Bonhoeffer and the structure of belonging

Dustin Benac explores Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s question that haunts us all: where do I belong?

Photo by Alain Pham on Unsplash

The life of discipleship has a consistent through line: belonging. Community is marked by a structure of belonging. The holy imagination that invites us to envision and pursue life together is nurtured by belonging. And a central claim of the gospel message is that in Christ God invites us to belong not to ourselves, but to others.

Writing from a prison cell in 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer scratched words that name our individual and collective longing for belonging. Bonhoeffer’s words from prison and his broader body of work have become a staple in the spiritual diet for individuals ranging from pastors, to seminarians, to lay leaders. In a passage found in volume eight of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series, Bonhoeffer names the question that haunts all of us, while inviting each of us to acknowledge the fundamental reality that grounds creaturely and Christian existence: where do I belong?

I first encountered these words as a 19-year-old serving in my first paid ministry position, coordinating volunteers at a local nonprofit. Bonhoeffer’s verses named the uncertainty I felt, the longings I carried within me and the crucible of crisis I had recently faced.

Belonging is the condition of possibility for the life of faith to take material form.

I had come home from college that summer following the tragic death of a friend. We were both involved in a car accident, yet only I remained. The trauma was past. The tragedy of loss lingered. The crisis of belonging wore on. Although my body was largely spared, my soul now resonated with the urgency in Bonhoeffer’s life and work.

I, too, longed to belong.

What is belonging?

Belonging is more often felt before it can be described. Belonging is the air we breathe, as the Belonging Project explains in “An Invitation to Belonging.” We cannot exist without belonging, we cannot imagine a future apart from spaces to belong, and we cannot understand ourselves as members of a broader holy communion without a sense of belonging.

Belonging is now a topic of interdisciplinary investigation, with research spanning social sciences, psychiatry and the humanities. For example, researchers at Stanford Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences have assembled a body of empirical research that demonstrates the relationships among belonging, human resilience and collective well-being. Jeffrey Cohen’s 2022 book Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides describes the “belonging uncertainty” so many of us face, especially amid the vicious cycles of polarization. And Yale theologian Willie James Jennings has described how belonging is bound up with our desires, drawing us out into the world and inviting us to partner with others in the holy work of formation.

Willie James Jennings has described how belonging is bound up with our desires, drawing us out into the world and inviting us to partner with others in the holy work of formation.

For communities of faith and their leaders, these interdisciplinary perspectives confirm what we intuitively know: belonging is essential to the life of faith.

Yet the question of belonging is a “lonely question,” to borrow Bonhoeffer’s phrase in the final lines of his poem. When polarization roars and the world often feels turned upside down, we do not always know how to cultivate the sense of belonging our communities so desperately need.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, we do not always feel like we belong, not even in the places we are called to serve and among the people and institutions we love. In my work as the director and cofounder for the Program for the Future Church at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary, I’ve found that the crisis of belonging cuts across existing social divisions and hierarchies. Ironically, those who hold the greatest formal authority in a congregation or organization often have the most difficulty finding a place to belong.

Belonging is the question of our generation, and so many of our communities are silently suffocating because they lack the belonging they need to survive, much less flourish.

We need to cultivate new structures of belonging.

The study of structure illuminates how complex challenges cross local practice, shared values and our deepest desires for belief and belonging. Thinking in this way invites attention to the conditions that enable individual and collective transformation, including the institutional conditions for life abundant and those that diminish individuals’ ability to thrive. Thinking in terms of structure acknowledges the transformative capacity of these relationships. It also describes how organizations –especially those endowed with sacred stewardship – are “living realities” built on individuals’ affections, joys and desires for belonging, as Jennings observes in his 2020 book After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging.

In its simplest form, thinking in terms of structure is like picking up the pieces of our lives and communities and creating space where new imagination, birthed out of a sense of belonging, can form and flourish.

Bonhoeffer’s work and words provide a template that enables us to respond to the question of our generation by building the structures of belonging. These structures require (1) reimagining community as belonging, (2) cultivating space marked by borders and boundaries and (3) nurturing new organizational forms.

Community as belonging

Bonhoeffer is often read as a theologian of and for Christian community, but I think it is better to read him as offering a practical theology of belonging. The question of belonging runs across the entirety of his life and work, from his earliest academic writings (e.g., his 1930 Sanctorum Communio), to his work in his 1939 book Life Together, to his incomplete Ethics, to his private ruminations and pastoral reflections that were later published as Letters and Papers from Prison. His globe-trotting biography moves across continents and contexts — including Germany, Italy, Libya, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland and the United States — with belonging as a lingering subtext.

Within his practical theology of belonging, Bonhoeffer’s life and work can be read as chasing two unrelenting themes: What are the conditions that enable Christians to belong to one another? And where do I belong?

