Interpreting Bonhoeffer with Cathcart, Wolfe, and Voltaire: A Reflection that Began Upon Reading There Is No God and Mary Is His Mother


As one can probably tell from previous posts, I often write about what I’ve read. I also often try to synthesize ideas based on multiple books I’ve read. Sometimes this is an organized, deliberate effort. Other times, this is almost stream-of-consciousness and resembles a private journal entry more than a book review or essay. This post is one of the latter. It started off in a notebook as a reflection on Thomas Cathcart’s There Is No God and Mary Is His Mother as a form of apologetic writing and ended up being an interpretive reflection on Bonhoeffer’s concept of “religionless Christianity.”

Although this is by no means a polished piece of writing, I offer it up here as documentation of my own developing thoughts about the relationship between politics and religion, political philosophy and political theology, and the challenges of living out one’s Christian beliefs in an environment that is increasingly hostile to religion in general and Christianity in particular.

I wrote this in a university exam style bluebook and I’m reproducing it exactly as I wrote it below, including the initial title I wrote at the top of the page.

On There Is No God and Mary Is His Mother by Thomas Cathcart

Although it isn’t what one normally thinks of when they think of the term apologetics, There Is No God and Mary Is His Mother by Thomas Cathcart is a work of apologetics. Cathcart himself indicates as much in the last chapter of the book. He writes: “Apologetic theology is situated at the borders of Christianity. It is a response to people who have expressed their alienation–whether aggressively or searchingly–in questions and concerns about the border between faith and reason” (Cathcart 2021, 128). Basically, what Cathcart is driving at is some form of justification for why someone can or ought to remain a Christian even if or when they no longer believe the doctrine or dogma of the church.

For some, it may seem odd to say that such a task is a form of Christian apologetics. However, Cathcart’s work here is just the latest in a fairly long line of Christian or Christianity-adjacent writers who have tried to make a case for why people should be Christians without being Christian. Throughout the book, he makes repeated reference to two such thinkers: Paul Tillich and Harvey Cox. Both of these theologians are mentioned in Avery Cardinal Dulles’ classic History of Apologetics. In that work, Dulles links Tillich and Cox together in their “efforts [. . .] to devise a new ‘secular’ apologetics that would render the gospel credible to contemporary men and women” (Dulles 2005, 345). One way this is done, according to Dulles, is by arguing that secularity is in some sense a Christian [Protestant?] idea (ibid., 348).

On some level, what Cathcart is arguing for is something akin to or resembling “cultural Christianity.” That is that there is some practical utility in living as if one is a Christian, even if they do not believe the traditional propositions that give rise to Christian ways of life. In Cathcart’s case, it is not clear whether, for example, he believes that a being such as God exists. It is clear, though, that even if he does believe in God, he does not believe that Jesus is his Son any more than I am, nor does he believe in the resurrection. Nonetheless, Cathcart clearly believes that a Christian mode of life is good, that it in some real sense tends toward true happiness.

I bring this up because another writer I have recently interacted with also extols the practical and pragmatic benefits of cultural Christianity. Surprisingly enough, that other writer is Stephen Wolfe in his book, The Case for Christian Nationalism. Whereas Cathcart’s cultural Christianity is beneficial primarily on the individual level, Wolfe’s endorsement is based on its social benefits. That is, a cultural Christianity wielding “social power [. . .] serv[es] as the principal, implicit director in social behavior and thought-patterns, though there is no seat of power or centralized decision-maker” (Wolfe 2022, 208). He continues, by way of definition, to say that “Cultural Christianity is a mode of religion wherein social facts normalize Christian cultural practices (i.e., social customs) and a Christian self-conception of a nation” (ibid.).

In Cathcart’s case, he is trying to justify Christian modes of life for the “unbelieving Christian.” In Wolfe’s case, he is trying to justify the imposition of Christian modes of life through normative culture. What I think is important to notice is that neither requires belief in the transcendent justifications for those modes of life. One can act like a Christian, both personally and publicly, without actually being a Christian. This is an interesting point of agreement between two writers whose views of Christianity are, at the very least, in tension with one another. Cathcart is no conservative and Wolfe is no liberal. For my part, I want to be fair to both their positions.

