Reading Bonhoeffer: Being Human Together

More than three years ago, I started this blog to help me work through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics as I read it for my Christian Ethics class in my first semester of seminary. This semester I’m going to graduate, and here I am reading Bonhoeffer again – this time, for a course called Reading Bonhoeffer. When I first started this blog, I would write one post about Bonhoeffer every week for weekly readings; this course is a one-week intensive, so I’ll be writing one or two posts per night until the end of the week. By the end of the week, you should have at least a crude understanding of Bonhoeffer’s theology – and hopefully, so will I! Mixed throughout will be my own thoughts, but please don’t judge Bonhoeffer based on my understanding of his thought, or my butchering of it!

My readings this week involve a combination of a chapter from the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and an excerpt from one of Bonhoeffer’s works in preparation for each lesson. The first half of tomorrow is about Bonhoeffer’s theological anthropology, so in this post I’ll be referring to chapter 6 of the CCDB, and an excerpt from Sanctorum Communio, and my study will be broken down into different elements of being.

My first textbook on my e-reader. Because who wants to wait 1-3 months for a book to ship when they can get it instantly for half the price?

Being in Relation

Human beings were created in God’s image. This has usually been explained to refer to some capacity that human beings have: God’s image must be rationality, or a conscience, or sovereignty, or some other higher function. For Bonhoeffer, being made in God’s image means being made in relationship with others. (He develops this in Creation and Fall, but it appears in Sanctorum Communio, his first doctoral dissertation, and Act and Being, his second). God exists in eternal community in the Trinity; human beings, as made in God’s image, only truly exist when we are also in relation with others (and we are never not in relation of some kind). Beyond being relational by nature, we are relational in nature – our nature is essentially relational because we are like God.

I and Thou

We are not only relational in nature, but we cannot be individuals without that relationality. How can I define myself, if all that I know is myself? I am myself precisely because I am not you, because there is a boundary there between you and I. Bonhoeffer brought this up in Sanctorum Communio, his sociology of the Church, because it’s impossible to define the nature of a community if the individuals who make it up are not first defined. To do so, he borrowed from Martin Buber’s notion of “I-Thou” (we use “thou” instead of “you” because it denotes another subject, rather than an object); but where Buber was talking about the possibility of intimacy with an Other, Bonhoeffer is talking about the barrier between me and the Other (when I say “Other” I mean anyone who isn’t me, but ultimately, God is an Other).

This issue of the barrier between I and Thou is important because it is the place where ethical demands arise. In a relation of I-it, or between me and an object, I can do whatever I want to that object: I can study it, shape it, break it, whatever, and because it is only an object, there is no ethical demand that arises. But when I am faced with an Other, another subject, suddenly I am faced with ethical demands. I cannot break an Other in good conscience, nor can I pick them up and study them, or throw them away.

SO, I as an individual only exist in relationship – not only because that is how God made me, but also because I am only individual when faced with an Other, whose relationship to me creates a barrier that therefore defines me as an individual. Ethics also only exist in relationship with an Other, another subject who is foreign to me. Without relationship there is no ethics, there is no individuality, and of course there is no community. There is no me.

And lest you think you can avoid ethical responsibility by being a hermit, remember that we are always at the very least in relationship to the divine Other, God. (Creation itself is also an Other, I would think, despite the example above regarding inanimate objects; I would certainly affirm the Other-ness of animals and ecosystems, if not plants and other living things).

Sanctorum Communio

It means “communion of the saints”, and it was the title of Bonhoeffer’s first doctoral dissertation, written when he was 21. Karl Barth, who even then was a major theologian, called it “a theological miracle.” The basic conclusion was that the Church, the sanctorum communio, is Christ existing as community.

This isn’t precisely new: Paul talked about the Church as “the body of Christ” in several places in the New Testament. What Bonhoeffer did was express this in the terms of theological sociology. Human beings exist in relation, just as God exists in relation; but human beings existing in a certain type of relation, namely the Church, is Christ existing in relation! Christ exists in the world today through the community of the saints.


