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Encounters with the Unknown Christ

Spring Break allowed me time to read Eleanor McLaughlin’s book Unconscious Christianity in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Late Theology (2020, Lexington Books/Fortress Academic), a revision of her 2015 Oxford dissertation. It is prohibitively expensive, at $95 hardcover, but my library was willing to buy the book and loan it first to me. Interested readers who lack access could consider the $45 ebook version.

McLaughlin’s book is the first complete study of the concept of “unconscious Christianity” in Bonhoeffer’s theology, in particular in the final few years of his life (1940-45). What does this term mean? McLaughlin labors to construct a definition from the scant material references to the term (Unbewußtes Christentum), and by page 95 the definition arrives:

Unconscious Christianity refers to the whole body of good people who have encountered Christ without being aware of it and do not self-identify as Christians. In addition, they may fulfill any of these six criteria: (1) to have faith without knowing it, (2) to be selfless and participate in Jesus’s being-for-others, (3) to not seek to be other than what they are, (4) to value the penultimate [i.e., this world, as opposed to the world-to-come], (5) to perform acts of faith without reflecting on them, (6) to be a member of the Bürgertum... [I]t seems that as he further develops his ideas on unconscious Christianity Bonhoeffer suggests that unconscious Christians are recognized as righteous by God.

McLaughlin arrives at this definition by placing Bonhoeffer in context, in four ways. First, theologians Richard Rothe and Martin Rade had used the term before him, and Karl Rahner used the similar “anonymous Christian” in the same era (though he meant something else). Second, Bonhoeffer belongs in the context of the German Bürgertum [upper-middle] social class. Third, he was a member of a barely religious family, whose work against the Nazis later funded his fiction writing and this thoughts about unconscious Christianity. Fourth and finally, McLaughlin situates Bonhoeffer in his late theology, which in general is neither in clean continuity with his earlier thoughts nor radical change from them, but is a “fluid” “movement” (citing Hanfried Muller), “developing” the earlier ideas into the later (146). Additionally, McLaughlin situates Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity on the back end in the context of mid-twentieth century “death of God” theology, naming William Hamilton and J. A. T. Robinson (144-146).

In other words, this book is a formal study and an exercise in historical theological exegesis, more so than a positive or constructive theological argument. I was surprised and impressed by the great lengths to which McLaughlin went to articulate Bonhoeffer’s exact view and the limits of what we can reconstruct. I can imagine a reader seeking a constructive theological argument reading the introduction, chapters 1 and 5, and the conclusion, and benefiting greatly. Meanwhile readers interested in the historical Bonhoeffer, in Bonhoeffer Studies proper, or in theological method (especially on extracting theology from fiction writing) would benefit from the whole book.

Quickly, I want to sketch the four references to unconscious Christianity in Bonhoeffer’s corpus.

First, in his essay “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” a chapter from Ethics written in 1940 at Ettal, Bonhoeffer made a marginal comment on the manuscript (which did not enter the printed text.) The essay in general is about not sacrificing the life to come for the life of this world, and vice versa. Christians should live in both the ultimate, and the penultimate, at the same time. Towards the end of the essay he describes people who “no longer dare to call themselves Christians,” who we must then claim as Christians. We should do this because the human and good work that these people do in the world unites the penultimate with the ultimate. Then comes the note. He writes, “Unbewußtes Christentum. Balzac. Leute des Antichristus.” This note turns out to be a convoluted reference to the play Les Comediens sans le savior by Honore de Balzac (1846). The characters in the play each stand for something in French society, though they are unaware of it. Bonhoeffer is presumably then saying that unconscious Christians are playing a part in Kingdom of God without knowing it either. The reference to the Antichrist, writes McLaughlin, is more or less inexplicable (65-66).

Second, in his novel Novel, written in late 1943 from Tegel, Bonhoeffer wrote the term unconscious Christianity into the dialogue. Two boys, one from a working class and the other an upper-middle class [Bürgertum] family, are talking about trust and social class and the ways that the underclass have been so mistreated that they cannot trust anyone. (This would be Bonhoeffer’s view of the underclass, of course). Talking about his family, the Bürgertum boy says,

“But now I’m thinking about Papa and Mama. You can’t really say they’re Christians, at least not in the customary sense of the word. They don’t go to church. They only say grace before meals because of Little Brothers. And yet they’re as little affected by the spirit of false ambition, careerism, titles, and medals as your [the working class boy’s] mother is. They prefer a good laborer or craftsman a hundred times over some puffed-up ‘Excellency.’ Why is that?”

Ulrich thought for a moment. “That’s because without knowing it and certainly without talking about it, in truth they still base their lives on Christianity, an unconscious Christianity.”

This is the clearest use of unconscious Christianity in Bonhoeffer’s surviving writings. The family is probably based on his own family’s quasi-irreligious nature. The thing that distinguishes them is that they are unaffected by titles, etc., which corresponds well to Bonhoeffer’s theology of self-forgetfulness and kenosis in Christ, the self-for-others.

Third, in his letter to Bethge postmarked July 27, 1944, Bonhoeffer used the term in a theological context. This was just one week after the failed July 20 assassination attempt on Hitler, which would later lead to the order to execute Bonhoeffer. Here is the quote:

Your [Bethge’s] formulation of our theological theme is very clear and simple. The question how there can be a “natural” piety is at the same time the question about “unconscious Christianity” that preoccupies me more and more. The Lutheran dogmatists distinguished a fides directa from a fides reflexa. They related that to the so-called faith of the infant at baptism. I wonder if we are not here addressing a very wide-reaching problem. More about that, hopefully, soon.

