FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: BONHOEFFER ON CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

Fall has arrived in the Midwest. The leaves are beginning to show orange and red, the temperature is supposed to dip into the thirties tonight, and my recent trip to southern California already seems like a dream. I spent the latter half of last week in Malibu, where an organization called the Conference on Faith and History convened for its 2014 biennial meeting. The Conference on Faith and History is a national organization of Christian historians that has been in existence for nearly half a century. About three hundred participants gathered for this year’s meeting. The program was amazing, the fellowship was great, and I had a blast.

Almost everyone I tell about the location of the meeting chuckles and winks. The assumption is that the CFH intentionally seeks out beach-front locales for its meetings, as if we were all looking for a place where we could put on Speedos and sip drinks with little umbrellas in them. Nothing could be further from the truth. In past years, I’ve attended CFH gatherings in such non-Malibu-like sites as Huntington, Indiana, Shawnee, Oklahoma, and Holland, Michigan. The CFH always holds its national meetings on Christian college campuses, and it just so happened that this year’s host school was Pepperdine University. Not that I’m complaining.

Have you ever been to Pepperdine? It is perched on high ground overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the vistas from the heart of campus are just ridiculously gorgeous. How anyone gets any work done there I can’t imagine. In an odd way, it was comforting to come back to the Chicagoland area, knowing that I could look forward to weather that will drive everyone indoors for the next eight months. What a blessing. . . .

The view from the rear of the student center at Pepperdine University

The view from the rear of the student center at Pepperdine University

But enough about the weather. My time at the conference sent my thoughts repeatedly to an extended passage in my commonplace book from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ve shared a portion of it before in a different post, but I thought I would return to it now and explain why I find it so meaningful. To do so requires a bit of personal context. I hope you’ll bear with me.

Thirty-two years (thirty-two years!) have passed since I embarked on an academic career. When I began graduate school at Vanderbilt University in the autumn of 1982, I thought that God might be calling me to become a Christian professor on a public university campus. I had not reached that conclusion easily. Throughout my senior year at the University of Tennessee I wrestled with several career options. With no certain sense of direction, I tried to keep my options open and did everything I could to put off making a decision. By December I had applied to thirteen different graduate or professional schools encompassing four different kinds of study. The options on the table were law, business, law and business, and history. I didn’t have peace about any of them.

From hindsight, that began to change when I was home over Christmas break, thanks to an unexpected visit from a near stranger. I recognized the white-haired man on our front porch as an usher in the fairly large Southern Baptist church that I had grown up in. I didn’t know him by name, however, and I doubt that we had ever more than smiled at one another in passing. I had given my testimony in a Sunday night service right after Christmas, and this gentleman explained that he had felt impressed to pass along a book to me that someone had given him.

The book that he placed in my hands was a book on Christian discipleship: The Upstream Christian in a Downstream World, by Charles W. Dunn. I took the book back to school with me that winter and read it against the backdrop of my ongoing struggle to figure out what in the world God wanted me to do with my life. Although it contained a great deal of wisdom, what struck me most was not the author’s counsel but rather his own life story. Charles Dunn was a professor of political science at Clemson University, and he filled his book with summaries of countless conversations over the years with college students about the claims of Christ. Gradually, I became more and more excited about the possibility of imitating Dunn’s example, and when Vanderbilt offered me the opportunity to pursue graduate study in history entirely on their dime, I decided to enroll and pursue a Ph.D.

Graduate school was harder than anything I had ever attempted, but it was also marvelously rewarding, and almost from the first I felt a sense of affirmation about the path that I had chosen. That sense of confidence was reinforced when, six years later, I was offered a marvelous job at a world-class research university immediately upon finishing my graduate study. My wife and I moved to the Pacific Northwest, determined to invest in the lives of students at the University of Washington.

I arrived at UW confident that God had called me to be a Christian history professor, but with only the slightest idea of what that meant. I took for granted that what would make me a Christian history professor would be what I did outside of the classroom. I would look for ways to witness to unbelieving students when they visited my office, and my wife and I would lead a Bible study for college students at our church. But when I was in the classroom, what I taught and how I taught wouldn’t differ that much from my unbelieving colleagues. I would just be nicer.

