The desert fathers and mothers were not learned theologians. They weren’t even deep spiritual guides. Their lives were simple and their teachings were simple and directly related to their circumstances in the desert. Sometimes their teachings provoke laughter in us who are more ‘sophisticated’ than they are. More sophisticated we might be, but are we more in touch with Christ and his teachings? The desert fathers and mothers lived maximally. Their mode of discipleship cannot be reproduced today; it is completely impossible. Their lives were unique in the history of Christianity and we should recognize their uniqueness and not presume to judge their choices by our standards and our understanding of Christ’s teachings. Our mode of discipleship living can only be different from theirs. But can we live the life of discipleship maximally like they did, within our circumstances and what is possible for us in the 21st century? That’s the question. It is also the question Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked in the question that crops up in his writings: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”
On 11 December, 1928, Bonhoeffer gave a lecture in Barcelona, Spain. Here are the opening two paragraphs of this lecture, which he called Jesus Christ and the Essence of Christianity. To produce my rendering of these two paragraphs, I used two different translations of this lecture (the 2008 translation by Douglas Stott, in Volume 10 of the Fortress Press edition of the complete works; and a 1990 translation by Geffrey Kelly).
The question before us today is whether in our own day Christ still stands in the place where decisions are made concerning the most profound matters we are facing, namely, concerning our own lives and the life of our people. We want to examine whether the Spirit of Christ has anything final, definitive and decisive to say to us. We all know that, for all practical purposes, Christ has been eliminated from our lives. Of course, we build him a temple, but we live in our own houses. Christ, instead of being the center of our lives, has become a matter of the church, or of the churchiness of a group of people. . . . Religion plays the part of the so-called parlor into which one gladly withdraws for a couple of hours, but from which one then immediately returns to one’s place of work. However, one thing is clear, namely, that we understand Christ only if we commit to him in a stark ‘Either-Or’. He did not go to the cross to ornament and embellish our lives. If we want to have him, we must recognize that he says something decisive our entire lives. We do not understand him if we arrange for him only a small compartment in our spiritual life. Rather, we understand our spiritual life only if we orientate it to him alone or give him a flat ‘No’. Of course, there are those who are not concerned with taking seriously the claims Christ makes on us in his question: Will you follow me wholeheartedly, or not at all? Such people should rather not get mixed up with Christianity at all; this is better for Christianity, since such people no longer have anything in common with Christ. The religion of Christ is not the tidbit after the bread; it is the bread itself, or it is nothing. Those who would call themselves Christians should understand and acknowledge at least that much.
Various attempts have been made to eliminate Christ from the contemporary life of the human spirit. And indeed, what is seductive about these attempts is that they seem to promote Christ to a position that is appropriate and worthy of him. They explain Christ according to aesthetic categories as a religious genius. They declare him to be a great ethicist or admire his path to the cross as a heroic sacrifice for the sake of his idea. The only thing these attempts do not do is take him seriously. That is, they do not draw the center of their own lives into contact with Christ’s claim to speak and indeed to be the revelation of God. They preserve a certain distance between themselves and Christ’s words, and allow no serious encounter to take place. I can live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as master—just as I can certainly also live without Plato or Kant; all this has merely relative significance. But if there is something in Christ that makes claims upon my entire life, from top to bottom, and does so with the full seriousness of the realization that it is God who is speaking here, and if it is only in Christ that God’s word once became a present reality, then Christ for me has not merely relative, but absolute, urgent significance. Although I am still free to say yes or no, it can no longer be an ultimately indifferent matter to me. To understand Christ means to understand this claim; taking Christ seriously means taking seriously his absolute claim on human decision.
Bonhoeffer was only 22 when he gave this lecture, and nine years away from the publication of his seminal book, Discipleship. But already one can detect the radical commitment to Jesus Christ that ultimately brought him to be executed by direct order of Adolf Hitler on April 9th, 1945. Three weeks later Hitler himself committed suicide to bring his evil regime to its catastrophic end.
Whenever I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer I feel I’m in the presence of a modern father of the church, a modern saint of the desert. He did not live and die in the desert of ancient Egypt, but he lived and died in the desert of the spiritual evil that overtook Germany. Whereas the ancient desert fathers and mothers went to the desert to escape the life of cities and empire, Bonhoeffer chose to stay in his country to confront the capitulation of church and people to an incomparably evil regime. But that came later. In 1928 he was only a young pastor with a doctorate in theology. He had a bright future ahead of him. His brilliant mind was already in evidence. But what was even more in evidence was his uncompromising commitment and understanding of who Jesus was and what Jesus demanded of anyone who would follow him.
Bonhoeffer, like the desert fathers and mothers, understood how radical the call of Jesus was, but like them he did not use the radical teachings of Jesus to preach an impossible form of Christianity. He, like the desert fathers and mothers, looked at the teachings of Jesus seriously and enacted them in his own life and in the small community of the Confessing Church that he helped create when the national church of Germany became the Führer-worshipping church.
In his seminal work of 1937, Discipleship (Nachfolge – previously published as The Cost of Discipleship), Bonhoeffer threw down the gauntlet and offered the words of Jesus in all their starkness as hardly anyone had dared to say for 1,900 years!
The cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
Make no mistake. This is not the Christianity of comfortable Europeans or Americans. This is the uncomfortable, unattractive Christianity of the ancient saints of the desert. It is not for everyone. In the Parable of the Vineyard Workers, Christ makes it abundantly clear that the radical ways is not for everyone. But what a glorious thing to follow in the steps of Jesus! Not for the rewards, but for the joy set before us as it was set before him! (Hebrews 12)
NOTE: I prepared this for my Substack, where I’ve been writing much about the desert fathers and mothers, but decided it would be too much for many of my readers there so soon after Orthodox Easter Sunday to be quoting Bonhoeffer’s radical words about the Cross. So I’m publishing it here instead.