These are my reflections arising from a study session led by Tim Foley, pastor of the Wood Green Mennonite Church in North London. They are extended from contemporaneous notes, and were then used as the basis of a lecture in Birmingham.
Starting over again — the gift
‘Community’ is a much-abused word. Politicians claim its voice, study its nature and exalt its ends. Those who live in it often feel tortured. Sociologists mythologize it, and now — more often than not — say it is a chimera. Meanwhile Christians copy it. And sometimes, especially when things are going badly wrong in the church, they substitute what they copy for the church. Understandable, but mistaken.
Let us step back for a moment. If it is possible at all (and the jury seems permanently out), ‘community’ happens only because of the divine gift of communion, not because of some inherent human predisposition or technology towards cosy living arrangements. Indeed according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer community is not about ‘good experiences’ at all, but rather concerns concrete relations and ‘abiding in Christ’ — the one who is and who becomes present in the life of the Body. Why (and who) Christ is — and what he has to do with a culture largely separtated from Christian belief — remains central to all this, for reasons that will become apparent.
‘Life Together’, the book, is simply profound. It requires slowness and gentleness on our part. Much of it sounds all-too-predictably devotional and Lutheran to the modern ear. When I first came across it I was tempted to dismiss the book as a collection of evangelical pieties from a particular time and place: well intended but bearing little weight for our more complex and sceptical age. Only Bonhoeffer’s stature and integrity as a human being and as a thinker stopped me doing so. I understand why I thought that as I re-read Bonhoeffer’s disturbing words. But what breathtaking stupidity and arrogance was mine, nonetheless!
Out of division and decision — life with others
The context out of which ‘Life Together’ speaks to us is one of critical division and decision in a Nazifying Germany, not the comparatively easy pluralism of post/modern Britain. It is a text written on the threshold of what we have come to see as the crisis of Christendom, but is still able to presuppose much of its fabric — unlike Bonhoeffer’s later prison writings, for example. Even so, there is deep continuity between the different phases of Bonhoeffer’s writing and spiritual experience, if only we can attend to them in that way, as well as noticing their evident differences.
Underneath the presenting language of ‘Life Together’ is startling, dis-comforting wisdom. So it is important to persist, to dwell with this book beyond any obvious point of bearing that we may feel. Its art and prayfulness does not consist in appealing to our manifest ‘feelings’. It stretches them, or rather stretches us beyond them.
Bonhoeffer’s central message is that what we might dangerously call ‘true Christian community’ (and what he more helpfully calls ‘life together’) exists in Christ for the sake of the world, and that it only becomes possible when the dewy morning mist of dreams and visions have evaporated. Life together is not to be confused with a romantic sense of community.
Out too must go our ideas of conventional Christian behaviour as the true way to Life. Should you smoke when meditating? Yes indeed! On this small concern Bonhoeffer’s practice is less counter-cultural than it may seem in our health-conscious today, though worthy Lutherans were no doubt as suspicious of the daily pleasures of the flesh as we might suspect them to have been.
But it is not our ideals or our ideal behaviour that matters. It is the in-visible that is killing us. What we do not see of common life is strangling us, and the invincible idealisations that lie behind our inaction are the source of our dying.
Beyond technique and vision — being together
These days, for instance, we speak easily of ‘new forms of church’ because we have given up on the old, or because much of what we have inherited ‘does not work’. So instead we become advocates of fluid church. Of community church. Of house church. Of churchless faith. Of church beyond congregation. Of virtual church.
Though some of this — deriving from ecumenical reflections on the missionary structure of the congregation in the 1970s — was attributed to his influence, Bonhoeffer would surely be suspicious of ‘new ways of being church’. Merely ‘changing church’ is not enough. Where is the new (or old) form rooted? In what or whom? We can have variety and adaptability but we need also concentration and formation. The congregation is not dispensable — the Congregationalists are right on this. It is where the rubber hits the road in terms of the Christian experience of God in relation to the world. That is not to dismiss experiments with missionary congregations, base communities and the like. I have been strongly involved with such initiatives myself, and with a couple of books that use some of this language. But if such things are at the expense of, or an alternative to, the demanding simplicities of what Bonhoeffer calls ‘life together’, then we are kidding ourselves.
What we often want today is not to be church, but to discover convenient ‘technologies’ that might do it for us. Programmes, processes, study guides, gurus and genuses. Far from being ‘the answer’ this can be the real problem. Nothing will ‘do’ life together for us. We have to live together — in the company and presence of the world. If we do not really want to do this, or if we want to do so only in our own strength, we will be found out. If we do not in fact have life together then we also have no message, no hope, beyond that of another group of individuals seeking individual happiness, meaning and extrication from problems (‘salvation’) in a Jesusified form. This, of course, is precisely what many people suspect us of. So they rightly stay away from our rhetoric and us.
