Bonhoeffer’s “world come of age”

(This is a follow-up to this post.)

Although the term “religionless christianity” is better known and has provoked more controversy, it is the phrase “world come of age” that had the greatest impact when Bonhoeffer’s letters became widely available. This was not the first time that Bonhoeffer had reflected on the nature of the world and the place of the Christian within it. In his pre-Tegel work, Bonhoeffer’s affirmative attitude towards the world led him to avoid the term “secularisation” since he believed it conveyed a negative and condemnatory tone. Instead he preferred to use the term “autonomy”. But when Bonhoeffer first uses the phrase “world come of age” in a letter on 8th June 1944, it dominates the landscape of his discussions from then on.

For Bonhoeffer, the term “world come of age” refers to the specific stage in the development of human history in which we found ourselves. This implies that humanity has undergone an evolution in culture, intelligence and technology and has now “grown up” to a point where humanity has the ability and responsibility to liberate itself from slavish dependence upon authority and the wisdom of previous ages.

However, Bonhoeffer did not mean by this that the world was morally better. By “world come of age” Bonhoeffer does not mean:

…the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness, characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection. (Bonhoeffer, Quoted in Bethge, p869)

Bethge believes Bonhoeffer had in mind Kant’s definition of the Enlightenment when thinking about the “world come of age”:

The Enlightenment is the emergence of humanity from self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s own intelligence without the guidance of another person. (source unknown)

Bonhoeffer can say, therefore, that the world come of age is the time when, using his own intelligence, man frees himself from the “guardianship of ‘God’” (note the quotation marks) and “that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [as if God did not exist]”.

Bonhoeffer was not alone in grappling with the nature of Christianity within a secular framework. However, while Paul Tillich, among others,  found it necessary to turn away from the christology of the Reformation in order to make sense of Christ in a secular world, Bonhoeffer saw the “world come of age” as an essential and necessary element of his theologia crucis (theology of the cross). Orthodoxy can only be understood rightly when it is stripped of religious trappings and when the world come of age is accepted and even proclaimed by the Church. The world come of age helps us to understand the gospel, since it clears away false conceptions of God so that the true God of the Bible can be perceived more clearly. Bonhoeffer suggested that, even though we may be more godless, we may, by that very fact, be closer to God now than we were before we “came of age”.

In a godless world God will be discovered not as all-powerful but as the God who allowed himself to be crucified by the world. Nevertheless, as God overcame the world in the weakness of the Cross, He will be the God  “who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.” (One can’t help thinking of the helplessness and futility of Bonhoeffer’s own plight as he wrote these words.) Bonhoeffer’s dialectical approach, recognizing both the unity and paradox of theologia crucis and the world come of age, is expressed in this now famous passage:

“…that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [as if God did not exist]. And this is just what we do recognize–before God! God himself compels us to recognise it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God let’s himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” (Bonhoeffer. Quoted in Bethge, p869)

One consequence of Bonhoeffer’s thinking is the need to change our attitude towards those previously considered hostile to Christianity. Rather than attacking Nietzche and Feuerbach, for example, we listen attentively to them “with a good conscience” (Bethge) recognizing their positive contribution to the on-going maturation of humanity. Even as the Church, we listen to them as prophets “as when they warn the church against becoming an apothecary that ministers to heavenly needs and leaves the world to its own devices” (Bethge, p.870). But the church has it’s own prophetic voice too:

…the church’s theologia crucis may serve the legacy of the Enlightenment as a protection against its own tendency toward the unrealistic. It corrects humankind’s unquenchable urge to glorify, deify, or demonise its progress. It also moves in the other direction, perhaps even more unnecessary today: it protects the Enlightenment’s proponents from the unfortunate tendency, born of a pessimistic resignation and skeptical agnosticism, toward sterile fragmentation of the individual and his or her work.” (Bethge’s words, p 870).

The world is no longer viewed as dangerous to Christianity. Being truly worldly is no longer a stain upon the character of a believer. Rather, the godless world is the necessary, unavoidable context in which God is discovered in weakness and the Christian works out his or her non-religious faith.

