Community. It’s one of today’s popular catch phrases. Thanks to that popularity, though, its meaning is a bit fuzzy. It usually seems to refer to an ideal interaction with others. What that ideal is, though, is hard to pin down. Recently reading Bonhoeffer and Lewis brought additional clarity to this puzzle for me. This clarity came from their comparison of heavenly and hellish forms of community.
Bonhoeffer set the stage with the suggestion that, “The community of the Spirit is the fellowship of those who are called by Christ; human community of spirit is the fellowship of devout souls.”1 That thought sets the limits of Christian community in two related ways. Positively, it describes Christian community as the Church, those who are part of Christ’s body. Negatively, it rules out devotion as a foundation for a Christian community. By centering Christian community in Christ, rather than our commitment, we avoid setting ourselves at the foundation of the community. As Bonhoeffer continues to share, we enter dangerous territory when this becomes the case:
human community expresses a profound, elemental, human desire for community, for immediate contact with other human souls, just as in the flesh there is the urge for physical merger with other flesh. Such desire of the human soul seeks a complete fusion of I and Thou, whether this occur[s] in the union of love or, what is after all the same thing, in the forcing of another person into one’s sphere of power and influence. Here is where the humanly strong person is in his element, securing for himself the admiration, the love, or the fear of the weak. Here human ties, suggestions, and bonds are everything, and in the immediate community of souls we have reflected the distorted image of everything that is originally and solely peculiar to community mediated through Christ.2
Lewis echoes Bonhoeffer’s concerns in The Screwtape Letters. Specifically, Screwtape’s contrast between Heaven and Hell’s purpose for humanity sounds rather like Bonhoeffer’s human community: “We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.”3
The intersections between Bonhoeffer and Lewis’s perspectives highlight how important it is for us to get Christian Community right. For Bonhoeffer, community that is founded on me ends with the focus on what I can get from the community. Similar to the community of Hell, the end goal is what I can take in from others. Because this is a perversion of what true community looks like, we also end up with no community at all. Once I have sucked everything from others into myself, there is no one but myself in the community. In the end, a community founded on me is a community comprised solely of me.
Community founded on Christ, though, reverses this process. As Screwtape explains further on, “Remember always, that He really likes the little vermin, and sets an absurd value on the distinctness of every one of them. When He talks of their losing their selves, He only means abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.”4 That is, when we are willing to make Christ the center and foundation of our lives, we end up with fuller lives than we would have had otherwise. When I am focusing on pointing my brother or sister back to Christ, I can also be directed back to Christ. As the source of life, He is the only place where true life exists.
Bonhoeffer highlights this point in a final statement worth considering: “Christian brotherhood is not an idea which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”5 If Christian community is a community founded in Christ, than our point of action is not manufacturing the community. Christ has already done that. Instead, we are called to find our fellow members and remind them of Christ’s call on their lives. We are to serve as the heralds of the King, reminding those around us of our duty and His love. As this happens, we will be rewarded with the rich experience of seeing a fuller picture of Christ in the lives of our brothers and sisters.
Do you agree with Bonhoeffer that the Christian Community is not something we create?
If so, what have you done to build into the Christian Commuinty around you?
2. Ibid. 32-33
3. C.S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters. (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 39
4. Ibid. 65
5. Bonhoeffer. Life Together. 30.