By contrast, the centrality of discipleship — divine grace and costly discipline together — cannot be emphasised enough in Bonhoeffer’s experience and writing, not least in this little book. Life in the Body involves sustaining and supporting one another, in practice and in prayer, through the vicissitudes of living out such costly grace, which is the freedom of love, in this world. It is this focus on the world that makes life together what it is — a commitment to the other, not simply a way of feeling comfortable amongst ‘our own’.
Discovering God — at the world’s centre
Where concern for the world is at the margin, or where it is nothing more than the desire to create the world in our own image, then church is not possible. All that is possible is a gathering of people interested in themselves — in their own rituals (whether of book or of bell), their own ideas (whether right doctrine or its re-creation), their own ends (whether individual or ecclesial salvation), their own company (whether sectarianly or ecumenically constructed), and their own purposes (whether posited as mission or service). Only the real world can save the church from avoiding its Saviour through the comforting illusions of religion.
How, then, do we move forward to life together? Paradoxically, Bonhoeffer talks in this book about refounding religious life. By this he means, lest we are in any doubt, not abstract self-centred religious life, but concretely God-centred life for others in the world. In England he visited the Community of the Resurrection, Woodbrook (the Quakers in Birmingham), Methodists in Richmond, and the community of the Sacred Heart (1933) to observe what this might mean in practice. ‘Evangelical monasticism’ is the term of both abuse and endearment that has been used to describe Bonhoeffer’s interest. It was, to say the least, unusual for a Lutheran of his time and place. And its bounds might have been even wider than we now envisage if his plans to spend time with Gandhi had been realised. Life together is centred on Christ, but Christ is not ecclesially constrained, he realised.
In his own particular theological training experiment, Bonhoeffer took already intellectually equipped people and opened them to the possibility of being radically re-formed. Traditional German theological rigour could not have prepared them adequately for this! Being forced to meditate on texts for longer than the mind could stand, being subjected to a radically democratic common life, being made to reflect beyond the normal boundaries of church education — these and other features of the actual ‘life together’ that Bonhoeffer describes were hardly ideal for those who undertook them, himself included.
Because forgiveness is the basis of life together there were mutual confessions among the brothers. These included the leader, Bonhoeffer, who did not absolve himself from accountability. Corporate priesthood, not an elevated sacerdotalism, was developed. Eucharist was a monthly highlight: central, regular, infrequent (by many modern standards) but carefully prepared and practiced in every other aspect of life.
So, contrary to some Catholic anxieties, the essence of Eucharist in Bonhoeffer’s community turns not on its daily-ness our routine, but on its depth, quality and correspondence to authentic practice in the community and in the world. ‘We are One Body because we all share One Bread.’ That is the aim. Similarly, priesthood is formed in all by one who exemplifies but who does not restrict his (or her) priesthood. At the same time, and contrary to some Protestant anxieties, there is a specificity and ritual apartness to Eucharist. It is about celebrating what is to come as well as what is present. It reminds us that we are exiles. We have not arrived. But for what we have we are truly grateful. It sustains our life.
Enemy love, forgiveness, prayer — going beyond our means
In all this the outward focus of life together is intrinsic to its meaning: service extends outside, it takes place not in the cloister but in the midst of enemies. Resisting Nazism while modelling something wholly different to its methods and ideas came to be central to the meaning of contemporary Christian discipleship for Dietrich Bonhoeffer — insofar as Nazi ideology, structure and practice made alternative and deeply distorted / death-dealing claims about the nature of the world, human beings and God.
At this point enemy-love is the Christian difference. Community is a privilege realised by giving thanks for those you do not like, and it opens up the possibility of transforming those who hate by bringing them (and ‘us’) into the presence of Christ. Not so much the banal, if well intentioned, ‘what would Jesus do?’… but rather ‘who is this Christ and what does his Christ-ness demand of us and our mutual liberation?’ This, of course, is the question that Bonhoeffer is perhaps best known for – ‘who really is Jesus Christ today?’ Its roots are in ‘Life Together’.
Of course the gift of the community can be trampled, lost or taken away any day and at any point, precisely because it is a gift, not a property, possession or technique. It is not from us but from the Giver. By the same token it can be experienced as sheer gift in prison, as Bonhoeffer discovered. It is nothing but grace. This totally changes what is seen as ‘realistic’ in our life together. We must dispel the dream world in order to live fruitfully in the real one — but at the heart of reality is the Giver who forbids our possession of the gift and so keeps us open to continual giving and receiving, as with Manna in the desert.
But, we persist: what is life together? Where is it? How do we realise it? There is no pre-planned or generalised answer, infuriating though that may be. It exists in the concrete, and may often be recognised for what it really is only with hindsight — or, to name that as the grace it really can be if we so intend, with memory.
It is easier, in some ways, to say what life together is not. It is not — as we have seen — an ideal. Those who love the dream more than the reality destroy it, in spite of their good intentions, says Bonhoeffer. Disillusion will overcome us. What then? Get over it by putting aside mere ideals. When we ‘create’ community we set up pride, judgement, failure. We can only be helpfully dis-illusioned (rather than merely frustrated) when we have no illusions left. And disincarnate dreaming is the seat of all illusions. We should be disillusioned therefore, but not lost in the bitterness or craving that can betoken. We are offered a Gospel of glory, but not where we are strong and invulnerable, but where we are contradicted and at a loss (David Jenkins). It is a matter of prayer, of inescapable dependence, before it can be an issue of responsibility, rightful independence.
