January 30, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Here is the second précis of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, as part of an ongoing project of mine. I had it ready to post on Friday, but I lost internet access for the weekend. I hope to post these regularly on Fridays, as my designated thesis day.
In an age when ethical problems have become ever more concrete and polarized [that is, Nazi Germany], ethical theories seem most superfluous. All the old approaches have failed: reason, fanaticism, conscience, duty, freedom, and private virtuousness are either blind to evil, ineffective against it, or forced to join its ranks. We know and experience ethical reality not by an ethical system but by standing in the reality of God in simplicity and wisdom. The simple person knows only God’s truth and thus has the freedom of an undivided heart; the wise person sees the reality of the world for what it is and thus has the knowledge of truth. A person is simultaneously simple and wise who looks with an undivided gaze at both God and the world in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Christian ethic can proceed only from the reconciliation of the world with God in the human Jesus Christ. In Christ, God’s love has met and overcome reality, not abstractly but by a real human life really lived. Becoming a real human being, God has once and for all said Yes to humanity, and has willed that we too become real human beings. The love of our fellow human beings must be grounded in God’s becoming human, and when we despise humanity we despise what God has loved. Indeed, Jesus is not a human being but the human being, and so what has happened to him has happened to us. Christ is the judged human being, and in him all humanity is judged. Yet the crucified is also the risen—God has raised to new life the true human in whom is raised the new humanity. The human being, accepted, judged, and awakened to new life by God—this is Jesus Christ, this is the whole of humanity in Christ, this is us. The form of Jesus Christ alone reconciles the world with God. From this form proceeds all the formation of a world reconciled with God.
Ethics as formation is thus concerned with the one form that has overcome the world—the form of Christ, God become human, crucified and risen. The process of formation is not about trying to become like Jesus or follow his teachings, but about Christ himself transforming us into his form. Being human means being conformed to the one who became human. God changes God’s form into human form so human beings can become human before God. Formation means in the first place Jesus Christ taking form in the church. The church is the human being who has become human. Yet the church is not a “model society” but the form of Christ from which the whole world must be addressed. Formation to the form of Christ includes two things: (1) that the form of Christ remains the same—not in the abstract, but concretely as the one Christ uniquely is as the crucified and risen reconciler; (2) and that the form of the real human being is preserved in Christ’s unique form, that the real human being receives the form of Christ. Ethics as formation is possible only on the basis of Christ’s form present in Christ’s church. The church is where Jesus Christ is taking form among us here and now and where it is proclaimed.
January 21, 2011 § 9 Comments
I realize that it’s been over a month since my last post, and since I’m sure you eagerly visit this blog several times a day hoping for an update, I apologize for your frequent disappointment. What I’ve decided to do over the next while will double as thesis research and blog content. I’m re-reading through Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and writing précis on each manuscript. My hope is that this will help focus my attention on potential issues, major themes, key scriptures, and, most relevantly for my current project, how Bonhoeffer undergirds his ethics with theological anthropology. But I also thought that for those of you who have never had the chance (or energy) to read through this book, I could post my summaries for your reading pleasure. Please ask questions or make observations if you have any. You probably see things I don’t and your input will be very helpful to my research.
Note that a précis makes no attempt to be original, and I have lifted many lines directly out of the text. The idea is simply to reproduce the author’s argument in a condensed form. This also means that anything profound, questionable, or just plain awesome in what follows is Bonhoeffer, not me.
I: Christ, Reality, and Good
Ethics [DBWE 6]: 47-75
The question of being or doing good, though seemingly the obvious starting-point for Christian ethics, must be immediately abandoned as inappropriate to the topic. The only valid starting-point is the will of God. When being or doing good is the telos of ethical reflection, a decision has already been made to treat either the self or the world as ultimate reality, necessarily excluding the reality of God. The ethical question must always come down to this: With what reality will we reckon in our life? With the reality of God’s revelatory word or with the so-called realities of life? Because in Christ the reality of God has entered the reality of the world, the question of good can only find its answer in Christ. Seeking the good is about participating in the reality of Christ, for good is the real that has its reality only in God. Any attempt to separate ethics into nature and behaviour, the ‘ought’ and the ‘is’, intention and consequences, results in abstraction. Humans are indivisible wholes, and to participate in the indivisible whole of God’s reality is the meaning of the Christian question about the good.
