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Life Together, Today

Revisiting Bonhoeffer’s Classic

E. J. Hutchinson

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s short but penetrating book, Life Together, was distilled from his experiences at the underground seminary he directed at Finkenwald, in what is now Poland, from 1935 to 1937. Bonhoeffer sought to live out the Reformation commitment to “life together” under the Word, and his insights can help those of us attempting to live out our Christian vocation in our families and local churches.

Life Together is divided into five sections (“Community,” “The Day with Others,” “The Day Alone,” “Ministry,” and “Confession and Communion”). Bonhoeffer begins with a quotation of Psalm 133:1: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity!” It is indeed good, but this good is only brought about by recognizing and obeying the guidance of the Scriptures. Thus “life together” is and can only be “life together under the Word.” The cross shows us the folly of human wisdom, and so Christ must be our teacher if we are to learn to live with one another.

In the Thick of Foes

Moreover, this common life must be lived in the world as it exists, not as we wish it to be. “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies,” Bonhoeffer says, and therefore “the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.” Because the kingdom is and must be in the midst of enemies, Christians are a scattered people; it is the scattering of the seed that creates the context for the visible fellowship of the saints. It is “only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians.” Visible fellowship, then, is a gift of grace for our lives in this world, one that, like all gifts of grace, brings its own obligations with it in light of the community’s common Lord.footnote

The Christian belongs, not in the seclusion of a cloistered life, but in the thick of foes.

Bonhoeffer’s stress on this world as the sphere of our responsibility informs his adamant refusal of all utopianism and perfectionism in the Christian community. The stress on responsibility implies that the fellowship of the saints brings with it duties as well as privileges, and thus this emphasis informs Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the isolation of the self from others. The stress on responsibility in Jesus Christ implores us to encounter our neighbor in Christ and Christ in our neighbor, and thus underwrites Bonhoeffer’s repudiation of pious individualism.

It should therefore be obvious that the desire for the presence of others is no sinful want. It is instead a corollary of the way in which we were created, as embodied spirits. It is validated by the bodily Advent of the Son of God and is given extra urgency by the presence of the kingdom in the midst of the world before Christ’s Second Advent. The desire for fellowship, then, is natural, and so we can and should seek this fellowship. And yet it is not simply another instance of man’s natural sociability, and in fact man’s natural sociability as fallen in Adam often actively works against Christian fellowship. For that reason, this fellowship must follow the pattern and precepts established by Christ, who appeared in the body, who was raised from the dead in the body, and who bestows upon his body, the church, participation in his own body through the divine mysteries in order that it may not be governed by the sinful love of self that so often holds sway when fellowship is left to man’s corruption. Christ himself, in other words, must be the cornerstone of Christian fellowship. It is not the church that makes Christ present, but Christ who makes the church present.

As Bonhoeffer notes, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.” Moreover, that is all that it is; there is no other way for a Christian to encounter his neighbor. Encountering one another through Christ rather than directly prevents us from making idols of others and them from making idols of us. We are not to look for followers to subscribe to our own peculiar programs. We are to serve others in love. Bonhoeffer expands upon what this means in three ways, ordered by “the Biblical and Reformation message of the justification of man through grace alone.”

Bonhoeffer’s view of common life is a distinctively Protestant view of common life, despite the fact that “much of the community life at Finkenwalde was oriented around a form of disciplined life not common to the Protestant background of the seminarians” that provoked “accusations that [Bonhoeffer] was catholicizing the seminarians,” as Geffrey B. Kelly has commented. For Luther’s disciple makes it clear in a way that allows for no cavilling that the Christian never looks within himself to find his salvation or his justification, but looks instead to Jesus Christ. It is only the pronouncement of the divine forgiveness in the Word that brings us aid, for in ourselves we are “destitute and dead.” This Word, and the righteousness that is ours in Christ, comes to us extra nos, “from the outside.”

