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Who is Jesus Today?

Bonhoeffer, Tillich, and the future of Jesus Christ.

By James Carroll

In March 1943, two bomb attempts were made on Hitler’s life. They failed, but in early April the Gestapo arrested a number of the conspirators. One of these was a young Lutheran theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For two years, he was imprisoned—first at Tegel military prison in Berlin, ultimately at Buchenwald and Flossenbürg concentration camps. A committed pacifist entangled in a plot to kill a tyrant, he wrote, “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”

Bonhoeffer was executed three weeks before the war ended, before the full horrors of 1945 were laid bare. Yet there is a hint in his statement that, in the thick of the evil, he had grasped what was now at stake—nothing less than the moral self-destruction, and perhaps the physical self-extinction, of the human species; its “continuing to live.” In subsequent years, the fragments of thought he left flashed through Christian theology like crystal shards through a darkened conscience. That was especially so once Auschwitz was paired with Hiroshima—absolute evil absolutely armed: the death camp and the genocidal weapon all at once bracketing the human future. The mad nuclear competition that followed then made the problem of human survival literal.

A year before his death, Bonhoeffer declared himself in a letter to his student and friend Eberhard Bethge:1 “What keeps gnawing at me,” he wrote, “is the question, What Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?” That line, written in a Nazi cell, is a shorthand proclamation of Bonhoeffer’s penetration to the deepest question about the human condition, which raised, for a serious Christian, an equally grave question about Jesus Christ and the tradition that takes its name from him. Bonhoeffer was a first witness to the apocalyptic fervor of the Third Reich, the millennial character of the crisis—and the fact that “Christendom,” a culture in place since Charlemagne and nearly the sole context within which Jesus Christ had been understood, was mortally undermined by racist Nazi imperialism. He grasped how the ethical shattering of Christendom extended to the keystone of Christian faith—to Jesus himself. It falls to us to confront far more directly than Bonhoeffer could what precisely has happened. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, Auschwitz and Hiroshima changed everything, except human ways of thinking and believing. Here is more from Bonhoeffer’s statement to Bethge:

We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore . . . [I]f we eventually must judge even the Western form of Christianity to be only a preliminary stage of a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well? . . . The questions to be answered would be: What does a church, a congregation, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we talk about God—without religion? . . . Christ would then no longer be the object of religion, but something else entirely, truly lord of the world. But what does that mean?2

It is clear from this passage that Bonhoeffer was groping for words to express what remained an unspeakable experience.

Paul Tillich, a German Lutheran twenty years Bonhoeffer’s senior, lived to carry on the postwar inquiry.3 Tillich had been dismissed from his Frankfurt professorship by the Nazis, and he, too, found the crisis of Nazism at the center of his reflection. Like Bonhoeffer, he saw a consequent religionlessness as somehow necessary, but also as revelatory. Indeed, it formed the basis of his existentialist theology, which came to fruition in his postwar reflections.4 Here, in slightly more abstract language, is Tillich’s echo of Bonhoeffer’s letter:

The relation of man to the ultimate undergoes changes. Contents of ultimate concern vanish or are replaced by others. . . . Symbols which for a certain period, or in a certain place, expressed the truth of faith for a certain group now only remind of the faith of the past. They have lost their truth, and it is an open question whether dead symbols can be revived. Probably not for those to whom they have died!5

The most important symbol that had “lost its truth” for Tillich was the primordial symbol of God, which, after Hitler, had been irrevocably undermined.6

Whether obsequies for “theological theism” are a function of maturity is debatable—think of the twenty-first-century phenomenon of so-called fundamentalism—yet Bonhoeffer’s seemed an uncanny anticipation of Europe’s broad postwar exodus from religion, with the resulting mass redundancy of church buildings, and the muting of the voices of clergy. Today, apart from the hollow formalism of royalty-ruled churches in Britain and Scandinavia, institutional religion has entirely vacated the public realm of Europe—and, in some places, the private conscience, too.7

I locate this question, first, not in poll numbers or philosophical debates, but in a deeply personal problem: Having myself imbued—and learned to take for granted—basic assumptions of the so-called Secular Age, what of my own religious inheritance can I believe without being dishonest? I am no fundamentalist, and the limits of religion, even its perversity, are fully apparent to me. If the faith continues to impose itself as a primal option, it does so in my case despite—or is it because of?—the crises of 1945. What happens when traditional belief falls into the abyss of Hiroshima? Or even more, for a Christian, when it slams into the wall of the Holocaust?

