Visionary dreamers: how Bonhoeffer warns virtual (and indeed large) churches
OK, I realise that’s somewhat anachronistic, not to say speculative. But I’m in a staff small group that’s started reading an extraordinary book: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It is dense, blunt but most of all, persuasive. And even though we’ve only been going at it for a week, it has already stimulated all kinds of interesting discussions. But one of the most challenging ideas from chapter one is his analysis of what he calls ‘visionary dreaming’.
Now, one could be forgiven for assuming that visionary dreaming was a good thing. Far from it in this context, says Bonhoeffer. What it amounts to is a delusion about church life. This delusion assumes that church life ought to be rosy and wonderful, whereas the reality is usually (and painfully) very different. Churches reflect the prevailing culture, gathered Christians behave worse than other groups, mutual misunderstanding is common. No wonder disillusionment sets in.
Instead Bonhoeffer insists we have an utterly realistic, and indeed theological, understanding of what it is we’re about. And that means avoiding ‘visionary dreaming’ (which he sees as self-centred) and accept the community as being God-centred. Which, because of our constant individual and corporate failings, means a speedy readiness to forgive…
God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what he has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship. (Life Together, pp16-17)
I have a number of friends who, after the initial joys of conversion, found themselves so utterly depressed by the reality of church life that they were on the verge of chucking it all in. I can understand that. As a minister, I often see the very worst of it all – and no doubt have contributed at times to the worst of it. But if we assume that forgiveness is needed left, right and centre, we’ll be so quick to recognise our own need for it, rather than blaming everyone around. As it’s often said, if you find the perfect church, don’t join it as you’ll only ruin it.
What’s this got to do with virtual and large churches? Well, it strikes me that in both online and large churches it’s too easy to avoid these realities. Online you simply disengage or surf elsewhere. You might receive abusive comments (of which some Christians seem to be the masters) – but unless you’re provoked into action by them, you can simply ignore or delete. The thought that you might have to forgive the commentator is not one that (i suspect) occurs to us much. This is not always the case with online communities, of course – for all their limitations (and we can’t avoid the fact that there are limitations) I do know of honest and genuine attempts to counteract this online. But it is a problem to take very seriously. In large churches, of which All Souls is clearly one, one can simply avoid the people you find difficult – so that one can actually never experience properly what Bonhoeffer calls ‘the bright day of Christian fellowship’ (a day in which our flaws are clear to all without fellowship together being broken).
In either case, whether online or large, the most acute danger for members is a consumerist attitude: the church is here for me and my needs. But that is disastrous… and an illusion.