VI. The Churh Well Lost (Continued)

G. Religionlessness

The law for God's nearness and farness is ... that the more the phenomenon, the appearance, expresses that God cannot possibly be there, the nearer he is. And inversely, the more the phenomenon, the appearance, expresses that God is quite near, the more distant he is.1

Up to this point we have been insistent that first and foremost S.K. was a religious thinker. Now, without going back on what has been said, we want to be equally insistent that "religious thinker" is about the worst possible choice of label for S.K., seeing that one of the most fundamental characteristics of his thought is precisely its "religionlessness."

What has happened is that the word "religion" has switched meanings on us. We had to call S.K.'s thought "religious" in order to distinguish it from "theological"--the point being that his interest almost exclusively was to help men into a personal, existential relationship to God rather than simply give intellectual formulation to the Christian faith. But as soon as we understand "religion" in the negative sense in which Barth and Bonhoeffer have forced it into our vocabulary, then S.K. must be seen as joining them--better, as being way ahead of them (and our current "radical theologians" so-called)--in religionlessness.

Although S.K. did not use the term "religionlessness," a moment's thought will make it evident that what we have seen S.K. protesting in this chapter on "the church well lost" is precisely what Bonhoeffer and company signify by "religion." "Religion," now, denotes any and all thought and practice which implies that man has some sort of control over God's end of his God-relationship, that he can dictate the terms of that relationship, that he has the wherewithal to turn God on and off or channel God's grace to suit his own convenience.

But S.K. did not stop with what we have examined thus far, simply a protest against various manifestations of religiousness; he saw to the heart of the basic principle involved. Indeed, we submit that he saw more clearly than Bonhoeffer, even though it is Bonhoeffer rather than S.K. who came up with the term "religionlessness" and so launched a movement. It is in a group of journal entries (which clearly hang together as a series) that S.K. presented his thought; these are found in Ronald Gregor Smith's, The Last Years, (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 11:2:A:50-56 (1854).

Bonhoeffer based his idea of religionlessness upon (or at least tied it to) the very problematical thesis that modern man somehow has "come of age"--which also has the effect of making it merely a twentieth century phase of the gospel. S.K., on the other hand, saw religionlessness as being the necessary implication of God's sovereignty (or his "majesty," to use the term he preferred). He explicates it, then, as a basic theme of the biblical revelation, without regard to what may or may not be the sensibilities of contemporary man. (Also, if S.K. is right, the latest fillip of pronouncing God dead is seen to be, not the zenith of religionlessness, but just the opposite, the height of religious presumption which leaves man completely and absolutely in control of whatever of the Christian faith is left.)

As we have noted, for S.K., even the human person is, above all, a free and integral agent. How much more is it the case, then, that God, the primordial Person, is--whatever else may be said of him--"a free spirit"? While it is true that God (particularly as he is seen in Jesus Christ) in love and service has given himself for man to the uttermost, this is not to say that he has given himself over to man's control. If we may put it thus: God is servant of all but lackey of none. And man's religious effort at domesticating God then takes on the aspect of small children designing a birdhouse which, to their minds, any bird would fall over himself to live in. But birds, thank God, still retain enough independent judgment not to let themselves be suckered into living as children think birds ought to live; and God, thank God, is at least as bright as the birds he created. God, therefore, is not about to let himself be geared into a bunch of "holy visibilities" which would have the effect of man's putting Him in His place.

Now it becomes clear why S.K.--and the sectaries--were so opposed to the "commissary concept" of the church; it is essentially a "religious" view. The church is a holy institution, authorized by a holy book, housed in holy buildings, managed by a holy officialdom as they dispense the commodities of holy sacrament and holy beliefs--and the whole holy bit is under human control. And this is why S.K. took bead on the concepts of

