Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together makes much sense and no sense

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together makes much sense and no sense.  Life Together is based on his experiences at the underground seminary he directed at Finkenwald, in what is now Poland, from 1935 to 1937.  From then on, he was a marked man, eventually imprisoned in the concentration camp Flossenberg, where he was executed by order of Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo just days before the camp was overrun by Allied forces.  He was executed because he was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler.  Previously a pacifist, Bonhoeffer came to recognize that extreme evil must sometimes be resisted by force.

Finkenwald was a community of theology teachers and their students who lived, worked, and ate together.  From this experience he learned a number of lessons.  Some of the lessons are simple but important, such as listening to each other, and helping each other, which often means bearing the burden of the other.  This is actually quite insightful.  Other lessons make no sense to me.

The good lessons

Bonhoeffer reminds us that God bore the burden of being tortured and murdered.  “Human beings crushed God to the ground.  But God stayed with them . . . In suffering and enduring human beings, God maintained community with them.”  In the same way, we are obligated to maintain community with others.  Yes, others can be a burden, but it is a burden we should take up gladly, remembering the burden Christ took up for us (pp 77-78).  

Others aren’t just a burden because they demand much of us, or don’t do their share.  Others are a burden because they are different and other.  Humans naturally want to assimilate others to themselves, making others like them.  In so doing we use others as objects.  The only way of treating others as ends in themselves is to bear the burden of otherness and difference, seeing others first as fellow creatures of God.

Bearing the burden of the other means tolerating the reality of the other’s creation by God—affirming it, and in bearing with it, breaking through to delight in it. (p 79)

Bonhoeffer goes on to recognize the benefit of confession, as well as offering a number of other helpful hints for living together with others.  Clearly these recommendations are for Christians, not what he calls the heidnische Welt, a wide-ranging term running from pagans to gentiles to the rest of the world. (pp 76-77)  I mention this because if bears on his view of community united by spirit, not emotion.

A spiritually mediated community

Life Together is regarded by many as Bonhoeffer’s clearest and most accessible book.  The hints for living together fit this characterization, but there is another aspect of the book that puzzles me deeply.  It is Bonhoeffer’s insistence that “the Christian community is a spiritual [pneumatisch] and not an emotional [psychisch] reality.” (p 9)  Bonhoeffer continues.

The basis of all pneumatic,* or spiritual, reality is the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ. At the foundation of all emotional reality are the dark, impenetrable urges and desires of the human soul. The basis of spiritual community is truth; the basis of emotional community is desire.  (pp 13-14)

It seems to me that a Christian community needs to draw on both the emotional and the spiritual qualities of its members.  For Bonhoeffer this is the road to idolatry. 

Within the spiritual community there is never, in any way whatsoever, an “immediate” relationship of one to another. However, in the emotional community there exists a profound, elemental emotional desire for community, for immediate contact with other human souls, just as in the flesh there is a yearning for immediate union with other flesh. This desire of the human soul seeks the complete intimate fusion of I and You, whether this occurs in the union of love or—what from this emotional perspective is after all the same thing—in forcing the other into one’s own sphere of power and influence. (p 15)

This is a long quote, but I want to make sure you get it, for it’s really quite amazing.  Bonhoeffer’s claim is that the desire for emotional contact with another person in the community, which is like love, results in domination, forcing one person to do the other’s will.  Sometimes it leads to the idolatrous worship of a single individual leader.  At other times it leads to a pulling away from community, as lovers belong only to each other (or in Bonhoeffer’s view, as one lover dominates the other).

The idea behind Bonhoeffer’s claim is that the spiritual community should be guided and united by the Holy Spirit.  All relationships among members are mediated through the Holy Spirit.  Bonhoeffer draws this conclusion from Luther’s claim that we are justified by grace alone.  “The longing of Christians for one another,” which is real, “is based solely on this message” of grace. 

As I read Bonhoeffer, I think of Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, which argues that the group is held together not by members’ affection for each other, but by their idealizing love of the leader (p 61).  Group psychology can be dangerous, and it’s something to worry about.  Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer has gone too far.  Is it really so hard to imagine group members feeling both immediate (emotional) affection for each other as well as union with the Holy Spirit? 

What happens when you take love away?  Certainly, the relationship of mother and child is, and must be, a direct relationship.  The mother may love the Holy Spirit, but she loves her child because it’s her child.  Are romantic relationships impossible in a Christian community, for surely romantic relationships want immediacy, as we two make a world?  That wouldn’t work if that’s all people did and thought about all day, but they don’t.  We move in and out of relationships with lovers, family, friends, and community.  They are not enemies, but the elements that comprise a complete life.

