Discipleship and the Individual

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

Continuing along the road of discipleship, this week we move from considering the effects of following—i.e., sacrificial suffering—to considering the personal consequences of discipleship—i.e., considering how our very notion of what it means to be a person changes through discipleship.

In this final section of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s introduction to his Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer examines what it means to transition from one stage of human existence to another, moving from either a solitary person or an undifferentiated person to an individual person. (Importantly, when Bonhoeffer uses the term “individual” he is not using it in the same way that we typically do, but I am getting ahead of myself.) Moreover, his entire notion of the individual that emerges from discipleship does so out of his understanding of the incarnation.

The incarnation is that Christian theological commitment that asserts that divinity (through the second person of the Trinity, i.e., the Son) becomes human. And, within Christian theology, this “becoming human of God” is not simply God loosely wearing humanity. Rather, the incarnation assumes a much more integral mixing and uniting of the divine with the human. By fully assuming and integrating with humanity, divinity comes to know/experience what it means to be us, and, in turn, we come to know/experience what it means to be divine—even if only in part. This alteration of understanding through the incarnation opens to us the potential to see that God is the ground of all being, the source of all life. Or, as writer of the gospel of John puts it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:1- 4).

As the source of life and being, in Bonhoeffer’s estimation, the call to discipleship places us in direct proximity and relationship with the very essence of life, creating a new life for the follower and opening our eyes to realize that our previous claims to life were claims determined on our own terms . . . and, therefore, deficient, as those claims were calculated through our own expectations, expectations that generate an artificial barrier between us and life/being, i.e., God.

This realization that our old terms for what it means to experience/know life leads Bonhoeffer to draw two conclusions. First, the old terms are our terms because we must be the ones who have set the standard to determine how to account and judge our existence. And, by placing ourselves in the position of judge, we repeat the very definition of original sin, i.e., we put ourselves at the center of existence rather than God.

Second, our old terms for what it means to experience/know life is not objectively worse than our new terms. If such an objective determination could be made, then, again, we would serve as the arbiters or judge of the objective superiority or inferiority of one set of terms over another. And, in doing so, we would, again, repeat the error of original sin, making a determination based on our standards rather than on a relational commitment to follow God. In other words, Bonhoeffer is reminding us that faith is primarily a relational category not a rational one. (Certainly, discipleship has rational consequences, but that is a secondary concern. What is primary is our coming into proximity with the Creator of all life.) This assertion by Bonhoeffer, also, removes the temptation to arrogance that might accompany a claim that the Christian way is objectively better than some other way, because such a claim would suggest that we follow because we want the better way. Such a commitment based on an assumption that we have chosen the better, more profitable way is not sacrificial and selfless but quintessentially self-interested and egocentric. Our way of life is not better, just different, particular, and committed to a person called Christ. If it were objectively better, would not every rational person choose it? Yet, they clearly do not!

It is in this way that Bonhoeffer understands that we are called into individuality, a call taking us from our isolation from God as we exist in our presumed appropriate calculations about the world and taking us away from an undifferentiated existence in the muddled mass of humanity defined by our societal obligations and duties. By calling each of us, God opens our eyes to who we are as unique creations in God’s own image and as creations distinct not only from God but from others, too. Through this direct calling, Bonhoeffer asserts, we become individuals. Yet, here is where his notion of individuality diverges from our own.

For Bonhoeffer, the moment we recognize that God uniquely creates us we, also, realize that God—as the ground and center of being—unites us to each other. This realization means that our humanity is bound to our communality. We can only be unique when we understand that there are others different from us. When we leave community, we, ironically, loose this unique perspective that makes us individuals.

Having wandered through how Bonhoeffer understands our lives of faith produce a new kind of understanding about ourselves and our connection to God and each other, we are better able to tackle Bonhoeffer’s use of the passage from Luke’s gospel cited at the outset of this reflection. In that passage from the gospel writer, we read those rather challenging words issuing from Jesus’ lips. In that exchange with his own disciples, Jesus assumes that discipleship will require abandoning our earthly relations and even our own lives. Such words seem not only harsh but, also, contrary to the character of a God who appears to relish relationships and connection.

Yet, when placed in the context of discipleship, what Bonhoeffer seems to understand Jesus to be saying is that our relationships and obligations and expectations about life and ourselves must be subject to abandonment if those categories were created on our own terms and not God’s terms. It is not that such relational categories are bad; it is simply that we cannot condition such categories. And, if we condition them, they must be subject to the scrutiny and redefinition spoken by the Word of Life.

For Bonhoeffer, the sense that a life of faith potentially will lead to the loss of relationships and to a loss of our claims that we understand how the world works and must be is all too relevant for him. As his personal relationships severed and as his assumptions about propriety and goodness dissolved in Nazi Germany, an impulse to redefine his existence in the life and ministry of Christ seems reasonable and necessary. However, for those of us miles and decades removed, such a need to redefine our existence seems less relevant, less obvious, less attractive.

In that respect, we might ask if Bonhoeffer was making a theological diagnosis for all disciples in all times and all circumstances or was he just articulating a necessary response in a culture that had already cost him his family, his freedom, and his certainty and that would finally cost him his life? Such a question seems reasonable. And, we might justifiably conclude that Bonhoeffer’s notion of discipleship is more a product of his grotesquely perverse environment, i.e., an extreme theology for an extreme time. And, to some extent, that conclusion is correct. The context that produced Bonhoeffer’s thought and construction of discipleship is the very definition of “extra-ordinary.”

Yet, despite the extraordinary nature of Bonhoeffer’s life and work, his reflections carry some insights pertinent to our times and lives of faith. In such exaggerated circumstances, our eyes may simultaneously become both clouded and cleared by the crucible of circumstance. Endeavoring to pierce through the fog of circumstance, I think Bonhoeffer hits on significances in an understanding of discipleship and our lives of faith that are timeless and relevant.

What we see when looking at discipleship through Bonhoeffer’s eyes is the dual commitment of, first, a faithful follower walking in humility, certain of his faith yet cautious not to make claims about others’ faiths and the inevitability of having chosen the right path. Bonhoeffer reminds us that faith is principally a humble act of trust before it is anything. And, in such humility, our faith can never become a convicting club used to bludgeon those around us who carry different theological and ideological convictions. Second, in Bonhoeffer’s words we hear the longing and desperate call of a man convinced that a life of faith is not meant to be traveled alone. And, that when our worlds dissolve around us that at least one bond must remain, a bond held by the very ground and source of all life that ties me to you and you to me.

So for me, Bonhoeffer’s witness to discipleship reminds me, first, that while my world might not bear the extraordinary and broad marks of his, in smaller ways our worlds are regularly dissolving and being torn and redefined. Old certainties are gone and previous relationships are no more. It is my task, our task, as people committed to following with others, to seek out those whose worlds have dissolved and to offer to share their journey and confirm that they are not alone. Second, in a culture where my way of faith often predominates and holds a culturally presumptive authority and comfort, his witness challenges me that while I remain committed to the truth of my faith that such a commitment is not the same thing as presumptive and indisputable accuracy. And, my faith, while different than others, must be built upon a humility that leads me to listen to those with whom I disagree and to care for those traveling other paths.

The life of faith is not an easy one. Yet, when walked with companions and on behalf of others it seems, in Bonhoeffer’s estimation, to begins to bear the marks of God’s kingdom. A life that looks like the kingdom of God . . . I cannot imagine better news to offer the world.

Have a great week. See you along the way!


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