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ers on their own terms, Bonhoeffer realized that they were on to something: the rejection of supernatu- ral God-conceptions in the world “come of age” turns out to be a gift to Christians too.


one who has rejected religion or God is: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” More often than not, I find myself saying, “I don’t believe in that God either!”

Nearly 70 years ago theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also found himself in dialogue with atheists and agnostics—right in his own family. His father and brothers were scientists and lawyers, deeply committed to the struggle to resist Adolf Hitler at great personal cost but skeptical at best (at times out- right dismissive) of the church and its faith. How could these family members to whom he was so close, and whom he admired so much, nev- ertheless reject God? Bonhoeffer became convinced

that the church needed new ways to speak of God that would make sense to these thoughtful, moral people. We see his thinking along these lines most clearly in some of the let- ters he wrote from prison in summer 1944, as he traces how the world’s “coming of age” has allowed us in the West to function quite success- fully without recourse to the “work- ing hypothesis of God” (Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bon-

hoeffer Works, Volume 8; Fortress Press, 2011; 426-28, 479). Science explains atoms and gal- axies, medicine treats a vast array of diseases, psychology opens the mysteries of the human heart, and literature traces questions of meaning—all without any need for supernatural explanation. So today Terry and others like her, who may consider themselves atheist or sim- ply agnostic, no longer claim to need “God” as an explanatory category of illness and healing, weather or war or dreams.

How can we learn to have mean- ingful conversations with atheists of good will, deeply moral atheists or agnostics—people like Terry, like Bonhoeffer’s brothers, perhaps like your own loved ones or neighbors? Increasingly I find I am interested

in learning all I can about their expe- rience of the world, not merely as a prelude to trying to convert them but because people who find life- sustaining meaning and mystery and beauty in the world as it is can teach me a great deal about the Lord I per- ceive incarnate, suffering and risen in all that is created. Through dialogue with his broth-

Listening deeply to those who live “without the working hypothesis of God” also frees us to recognize that the God thought to control all reality was an illusion all along. The Christian God isn’t almighty in the magical sense and never was. The God revealed crucified and risen is found, sensed in the dark, in weakness and death, in the flesh, bread and wine and water and touch, the expanse and beauty and mystery of the natural world itself. Jesus Christ is the Word, the DNA, of all that is (John 1:1-5), the very abundance of life (John 10:10) for us and all creation. And thus what speaks this living Word perhaps most evangelically of all is lives opened up for the life of the world: Christians living this love in prison gardens and at deathbeds, in wetland restoration and after-school arts programs and (with Bonhoeffer) organized difficult political resis- tance to evil. People like Terry notice what

God our lives proclaim, how authen- tically we inhabit the abundance of life we trust in the face of death or fear. And their healthy skepticism toward any God not thus enfleshed can invite us out the door with them into the divine mystery beckoning everywhere around us: in the mys- teries of science and the psyche, cli- mate and oceans, cities and birches and blackbirds, haunting poetry and the cries of the poor. Let us learn to listen. 

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