Bonhoeffer defines “spiritual community” as that community which is created by the Holy Spirit and founded solely on Jesus Christ (page 13). He writes, “In this respect it differs absolutely from all other communities,” (page 13). Bonhoeffer defines an “emotional community” as that which comes from the “natural” man. He argues that the basis of spiritual reality is the “clear, manifest Word of God”; and that the basis of emotional reality are the “dark…desires of the human soul,” (Pages 13 – 14). He further argues, “The basis of spiritual community is truth; the basis of emotional community is desire,” (page 14). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition).
Bonhoeffer’s discussion of the difference between spiritual community and emotional community requires reading and rereading and then more rereading. His examples of emotional community, which I will explore in future posts, provides insight into why he felt compelled to work through these distinctions. Yet, while his examples of the dangers of what he terms “emotional community” serve as sober warnings and correctives – and as you’ll see I agree with some of his pointed examples – I think that Biblically-based life together is more complex in its theology and its Biblically-based outworking than what we read in this particular section of Life Together.
I want to hasten to observe that Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together in the midst of Hitler’s reign of terror; Bonhoeffer and fellow pastors and Christians were enduring persecution, never knowing what the next day or hour might bring. He didn’t have the leisure to attempt a well-rounded discussion of his subjects, he didn’t have the time to anticipate and answer questions that might arise in a reader’s mind – his goal, as I understand it, was to produce a core document to guide the church in its life together. Bonhoeffer was laying a foundation and providing a framework upon which and within which Christians could live as a worshipping, edifying, and witnessing community. In this respect the result is a book that should be read and discussed by Christians and which should be required reading in seminaries.
While the Bible distinguishes between the “natural” and the “spiritual” (1 Corinthians Chapter Two is a good example), this does not mean that the desires of the soul are always wrong, always aberrant, and certainly not always “dark”. While Bonhoeffer does not use the term “always” in the above quote, neither does he balance his statement about the soul when contrasting it with the Holy Spirit and this can lead to misunderstanding about the place of the soul in our relationship with God and with each other.
We are to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and all of our soul (Mark 12:30); as we live in obedience to God’s Word our souls are purified (1 Peter 1:22); and our sanctification encompasses the entire person – spirit, soul, and body (1 Thess. 5:23). The spiritual community founded in Christ and created by the Holy Spirit is a community of people in the Trinity, and these people have souls – the Biblical picture of redemption is one of the whole person – spirit, soul, and body.
Bonhoeffer writes, ““The basis of spiritual community is truth; the basis of emotional community is desire.” While there is selfish desire, there is also desire born of hunger for the divine, there is the desire of coming home to God, the desire of finding that city whose builder and maker is God, the desire of discovering who we are and why we are here and where we should be going. Bonhoeffer will touch on this again in Life Together and I will question his view on this point. Desire can be truth, and truth can be desire – just ask anyone who has come to know Christ (such as C.S. Lewis) through what has been termed the “dialectic of desire” – more than one person has been surprised by joy.
I don’t know if Bonhoeffer is reacting against pietistic elements of the church or not, but I do know that intellectual “truth” without heart experience is a platonic relationship – we need a marriage of the heart and mind – Christ redeemed the whole person and we are to live as whole people. So I think we need to recognize that life together incudes desire formed by truth and truth informed by desire.
Bonhoeffer didn’t live long enough to expand on his thoughts or to answer our questions, and since he was a young man when he died he was a young man when he wrote – but he has given us a thought-provoking and challenging document in Life Together, a document which, whether we agree with everything in it or not, is worthy to be our companion.