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Desiring Community: A Lesson from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Like many students who attended a Christian college or university, I read Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community by Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the first time during my freshman year of college. At the time, I was several weeks into a study away experience on the outskirts of Yosemite with 42 other students. Similar to Bonhoeffer’s vision for the community life of seminarian students, the entire semester was a well-designed experiment in holistic Christian community, with the added intensity of great text classes and backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with our professors.

I read Kant, Aquinas, and Aristotle; I slept underneath stars, sang the Doxology on the peaks of mountains, and camped in several feet of snow. Removed from the fast-paced rituals of campus life, and the broader world, our cloistered community tested the bounds of a utopian vision for how Christians could live a communal life of meaning through intellectually and physically demanding practices. I cried the last weekend of the semester when I realized I had never experienced a love so tangible outside the context of familial ties. It was a utopia, and I knew it then, but I still grieved many years after it ended.

The second time I read Life Together, I was preparing to live with seven peers tucked in a historic manor on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Every day we read for hours all afternoon and evening, discussed the readings the next morning for three hours of Socratic dialogue, and then occasionally left the confines of the wood paneled walls and staring busts to explore historically significant locations in the surrounding area.

Removed from the fast-paced rituals of a full-time job, and the broader world, our cloistered community tested the intellectual depths of theology, politics, and culture. More importantly, hidden parts of myself were unmasked in the reflection of mirrors I found in my peers. Morning and evening prayer for four months with the same seven souls meant I couldn’t escape the fractured parts of my own soul. It was another utopian experience of Christian community meant to challenge and transform us before sending us back out into the real world.

The third time I read Life Together was at the start of this summer in the midst of a global pandemic to discuss the possibilities of Christian community with a group of students preparing to live together in Washington, DC. This time I did not read it to learn from Bonhoeffer the ingredients for how to create community through the disciplines of prayer, scripture reading, song, confession, solitude, and feasts. Nor did I read it as a guidepost for how to prepare my heart and soul for the ways that temporary, meaningful community can turn oneself inside out and deposit a transformed self back into the real world.

What I received instead was a tearful reminder of the foundations of Christian community that I had taken for granted, both in the intense, set apart periods mentioned above, but even more so the mundane, daily community experienced in my relationships at church and with family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and strangers.

A deep, resonant shock ran through me—shock at the timeliness of this reading and the profound naiveté of my past two takes at Life Together—when I read: “It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed.” Community, even individual relationships, are a gift that can be taken away at any moment. Bonhoeffer lists those who are sick, imprisoned, and in exile, and writes how they are in a posture of longing for the embodied community that they are deprived of due to their circumstances. This is especially poignant in light of Bonhoeffer’s own imprisonment, and then execution, during WWII. The gifts of physical community are not guaranteed.

Despite the advancement of technology that has allowed for us to still connect with loved ones through our prolonged social distancing, it is still only a shadow of true relationship. Communing together in-person is irreplaceable. Bonhoeffer encourages the believer to feel “no shame, as though [s]he were still living too much in the flesh, when [s]he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians.” There is no shame in desiring the physical companionship of others because of the embodied nature of Jesus Christ, the sacraments, and in totality, the day we long for when there is a resurrection of the dead and “the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual-physical creatures.” We are embodied in flesh, yearning for physical community because it is deeply ingrained in our very creatureliness and desire for the physical presence of Christ.

In my experiences with seasonal set-apart communities, I was introduced to the naturalness and joys of a community that had a physicality unlike the real world. In the real world, we don’t live in compounds or ultra-close proximity with everyone we go to church with, or even share every meal together. As much as Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option appeals to the desire for temporary, cloistered community, it took a global pandemic for me to realize that the peripheral interactions with Christians and non-Christian alike that happen on a daily basis are just as significant, and can be as deeply missed, as mountaintop community experiences.

I recognize now that I have not always seen simple human relationships conducted with abandon and without constraints, such as the gathering of a few friends on a weekend evening, smiling at a stranger sitting on a park bench, or the Passing of the Peace at church, as significant as the intentionally well-designed and heightened periods of community. Bonhoeffer has graciously pointed this out in my third reading of Life Together. Physical relationship, no matter its depth or length, should not be taken for granted.

As I look to a future of genuine reunions with friends, unmasked smiles at strangers, and the ability to sit in a pew with fellow church goers, I will remember Bonhoeffer’s words about community. It is gift. It is grace. It is not guaranteed.