Tonight in Being The Church, the subject Chris Walker and I are teaching at United Theological College this semester, we looked at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on disillusionment in his little book “Life Together”. Bonhoeffer must have gone through his own experiences of deep disappointment as he watched colleagues buy into the Nationalist Socialism version of positive Christianity. Here he writes about the challenges facing not only institutional bodies like the German Evangelical Church, but also locally formed communities such as the underground seminary he had formed in Finkenwalde.
“On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put in a community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what the Christian communal life should be, and they will be anxious to realise it. But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community…
…The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and and the community, the better for both. However, a community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, clinging instead to its idealised image, when that should be done away with, loses at the same time the promise of durable Christian community. Sooner or later it is bound to collapse. Every human idealised image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more that the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community, even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”
A fellow member of a newly planted church confided in me that he’d become disillusioned with the church, because of the conflict our leadership team had experienced over theology and ethics. My instinctive response was to try and find a way to “reillusion” the guy, get back the dream. But on reflection I realised that disillusionment can be a gift, a step towards a realistic, gritty grasp on the challenge of working with others as they are, and ourselves as we are.
Coming to terms with our shadow side can be demotivating. I like to get things done. At times, when I see my own interest in the work of others drift through manoeuvring into manipulation, I try to tell myself that I must withdraw from public life, immediately. At other times, I despair at the slowness with which I catch up with my overloaded schedule of tasks. With the support of colleagues I usually get over myself and get some sense of perspective. I know that if I want to be rejuvenated, I need to schedule regular breaks during which I have no responsibility for others.
Coming to terms with the shadow side of a community is not easy to work through, for individuals or for communities. There is an emotional cost to placing a high value on the dignity of those who see things differently to ourselves. Cultural change takes time, and sometimes that time means missing significant opportunities, for individuals and for organisations. It’s been devastating to come to reflect deeply on reports from the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Sexual Abuse of Children. Finding a way to face the sadness of this all is no easy task. Sometimes we need to call an end to a particular expression of life together. Always, we have the challenge of navigating our way through to rejuvenation and reality together.
The Serenity Prayer, used often in recovery meetings, goes like this:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Here’s a version often used in Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know that person is me.”