Here is my simple proposition: Even more than the challenges of secularity, or of, in Tillich’s phrase “justified atheism,” a Christian retrieval of the meaning of Jesus in the twenty-first century can only be accomplished by a much fuller reckoning with the famously necessary, if insufficient cause of the Shoah—the long-in-coming catastrophe of Christian anti-Semitism. A widespread church refusal to reckon with an essential Christian failure about the Jews, for that matter, is at least part of why the spirit bled from mainstream Christian denominations in the decades since the failure showed itself. And it is why—I hold—the only form of Christian belief to actually grow in these years is a faith dedicated to the restoration of the very biblical literalism that put “Christ-killer” Jews at risk in the first place. (“Let his blood be upon us and upon our children.”) Bonhoeffer’s death-row recognition was simple, and may yet prove timeless: “An expulsion of the Jews from the west,” he wrote, “must necessarily bring with it the expulsion of Christ. For Jesus Christ was a Jew.”8 If Jesus were remembered across most of two thousand years as the Jew he was, the history of those millennia, and their climax in the crimes of the Thousand Year Reich, would be very different.

But memory is uncertain. Jesus is elusive. If he were not, he would be useless to us. An ultimate paradox lies at the heart of Christian belief: Jesus is fully human; Jesus is fully divine. Best to say frankly at the outset of a post-Holocaust and—dare I say?—postmodern attempt at retrieval: Jesus-as-God and Jesus-as-man are the brackets within which this inquiry will unfold.

Jesus is fully divine? What can that mean now? If Jesus were not regarded as God almost from the start of his movement, he would be of no interest to us. We would never have heard of him. Nothing but his divinity accounts for his place in Western culture (or in my heart): not his ethic, which was admirable, but hardly uncommon; not his preaching, which was firmly in line with Jewish proclamation; not his heroic suffering, which was typical of many anti-Roman Jewish resisters; not his wonder-working, which was attributed to all kinds of charismatic figures in the ancient world.

The God-Man affirmation need not condemn this pursuit to irrationality or absurdity—or to a separate “non-overlapping magisterium.”9 Instead, it can sponsor a recovery of the light, depth, and beauty of Christian tradition at its best, even while offering a new way to say that Jesus is Christ; that Jesus Christ is God. Speaking quite personally again, nothing matters more to me than that.

To renounce the divinity of Jesus—as do a corps of the new Jesus scholars, never mind the new atheists—is to attribute, paradoxically, some reality to divinity itself. Isn’t it better to acknowledge an essential ignorance about what—or who—lies, as we say, “beyond”? The intuition that Jesus is the Christ, and therefore somehow “of God,” far from being the product of naïveté or superstition, can be rooted in a profoundly sophisticated grasp of the meaning of existence. It pushes past the boundaries of what is readily known and suggests that the realm “out there” is real.10

Believers directly confront an ultimate mystery: all that we know for certain about God is that we do not know God. Here, for Christians, is the pointed relevance of Jesus Christ, for in him we have the knowledge of God that matters. Only if we accommodate and protect some kind of belief in the divinity of Christ, as critically informed as it is true to the tradition—let’s call it a postmodern faith—does Jesus Christ have a future as more than a misunderstood victim, a mere practitioner of the good deed, or, perhaps, as an avatar of rebellion—a “zealot.”

But when we assert, presumably with far less complication, that Jesus was a human being, is the matter, really, any clearer? We do not know with certainty what or who God is, but it is equally true, in fact, that we do not actually know what a human is.11 The inability to grasp the mystery of our own meaning as humans defines the contemporary crisis of identity more sharply than anything. God is not the problem. We are the problem to ourselves.

Realities as basic as time and space are not the distinct realms they seem to be, any more than energy and matter are truly separate entities. We used to think matter was the solid unmovable ground of being, but now we know that matter is motion. Physics tells us that what we imagine to be solid is actually mostly emptiness within which waves fluctuate. And not just physics, metaphysics: Every universal truth is perceived from a particular perspective, which can seem to undercut universality. All is flux, which humans have felt forever. But now, because of Kant, Einstein, Wittgenstein, and their heirs, we see flux for what it is: everything. “God” is not fixed. “Jesus” is not fixed. “We” are not fixed. We humans can no longer take the measure of our world with anything like precision, because the measures themselves are always changing.

From Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age by James Carroll. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright © 2014 by James Carroll.

The Cloud carries a positive connotation, too, with its invitation to value the mystery, paradox, and ambiguity that remain forever foreign to machines.

To be human, therefore, is to be on the way to becoming something else. We can see this right in front of our faces now, every time we hunch over a handheld smartphone, or save a file to the Cloud, a meta-world that exists everywhere and nowhere. It may seem a stretch to find in suddenly ubiquitous but profoundly mundane technologies an image of world-historic evolutionary mutation, but perhaps this is the way evolution has always worked, a “secular” process in which life’s most sacred secret is embedded.

