The medieval era—roughly the period from the decline of Rome to the reformation—was characterized by feelings of internal control. People felt that they were controlled by forces within themselves, like sin and disease.
The modern era was characterized by external freedom, the idea that we could use the laws of the universe to be free from being controlled. Instead of being controlled, we could be in control ourselves. We could do this through modern means, such as science, economics, engineering, and war. The great gardens of Europe, for example, are creations of the modern era. They express the sense that nature itself could be manipulated and molded—even controlled—by human beings.
It would follow that the (so-called) postmodern era could be a time characterized by internal freedom. Will it? Will it be a time when we seek freedom by asserting power over forces inside ourselves? Put another way, will it be a time when we look for God less in “externals,” like dogmas, proofs, and external authorities, and more in “internals,” like relationship and devotion?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in the 1940’s, and from a Nazi prison no less, anticipated this question when he spoke of a new consciousness which he called “a world come of age.” For Bonhoeffer, “religious consciousness” was passing away and “world-come-of-age consciousness” was rising, a development which he welcomed.
By “religious consciousness,” he essentially meant a worldview that continues to be based in the authority of religion and church. “Religious consciousness” was invested in retaining what it considered to be traditional understandings of God and reality.
One of the ways that religion responded to science, for example, was by using “God” as an explanation for things that could not be explained (or, as it turned out, could not be explained yet). Bonhoeffer used the phrase “god of the gaps” as a way of saying that, when there is a “gap” in our knowledge, it is quite often there that the church asserts “God.” In other words, God is trotted out to explain what we cannot explain. (Thus, ironically, “God” is associated with what we don’t know.)
As we all know, science is now able to explain more and more of what, up until recently, was unknown. The unknown has been, and is being, whittled down. Since we had associated God with the unknown, many people came to feel that God was being whittled down too. As we knew more and more about the processes of the universe, God seemed to be pushed more and more into the background.
Perhaps this is why people in a “religious consciousness” tend to feel more and more unsettled and more and more out of place. They tend to move away from these challenges of the secular world and into what Bonhoeffer called “religious enclaves” where they can pretend that “religious consciousness” still holds sway. People in a “religious consciousness” tend to be suspicious of new discovery, and leery of human achievement.
In a “world come of age consciousness,” Bonhoeffer believed that the impulse toward human achievement, self-determination, and responsibility would not be resisted, but applauded. The increase of knowledge would not be met with suspicion, but rather with welcome.
With the decline of a “religious consciousness,” and the rise of “world come of age consciousness,” people would give less and less deference to a worldview that makes little sense to them. They would, out of their own multiplicity of experience and ability to discern between competing claims, make their own decisions and actions in life, without falling back on, or seeking refuge in, any external authority.
People would, of course, have to take responsibility for their autonomy and their decisions and actions in the world, which they would gladly do. “World come of age” people do not shirk this responsibility, or fear it. Indeed, they welcome it. Of course, they recognize that they will make mistakes, but they will not blame “God” or “fate” or even “sin” for their failures. They themselves will own up to them, without shame or guilt.
Bonhoeffer believed that the church would resist the world’s coming of age. The clergy will use all their “clerical tricks” to retain “religious consciousness,” he said. They will frame certain questions in such a way that “(supposedly) only ‘God’ can give an answer.”
The very rich irony is that “world-come-of-age people” are actually closer to a Christian understanding of themselves and the world than are people in a “religious consciousness.” Throughout the Bible, God calls people to take responsibility. Directly in the face of the “religious consciousness” expressed by the Biblical pharisees, Jesus himself expressed a “world come of age consciousness” when he told them, “Why don’t you decide for yourselves what is right?” (Luke 12: 57)
When Bonhoeffer opposed “religious consciousness,” he was not opposing the Christian faith, the gospel, the centrality of Christ, or the use of the Bible. He did not even call for a change in the liturgy. He was opposing a “head buried in sand” Christianity that, in its heart of hearts, wanted to revert to a 13th century view of the world when the church told people what to think.
“World come of age” consciousness would lead to a “religionless Christianity,” a Christianity that did not have its mind set in “religious consciousness,” one that did not seek God out there somewhere, in the wild, blue yonder, in a place we don’t really know.
“Religionless Christianity in a world come of age” would seek God in the world we do know, in the midst of life, with all its joys and sorrows, successes and failures, and would encounter God precisely there, in one’s own heart, and in relationship with our neighbor.
A “world come of age consciousness” is one of internal freedom. It is freedom from the external control of “religion” and any other hierarchical authority. People will, in an exercise of autonomy and responsibility, make their own decisions in life without relying upon the dictates of any institution—not church, not state, not even family. Edwin Friedman, the late psychiatrist, called this exactly what Bonhoeffer called it: “adulthood.”
Thus, “world come of age consciousness” is not about morality. It is not about “good” or “bad” or “right” or “wrong.” It is not about moral perfection or even moral improvement. It is about psychological maturity. It is about taking responsibility for one’s self, and making one’s way in the world without excuses.
Bonhoeffer completely understood Luther’s famous saying: “Sin boldly, and love and worship Christ more boldly still.” To “sin boldly” is to make decisions. I’m reminded of a scene in the movie “Ironweed” when a homeless woman, played by Meryl Streep, goes into a church to get warm. Looking up at one of the side altars, she said, “I don’t call it sin. I call it decisions.”
We must act in the world. We cannot escape this. Naturally, we will make mistakes. We will “sin.” But, we can “sin boldly” because the gospel is not about not making mistakes.