [in other words] [the church] can throw the state back on its responsibilities. Secondly, [the church] can aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, 221. Quoted from Renate Wind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, [Gran Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002] 69).
It was this unconditional obligation to the victims that led Bonhoeffer to stand with the Jewish people, and yet he didn’t want to create further victims. For most of his life, he took a non-violent stance against Hitler. In his most influential book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer had to have had Hitler in mind when he wrote that when Jesus says, “love your enemies”, “Jesus means those who are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love, who forgive us nothing when we forgive them all, who requite our love with hatred and our service with derision … Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it. And who needs it more than those who are consumed with hatred and are utterly devoid of love.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 148).
And, yet, we know that Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to kill his enemy, Hitler. He took no pleasure in that plot. He didn’t see it as the will of God. It is a false religion that supports killing another person in the name of God. Bonhoeffer’s reasons for participating in the plot to kill Hitler primarily had to do with guilt and responsibility; the modern German theologian Renate Wind states that Bonhoeffer “faced the question which was the greater guilt, that of tolerating the Hitler dictatorship or that of removing it. In particular,” Bonhoeffer believed that “anyone who was not ready to kill Hitler was guilty of mass murder.” And yet, Wind claims that Bonhoeffer “left no doubt that any use of force is and remains guilt.” (All quotes in this paragraph from Renate Wind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, 144).
Human violence and the age old human religion that pits “us against them” put Bonhoeffer in a lose-lose situation. There were no good choices. He now felt the most responsible choice was to use violence. But he took responsibility for it. He never projected that violence upon the God revealed in Christ. So, as a man of integrity, before he plotted to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer officially and deliberately left the church of Christ.
The plot to kill Hitler failed and Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. While in prison, he wrote letters to his friends. In one of those letters he reflected upon his life and upon his own sense of responsibility and of guilt. He wrote that the only hope we have amidst “life’s duties, problems … experiences and perplexities” is to “throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.”
Near the end of that letter Bonhoeffer gave this blessing to his friend, “May God in his mercy lead us through these times; but above all, may he lead us to himself.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997] 370).
Despite his own experience of persecution and the horrors surrounding him, Bonhoeffer lived and died believing in the God revealed through Christ. Bonhoeffer was executed just a few weeks before World War II ended. His last words were, “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.” (Renate Wind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, 180).
WHY I HATE RELIGION, BUT LOVE JESUS
Jeff Bethke wrote a rap poem that caused quite a stir on YouTube, recapturing the idea that Christianity brings an end to religion. I understand Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus as a poetic expression. It should be quite clear from what is mentioned in this post so far why Bethke distinguishes between ‘religion’ and ‘Christ’s way of life’ (transforming ‘religion’ I’d say).
CLICK TO WATCH:
RELIGIOUS NEW ATHEISM
This video got a response from someone who calls himself The Amazing Atheist. It’s clear that The Amazing Atheist is not interested in a constructive dialogue with Christianity or other theistic traditions, unlike the above mentioned atheists (Marcel Gauchet, Luc Ferry, Ernst Bloch). He doesn’t seem to have the slightest idea where the distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘Christ’ comes from. It’s clear that The Amazing Atheist belongs to the religion of ‘new atheism’, which once again unites certain people against a common enemy, this time ‘theistic religions’. The religion of new atheism has some adherents in the Netherlands as well, and holds the ideology that theistic beliefs are stupid and that they are main sources of evil in the world. A religious upbringing, for example, is called ‘child abuse’. Not surprisingly, the website which brings some Dutch new atheists together is called god.voor.dommen, which translates to ‘god.for.stupids’. Reading that site, one gets the impression that many (not all!) atheists think of themselves as being intellectually and morally superior to theists.
Of course not every atheist is an anti-theist. It should be noted, however, that anti-theists base their conversations regarding theistic traditions on an initial aversion or even hatred against those traditions. A rationality guided by such sentiments is highly questionable. It has the tendency to stereotype ‘the enemy’, and to focus only on elements which seem to prove the stereotype. For example, the new atheists of god.voor.dommen sometimes accuse theists of having no sense of humour – theists should be able to accept all kinds of mockery regarding their religious traditions. I’d say: of course, but there are limits to humour. We all have our sensitivities, and it’s not too hard to take them into account. I discovered that some of the anti-theists on god.voor.dommen don’t like ‘copy paste’ procedures from previously posted messages in an online discussion. At first I thought it couldn’t be that irritating, but finally I realized some of my interlocutors were really annoyed by it. They didn’t think it was funny or helping the discussion.
People have the right to say they feel offended, and we shouldn’t justify our own actions too easily by holding the offended responsible for having “no sense of humour”. Normally, people don’t want to offend each other, and I guess most of us will apologize whenever we make a joke that is interpreted as an insult. I know I’ve had to say “I didn’t mean it that way” a couple of times. English model Katie Price is right for asking apologies from stand-up comedian Frankie Boyle after his ‘joke’ about her mentally disabled son Harvey – saying Price needed protection from a new boyfriend because her son might rape her. The defenders of Frankie Boyle appeal to the right to freedom of expression and of speech. As if Frankie Boyle is the real victim!
Freedom of speech is one of the great accomplishments of modernity, but it was intended to foster tolerance between citizens who have the right to hold different opinions. Nowadays it is often used to insult others. Hence the original idea of the freedom of speech is perverted. If someone feels insulted, it’s his problem… If he kills himself because of continuous verbal harassment and verbal violence, likewise… Apart from that, humour as a creative weapon that the powerless use to criticize the powerful is also threatened. Nazi Germany presented German citizens as victims of the so-called powerful Jews, mocking the Jews in caricatures, but the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust reveals the real victims. Seeing Frankie Boyle next to Katie Price’s son Harvey I wonder if it’s so difficult to know which one of the two belongs to the powerless…
A NEW LANGUAGE
A NEW WAY OF COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS
The final words of this post come from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who really testified to the Word of Christ’s God of Love, hoping for new ways of communicating Christ’s grace in ever changing times:
“It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom… Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time.”
CLICK TO WATCH a fragment from the biopic Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace (2000, director: Eric Till):