Reimagining Religion — with the Help of Dietrich Bonhoeffer & Dan McGinn

Here in Connecticut, where we’ve been living these last three years, the non-denominational church that Peggy and I are aspiring to join is sponsoring a six-month “mindfulness dialog” on “Reimagining Religion.” About a dozen people are participating under the leadership of Danny Martin, a former Catholic priest and Thomas Berry scholar.

So far, I’ve found the whole experience both inspiring and a bit troubling.  As I’ll explain below, the inspiration comes from a very thoughtful mindfulness dialog process itself. The trouble comes from the tendency of the process to overlook the proverbial elephant in the room in terms of contemporary political realities. Those realities have an imperial United States of America assuming exactly the international dominance to which Adolph Hitler aspired almost a century ago. In the prophetic spirit of the Judeo-Christian tradition, such development cannot be ignored or given second place by those wrestling with religion’s significance.

The Mindfulness Approach

To begin with, our approach to reimagining religion has three phases, connecting, exploring, and discovering:

  • Connecting involves our trying to pinpoint the human experiences that give rise to the religious impulse.
  • Exploring has us discussing that experience in the light of relevant texts such as poetry, essays or sacred scripture drawn from various traditions.
  • Discovering means answering the question, “What then must we do?”

In the connecting phase, we’re combing through our lives in terms of experiences of mystery, beauty, love, and oneness with nature. These, we’re finding, put many in the presence of the “mysterium tremendum” that evokes awe, reverence, adoration – and religious responses involving story and ritual.

The exploring stage has most turning to poetry and non-Christian texts in search of meaningful story. Participants seem to share the conviction that we need a “new story” to replace the one most of us have rejected. The latter was based on belief in an old white man in the sky. He evicted our first parents from their original paradise. He then sent his divine son to redeem sinful humankind so we might gain heaven and avoid hell. We need a better story; we all seem to agree.

As for discovery. . . Our whole experience has us thinking more deeply about changes in our lives based on loving family members and neighbors precisely as ourselves (because in some real sense they truly are us) and on reverence for nature.

That Troubling Elephant

My reservations about our approach so far concern our apparent reluctance to address what strikes me as the main God-related experience facing humankind today (at least in terms of the Judeo-Christian tradition).

That experience involves the worldwide oppression of the former colonies and their resulting experience of poverty, hunger, environmental destruction and war. That entire syndrome directly involves people like us, since our country, the United States of America, is principally responsible for the oppression just referenced. In the words of Martin Luther King, we are the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

To ignore such realities is analogous to German Christians in the 1930s overlooking the rise of fascism with its imperial ambitions and immediate persecution of communists, socialists, Jews, people of color, Roma, homosexuals, the disabled and immigrants. I can imagine the irrelevance of German Christians in 1933 gathering in a church basement to discuss reimagining religion. How would we judge them in that context if they focused primarily on their interior and interpersonal lives while Germany was ablaze and about to set the world itself on fire?  

Of course, not all German Christians did that. In fact, in the face of fascism’s rise and Hitler’s establishment of his Third Reich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church took on a project very like our own. As a result, just before his execution by the Nazis (for participating in a plot to assassinate der Fuhrer) Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison, advocated imagining “Christianity without religion.” That is, he wanted to reappropriate the faith of Moses and Jesus without the traditional trappings, rituals and language that narcoticized and blinded believers to the socio-political reality staring them square in the face.

The New Old Story

To my mind and in our analogous context, “connecting” should mean coming to grips with America’s role in creating the world that our system of political economy, neo-colonial ambitions, environmental devastation and militarism has set on fire. That in itself requires deep and serious study and discussion. It’s time to revisit official and competing stories of American history.

Then, “exploring” means linking the resulting new understandings with the authentic biblical narrative as revealed by modern scripture scholarship. Its relevance to the global circumstances I’m describing here is exceedingly clear. That’s because modern scholarship shows that the essence of the Judeo-Christian tradition does not centralize increasingly inapt Genesis mythologies. Instead, it tells a story of oppression and liberation that runs as follows:

  • Israel’s God first revealed himself by liberating slaves from Egypt.
  • He gave them a covenant to form a just community where widows, orphans, slaves and foreigners would be especially welcome.
  • Israel’s leaders often broke the covenant.
  • They were confronted by prophets who called them to task.
  • Repeatedly, Israel itself was victimized by surrounding empires – Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.
  • In such circumstances, they were promised a new future by prophets who denounced mistreatment of the poor and announced a new future of deliverance from imperialism.
  • Jesus appeared in the tradition of the prophets.
  • He proclaimed a future kingdom where a new covenant would be in force.
  • His teachings on God’s Kingdom described a world where God would be king instead of Caesar.
  • He thus raised the hopes of the poor and the ire of the Jewish and Roman authorities.
  • So, they executed him.
  • His followers became convinced that he was somehow raised from the dead.
  • They formed a Kingdom community of faith, sharing all things in common.
  • Questions of the afterlife were left in God’s hands.

