A Finkenwalde Option

The Need for a New Monasticism

Many “options” for the survival/renewal of the church in North America are floating around today. Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is the best known among them and the touchstone for this recent flurry of other “options.” All of them share two basic convictions:

-the American church is in dire trouble and needs a fundamental reshaping, and

-this reshaping requires intentional community to resist the world’s incursions.

Most of them point to monasticism, a reform movement in the early church protesting the accommodation of the church to ideas, ways, and mores of the Roman Empire, as a model for the kind of reform needed. This is a sound instinct. The trick is to discern the shape of the features of a monasticism fit for North America in these times.

And that’s been the catalyst for the discussion around Dreher’s book. Is it Benedict, or Francis, or the Jesuits, or some other version of monasticism that might serve us best in this time and place?

I suggest that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (DB) experiment to design a community to both support and equip at Finkenwalde, the site of the Confessing Church’s underground seminary, merits consideration. Dare we call it the Finkenwalde Option?

In a letter to his brother in early 1935, shortly before he took on the task of directing this underground seminary to prepare pastors for Confessing Churches, he wrote, “...the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.  I think it is time to gather people together to do this...”[1] 

In the context of the maelstrom ignited by Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933 the thorough accommodation of the church to German culture was evident to DB. He indicted his church in these uncompromising words: "Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world."[2]

It’s no stretch to apply that same indictment to the American Church. Not suggesting that America and it leadership are comparable to Hitler’ Nazism, the Third Reich, but the reality of the church’s accommodation to our culture in denaturing and debilitating ways sadly mimics the German church of DB’s time.

The Sermon on the Mount

As noted, he turned to monasticism as a model for the renewal and reconstruction of the church in Germany. He did not seek to reduplicate what Benedict and others had done. He knew something new was required – the spirit and ethos of monasticism. In his view, the Sermon on the Mount must be at the heart of this effort. Indeed, in the above letter to his brother, he claimed that Jesus’ Sermon was “the only source of power capable of exploding the whole enchantment and specter (Hitler and his rule) so that only a few burnt fragments are left remaining from the fireworks.”[3]

The Sermon on the Mount, far from being an impossible ideal we can never reach or a teaching applicable only during the so-called Millennial reign of Christ on earth after the defeat of Satan and evil, or for a special, higher class of Christian, or any other evasion, Bonhoeffer fervently believed Jesus’ teaching here was meant as practical guidance on living the life of God’s kingdom which Jesus had inaugurated. His popular book Discipleship (aka The Cost of Discipleship) makes this clear. Glenn Stassen, a latter-day Bonhoefferian, has followed up DB’s conviction that Jesus’ Sermon is concrete, practical guidance for his followers today, with ground-breaking research that has confirmed this conviction made even clearer the Sermon’s practical thrust.[4] It would be quite possible, in my judgment, to gather Christian communities around this description of life in God’s kingdom (which begins now in this life) as a focal point of this new monastic life.

The Arcane Discipline

DB later in his Letter and Papers from Prison insisted on the need for the church to retrieve the ancient church’s practice of the “arcane discipline.” They excluded outsiders from the practice and celebration of its most intimate rites. This was to protect these rites from misunderstanding and profanation and outsiders from gaining untutored perceptions of what was happening. Even in the nonreligious Christianity DB was struggling to articulate there remained a necessary place for formative worship.

We could include here, I think, the development of spiritual disciplines[5] aimed at buttressing our intention to resist the empire’s push to accommodate the church to its needs and aspirations and instead inculcate the ethos and ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s probably the best single “Empire-Buster” we have in our Bibles. Jesus here contradicts or stands on their heads much of what the Empire wants us to buy into and live our lives by. (Bonhoeffer and Stassen are worthy guides for this endeavor.)

Christian Education might be reconceived and implemented as vocational training. Our needs and struggles as Christians attempting to live faithfully from one day to the next is its curriculum. Wes Granberg-Michaelson has recently promoted Finkenwalde as place for us to begin to begin thinking and acting toward a new church.[6] He identifies some of what we are up against in that effort as:

-chauvinistic nationalism,    

-growing economic inequality,       

-destabilizing climate change,       

-unprecedented forced migration,  


-increasing militarization

In a world that at its best valorizes human effort and achievement and at its worst gleefully entice us to long for, anticipate, and experiment with things most would recognize as base and low (even if they dabble in them themselves), the church will not lack grist for its reflection and training in living a Sermon on the Mount-centered life.

This arcane discipline reaches even further than this, though. It reaches into the very core of who we are in Christ and with and for one another. In Life Together Bonhoeffer makes the astonishing (to us modern westerners) claim that it is confession of sin, one to another, that makes the church the church!

