Visions of community

When I contemplate the recent mini-resurgence of interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I sometimes wonder: does anyone actually read the guy? I haven’t read him thoroughly, mostly snippets I find quoted by other writers. Except for one short book, Life Together—and really just the first chapter of that book, which I’ve read many times. His claims in that chapter about the nature of community are so far from the Christian norm, even the norm of the people who cite him approvingly, that I wonder if they really understand what he is saying. (Or, sometimes, if I understand).

In that first chapter Bonhoeffer says flat out: God hates visionary thinking. I never see that bit quoted directly. And if I’m reading him correctly, he is saying that dreaming about what a Christian community might be will insure the death of actual community, because it distracts from and even undermines the process of building a real one.

Here is the latest citation, from a writer I respect and enjoy and often learn from, Richard Beck. The piece points out that church never lives up to our expectations, then asks “But might disillusionment actually be a great grace? Might our disappointment with the church be a gift? That’s the argument Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes in Life Together:”

Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

Beck doesn’t elaborate, but if he means that our disappointment is a grace because it wakes us up to the fact that reality falls short of our ideals, consequently making us more understanding and forbearing of our fellow Christians—well, I think that tones down Bonhoeffer too far. Dreaming is “a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished …”? The dreamer becomes a “destroyer” of Christian community? Sounds to me more like Bonhoeffer sees dreaming as a poison which community can tolerate no trace of. We should be actively and promptly disabusing dreamers of their dreams, not waiting for disappointment to do the work eventually and only in part. And we especially need to make the point that it’s not the dream that is the problem, but the dreaming—that we shouldn’t respond to disappointment by going in search of another, better dream but that we need to give up dreaming altogether.

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3 thoughts on “Visions of community

  1. Guessing that it’s possible some kind of reaction against the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft was coursing through Bonhoeffer’s mind?

    I read The Cost of Discipleship when I was 13. The pastor who confirmed me frequently incorporated “cheap grace” into his sermons. Otherwise I don’t associate much with DB other than his resistance to National Socialism.

  2. Guessing that it’s possible some kind of reaction against the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft was coursing through Bonhoeffer’s mind?

    Hm, that could very well be. I claim Bonhoeffer as an ally because his words on community seem (to me, anyway) to support my own view that it is something that arises out of what we actually do together, not something that springs into existence as a result of our intentions. It’s the difference between creating a thing and pretending that the thing exists simply because we say it does (and are members of the thing simply because we say we are).

  3. Servetus,

    Should have continued on to say that Volksgemeinschaft is a good example of community by fiat, the thing that Bonhoeffer says is diseased by nature.

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