“Let [the one] who cannot be alone beware of community… Let [the one] who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together
Yesterday at church, we spoke about relationships. As I was gathering my thoughts to prepare to speak with the youth group, I really just wanted to talk about Bonhoeffer. To me, he is the best writer on Christian community. I read Life Together in undergrad, but I must admit that I didn’t understand it all that much. The concepts he speaks of were so simplistic that I kind of blazed through it. But as I re-read the book in seminary, I realized that the book really isn’t that simplistic or even that simple…it’s incredibly dense. He spoke of this lived out Christian community that he created in Finkenwalde. He taught his students what it meant to live in relationship with one another and with Christ. My professor in undergrad once said that the quality of our lives are directly proportional to our vertical and horizontal relationships. That is to say that we are living “the good life” when we are fully loving God and fully loving people. But we all know how difficult that is.
Bonhoeffer tries to boil down Christian community by speaking of the symbiotic relationship between the individual and community. He divides the book up into practices for the individual and practices for the gathered people.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, that the concepts of person, community, and God are inseparably linked. In Life Together, Bonhoeffer wrote out a concrete attempt to live as the church, to realize Christian identity not in isolation but in life with others; it was, in many ways, an attempt to live out this communion of the saints idea expressed in his dissertation. Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together with the universal church in mind saying, “This is…a responsibility by the church as a whole.” That means, we all are supposed to do this…It’s not a biography of his church community in Germany. It’s a how-to guide for all Christians as they live out life together. In this book, he outlines the importance of Christian community. Bonhoeffer urged believers in Life Together to strive for fellowship, oneness, unity, and togetherness as he had taught the brethren at Finkenwalde. These themes undergird all of Bonhoeffer’s practices for the community.
The human person originates in relationship to God. The very words that God spoke in Genesis creating the first person is saying, “Let us make…” Humanity is fundamentally relational because it is created in the image of the relational God. It is impossible to know God apart from the God revealed in Jesus, the God with us and God for us. God’s eternal Word to humanity is Jesus, but Jesus’ call to discipleship makes the person a single individual. Every person experiences this personal invitation. It is not God speaking to a group but to one. She will have to make that decision to follow Christ; alone she has to obey God’s voice.
In Communio, he wrote that the individual always exists for the other. That is to say that there is no “I” without a “You.” Bonhoeffer parsed this thought out in his dissertation not as some sort of idealist concept, but rather the “You” exists as a barrier to the “I” especially in ethical encounters. This is not to collapse the personhood of the individual because humanity is beautiful and created in the image of God. But what Bonhoeffer did in his theological anthropology is to highlight the beauty of the individual in light of their existence for the other; the individual only knows herself because she has come in contact with another. This is Christian freedom: to be in relationship with others through Christ.
Bonhoeffer stressed this again in Life Together by speaking on “The Day Alone” saying that whoever cannot be alone should beware of community and also whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone. In this, there is a mutual relationship between one and another. Every practice that Bonhoeffer outlined in this section ends in being together. He ended the section by saying, “But the strength of solitude and the strength of community is the strength of the Word of God alone, which is meant for the individual in the community.” Anything done as an individual must better the community.
Bonhoeffer’s suggestions for the individual in Life Together were not legalistic. They are opportunities for the individual to grow in the midst of others. As the Christian practices Scriptural meditation, prayer, and intercession, he is working with others towards a common goal in growth with Christ. In this way, the individual is presenting herself as a living sacrifice for the Lord. The individual does these practices alone to bless the community, and it can only grow in relationship with God as each person does their role. Bonhoeffer is applying from the teachings of Paul in 1st Corinthians 12: each person has a part, but that part is for the ultimate betterment of the whole body.
In his dissertation, Bonhoeffer understood the concepts of people and community as the best way of dealing with sin and reconciliation. Christ redeemed all of humanity, and not simply one person (or people group for that matter). The revelation of Christ creates a new humanity (i.e. Switchfoot’s New Way to Be Human) and not simply one new person. Christ is the one person that brings all of humanity to God and to others; there is no such thing as a social community without the community with God and vice versa. Individuals make up the community, but sin breaks relationship. It broke Adam and Eve’s relationship with each other and with God. But through Christ alone, humans can experience the fullness of life. Christians are wired for community, and this Christian community is not an ideal that humans have to work towards but is a reality already created by the work of Christ. The world can see this visible community as the church. The Christian community is being-with-each-other and being-for-each-other.
In Life Together, Bonhoeffer wrote that Christians need each other for Jesus’ sake and is only possible because of Jesus. These Christians yearn for the physical presence of others, which is not a bad thing because Christ came in bodily form. And this community is made up of self-sacrificing individuals willing to put the “you” above the “I.” These are individuals who “release others from [any] attempts to control, coerce, and dominate them.” The love that each individual gives is spiritual love for the sake of Christ. Bonhoeffer seemed to be drawing heavily upon Philippians 2 in imitating Christ’s humility. This Christian life together is a life of both discipline and fulfillment. Christians are able to bear with one another as Christ did because of their spiritual disciplines that they practiced alone.
We were made for community. It’s incredibly difficult to live this life out together, but it’s a task we must all undertake. To me, the best community is only possible through Christ. As the author of Ephesians speaks of, Christ breaks down the dividing walls, and then he himself forms the cornerstone of all relationships. Christ breaks the barrier first between God and humanity by embodying the sin that separates us, and then he breaks the barrier(s) between human relationships. It is only by Christ that we can love God and love people the way that we ought.
*This post has elements from a midterm paper I wrote for a Bonhoeffer course I took in seminary.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Bonhoeffer Reader. Edited by Clifford J. Green and Michael DeJonge. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013. This book has a collection of Bonhoeffer’s writings, and a short little snippet of his dissertation. It’s incredibly difficult to understand, but the dissertation is worth reading.
Dramm, Sabine. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction to His Thought. Translated by Thomas Rice. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007. Don’t read Metaxes if you’re looking for a good biography. Metaxes’ book is incredibly easy to read, and he’s a fantastic writer. But it’s not a biography.