In Christ, we stand at once in the reality of God and in the reality of the world. The Christian ethic is concerned with how these realities become real in our world today. The doctrine of the two realms, which states that the divine and the worldly are two distinct and unreconcilable realities, must at once be abandoned. There are not two realities but one, the reality of Christ, in which the reality of God and the reality of the world are united. Every static distinction between two realms leads to eternal conflict, but one who stands in the one reality of Christ embraces reality as a whole. Therefore, the church cannot think of itself as the locus of God’s acceptance outside the world; rather it must faithfully call the world into the community of the body of Christ to which the world in truth already belongs.
Like all of creation, the world has been created through Christ and toward Christ and has its existence only in Christ. The world stands in relationship to Christ whether it knows it or not. This relation of the world to Christ becomes concrete in the divine mandates: work, marriage (family), government, and church. These exist as commanded by God; there can be no retreat from the “worldly” into the “spiritual” without retreating from this concrete form of human life given by God. The divine mandates place us before the one reality of Christ, in whom God and world were united. The will of God is the realization of the Christ-reality among us and in our world, and it has already been fulfilled by God. Therefore God’s will is not hidden and incomplete, but disclosed and accomplished. The ethical question arises from being confronted with this revealed Christ-reality in the world today.
October 28, 2010 § 7 Comments
In the spare moments between course work, normal life, and our new blogging project, I have been attempting to narrow in on my thesis topic a bit more. I’ve found it difficult for two reasons: (1) it seems to be dually focused on Christian ethics and theological anthropology; and (2) it seems to be dually focused on a specific doctrine (ethics) and a specific thinker (Bonhoeffer). I have found that converting this into a coherent thesis topic is not as straightforward as I thought it would be. If you’re interested, I offer some of the reflections that have been rolling around in my mind lately, what my personal starting point for this thesis is. Of course, a personal starting point doesn’t always make a good scholarly starting point, so I’d love to hear what you think in terms of how it might be focused. I’m always open to the wisdom of my peers.
Christian ethics is often pursued as the attempt to conform to ‘the Good’ and reject ‘the Evil’, but in fact this is precisely the dichotomy that makes ethical reflection non-Christian. For an ethic to be truly Christian, it must be normed not by the knowledge of good and evil but by Christ. It must be defined not by our reach toward the gods of right and wrong but by God’s reach into our very lives. It must be governed not by principles but by a person. It must refer not to a dead letter but to the living Word. Christian ethics, therefore, must begin at the incarnation and the resurrection.
The logic of the incarnation is twofold. First, it states that Jesus Christ was really God made human. What God was, the Word was; whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father also. Second, it states that Jesus Christ was really God made human. What we see in the face of Jesus is not only God but ourselves. Not only was he truly God but he was truly human. In Christ, God and humanity are truthfully revealed. The extent to which we differ from Christ has not to do with his divinity but with his humanity––becoming like Christ means becoming human. If we are to equate “being like Jesus” with ethical perfection, we must understand that this process is less about being conformed to his deeds and more about being formed to his person. WWJD must be replaced with WWJB––who have we, in Jesus, become? If our deeds imitate those of Christ, it is because we now participate in his new humanity.
Christian ethics must also begin at the resurrection. The resurrection says that we serve a living and active saviour, a God who has come into our lives and continues to work in and among us. Participation in the new humanity means participating in what Jesus is doing today. WWJD must be replaced with WIJD––what is Jesus doing? It is not so much about imitating what we think Jesus would have done in a given situation; it is about discerning what Jesus is actually doing in this situation. The action of a Christian is an expression of their new being in Christ and is normed by the contemporary ministry of Christ.
Obeying God’s command should thus be viewed as both an expression of who we are and a participation in God’s activity. When we consider these two concepts together––and they certainly should not be divorced––we assert that Christian ethics is human participation in God’s activity through the new humanity of Christ. Through Christ, we participate in what God is doing in the world today. Yet God’s activity inheres in his being, and we cannot truly be caught up in the action of God without also being caught up in the person of God. Surely such a thing would be unthinkable apart from the hypostatic union! Put more succinctly, the Christian life is life in the humanity of Christ.
The essence of sin is bondage, the bondage to a subhuman way of being. The essence of God’s command is freedom, the freedom to live as human beings before God. The question driving my thesis, the question which I believe to be the starting point for all Christian ethical reflection, is this: How does our new humanity in Christ find concrete expression in our lives?