We finish with Bethge’s shocking summary of Bonhoeffer’s new theology concerning the world come of age:

At the time it seemed that we had never heard things expressed quite like this before: that the lordship of Christ corresponds to worldliness, and discipleship to a partaking in this world; that the natural, the profane, the rational, and the humane had its place, not against, but with this Christ. (Bethge, p. 870)

Bonhoeffer, Bethge and Metaxas

With the publication of Eric Metaxas’s acclaimed (and criticised) biography in 2010 I decided it was time to revisit Bonhoeffer. I had read most of Bonhoeffer’s best-known books as a student, but my limited theological vocabulary at the time made it a mostly fruitless exercise. To rectify this, over the past couple of years I have read Metaxas’s biography, followed by Ian Kershaw’s outstanding two-volume biography of Hitler to provide some additional historical background. I rounded it all off by reading Eberhard Bethge’s monumental biography, which (to borrow J.I.Packer’s quip about John Owen) was exhaustive and exhausting.

Rather than review these entire books, I would like to compare Metaxas’s and Bethge’s treatment of the theological themes in Bonhoeffer’s prison letters. The most significant letters were sent by Bonhoeffer to Bethge, his friend and colleague, in April 1944 onwards.

Metaxas’s assessment of the content of these theological letters is mixed. He labels Bonhoeffer’s thoughts “ruminations”, “inchoate”, “dubious”, “ill-expressed”, “scattered bricks” and “bone fragments” – but, also calls them “Bonhoeffer’s deepest thoughts”. Bonhoeffer’s own assessment of the theological letters was guarded, but positive. Bonhoeffer asked Bethge to keep the letters in case he wanted to read them at a later date, claiming he can “write some things in a more natural and lively way in a letter than in a book and in letters I often have better ideas than when I’m writing for myself.”

It is true that Bonhoeffer was reluctant to share his thoughts with a wider audience at that time. This is obviously not because he doubted them, but because they were not fully formed. Bethge tells us that Bonhoeffer would usually publish writings as soon as they were ready to provoke a response and were underpinned by argument. But, he did not need to have all objections answered at the time of publication. It seems likely, then, that Bonhoeffer had a firm grasp of this “new theology” (since he worked feverishly on a manuscript while in prison) but had not yet fleshed out the supporting arguments necessary to withstand scrutiny by a theologically astute reader.

In his biography, Metaxas focuses entirely on the infamous term “religionless Christianity” and quotes Bethge from a lecture in 1967:

…the isolated use and handing down of the famous term “religionless Christianity” has made Bonhoeffer the champion of an undialectical shallow modernism which obscures all that he wanted to tell us about the living God. (Quoted in Metaxas, p. 465)

Metaxas could never be accused of championing an undialectical shallow modernism. Nevertheless, he is guilty of an isolated assessment of a term that Bonhoeffer uses only once in his letters. Unfortunately, this does mean, to a certain extent, he obscures Bonhoeffer’s new thinking about God, Jesus, the church and the world. Furthermore, if Bonhoeffer’s thoughts were no more than ruminations, it seems a bit presumptuous for Metaxas to suggest a resolution to the controversy in little over 2 pages, using just two short passages from Bonhoeffer’s letters in support. If Metaxas’s summary of the meaning of “religionless Christianity” is accurate, it is hard to understand how Bonhoeffer failed to communicate his own thoughts as clearly and simply as Metaxas does.

In contrast, Bethge, perceiving the complex theological landscape in which this term is found, requires 37 pages of detailed discussion to help explain Bonhoeffer’s “New Theology”. Although Metaxas doesn’t say so, one wonders if he thinks Bethge is one of those “overeager theologians [who] have built diminutive Ziggurats from these few scattered bricks” (p. 466).

