Christ, our Light

Who is my neighbor?

an essay on

Life Together
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

     Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic treatise, Life Together, has been a staple of Christian literature for decades and promises to continue as a great favorite of Christian readers. Bonhoeffer writes to Christians about the way to live biblically in community, whether that community is a family or a monastery. He touches all areas of community life, the reading of the Word, devotions, prayer, worship, work, meals, etc., and his primary objective is to show how community practices can be structured to reflect not just Christian values, but Christian realities of life. In particular, he shows how the presence of Christ within us and our community is a minute-to-minute concern in the daily life of a Christian, both alone and in relationships.


     I think that when I first read this book thirty-five years ago, I was most impressed with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion that Christians best relate to one another through Christ in us seeing Christ in the other. At the time, I rejected that notion. Now that I have lived the experience, I am much better equipped to understand what Bonhoeffer means.
     The first impression one forms of Life Together is that Bonhoeffer is completely over the limit in what he recommends (orders, is more like, for he writes with an imperative tone). He certainly examines the matter of Christian life in community at a very detailed level: how meals are to be taken, who should read the Scriptures, who should pray, and so on. One may suspect, as I did, that this is another mad, Prussian (he was actually from Breslau) disciplinarian, trying to regiment every hour, every minute of the day, and, truth be told, there may be something a little compulsive about Bonhoeffer’s approach, at least as he writes about it.
     But the core of the book is a fascinating struggle with the methods and means of true Christian life and devotion. How do we live unto God and not the world, especially within community? When one seeks detailed answers to this question, one finds that our human, sinful nature is weak and needs much support, from guidance, habit, and regime. Meanwhile, the world has many snares. What Bonhoeffer provides turns out to be immensely practical and down-to-earth advice. It should be no surprise that the bulk of this advice derives directly from Jesus’ instruction, for this is what Bonhoeffer has developed his thoughts from.
     A case in point, chosen almost at random, is Bonhoeffer’s comments on the "ministry of listening":

“The first service one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love of God begins in listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him.”
One sees in this simple excerpt the firm connection between the theological foundation and the simplest imaginable practice. The whole book is like that.
     One point that troubled me on my first reading (thirty-five years ago, recall) was Bonhoeffer’s position on singing. He believed that all singing in the Christian community should be unison, subordinating the individual into the group. His position is that the singing of hymns and holy songs should be an allegory of the unity the community shares in Christ, with all art and individuality submerged in the whole. As a well-trained singer, I resisted this idea strenuously, for it seemed clear to me that great music gives glory to God just as simple singing can, and to require devotional singing to be carried out only in unison is an absurd restriction.
     In the intervening years, I have had the experience of singing Gregorian chant (which I had not done at that point in my life). I must admit that the practice of unison singing is very demanding. Moreover, I believe I understand how unison singing can be emblematic of our unity in Christ, and if this is the primary value to be expressed in communal singing, then I see how it works. I can also see how part singing, and other ensemble forms, also have a place in communal singing, symbolizing, as they do, our various roles in the Body of Christ. Just as the woman anointed Jesus with an absurdly expensive perfume, so the glorification of God demands our best art. Perhaps Bonhoeffer simply never had a satisfactory singing experience apart from the context of unison, monastic singing.
     But apart from such small, detailed objection, what Bonhoeffer has written resonated with me on my more recent reading, particularly those parts that have fallen within the range of my experience. It is a mistake to think that his thrust is primarily towards communal life in a monastery; family life also presents the opportunities for devotion that he writes about, and he explicitly indicates family life in more than one instance. But there are also lessons for the traditional church community as well, limited as that context is in the most common present practice.
     The relevance to church life arises in Bonhoeffer’s ideas about community through the technique he uses to connect practical life with theological foundations. By theological foundations, I mean the knowledge we have of God primarily through Scripture and through the witness of the Holy Spirit. In our churches, if we were rigorously to derive the behavior and program of the church from scriptural foundations, in detail, we would see (and of course, in those churches where this has happened, we have seen) enormous growth in the power and depth of fellowship, the spreading of the Gospel, and the thrust of the fellowship into the surrounding community.
     I should conclude by making it clear, that Bonhoeffer’s book is not about making rules, however Scriptural. He is not a legalist. When rules are necessary, he connects them to Scriptural admonitions. But the primary emphasis is on ministry, from the grand generalities to the simplest detailed relationship, and mostly the latter. Life Together is about grace, harnessed within the individuals in community, expressed in their relationships and ministry to one another. As such, it summarizes the Gospel in action within the community of believers as well as anything yet written.
     This is a beautiful book, simply written, easy to understand, though not easy to live by. But we have our Lord to help us with that.
     RMA, September, 2000

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

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Last updated: 10/28/09