August 12, 2010 § Leave a Comment
I was fortunate enough to learn about Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Christopher Holmes, who was, until recently, teaching systematic theology at my seminary. So, when I browsed through the table of contents in the latest International Journal of Systematic Theology and found an article called “‘The Indivisible Whole of God’s Reality’: On the Agency of Jesus in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics,” by none other than Dr. Holmes himself, you might say I was eager to read it.
The article illustrates, as I expected, a very fair and thorough reading of Bonhoeffer (though I might be biased, since Holmes himself taught me how to understand Bonhoeffer). I offer you one quotation on the subject of conscience, where Holmes examines the difference Bonhoeffer ascribes to inward-oriented ethics and outward-oriented ethics:
Bonhoeffer’s critique of accepted accounts of conscience in both Ethics and Discipleship is devastating, in so far as conscience is often understood by them to be yet another way in which one evades the commandment of God. By wrestling with the question of ‘What am I to do?’ via conscience, one has effectively removed oneself from what is binding – the commandment of God – in order to follow what is non-binding: one’s own reflections as to how the commandment can be best interpreted and applied such that the equilibrium of one’s conscience be not disturbed. To depend, then, on the power of one’s own conscience in order to know what is to be done in a given situation is to render oneself autonomous in relation to God and to God’s reality, and thereby to embrace the most debilitating and dehumanizing course(s) of action possible.
(Christopher Holmes, “‘The Indivisible Whole of God’s Reality’: On the Agency of Jesus in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12/3 [July, 2010]: 294)
This understanding of conscience is in line with other things Bonhoeffer says in his Ethics about becoming your own self-judge. When ethics are reduced to static principles, it becomes possible and inevitable that people sever themselves from the judgment of God and allow themselves to fall under their own judgment. Incidentally, this leads to a fascinating theological interpretation of Genesis 3, where the knowledge of good and evil is understood in this light of self-judgment and autonomy from God. Bonhoeffer uses the Pharisees as a paradigmatic example of this tendency: they knew good and evil, and as such they had become their own judges and the judges of everyone else. Jesus, by contrast, lived a life under the guidance of his Father’s will, which is to say, he lived a life of obedience.
It is this obedience of Christ – real and concrete obedience directed outward – under which we live. Our disobedience – and even our obedience – is assumed and taken up by Christ himself, in whom the reality of God and the reality of this world are fully united. The fickle voice of conscience has no volume beside the final Word of God, in whom we live and move and have our being.
February 24, 2010 § Leave a Comment
My first encounter with Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in his Ethics. I had heard his name tossed around before, usually in conjunction with one of his more popular works, The Cost of Discipleship or Life Together. I had unconsciously classified him in the “Christian Living” section of my mental library and promptly forgotten about him. Ethics was one of the assigned texts for my Christian Ethics class, which made me happy, because I happened to own a copy already, a small paperback edition that I had found at a used bookstore two years earlier. I hadn’t even cracked the cover, so I had no idea what sort of book it was, nor even what it was about (ethics, I assumed). My professor, however, was adamant that we purchase the new critical edition, hardcover, which was a decidedly more imposing (and costly) volume, well over double the size, containing at least as much text in the introduction, afterward, appendices and editorial notes as in the body of the book. I was beginning to think that Bonhoeffer was a more vigorous theologian than I had previously thought.
But, the real test was, of course, not the bulk of the volume, but the profundity of its words. I wondered how Bonhoeffer might tackle the issue of Christian ethics. Having read very little in this field, I really had no idea what to expect. Going on how I had heard ethics taught, I imagined that he might pose several ethical dilemmas and come up with the “Christian answer”, doubtless bolstering his conclusions with Bible verses. I couldn’t have been further off the mark. The first manuscript in Ethics, “Christ, Reality, and Good,” opened this way:
Those who wish even to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand – from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: “How can I be good?” and “How can I do something good?” Instead they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: what is the will of God? This demand is radical precisely because it presupposes a decision about ultimate reality, that is, a decision of faith. When the ethical problem presents itself essentially as the question of my own being good and doing good, the decision has already been made that the self and the world are the ultimate realities. All ethical reflection then has the goal that I be good, and that the world – by my action – becomes good. If it turns out, however, that these realities, myself and the world, are themselves embedded in a wholly other ultimate reality, namely, the reality of God the Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer, then the ethical problem takes on a whole new aspect. Of ultimate importance, then, is not that I become good, or that the condition of the world be improved by my efforts, but that the reality of God show itself everywhere to be the ultimate reality (Ethics, 47-48).
