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Christianity after religion

Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected about religionless Christianity:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inward and conscience—and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now cannot honestly describe themselves as religious any more… “Christianity” has always been a form—perhaps the true form of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically-conditioned and transient form of self-expression, and if therefore mankind becomes radically religionless—and I think that is already more or less the case (how else, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any religious reaction?)—what does that mean for Christianity? (Letters and Papers from Prison).

Homo religiosus, it has been argued since Bonhoeffer, is dying or already dead – at least in the West. People like Diana Butler Bass with her book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (I’m sorry, I have not read this so can make no comment on it) argue that there is a spiritual revival with the “end of church”. Interestingly, I’ve received a lot of “off-site” reaction to “Ashes on the go“, and it comes up again as part of the end of church reflection:

What do you think? Do you think homo religiosus, and religion, is dying? Does it matter? Will Christianity survive the death of religion? Spiritual but not religious? Or is religion transforming? Or staying the same…

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24 thoughts on “Christianity after religion”

  1. In the ‘western’ world we do seem to be witnessing the undoing of the church as a cultural institution with a legitimate voice in the cultural conversation – we are truly dis-established. However, any movement that desires to maintain the integrity of its message, will organize itself to do so or disappear. I don’t think Christ or Christ’s message is in danger of actually disappearing from the world, thus it seems unlikely that religion will disappear. It may not look like what we’ve known exactly, but it will still exist.

  2. Religion is an expression of mankind’s long for God and is something easily perverted.

    Christianity is the FAITH in God and is expressed in the CHURCH which is the body of believers and which is headed by Jesus Christ and against which the gates of hell will not prevail.

    It is all well and good for people in vestments to go out on the streets and put penitential ashes on the foreheads of passersby and to quote random recipients enthusiastic gushings of the same as some sort of new beginning in the Christianity BUT the recipient of Ashes today will tomorrow encounter someone dressed as a giant condom on her way to work and just as happily receive a condom from the safe sex campaigner as she received the penitential ashes.

    And next week the penitential ashes will be replaced by a plastic red nose as the cause de jour is celebrated in that manner. Thus is the Christian message drowned out by joining the babble and clamouring for a 60 second spot on the six o’clock news by stunts.

    The FAITH is maintained by grannies who, head covered, go to Church week after week, year after year and by the old sexton who fills the lamps and removes the empty booze bottles and used condoms from the church porch before the grannies get there and joining in worship of the Risen Christ with them.

    But these people don’t make for good TV or YouTube videos which are for those with a five minute attention span and are essentially ephemera.

    1. I think what you say very, very important, Andrei. Christian spirituality is counter-cultural to the five-minute-attention-span culture; to infotainment, religiotainment. When this generation is at the grannies age you mention, will they have been reached, and how? Blessings.

  3. This question is very much alive among the members of my parish. The grannies will not be with us all that much longer and the young ones are not lining up to inherit. Spiritual but not religious is a rejection of the Church of the Apostles’ making. The Christianity of the grannies to come will look very different indeed.

    1. Have Faith, Deborah Dunn, have Faith;

      The mistake you are making is to think in the way the marketing management of a fast food chain thinks. They are in the business of increasing the turn over of hamburgers.

      You are in the business of living a life in the Christian Faith, of quiet witness to the Truth that has been revealed to you.

      Church is about you receiving the spiritual nourishment and support you need to continue the struggle in this fallen world and to reveal Christ to others in the way you go about your daily business in patience and with forbearing.

      To be sure you can invite the unchurched you know to join you in Sunday or other Worship and that is a very good thing to do. But leave it to God to fill the pews – marketing strategies, no, no, no! A loosing proposition in the long term because growing in the Faith is a life long thing – A rock band may fill the pews with young (and drive the grannies away most likely) but it will grow stale soon enough and the bar down the street will before long have a newer, cooler one so the pews will empty at the expense of the bar stools filling.

      Our Faith is timeless, the same as it was yesterday and the same as it will be tomorrow – it does not need rewriting to conform to today’s fads.

