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)