  1. the church as an institution [see above];
  2. the Bible as a legal franchise: "It is very remarkable how ingenious, how inventive, how sophistical, how persevering in learned investigations certain men may be, merely to get a Bible text to appeal to. On the other hand, they do not seem to observe that this precisely is to make a fool of God, to treat him as a poor devil who has been foolish enough to commit something to writing and now must put up with what the lawyers will make of it."2
  3. church buildings as houses of God: "[Christendom] plays at Christianity... in theaters built for the purpose, called houses of God--very apt, if it is the same sense as one defines a stormhouse as a house intended to keep storms out. No, God does not need a house--the world of reality is what he wishes to be with."3
  4. the clergy as God's official representatives [see above];
  5. the sacraments as carrying intrinsic spiritual benefit and power [see Infant Baptistm andSacramentalism, above]; and
  6. the creeds as guarantees of correct belief [see above]

And the basic principle of religionlessness which stands behind these separate protests S.K. put in these words:

God is Spirit. As Spirit God is related paradoxically to appearance (phenomenon), but paradoxically he can in turn come so near to reality that he is right in the midst of it, in the midst of the streets of Jerusalem....
If I were to suggest a feeble analogy, I should say that at certain times in human history, when everything was in confusion, there have arisen rulers who have ruled, if I may say so, in shirt-sleeves. This is a much higher majesty than that of an emperor who is directly recognizable: here is something paradoxical that the rulers are recognized because they go about in their shirt-sleeves. It follows from this--and we should not omit it--that if one imagined such a ruler later getting established as an emperor who was directly recognizable as such, then one should have to laugh (the comical nature of direct recognizability) if he thought he had become something more, for in fact he had become something less.
Therefore God can be related only paradoxically to appearance, but then he also comes so near that he can stand in the midst of reality before our very noses....
"The more the phenomenon, the appearance, expresses that God cannot possibly be there, the nearer he is. So in Christ. And just at the moment when the appearance expressed that not only was it impossible that this man should be the God-man--no, when the appearance expressed that men even denied that he was a man (see, what a man!), at that moment God's reality was the nearest it has ever been.
"The law for God's farness (and this is the history of Christianity) is therefore that everything that strengthens the appearance makes God distant. At the time when there were no churches, but the handful of Christians gathered as refugees and persecuted people in catacombs, God was nearer to reality. Then came churches, so many churches, such large and splendid churches--and to the same degree God is made distant. For God's nearness is related inversely to the appearance, and this increase (churches, many churches, splendid churches) is an increase in appearance. When Christianity was not a doctrine, when it was a few poor propositions, but these were expressed in life, then God was nearer to reality than when Christianity became a doctrine. And with each increase and embellishment, etc., of doctrine, God removes himself the more. For doctrine and its spread mean an increase in the direction of appearance, and God is related inversely to appearance. When there were no priests, but the Christians were all brothers, then God was nearer to reality than when there were priests, many priests, a powerful priesthood. For priests are an increase in the direction of appearance, and God is related inversely to the phenomenon....
And this is the history of Christendom: by strengthening the appearance it puts a distance between itself and God, or else (as in certain circumstances one speaks of removing someone in a refined manner) the history of Christendom consists of removing God more and more, in a refined manner, by building churches and splendid buildings, by elaborating monstrous edifices of doctrine, along with an endless horde of priests.
So Christendom practically means the greatest possible distance from God.4

Here is a religionlessness more radical than that of Bonhoeffer, both in its basic dynamic and in the thoroughness and consistency of its application (Bonhoeffer somehow managed to preach religionlessness without its affecting his rather churchly view of the church, his sacramentalism, his support of infant baptism, etc.). And here, note well, is not a religionlessness sponsored by twentieth century man in the interests of winning his own freedom (whether from old and outmoded concepts of God or from any and all concepts of God) but a religionlessness sponsored from eternity by God himself in the interests of God's preserving his own independence so that he is free to be for man in his own way, at the time and place of his own choosing.

And right here S.K. has stated the fundamental motif of sectarianism more precisely than it ever has been stated before, because, in essence, classic Protestant sectarianism is nothing more nor less than the attempt to recapture the New Testament ideal of religionless Christianity.

Copyright (c) 1968