1998-1-10 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, and the Self

Eric Paul Lemonholm

January 10, 1998

Dr. Nancy J. Duff

Preceptor Christopher Rogers

ET460: Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, and the Self 

In this paper, I shall explore Bonhoeffer’s concept of discipleship and its relation to the self.  I am especially interested in the pastoral application of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, in conversation with some of his other writings, particularly Letters and Papers from Prison.  What is Bonhoeffer’s view of the relationship between discipleship and the development of the self?  How does discipleship transform the self?  Bonhoeffer holds that discipleship “simply means the life which springs from grace,” and it is “joy,” the true road to happiness (by grace).[1]  In a sense, therefore, discipleship is the road to true selfhood.  What is the nature of discipleship?  What is the true nature of the self?  From the Christian perspective, these two questions are related. 

I also hope to relate discipleship to Bonhoeffer’s notion of “religionless Christianity,” as found in his Letters and Papers from Prison.  What did Bonhoeffer mean in this context by religion?  What is discipleship without religion?  I shall look at Bonhoeffer’s views of discipleship and religion in the light of Merold Westphal’s existential phenomenology of religion.  Can a religionless Christianity exist and, if so, can it be sustained?  With Westphal’s insightful phenomenology of religion in mind, what might a religionless discipleship look like?  What is the nature of discipleship for the religionless self?  This is an exercise in understanding, a preliminary exploration into the possibilities of religionless discipleship, based on a small part of Bonhoeffer’s work.

Discipleship is, literally, a calling.  The Christian is called by Christ to follow Christ.  The individual’s response to this calling is a free act of obedience, which opens up the possibility of faith.[2]  Bonhoeffer wishes to keep together the two propositions, ”only [one] who believes is obedient, and only [one] who is obedient believes.”[3]  Faith and obedience cannot be separated in the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Our works of obedience do not save us—we are saved by the work of the one who calls us—but we must respond in obedience to our call.  Thus, Bonhoeffer strives to combine Saints James and Paul; he wishes to avoid both works righteousness and faith without works (or “cheap grace”), which are both synonymous with “damnation.”[4]  This is not to say, however, that works are themselves salvific, or that salvation is a human choice.  In good Lutheran fashion, Bonhoeffer asserts that even the “step into the situation where faith is possible” is “always [Jesus’] gracious offer to us,” rather than a work we perform.[5] 

In the economy of salvation, all work is God’s work.  Yet, we are not thereby excused from obedience.  Indeed, disciples must share in the suffering and rejection of Jesus Christ.  Disciples must submit to “the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.”[6]  Mark 8:34-8 comes to mind.  Jesus says to his disciples and a crowd of people, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Jesus’ way is the way of the cross.  If we follow Jesus, we must travel on his path; we must take up our crosses and follow Jesus.  When the Word of God—Jesus—became a human being, he chose the way of suffering and pain, the way of selflessness and shame, for our sake. 

There is a cost to being a Christian.  Following Jesus means denying oneself.  However, stresses Bonhoeffer, a disciple’s self-denial is not a matter of “self-will,” but rather “to be aware only of Christ and no more of self.”[7]  It is to be dead to oneself and to “the attachments of this world” and alive to Christ.  True self-denial is not a work we can accomplish.  Jesus does not call us to self-murder, to self-crucifixion; those are willful acts.  Jesus calls us to take up our cross (“daily,” adds Luke) and follow him, we know not whither.  That the way of Christ consists of suffering, rejection, and shame[8] does not mean that disciples inflict them on themselves.  Rather, Christ has chosen to bear the suffering and rejection of all humanity, and when we follow Christ, we share, by grace, in both his shame and his glory.  Since we follow “a God who bears,” we also must bear the sufferings of the world, as we are born up by Christ.[9]  To follow Christ under “the sign of the cross” is not self-hatred or self-absorption into another; it is not the willful destruction of self.  Instead, Christ calls us to throw off the heavy “yoke of our self” and take up his easy and light yoke, his cross, which is the soul’s “highest joy.”[10]  Christ is no stranger, no king ruling with edicts from afar.  Christ walks with us, closer than a sister or brother. 