      My late mother was one of those grannies and her children and grandchildren are all in different places on their journeys of Faith – I have a brother who was at one stage a militant atheist, I don’t know where he is now, I do not, but he will be in church with his family on the anniversary of her death and in his home Christian Icons hang on the walls, When people come to his house they are drawn to the icons, it is quite remarkable thing, they ask about them, are curious and clearly touched by them. God works in mysterious ways.

      1. Might I add to your points, Andrei, working, as I do, primarily with young people – young people do not want “a rock band” as much as older people think they do. Young people want a place where they can safely explore their faith and values, and where people take this exploration seriously. Blessings.

  4. I think Christianity will absolutely carry on, but not like it has (especially not with a 1950s American model of “open the church doors and they will come”).

    Dianna Butler Bass was the keynoter at our denomination’s Annual Conference last year. The most useful image I got from the presentation was an upside down “U” graph. And she asked “What do you think this is?” Everyone assumed is was church membership decline chart. She said “Nope. That is the number of pay-phones in the nation.” The point was pay-phones are dying, but communication is at an all time high; just because old religious institutions are declining does not mean people are any less religious. But the ways of engaging that spirituality MUST change.

    The youth in my small parish are so hungry for spiritual nourishment. All 4 of them come out to church once a month in the evening to live out some spiritual practices and faith sharing as a youth group. O that the “grannies” would be so open to spiritual exercises! Or of sharing their own faith journeys with this young people.

  5. If the Church is really ‘The Body of Christ’, and God is it’s Patron. How can it fail. We may fail God, but the God I believe in will never fail us.
    “Throughout all ages world without end. Amen!”

    I still remember a rather pungent sign in a car window: “Feeling the absence of God? Guess who moved?”

  6. We can analyze various bits of data about the changes happening around us, but I hesitate to do so because I know my data selection and interpretation will be skewed; I’m not objective.

    Instead I wonder, how would I go about starting a church here where I live? How would I design “the Church” from scratch, given various limitations and opportunities?

    I think I’d just open up my house a couple of times a week, buy an ad in the local paper and see what happened.

    I don’t think I’d employ the usual church planting techniques. I don’t think I’d quote any experts, whether the experts were Diana Butler Bass, Andrei or Bosco. It’s not that experts have no value, but that I’d have to start with what I know.

    I know there is a real spiritual hunger that people have, that isn’t being met by most current practices and institutions.

    I know that people want to meet God. So how do I introduce them?

    I also know that most people really don’t know much about Christianity – and most of what they’ve heard they either reject or are unsure about.

    If the Church is mostly concerned about their sex lives, they don’t want that. If it’s mostly concerned about money, they don’t want that either.

    Denominations? Spare us, good Lord.

    Same with doctrine. Same with rituals they don’t understand.

    Seekers are a lot less concerned with preaching than they are with teaching. What’s the Bible say, anyway? They don’t know.

    They’re also concerned with how they’ll be treated by other people if they take the risk and show up. Do they have to dress a certain way, do certain things, believe certain things? Really, does God care about all that? They don’t think so.

    But they also know their lives aren’t right, and they believe God could help them if they knew how to ask.

    So I think what I’d do is teach them how to pray.

    I’d teach them there are several methods of praying that have worked for other people. And then we’d try some.

    I’d teach them that prayer is not a monologue, but a dialogue. It isn’t giving God marching orders (“Please bless Aunt Matilda, and God, I’m worried about my kids…”) but also active listening for what God says, without words most of the time.

    I’d assure them over and over that I didn’t invent this stuff; that other people taught me, and other people taught them years ago. I can’t be the focus; God has to be the focus.

    I’d tell them that it’s okay if they disagree with me – that we’re not going to agree on everything, we couldn’t possibly. But everyone’s input is valuable, and sometimes talking things out really helps. I’d tell them that church isn’t about my talking, but our talking and listening to each other. And our listening to God.

