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.
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?
September 14, 2010 § 2 Comments
School has begun. I’m currently on the threshold of completing my first week of classes. I have more books to read than I am likely to complete, yet I can’t stop devoting time to secondary theological pursuits. Life is good.
Most of what has been occupying the time I ought to be spending on required readings is my thesis, which I begin researching this fall. I had been thinking about what I might write about since I started seminary, so I wasn’t strapped for ideas. Actually, the problem came in choosing which topic to investigate. After some consideration, and a very helpful discussion with my wife (under the shadow of whose wonderful thesis I must always live), I have come to something of a decision.
Little surprise, I’m planning to write on Bonhoeffer (okay, I admit it, all my ideas were on Bonhoeffer). Specifically, I plan to investigate “Christian ethics as genuine human existence.” This idea originally started with the impulse to investigate what it means to be human in the light of the doctrine of the Trinity – i.e., what does it mean that human beings are created in the image of a triune God? The most basic theological conclusion that one reaches from this question is simply that to be human is to be in community. From here, it is very easy to be led into a study of the church, how this particular community works to restore broken humanity. This idea alone could easily fill the pages of a master’s thesis, but my encounters with Bonhoeffer led me in a slightly different direction.
His first doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum Communio (written at the startlingly, depressingly, Joel-what-are-you-doing-with-your-life-ly young age of 21), addresses the questions of person, primal state (unfallen humanity), sin, and revelation in reference to sociality. Essentially, Bonhoeffer critiques individualist accounts of theological anthropology (what it means to be human), and proposes that these questions can only be answered in terms of human community, broken and restored. This results in an extensive treatment of the church (the study is divided into five chapters, but the last, which is devoted to ecclesiology, constitutes at least half of the book). But all of this occurs within the context of Bonhoeffer’s attempt to work out, from a sociological point of view, who we are, what we have become, and how Christ has made us new.
Later in his life, Bonhoeffer treated the question of Christian ethics as the means by which God makes and keeps human life truly human (in his Ethics). It is clear that his communal conception of “person” had not left him, since his Ethics continually directs his readers to the importance of concrete love for the concrete neighbour. Yet it is clear that he takes this concept further in Ethics than he does in Sanctorum Communio; or perhaps he simply takes it in a different direction, the former leading into the question of Christian behaviour, the latter into the question of Chrisitian community.
So, in my thesis I plan to investigate Bonhoeffer’s ethics via his “Christian concept of person” through a study of Ethics and Sanctorum Communio. I also would like to see if/how his theological agenda aligns with Scripture through an exegetical study of Romans 5, which I believe is the passage of Scripture that, as a whole, is most closely related to the topic at hand. When all is said and done, I hope to make some positive statements about the foundation and practice of Christian life as the genuinely “human” life.
I may find that my research takes me in yet a different direction, but this is my starting point. Honestly, I think my thesis will be a constant “temptation” away from my regular schoolwork. At least I finally have something scholastic to draw my attention away from school.
Anyways, don’t be surprised if the majority of my posts in the next while end up being related to this topic.