I was struck once again by the profundity of Bonhoeffer’s thought in his analysis of the state of the world and the Church. This small portion from the preface of ‘Christ the Center’ really stood out to me:
‘In a historical preamble he traces the impact of the Renaissance – giving the thirteenth century as his estimated date when this movement towards the autonomy of man had reached a measure of completeness. Since then, he claims, ‘Man has learnt to cope with all the questions of importance without recourse to God as a working hypothesis.’ And so, ‘what we call “God” is being more and more edged out of life.’ The world becomes sure of itself and the Church gets more and more frightened. Then it makes the mistake of trying to bring in God and Christ to counter this trend. That makes the movement towards autonomy anti-Christian. The fatal mistake of the Church was trying to ‘prove to a world come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of “God” ‘ . The inability to maintain this in the face of the world’s autonomy leads to the ‘ultimate questions’, where God now takes refuge. Here at least he is needed.
At this comes Bonoheffers most quoted question, a rhetorical one: ‘But what if one day they [i.e. these ultimate questions] no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered without “God”? Bonhoeffer shrewdly points out that secular equivalents to religion play the same game. These are the existentialist philosophers and the psychiatrists who ‘demonstrate to secure, contented, happy mankind that he is really unhappy and desperate and merely unwilling to realize that he is in severe straits he knows nothing at all about, from which they alone can rescue him’. This is held up to ridicule, in order to attack even more vehemently the Christian apologetics that take the same line. The failure is ascribed by Bonhoeffer to a misunderstanding of Christ. The central question for him concerns the relation of Christ to the newly matured world. (‘Christ the Center’, p. 12-13)
Bonhoeffer sharply points out the problem with positing God as an answer to our ‘ultimate questions’, questions that have long been seen as answerable only by Christianity, or at least some kind of theism. A god-of-the-gaps theology, no matter how big and profound the gaps, is a weak one.
The title of the quoted work carries part of Bonhoeffer’s answer to the problem: he does not assign Christ a place in the world – Christ is the center of all reality and history and existence; this is the foundation of his ethical and theological thought. We find our place in Christ – Christ does not find His place in us. Christ is not assigned a place in our lives by us – our lives are assigned a place in Christ by Christ. This is where Christianity needs to go – instead of trying to diagnose content people as sick only unable to see it and claiming the only true antidote.
‘But what if one day they [i.e. these ultimate questions] no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered without “God”?