Unfortunately Bonhoeffer did not return to this point in his surviving letters. (Bethge burned the September 1944 letters when his own arrest was ordered, so perhaps it was there, but alas). McLaughlin writes that Bonhoeffer’s example of infant baptism teases out another distinction, between faith that would be “by reflection within the individual” and faith that “simply indicate[s] the manner of being of that individual.” Unconscious Christianity, then, would be the latter type. It is not inward “faith” (i.e., how most evangelicals understand the word) but a fact about the person’s manner of being. Bonhoeffer’s statement that this could be a very wide-reaching problem intrigues me. He is including the unconscious Christian in the fides directa along with baptized infants, but I can only wonder how much further Bonhoeffer would have pressed this logic had he survived the war.

Fourth, in his notes in preparation for his new book (of which only the outline was ever written), Bonhoeffer makes several scattered comments on a chapter on unconscious Christianity. He writes:

Unconscious Christianity: Left hand doesn’t know / what the right hand is doing / Matt. 25. / Not knowing what to pray. Motto: Jesus said to him: “What do you want me to do for you?”

These cryptic comments need explaining. The first refers to Matthew 6:3, “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” The reference to Matthew 25 is to the parable of the goats and sheep. The motto comes from Mark 10:51, Jesus’s question to the blind man (who replies, “Rabbi, I want to see!”). I don’t think McLaughlin explains the comment, “Not knowing what to pray,” or at least she does not address it in the two textual analyses on 70-72 and 87-89. However it must come from Romans 8:26 where Paul writes that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.” The basic picture that emerges from these scattered references is someone ignorant (right/left hands) of their good deeds (sheep) and yet by their deeds they are encountering Jesus (Matthew 25:40/45). It takes more theological creativity to fit the “motto” and the reference to Romans 8 into this vision of unconscious Christianity, which may explain why McLaughlin shies from them.

In my own words, here is what I would say. Bonhoeffer seems to radicalize the parable of the Sheep and Goats so that it is more than an exhortation to care for the poor. Instead, caring for the poor (and etc. selfless good deeds) are an encounter with Jesus, whether people realize this or not. Bonhoeffer was driven to this view by his own situation. His co-churchmen had caved almost immediately to the Nazi regime in 1933 and were helplessly compromised in the fight against evil. Conversely, many of his co-conspirators were not religious, but they were fighting evil at great risk to themselves for the sake of the weakest in society. Bonhoeffer has this visceral understanding that the ones he expected to do right and wrong, had done wrong and right. This forced him to develop theology to explain this real phenomenon. Because his a Lutheran, he pulls on the fides directa and thinks that his co-conspirators “have faith” just as baptized infants “have faith” but do not realize it. They are playing Christian roles, like the unconscious French characters from the Balzac play, but more than this (as his thought develops from 1940 to 1944), they are participating in Christ, which is faith. The connection to Romans 8 is more obscure, but I can imagine ways to develop it which would look like Sarah Coakley’s argument in “Praying the Trinity” (chapter three of God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’). This is too abstract, I need to return to it later. But there is some connection between the Spirit placing us in the position of the Son before the Father during prayer, which corresponds well to Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity. Unconscious Christians, if they really are participating in Christ as faith by their self-denying love and service, are not only participating in Christ but necessarily also participating in the Divine Life of the Triune God in total. Maybe this could extend the concept of unconscious Christianity to address a “very far-reaching problem.”

McLaughlin’s conclusion makes several valuable points.

First, calling someone a Christian when they are not, “as a tool to reveal to people who they really are, as though they are not competent enough to decide their identity for themselves,” is not pastorally wise (189). Bonhoeffer always has a pastoral heart in his discussions of this topic, which we should emulate. Many Muslims for example, and almost all Jews, would bristle at being named Christians without their say. I would add that it flies directly in the face of what Charles Taylor calls “the politics of recognition,” and so is uniquely problematic today.

Second, McLaughlin points to Tom Gregg’s book Theology against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth. There he has addressed contemporary sociology and ecclesiology and secularism and so on, and uses Bonhoeffer to do so. McLaughlin suggests his analysis could be supplemented by including unconscious Christianity. I agree, I assume, but also would like to point the arrow the other direction. Bonhoeffer’s “world come of age” came mostly through his reading of Wilhelm Dilthey, whose sociology has come under extraordinary fire. His secularization thesis has more or less been killed by Charles Taylor and others. My question is not just how Gregg’s analysis could grow by including Bonhoeffer’s insights, but how Bonhoeffer’s analysis could grow by including Gregg’s, Taylor’s, and others contemporary insights about secularism. The “world come of age” Bonhoeffer prophesied has come in some ways but not others, and the world it promised to replace still haunts us.

Third, McLaughlin points out that people today can be unconscious Christians, not just people in Nazi Germany. She does not use the term, but the social justice movement comes immediately to mind. There are many grifters and snake oil sellers in the social justice movement, I am aware, but someone who engages in social justice activism with the intent to love and serve the most marginalized may be encountering the unknown Christ.

McLaughlin’s book is judicious and compelling, and theologians will now have to debate the merits and usefulness of Bonhoeffer’s concept. I am not wholly convinced by Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity, and am more likely to limit the concept to “encounters with” (rather than “participation in”) the unknown Christ. As I have struggled with deconstructing and reconstructing my faith the past two years, I have wondered where Jesus went. Many of my friends ask the same question. Could it be that I have had unconscious encounters with Jesus? “Could it be that you have been praying, unconsciously, all along?” suggested a kind professor of mine. I am less interested in what unconscious Christianity would mean for soteriology and more for discipleship and daily Christian living. Maybe my thoughts, my actions, my lamentations and loves, have been more faithful than ever before, because to my conscious mind they were alms given in secret.

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