In the West, where ‘institutionalised’ forms of Christianity seem more tired, creaky and discredited by the day, some people involved with ‘emergence Christianity’ or the ‘emerging church’ are advocating a ‘religionless’ approach to Christianity.
The term ‘religionless Christianity’ is associated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler during the Second World War. Bonhoeffer’s ideas around religionless Christianity are somewhat fragmented, due no doubt to the conditions under which he wrote – in prison and awaiting execution in a context of extreme socio-political upheaval.
Borrowing a biblical phrase, Bonhoeffer’s main point seems to be that faith without works is dead. Disillusioned by the German churches’ failures to respond to Hitler, Bonhoeffer also realised that religious structures and institutions can positively prevent people from living like Christians in the here-and-now.
Peter Rollins, one of the founders of the Belfast-based group Ikon, incorporates Bonhoeffer’s thought about religionless Christianity in his work. It also is possible to discern this influence in Ikon’s practices and ways of being – the ‘collective’ meets infrequently, shuns institutional structures, and advocates action for social justice in the real world, right now.
Last week, the Guardian’s Theo Hobson wrote a profile of Rollins. Reading Hobson helped me to articulate a question that I think is popping up ever more frequently in discussions of religionless Christianity:
Do you have to be a Christian to advocate Religionless Christianity?
First Hobson quotes Rollins,
"What we do is rooted in Christian tradition, but it’s critical of every religious formula; it’s trying to get away from the distinction between Christian and non-Christian. It’s inspired by Paul’s vision of a space beyond identity as Jew or Greek, or male or female. The aim is a liturgical space in which all identity is left at the door, so we can imagine that Messianic vision of a time when all will be equal."
Then he offers his analysis,
To my mind Rollins is raising the most interesting religious question of our day, but then letting it slip away a bit. The question is whether Christian practice can be freed from institutionalism, orthodoxy. Can it ditch its authoritarian tendency and find a new postmodern lightness? On one hand Rollins says yes, and acts on it. But on the other hand he is unwilling to claim that this new practice he advocates is Christian. It is also post-Christian, he seems to say. He backs off from saying that this is a Christian reform movement, for fear of claiming to have the Answer, which leaves old-fashioned Christianity redundant. This reticence is understandable, but maybe it imports more postmodern question-marks than are necessary.
So, are there any Christians in Religionless Christianity? Alternatively, does it matter if people are rooted in Christian spirituality if they are working for good in the world?
Emergence Christians aren’t the only ones asking these sorts of questions.
In a recent ‘Friends Quarterly Essay: What is the Future of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain?,’ John Fitzgerald poses similar questions. He writes,
‘However, it is clear that Quaker understanding in Britain is becoming ever more pluralistic. We now have prominent Quaker Jews, Muslims, Atheists, and Agnostics. I do not for a moment want to suggest that these new sources of light are damaging, or misleading. They make us much more than we would be without them. However, I do feel that the more pluralistic our experiences are, the more difficult it is to express them clearly.
… Given that some kind of complete detachment from our Christian roots seems inevitable, the question must be: can we do this and still have a meaningful theology or at least, spiritual identity? The idea of ‘certain uncertainty’ is alluring, but how to articulate it and use it as a tool to transform our lives?’
I think that emergence Christianity has some resonances with Quakerism, especially its emphases on social justice and radical equality. Although the Quakers do have committees and national level structures, their rejection of hierarchical church power structures also seems to me quite ‘religionless.’
Fitzgerald’s second paragraph (above) could have been written about many of the emergence groups with which I’m familiar. The ideas he offers for Quakers struggling with these questions are a renewed emphasis on spirituality (‘a communal search for something beyond our individual human experience’), simple Bible study and prayer groups, a review of cumbersome structures, and a concerted effort to articulate ‘a core of clearly-articulated common beliefs.’
Such measures don’t seem all that radical, but I’m struck by the starkness of Fitzgerald’s statement that ‘some kind of complete detachment from our Christian roots seems inevitable.’
Will that be the way of the Quakers? Will that be the way of the emerging church?