Letters and Papers From Prison, 1943-44 (formerly entitled A Prisoner for God).
In the history of 20th century Christianity, there probably is no other book that has been so misunderstood and misused. (This book has a similar track-record for our day.)
Letters and Papers from Prison is not a theological treatise or a book of devotions. It is, as the present title puts it, a collection of occasional notes and letters from a man in prison. Because that man is a thoughtful theologian, it contains some tentative thoughts and surmises that DB never had the chance to test and polish.
Some liberal theologians and teachers try to claim DB just like they try to claim Thomas Merton. They do it by making the assertion that in their last years they completely changed their theologies.
But a careful reading of DB’s entire body of work, including his Letters show clearly that 1) DB believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. 2) DB believed in the triune nature of God. 3) DB was fully orthodox in his beliefs.
Both Stanley Hauerwas and Rowan Williams have shown that DB wasn’t a theological liberal. (More on that point later).
In the Letters, DB describes “religion.” But he does not define it as a belief in God or one’s spiritual practices. Religion is a phenomenon characterized by three things:
(1) Two modes of thinking. Thinking in terms of two spheres, religion accepts the division of life into a religious and a secular sphere.
(2) Metaphysics. Religion offers God as a hypothesis that is necessary if one is to explain the world.
(3) Inwardness. Religion provides a set of sentiments necessary for the living of a meaningful life.
The first proposition merely establishes the existence of the two realms. The next two present the reasons why religion is a necessary part of the schema.
But the history of modernity is the history of the steady retreat of the religious sphere and the steady advance of the secular sphere. When Immanuel Kant presented his theory of the origins of the universe, he was asked, “What about God?” His response was, “ I have no need of that hypothesis.”
Religion presents us with a “God of the gaps” who is invoked as the explanation of everything that we cannot otherwise explain. But the gaps are shrinking. Modern science is increasingly able to explain anything that people want explained. Psychotherapy and psychiatry are increasingly able to explain people’s inner discomforts and pains as forms of illness, and they offer to heal them. People, therefore, feel less of a need for religious inwardness. They can just get on with their lives.
The response of the Church has been to fight for the continued relevance of religion to the secular world. This is wrong because the withering away of religion is a trend that cannot be reversed. It’s also wrong because it turns us into predators who follow the flock of modern society, looking for any emotionally or intellectually weak stragglers that we can pick off.
DB says we must instead focus on prayer and action.
First, there is the need to reconstruct the disciplina arcana (hidden discipline) of worshipping God in such a manner as to form us into the image of Christ.
Second, we must go into the world confident that Jesus is Lord . . . even of a godless world . . . and there engage in those actions which come out of being a people who have been formed into the image of Christ in this world.
These are the issues that DB was struggling with in prison when he was called to that final conformation to the image of Christ that we call “martyrdom.” The continuation of that struggle is now left to those of us who follow Christ today.
As I have stated elsewhere, some fundamentalists reflect the view that neo-orthodoxy (which Barth and Bonhoeffer held to) is nothing but a dishonestly camouflaged liberalism. Cornelius van Til attacked Barth in the same way that some fundamentalists attack DB today. This same brand of blue-blooded fundamentalism would have significant problems with F.F. Bruce, B. Ramm, D. Bloesch, G.E. Ladd and other neo-evangelicals. All of whom were fully orthodox.