Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is an undisputed classic on the concept of Christian community. Along with The Rule of Benedict and other similar texts on communal Christian life, Life Together provides an incisive and subversive presence in Christian literature on the church and community. Personally, I have always found two of Bonhoeffer’s emphases in Life Together most insightful. One is his discussion of confession and the Lord’s Supper in his final chapter. The other is his contrastive discussion of what Bonhoeffer calls “spiritual” love and “self-centered” or “emotional” love. Now, as the editors of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Series relate clearly in the editorial notes, Bonhoeffer does not mean by this that genuine love stemming from the work of Christ lacks feeling or passion, nor does he imply that the base love which he is critiquing is something easily identified as such. Bonhoeffer borrows Paul’s notion of “spiritual” and “carnal” (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1ff) to describe, in as stark a manner as possible, the different sorts of human communion that can be enacted in the world. There are essentially two forms of communion that are possible, one is direct, immediate relationship with another person, resulting in a fusion between the self and the other. The second possibility is communion with the other through Christ, who stands between the self and the other as mediator, denying any possibility of immediacy, domination, or fusion of the self and the other.
Bonhoeffer’s descriptions of the self-centered, dark, and ingnominious nature of natural love corresponds roughly to what people commonly think of as eros. It is the desire to possess another, to absorb the other into oneself. “In the self-centered community there exists a profound, elemental emotional desire for community, for immediate contact with other human souls, just as in the flesh there is a yearning from immediate union with other flesh. This desire of the human soul seeks the complete intimate fusion of I and You, whether this occurs in the union of love or — what from this self-centered perspective is after all the same thing — in forcing the other into one’s own sphere of power and influence.”
This sort of dominating, possessive love is decried by Bonhoeffer as predatory on genuine Christian love and community. In the Christian community our communion with one another can never be an expression of the extension of ourself into the other, but rather of receiving the other as gift insofar as Christ sees fit to gift us with one another amidst the concreteness and difficulty of life under the Word of God. “Because Christ stands between me and an other, I must not long for unmediated community with that person. As only Christ was able to speak to me in such a way that I was helped, so others too can only be helped by Christ alone. However, this means that I must release others from all my attempts to control, coerce, and dominate them with my love. In their freedom from me, other persons want to be loved for who they are, as those for whom Christ became a human being, died, and rose again, as those from whom Christ won the forgiveness of sins and prepared eternal life.”
Bonhoeffer goes on to argue as follows, “Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ. That is why self-centered love seeks direct contact with other persons. It loves them, not as free persons, but as those whom it binds to itself. It wants to do everything it can to win and conquer; it puts pressure on the other person. It desires to irresistible, to dominate. Self-centered love does not think much of truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the person loved. Emotional, self-centered love desires other persons, their company. It wants them to return its love, but it does not serve them. On the contrary, it continues to desire even when it seems to be serving.”
While some might want to argue against Bonhoeffer that there seems to be a dichotomy between eros and agape in his descriptions, one certainly cannot deny that his diagnosis rightly indicts the destructive and horrific nature of misdirected desire in human life. As Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux stressed in their writings, the problem of human love involves its misdirection to wrong ends. Our passions, rather than being ordered to the good through the love of God are directed wrongly and as such lead to sin, death, domination, and suffering. Moreover, in our sex-obsessed culture in the West, this indictment of the all-consuming eroticization of the self is needed more than ever.
What Bonhoeffer describes as self-centered love in Life Together is strikingly exact as a description of Western attitudes towards romance, love, sex, and personal fulfillment. The longing to be completed through immediate contact with another is the reigning mythos of romance in our age. It is the object of voracious, often violent pursuit at all costs, and as Bonhoeffer points out, “Emotional, self-centered love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a community that has become false, even for the sake of genuine community.” The hallmark of the love of our age is that we cannot bear to see it fail (or rather, not succeed in the way we want). ‘Love conquers all’ has become a sentimental maxim that really just means no one should ever break up with me. The kind of love that animates our romantic imaginations today, as Bonhoeffer says, “is by its very nature desire, desire for self-centered community. As long as it can possibly satisfy this desire, it will not give it up, even for the sake of truth, even for the sake of genuine love for others.” This describes how I have gone after romance in my life if anything does. And I suspect that I’m not alone in this.
Certainly Bonhoeffer did not intend to write a treatise on romantic love for twenty-first century Christians who still happen to be single and think that marriage is going to fulfill them somehow. However, in an age where our longings for friendship and intimacy are ciphered through the ubiquitous notion of romantic self-fulfillment, Bonhoeffer’s critique has a great deal to offer in smashing some key idols that plague us. The fact is that in our romantic imaginations we seem to remain disturbingly trapped in the zeitgeist of our age, hoping that by journeying deeper into the abyss of our selfishness we will somehow find the community that we long for with the other. As Bonhoeffer points out however, the only way to find such true communion is the release of the other from our longings for possession and domination. For the Christian, true love, and indeed true romantic love, must take the shape of kenotically making space for the freedom of the other, rather than seeking to captivate and secure them in relationship to oneself.
And this is truly the challenge, for releasing the other into freedom, not demanding their reciprocation of your service and care is to place oneself in a posture of radical vulnerability. To love without seeking to possess is to live precariously. Such a mode of living cannot guarantee the outcome longed for. Of course, living by possession and domination cannot guarantee it either, though somehow we are easily seduced into thinking it can. But the truth is that all our strategies for control cannot secure our longings in any lasting way. These strategies and efforts are the heavy yoke of slavery and death. The vulnerable way of agape, of cruciform, kenotic love cannot promise the sort of fulfillment we often long for, just as the cross cannot guarantee the resurrection. However, such an ethic of self-dispossession is the only way for us to live in a manner that is open to receiving the divine gifts of communion that we have tasted in Christ.
Bonhoeffer is right in his call away from the libidinal drive towards self-at-the-expense-of-the-other. For those of us caught in a culture of idolatrous romance and false idealizations of relational fulfillment, the call to see the crucified and resurrected Christ standing between oneself and the other is supremely necessary. If we learn to see anew, in this Christic manner, we will indeed be poised for a new sexual revolution — thought of course, such a revolution would be one of freedom rather than the solipsistic slavery that is omnipresent in our culture. The world of Sex and the City needs to be invaded by Finkenwalde. But the line between Carrie Bradshaw and Dietrich Bonhoeffer runs through each one of our hearts. And that is why other elements of Bonhoeffer’s account in Life Together are deeply relevant to our age, chiefly prayer and confession.
For it is in confession and prayer one to another that the darkness of our lives and inclinations are exposed to the light of the gospel, bringing us into freedom. And, living as we now do in the sphere of freedom, we are able to love one another without the drive toward possessiveness remaining sovereign. Lives that eschew the lust for domination that is encoded within the discourse of romantic love today are indeed possible. And it is only in such lives in which all our loves and longings are reconfigured by the gospel that we can find true freedom from the powers that enslave us in regard to sexuality and romance.