Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Christian ethics

The first rule of Christian ethics, according to Bonhoeffer, is that there is no such thing as Christian ethics. The knowledge of good and evil is a result of the fall, and the return to God means abandoning all our knowledge of good and evil. Fortunately, there’s still enough to talk about for a whole book on Christian ethics, which Bonhoeffer called, imaginatively, Ethics. Unfortunately, Ethics was never finished. This is sad for two reasons: firstly because we’ll never know quite what Bonhoeffer wanted the book to be, and secondly because different editions arrange the sections in different orders, which is terrible confusing when you’re trying to do a bibliography. On the plus side, it does mean there’s lots of scope for arguments about how it ought to be arranged, which keeps theologians busy and out of trouble.

If knowledge of good and evil is a bad thing, then what are we aiming for instead? Bonhoeffer argues that if the Fall had never happened, human beings would never have known about good and evil because they would never have known anything except God. The knowledge of good and evil means that we start to see ourselves not in terms of our relationship to God, but in terms of our capacity for good and evil. We start to see ourselves as separate from God, as our own origin of good and evil, and start to think of ourselves as our own creators. Our likeness to God becomes a likeness we have stolen, not a likeness that God has given to us. Instead of trusting God to show us what sort of people we ought to be, we set ourselves up as our own judges.

Shame is the sign of this disconnection from God: it is our recognition that we are estranged from our origin. We become ashamed of our nakedness, and shame leads to covering and concealment. Conscience is the sign of our disunion with ourselves: it pretends to be the voice of God, but instead encourages us to set ourselves up as our own judges. Humans were never intended to have a conscience, to feel shame, to know the difference between good and evil: we were made, instead, to know only God, to love only God, and to see ourselves only as God sees us.


watchman146 said...

If I had to boil Bonhoeffer's Ethics down into a single phrase (never a wise thing to do), would it be this:

"The right thing to do is to do what God tells you to do."

That was what I got from it, anyway. God speaks to us in the moment, and he tells us his will. Our proximity to and communication with God are of more importance than an ethical system.

Gabriel Smy said...

Bonhoeffer, clearly a dude. He even breaks down the finished/unfinished dualism when it comes to his writing ...

Want to read some. Is he accessible? where should I start?

Marika said...

Even though he's German, he's actually surprisingly readable. Of the ones I've read, I remember Christology being pretty good, and it's so short even you might be able to finish it. The Cost of Discipleship is one of his more famous books, so that might also be a good place to start. Good title, too.

watchman146 said...

You know, I tried getting into Bonhoeffer a couple times and failed. It was not until I read a book about Bonhoeffer that he became accessible to me. Then his two most "accessible" works stood out - Cost of Discipleship and his Letters from Prison. Both are very powerful, but very readable.

Jarod said...

Thanks for the post on Bonhoeffer.

As you say in your post, human beings were not made to know anything except God. Which is what leads Bonhoeffer to say that the appropriate conduct for humans is doing God's Will (46 of Touchstone Edition). Of course people might tend to think that they can then do anything in the name of "God" but, I think, Bonhoeffer safeguards against this by emphasizing that one knows God's will by knowing Christ.

In connection with your last paragraph, not only is the union with God lost, but the union between other human beings as well. I think this is interesting with what he says in The Cost of Discipleship that Christ is the Mediator; we can only get "in touch" with our neighbors through Christ (98).

And I think those Germans sometimes get a bad reputation, thanks to Kant. But I think Luther, Bonhoeffer, Goethe, and Nietzsche show its not always the case.

The Predestined Blog said...

Kudos on a very interesting blog. As I have more conservative evangelical theological bent, I thought I would hate this site, but spending 20 min its pretty sweet.

I'm just curious if our "theologies" would make love or war?

Unknown said...

Great post and interesting blog!

I'm following you on twitter

Christian Critic

Anonymous said...

Just for the record, "Cost of Discipleship" has been renamed "Discipleship" in the new edition.

Anonymous said...

Bonhoeffer did not actually entitle his book "Ethics;" he had several other ideas for a name, but it was a post-mortem decision in which he was not involved.

Daniel Gracely said...

I never understood why the normally brilliant Bonheoffer supposed Adam and Eve had no knowledge of good and evil before the Fall. For surely they needed at least a rudimentary understanding of the difference between good and evil if they were to comprehend the command of God re: the forbidden fruit. So how is it that the first man and woman had a knowledge of good and evil, yet did NOT have a knowledge of good and evil?

The key here (Bonheoffer missed it) is the Hebrew word used for “knowledge,” in the phrase “Tree of the [i]Knowledge[i] of Good and Evil.” It’s similar to the usual word translated “knowledge,” but its lexical use shows an intensified of higher type of knowledge. In effect, the ‘Fall’ was less of a Fall than it was a Climb, i.e., into a realm of knowledge God never desired for man. This the first pair acquired by disobedience. And so Adam and Eve began with a kind of ‘textbook’ understanding of good and evil, before acquiring the more encompassing kind by sin. As theologian Thomas Whitelaw observed, about the kind of knowledge Adam and Eve first possessed. Such knowledge, remarked Whitelaw,

…is not so complete a knowledge of the inherent beauty of the one and essential turpitude of the other as is acquired by beings who pass through the experience of a fall, and that the only way in which a finite being can approximate to such a comprehensive knowledge of evil as the Deity possesses without personal contact—can see it as it lies everlastingly spread out before his infinite mind—is by going down into it and learning what it is through personal experience…,