Building on Luke 14:26, Bonhoeffer argues that it is through Christ’s call that disciples “become individuals.”[11]  The verse puts a limit to the communitarian, anti-individual impulse in Christian thought.  Far from being merely a prop to a traditional understanding of social responsibility, discipleship (at least initially) isolates the individual from the social matrix, so that all attention is fixed on Jesus.[12]  The individual’s illusory “immediacy with the world” is broken in favor of true immediacy with Christ, who then serves as “the Mediator” between the individual and God, others, and all reality (including, perhaps, the individual herself).[13]  Thus, all of one’s social relations are mediated by and through Christ.  The disciple moreover, must give up everything to Christ, as Abraham gave up his son to God, and as God gave his son for us.  By God’s grace, Christ may give all back, as Abraham received Isaac;[14] but this is by no means certain.  In any case, the disciple’s relation to reality is determined by the One who defines reality, Christ.  It is the Christian’s break with the world that makes her or him a true individual, “whether secretly or openly.”[15]  Ultimately, discipleship is neither self-centered nor community (or society) centered, for both of those possibilities are false attempts at immediate relationships.  Discipleship is Christ centered.

The disciple’s primary, and only immediate, relationship is with Jesus, and the disciple enters this relationship as an individual, not as a member of a group.  This does not mean, however, that individualism is the end of discipleship.  On the contrary, says Bonhoeffer, though ”we all have to enter upon discipleship alone, we do not remain alone.”[16]  Christ’s disciples form a new community, the Church, the Body of Christ.  A disciple is never a solitary individual, for, even when isolated, he or she is a part of the Body of Christ on earth, by grace through the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit gathers all Christians together and ”brings Christ to each.”[17]  Christ is with and for all humanity in his “Incarnation… life, death and resurrection;” and Christians are “with Christ” as his Body in the world.[18]  

The true self, then, is found “in the death of Jesus, in the righteousness of God which is granted there to us,” as we are “incorporated into the Body of Christ.”  Selfhood is a gift of God, given through Christ, who is “our righteousness.” [19]  It is not our own creation.  True self-development is also, essentially, not our own work.  Rather, sanctification is the work of the Spirit, who “enables [the Christian] to abide in Christ, to persevere in faith and to grow in love.”[20]  In sanctification, “the true and living God moulds the human form into his image.”[21]  Christ, who is God, “the divine image,” became fully human, obediently bearing ”all the sorrows of humanity,” as well as ”God’s wrath and judgment against sinners.”  Sanctification is participation in “the new image of God” enfleshed, through the power of the Holy Spirit.[22]  To be sanctified is to become more and more like Christ, in fellowship with him as a member of his Body, and to “retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race,” as we partake “in the whole humanity which [Jesus] bore.”[23]  That is the telos (end, goal) of the individual created in God’s image, a telos achieved for her or him by the Triune God. 

How does Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the nature of discipleship, as a description of the Christian faith, fit in with a contemporary understanding of religion?  Let us examine it in relation to Merold Westphal’s phenomenology of religion.  Westphal notes the feeling of “ambivalence” which religious individuals tend to feel toward that which is sacred or holy.  Following Rudolph Otto, he describes the holy as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, or the “aweful and fascinating mystery.”  The sacred inspires fear and joy, hate and love.  The believer is faced with a mystery which is “wholly other,” and is both attracted to it by its infinite worth and separated from it by the believer’s own “ontological inadequacy.”  Thus, ambivalence toward the Sacred is an integral aspect of religion.  This ambivalence toward the Sacred is certainly present in the biblical and Christian traditions; Isaiah 6 comes to mind, as does Saul on the Damascus Road.  In The Cost of Discipleship, this ambivalence might be seen in Bonhoeffer’s stress on both the nearness of Christ, who became human out of God’s love for us, and the utter righteousness and holiness of God.  We are attracted to God, and yet we come to God in fear and trembling.

Related to this ambivalence is the ambivalence of inertia.  The individual’s will to transcend everyday existence and become united with the Sacred is never pure.  To be in the presence of the Sacred is to become aware of its absolute claim upon oneself, which the individual cannot fulfill because she “cannot unreservedly want to.”[24]  Drawing on Heidegger, Westphal notes that the “believing soul” has “a built-in resistance to any moral and spiritual transformation of the self.”[25]  Contact with the Sacred may also breed resentment because of a feeling of comparative worthlessness.  Bonhoeffer implicitly recognizes the ambivalence of inertia, and stresses that we cannot overcome this ambivalence.  That is why God must come to us, in Christ, through the Spirit.  While the ambivalence of inertia is never completely overcome, yet the grace and love of God, and the fellowship of the Body of Christ, lessen the strength of the ambivalence, as the disciple is sanctified.

