Dietrich Bonhoeffer Ethics

Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. . . . The knowledge of good and evil shows that [humanity] is no longer at one with [it] origin. . . .

The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be. . . . It is no longer a matter of a man’s own knowledge of goo and evil, but only of the living will of God; our knowledge of God’s will is not something over which we ourselves dispose, but it depends solely upon the grace of God, and this grace is and requires to be new every morning. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp.17, 38


This book is not the Ethics which Dietrich Bonhoeffer intended to have published. – Eberhard Bethge, “Editor’s Preface,” p.7


Among a handful of texts that are now a deep part of how I view the world – the opening pages of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics . . . – Me, “Richard Rorty ‘Texts and Lumps’, No One Special, October 11, 2016

Albrecht Durer's engraving, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

Albrecht Durer’s engraving, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

Once many years ago I tried to explain Bonhoeffer’s basis for his Christian ethical reflection to someone. Needless to say, even quoting the author didn’t do much good. If one is predisposed to believe that the Christian life entails moral absolutes that are timeless, true always and forever across time and space and language and culture, then hearing that a well-known if little studied Christian theologian calls bunk on that just won’t sound right. All the same, the opening pages in Bonhoeffer’s collected writings on Christian ethics were little less than a bomb going off for me.

I remember the day I read this. It was a Saturday afternoon, mid-September, 1991. I was listening to . . . something . . . on the radio. The music was little more than background noise. I was taking a seminar on Bonhoeffer’s writings, and first up on the agenda was Ethics. A strange choice considering that of all his major works published after his death, it is precisely this volume that would have given the living Bonhoeffer fits. Assembled from bits and pieces of writings scattered across the years 1939 to Bonhoeffer’s execution in 1945, some of which his literary executor and editor admitted were written on scattered pieces of paper, some just a single sentence, the result can best be described as a mishmash of traditional Lutheran ethical reflection combined with truly mind-blowing insights.

When I read that first chapter, I remember thinking, “Oh my God! Did I just read what I thought I read?” I went back and read that chapter again. Yup. I did indeed read exactly what I thought I’d read the first time.

Words like “morality” get tossed around both by philosophers and non-philosophers as if everyone knew precisely what we’re talking about. Bonhoeffer gets to the heart of the problem with so much ethical and moral thought by insisting that, rather than concern itself with “good” and “evil”, proper Christian ethical reflection concerns itself with the will of God, sought and lived anew each day. Rather than yet again redefine a concept that had become (to use Rorty’s phrase) shopworn, Bonhoeffer cleared the boards completely.

I felt myself at a bit of an impasse regarding matters related to what it meant to live as a Christian; the relevance of personal moral uprightness to the call to live faithfully; the demand for a social ethic that replaced personal moralizing with a kind of political moralizing; these things and more were pushing me to wonder whether or not I could, in good conscience, even call myself a Christian. Then along comes Bonhoeffer. The Gordian Knot into which my brain had been turned was not only cut; the sword that dangled from it pierced me all the way through. It is impossible to describe every thought and feeling I had that warmish September afternoon 25 years ago. I can say with certainty that I felt an enormous, “YES!” ringing through the world, as if simultaneously confirming my questions were the right questions and that this, this presentation right here, offered a solution consonant with Christian Scripture and Christian doctrine that, while perhaps not fully realized by the author, was among the more revolutionary statements Christian theology produced in the first half of the 20th century.

“Does this mean you don’t believe in right and wrong?” That was the question I was asked a decade ago when I tried to explain all this. The answer to that question is simple: Any four-year-old understands the concepts of right and wrong. The belief for one moment that serious, faithful reflection on Christian living in our contemporary milieu should explain something clear enough to toddlers is ridiculous on its face. “Believing” in right and wrong is neither here nor there. As, too, is the distinction between good and evil. I remember well in the time after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington some on the right insisting that “liberals” were unwilling to call an evil act evil, or that the person who performed an evil act, in Pres. Bush’s words, an “evil doer”. Again, what relevance does such labeling have for serious reflection upon faithful living?