Cathcart “agrees” with Wolfe only in that cultural Christianity and its utilitarian benefits do not require any affirmation of or agreement with the metaphysical claims of the Bible or of orthodox theology. And actually, it is probably more accurate to say that Wolfe agrees, implicitly, with Cathcart. This is because Cathcart is defending the non-believing sort of cultural Christianity (he borrows Bonhoeffer’s term: “religionless Christianity, which I’ll have more to say about below). For his part, it appears Wolfe is willing to accept the possibility (even the probability) that a large–or statistically significant–portion of the population is not, in a meaningful sense, Christian. For both, this cultural Christianity is commendable because of its pragmatic benefits. Cathcart would likely reject Wolfe’s endorsement of social coercion through normative culture, just as Wolfe certainly rejects Cathcart’s endorsement of a happy “Christian atheism.” But this raises a dilemma.

The dilemma, as I see it, is that both of these men–if I have characterized their positions fairly–are in a position where their disagreement cannot be rationally or coherently maintained. That is, if Cathcart really believes in the utility of cultural Christianity, why oppose it as normative culture? And if Wolfe really believes in the power of Christianity as normative culture, why bother with metaphysics?

I’ll call this Voltaire’s dilemma.

Voltaire was, of course, a notorious opponent of the church, but he was not, at least openly, an atheist. He was, instead and in keeping with the spirit of the age, a deist. His concept of God was, it seems, very much exalted in the sense of the philosophers generally. That is, he believed God to be so far removed from the lives of human beings that ascribing most emotions and desires to God amounts, in some sense, to a form of superstition (Voltaire 1912, 89). And yet, Voltaire also famously said: “I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God, because it means that I shall be cheated and robbed and cuckolded less often . . . If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” In other words, Voltaire saw no reason to personally believe in a God with any sort of strong moral standards (or, for that matter, a God inclined to either punishment or reward), but he encouraged such belief in others because of the ethical effects he assumed would derive from that belief. This in itself is its own form of cultural Christianity.

And yet, Voltaire, Cathcart, and Wolfe are all confronted by Paul’s words in Romans 1:18-20: That the distinction between righteousness and unrighteousness–between good and evil–are evident to everyone should they care to look. The confrontation between Paul and these three men’s ideas says something different in each case. For Cathcart, it raises the question of why bother with the outward affiliation and appearance of Christianity if all you’re going to do is replace its doctrines, dogma, and creeds with the latest iterations of liberal secular humanism? To Wolfe, the question asked is why bother with the inward experience of conversion if your primary goal is outward social conformity? To Voltaire, the question is how can he be sure of the objective morality of not cheating, not robbing, and not committing adultery? If his social inferiors require an objective ground for morals, why does he feel free to dispense with it?

One way of analyzing these issues is to think through the idea of religionless Christianity–a concept named by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his prison correspondence from a Nazi camp. Cathcart seems to think that his vision of cultural Christianity is an extension of Bonhoeffer’s idea. Many others have thought similarly. Their idea of a religionless Christianity is one wherein the liberal values of a secular modernity can merely be grafted onto the forms of a formerly Christian society. Jesus, in this view, is merely an emblem or endorsement of whatever values are dictated to us by culture. Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer’s correspondence about this idea of religionless Christianity is fragmentary enough that there’s no way to know precisely what he meant or how he might have developed it had he survived the war. This has allowed writers, like Cathcart, to interpret “religionless Christianity” as the hollowed out, secularized shell of Christendom that they want the church to be.

It’s just as possible that Bonhoeffer had in mind something akin to Wolfe’s idea: a “Christian nation” that “acquires the authority of the ultimate where life is rooted not in the vagaries of history, but in the solidity of the absolute” (Pugh 2009, 72). In Cathcart’s formulation, public religion [i.e., secular liberalism] is made privately acceptable by grafting it onto the dead corpse of the church. In Wolfe’s formulation, private religion [i.e., Reformed Protestantism] is made publicly acceptable by reinvigorating the lifeless and directionless state, dizzy from the “vagaries” brought on by democracy. In Voltaire, both are united in seeing both religion and Christianity in utilitarian and pragmatic terms. Both religion generally and Christianity specifically are worth discussing only insofar as they do something.