Alien Righteousness

Bonhoeffer then connects the idea of “alien righteousness” to the human community of the Word. That is to say, how do we hear this Word? We hear it from others, for “God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men.” The divine dispensation to act in such a way is, again, at least in part dependent on our very destitution. In one of his most penetrating observations, one that any doubting Christian will relate to, Bonhoeffer says of a person’s need of a brother: “The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.” Whatever our station, we can all be vessels of the Word who speak it with humility to our fellow beggars. It is because of our spiritual deadness and poverty that we need Jesus, and it is because of Jesus that we need others.

Whatever our station, we can all be vessels of the Word who speak it with humility to our fellow beggars.

The Christian community is, in Christ, an everlasting community. As part of his body, we belong to Christ individually, and “we also belong to him in eternity with one another.” “He who looks upon his brother,” writes Bonhoeffer, “should know that he will be eternally united with him in Jesus Christ. Christian community means community through and in Jesus Christ. On this presupposition rests everything that the Scriptures provide in the way of directions and precepts for the communal life of Christians.” This union with Christ under his Word is the root of the Christian community.

Recognizing the real nature of the Christian fellowship has drastic implications for how one thinks about life together and what we expect of it. Bonhoeffer pulls no punches here: “One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood.” We would do well to allow that to sink in for a moment. Bonhoeffer rebukes us for our pettiness and complaints. It is this no-frills Christocentrism – the dependence of the church on Jesus Christ for its existence – that underwrites Bonhoeffer’s description of what the community of Christ is and what we should expect of it: “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality…Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a psychic reality.”

The divine reality of the Christian community dissuades us from treating each other as a means to an end, and from creating an idealized dream-world in place of the world that God has graciously given us. We always think we know better about how things ought to be; it is God’s grace to “shatter such dreams.” As Bonhoeffer notes, “disillusionment” with the Christian community is necessary for God to break us of our frail utopianism so that “genuine community” can be fostered. Without such razing and rebuilding, our selfishness will lead us to be accusers of those in our community. It is therefore God’s grace to humble us: “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.”

Why? “Visionary dreaming” is in reality a mask for grumbling, as the Israelites did in the wilderness when they pined for slavery in Egypt. But to do this is to manifest a stance of deep ingratitude toward God, who owes us nothing. For that reason, “[w]e do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily.”

Given, however, that we are all, if we are honest, prone to such grumbling and bitterness, what are we to do? We are to recognize and confess our sin. For recognition and confession of the sin of complaining liberates us in the knowledge that our sins are forgiven so that we can be receptive to God’s action rather than fixated on our own. And thus it allows us, in turn, to recognize our brothers and sisters as gifts and to abandon the pseudo-pious fantasy of the church as a human project, something to be achieved and for which we can take credit. Bonhoeffer emphasizes that “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” Though we may not always feel such brotherliness, that does not change the fact that Christ has done what he has done. If we are bitter toward each other, it does not mean that Christ has not made us part of a community, or that we ought to manipulate people and situations to bring about concord by our own efforts. It means that we should repent, believe in what Christ has done, and walk accordingly.

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A Divine Reality

We come now to Bonhoeffer’s second and related axiom: because Christian brotherhood is a divine reality, it is a spiritual rather than a psychic reality. With this opposition, at first glance odd to the modern reader, Bonhoeffer draws on a Pauline dualism, the dualism between what is spiritual and given of God and what is (merely) human.

Because the church is a divine and spiritual reality – indeed, the “community of the Spirit” – the Word alone rules in it, in contrast to the world’s libido dominandi (“lust to dominate others”). As Bonhoeffer writes, “There [in the Christian community] God’s Word alone is binding; here [in the world], besides the Word, men bind others to themselves. There all power, honor, and dominion are surrendered to the Holy Spirit; here spheres of power and influence of a personal nature are sought and cultivated.”

“Visionary dreaming” is in reality a mask for grumbling.

There is no place in the church for the dominance of the strong over the weak. How is this prevented? One soul is never allowed to “operate directly on another soul.” That is to say, in the Christian community we do not relate to one another “immediate[ly],” we relate to one another mediately – through the “mediation of Christ.” For that reason, we love others not directly, but for Christ’s sake. Thus when I am irritated with someone, for example, I should remember that I must see my relationship to that person through the prism of Christ’s interposition of himself between me and the one who is the cause of my discontent: he, too, is a brother for whom Christ died.