God exists in relation to others, so we exist in relation to others. But as best seen in Christ, God exists for others. This is the nature of the Church, then, as followers of Christ: we too must exist-for-others. It is not just a question of being defined by relation to others, or being created to relate to others, or being ethical in relation to others, though all of those are good; we exist for the sake of others, and to follow Christ we can do no less. In that sense, the sanctorum communio  or the Church does not exist unless we are participating in Christ by being-for-others. This is the essence of what it means to be the Church.

What does this look like when lived out? Life Together reports on Bonhoeffer’s seminary at Finkenwalde, where he was able to practice the type of community he had laid the foundation for in Sanctorum Communio, a community with alternating periods of being-with-others and being alone. “Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone” (Life Together).

Other themes of Finkenwalde life also come straight out of Sanctorum Communio. Being-with-each-other and being-for-each-other are spelt out in relation to intercessory prayer by the community members for each other; ‘active helpfulness’; being the burdens of others; and mutual admonition. Being-for-each-other also involves personal confession and mutual forgiveness of sins….By hearing the word of God’s forgiveness pronounced by another, I receive an assurance which is truly for me because it is beyond me; I ‘experience the presence of God in the reality of the other.’ – Clifford Green, Chapter 6 of CCDB, quoting from Life Together

Free in Obedience

An important aspect that I almost forgot to mention is that when we exist-for-others, only then do we find true freedom. This is because true freedom is not freedom-from (i.e., freedom from responsibility for others), but rather freedom-for (i.e., freedom to choose to obey, or to do what we were created for). God himself is not free-from (though he could be), but in his complete and utter freedom has chosen to bind himself to humanity, not only through covenant with Israel, but more starkly through taking on human nature and form. This choice of God’s involves great self-limitation or restriction, yet is the result of God’s free choice. In the same way, in our freedom we can choose to ignore or even harm others, but we only exercise our freedom to the utmost when we use it to exist-for-others. Only those who truly own something have the right to give it away to another; in this sense we are most free when we are most obedient to God’s call to exist-for-others.

Christ the Centre

Bonhoeffer’s 1933 lectures on Christology bridge the gap between his early writings and his later writings (being Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison). In them he expounds on the notion that, in all of these relationships in which we live, there is not a single relationship that is not mediated by Christ. Christ mediates our relationship with God, but he also mediates our relationship with the Other (“what you have done for the least of these, you have done to me”) and even with reality itself. If Christ is the mediator of every relationship we have, and our entire existence is relational, then it makes perfect sense that his Christological thoughts were published under the title Christ the Centre! It is impossible for us to exist outside of relationship, but that relationship is, first and foremost, to Christ.

Conclusion: the Nature of Being Human

When we talk about human nature, we tend to do so as an explanation for sin or backwardness: “we’re only human, after all.” When Bonhoeffer talked about being human, he meant in comparison to the one true Human, Jesus Christ. Here are the basics of what it means to be human:

1. To be in relation to Christ.

2. Through Christ, to be in relation to the Other.

3. This relationship is of an ethical nature, which ultimately requires that we exist-for-others.

4. It is only through this existing-for-others, in obedience to Christ, that we truly exercise our freedom.

5. Through such ethical relationships in community (i.e. the Church), Christ exists in the world today.

6. Thus embodying the true Human, we become more human ourselves.

I can’t wait to see how this is worked out in Discipleship!

One of the most difficult books I’ve ever started to read… Seriously difficult read, but absolutely brilliant. Thankfully, his writings became much more accessible in later books!


5 thoughts on “Reading Bonhoeffer: Being Human Together

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who found the readings tough, I feel like I need to spend a couple years just reading Continental philosophy before I continue with any theological training. Looking forward to fleshing this out tomorrow.

  2. As I’ve finally gotten home and can now catch up with readings (and responses), I was going to note what Patrick did concerning Buber whose work was published just four years prior to Bonhoeffer completing Sanctorum Communio. Clifford Green notes that it was actually under the influence of Theodor Litt, Emanuel Hirsch, and Eberhard Grisebach that Bonhoeffer developed this thought (see DBWE 1:5-6).

  3. Pingback: Reading Bonhoeffer with Jeff Wheeldon « I Heart Barth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s