Bonhoeffer's "Life Together"

A friend and mentor of mine, Ted Gillette, pointed me to this excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together on Sunday morning. It shocked me when I first read it. I’ve since re-read it five or six times…

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 idea 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 lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.

A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. 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 this dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer 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 which 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 brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first the accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

I’ll admit wanting to take one line out of context and argue it if it stood alone: “God hates visionary dreaming.” I think this is harsh and not universally true. But I do think Bonhoeffer has a point within the framing of this community discussion.

Has anyone else bought into one-dimensional idealism? I have, often.

Has anyone rejected the dirty, messiness of genuine community in exchange for a fruitless vision?

Or do you find Bonhoeffer’s words sour or cynical?


Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...

I think if any of us are honest, we will acknowledge we've bought into that kind of idealism. The messy community is wonderful, but a heck of a lot of work. The temptation is there daily to abandon it for something more comfortable. Great post!


J. Pete Strobel said...

The word that Bonhoeffer uses in regards to wish dream is "Wunschbild": a wishful picture. In other words, Christian community is not dependent on how we envision it, or try to conform it to our preconceived notions. We need to be careful that we don't create the Church according to our image: whatever set of criteria we've written out in our own interior black books. Christ is the center: we aren't, and our personal criteria aren't. We need to remember the context of Bonhoeffer's writing. He wrote Life Together (Gemeinsames Leben) as an explanation or structure for his outlawed seminary during the Nazi era. Their Life Together was a life and death issue: One didn't have the "luxury" to be a wishful thinker or disgruntled Christian if one's idea of what the Church should be and should be doing was frustrated.

Pete Strobel

Kenton said...

Peter, I stumbled on your blog today (one year later). Thank you for this reminder.

I am a survivor.

I participated and was in the highest ranks of leadership in a "community" movement that followed a Christian idealism based on the evangelism mandate of the NT. Thousands were recorded to have made genuine decisions for Christ and many continue to live out their faith.
Sadly, however, in the name of Jesus, I believe hundreds were wounded in the process.

Grace comes in many ways and for me it was crashing hard and dying to the idealism of what community was and what being a leader meant.

Grace shows up in the strangest way and sometimes it is through pain and death. For me it was a death to an identity. I am thankful that something different birthed out of that process.

I have seen the proud dreamers fall one by one (that includes me). Some have awoken from their projected dream of God and the kingdom. Others have taken a blow in personal ways.

People continue to be in denial in their idealism. They are clueless to their own devices; they hide behind "the gods" they have created.

Presently, I am witnessing mercy and redemption on the other end of the experience. This is where authentic, genuine, messy, God-dependant life together is possible.

It is the "now" and "not yet" where I walk with my "brethren." I have new lenses , new prayers, and God birthed dreams.

I have grown up and I now carry things with open hands rather than with tight fists.

I have learned to value relationships. I have learned that the fruit, the gifts, the toys, the talents, the success, the prestige, and the great days and stories of God doing the miraculous through me doesn't define me. Like God, a community cannot be boxed in and I my identity cannot be boxed in.

For years, I have witnessed communities hide from conflict, sweep shame and shortcomings under the carpet, run away from pain, kick out those who made things messy and those who could not contribute to their dream.

Today, I am humbled and thankful for finding communities of grace and relationships of grace. This is where I have experience people embracing their shared humanity. I see people listening and leaning into their pain rather than disguising it. I no longer look for quick fixes but believe and hope and live out healing in community. I have changed in the process. I guess transformation is possible.

Bonhoeffer got it right--death is good.

Anonymous said...

Like Nietzsche, Bonhoeffer philosophizes with a hammer.
Thanks for the passge.

Chuck Blair said...

I am a big Bonhoeffer fan. I recommend the NPR/ Speaking of Faith interview about the man who produced a documentary on his life.

Liked your blog. Reminds me of Anne Lamont - The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.

Rev. Chuck Blair

Peter J Walker said...

Cool, thanks for the kind words Chuck. Stay in touch,

Popular Posts