A review of Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Quizzical looks usually greet me when I tell people I live in a “Christian community.”
“Oh, like a hippie commune?” some wonder. Or, more bluntly: “You mean, a cult?”
The reactions shouldn’t surprise me. Bizarre religious communities have made headlines in the last several years, some for drinking Clorox, others for stockpiling weapons, others for seeking UFOs.
Our community has no charismatic leader, no semiautomatic rifles, and no silk purple triangles. We live on a farm near a river in North Georgia, praying, working and sharing meals together. Our community is very ordinary.
Note that I said ordinary, not boring. For anyone who has lived in a deliberate Christian community knows that life together is never boring. In addition to sharing meals we also share each other’s needs, idiosyncrasies and moods. Community life is a lot like family life, but stripped of the kinship of common blood and history.
Bonhoeffer’s Life Together
Last week, rummaging through an old box of books, I found a small dusty copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. I was familiar with his famous The Cost of Discipleship, but had never read the little book that grew from his experience in a Christian community. Having been immersed in community life for two years, I was curious to hear what this giant of the faith — ultimately martyred for opposing Hitler — had to say about life together.
Many people know at least the outlines of Bonhoeffer’s life. He showed a strong faith from an early age and, in his teens, began to study theology. He completed his doctorate at age 21 and spent his next years as a preacher, pastor, churchman, and teacher in his native Germany. But all these activities were cut short in the fall of 1933 when Hitler came to power. In protest, Bonhoeffer moved to London but soon returned to his country at the request of the Confessing Church (a body of Christians who firmly opposed the Nazi-influenced church) to run a hidden seminary in Finkenwalde.
Life Together emerged from Bonhoeffer’s experience directing the secret seminary.
Desire for Togetherness
Every generation craves something it feels it lost, but never really had. Ours craves community. We grew up in social barrenness of the suburbs: We had houses, but no homes; schools, but no common life; parents, but no mom and dad.
Community is our fix.
When I moved to this community two years ago, I came with high hopes and I drank community down to the dregs. But I’ve come down from my high hopes. My community-mates bicker, scold, whine, chew with their mouths open, gripe, and smell just like everyone else. And, to make matters worse, I’m always in the thick of it and often the one to blame.
Real community life is nothing like I expected. I’ve been disillusioned.
Disillusionment, says Bonhoeffer, is the first step toward real spiritual community. He writes:
Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it has sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God speedily shatters such dreams.
Real spiritual community, he says, is similar to God’s mysterious work in our individual lives: we rarely understand it even as it takes place. For this reason Bonhoeffer advises the Christian not to be constantly “feeling his spiritual pulse,” nor “the daily temperature of his community.” Instead, the Christian ought to begin each day in simple thankfulness to God for life together.
Human or Spiritual Community
Throughout the book, Bonhoeffer draws a contrast between human community and spiritual community. Human community is based chiefly on desire: We need other people and will use any means necessary to bind them to us. But spiritual community doesn’t bind artificially because Christ always mediates it.
Within spiritual community there is never, nor in any way, any “immediate” relationship of one to another, whereas human community expresses a profound, elemental, human desire for community, for immediate contact with other human souls. . . . Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake.
Other spiritual writers would stop there, but Bonhoeffer goes on to give sharp definition to what it means to love someone “for Christ’s sake”:
Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire direct fellowship with them. . . . This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again. . . . 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. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ.
Bonhoeffer’s observations are so wise that it is amazing to think he wrote them when he was only 30 years old. Every page is crammed with astute spiritual insight and gems of everyday wisdom.
Life Together is no languid stroll through the pleasantries of communal life, but a stark description of how God works when a group of Christians live together. Bonhoeffer bluntly addresses the most common sins and the most essential ministries for community life. In the most practical section of the book, entitled “Ministry,” he confronts the deadliest poison of life together: gossip.
We combat [gossip] most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow [it] to be expressed in words. It is certain that the spirit of self-justification can be overcome only by the Spirit of grace; nevertheless, isolated thoughts of judgment can be curbed and smothered by never allowing them to be uttered, except as a confession of sin.
The opposite of gossip is listening. Not the listening with half an ear that “presumes to already know what the person will say,” but the listening that has been committed to Christians “by Him who is Himself the great listener.” Because God loves us, he not only gave His Word, but also listens to us. When we listen to our brothers, we are doing God’s work.
Bonhoeffer acknowledges that not all of community life is spent in “spiritual” duties. Most of our days are spent working and he advises communities to discipline their work and prayer lives.
It is also God’s will that every day should be marked for the Christian by both prayer and work. Prayer is entitled to its time. But the bulk of the day belongs to work. And only where each receives its own specific due will it become clear that both belong inseparably together . . . [When] the prayer of the Christian reaches beyond its set time and extends into the heart of his work, it includes the whole day, and in doing so, it does not hinder the work, it promotes it, affirms it, and lends it meaning and joy.
My two years of community living have brought plenty of frustration. Often I have felt hopelessly lost, not knowing why I am here or what I am doing. Reading Life Together was like checking a compass in the middle of the woods, or hearing advice from a wise elder.
So pertinent is it that, this week, on our farm by the river, we began reading it aloud together after dinner.
Two years before Life Together was published, the Gestapo shut down the secret seminary in Finkenwalde. Fearing imprisonment, Bonhoeffer left Germany to teach at Union Seminary in New York. But his conscience moved him to return to Germany where he joined an underground resistance movement dedicated to overthrowing Hitler. Then, in 1944, the Gestapo caught and imprisoned him. He spent two years in jail until he was transferred to the concentration camp in Buchenwald. There, on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed.
There is no question that he is one of the modern giants of the faith. As one of his friends remarked, his life belongs to the modern Acts of the Apostles.
Anyone desiring a life together with other Christians — whether in a church, a dorm or a marriage — would benefit from reading Life Together. Not a sentence passes without deep comfort, conviction, and grace.
Copyright 2003 Tim McIntosh. All rights reserved.