Central to Westphal’s description of the believing soul are the related concepts of guilt and death.  The essential nature of guilt is that “in guilt I approve the other’s disapproval of me.”[26]  The individual’s worth is questioned by another and, if she is honest, she will recognize her own lack of worth in relation to the other.  In religious terms, the believing soul cannot help but affirm the judgment of that which is wholly other.  Guilt is a reaction to the Sacred as tremendum.  In relation to the absolute worth of the Sacred, one’s complete inability to measure up, one’s essential unworthiness is revealed.  In Christian terms, true guilt is the recognition of our sinfulness, and our need for forgiveness and reconciliation with God.

The interest in death is not simply a question of the continuance of biological life.  Death, rather, is a “boundary situation” of life which, if we face it, becomes “a challenge… to live and to test my life in view of death;” the question to be asked is “have you used the gift of selfhood rightly?”[27]  Death, as the temporal limit of one’s life, forces one to confront one’s finitude.  To live in the forgetfulness of death is precisely not to “number our days, so that we may get a heart of wisdom.”[28]   There is a close connection between death and guilt (or better shame[29]): reflection on one’s finitude, including the inevitability of one’s own death, brings about the question of the worth of one’s life.

In addition to the uses of religion in helping the believing soul face and overcome guilt and death, religion is also an end in itself.  Job’s faith withstood all the wrongs that God inflicted upon him and his family.  True prayer and sacrifice are not merely or even primarily instrumental, but rather are ends in themselves.  Westphal calls them examples of “useless self-transcendence” because they involve both adoration and self-surrender.

Westphal’s notions of guilt, death, and useless self-transcendence lead us directly into the consideration of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of religionless Christianity in the Letters and Papers from Prison.  In several letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer explored the question, ”What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world?”[30]  Bonhoeffer does not necessarily deny that there is any religiosity in his time, or religious practices or structures.  But he believes that “world” has “come of age.”  The “religious a priori” of humanity “does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression.”[31]  Intellectual honesty demands that Christians own up to this fact, and strive to mold a post-religious Christianity, in which “Christ is not longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world.”[32] 

Bonhoeffer is opposed to the view of God as “the deus ex machina” that hovers on the “boundaries” of human knowledge and strength, either to solve “insoluble problems” or to give “strength in human failure.”[33]  The problem is that, as human boundaries expand, the realm of God must then (seem to) contract.  Bonhoeffer is particularly critical of those who find God at the boundaries of death and guilt.  These are human boundaries; God ought not to be defined by them, as a crutch for our weaknesses.  Instead, Bonhoeffer wishes to speak of God “at the centre… in strength…  God is beyond in the midst of our life.”[34]  To the extent that Christianity is defined by the problems of guilt, suffering, and death, it remains a human, a religious, enterprise.  Such religion is destined to wither (or at least be dishonest or self-deceptive) in a religionless age, when humanity can look elsewhere for answers—as it often does.[35]

Westphal’s notion of useless self-transcendence, however, may give us a first step in understanding what Bonhoeffer may mean by religionless Christianity.  If true religion is an end in itself, and not a means to an end—an individualistic, or communitarian, obsession with guilt or death—then such religion may well thrive in a so-called religionless age.  Bonhoeffer calls for a renewed focus on living the Christian faith in the world.  The biblical witness, notes Bonhoeffer, is not so much focused on the boundary questions as on “righteousness and the Kingdom of God.”

It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored.  What is above this world is, in the gospel, intended to exist for this world; I mean that, not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystic, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.[36]

The good news of Jesus Christ grounds us, not so much in a religion, but in the world, of which Jesus is Lord.[37]  The practice of the Christian faith consists of prayer and active self-sacrifice in the world, more than of particular beliefs and practices confined to a religious realm of life.  Christian faith requires “a readiness for responsibility,” lived out in “prayer and righteous action among men.”[38]  To “live in Christ” means “to exist for others,” in solidarity with and obedience to the “suffering God,” who “wins power and space in the world by his weakness.”[39]  Christians live fully in the “secular” world, “and thereby share in God’s sufferings.”[40]  This, fundamentally, is what being a disciple in a religionless age means.

