Welcome to 2016. This is a big year for American politics with another presidential election on the horizon. I’ve probably never been as disenchanted with the political process or the rhetoric of politics as I am this cycle, though it’s possible that I feel that way every time. Still, while I’m pretty pessimistic about American politics, I’m not pessimistic about life in general. I’m not worried because I trust in a God who reigns over the whole stream of human history and who is able to raise up and tear down both kings and nations. And so while I’m interested in what is going on in politics, I have bigger concerns. I probably won’t be blogging much about politics this year. I have better things to think about, like the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived in a time when politics played a huge role in human history. He lived during the time of Nazi Germany. He was involved in the underground “confessing church” and even in a political (failed) plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He understood more than most the role that the theology and the church played in politics and he paid for his convictions with his life, executed just days before the camp in which he was being held was liberated by Allied troops.
Yet, despite the fact that Bonhoeffer lived at such a crucial time in history his writings, at least the books which I have read, are not consumed with the political musings. Instead, he writes about theology. He writes about discipleship. He writes about community. He writes about Christian ethics. He writes about topics which are edifying to the church universal in every day and age. He wrote to the church and for the church, bringing the truth of the Word of God to bear on those who would take up the task of following Jesus.
One such book, Life Together, is an exploration of Christian community. In this post I will be summarizing portions of Chapter 1 of that book. For sake of summary, I have constructed this post a little differently than Bonhoeffer constructed his chapter. Here are three dangers which Bonhoeffer sees as damaging to Christian community.
Loving the ideal more than the actual: Bonhoeffer begins his exploration of Christianity by rooting the reality of Christian brotherhood in the work of Christ for us. “What determines our brotherhood is what the man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us” (25). Our Christianity community is always no more nor more less than this.
But in this there is always a desire for there to be more to Christian community than this objective reality in Christ. Or, rather, there is a dissatisfaction with this reality. We want Christian community to be based on more than this. Instead of giving thanks for the opportunity to fellowship together with believers, we seek some ideal vision of community, and speak angrily back at God when this ideal inevitably fails to be realized. We love the ideal community more than the actual community which God has already given us in Christ. Bonhoeffer summarizes the danger in this way:
“One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood. Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful ideal of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for the community with spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood” (26).
“He who loves his dream of 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” (27).
You don’t have to be around the church long to see how great a danger this can be. As much as you might love your particular church family, it will never live up to the “ideal of Christian community.” But God doesn’t give us some ideal, at least not the one in our imagination. Instead, he gives us a community of people reconciled to God in Christ and tells us to love that.
Relying on human love instead of spiritual love: Next Bonhoeffer draws a distinction between “human love” (which he calls a “psychic reality”) and “spiritual love.” He defines the distinction this way: “The basis of all spiritual reality is the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ. The basis of all human reality is the dark, turbid urges and desires of the human mind” (31).
Human love is that love which relies on natural human affections and for Bonhoeffer it is not always evil in and of itself. It can exist quite naturally in devout men. But when this natural human affection becomes the basis for Christian community, even amongst devout men with the best of intentions, “the result is to dethrone the Holy Spirit, to relegate Him to a remote unreality” (32).
Human love can only take you so far. It enables you to love your friends and those who are like you but that is all. Human love turns to hatred when that love is not reciprocated or when it is rebuffed. It will not allow you to love your enemy.
A Christian community which relies on this human love as the basis of its existence fails theologically – it is dethroning the work of the Holy Spirit (see quote above) and it is denying the work of Christ, which is the actual basis for Christian community. It also fails practically. The Christian community which relies on human love, on natural affections, will necessarily be divisive, both towards those outside the church, and even within the community itself as factions form around personal preferences or as disagreements and slights go unaddressed and unforgiven.
Seeking direct access to another instead of access mediated through Christ: Most dangerously for Bonhoeffer, though, is that human love seeks to have direct contact with another soul.
This is one of the most interesting and unique elements of Bonhoeffer’s theology which I have come across. It shows up in both Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. The basic principle is that Christ is our mediator. He is our mediator between us and God. And, for Bonhoeffer, he is also the mediator between us and everyone else. Or at least he should be. We shouldn’t seek to have direct access to another soul, only access that is mediated through Christ. What he means, I think, is that we are always interacting with people in relation to Christ.
What does it look like for someone to seek direct access to another person, not mediated through Christ? Direct human love wants to possess. It wants that person for its own sake. “It wants to gain, to capture by every means; it uses force. It desires to be irresistible, to rule” (34). This kind of love makes truth relative. It only uses truth in order to gain its ends, the affections of the other. It is ultimately coercive, even if it is not self-consciously so. “Human love constructs an image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands” (36). When direct access to another soul is desired, the weak are overcome by the strong. Manipulation rules the day.
But spiritual love, that mediated through Christ, is of a different and alien kind. “Spiritual love loves [another] for Christ’s sake” (34). Instead of serving the self, spiritual love serves Christ alone. Spiritual love loves always in relation to Christ and to what God has done for that other person. In the case of Christian brotherhood Christ has called and saved and is sanctifying him. Therefore, to love with spiritual love, is to release that other person to Christ:
“Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ” (36).
This sort of love speaks the Word of God to a brother, either a word of encouragement or warning or instruction, and then releases that person to Christ. It does not seek to control or coerce or manipulate.
Human/direct love is always a danger to Christian community since it desires to possess the other when the other really belongs to Christ. This unhealthy desire manifests itself in many ways – a desire to be liked and admired, jealousy, manipulation, failure to speak the truth, etc. All of these are the “fruits of the flesh” and stand in opposition to the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5).
Solution – Applying the gospel to the Christian community: Bonhoeffer’s basis for Christian community provides a solution to all of these problems. His solution is to apply the gospel to Christian fellowship. Bonhoeffer reminds his readers that we must view others in Christian community as they are objectively in Christ and then relate to them through Christ. It is this objective reality which forms the basis of Christian fellowship. We really are one in Christ and our unity is based on him alone. If we give God thanks for this objective reality, we will appreciate all the more the subjective experience that fellowship believers brings.
“The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it” (30).