Belonging distinguishes the life together that Bonhoeffer describes and cultivates. Indeed, belonging provides the nearest contemporary category for Bonhoeffer’s description of the priority of connections and relationships for those who participate in Christ. The connection Bonhoeffer envisions emerges in and through Christ, recasting belonging for those who gather in and through the community God calls into being.

When belonging becomes the plumb line for community, it begins to alter the way we organize life together.

Borders and boundaries

Belonging is essential for the way people of faith gather, but thinking in terms of structure demands something more than a shared value. Belonging creates space for people to form and flourish only when it is buttressed by corresponding organization structures: shared practices, a rule of life, a shared moral order, a sense of how to mend fractured relationships, which inevitably come.

Bonhoeffer’s work suggests the importance of boundaries and borders for the structure of belonging we need. Boundaries are essential for us to build and maintain trust, cohesion and imagination. Boundaries form through clear values, shared practices and forms of collective life; they should be honored and cherished, because boundaries are essential for people to belong. Borders play a different role. Borders are identifiable social divisions – such as between organizations, countries and groups – that can and often must be crossed. Borders allow people and communities to make meaningful divisions and distinctions, but they are not the same form of structure.

If belonging means to form and flourish, we need both, and we need to be able to tell the difference.

If belonging means to form and flourish, we need both, and we need to be able to tell the difference. We need identifiable organizations and other forms of social division, and we also need a clear understanding about what is required to maintain trust, mutuality and accountability within the organizations we serve.

If you flip through Life Together – which I’m reading with a group now – you’ll note several aspects of the boundaries that guide Bonhoeffer’s work. Scripture provides an internal boundary, although the interpretation is not always self-evident. He describes practices, such as singing, confession, study and eating together, that organize a life together marked by belonging — these are boundaries. And those who gather are encouraged to cultivate the ability to be alone and apart. Attention to these and other boundaries is essential as we work to cultivate belonging.

Attention to … boundaries is essential as we work to cultivate belonging.

Yet Bonhoeffer’s life and work also honor, cross and sometimes transgress the borders that divide communities. As a border crosser and boundary spanner, Bonhoeffer moved through the world always cognizant of existing borders, especially between country, class and church, and he worked to discern when and how to move across borders that became increasingly impermeable. And when he chose to transgress borders – ultimately leading to the cell where he penned the verses at the start of this article – he did so on behalf of others. If we, as Christians, ultimately belong in Christ and to others, transgression is an act of being for one another.

New organizational forms of belonging

Responding to the question of this generation – where do I belong? – requires renewing existing organizations and cultivating new organizational forms. Existing organizations are essential. We need strong congregations, vibrant theological schools, a robust nonprofit sector, strategic philanthropy and a flourishing arts and creative sector. These existing organizations are the primary environment to cultivate the belonging, imagination and collaborative connection that can respond to the deepest longings of people of faith.

We also need to invest in, resource and cultivate new organizational forms.

New organizational forms are emerging in exciting ways across contexts and communities. Invested Faith is an organization developing new models that can resource the next generation of philanthropists, faith leaders and creatives. The Pioneering Practice initiative from the Church Mission Society is supporting a movement of leaders across the United Kingdom who are innovating on the edge of existing institutions. The Parish Collective is regrounding the life of faith in local neighborhoods. Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School is resourcing a national network of leaders and contextually rooted innovators. And offices of church engagement provide a model for rebuilding connections between congregations and educational institutions. These and related organizations are caring for existing organizations and cultivating new organizational forms.

Imagining a future we may not inherit

The future of the church requires nourishing these existing initiatives and cultivating new forms.

And this is where Bonhoeffer stops short. He goes “to the mountaintop,” as Martin Luther King Jr. famously shared in 1968, but he does not cross over. Life Together and the Finkenwalde community he directed in Germany both cultivate an imagination for new structures of belonging. But the work is fragile and remains unfinished. Bonhoeffer’s writings in Ethics, a book he left incomplete at his death, include an extended section on “the structure of responsible life.” And the “church struggle” that surrounded his life and work continues.

Like Bonhoeffer, to nourish and cultivate new organizational forms, we must imagine a future we may not inherit. This imagining requires “a struggled commitment to the future of our grandchildren,” as the poet Rubem Alves notes in his work titled Tomorrow’s Child. We imagine and build structures of belonging for our children and our grandchildren.

This horizon gives hope-infused urgency to our individual and collective longing for belonging. The future does not belong to us, and we are merely stewards of the time God entrusts to us. Even though we long to belong, the structure of belonging that orders discipleship crosses time and history. Ultimately, our children and grandchildren will inherit our work and participate in the belonging God offers to all of us. And their work will continue ours, bearing witness to the hope of belonging in a crisis-weary world.

It is time to build. Time to gather. Time to cultivate the new forms that offer structures of belonging. For the sake of those we serve and for the sake of our children, let us do this work, and may we do it together.