From the confines of his Nazi imprisonment, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestled with God. The Lutheran pastor and scholar, arrested for his attempt to overthrow Hitler, had watched his country and Christian community trampled with propaganda and lies. He’d responded with a call for “religion-less Christianity,” a desire for fellow believers to understand that watching with Jesus in Gethsemane meant moving into that liminal space of waiting: waiting for a God who apparently either failed, or has failed to show up.
Jesus’ own words from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” are the watchwords for those in solidarity with the lost, the doubters, the secular unbelievers who find it impossible to believe in a loving God in the face of barbarity and universal misery, to believe in the goodness of Good Friday.
I don’t think I am alone in saying I find Bonhoeffer’s “religion-less Christianity” refreshing, a cup of cold water in an era where “religion” is often despised. In much of our popular media, Christians are vilified as judgmental, censorious, self-righteous prigs who rain on the parade of everyone else. And if believers continue to identify narrowly with this tribal persona, this vilification will only grow louder in the public square. Or worse, the accusations will be partly true.
Believers would do well, then, to ask alongside our unbelieving friends the same hard question: What of this God outside religion?
This God creates a world in which it is possible for children to be mistreated in extreme and unmentionable ways — even gunned down at elementary school. This God creates a world in which women are allowed to be abducted and enslaved to sex purveyors who not only have them continually raped and abused, but sees them turned to stone — their hearts destroyed and every dream of a good married life with children forever denied them. This God creates a world where people can starve and die of malnutrition and dysentery moment to moment ... by the millions.
“What sort of God would do this?” asks the doubter, the sensitive soul who desires justice and fairness and a good life for everyone. Who can believe in or worship this God? Isn’t it better to tough it out, deal with doubt and grief, and do something rather than passively believe?
Yet we respond — as Bonhoeffer did — that this God, the Creator, is the “Father” of Jesus, whose will Jesus declared to be “food and drink,” the God whose utterly unique goodness he testifies to and is willing to die for. The Christ of history rejects the assessment that the Creator is maleficent, that God is at best indifferent to our plight. And Jesus’ life reveals this very thing.
Indeed, Gethsemane and the cross are Jesus’ answer to these questions about God’s integrity. He as much as says, “If you wonder how God thinks and feels about human misery, look at me.” He says to Philip when asked that he show the disciples God, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” And he then goes to the cross.
Christ’s God created a world such that one cannot escape the implications of this dilemma. If we are going to love, it must cost everything. Anything less is something else, perhaps a diminished form of love.
So it isn’t hard to understand why those in our culture despise religion. Yet it is not religion that had the disciples of Jesus in its hold. It was love: costly, sacrificial, self-giving love.
Religion is often more concerned with legalities than with love, a set of do’s and don’ts or doctrinal propositions. But Christ calls his disciples to a relationship with God, not simply to assent to correct doctrine. And that relationship is with One who radically identified with those who find it impossible to believe. “Why hast thou forsaken me?” is turned into, “Thy goodness is real even if I die. It is You who are dying with me.” It is a promise that lives beyond the grave, infecting all those willing to pay with their lives for a better world, a renewed heaven and Earth.
I think T.S. Eliot put it best in the last couple stanzas of his Four Quartets:
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from ...
... With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Bonhoeffer knew his end was also his beginning. At the end of self — and man-made religion — is where we, too, find God risen, waiting for us.
Bruce Herman is the Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in the art department at Gordon College in Wenham. He and his wife live in Gloucester. Herman’s current work on “The Four Quartets” is part of a touring collaboration in poetry, paint and music, and comes to Gordon College on April 13. Visit www.gordon.edu/qu4rtets for more information.