Monday, April 4, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 19

“Two factors, which are really one and the same thing, reveal the difference between spiritual and emotional love. Emotional love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a community that has become false, even for the sake of genuine community. And such emotional love cannot love an enemy, that is to say, one who seriously and stubbornly resists it, Both spring from the same source: emotional love is by its very nature desire, desire for emotional community.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), pages 16 - 17.

Life Together is a short book with short chapters and one wishes that Bonhoeffer had been able to expand on his thoughts. I have read and reread his comments on “emotional love” and there is much to discuss and explore in them, more than can be touched on in the present format. Our inner selves are a mystery, and we must trust the Holy Spirit and the Word of God to “pierce as far the division of the soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). We are incapable of fully discerning that which occurs within us, and we are assuredly incapable of fully discerning what occurs within others. Yes, on a good day we have glimpses, and perhaps on unusual days we have penetrating insights into ourselves in the face of Christ – but all insights and all glimpses are through the Holy Spirit and the Word.

When Bonhoeffer writes the above does he have examples in mind? Is he thinking of others whom he has observed? Is he thinking of himself? Jesus affirms that the Great Commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love others as ourselves. There is a simplicity in loving with heart, soul, mind, and strength. The simplicity is that we engage in simple love with all that we are – with all of our being we are to love God. Our prayer can be, “Oh God, teach me to love you with all that I am.” When we attempt to make complex by analysis what God has made simple we tend to fall into analytical traps that substitute our analysis in place of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

Yes, there is that which is spiritual and that which is carnal, that is a clear teaching of the New Testament (perhaps Bonhoeffer links emotional love with carnal life?). My concern with Bonhoeffer’s emotional love contrasted with spiritual love (as it stands without much discussion in Life Together), is that we have a tendency to take definitions and turn them into measuring rods by which we measure everything around us. When Paul writes about living in the flesh (carnal) versus living in the spirit we have context to help us understand what he means, we have examples of what the two modes of living look like; in Life Together we lack that context, even though Bonhoeffer attempts to explain what he means. But what exactly does it mean when he writes, “Emotional love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a community that has become false, even for the sake of genuine community”? What does “cannot tolerate” mean? If it means that one should not grieve, or that one should not strive to maintain unity within Biblical truth, or that one should not react strongly when one sees the dissolution of a Christian fellowship – then I think that doesn’t take into account the holistic nature of men and women, a holistic nature which in Christ is also a holy nature recreated in the image of God. In the above quote Bonhoeffer links emotional love to desire (I’ve touched on this in a previous post), but here again we should recognize that God puts desires in us that are His desires, and that are natural desires in two senses; the first sense is that we have basic (simple) desires because we are made in the image of God – desires for love, for relationship, for fulfillment. The second sense is that in Christ these desires are heightened and expanded to include our union with Christ and with others as we learn to look not at the seen but the unseen.

There is much in Bonhoeffer’s discussion of emotional love that I agree with, and in future posts I will again touch on points of agreement; but I am concerned about our propensity (I don’t say this was Bonhoeffer’s propensity) to apply litmus tests when we are given test strips. Paul fought for unity in churches, he fought for purity in churches, he fought for the continuance of churches. Paul loved Christian communities enough to fight and worry and pray and grieve and warn and encourage – he was fully engaged in desiring Christian communities to know Jesus Christ. Paul’s letters (consider 1 Corinthians!) often focused on the preservation and maturation of the church, often in the midst of carnal thinking and behavior. Of course, this was also the purpose of Bonhoeffer writing Life Together, and so it is profitable for us to ask, “What did Bonhoeffer mean? How does it apply to us?” Our answers may not always be clear, but a dialogue with Bonhoeffer is a dialogue worth having and we can be assured that he wrote out of a love and passion for Christ and His church that we would do well to emulate. 

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