Dietrich Bonhoeffer and The New Monasticism

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4 February 1906 – 9 April 1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, dissident anti-Nazi and founding member of the Confessing Church. His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential, and many have labelled his book “The Cost of Discipleship” a modern classic. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and executed by hanging in April 1945 while imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp, just 23 days before the German surrender.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer first used the term “New Monasticism” in a letter written by to his brother Karl-Friedrick on the 14th of January, 1935.

“It may be that in many things I seem to you to be somewhat fanatical and crazy. I myself sometimes have anxiety about this. But I know that, if I were more reasonable, for the sake of honor, I should have to, the next day, give up all my theology. When I first began theology, I imagined it to be somewhat different – perhaps more like an academic affair. Now it has become something completely different from that. And I now believe I know at last that I am at least on the right track – for the first time in my life. And that often makes me very glad. I continue to fear only that I might no longer appreciate the genuine anxiety for meaning of other people, but remain set in my ways. I believe I know that inwardly I shall be really clear and honest only when I have begun to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount. Here is set the only source of power capable of exploding the whole enchantment and specter [Hitler and his rule] so that only a few burnt-out fragments are left remaining from the fireworks. The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Christ. I believe it is now time to call people to this.”

“…I still can’t ever believe that you really consider all these thoughts to be so completely insane. At present there are still some things for which an uncompromising stand is worthwhile. And it seems to me that peace and social justice or Christ himself are such.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a letter to Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer in “A Testament to Freedom” (1990)

“Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace….
The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost…. But the Roman church did keep a remnant of that original awareness. It was decisive that monasticism did not separate from the church and that the church had the good sense to tolerate monasticism. Here, on the boundary of the church, was the place where the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship was preserved…. Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.”

“The Cost of Discipleship” (1948)
“In Christian brotherhood everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Second, that Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a psychic reality.

Innumerable times a whole 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 hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his 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.”

“Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community” (1978)

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