“The Christian Community” Dietrich Bonhoeffer with an introduction by Niels Nymann Eriksen
Lohse, 2013 , 72 pp.
Bonhoeffer was recommended to me as a book about how Christian belief ought to materialize in practical life. Since Bonhoeffer’s Community is quite a lengthy read, I decided to settle for the excerpt in The Christian Community [Det Kristne Fællesskab] published by Lohse a few years back. This new version also includes an introduction to Bonhoeffer’s life and works.
First and foremost: This is a really short book! With only 72 pages printed on A6ish sized paper, the entire thing can well be read in an hour or two. Due to the shortness of the book one might wonder why the publisher has decided to spend the entire first half of it on Niels Nymann Eriksen’s introduction. This is not to say that the introduction is bad – far from it. Eriksen’s introduction is well written and concise, it covers both a biographical section as well as some of the philosophical and theological ideas which Bonhoeffer builds on, together with some critical remarks.
Unfortunately – especially for such a short book – there is an unnecessary amount of repetition between the introduction and the main section. I would have preferred to have the introduction present other parts of Bonhoeffer’s authorship which might have given me a broader understanding of his theology. Instead the introduction just goes through the same points on Christian community which are then restated by Bonhoeffer twenty pages later.
Spirit or soul
Bonhoeffer’s main argument in The Christian Community is that there is a central difference between two types of community or fellowship. Community of the soul is based on mankind’s natural desires and longing to belong. This kind of fellowship is psychological in the sense that is rests on certain human needs which are met in community. In this perspective, other people become means to and end since you only use other human beings to satisfy your own basic needs.
This kind of “natural” community is juxtaposed to the community of the spirit which is only possible in and through Jesus Christ. This kind of community is the ideal kind wherein conflicts between people cease and humans regard each other through Christ with un-egoistical motives. In other words, we start loving each other because we are loved by God and love him in return, rather than to satisfy our natural desires for belonging, affection etc.
The central argument in this distinction is that a true Christian community ought to be of the latter kind rather than the former. Otherwise it will quickly come to be based on manipulation and on “gut feelings” rather than on true love. He uses this distinction to emphasize the risk of people joining communities while dreaming of something else. Such dreaming tends to breed dissatisfaction with the community as it is and, as a result, dissatisfaction with the brothers and sisters in faith. Instead, Bonhoeffer argues, one should be thankful for what one has and strive to love the people in one’s community to the fullest.
A bit on the dramatic side
As a book on faith and fellowship The Christian Community makes some valid points – especially concerning the risk of over-focusing on dreams and visions thereby foregoing to love the community as it is. However, as Eriksen also points out in the introduction, expecting Christian community to be completely devoid of any natural desires for belonging seems wrong. Bonhoeffer frames the distinction between the two as one between clarity and obscurity; between light and darkness – and frankly I think this is too dark a view of human nature. Why cannot the natural desire for belonging be a good thing? Must it be tied to the will to dominate others as Bonhoeffer seems to insist?
This is my overarching criticism of The Christian Community (at least this excerpt of it): Bonhoeffer is detached from reality. A community solely based on Christ-like love devoid of our natural desires for mutual recognition and affection is unrealistic.
Another question is whether this ideal only applies to Christian communities such as congregations or if it applies to all social relations? The author is unclear on this point. He remarks that natural inclinations do play a role in marriages, families and friendships, but that this should be limited. Yet, it remains unclear how. I would argue, that framing the two kinds of community as completely distinct is not useful and that it stigmatizes basic human feelings and needs in an unproductive way.
Again, there are many good points in this short book about being thankful, inclusive, about focusing on the people around you rather than on your personal dreams, and about the risks of manipulative leadership. Nonetheless, these points are wrapped in an overall dichotomy which I find unhelpful and misleading. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is simply too detached from reality and this not only limits his usefulness as an inspiration for communities, it actually involves a risk of associating basic human needs for social life with sin and shame in a destructive way.
Reviewed by Nikolaj K. Andersen