“God hates visionary dreaming”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
This is a stark sentence that stands in stark contrast to many of the ways we are used to talking about vision both inside and outside the church walls. We talk often about the importance of having a compelling and transforming vision for our lives and organizations. Likewise, we see the negative effects that a lack of vision has on us and others. Church leaders commonly point out how this is reinforced by passages like, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18 KJV). So how can we say, “God hates visionary dreaming,” when it seems like so much seems to hang on it?
This sentence comes from the German pastor and Confessing Church leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Banned from public teaching and preaching as Germany careened towards the madness that was World War II, Bonhoeffer became the head of an underground seminary at Finkenwalde for pastors whose consciences would not allow them to serve in Hitler’s official and “updated” church. At Finkenwalde, and then later in what became his “seminary on the road,” Bonhoeffer and his students lived in close community as they worked, studied, prayed, played, ate, and slept in close proximity to each other. In his book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer sets out the theology of Christian community he taught and reflects on the lessons he learned from living in such close proximity to his fellow Christians for so long. One of the lessons he comes back to often has to do with what he calls “visionary dreaming.” He points out how often Christian communities spring up from “wishful dreams” of what that community might look like and “very definite ideas of what life together should be.” We think that, if only we should look and act and sound a certain way, then everything will be different … better … perfect. We throw out words to these dreams like contemporary or traditional, young or old, conservative or progressive, family or teaching or outreach or justice or community-focused. We fall in love with these visionary dreams. We fall in love with, not what might happen, but what we are convinced will happen when we all get on the same page and “sing” from the same proverbial hymn book (or screen or smart phone app).
But, as Bonhoeffer writes, “God hates visionary dreaming.”
God hates it because when we do this we are falling in love with a dream or an illusion over the person who is actually sitting there in front of us and the reality that this called the Church that we are a part of actually is. These dreams, he writes, make us proud and pretentious as if it is our dream and vision that holds us together. And these dreams make us angry or disillusioned with each other when our dreams inevitably fade or are shattered. He writes how these failed dreams then turn us ultimately into accusers of each other and accusers of God for failing to live up to our vision for them and not God’s vision for us.
“God hates visionary dreaming.” This is not to deny the importance of us having a common, compelling, and transformative vision. But it is a strong warning to make sure that the vision we are united in and the vision that Christ is pointing us to are the same thing. A vision of a called out people made up of every race and language and gender and skin color and economic and academic background who are all being knit together and built up and reconciled to God, and he continues to reconcile us and transform us together. What does this look and sound like? Well, we get to find that out together along the way.
– Joe Welty