“The existence of any Christian communal life essentially depends on whether or not it succeeds at the right time in promoting the ability to distinguish between a human ideal and God’s reality, between spiritual and emotional community. The life and death of a Christian community is decided by its ability to reach sober clarity on these points as soon as possible. In other words, a life together under the Word will stay healthy only when it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietas, but instead understands itself as being part of the one, holy, universal, Christian church, sharing through its deeds and suffering in the hardships and struggles and promise of the whole church.” [Underline mine]. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 19.
This passage is like a painting by a great master, the longer I gaze upon it the deeper my exploration and experience. I don’t know that purity of “sober clarity” is possible, and I wonder what Bonhoeffer would say had he lived longer. This may be a worthy ideal, but if it is an ideal then we have the previous warnings in Life Together about the danger of ideals. But it need not be an ideal, it can be a desire (recall his warnings about desire too!) to know God’s reality as opposed to a human ideal. But then can this desire be considered a “movement”?
I don’t know that clarity can be reached “as soon as possible” because what requires clarification today may not be what requires clarification tomorrow. In other words, we may wrestle with an ideal or desire or a doctrinal emphasis or a practice today – and we may seek clarification today and even find the clarification of God’s reality; but tomorrow will likely bring a new challenge that requires its own clarification. “Sober clarity” is a process of sanctification and the renewing of our minds and hearts – it is a process, individually and communally – it involves sailing via the North Star of God’s reality in Jesus Christ – but sometimes our way is cloudy, sometimes we encounter cross currents, sometimes we are knocked off our equilibrium; sometimes we are even looking at the wrong star.
Perhaps what can be experienced “as soon as possible” is a challenge to the unity of the community that the community works through by seeking to discern God’s reality as opposed to emotional reality. Then, hopefully, the community will be better able to respond when the next challenge comes, and the next, and the next. However, no community should become relaxed in thinking that it can negotiate future challenges, because outside of Christ it will shatter – even if it preserves its organizational structure. The day a community ceases to cultivate the soil of God’s reality in Christ and through Christ in others is the day weeds will grow – and weeds left unattended will undermine a community.
Earlier Bonhoeffer wrote about the opportunity that is presented when we have disappointment in the community, opportunity to discern the spiritual from the emotional. I think “the right time” is when we have these opportunities – for there are many such opportunities in the course of life together. We cannot have a challenging experience, discern the reality of God in the experience (as opposed to the emotional) and conclude, “Since we’ve gone through this once we have settled the fact that we are a spiritual community rooted in God’s reality and we are no longer an emotional community.” This is not the way life is, it is not the nature of relationships – we will have opportunity after opportunity after opportunity. We are called to live by the standard to which we’ve grown (Philippians 3:16) as we are changed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18) growing up into Christ (Ephesians 4:15).
So while this passage from Bonhoeffer seems to argue for a “one and done” crisis in life together, I don’t know that that is what he meant, and if he did mean it then I think he may have reconsidered his words later in life…had he lived.
When Bonhoeffer speaks of “the life and death of a Christian community” he is not speaking the way we tend to speak, for when we speak like this we are thinking of organizational success or failure – Bonhoeffer knew that there are dead organizations, organizations that function, that may be growing numerically, but which are dead. Bonhoeffer’s “life” is the life of Christ, and his “death” is that which is outside of Christ. The emotional community is dead – only community rooted in God’s reality of Jesus Christ lives.
We will return to this passage in the next post.