Had you asked me during those years, I would have insisted that I was doing my best to love God with my mind. I was pretty sure that I was imitating the apostle Paul in “pressing toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). But I was not thinking “Christianly” about my profession, nor did I have the remotest idea of what it might mean to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5).

My evangelical upbringing had taught me that, whatever my specific career path, all that truly mattered was personal integrity and evangelism. And so for years—it embarrasses me now to admit this—I defined faithfulness in my calling with little reference to the actual content of my teaching and scholarship. Yes, I would teach a Sunday School class, and yes, I would look for opportunities to witness, but otherwise I would simply jump on the academic treadmill. By not thinking deeply about the institution in which I labored, I found it relatively easy to be content in that labor. But while I was focused narrowly on personal piety and evangelism—good things both—I was also happily serving a university which rested on a worldview that was the antithesis of what I professed to believe.

I’m not pretending for a moment that I have it all figured out now, but I do think that God helped me over time to think more deeply about the foundations of the secular multiversity of which I was a part. I slowly began to realize that the classroom is never a neutral space, and that I had been teaching in a way that made me unwittingly complicit in the university’s secularizing mission. Whatever I might be doing or saying outside of the classroom, inside of the classroom I was implicitly teaching my students to make sense of their world without reference to the Author of all wisdom and knowledge.

As I came to grips with this insight, I was forced to wrestle with my calling in a way that I never had before. And as I tried—really for the first time—to think “Christianly” about my vocation, I began to experience what the late Harry Blamires (one of C.S. Lewis’s last students) called “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.” Before this, I had never really felt alone as a Christian in the secular Academy for one simple reason: I wasn’t thinking like one. But now that was changing, and the result was a growing sense of alienation.

This is where the Conference on Faith and History came in. I knew that I didn’t understand how to pursue my vocation as a Christian historian faithfully, but I also didn’t know what to do differently. I needed to learn from those who shared my vocation and were farther down the road than I was. Some of this I could gain by reading books and articles on the subject, but that was not enough. Looking back, I think I was sort of like the Ethiopian court official that we read about in the New Testament (Acts 8:26-40), the one who Phillip the Apostle encountered on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Like him, I needed a living, side-by-side conversation, and when I attended my first CFH convention I found that. The fellowship that I encountered in the Conference on Faith and History encouraged me deeply. Even more important was the ongoing conversation about calling that I was invited to join. It continues to bless me immeasurably, and I will always be grateful.

RNS-DIETRICH-BONHOEFFERAnd so it is that throughout last week’s conference my mind kept returning to passages in my commonplace book from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, as you probably know, was a German theologian and pastor who was an open critic of Nazi rule from the moment that Adolph Hitler rose to power. Because the established Protestant churches were under the control of the Gestapo, for several years Bonhoeffer secretly trained young pastors in an underground seminary. In 1938 he penned Life Together, an extended meditation on Christian community that grew out of this experience.

Life Together III first read Life Together the fall that I arrived at Wheaton College after twenty-two years at the University of Washington. It impressed me deeply. Bonhoeffer began by quoting Psalm 133:1. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” The rest of the book proclaims two truths: First, as Christians we desperately need the blessing of Christian community.  Second, we must never, ever take it for granted when we are blessed to experience it.

Here is how Bonhoeffer explains the first point:

God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.

Here I read Bonhoeffer articulating both the longing I had felt at UW and the blessing that I had felt in my interaction with the Conference on Faith and History. I’ve been wrestling with the concept of vocation for nearly twenty years, and there’s only one thing I’m absolutely certain of: we need to work out our understandings of our calling in community. We need to be in conversation with other believers about what it means to follow God faithfully in the particular circumstances in which He has placed us.

Bonhoeffer also writes movingly about the preciousness of Christian community. The book’s third sentence sounds the theme: “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.” Surely he must have reflected on that truth countless times in the years to come, including the two years that he spent in a succession of prisons before his execution in April 1945.

