Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Reflections on Life Together Under the Word

Here are some reflections upon my first reading of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together.

"Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ." (21)

The experiment in Christian community at Bonhoeffer's Finkenwalde Seminary was Christocentric to the core. For him there were three essential reasons for this. Because justification rightly understood is in Christ alone, there is no ground upon which to seek self-justification. It follows that the only hope for genuine Christian community comes only through the work of Christ that has bridged the chasm between God and humanity. This in turn makes true reconciliation possible in every human interaction. Lastly, the incarnation of God in Jesus opened the way for humanity to be fully in Christ. As Bonhoeffer puts it, "Where he is, there we are too, in the incarnation, on the Cross, and in his resurrection." (24)

"God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth." (27)

This is just one of Bonhoeffer's statements that struck me as somewhat provocative. I suppose this is partly due to the nature of today's American evangelical church movement. This Christian movement of which I'm intimately familiar is prone to expressions of passion, if not outright emotion. So much is made of the "experience" of Christian faith that it is easily forgotten that at its core it is first and foremost the acceptance of the divine truth that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. It is adherence, or more appropriately, being adhered to the Gospel. As this truth pervades our being it certainly will turn our emotions, our will, our heart, our mind, everything about us toward the Cross and the Resurrection. However, the truth of the Gospel remains even in the times when the emotions are a arid wasteland or our will is less than fully engaged.

"Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate." (30)

Wow!! What a relief it is that Christian community is not dependent on us. There is no set established human norm of practice that, if followed precisely, results in the achievement of perfect union with others in a corporate body of believers. Christian community has already once for all been established by God through Christ's appearance, sacrifice, and resurrection. We are only invited into this brotherhood and sisterhood as disciples of Jesus to share in what God has already created. So Bonhoeffer states that, "It is not the experience of Christian brotherhood, but solid and certain faith in brotherhood that holds us together....We are bound together by faith, not by experience." (39)

"Let him who cannot be alone beware of community....You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out....Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray." (77)

My observation of human nature leads me to the conclusion that some people appear to be loners while others seem to be social in makeup. I know from experience that my wife is much more sociable than I could ever hope to be. But these may only be appearances. Even in her extensive web of social interactions my wife keeps her personal time of enjoyments that are somewhat guarded. Within my own preferred personal space I too grow hungry for human interaction. It is precisely here that Bonhoeffer makes one of his most profound statements about building Christian community. Yes, we are as Christ followers "singled out." God will not allow us to hide from who we really are, sinners saved by grace alone. We ought to grow accustomed to this aloneness with God. Neither will God allow us as Christians to go long into a self-indulgence of such solitude. We were saved for life together in the fellowship of other believers. It is our calling to bear our cross in the community of discipleship marked by pain and supplication.

"The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners....But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you....You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner." (110-111)

Few things in church life are as detached from reality than the facade of pious Christianity that exists in self denial of the human condition. Those of us who have seen it firsthand know well the sort of sham faith such hypocrisy breeds. Bonhoeffer apparently had witnessed it all too often. In the experiment in Christian community that was Finkenwalde Seminary he sought to insure it would not be the case in their fellowship. One of the principle ways this was done was through confession. This was a distinctive expression of the community's accountability to one another. Confession of one Christian to another affords the unique opportunity to "dare to be a sinner;" that is, to be real as a follower of Christ, to be authentic as a person of faith.

These are just a few of my reflections on Bonhoeffer's description of the Christian community he and others experimented with in the Finkenwalde Seminary.  What he himself characterized as "Life Together under the Word."

Steven Baker, Dean of Warren Library
Palm Beach Atlantic University

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