Life in Visionary Tension

I am very grateful to Josh Graves for taking time to engage my recent post on vision. I agree with him at many points; however, there are a few things to which I would like to respond. Josh, as I read his essay, critiques me at two main points: first, he questions my attitude towards church leadership and a leadership’s pursuit of vision; and second, he challenges my reading of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of vision. Let me address each briefly on its own, and then both together in more depth.

First of all, I think Josh misunderstands my own appreciation for church leadership. The church’s wisdom dating back to the early communities of the New Testament reminds us that a community needs persons with single-minded devotion to God to guide younger, less experienced Christians. So, please don’t misunderstand me at that point. I am thankful for those called to be pastorally present in a given community. These persons are blessings.

Second, I stand by my reading of Bonhoeffer. That Bonhoeffer has a problem with “visionary dreaming” should not trouble us too much, at least initially. Bonhoeffer’s Germany—at the time Life Together was written—had seen the church in Germany completely capitulate to Hitler. (I would argue that the Catholic Church’s agreement with the Third Reich, the Reichskonkordat, for example, was the result of visionary positioning, the result of the clergy’s desire to “matter.”) Moreover, the problem of Hitler’s seductive vision for Germany co-opting Christian imagination in Germany is also worth holding in mind. Both of these—the desire to matter and the desire to avenge past wrongs—are symptoms of the problem of “vision” as Bonhoeffer identifies it.

However, it is worth noting here that one of the comments on Josh’s blog reads, “I think Katzenmiller would agree with what [Josh has] said here, once you both define your terms.” I think this is correct. So let me begin by providing a more nuanced definition of what Bonhoeffer is getting at in his discussion of “visionary dreaming.”

Bonhoeffer begins:[1]

God hates 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 (36).

What the HarperOne edition translates “visionary dreaming,”[2] the Fortress edition translates “wishful dreaming”—perhaps this is a helpful distinction. At any rate, it becomes clear through this line of thought, that wishful/visionary dreaming gets in the way of community; it does not strengthen it. Submission to God’s Word revealed in Christ and at work through the Holy Spirit becomes that which strengthens Christian community. Thus, Bonhoeffer contrasts wishful/visionary dreaming with “pneumatic” or “spiritual reality” (i.e., reality lived in and through the Spirit).

The tension of this contrast is essential to note in order to understand what Bonhoeffer is arguing here. Vision—as Bonhoeffer defines it—is not a lack of leadership; it is a lack of attentiveness. The spiritual reality that a community must be attuned to is “the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ. . . . The basis of spiritual community is truth; . . . The essence of spiritual community is light” (39). Being attuned to the truth and light of Christ, then, creates love (agape), and love creates the urge to serve others, to be humble, to be ruled by the Word of God alone (39-40). In sum, Bonhoeffer writes, “In the one [i.e., spiritual community], God’s Word alone is binding; in the other [i.e., wishful/visionary community], besides the Word, human beings bind others to themselves. In the one, all power, honor, and rule are surrendered to the Holy Spirit; in the other, power and personal spheres of influence are sought and cultivated” (40).

I don’t know about you, but I have been in a church where those “in charge” cared more about “power and personal spheres of influence” than about “surrender[ing] to the Holy Spirit.” Here, I think Josh and I would agree—it is not attentive leadership that we should beware, but rather self-centered leadership.

Thus, I want to state plainly that I do not think all leadership planning falls into the category of wishful/visionary dreaming like Josh seems to think I think. Josh writes, “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?”

That I came across as making a “bold, sweeping generalization” shows a lack of nuance on my part, I think. Never would I suggest that all churches are practicing self-centered leadership when they meet to think about their life together. That said, however, there are churches where this happens; I don’t have proof in the academic sense. I only know anecdotally what has been said in meetings that I have been privy to. For example, I have been in meetings where the following statement has been made: “We need to organize a church library so we can appeal to the intellectual crowd.” I suspect Josh and I would both agree that when growing a membership and appealing to a certain subset of that membership becomes the telos of a congregation, something has gone wrong.

Bonhoeffer’s argument eventually turns from abstract notions about visionary dreaming to concrete notions of love, as I allude to above; Bonhoeffer distinguishes between “emotional [seelisch] love” and “spiritual [geistlich] love.” Emotional love is the fruit of visionary dreaming. The translator of the Fortress edition of Life Together notes, “In this context, seelisch has the impact of “emotional,” “self-centered,” or even “self-gratifying,” as opposed to “spiritual” [geistlich] or agapeic love, love mediated by one’s faith in Jesus Christ” (39n14). Spiritual love—and if I may, spiritual vision—depends on seeing Christ in the other and partnering with the other in order to see what the Spirit is up to.

At this point, I believe we can draw some conclusions that both Josh and myself can agree on.

First, the danger is not in leadership per se. The danger is in leadership that merely advances the leadership’s vision for a community. Which is to say, the danger of visionary dreaming becomes evident insofar as the leadership uses “power and personal spheres of influence” to create the community it thinks needs to be created. The value of leadership is precisely the extent to which it helps the community be attuned to the work of the Spirit already taking place in the community’s midst.

Second, we will know what sort of vision is being envisioned for a community by that community’s fruit. Do visionaries know what needs to happen in a community and then use their clout to make that vision happen? Or does the community practice life truly together, discerning what the Spirit is already up to? Do visionaries think a community’s life depends on them alone? Or do communities take a vow of poverty and hold vigil,[3] witnessing to the work of the Spirit?

Craig D. Katzenmiller is Tokens’ Social Media Editor. In October, he will begin Ph.D. studies in Liturgical Theology and Ethics at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg.

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.


[1] Page references will be according to the Fortress press edition, available here.

[2] In German: “Gott haßt die Träumerei.”

[3] I would point readers to this very fine essay about holding “vigil” by friend of the Tokens Blog, Richard Goode, in Missio Dei.