It was one of the rare moments when I need to put a book down and reflect. I read it to my wife. She reacted similarly. I spent the next few hours reading more, trying to wrap my mind around Bonhoeffer’s thought. Perhaps an experienced reader of theological texts would have been able to absorb his argument faster, but it took me a full semester of reading, reflection, and discussion before I felt I understood his basic theses and the main thrust of his thought. It is a complex and demanding book, and it cannot be easily summarized (I may post an attempt to do so one day, if only for my own benefit).
Suffice it for now to say that it affected me enough that I decided to write my master’s thesis on Bonhoeffer. My favorite thing about his theology is that it is both fully Christocentric and profoundly ecclesial, two traits which I think any good theologian ought to possess. He is always directing us to Christ and inviting us into the fellowship of the church, and as such I believe he is faithful to the biblical witness. This can be seen in his thought even from his earliest years. Since my wife is a Lutheran, I also like that Bonhoeffer is a Lutheran theologian. He helps me understand both the Bible and my wife better
Anyways, I’m not exactly sure why I felt compelled to write this post, but I was nonetheless. Really, anything that functions as an excuse to page through his books is rarely a waste of time, nor is anything that might increase his readership.
December 14, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Christmas is the time of year when Christians celebrate the incarnation, God becoming human. In this season of Advent, during which we anticipate this great event, I thought it would be timely to reflect on the significance of the incarnation, particularly as it relates to Christian ethics. We celebrate Christ’s becoming human every year at Christmas, but how often is the good news of Christmas nothing more than an anticipation of Easter? One of my professors is currently writing a book about the difference Christ’s resurrection makes for Christian ethics. What difference, I wonder, does the incarnation make? Is the simple fact that God became human significant for how Christians live their lives?
It is commonly thought that God became human so that humans might become like God. We seek our own deification, to rise above our humanity to divinity, a desire Nietzche reflected in his statements about the Übermench, the Superman. But what if that is not what God intends? What if God really considered the creation of humankind as something “very good” (Gn 1:31)?
The account of the creation and fall of humankind in Genesis gives no indication that what God intends for humankind is divinity. In fact it was in reaching for something higher, seeking to become like God, that our first parents fell (Gn 3:5). Their fall was not a fall from divinity but from humanity, the true humanity for which God had created them. They were cursed not to a human life as opposed to a divine one, but to a sub-human life as opposed to a human one.
The question of what it means to be human is complex, and I will leave the question for another post, but suffice it to say that to be human is to be in community, both with others and with God. Sin corrupts our humanity precisely because it disrupts community. Sin puts us at odds with God and our neighbour. In this light, it is not surprising that Jesus called love of God and love of neighbour the greatest commandments, upon which all the law and prophets hung (Mt 22:37-40). The autonomous human divorced from community cannot bear the image of the God who is love (1 Jn 4:8); the individual cannot bear the image of the triune God who is intrinsically communal. Humans who cannot bear God’s image have fallen from their origin, which is to say they have become less than human.
This is why the incarnation is so important. Christ became human – indeed, he became the human, the human who lived a perfect life, which is to say he lived a fully human life, as God intended from the beginning. Paul describes Jesus Christ as the second Adam (Rom 5:12-21), the one who frees humanity from the sin that Adam brought into the world. Being conformed to the image of Christ is not to become God, but to become human.
“Human beings become human because God became human. But human beings do not become God. They could not and do not accomplish a change in form; God changes God’s form into human form in order that human beings can become, not God, but human before God” (Ethics, 96). Christian ethics is not about an adherence to a set of principles. (It doesn’t much matter whether or not these principles are derived from Scripture – various people with conflicting principles equally claim scriptural support.) The starting point for Christian ethics is not a set of principles but a person, namely, Christ. In Christ, we can become real human beings before God – not ethicists obsessed with the knowledge of what is good and what is evil, not ideologues whose ideologies trump their neighbours, not adherents to a particular belief system, but human beings. After all, “God did not become an idea, a principle, a program, a universally valid belief, or a law; God became human” (Ethics, 99).
As we celebrate our God becoming human, may we, through Christ, become human too.