Living in God Without God

©2016 Monographs VIII, 118 Pages
Series: Carysfort Press Ltd., Volume 778


Leadership in the Church has still not taken account of atheistic modernity and its values. God still appears as a majestic figure on a throne up above, promulgating laws like any earthly monarch, and judging and punishing the guilty.
Traditional ethics, based on the Ten Commandments which God is supposed to have given to Moses, therefore remains an ethics based on law. In a modern Christian conception of God, however, God is no longer seen as a lawgiver outside the cosmos but as dynamic fundamental love, whose dynamism is manifested in cosmic evolution. Of its very nature this dynamism continually drives man to act out of love and in this way to grow in love.
Precisely this drive forms the root of the ethical imperative. The earlier ethics based on law should now make way for an ethics based on love, the being: everything is good if it is born of love.
This book shows the consequences this principle moral teaching about sex, – a teaching which has long outlived its usefulness. There are also consequences for bioethics, as the final chapter shows in dealing with the example of the very controversial theme of euthanasia.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter One Explanation of the Fundamental Idea of Modern Faith
  • Chapter Two The Basis for a Modern Ethics for Believers
  • Chapter Three The Pre-Modern Law-based Ethics
  • Chapter Four A Modern Believer’s Sexual Ethics
  • Chapter Five Indissoluble?
  • Chapter Six Renouncing Mammon
  • Chapter Seven The Tension between Obedience and Freedom
  • Chapter Eight Euthanasia
  • Epilogue

←VII | 1→


The title may be surprising, even annoying. But it is necessary to know that it is a quotation from a letter dated 16 July 1944 and written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer from the Nazi prison in Spandau. In this letter he is tentatively formulating his fundamental intuition of a Christianity without religion which, in his view, ought to be the form of belief for the modern world. And then comes the sentence: ‘Before God and with God we live without God.’ Clearly, in this paradox the word ‘God’ is used in two different senses.

In ‘without God’ the name refers to the normal idea of God, namely, an almighty and omniscient person (in the Christian context even a three-fold person) in a second world above our own world. Out of that world this God intervenes at will in our world. He does this in the form of revelations, laws, miracles, and, depending on human behaviour, in the form of rewards or punishments. The existence of such a fundamentally anthropomorphic being is incomprehensible for modern people who have been exposed to the influence of the Enlightenment. Nothing speaks for it and almost everything speaks against it.

Bonhoeffer, too, rejects this idea of God which is that of the churches. But he rejects it for different reasons than those of modern humanism. In the Nazi period it became clear to him that this view of God fitted without any problem into a system which had no difficulty with wars of conquest, with national pride, human contempt, murder, violence, and repression. Did the churches see the contradiction between their idea of God and these forms of inhumanity? At any rate, they did not expressly distance themselves from this system, did not protest collectively, but rather, out of love for the fatherland, or out of fear, actively served the system. Bonhoeffer sees that such an image of God is to be rejected and that anyone who acts according to it is on the wrong track. This insight presupposes, of course, that he himself has an intuition of a more genuine idea of God; otherwise he would not have known that the false idea was false and he could not have rejected it with such decisiveness.

But what Bonhoeffer saw in a clear light only through his experience of Nazism had long since been there, indeed for many ←1 | 2→centuries. It is just that the Christians obviously did not notice anything suspicious. The inhumanity of Nazism was only the continuation of the hundreds of years of inhumanity right throughout the history of Europe. Faith in the Christian God-in-Heaven did not prevent pious Christians from continually waging war, with all the monstrous implications war involves; nor did they see any problem with the slave trade, with torture as a normal part of the justice system, with cruel executions adding to the people’s amusement, with pogroms and witch hunts, with brutal intolerance. God-in-Heaven accommodated all of this, spreading his canopy over it, making it acceptable and sometimes even blessing it. As long as Christian society believed in this God-in-Heaven, i.e. up to the time of the Enlightenment, hardly any change was possible. And Christians believed in Him all this time because they could not see any salvation in this vale of tears without Him and because they thought it important to have Him as a friend in this life and even more in the transition to an afterlife; and also because they were afraid that He would not countenance their turning their back on Him, to say nothing of rejecting Him.

Only after the Enlightenment had knocked this God off His throne was there room for another, better image of God. Bonhoeffer saw this better image emerge from the Bible. The biblical Yahweh is also anthropomorphic and has the qualities and failings of a ruler, is warlike and biased, even sometimes cruel, which is the reason why Christians could consider such wrong attitudes to be not guilty or to be forgivable. But probably Bonhoeffer saw in the Bible above all the other image of God: His demand for truth and justice and His concern for mankind, qualities which already appear in the Old Testament and shine forth more brightly in the activity and words of Jesus. The image of God that Bonhoeffer saw was therefore the image of a God who is there for human beings and who calls on us to be human. In essence, it is the image of the God of modern believers. It is not yet systematically thought through by Bonhoeffer and is based on a one-sided reading of the Bible, the value of which must itself be critically examined. But, as to its content, the image can easily be built into a theologically-based modern image of God.

Then what does the image of God look like when it is both modern and Christian at the same time? It must include a rejection of everything that has to do with God-in-Heaven, the ←2 | 3→anthropomorphic ruler and law-giver and rewarder and punisher. And this is no easy undertaking, for the creed, the Bible, the liturgy, moral teaching, theology, Church history, canon law are full of this God-in-Heaven. The first chapter of this book will attempt a sketch of this new image of God. It is the image which Bonhoeffer refers to with ‘before and with God’, although he would perhaps not straightforwardly subscribe to the views put forward in this book. Possibly because he simply did not have the time to think through his intuition himself, for eight months after the letter he was hanged in Flossenburg.

In the modern image of God, and therefore in Bonhoeffer with his ‘before and with God’, God no longer means ‘God-in-Heaven’ but the profound spiritual depth of the cosmos of which we only see the surface. This depth is not a philosophical idea and is not some Thing. It is a loving spirit which takes shape in the cosmos which, gradually developing the man of the future, expresses and reveals itself in man. And this loving spirit says to man, the preliminary end stage of cosmic evolution, simply ‘thou’, and is Himself a ‘thou’. The first chapter will deal with this more in detail.

The two-part expression in Bonhoeffer’s ‘before and with’ is reduced in the title to the one word ‘in’. This is because ‘before and with’ could give the impression of someone who observes us and co-operates with us from outside. Our actions, i.e. our ethics, should spring from the profound reality that is at work in us, to which we belong, through which we breathe and live, and which encompasses us from all sides. The preposition ‘in’ makes this clearer. It reminds us of the way in which Paul, in his letters, refers to his relationship with the living Jesus. The expression ‘in Christus’ occurs in Paul eighty times. What he is saying is that the consciousness of his link with the living Jesus Christ as it were envelops him, governs what he does and what he omits to do. This book is aimed at showing how the awareness of his unity with the loving spirit, who for Paul is the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, envelops, penetrates, carries, and defines the ethics of the modern Christian. The fundamental change of perspective that comes with modernity means also that this ethic will clearly distance itself in certain points from pre-modern ethics. In what points, and with what justification, will be dealt with in detail in what follows.


VIII, 118
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2016. VIII, 118 pp.

Title: Living in God Without God
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127 pages