I have meditated on the passage below frequently since coming to Wheaton. It helps put into words my gratitude for the Conference on Faith and History, but it also provides a framework for thinking about the opportunity that God has granted me here at Wheaton. I need to hear regularly both the reminder and the warning that it contains:

It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.

5 responses to “FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: BONHOEFFER ON CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

  1. As you mentioned, Bonnhoeffer’s Life Together emerged from his experience with the underground seminary. He and his students were a Christian community because they were believers who studied, prayed, worshipped, worked, and actually lived together.

    I read Life Together recently searching for what it might mean for the local church to live in true Christian community, recognizing that while members have a few things in common, their lives often seem only remotely connected.

    It strikes me that your experience with the Conference on Faith and History participants is a very different and interesting application of the concept of Christian community. While it is certainly a community within the body of Christ, I assume it is far removed from the local church where you worship. Does this mean that this group is more your Christian community than your local church?

    Do you think the local church was ever intended to be that Christian community you sought as a Christian professor in a secular setting, or do you think it serves a different purpose?

    I’ve often thought that I should feel closer and more caring toward the fellow believers I worship with every week.

    • Hi, George: This is a great question. The Conference on Faith and History has never been more my Christian community than my local church. To begin with, we only get together, at most, once a year. This means that, while we can encourage one another, it is difficult if not impossible for us to be involved in each others’ lives in an ongoing way. I’d have to give this some more thought, but I lean toward the view that the CFH complemented my local church. It met a very particular kind of need that the people in my church generally could not. In my church, I could learn a lot from the pastors and other members about what it means to live faithfully as a church member, as a father and parent and friend and citizen, etc., but there was no one who could mentor me about what it means to be a faithful Christian historian. My church could help me to understand the concept of calling, but not how to live out my specific calling. I am thankful that I eventually had the opportunity to learn from others about my calling in the context of CFH, but I don’t for a minute think of CFH as a substitute for my church.

  2. I began my academic career in 1961 so I have a few years on you. Paul’s comments about teaching in a public high school applies to my career as well. I wrestled with what it meant to be a Christian teacher – a Christian teacher of history – in a public high school. Over the years I came to believe that finding ways to show Christian love and respect toward both my students and my fellow teachers would be my testimony. Looking back, I probably missed a number of opportunities to be more direct in sharing my faith. I also understood that part of my teaching was to maintain integrity in the history content that I taught, emphasizing our quest for truth. What helped me the most was to have a fellow Christian teacher (in another school) who was on the same wave length. We met every Wednesday morning for breakfast to share ideas and reinforce each other in our commitment to be Christians in this secular environment. Now that I am working with Christian young people who want to teach history, I find that the struggles I had are helpful in providing guidance and encouragement. The fear I have is that Christians will abandon the public schools and leave them to the secular forces. Thanks, Tracy, for your stody and your thoughful approach to teaching Christianly.

  3. Thank you for yet another poignant blog! I have felt your pain, in a slightly different order. I attended a Christian high school where, when I expressed a desire to become a high school teacher, and thought it would be in public school, I was told I could “not be a Christian teacher in a public school.” As a teen I found that perplexing. I partly followed that path just to prove my teacher wrong. I approached my high school teaching career EXACTLY as you did at U of Washington, focusing on personal excellence and integrity, and seeking opportunities to witness outside the classroom. I became a perfectly bifurcated self. When I changed professions, and became a history professor at a Christian college it felt “weird” that I was invited to bring my faith into my teaching. I would say it took a full two years before I was completely comfortable with walking that out. There is an incredible “wholeness” that comes from teaching in a Christian institution that no unbeliever can fully appreciate. That said, I think Christian educational institutions of all types should seek to be leaders in their work. Just as I once sought personal excellence as a form of my personal witness I now seek corporate institutional excellence as a form of corporate witness in the world of higher education.

  4. What a blessing to have a community that helped you bridge the divide many worshipping Christians feel between Sunday and their lives at work. I am wondering what it would look like for other academic professions such as literature or economics or psychology to think Christianly? And what about careers like law or medicine? Your column always inspires me, Tracy, to think more deeply about my faith and to act with more integrity in my life. Thank you!

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