Westphal outlines three typologies demonstrating different ways in which religions both face guilt and death, and practice useless self-transcendence.  Each of the world’s religious traditions may have any or all three typologies within its parameters, and each is based on a fundamental attitude toward the world.  It is insightful, in concluding this paper, to look at Bonhoeffer’s vision of Christianity in the light of these religious types. 

The first is exilic or anti-worldly religion, which sees the world and the body as a prison house of the individual’s spirit, from which the individual must escape.  Often the individual is concerned to escape the cycle of rebirth into the world.  The second typology is mimetic or semi-worldly religion.  Mimetic religion, called by Eliade the “archaic mentality,” is anti-historical.  Its purpose is to negate the chaos of history and to “integrate human existence into the natural cosmos” by ritually imitating the past actions of gods or heroes.[41]

The third typology is covenantal or worldly religion.  Covenantal religion affirms both nature and history because God created the world as “very good” and God enters into the world and saves “by being with them in it.”[42]  The notion of a covenant between God and God’s chosen people is prominent in this typology.  Instead of the anti-historical nature of mimetic religion, covenantal religion affirms the “redemptive history” in which God out of grace and love promises to redeem God’s people.  This covenantal relationship of promise and obligation is both the source of guilt and the source of hope for God to overcome the believer’s guilt and death through forgiveness.

Bonhoeffer’s view is predominantly covenantal.  He rejects the anti-worldly perspective, and calls for Christians to focus on the world.  Indeed, even the ”hope of resurrection,” far from leading to an anti-worldly perspective, ought to send the Christian “back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.”[43]  As early as his lectures of 1932-3, Bonhoeffer stated that “in my total being, in my creatureliness, I belong to this world completely.”[44] 

There is an element of the exilic type in Christianity (and in The Cost of Discipleship), especially as evidenced by eschatology.  Even Christian eschatology, however, is not completely anti-worldly: there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and even now Christ has redeemed this world.  There is also in Christianity, perhaps, a mimetic desire to return to the archaic past, before the fall of humanity.  The life of discipleship, however, is not that of a return to the past.  Rather, the past—the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ—is both a present reality (especially in the Body of Christ) and an awaited fulfillment—in the Second Coming, for which all creation groans.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Call to Discipleship, New York: Macmillan, 1959 [1937], pp. 60, 41.

[2] Ibid., pp. 67ff.

[3] Ibid., p. 69.

[4] Ibid., p. 333fn.; p. 74.

[5] Ibid., p. 94.

[6] Ibid., p. 96.

[7] Ibid., p. 97.

[8] Ibid., p. 100.

[9] Ibid., p. 102.

[10] Ibid., p. 103.

[11] Ibid., p. 105.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 106.

[14] Ibid., pp. 109-112.

[15] Ibid., p. 112.

[16] Ibid., p. 113.

[17] Ibid., pp. 271-2.

[18] Ibid., pp. 267-8.

[19] Ibid., p. 310.

[20] Ibid., p. 312.

[21] Ibid., p. 339.

[22] Ibid., p. 340.

[23] Ibid., p. 341.

[24]Merold Westphal, God, Guilt, and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion, Indiana: Indiana, 1984, p. 51.

[25]Ibid., p. 56.

[26]Ibid., p. 78.

[27]Westphal, pp. 100, 101, quoting Jaspers.

[28]Psalm 90:12, quoted in Westphal, p. 96.

[29] Westphal tends to conflate the distinct, though related, feelings of guilt and shame.

[30] Letters and Papers From Prison, New York: Touchstone, 1997 [1953], p. 280.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., p. 281.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., p. 282; cf. p. 312.

[35] Ibid., p. 311.

[36] Ibid., p. 286.

[37] Ibid., p. 281.

[38] Ibid., pp. 298, 300.

[39] Ibid., pp. 383, 361.

[40] Ibid., p. 361.

[41]Westphal, p. 196.

[42]Ibid., p. 222.

[43] Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison, pp. 336-7.

[44] Creation and Fall, New York: Macmillan, 1959 [1937], p. 37.

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