The practical putting to death of the old nature (especially it chief expression as pride), assuaging our loneliness, assurance of forgiveness, breakthroughs to community and new life, all this happens as one person confesses their sins to another. Not a priest, not to God alone, but to another Christian. All God’s gracious gifts to us breathe their life from this center. For in meeting with and confessing to another person, we are confessing, receiving pardon, and being filled with new life by Christ himself who stands between us as the center of our relationship.[7]

Such confession prepares for the central act of worship, the Lord’s Supper. Here’s how Bonhoeffer sums it up:

“The day of the Lord’s Supper is a joyous occasion for the Christian community. Reconciled in their hearts with God and one another, the community of faith receives the gift of Jesus Christ’s body and blood, therein receiving forgiveness, new life, and salvation. New community with God and one another is given to it. The community of the holy Lord’s Supper is above all the fulfillment of Christian community. Just as the members of the community of faith are united in body and blood at the table of the Lord, so they will be together in eternity. Here the community has reached its goal. Here joy in Christ and Christ’s community is complete. The life together of Christians under the Word has reached its fulfillment in the sacrament.”[8]

The Three Circles of the Church’s Life

DB is famous, of course, for his insistence that the church be deeply involved in all dimensions of life, “helping and serving,” rather than dominating as he puts it in Letters and Papers.[9] In his book Faithful Presence, David Fitch articulates a vision for the church’s immersion in the world that is consonant with Bonhoeffer’s insight. He proposes three concentric circles in which the church engages it community

-the close circle is gathered community of the committed. Perhaps this would be Bonhoeffer’s “arcane discipline,” his term for the worship of the church in a world-come-of-age. Note Fitch does not say a “closed” circle. He focuses on the quality of relationship in the group rather than its boundaries.

-the dotted circle is a place in the neighborhood where Christians host others beyond the close circle. Perhaps it’s a home gathering, or perhaps a gathering in some other place where Christians offer others the chance to see and experience what goes on in the circle.

-the half circle encompasses the places of hurt and brokenness we encounter. Here the Christian is a guest who extends the presence of Christ into a situation where it may or may not be accepted.

This a helpful way to order our thinking about being immersed in the world as DB advises. Now Bonhoeffer believes we are in a period when the church’s verbal witness has lost credibility and we ought to express our faith during this time with our deeds alone. As Walker Percy put it in The Thanatos Syndrome, our words “no longer signify.” Fitch does not have such a reservation but both are united in insisting the presence, sharing, helping, and serving others is a necessary precursor to valid testimony.

A Finkenwalde Option

Truth is, the Finkenwalde Option Bonhoeffer innovated failed. Or, rather, aborted. The Gestapo closed the seminary in 1937. Two years does not a community of resistance to the kind of forces identified above. So it remains an open question whether we can do it, either. It requires a different way of thinking and certainly different structures for doing church this way. In all honesty the present adult generations in America will not entertain a Finkenwalde Option. We (and I include myself here) are incapable of breaking free from the bonds of reputation, consumerism, and comfort. But if we will own that, and make an effort to nurture younger generations to transition to this way of being church, well, there may be hope down the line.

When Bonhoeffer announced his intention to find a career in the church, his siblings teased and taunted him over the church’s boring, stodgy irrelevance. He brashly shot back, “Well, then, I shall reform it!” And in ways unimaginable nor predictable, he did. Or at least played his part. His indispensable role. And because we have the record we do of his efforts, we have impetus enough to take up his aborted reform of the church and begin working it through in our own very different time and place. We won’t likely see the fruit of it, us older generation folks, but in my judgment, it’s the right thing to do and past the right time to do it. So, thanks be to God for the work and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and we thank him by taking up and doing what he saw and began – a Finkenwalde Option.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament of Freedom, Geoffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, eds. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 424.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge," Letters and Papers from Prison: DBW 8 (Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition), 11000.

[3] Bonhoeffer, Testament of Freedom, 424.
[4] Glen H. Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

[5] David Fitch has seven helpful disciplines in his Faithful Presence: the Lord’s Table, Reconciliation, Proclaiming the Gospel, Being with the ‘Least of These’, Being with Children, the Fivefold Gifting, Kingdom Prayer.
[6] “From Wittenburg to Finkenwalde,” http://wcrc.ch/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/GC2017-WesGMAddress.pdf/
[7] Bonhoeffer expounds this understanding of our humanity as centered in Christ in his book Sanctorum Communio (“Communion of Saints”).
[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible DBWE 5 (Fortress Press. Kindle Edition: 2578.
[9] DBWE 8:14361.


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