Is Vision a Dirty Word?: A Response to Craig Katzenmiller

Last week, Joshua Graves posted a response to Craig Katzenmiller's essay about Bonhoeffer and Vision on his blog. We're excited to repost it here with Josh's permission. Craig will respond to Josh's post on Thursday. Please feel free to join the conversation in the comments section below. This recent post reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for some period of time. Because I (by choice and location) often find myself living between the church and the academy, I have been pondering the role of vision and culture, soil and rain. For the record, I love both the church and the academy (though I owe a lot more money to one than the other). My ultimate allegiance (between the two) will always be toward the church and I think the academy (especially the the ones with faith commitments) best flourishes when it is building up the local church.

Now, regarding Craig D. Katzenmiller’s post on The Token's Blog. Craig summarizes a conviction held by Bonhoeffer (in Life Together) that “God hates visionary dreaming.” Craig then carefully and helpfully discusses the implications of this conviction, the life of Jesus, and meanings for being the church today. There is much I applaud in Craig’s thinking. Here me say that loud and clear. For instance, I love what he says about these three elements.

1. The “smallness” and “weakness” of Jesus and the Jesus movement is the shape of our life together.

2. Craig rightfully names the truth that we can’t create community, it’s the work of the spirit as we are engaged in mission.

3. Love is the center of our being, identity, and hope. Love as incarnated in Jesus.

So here’s some additional reaction I had to this post. For whatever reasons (good or bad) there is a tendency in academic circles to reject intentional leadership structures/language of vision and process in local church systems. The irony of such rejection coming from women and men who work in complex institutions dependent upon such vision and leadership structures (i.e. college, seminary, or university) should not be lost upon us. I write this as one who just earned a doctorate from a prominent Presbyterian seminary.

I’m not so sure that Bonhoeffer meant what Craig thinks Bonhoeffer meant. Was Bonhoeffer speaking in a particular season of life concerning specific dire issues (a reaction to Hitler’s grand speeches and spectacles) or was he making a universal proclamation?–this sounds like textual criticism doesn’t it?

Having read Life Together multiple times, isn’t this fine treatise, like the Sermon on the Mount, a lofty vision of life lived as if God were closer to us than the blood in our veins? Isn’t that like saying you are vegetarian but you still eat chicken?

Regarding Bonhoeffer’s claim that God hates visionary dreaming, Craig notes, “I think this notion is tremendously important—especially in the present atmosphere where churches boast vision in hopes of growing their numbers.” This is a bold statement. It might or might not be true but it is nonetheless a bold, sweeping generalization. What’s your proof? Who have you talked to?

My next question: how are we defining “visionary dreaming?” One could argue that Craig (and Jesus himself) is offering a vision/visionary statement regarding visionary statements. That is, we need to more carefully define our terms. If by visionary dreaming, we mean “tactics or strategies to grow the church numerically” then of course we should be suspicious.

But what if many churches doing “vision work” are actually (as feeble vessels) asking the gospel question, “How might we faithfully and creatively improvise the Jesus Story in our time place? How might we seek to live out the future of God in our city?” If that is driving the vision of a particular church, shouldn’t we support that?

The critical element is not “should we do visionary dreaming?” but rather “how do we measure whether or not our visionary dreaming is line with the kingdom vision of Jesus; with the tension of the way Jesus embodied heaven on earth?”

No one lived a self-sacrificial-unto-death life like Jesus. No one lived such a compelling vision of what humanity could be like Jesus did. So, rather than simply hijacking Bonhoeffer’s phrase and assuming that he (a half century ago) meant what we want it to mean, let’s redeem the phrase. What would it look like to do “visionary dreaming” like Jesus or Paul or John in Revelation? What would it look like to do “visionary dreaming” like Martin Luther King Jr. or Clara Barton or the music Bach or Holocaust survivors who needed an alternative vision to survive or the framers of the U.S Constitution or the music of U2 or the writing of Maya Angelou or the vision of Desmond Tutu and the TRC or Justinian’s Hagia Sophia or those Christians who built hospitals in India and orphanages in Africa. Did these servants not require visionary dreaming?

Visionary dreaming should be about an imagination shaped by God’s big, huge, wide-open future. About how God is working now in the smallest of details. I think churches of 5 or 5 thousand should get behind that. Don’t you?

Churches and cultures are hungry for a vision of life bigger than themselves. Who–more than the church–is poised to speak and live such a compelling vision through the imagination?

Josh Graves is author of The Feast (Leafwood, 2009). He is currently working on a new book Heaven on Earth (Abingdon Press, 2012)–with Chris Seidman. Josh is the preaching and teaching minister for the Otter Creek Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Josh speaks at churches and conferences all around the United States.