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Advent and the end of religion

There’s a somewhat famous quote from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison (November 21, 1943, pp. 188-89) on the nature of Advent: “By the way, a prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that — ultimately negligible things — the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”

Interestingly in the same letter Bonhoeffer mentions how much he misses table fellowship and how he’s begun praying Luther’s morning and evening blessing every day. He then says: “Don’t be alarmed! I will definitely not come out here as a ‘homo religiosus’! Quite the opposite: my suspicion and fear of ‘religiosity’ has become greater here than ever.” So then, perhaps we must say that Advent, according to Bonhoeffer’s prior analogy, as a prison cell that can only be opened from outside, should be seen as the end of religion. All religion must have a door that can, at least partially be opened from the inside. Advent proclaims the end of religion as such, speaking of a God who must come to us wholly from beyond us.

To retreat into the comfort of religiosity, the smooth apologetic for Christianity that arises from proclaiming homo religiosus (or its more trendy equivalent these days, homo liturgicus) is to retreat from the very hope of Advent itself, the hope against hope that cannot be satisfied by out own designs, but only by the earth-shattering coming of God in Jesus.


  1. Evan wrote:

    Is being suspicious and fearful of religiosity really the opposite of affirming a homo religiosus? Or, put the other way, is Bonhoeffer trying to say that religiosity in people must imply for them an affirmation of religiosity as a basic part of a universal human identity?

    Sunday, November 27, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  2. Brad E. wrote:

    Two follow-up questions meant seriously:

    1) Vis-a-vis the claim that the one “inside” (as it were) the prison cell is him or herself homo liturgicus, what on your account is instead the actual nature or character of that human person (which, I take it, is the same for all)?

    2) What happens once the door is opened? What sort of life — religiously/liturgically speaking, or otherwise — is life on the outside?

    Sunday, November 27, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  3. Peter Kline wrote:

    Brad, I take it that in the death and resurrection of Jesus the door has been thrown open, and that what this openness and freedom in our world looks like now is the offer of *nothing* — no identity, no substance, no tradition, no culture, no religion — as the very possibility of genuine and free life. We of course continue to live with all of these, but the Gospel frees us to live “as if not.” “This is what I mean, sisters and brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it, [and those who have religion as if they had none]. For the present form of this world is passing away.” (1 Cor. 7:29-31)

    Monday, November 28, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink
  4. Brad E. wrote:


    Thanks for the reply. That is helpful, though I don’t think I have the time to respond. I might email you about it though. (Sad to have missed you in SF by the way!)

    Monday, November 28, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  5. Evan wrote:

    The following strike me as potentially very different points:

    1) One should foster a healthy suspicion and even fear of religiosity. [Bonhoeffer]

    2) One should see the end of religion in the coming of Christ. [Doerge]

    3) One should have religion as if one had none. [Kline]

    …these points could surely overlap, but I don’t think they do of necessity, nor do I think they are the most obvious interpretations of one another (or of Paul).

    And what is religion here? Is it really the door locked from inside, against which Bonhoeffer’s prison cell stands in vivid contrast? Or is it “the comfort of religiosity” that Halden mentions? Or the apologetic of the homo religiosus? Or the church practices, disciplinary measures, orders of worship, etc. that Paul goes on to discuss in the above-quoted epistle? Again, these understandings of religion could possibly overlap, but I certainly wouldn’t hold it against someone for failing to discern much overlap in them.

    Monday, November 28, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  6. dan wrote:

    I’m stealing this quote for an Advent service I’m running next week (not your standard advent service… not your standard advent quote). Thanks.

    Wednesday, December 7, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  7. TD wrote:

    I was looking back at a helpful post you had from last year about liturgy and was struck by the similarities of the Bonhoeffer quote above and the tail end of a comment by one Daniel Imburgia:

    “Then again, maybe the liturgy and the church calendar is more like the marks a prisoner makes on the cell wall to measure the timelessness of his captivity. Or, maybe with those marks the prisoner is counting the days to his freedom!”

    Thursday, December 8, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  8. dan wrote:

    Hey TD,

    Just so you know, “Daniel Imburgia” is the fake name Jesus uses when he has been drinking and is bored and feels like messing around online with ding-dongs like us.

    Thursday, December 8, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Permalink
  9. Christian wrote:


    Friday, December 9, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  10. Damnit to hell DanO, I would unfriend you on Facebook for revealing my identity–if you were on FB! @TD, yes, that was a good post by Halden and a bunch of very trenchant comments by a lot of folks (but I am glad some one finally appreciated my Heidegger/prisoner comment inspired by his “Poetry, Language, Thought,” but then even the Seinfeld references didn’t get no play). Tell you what though, y’all need to see DanO’s… (shit, what’s another word for “awesome” since Christian used it already…let me get the thesaurus….”awesome = magnificent, wonderful, amazing, stunning, staggering, imposing, stirring, impressive; formidable, fearsome, dreaded; informal mind-boggling, mind-blowing, jaw-dropping, excellent” ….hmmm…no single adjective, or even two, seems to describe it adequately, ok, I got it!). See DanO’s excellent, impressive *and* fearsome, liturgy he has composed for Advent Sunday. If he hasn’t posted it on his blog yet put some pressure on him. I got an early peek and I gotta tell ya, I felt like a worthless, compromising, hypocritical, Christ-sputem-soaked, luke warm piece of dog-turd for 3 days, then I read DanO’s liturgy and I got another weeks worth of self-loathing and condemnation out of it! Really, keep an eye out for it, and I am looking fwd to working with him on an Easter liturgy next. Blessed holydays all, obliged.

    Friday, December 9, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

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