The Cloud, as James Gleick tells us, is one of the new era’s defining metaphors, but it carries implications of its own.12 Clouds were an early emblem of Heaven, the idealized afterlife where humans come into their reward. Indeed, it was on clouds that the Son of Man was to make his appearance on the Last Day. As we know from the Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin’s work on the Gospels and the book of Daniel, the Son of Man coming on clouds was itself an early—and profoundly Jewish—assertion of the godliness of Jesus. ” ‘I am,’ said Jesus,” we read in Mark. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ “13

One problem both with the ancient use of this metaphor and with its adaptation today by a techno-elevation of disembodied intelligence is the way in which the insubstantial and immaterial cloud stands in contrast to the gritty earth, as if the destiny of humans is to be freed from the bondage of the body, the physical brain denigrated as the “meat computer”—a technological Neoplatonism.

But the Cloud carries a positive connotation, too, with its invitation to value the mystery, paradox, and ambiguity that remain forever foreign to machines—an elevation of immateriality in a materialistic age. An anonymous genius of the fourteenth century wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, in which the obscuring and elusive mist itself offered an image of breakthrough understanding that awareness of life’s ultimate unknowability, far from being mere ignorance, is the permanent precondition of the knowledge that makes us human: “For he can well be loved, but he cannot be thought.” The author’s “he” here is a word for “God,” but in this ingenious turn on the tradition, both “he” and “God” are words for the ineffable itself:

By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.14

This “stepping above . . . stoutly . . . deftly” can open into a realm of value and truth in which norms of certitude simply do not apply. Contemporary experience, with social and technical mutations on the march, is understandably threatening, but it can also be taken as an invitation to a more spacious world marked less by clinging than by letting go. The meaning of intelligence, of consciousness, and of self-consciousness is changing with every advance in technology, a process that continually surpasses expectation, and is showing itself to be radically open-ended. Some version of this has been going on in the human story since the primeval ancestor chipped a stone into a blade, but in the scientific age the pace of change has momentously accelerated.

Humans must now be reckoned as mere accidents of natural selection, the random outcome of evolution, beings on the way to being something else. Humans are bits of straw blowing in the wind, in Blaise Pascal’s image. Perhaps so, but with this one footnote, first provided by Pascal: humans are reeds of straw who think. Reeds of straw who know. Reeds of straw who choose. Reeds of straw who willingly surpass themselves. The glory of Man, more evident now than ever, is this in-built capacity for—and no other word will do—transcendence. For some, transcendence has a name.

The phrase “Son of Man,” rooted in the book of Daniel and amounting, in the way it was applied to Jesus, to an early and at least implicit assertion of his divinity, can also be translated as “The Human Being”—a thinly veiled suggestion that we all have the Son of Man’s capacity for transcendence. The tension between his two titles—Son of Man and Son of God—is full of implication here. Jesus reveals humanity as much as he reveals divinity. Indeed, what Jesus reveals, when taken to be Christ, is that divinity abides not just in him but in all of us. Here is where the traditional faith in Jesus Christ as Lord God, far from being outmoded in the Secular Age, meshes perfectly with the postmodern recognition of history’s radical fluidity. The ancient Christian expectation of a future fulfilled in being taken up into God is wholly consonant with the dawning contemporary sense of an open-ended evolution ever surpassing itself. This is how we “partake,” in St. Peter’s phrase, “of the divine nature.”15 The biblical tradition asserts that God is present with special focus in Israel, and in Jesus, but first God is present in Creation. Of that holy presence, Israel is but the sign among the nations; and of that holy presence, Jesus Christ is simply the sacrament. The human person—not just Christ—is the creature in whom this mystery is revealed, because the human person participates in the life of Creation, and knows it. Thus, consciousness and self-consciousness, the unbounded scope of which were not fully grasped until the Secular Age, have come to be recognized as modes of the supreme consciousness known in the tradition as God—of whom we, yes, are the image.

When we proclaim, with the tradition, that Jesus is “Christ,” that Jesus Christ is “Risen,” that Jesus Christ is “God,” we know that we are not asserting scientific facts. We are offering interpretations of a bottomless mystery, ever to be plumbed, never mastered. And, actually, Christian believers have always had language for this imprecise, ambiguous, and unfinished faith. The church has, despite appearances, never claimed to possess the whole truth about Jesus, for the memory of his having come is always paired with the expectation that he will come again—in fulfillment of all human longing at the end of time.16 “Son of Man,” we see again, is the name this culminating figure goes by. To expect him is to believe that history is headed somewhere, and has an ultimate purpose, which gives it present meaning.17

Whatever sort of God Jesus is understood to be, it must be the God who is like humans, not different. If that seems impossible, then what we think of God—and of humans—must change.

