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"Religion": an Obscene Word? "Religion": an Obscene Word?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-12-06 12:22:08
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“You will notice that in all disputes between Christians since the birth of the Church, Rome has always favored the doctrine which most completely subjugated the human mind and annihilated reason.”


If we look at the history of ideas we will soon become cognizant that the concept of religion (whose latin etymology means to bind together) has been around since the very beginning of civilization as we know it. Rivers of ink have been expended on the concept but one can detect its practice as soon as primitive man millions of years ago begins to ceremonously bury its dead, to speak a language, reflect upon knowledge, grasp the symbolical,  and to form primitive societies called families, albeit in a cave.

The psychologist Jung identified the phenomenon of religion as a constituent and integral part of human nature and he discovered religious symbols and archetypes all over the world among ancient and modern cultures, even among cultures with no contact with each other. One of his signal cultural insights was that when religion is repressed and thrown out the window, it promptly comes back the back door as a nefarious cult or ideology; there is always a substitution of sort.

The concept of religion has come upon hard times lately, beginning with the virulent anti-religious attittude of the Enlightenment whose icon is of course Voltaire. This attitude which is widespread on whole continents (but none as widespread as in Europe) is considered progressive,  enlightened, and modern; that is to say, religion is by now deemed an obscene or dirty word of sort designating ignorance, backwardness regression and obscurantism, the sooner liquidated the better, an outrageous phenomenon on a par with the “f” word, at times placed side by side. 

I have written rather extensively on this controversial subject in Ovi and for it I have been branded by some readers “an advisor to the Pope”, but it would be quite futile to return to that kind of diatribe. However I would like to briefly pursue the argument from a slightly different perspective, not that of Chesterton who has been called a defender and apologist for the faith (another “obscene” designation for those who dislike religion per se), but rather by exploring the concept of “religionless Christianity” as elucidated by none other than a Christian theologian. I refer to the Protestant theologican Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a co-conspirator in the planned assassination of Hitler, was picked up by the Gestapo, imprisoned and executed in 1945 only a few days before the arrival of the allies in Berlin.

Toward the end of his life, while languishing in a Nazi prison, Bonhoeffer wrote some intriguing letters to his friend Eberhad Bethage. It is in those letters that Bonhoeffer wrestles with the notion he labels "religionless Christianity." Those letters were written in prison in 1944. Ever since theologians of various stripes have been wrestling with the concept. Let us see what Bonhoeffer himself says about that concept in a letter to his friend in April 1944:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question 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 inwardness and conscience--and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the ‘religious a priori’ of mankind. ‘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 human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless--and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)--what does that mean for ‘Christianity’? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our ‘Christianity,’ and that there remain only a few ‘last survivors of the age of chivalry,’ or a few intellectually dishonest people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don't want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the Western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity--and even this garment has looked very different at different times--then what is a religionless Christianity?

The questions to be answered would surely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God--without religion, i.e., without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even "speak" as we used to) in a ‘secular’ way about God? In what way are we ‘religionless-secular’ Christians, in what way are we those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? What is the place of worship and prayer in a religionless situation?

The Pauline question of whether circumcision is a condition of justification seems to me in present-day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation. Freedom from circumcision is also freedom from religion. I often ask myself why a ‘Christian instinct’ often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, but which I don't in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, ‘in brotherhood.’ While I'm often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people--because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it's particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable)--to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course.

The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village...How this religionless Christianity looks, what form it takes, is something that I'm thinking about a great deal, and I shall be writing to you again about it soon. It may be that on us in particular, midway between East and West, there will fall a heavy responsibility.”

A few months later (on July 18, 1944) Bonhoeffer writes to Eberhard Bethage again:

“Religious man must therefore live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a ‘secular’ life, and thereby share in God's sufferings. He may live a "secular" life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man--not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. During the last year or so I've come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man...

I trust that the above letters by Bonhoeffer will give some pause to those who, following Voltaire’s example have mindlessly thrown their faith out the window, thus throwing out the baby together with the dirty water.

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Mario2012-12-06 13:58:18
Intelligent and educated men defending religion will one day constitute a capital crime against humankind, if only we are so lucky. Shame on you, "Professor".

Thanos2012-12-06 16:08:29
Mr. Mario, I left your comment intentionally even though you crossed some lines. Since when believing/accepting a religion constitutes a capital crime against humankind? And that comes from an openly atheist BUT also a democrat who believes that as long ideas and ideologies don’t cross the line of prejudice (like Nazism and the neo-Nazis do). For centuries atheists were considered followers of the Satan, witches and wizards and there are many cases of brilliant scientific and artistic minds that were lost in the fire because according to the Inquisition they constituted to a capital crime against humankind.

Insults don’t help an argument; on the contrary they decline any conversation and actually weaken your arguments which by the way can insult an atheist.