In, through and with Christ — for others
So there are, have been, and will be many other experiments rooted in commonality, in companionship, in a cause, in an experience. But these are not at heart Christian community says Bonhoeffer, which is actually something that exists only (that difficult, but unavoidable word):
1. In Jesus Christ: God’s presence makes has us both guilty (we fall short) and free (we are forgiven). This means that we are saved not helped. The meaning of that truth comes to us in the Word broken daily in sacrament (though not always Sacrament); in the Word spoken and conveyed through others, which is church; and through the Word we meet unexpectedly in the world. ‘Others’ represent the origin of salvation outside ourselves, and bring it home. We must encounter one another as bringers of the Word. The Other, others and otherness are intrinsic to the Christian idea of self, community and church — and to the possibility of a world which is given and yet which has to make itself on the basis of its givenness. All these truths are bound together and expressed for us in the mystery of Jesus Christ, who we experience as the humanly spoken Word of the divine.
2. Through Jesus Christ: he is our peace, the mediator in and with all. We know through him. What we are in Christ and in the companions Christ gives us matters, not what we are when we are locked in ourselves. Our relations as human beings are all mediated if they are any good, not immediate (which means immaterial, perhaps). This is a difficult truth for humanity to bear. Unfettered autonomy is so much part of the script of post/modernity that is feels like a burden rather than a release to be inescapably in relationship. But it is the reality. Being ‘in Christ’ redefines that relationality in a liberating way, by freeing it through the call and blessing of service to others.
‘What of those not in Christ?’ we may ask. That question entirely misunderstands what is going on here. Christ as we have spoken of him reveals all that is most fully human, and in that sense is/ will be all in all. Yet Christ only becomes a part by being apart — thus the identity and separation of the Christian community that is finally for (not against) the world. But how are we with and for the world? — partly, in the short run, by being without and against it so that it might have a chance of discovering its potential in God, and in life together. This is what I would call ‘the scandal of universality in particularity.’ The old conservative-liberal Christian game is about anxiously choosing and elevating one over the other. But that misses the real point. The point is that the particularity by which we are offered God and the world re-defined liberatingly in Christ makes no sense outside the universal hope of a universal God, but also that we know nothing ‘universally’ — we know only in and through the particular. Communication is about an openness focussed in the specific, and a specificity that can point beyond itself. So it is with Jesus Christ.
This sounds abstract. Yet the intention is face-to-face, immediate. Christ is not a technology or a theory, but that of God that abolishes other mediations — such as materialism — that communicate anything less than the otherness of the Other and the others. Note, however, the danger of idealising this anti-idealisation! This is what happens in much propagating language about Christ. Christians ‘loudmouth for Jesus’ in a way that does violence to the integrity, meaning and purpose of Christ for the world. It is that ‘for-ness’ that is lost in the abolition of the other. For Bonhoeffer, however, it is central. That is why his message, though thoroughly Christocentric in character, is the opposite of anti-evangelical forms of Christomonism.
So in the exclusivity of Christian devotion we are confronted with the sheer breadth and anti-exclusivism of God’s love. This love has parallels and appearances elsewhere, therefore. We should celebrate these. Love of the other is immutably bound to the true nature and grounding of Christ. But Christian practice is not rooted in general values, it flows from the experience of community arising from a history going back to the irruption of Jesus Christ into our assumptions about the world and God; and it is sustained by the same presence and power that raised Christ from death. Bonhoeffer did not put it exactly that way, but this very broad and yet very focussed vision is surely at the heart of his journey from ‘Life Together’ to what became ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’.
Devotion, in the sense of loving attention to that which really matters, is what shapes all of this. In ‘Life Together’ intercessory prayer means bringing each other before God so that we can see each other as forgiven sinners, thus changing our perspective and relations entirely. ‘Sin’ is all that mars communion.
3. With Jesus Christ. In his body Jesus Christ bears our flesh, and vice versa. We are the Body individually, we are spiritual-physical creatures. But we are most fully ‘the Body’ when we participate freely in one another, take the consequences for this, and offer the life of the Body in the world as a sign of its hope. This is the basis of anything worthy of the name Future Church. All else is secondary. What comes first is our accompaniment of one another in the presence of Christ, with devotion to God in Christ, through discipleship in the way of Christ, as partners of the Body of Christ in and for the world, and empowered by the same Spirit of God that is in Christ. This is what it means to be evangelical (oriented towards the Good News), ecumenical (oriented to the whole inhabited creation) and part of the One Holy Catholic Church (universal in our particularity).
In, through and with Jesus Christ there is the hope and actuality of life together. That is what we know. What we do with this knowledge is, painfully, up to us.