Bonhoeffer on Community

I first read Dietrich Bohnoeffer’s writings when I was a high school student 38 years ago. My worn-out copy of Life Together (Gemeinsames Leben)  dates to 1978, my first year in seminary. Its words were foreign and almost incomprehensible to my Baptist ears, but even then I thought “wow.” My appreciation of Bonhoeffer’s words grows deeper every time I read this beautiful little text. Bonhoeffer’s first chapter on “Community” starts with standard Reformation language regarding our righteousness in Christ. He proceeds to draw out from that, however, an understanding of the Christian life that turned my understanding of Christian piety upside down. The later chapters of Life Together describe what we might call spiritual disciplines that belong to Christian discipleship. You’ll never understand what Bonhoeffer says about things like prayer, confession, communion, work and service, however, unless you first grasp the foundation that he lays in his chapter on community.

I revisited Bonhoeffer’s chapter on “Community” in Life Together after writing this week’s post on “Ordinary Christianity.” It was obvious to me how much this little book has come to color not only my understanding of Christian community, but of Christian holiness as well.

If you’ve not read this gem; I present now some extended extracts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing on “Community” from Life Together.

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The Christian is the man who no longer seeks his salvation, his deliverance, his justification in himself, but in Jesus Christ alone. He knows that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him guilty, even when he does not feel guilt, and God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all. . . . The Reformers expressed it this way: Our righteousness is an “alien righteousness,” a righteousness that comes from outside of us (extra nos). They were saying that the Christian is dependent on the Word of God spoken to him. He is pointed outward, to the Word that comes to him. . . .

We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for eternity. That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more. One wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood. Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood. In Christian brotherhood, everything depends upon its being clear from the beginning; first, that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Second, that Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a psychic reality.

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite ideal of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and loft moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. . . . .

Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dream proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of his brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. . . .

Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to constantly be taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.

Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realized; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. . . .

In the community of the Spirit the Word of God alone rules; in the human community of spirit there rules, along with the Word, the man who is furnished with exceptional powers, experience and magical, suggestive capacities. . . . It is true, in so far as these are devout men, that they do this with the intention of serving the highest and best, but in actuality the result is to dethrone the Holy Spirit, to relegate him to remote unreality. In actuality, it is only the human that is operative here. . .

Likewise, there is human love of one’s neighbor. Such passion is capable of prodigious sacrifices. Often it far surpasses genuine Christian love in fervent devotion and visible results. It speaks the Christian language with overwhelming and stirring eloquence. . . .

Human love has little regard for truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person. Human love desires the other person, his company, his answering love, but it does not serve him. On the contrary, it continues to desire even when it seems to be serving. . . . Human love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a fellowship that has become false for the sake of genuine fellowship, and human love cannot love an enemy, that is, one who seriously and stubbornly resists it. . . .

In other words, life together under the Word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis, but rather where it understands itself as being part of one, holy, catholic Christian Church, where it shares actively and passively in the sufferings and struggles and promise of the whole Church. . . .

That is why, as experience has shown, it is precisely in retreats of short duration that the human element develops most easily. Nothing is easier than to stimulate the glow of fellowship in a few days of life together, but nothing is more fatal to the sound, sober brotherly fellowship of everyday life.

There is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting experience of genuine Christian community at least once in his life. But in this world such experiences can be no more than a gracious extra beyond the daily bread of Christian community life. We have no claim upon such experiences, and we do not live with other Christians for the sake of acquiring them. It is not the experience of Christian brotherhood, but solid and certain faith in brotherhood, that holds us together. . . . We are bound together by faith, not by experience.

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