What’s never considered, or rarely considered, is that Bonhoeffer had something altogether different in mind. Like all good hermeneutics and exegesis, understanding Bonhoeffer requires understanding his context. The immediate context of his “religionless Christianity” remarks is a series of Nazi prisons and concentration camps. Those prisons and concentration camps were the tools of a totalitarian government that had come to power with the complicity of the church and despite one of the most liberal and educated populations in Europe. That is that Bonhoeffer was put in a position of contemplating a “religionless Christianity” through the failures of both Cathcart’s secular liberalism and Wolfe’s deeply embedded, established church and its cultural Christianity. Germany, and Bonhoeffer, would’ve been better off in a nation made up entirely by Voltaire’s tailor, lawyer, and wife–not only people who act like they believe, but don’t (Cathcart) or act like they don’t believe, even if they do, requiring state coercion (Wolfe)–but people who act on what they believe in spite of social pressure and believe even if doing so requires suffering.

I’m in no better position to interpret Bonhoeffer than the next guy, but based on my own reading of him, I think he was thoughtful enough and careful enough to avoid either extreme of a totally subjectivized but empty, orthodox appearance and a coerced, outward adherence to actual orthodox standards. Both are temptations brought about by modern secularism, and Bonhoeffer was preoccupied with Christianity’s relevance to modern, secular society. That being the case, I think Bonhoeffer’s intent may have been closer to the description of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34:

“‘Look, the days are coming’–this is the Lord’s declaration–‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant they broke even though I had married them’–the Lord’s declaration. ‘Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days’–the Lord’s declaration. ‘I will put My teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they will know Me, from the least to the greatest of them’–this is the Lord’s declaration. ‘For I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sin.’”

Imagine a commitment to the truth so strong that no artificial, outward means are necessary. No compulsion or coercion is necessary. Imagine internalizing God’s laws to the extent that “religious” behavior is no longer a necessity–just the mere act of living is religious worship. Neither state nor church are, strictly speaking, necessary because nobody needs instruction (Jer 31:34) and their good behavior need not be coerced because it isn’t compelled by threat of punishment but by God’s radical commitment to withholding punishment.

That would truly be a religionless Christianity. It would also be a truly genuine Christianity. It would have no need for empty ceremonialism (Cathcart) nor consciences compelled by force (Wolfe). Perhaps Voltaire was closer to the truth than either he or his critics realize.

I think that in his captivity, Bonhoeffer discovered a very radical form of freedom, something he wrote about in several places in Letters and Papers from Prison:

“Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God–the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God [. . .] Only now are the Germans beginning to discover the meaning of free responsibility. It depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture” (Bonhoeffer 1970, 15).

Imagine being free enough that you require neither the salve of religious observance nor the threat of corporeal or capital punishment to merely obey God and follow truth. Bonhoeffer had little of the former in prison, and the latter hung constantly above him. And yet, one gets the sense that Bonhoeffer’s religion was never stronger and his fear never weaker. This is what I imagine his “religionless Christianity” to be–the Christianity he discovered in the Nazi prison. It is neither the Christless religion of Cathcart, nor the faithless utilitarianism of Wolfe. It is, in Bonhoeffer’s own words, “free responsibility.” And it is grounded by God’s teaching written on the heart.

References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1970. Letters and Papers from Prison, The Enlarged Edition. Edited by Eberhard Bethge. New York: Touchstone. https://scribd.com/read/224326059/Letters-and-Papers-from-Prison#.

Cathcart, Thomas. 2021. There Is No God and Mary Is His Mother: Rediscovering Religionless Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Dulles, Avery Cardinal. 2005 (reprint). A History of Apologetics. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Pugh, Jeffrey C. 2008. Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times. London and New York: T&T Clark.

Voltaire. 1912. Toleration and Other Essays. Translated by Joseph McCabe. New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/mccabe-toleration-and-other-essays.

Wolfe, Stephen. 2022. The Case for Christian Nationalism. Moscow, ID: Canon Press.

One response to “Interpreting Bonhoeffer with Cathcart, Wolfe, and Voltaire: A Reflection that Began Upon Reading There Is No God and Mary Is His Mother

  1. […] some form of coerced conversion. Or, at the very least, some form of coerced outward behavior that looks like, but might not be (and probably isn’t) genuine […]

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