In the light of this narrative, answering the question “What then must we do?” takes on highly political and threateningly controversial features that few outside the former colonies are willing to address. That’s because most even there who drew the obvious political conclusions about opposing empire have been assassinated by the current imperial power that is absolutely intolerant of anti-imperial faith.

A Reimagined Creed

In the light of truths like the foregoing, in Jesus against Christianity, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer calls for reimagining fundamental Christian professions of faith such as the Apostles Creed. In concentrating on Jesus’ birth and resurrection, he says, they fail to honor the thrust of Jesus’ life towards resistance to domination systems, and identification with the poor and outcast. 

But what forms would a reimagined creed take?  Below are printed two responses to that question – the familiar Apostles Creed on the one hand and a reimagined form on the other. Personally, I find that the latter contributes mightily to our task of reimagining religion.

 The Apostles'Creed

 I believe in God, the Father almighty,
 Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus
 Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, who was
 conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the
 Virgin Mary, suffer under Pontius Pilate,
 was crucified, died and was buried.  He descended
 into hell; the third day he arose again from
 the dead.  He ascended into heaven, sits at the
 right hand of God, the Father almighty; from
 thence he will come to judge the living and the
 dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy
 Catholic church, the communion of saints, the
 forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the
 body, and in life everlasting.  Amen.

 A Reimagined Creed

 We believe in humankind
 and in a world in which
 it is good to live for all people
 in love, justice, brotherhood and peace.
 We must continually act out these beliefs.
 We are inspired to do so, because we believe
 in Jesus of Nazareth
 and we wish to orient our lives to him.
 In so doing, we believe that we
 are drawn into the mysterious relationship
 with the One, whom he called his father.
 Because of our belief in Jesus
 we make no claims to exclusivity.
 We shall work together with others
 for a better world.
 We believe in the community of the faithful,
 and in our task to be the salt of the earth
 and the light of the world.
 But all of this in humility
 Carrying our cross every day.
 And we believe in the resurrection
 whatever it may mean. Amen. 

Conclusion

Whenever I think of it, I’m drawn to the conclusion that my entire adult life has been devoted to reimagining religion. I was encouraged in that endeavor by my study and teaching of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and works. Whether we’re aware of it or not, Bonhoeffer’s represents the kind of prophetic faith our CT church group is trying to reimagine.

At the same time, I bear in mind the words and example of an outspoken mentor of mine during my graduate studies in Rome so many years ago. His name was Dan McGinn. Dan was about 15 years older than me. By his example, he taught me how to celebrate the Eucharist spontaneously and without written text.      

In any case, Dan always said that if he were ever made bishop (There was absolutely no chance of that!) his episcopal motto under his coat of arms would read “No more bullshit.”

I’m tempted to recommend adopting Dan’s motto for ourselves as our church group tries to reimagine religion. While not exactly B.S., our traditional forms of belief (even the Apostles’ Creed) have been rejected as such by much of our world. Hence the relevance of our task.

What I’m suggesting here is that reappropriating the biblical story cited above and reformulating our creed accordingly would go a long way towards the culturally imperative assignment of making our faith relevant to the undeniable resurgence of fascism in our contemporary context.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

6 thoughts on “Reimagining Religion — with the Help of Dietrich Bonhoeffer & Dan McGinn”

  1. Hi Mike,

    You got me thinking: where in heaven’s name did “we” come up with the idea that reading books and talking about them was how to follow “his” path?

    That seems to me the even larger question.

    Hank

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      1. I am reminded of the (supposed) quote from George Fox, that we cannot understand the bible unless we enter into the spirit in which it was written. I just started seriously reading Arlie Hochschild’s “Strangers In Their Own Land” — entering into the spirit of the interviewees she describes and quotes is an incredible education, even though I know folks like that. She is currently interviewing in Eastern Kentucky (I may have mentioned that already elsewhere).

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  2. Hi Mike,

    I like your reimagined Creed. I’ve tried to rewrite it myself, but I stuck too close to the Nicean Creed. Also, I’ve been thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer lately, wondering if the dreadful act might become necessary (tough for me with my long commitment to nonviolence. But . . .). Did you know that Denise Giardina wrote a novel about Bonhoeffer called “Saints and Villains”? She won the Weatherford prize around 1987 for “Storming Heaven.”

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    1. I love Denise Giardina, Bob. I remember her visiting my freshman class in Berea once — when we were reading “Storming Heaven.” That had me looking forward to “Saints and Villains,” which I found less compelling. Some of the poetic license she took there diminished its value for me. But “Storming Heaven” in conjunction with the film, “Matewan” was a wonderful teaching tool. So great to hear from you.

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