Leah Sellers2012-12-06 16:50:48
Dear Brother Emanuel,
Sir, please, do not be insulted by the moniker "Advisor to the Pope". Leaders everywhere Need added Wisdom to the Pathways laid out for their Peoples.
You, sir, have a Good Heart, Soul and Mind. Your Stewardship and Loving Diligence are much Needed.
Religions are no more Evil or Destructive than the Souls, Hearts and Minds Leading and Guiding them.
If One Believes in a Warrior/Killing/Austere/Punitive/Discriminatorily Bigoted and InTolerant
God/god/Goddess/goddess that is what One BeComes - what One Is.
If One Believes in a Universally Loving/Tolerant/Peaceful/Nurturing/Sustaining/Bridge-Making/Open/Just/Fair-Minded and Creative God/god/Goddess/goddess, that is what One Becomes - what One Is.
If One is an Agnostic or Atheist but Believes in Democratic Egalitarian Principles/Ideals and Nurtures and Sustains a Universally Loving and Tolerant Stance in Life, then that is what One BeCome - what One Is.
The Cosmos has Made room for Us All. We All have Our Voices and Places of Relevance - of Space and Time.
I am deeply Appreciative and Thankful you for Your Bright Light, Dear Sir.

Murray Hunter2012-12-06 18:00:22
Dear Prof Emanuel,
The ghost of Martin still lives on these pages.
Being "an advisor to the Pope" who be such an honour. Maybe it should be taken as a compliment rather than a dirogatory remark it was meant to be.
Keep writing and keep making your comments.
life would be so boring if we all agreed on everything.

Emanuel Paparella2012-12-06 18:30:56
Thank you Thanos for leaving Mr. Mario's comment in. Albeit in a boorish mode, it proves my point, made in other occassions too, about Voltaire's enlightnment that remains to enlighten itself.

Thank you Leah for your kind and complimentary words. You are a real gentle woman.

Emanuel Paparella2012-12-06 21:15:24
Indeed Professor Murray, there is another ghost in the pages of Ovi. His name is Jan Sand, he too has voluntarly disappeared since he decided to cross the line and descend to the ad hominem, the boorish and the insulting. He too had a false notion of what free speech is all about, not to speak of the distinction between truth, opinion and political correctness. As the expression goes, what goes around, comes around. Let's keep the dialogue going. By its own definition a dialogue is characterized by civility and sincerity even when vehemently disagreeing.

Mario2012-12-08 17:49:54
My thanks for so clearly stating the kind of door this website is!

Thanos2012-12-08 18:37:46
Mario the only clear thing is that you read what you want to see and always you have the choice to read others!!!

Emanuel Paparella2012-12-09 11:02:13
Indeed Thanos, the Inquisition is certainly a black page in the history of the Church but what parades today for political correctness (on both the right and the left of the political-cultural spectrum) makes even the Inquisition look tame in comparison.

If what I had said had been consonant with what Mario who is cowardly hiding his last name and probably even his first, approves of, which we really don’t know since he never told us, he would not be criticizing me, or you, or the magazine, or the Church or religion in general. He is doing so because he has a bias and an ax to cut, whatever that may be.

One suspects that much because he has presented no rational arguments to support his opposition to religion branded as a crime against humankind, just boorish ad hominem insults. I submit that such modus operandi makes even the despicable Church Inquisition (which at least had rational explanation for the wrong it did, look tame in comparison and I dare say it is in fact more dangerous to freedom of speech and democracy.

Thanos2012-12-09 11:20:33
Emanuel, comments like “defending religion will one day constitute a capital crime against humankind” where religion could be anything, make me angry because there is only one ideology that dismisses everything else – and oddly the ideology without ideas – Nazism and Nazism from its foundations has been covering its dark inhuman acts under nationalism, atheism, paganism, chauvinism, imperialism and so many other things. What I find stranger is that they are doing so religiously following rituals.

Anyway, Mario the beauty of democracy is that when you don’t like something simply don’t read it and go to a page more your style.

Emanuel Paparella2012-12-09 14:56:59
Yes Thanos, that is exactly what Jung found very uncanny, that in modern times, while the religion per se was thrown out the window a la Voltaire, the ritualized fanaticism of the religious fanatic, the cultish and the ceremonial, the orthodoxy and the asceticism remained intact and now attached themselves to an extreme ideology parading as enlightenment or modernity or inevitable progress. In the beginning of the Church one such, declared an heresy by the Church, was Gnosticism which has been resurrected in the New Age era.

So, the baby had been thrown out with the dirty water and what has substituted it is by all accounts worse than before; and this applies to both sides of the spectrum: that of Hitler and Mussolini’s right-wing extremism as well as that of Stalin and Mao’s left-wing extremism.

Jung concluded that man is religious by nature, and the elimination of the transcendent creator God ends up inevitably being a substitution with an idol of sort, be it nothing else one’s ideas of God or one's car. Perhaps the saner stance is to acknowledge first of all those Junghian insights, understand what a genuine religious sentiment is all about (archaic and much older than Christianity or any other current religion) and perhaps wisely leave well enough alone, for to go from religious fanaticism to idolatry and worship of one’s ideas and ideologies is no progress. Of course “Mario” in his prejudice and bias will brand even these insights a crime against humanity and proceed to prepare the inquisitorial torture chamber in the name of “enlightenment.”

J. Anjos (student)2013-04-03 00:55:30
Okay, interesting, I must add that religion-less christianity is--well-funny. People nowadays are claiming themselves spiritual, and not religious, I think there is a slight contradiction there. As articles, and conversations on religion is always a waste of time, like sports and politics, religion tries to bring about balance and peace, which I think should be at the core- not forgetting to mention that questioning is appropriate and a good thing.

Emanuel Paparella2013-04-03 09:27:10
Johh, rather than calling "religion-less Christianity a contradiction I would call it a paradox, as Bonhoeffer himself also thought.

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