Attempted explanation

I simply can’t figure out why Bonhoeffer thinks this way.  Perhaps he is writing only about small Christian communities such as Finkenwald.  That is, he is thinking almost in terms of a monastery.  But little in Life Together is written in that vein.  It’s written as if it applies to Christians in the larger world, where we have to balance the claims of the Holy Spirit with all the other claims on our life, from work, to children, to friends, to church, and so on.  Actually, “balance” isn’t the right word.  We have to find room for both spirit and desire in each of our relationships.

The best relationship would be one in which the Holy Spirit does not compete for our attention, but infuses all our relationships.  But Bonhoeffer makes that impossible, viewing unmediated relationships as based on the “dark, impenetrable urges and desires of the human soul.”  Why must spiritual and emotional relationships become the angel and the devil, light and dark.

“The essence of spiritual community is light. For “God is light and in [God] there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5); and “if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7). The essence of emotional community is darkness, “for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mark 7:21). It is the deep night that spreads over the sources of all human activity, over even all noble and devout impulses.” (p 14)

Bonhoeffer does not, and presumably cannot, recognize that light and dark need each other.  The light of the Holy Spirit guides us, and our emotional need for connection and attachment helps bind the community.  Above all, humans are creatures of attachment.  They can be guided by spiritual inspiration, but it is human need that brings us together.  Bonhoeffer recognizes this (p 19), but it seems he simply cannot trust the mutual accommodation of inspiration and emotion. 

One possibility is that by the time Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together he had seen the danger of a large group emotionally bound to its Führer in hysterical and murderous alliance.  It was the Nazis who closed Finkenwald, originally established as an alternative to the official German Lutheran church, whose bishop was chosen by Hitler. 

Conclusion: the basis of sin

As much as Bonhoeffer’s split between spirit and emotion is troubling, I’m not as troubled by a statement that many modern men and women might find disturbing: that I have no right to be myself. The basis of all sin, says Bonhoeffer, is pride (superbia), the belief that I have a right to be myself, a right to my desires, and for my life, and my death.  For to believe this is to want to be a God (p 90). 

The solution is confession, in which I recognize that I belong to God, and that the needs of the spiritual community come before my own.  While most moderns don’t think this way, it might help if more did.  If we are creatures of God, then we belong to each other.  Here is where emotion gets in the way, as belonging quickly comes to be equivalent to possession.  From this perspective we can more easily see the danger of emotional community, a community at war over possession of self and other.  Nevertheless, emotion and spirit are bound in humanity, and if spirit is to lead in the affairs of community, then emotion must have its say both in private life, as well as contributing to the dedication we bring to community.   


* pneumatic refers to the Greek pneuma, meaning spirit or soul.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, translator Daniel W. Bloesch.  Fortress Press, 2015.  [original 1939]

Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, translator James Strachey.  W. W. Norton, 1959.  [original 1921]

Image: from Chagall, Angels

4 thoughts on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together makes much sense and no sense”

  1. I enjoyed reading this,Fred.One thought I have is society in Germany in the 1930’s might have been very different from ours today except I suddenly recall the behaviour of our socalled Prime Minister, the violence and death threats against MPs and the information I get from younger people that ithers are being severely affected by the aggression and confusion
    I am not living in a democracy anymore
    I know the still small voice might be a whisper.How can we hear it in thes tumult.I like your geeneral interpretation of his ideas and writin=g,Katherine

  2. I liked this:
    The best relationship would be one in which the Holy Spirit does not compete for our attention, but infuses all our relationships.

  3. I’m 40 pages in and my biggest objection so far, after truly appreciating his book “The Cost of Discipleship”, is his false statement that the Lord our God is not the God of our emotions! Seriously?!

    When we have been blessed with being justified and set free from our previous nature towards sin and the death that it brings, our new nature of everlasting life and holiness with Christ makes Him the Lord of every aspect our ourselves! And that most certainly includes our emotions, because without that we would still be happy in our sins instead of detesting them like we’re supposed to.

    In fact, our emotional disposition towards our sins and the sins of others we claim to care about or even love is evidence either for or against our saving faith with Christ. Such a renewed disposition also requires a properly (biblically) informed judgement towards sins based on what the Lord has revealed, and even commands at times (see 1 Corinthians 5) for all of us within the church.

    So, when Bonhoeffer talks down and disparaging about judgment between brothers I really have to ask where he’s getting that from. Defiantly unrepentant sinners within the church are a cancer we are commanded to deal with and remove if they will not succumb to the church discipline process outlined quite clearly in Matthew and elsewhere by Saint Paul, and that is meant to protect the weaker brothers and sisters from the corrupting influence of their defiance towards the Lord and also be a medicinal corrective for them in the hope they will repent after no longer enjoying the blessings of being part of the church community.

    So, what the fruit loops is Bonhoeffer getting at? Or does he get there is chapter 3 and later? Very disappointed with the book so far, and surprised it’s coming from Bonhoeffer after his treatment in The Cost of Discipleship.

    In Christ,

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