Vision, Love, and Bonhoeffer

As regular readers of this blog know, I (Dusty) visit Nashville's maximum security prison. We read and discuss books as part of our weekly gatherings, and this past week we began reading Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a book about life in community. As I read through the first chapter this morning I was reminded of a former professor who often quoted Bonhoeffer, saying "God hates visionary dreaming." Indeed, Bonhoeffer spends the second half of his opening chapter on community talking about how "wishful thinking . . . makes the dreamer proud and pretentious" (25).*

I think this notion is tremendously important—especially in the present atmosphere where churches boast "vision" in hopes of growing their numbers. Precisely this sort of "vision" gives Bonhoeffer pause.

Vision, for Bonhoeffer, is the manifestation of self-centered love, which causes visionaries to "enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly" (25). Self-centered love differs from what Bonhoeffer calls "spiritual" love because it has to have things its own way. Self-centered love cannot serve; it can only desire more service from the other.

Therefore, a vision for what a community needs to be—whether that vision involves growth, order, membership, or something altogether different—becomes a self-serving vision. Put bluntly, it stifles the work of the Spirit. Along these lines, I think Will D. Campbell is instructive: "We don't make community any more than we make souls. It's created" (The Glad River, 77). Bonhoeffer says it like this: "Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate" (LT, 38). The work of community is not to imagine what the community should become; the work of community is to discern together what the Spirit has created the community to be.

This, then, casts doubt on notions of church growth, for example, when that growth is merely for the sake of increasing numbers. Likewise, it casts doubt on so-called incarnational missions when those missions merely incarnate what certain individuals think a region needs. So-called "outreach" of all sorts must be weighed not against numerical results but with the movement of the Spirit.

This sort of attentiveness to the Spirit's movement requires the spiritual love that Bonhoeffer says "comes from Jesus Christ; it serves him alone. . . . [We] do not know in advance what love of others means on the basis of the general idea of love that grows out of [our] emotional [that is, self-centered] desires. . . . Only Christ in his Word tells [us] what love is" (43). So, in order to be a part of Christian community, we must be close to Jesus and his Word. This means that we must slough off our vision for community (as well as our society's vision for community) and embrace Jesus' vision for community. We must "live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28) in the crucified and resurrected Savior, who did not buy into the world's vision of ecclesia, but lived "spiritual love" even to the point of death so that those who embrace his community might do the same.

Let's  be ambassadors of Christ-like community, practicing "spiritual love" instead of visionary dreaming.

—Craig D. Katzenmiller Social Media Editor

*Quotes and page citations are according to the Fortress Press edition of Life Together.