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Jesus Christ and
the Essence of Christianity
(Jesus Christ und vom Wesen des Christentums)
December 11, 1928
This address, presented in Barcelona on December 11, 1928, shows how Bonhoeffer's pastoral concerns blended in with the strong academic training he had received at the University of Berlin. We see, too, some of the theological issues that he confronted throughout his life. Here he states his understanding of the "essence of Christianity" at a very early phase of his career. Christianity for him was not a religion, but a person, Christ, who made difficult demands on people. We find in this essay some of the themes that were later to electrify readers of the prison letters: Bonhoeffer's criticism of reducing Christ and God to a small compartment of our lives; his criticism of religion and churchiness; and his placing the cross of Jesus Christ at the very center of the essence of Christianity.
We note, too, Bonhoeffer's sense of God's having sided with the poor and oppressed. The light of God's love, he insists, shines down on the weak, struggling masses. Bonhoeffer encountered his first experience of poverty in Barcelona, so his declaration of solidarity with the lowly and oppressed is not included by accident in this address. The faces of "Christ existing as community" are those of the grubby poor, and the cross is a more immediate symbol of the essence of that community.
Here as in the prison letters Bonhoeffer invokes the cross of Christ in order to home in on the meaning of Christianity and to come to grips with the experience of deprivation, death, and the seeming desertion ofthe Christian by Jesus' Father God. The paradoxical cry of Mark 15:34 does not mean that God has abandoned people but that, in the death of Jesus, God has given proof of God's undying love, a love stronger than death. in the cross, Bonhoeffer points out, one learns that God's greatest gift is not religion but the love and mercy shown in Christ.
Whether in our time Christ can still occupy a place where we make decisions on the deepest matters known to us, over our own life and over the life of our people, that is the question which we will consider today. Whether or not the Spirit of Christ has anything final, definitive, and decisive to say to us, that is what we want to speak about. We all know that Christ has, in effect, been eliminated from our lives. Of course, we build him a temple, but we live in our own houses. Christ has become a matter of the church or, rather, of the churchiness of a group, not a matter of life. Religion plays for the psyche of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the role of the so-called Sunday room into which one gladly withdraws for a couple of hours but only to get back to one's place of work immediately afterwards. However, one thing is clear: we understand Christ only if we commit ourselves to him in a stark "Either-Or." He did not go to the cross to ornament and embellish our life. If we wish to have him, then he demands the right to say something decisive about our entire life. We do not understand him if we arrange for him only a small compartment in our spiritual life. Rather, we understand our spiritual life only if we then orientate it to him alone or give him a flat "No." However, there are persons who would not even bother to take Christ seriously in the demand he makes on us by his question: will you follow me wholeheartedly or not at all? Such persons had better not mix their own cause with the Christian one. That separation would only help the Christian cause since they no longer have anything in common with Christ. The religion of Christ is not a tidbit after one's bread; on the contrary, it is bread or it is nothing. People should at least understand and concede this if they call themselves Christian.
Many attempts have been made to eliminate Christ from the present life of the spirit. Indeed, what is so seductive about these attempts is that it appears as if Christ would be promoted, for the first time, to his proper place, that is, a place worthy of him. One admires Christ according to aesthetic categories as an aesthetic genius, calls him the greatest ethicist; one admires his going to his death as a heroic sacrifice for his ideas. Only one thing one doesn't do: one doesn't take him seriously. That is, one doesn't bring the center of his or her own life into contact with the claim of Christ to speak the revelation of God and to be that revelation. One maintains a distance between himself or herself and the word of Christ, and allows no serious encounter to take place. I can doubtless live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as a gentleman--just as, after all, I can also live without Plato and Kant--all that has only relative meaning. Should, however, there be something in Christ that claims my life entirely with full seriousness such that it is God who speaks and if the word of God once became present only in Christ, then Christ has not only relative but absolute, urgent significance for me. To be sure, I still have the free choice of "yes" or "no," but in the end I am indifferent to such a choice. Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously. Understanding this claim means taking seriously his absolute claim on our commitment.
And it is now of importance for us to clarify the seriousness of this matter and to extricate Christ from the secularization process in which he has been incorporated since the Enlightenment, and finally, to show that even in our days the question to which Christ gives an answer is so completely crucial that here is where the Spirit of Christ justly makes his claim. Thus is raised our first and main question about the essence of the Christian message, the essence of Christianity . . .Testament to Freedom. Copyright © by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.