    I think I’d also make food the end of every gathering. After all, everyone came because they were hungry for something. Once we’re done identifying what we’re hungry for, let’s eat something and socialize. (This could get expensive, but I’d wait for them to notice that.)

    I think I’d have a midweek Bible study, starting with the Gospel of Mark. I don’t think I’d tell them “what it means,” but I would bring resources and knowledge. And I’d try to get them to tell each other what it might mean.

    Sometimes we’d look at art and listen to music, involve our senses. Maybe we’d burn some incense at the end. (Or before the pizza, since the pizza is the end.)

    I don’t know that any of these fantasies of mine are right, but I have the advantage of being a layperson. No collar, no title, no special clothes, just one of the people. It’s amazing how that one little fact helps people open up.

    At the right time I’d let them know what credentials I do have, and what the limits of those are.

    I’d try to get us ready for the day when we need a priest, because I can’t do what he or she does.

    And I’ll still be here when he or she leaves, training people to do what I do so that eventually, they don’t need me either.

    I don’t know whether this would work or not, but I think about it sometimes. The only thing I know is to start with people where they are today. Then trust God to nudge us along the Way.

    As for what to do if this all amounted to something, well, we’d just have to see, wouldn’t we?

    But I hope we’d always tell the story of how we got started, and who we were, and what we did, and that we’d keep doing most of the things we used to do, even when the Way looks like uncharted territory. It isn’t, it just looks that way to us because we’ve never been here before.

    1. I’d come, Josh.

      I think one thing you say is a key: becoming part of a community that prays. We end up with so many programmes – such busyness – I think just being church, at heart a community that prays, is a key too often forgotten.


  7. I think that the primary issue is that we have become so individualised in our approach as we imbibe the water in which we swim.

    It is very interesting to listen to what people say when asked about the purpose of church – that they speak about what it does or doesn’t do for faith. We abstract ourselves from it. We see it as an aid or otherwise to our spiritual journey.

    Thus in Lent the dominant emphasis it seems is encouraging everyone to do ‘their own thing’ with the help of myriad guides and ideas – rather than as a church sitting down and asking ‘what will we do together in this season?’

    In the end I think the move towards the Spiritual away from ‘Religion’, is as much about the move away from the community towards the sovereignty of the individual, however much on occassion ‘community’ pops up as a ‘Spiritual’ longing.

    Perhaps as the church we need to relearn how to do ‘The Community of faith’?

  8. My dream of the church of the next generation is one that returns to the basics – the cross, the resurrection, prayer, worship, the Word not presented with sound-bites but with depth and meaningfully, serving the community, helping the poor and needy…
    Oh, wait, that’s the church of today as well.

    I think the things that really matter will never fade.

    1. So, so true, Claudia. I was thinking only an hour or so ago about writing a blog post around the idea that Christianity isn’t part of our “instant” culture. Go slow… Blessings.

  9. Hmmm….Given that untold and innumerable people have been persecuted in the name of religion throughout the ages, right up to and including present day…..plus the fact that no one single religion has yet to find a way to God for everyone, I would say that spirituality is the way forward if spirituality is defined as a way of connecting with God on an individual basis. I mean, if the church, mosque or synagogue is deemed s requirement, why are children encouraged to say their prayers at bedtime…in their bedrooms?

  10. It seems you missed my point,,,and deletion was rather unfair.

    The point was…..why is there a need for sheep to be herded into a pen when any one sheep should be free to roamm around.

    I mean….isn’t free range lamb considered to be better than factory produced?

    However….human beings tend to like to huddle in groups….to ease their sense of insecurity.

    Organised religion has just taken advantage of that .

    Oh….and Rev……enough of the deletion wand…..

    what are you scared of…..the truth?

    That would be rather strange.

    Have another read of the last book.

  11. Thank you for the reply.
    The ‘deletion wand’ comment referred to my first post here, which seems to have mysteriously vanished….but it had something to with the idea that a connection with God can be achieved individually…..without church, mosque or synagogue. Otherwise, why would children be encouraged to say their prayers at bedtime…..in their bedrooms?

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