Such a recognition is useful in the converse situation as well, for knowing that Christ is my savior and mediator should prevent me from making an idol of my relationships with others and seeking salvation in them. All of this is to say that Bonhoeffer’s simple principle frees us from the god of the self and the god of the other so that we can manifest godliness – that is, Christlikeness – in our behavior. Bonhoeffer’s prioritizing of Christ over all in our relationships is of a piece with the rule of the Word alone and the origin of the community through the Word alone, and is a reprise of the Augustinian point that we love God alone for his own sake, whereas we love other creatures in God and for his sake.

Indeed, the basis for the Christian community is love, a love that has its principle in the faith that believes that Christ forgives both my sins and those of my neighbor. This love is therefore a particular kind of love – “spiritual love.” This spiritual love “proves itself in that everything it says and does commends Christ…. Human love lives by uncontrolled and uncontrollable dark desires; spiritual love lives in the clear light of service ordered by the truth.”

Christ Alone

The note that sounds constantly in Bonhoeffer’s exposition is, no matter the particular circumstances he is addressing, the clarion call of the Reformation: solus Christus, “Christ alone.” Bonhoeffer is tenacious and unremitting on this point; he will not compromise it for any reason whatsoever. It is all, and without it our efforts are as nothing. But why does this radical orientation of Bonhoeffer’s matter for how we think about the church and the Christian community? To reprise my opening question: what is its peculiar relevance now, over seventy-five years later?

Brief reflection on Bonhoeffer’s principles offers a treasury of wisdom for how we think of the church and comport ourselves within it. Ours is a restless and rootless age. A sense of alienation accompanies it for many younger Christians, who then seek to alleviate their sense of dislocation by adhering to a “tradition,” most often one that is not their own. But there is no refuge in history, and Bonhoeffer would dismiss it as so much role-playing that effaces the need and duty of the moment. My neighbor is not part of the past; he lives in the present, our present, which is at the same time Christ’s presence. This world is the one with which we have to do, and though it it may seem a paradoxical lesson that we learn from the historical principles of the Reformation how not to attempt to escape into a fantasized past, the lesson is nevertheless true.

Bonhoeffer can teach us to be where we are in order that we might serve as God, rather than we, deems fitting for us.

To put it more straightforwardly, one might say that Bonhoeffer can teach us to be where we are, where God in His providence has placed us, in order that we might serve as He, rather than we, deems fitting for us. Does this crush our utopian dreams of what the church ought to be? Yes, and good riddance to them. For it gives us something much more glorious in its place – that Christ himself already is for me as he who forgives my sins, and wills to free me to live for others under the rule of the Word. If this is what Christ wishes his body on earth to be, we should accept it with gratitude. Anything else is of the world. As Bonhoeffer says:

[L]ife together under the Word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis, but rather where it understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, catholic, Christian church, where it shares actively and passively in the sufferings and struggles and promise of the whole Church.

There are not, then, two levels to the Christian life; Bonhoeffer is not advocating an unreformed version of monasticism. There is, in the end, only one: a life lived in radical union with and dependence upon Christ, the living and righteous Word, for our justification, righteousness, and life. But this one life can take on manifold forms. Whether we live as members of a formal community like Finkenwalde or whether we simply seek to love each other well as members of a congregation, we are able to live together as members of Christ’s body in our particular circumstances when we understand that our unity is not an aspiration or a project for human ingenuity, nor is it achieved by extraordinary spiritual heroism. It is, moreover, not a unity that takes us out of that world into a separate society. Instead, it is, as are all things, the gift of God in Christ, to be received and lived out with gratitude in the midst and for the good of that world.

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Footnotes

  1. John Doberstein, in his introduction to Life Together, writes: “[Bonhoeffer] defined [the ‘world’] as the sphere of concrete responsibility given to us by and in Jesus Christ.”
Contributed By E. J. Hutchinson E. J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. His research focuses on the intersection of classical culture and the Christian faith.

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