Metaxas believes Bonhoeffer was “rethinking some basic things and wondered whether modern man had moved beyond religion” (p. 466). “Religion” was not authentic Christianity, but an “ersatz and abbreviated” Christianity. Metaxas comments:

This ‘religious’ Christianity had failed Germany and the West during this great time of crisis, for one thing, and he wondered whether it wasn’t finally time for the lordship  of Jesus Christ to move past Sunday mornings and churches and into the whole world. But this was an extension of his previous theology, which was dedicatedly Bible centered and Christ centered.  … God was bigger than everyone imagined, and he wanted more of his followers and more of the world than was given him. … Bonhoeffer was wondering if it wasn’t time to bring God into the whole world and stop pretending he wanted only to live in those religious corners that we reserved for him. (p. 466)

In a Christianity Today interview in 2010, Metaxas again addresses the issue narrowly and provides a simple explanation:

“…by the phrase “religionless Christianity” Bonhoeffer meant only that the dead religion that was passing for Lutheran Christianity in Germany before the war had failed [his generation]. Bonhoeffer knew that for Christianity to be more than religion—more than a fig leaf—it had to declare Jesus as Lord over everything, not just the religious sphere.” (

Again, this prompts more questions. Does this adequately reflect Bonhoeffer’s concern in his theological letters? Is the idea of the total lordship of Christ over everything the reason why Bonhoeffer was sometimes “quite shocked” at what he was saying? Was such an innocuous conclusion the reason why Bonhoeffer warned Bethge “You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to” (letter, 30th April)?

The fact that Jesus is Lord over the world is a biblical truism. The fact that dead religion is not Christianity is not shocking, nor should we be worried by anyone expressing such thoughts. Bonhoeffer’s shocking thought was that Christ is Lord over the world “come of age”, and over “a world grown of age” and over a “world coming of age”. It is not the world simpliciter that Bonhoeffer is concerned with but the particular stage in Western development of which we are inescapably a part. He was questioning whether we are by nature “religious” or whether we are “worldly”, and considered how Christianity would look when the “religious a priori” is rejected. Most importantly Bonhoeffer is grappling with the consequences for our understanding of who Christ is – a question that bothered Bonhoeffer “incessantly”:

“Let me just summarize briefly what I am concerned about: the claims of Jesus Christ on a world that has come of age.” (letter 30th June, emphasis added)

It is not the fact that Christ has claims on the world, but that he has claims on a secular world, a world that has developed to a place of autonomy apart from God – a religionless world. Bonhoeffer seeks to uncover the meaning of that lordship and, as Christians, our full participation in true worldliness (not in the moral sense) that is devoid of religion. He asks:

“In what way are we “religionless–secular” Christians, in what way are we the ecclesia, those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean?”

Bethge picks out Bonhoeffer’s central point:

“…it is not a question of how we ought to proclaim the Gospel today but, in view of the historical development of the western world, of who is its content” (Bethge, p. 864, emphasis added).

“Bonhoeffer’s theme entails setting out in order to discover the presence of Christ in the world of today: it is not a discovery of the modern world, nor a discovery of Christ from this modern world. but discovering him in this world. Bonhoeffer asks the simplest of questions, from which it is impossible to emerge unchanged: “Who are you?” (Bethge, p. 865-6. Emphasis is Bethge’s).

Bonhoeffer worked hard on his manuscript. Although this manuscript is lost, we do have chapter headings and a brief outline. In that outline, Bonhoeffer refers back to his letters, which indicates that the content of those earlier letters would be developed in his manuscript. Bethge recognises themes in those letters that correspond to the chapter headings of his manuscript and uses these headings to structure his own analysis of Bonhoeffer’s “New Theology”:

(A) the world come of age (chap. 1: A Stocktaking of Christianity)
(B) nonreligious interpretation (chap. 2: The Real Meaning of Christian Faith)
(C) arcane discipline (chap. 3: Conclusions)

To understand what “religionless Christianity” means for Bonhoeffer it is essential that we, as far as we are able, take into account the breadth of Bonhoeffer’s thought in his prison letters. Bethge does this in a stimulating and well-argued manner.

As time and ability permits, I intend to provide a summary of Bethge’s analysis. By so doing, I hope it will become clear that Bonhoeffer’s thoughts are more complex and more radical than Metaxas believes them to be. And, in a small way, it may help those who do not wish to read Bethge’s 1000-page biography to know more clearly his views on the matter.