The idea captured the essential truth of what Jesus promised: that the unfinished will be finished, ambiguities resolved. Humanity will surpass itself in something more than humanity—a something that goes by the name of God. And this expectation, whether Christians remembered it or not, permanently rooted Christianity within Jewish Messianic hope, where it remains. Recovering that sense of Christian Jewishness, like recovering the permanent Jewishness—not just of “Jesus,” but also of “Christ”—defines the essential work that Christians must do after Auschwitz.

What does this leave us with? A simple Jesus. An ordinary Christ. One whom the simplest person can imitate, the most ordinary person bringing Christ once more to life—day by day, word by word, bread by bread, cup by cup: what Bonhoeffer called “discipleship.” Discipleship is a commitment to the memory and presence of Jesus Christ that makes a difference in how a life is lived, driving thought and behavior week in and week out. Thought, yes. As honed, informed, and critical as we can make it. But also behavior, what we call “practice,” measured against justice, compassion, and love. How do we reclaim Jesus as God? By behaving as if he is.

Whatever sort of God Jesus is understood to be, it must be the God who is like humans, not different. If that seems impossible, then what we think of God—and of humans—must change. And the truest argument, finally and again, for the divinity of Jesus—argument, not proof—is in the one undenied fact of this history: that billions upon billions of ordinary human beings, in their thought and their practice, have found in this faith an immediate and saving experience of the real presence of God, “partaking” of God—becoming God. Even unto here and now, tonight. We come to Jesus, in the end as in the beginning, only through the Jesus people.

The God to whom Jesus points is the God beyond “God.” We recognize in Jesus all that we need to know about the God who, otherwise, remains incomprehensible. And this recognition, because well rooted in the past, is powerful enough to carry us into the open-ended future, even extending beyond what can be imagined.

And can it be a surprise, after all of this, that one of the first to sense what is, after all, a necessary disenchantment with Christianity’s anthropomorphic naïveté was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Whether he fully grasped the meaning of his intuition or not, we cannot miss the implications when we read today what he wrote in prison in 1944: “The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God, we live without God.”18


  1. Eberhard Bethge himself delivered the Tillich Lecture at Harvard Divinity School in 1993.
  2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 8, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Fortress Press, 2010), 362–364.
  3. He did this first in New York and eventually at Harvard; hence the memorial lecture series, first introduced at Harvard in 1990, in which this talk was presented.
  4. Especially in his books The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith (1957).
  5. Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (Harper Perennial Classics Edition, 2001), 111.
  6. In The Courage to Be (Yale University Press, 1952), Tillich wrote: “God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is equated with the recent tyrants who with the help of terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in the machine they control. He becomes the model of everything against which Existentialism revolted. This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism. It is an atheism which is justified as the reaction against theological theism and its disturbing implications” (185).
  7. To take only one example, three-quarters of the once devout Czech Republic are now religiously unaffiliated, according to a demographic study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life (
  8. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Macmillan, 1955), 90–91.
  9. This is Stephen Jay Gould’s formulation, where normal rules of logic do not apply; Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Bantam, 1999).
  10. I recall Albert Einstein’s assertion that humans have the capacity for grasping “the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty” but, because we do the grasping with “our dull faculties,” we can perceive such transcendent mysteries only “in their most primitive forms.” Atheists and theists can, perhaps, meet one another in the field of limits, the limits of skepticism and the limits of faith, if they can agree to acknowledge such limits, which are parallel, even overlapping. See Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, ed. Clifton Fadiman (Doubleday, 1990), 6.
  11. I came to this understanding in reading John Macquarrie’s masterwork, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought.
  12. James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Pantheon, 2011).
  13. Mark 14:62 (New International Version).
  14. The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. A. C. Spearing (Penguin, 2001), 27–28.
  15. 2 Peter 1:4.
  16. “Parousia” is the technical name for this expectation; “eschatology” is another.
  17. The tradition of the Second Coming of Jesus, in fact, defines the fallible character of this peculiar faith, for it began in a misunderstanding. The first followers of Jesus, thinking of him in Jewish apocalyptic terms drawn from the book of Daniel, thought he would return soon in Messianic glory: St. Paul said the longed-for return would occur within the lifetimes of his readers (1 Thessalonians 4:16). But they were wrong.
  18. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Macmillan, 1971), 360–361.

James Carroll, an award-winning author and columnist for The Boston Globe, is distinguished scholar-in-residence at Suffolk University. This is an edited version of the 2014 Paul Tillich Lecture at Harvard, which he presented on April 30 in the Memorial Church.

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