Both Bonhoeffer and Barth find in history periods of time in which mankind made a fatal (kind of) move away from God – or at least the first steps of a journey away from God which led to the crisis(es) of faith that occupied both men in the 20th century.
For Bonhoeffer, it was the thirteenth century in which man began to become autonomous – through a series of theological, ethical, political, philosophical and scientific developments spanning the centuries. Various thinkers from Machiavelli, Descartes, Bodin, Spinoza, Herbert of Cherbury, Nicholas of Cusa, and Bruno all contributed to the removal of God as a working hypothesis in everyday life in their respective arenas.
For Barth, it was eighteenth century man that was the ‘absolute man’, – man at his most prideful, at the height of his non-need of God. For a more detailed look at Barth’s philosophy of history, I found this article by Derek Rishmawy to be very insightful:
For Bonhoeffer, it was these ideas that laid the groundwork for the coming-of-age of the world to where it finally was ready to leave God and religion behind – and as I’ve elaborated before, Bonhoeffers response was to attack the idea of making room for God, even in the form of ‘ultimate questions’ and instead recognize that God was and had to be at the very center of life.
Some time ago I wrote on Bonhoeffer’s very interesting take on ‘man come of age’ and his (in)famous ‘religionless Christianity’. The main theme that Bonheoffer develops is really twofold – the first that the world has come to a point where it doesn’t need God anymore (at ;east in the normal ‘religious’ sense) and the second is his attack on using God as a filler for gaps in our knowledge, otherwise known as God of the gaps.
‘It has again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case) then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants us to realize His presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved.’ (‘Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 311)
‘Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God’. In questions of science, art and ethics this has become and understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become increasingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything gets along without ‘God’ – and, in fact, just as well as before.’ (p. 326)
‘Efforts are made to prove to a world thus come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of ‘God’. Even though there has been surrender on all secular problems, there still remains the so-called ‘ultimate questions’ – death, guilt- to which only ‘God’ can give an answer, and because of which we need God and the church and the pastor. So we live, in some degree, on these so-called ultimate questions. But what if one day they no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered without ‘God’?’ (p. 326)
Bonhoeffer develops some answers to this problem in his Christology lectures (even though they predate his letters form prison) – namely, that God can’t be seen as who we grab on to when we are at the end of our resources but rather that which is at the very center of our lives and existence. His lectures on Genesis also contribute to this theme – that God is not at the boundary of our lives but at the center.
‘It always seems to me that we trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not at the boundaries but at the center, not in weakness but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness…God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the center of the village.’ (p. 282)
It’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of conceptual confusion in philosophy – or really anything in general. This can have some pretty wide-ranging side effects – consider the free-will debate. That’s as a conceptually confused debate if there ever was one.