“Many people seek community because they are afraid of loneliness…Christians, too, who cannot cope on their own, and who in their own lives have had some bad experiences, hope to experience help with this in the company of other people. More often than not they are disappointed. They then blame the community for what is really their own fault.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 55.
In the first few pages of the chapter titled The Day Alone, Bonhoeffer touches on the tension of our individual callings and lives in Christ, and our collective calling and life in Christ. One wishes that Bonhoeffer had the time to more fully explore this aspect of life together for his limited interaction with the subject could lead some readers to unbalanced conclusions. For example, in the first paragraph on page 56 he quotes Luther, “All must fight their own battle with death by themselves, alone…” Then in the next paragraph Bonhoeffer writes, “You are not alone even when you die, and on the day of judgment you will be only one member of the great community of faith in Jesus Christ.”
So we will die alone but we will not die alone. So we will live as individuals but we will not just live as individuals, we will also live as a people. We will live as people who can be alone but we will not live as people who can be alone, we will live life together.
“We recognize, then, that only as we stand in community can we be alone, and only those who are alone can live in the community. Both belong together,” page 56. Bonhoeffer goes on to observe that those who want community with no space for the individual “plunge into the void of words and feelings”. These people, I think he means, live off of others and cannot stand to be alone; they feed off of others – demanding that they be with others without interruption. Some dangers inherent in this are: the person in question does not cultivate his own relationship with Jesus Christ; he does not develop his own understanding of the Scriptures (to be sure this is to be understood in the community of the church); his own prayer life languishes. The people among whom this person lives are often drained by this person’s constant demands for time and attention. There can be a temptation for others to control this person, fostering the person’s unhealthy dependence on an individual or a group – it can lead to manipulation.
Bonhoeffer then observes that those who reject community in favor of individualism “perish in the bottomless pit of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair,” page 57. In a sense this person hurts only himself; if he has a family then he also hurts his family. While he hurts the church by not being a functioning member of the body of Christ, the most apparent damage he does is to himself and his family.
Bonhoeffer quotes Luther again, “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer, they (the community of faith) suffer with me.”
So we are individual members but we are one body; we have individual callings but we have a collective calling. We have a collective calling but we are individual members. John Chapter 17 informs us that we only have witness as we have Trinitarian oneness; that Trinitarian oneness can no more be explained than the mystery of the Body of Christ can be explained. We can partially describe Trinitarian oneness and we can partially describe the mystery of the Body of Christ – but only partially. Paul calls marriage between a man and a woman and the marriage of Christ and the Church a great mystery – and when he uses the term “mystery” in this context I understand it to mean not a mystery that has been unveiled (as it normally means) but rather a mystery that is being unveiled – the curtain is being drawn back – the process continues.
Bonhoeffer writes on page 56, “If you neglect the community of other Christians, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your being alone can only become harmful for you.”
As a practical matter we do not have litmus paper that we place on the tongues of believers to determine where they are in the spectrum of aloneness – community. We seldom have a realistic sense of another person’s heart, soul, inner workings – the labyrinth is too much for us to negotiate; why we don’t even know the depths of our own selves. So we ought not to be too quick to think we know where another person is or what another person needs or where a person has come from or where a person is going. Souls and hearts and minds take time to grow, to be pruned, to suffer, to grow again – to discover who Jesus Christ is, to discover who His body is, and to somewhat discover…incrementally discover, where he or she fits into the call of God individually and the call of God to the Body of Christ. Perhaps this is a voyage of discovery that never ends? Perhaps we ought to be patient with one another – after all, Jesus Christ is the Head of His Body.