God Hates Visionary Dreaming

March 7, 2011

It was 1972, an autumn day, bright sun above, Blue Ridge mountains in the distance, with a gentle breeze near as breath. One month prior I had resigned as pastor with no vocational place to go. With weariness receding, there was now psychic, spiritual space to ponder—what happened?

My eyes landed on these searing words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. . . . He acts as the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

“That’s what happened!” I said to myself. Did I not love my vision of the congregation more than the people of the congregation? I came from seminary fresh with an ideal of what church ought to be. From that point, Bonhoeffer describes the spiral downward: things did not go the way envisioned, then I blamed the church, and finally, blamed myself.

Of course, an ending is never that clean. But that day Bonhoeffer lanced the boil of my disillusionment. A truth was named. My self-ideal and ideal of the congregation lay shattered at my feet.

I thought of this learning recently. I was overhearing friends talk about a seminar on dementia. One friend, the husband, has recently been diagnosed in the early stages of dementia. His wife joined him in the seminar.

All the information and examples pointed to this one challenge: Relate to your husband as he is, not as he was or as you wish him to be. Stay with his experience, knowing he is doing the very best he can with the brain he has. You (wife) are not the care giver, with you (husband) the passive recipient. Rather, you are care partners, participating in the new ways your love is forming.

So, I am reminding myself, and you, God hates visionary dreaming; that is, loving the ideal more than the person(s). And the warning sign too, the feeling of accusation—when we start blaming the other, only to end up blaming ourself

If you find Bonhoeffer’s reference to “God hating” offensive, remember G.K. Chesterton’s observation that sometimes you have to exaggerate in order to tell the truth.