German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote a book that had the alternative title How to Philosophize With a Hammer.  I’m reminded of this when I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who could have just as easily written a book with the alternative title How to Theologize with a Pneumatic Drill. Maybe it has to do with being German. Whatever the case, Bonhoeffer can take apart half-baked speculation and flimsy Christianity in half a paragraph.

In my church small group we have been reading Life Together, a work Bonhoeffer completed while teaching at a clandestine seminary in Nazi-dominated Germany. Early in the short book Bonhoeffer considers the pre-conceived ideal we each fabricate of what community ought to look like. He says these “wish dreams” stand in the way of real fellowship for two reasons. First, such dreams puff their dreamers up. Second, these dreams cause us to enter common life as demanders instead of as thankful recipients. Bonhoeffer is quite clear of what needs to happen:

“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”

What strikes me about this quote is the sequence of disillusionment: first with other people, then Christians in general, then, if we are fortunate, ourselves. I have a deep concern about my and many others’ honesty in facing disillusionment with ourselves. As Bonhoeffer later notes, however, there is a risk of not completing the cycle of disillusionment. If we do not become utterly convinced that our own pictures of community are destined for total failure, we will not embrace God’s. The reorientation that occurs, from demanding to thankfully receiving, changes the way we think about the hassles of real fellowship. And here, before one can silently assuage the sting of hard duty with token gestures or self-glorify in a kind of suffering martrydom, Bonhoeffer explains:

“Is not the sinning brother still a brother? … Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deep which really binds us together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.”

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Posted by Jeremy Mann


  1. Just finished “Life Together” last week. I’m hoping that my small group at church will read it together this year. I found especially meaningful the portion on fellowship / private meditation.


  2. Blessed Disillusionment: Bonhoeffer on Community | Mere Orthodoxy The nature of Christian fellowship.

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  4. Here is a longer quote from Life Together that I keep going back and re-reading.

    Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly. They stand adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the community. They act as if they have to create the Christian community, as if their visionary ideal binds the people together. Whatever does not go their way, they call a failure. When their idealized image is shattered, they see the community breaking into pieces. So they first become accusers of other Christians in the community, then accusers of God, and finally the desperate accusers of themselves. Because God already has laid the only foundation of our community, because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. We thank God for what God has done for us. We thank God for giving us other Christians who live by God’s call, forgiveness, and promise. We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: other believers who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of God’s grace?

    I cannot read that and not be convicted of trying to move beyond God.

    About the disillusionment. I think part of that comes with age. I am getting close to 40, so not that old, but old enough to realize much of my idealism about myself was misplaced.


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