In Sacred and Secular: A Study of the Otherwordly and Thiswordly Aspects of Christianity, Arthur Michael Ramsey offers an insightful critique of Bonhoeffer’s “Religionless Christianity.” Like Eugene McCarraher’s wry quip about being “religious, but not spiritual,” Christianity is thoroughly material for the Archbishop, though in such a way that the material is drawn into the divine life of God. “The Eucharist is the stuff and substance of daily existence as it is, and not some sort of religious substitute for it,” states Ramsey (57). Seen in this light, religion then is not some husk or impediment to God, but the very medium by which we come to share in the real presence of Christ. Although he is sympathetic to Bonhoeffer’s critique, in the end Ramsey remains unconvinced.

Ramsey’s conclusion is this:

Turn away from the realm of professional Christianity, of religious practice, and find God in the midst of the suffering world, in the care of man for man and in the courage wherewith a man will stand alone. Thither Bonhoeffer points us. But where God is found man, his child and creature, will not be silent. Words will come, and the words are likely to be in part those of a man himself and in part those derived from the company of those through the ages have loved God and spoken to him. Thus Bonhoeffer’s own ineradicable religion seems to answer powerfully his own theory of Religionless Christianity. But he shows us that there is a world of difference between a faith which is ruled by the ethos of religious practice, and a faith which finds religion as its medium and servant (53).

Here stands a wonderful Augustinian, Thomistic, Wittgensteinian and Mystical gloss on the grammar of faith. To be sure, Religionless Christianity can serve as a practical tool for breaking up ossified institutional structures. Yet there is more to the story and certainly more to the concept of religion itself. That is, there’s something poetic about religion, such that our acts of poises have something to do with the cooperative work of grace. Since “words will come”, “religion is to the relation of God and man as pen and brushes are to artists; they could not exist without them and equally they would never call ink and paint their goal” (55). To jettison our religion is to jettison our humanity as language bearing creatures (a point shared by Herbert McCabe). Religion as practice, as route memorization, mechanistic gestures, etc. is distinguished from religion as “medium.” The latter, then, is not about religion, but about religio, a habit or ascesis of deification so that we may join with “the company of those who through the ages have loved God and spoken to him.” Our just practice and worship do not primarily stem from obedience, but spring from the well of our common telos, as the Fathers knew so well. On the basis of language and human cultural activity, the thesis of Religionless Christianity fails for Ramsey (55).

I find this argument convincing. Ramsey resists the urge to offer a facile critique on the basis of ‘use and abuse.’ Rather, he goes deeper and looks to language and communio, whereby the language of religion as medium implies the concrete realization of a common and social life. And not just a common life here and now where the church circles the wagons around an institutional structure, but a common life that crosses the boundary between heaven and earth, extending to the whole company of heaven and the choir of angels.

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