Tuesday, December 02, 2008

QUOTES: "God hates visionary dreaming."

Guess who wrote this? Hint: he died for what he believed.

"Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.

A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of
Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves this dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

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 which 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 the accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Living Together

What do you think of this? It certainly challenges the prevailing evangelical and philosophical winds. I found the comments on this blog helpful in appreciating Bonhoeffer's text.


Brad Boydston said...

What's the difference between being a visionary dreamer and having a vision for something that God wants you to accomplish?

For example, in Romans 15 Paul talks about how bold he has been and that he feels called to work with the Gentiles.

He goes on to describe his vision -- his ambition "to preach the gospel where Christ was not known..." Then he says that he intends to travel to Spain (the ends of the earth -- where the gospel is not really known) and that he wants to stop in Rome on the way. But, of course, he first needs to stop in Jerusalem to drop off the money he raised on his relief tour. The guy is totally full of ambition.

Would St Dietrich have approved of such visionary dreaming?

Loren Crow said...

Thanks for posting this, Beth. I do think that the manner of Bonhoeffer's life and death mean that we should not dismiss his opinion lightly. However, I want to note that he may be wrong about this. True, there is always a danger for visionary people of making an idol of their visions, just as there is a danger that their visions do not rightly reflect God's Truth. However, there is also a persistent witness in Scripture that sometimes God is the source of people's visions, and that these can nourish true faith and hope rather than diminish it. To my mind, neither a claim of visionary experience nor a claim that such experiences are false is an adequate ground on which to dismiss a particular vision. Each claim must be tested on its own merits, and those merits are seen primarily in the lives of those who accept the dream as true.

Does a vision of what may be lead one to greater love of God and of one's neighbor, the two commandments given by the Lord sum up the Law and the Prophets? If so, then it is true. And since all truth is from God, the vision is in some sense from God. If, on the other hand, the claimed revelation leads to a diminution of love for either, then it must be rejected.

It does not seem to me that we must reject as false all idealistic dreams simply because they show where the community falls short. Sometimes this is precisely what needs to be shown. Martin Luther King showed by his idealistic visions of what America should be that there were real problems with the culture. True visions can sometimes, by their very trueness, be the source of divisions and strife in the community - not because they are false but because there are rival visions that ARE false. In the face of powerful, false visions, true visions can seem pretentious and proud, just as King's did to those whites who knew that their culture was threatened by a more inclusive vision.

This may in fact be what Bonhoeffer is trying to say, but how he says it here may be misleading.

Beth B said...

Brad asks, "What's the difference between being a visionary dreamer and having a vision for something that God wants you to accomplish?" This is where I found J. Pete Strobel's comment on the blog referenced to be helpful. Strobel writes:

The word that Bonhoeffer uses in regards to wish dream is "Wunschbild": a wishful picture. In other words, Christian community is not dependent on how we envision it, or try to conform it to our preconceived notions. We need to be careful that we don't create the Church according to our image: whatever set of criteria we've written out in our own interior black books. Christ is the center: we aren't, and our personal criteria aren't.

The difference, then, is subtle but critical: what is the source of the vision? Is it my own ambition, or is it God's? Is it my own idealism/cynicism speaking, or is it the Spirit speaking? Is the vision created by me, or given to me? How well does the purpose of my vision align with the Lord's purposes?

Granted, these are not always easy to to tease apart; but failure to even ask-- muchless continually ask-- these questions seems to me to risk idolizing the vision.

ISTM that our nominalist heritage predisposes us to err on the side of charismatic individualism and personal ambition. However, that is not the only way to miss the mark. There are the equally deadly errors of acedia, ennui, and refusal to receive, as exemplified by Ahaz in Isaiah 7.

As the Anonymous commenter says, "Like Nietzsche, Bonhoeffer philosophizes with a hammer." Perhaps Bonhoeffer spoke so strongly, having been himself tempted to confuse his own "visonary dreaming" of assassinating Hitler with "having a vision for something that God wanted him to accomplish." What do you think?

Peter said...

Am really enjoying this string of dialogue. Thanks for the blog link. It's been 2 years since I've posted that Bonhoeffer quotation, but I still find limitless relevance in it. I am a wide-eyed idealist, and there is a lot of ME in that idealism. I know God is gracious and merciful, but I confess to continually reforming God in my continually reforming image.

I do think it's important, however, to contextualize every insight. The world, and specifically the geographic and political climate, in which Bonhoeffer lived afforded no luxury for "wish-dreaming." The evils of Nazism pressed on every side.

But then again, perhaps we are faced with similar evils, we simply have failed to see clearly. Subtle injustice can be far more dangerous than overt evil.

Blessings to each of you,