Bonhoeffer scholars and all theologians interested in the church’s relationship to post-Christian secular culture will find in McLaughlin’s study much food for thought.
Bonhoeffer used the phrase “unconscious Christianity” four times. The first time was in the margin of his Ethics essay, “Ultimate and Penultimate Things.” From Tegel Prison he began to develop the idea through works of fiction. Bonhoeffer then used the term in a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge, and it appears in two notes for a potential book, found in Letters and Papers from Prison (1953). McLaughlin carefully studies these texts and puts them in the context of Bonhoeffer’s life and developing theology. She sees this concept as opening up “new ways in which Bonhoeffer’s theology can be used by the Church to make sense of its present situation” (p. 2). Basically, she argues that it is possible for people to be Christians while not identifying themselves as Christians. They act compassionately to those in need and are thereby engaging with Jesus Christ. Since it is through love that “God acts through us” (p. 159, quoting Bonhoeffer), and Jesus was the one who was “for others,” as persons engage in selfless acts of love, they are identifying with Jesus—even unconsciously. Their participation in Jesus, to whom the world belongs, is “no longer the exclusive action of conscious Christians; unconscious Christians are capable of it as well” (p. 163). Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students, researchers, faculty.
The Bonhoeffer Podcast interviewed author Eleanor McLaughlin about the book. Link: https://soundcloud.com/user-762153146/dr-eleanor-mclaughlin-unconscious-christianity-in-dietrich-bonhoeffers-late-theology