I think the best example of why I find the whole “Call it evil!” business is the following, in which I quote at length a piece no longer available on the web:

Every once in a while, I am sorry to say, some sick bastard sets fire to a kitten. This is something that happens. Like all crimes, it shouldn’t happen, but it does. And like most crimes, it makes the paper. The effects of this appalling cruelty are not far-reaching, but the incidents are reported in the papers because the cruelty is so flagrant and acute that it seems newsworthy.

The response to such reports is horror and indignation, which is both natural and appropriate. But the expression of that horror and indignation also produces something strange.

A few years ago there was a particularly horrifying kitten-burning incident involving a barbecue grill and, astonishingly, a video camera. That sordid episode took place far from the place where I work, yet the paper’s editorial board nonetheless felt compelled to editorialize on the subject. They were, happily, against it. Unambiguously so. It’s one of the very few instances I recall when that timidly Broderian bunch took an unambiguous stance without their habitual on-the-other-hand qualifications.

I agreed with that stance, of course. Who doesn’t? But despite agreeing with the side they took, I couldn’t help but be amused by the editorial’s inordinately proud pose of courageous truth-telling. The lowest common denominator of minimal morality was being held up as though it were a prophetic example of speaking truth to power.

That same posturing resurfaced in a big way earlier this year when the kitten-burners struck again, much closer to home. A group of disturbed and disturbing children doused a kitten with lighter fluid and set it on fire just a few miles from the paper’s offices.

The paper covered the story, of course, and our readers ate it up.

People loved that story. It became one of the most-read and most-e-mailed stories on our Web site. Online readers left dozens of comments and we got letters to the editor on the subject for months afterward.

Those letters and comments were uniformly and universally opposed to kitten-burning. Opinon on that question was unanimous and vehement.

But here was the weird part: Most of the commenters and letter-writers didn’t seem to notice that they were expressing a unanimous and noncontroversial sentiment. Their comments and letters were contentious and sort of aggressively defensive. Or maybe defensively aggressive. They were angry, and that anger didn’t seem to be directed only at the kitten-burners, but also at some larger group of others whom they imagined must condone this sort of thing.

If you jumped into the comments thread and started reading at any random point in the middle, you’d get the impression that the comments immediately preceding must have offered a vigorous defense of kitten-burning. No such comments offering any such defense existed, and yet reader after reader seemed to be responding to or anticipating this phantom kitten-burning advocacy group.

One came away from that comment thread with the unsurprising but reassuring sense that the good people reading the paper’s Web site did not approve of burning kittens alive. Kitten-burning, they all insisted, was just plain wrong.

But one also came away from reading that thread with the sense that people seemed to think this ultra-minimal moral stance made them exceptional and exceptionally righteous. Like the earlier editorial writers, they seemed to think they were exhibiting courage by taking a bold position on a matter of great controversy. Whatever comfort might be gleaned from the reaffirmation that most people were right about this non-issue issue was overshadowed by the discomfiting realization that so many people also seemed to want or need most others to be wrong. – “”Moral Indignation,” May 8, 2010

Whether it’s kitten-burning, or demanding liberals call evil acts “evil” or somehow be complicit in them, for some reason the proof of a proper moral outlook can only ever be that everyone speak out against, well, kitten burning and terrorism. As if somehow that makes on a moral person.

Denying to the Christian life any concern with good and evil certainly does not mean either being insouciant about them or, worse, condoning immoral acts. In just the same way, Christian ethical reflection does not exclude particular matters from consideration, including the old standbys of smoking, drinking, and sex on the one hand, or how best to participate in the social and political life of one’s community, whether that be local, national, or international. Rather, Bonhoeffer’s claim here directs the believer’s attention toward God and Divine Will. There aren’t any eternal moral laws, either revealed or accessible to reason. There is no once-for-all-time declaration from the Almighty regarding “what ought we to do”, whether in our personal or social conduct. All there is, for those whose faith declares the crucified, dead, and risen Jesus Christ as Lord, is a reliance upon Divine grace. This grace is, as Bonhoeffer notes, new each day. So, too, is the answer to the question, “What ought we to do?” Asking questions about good and bad or right and wrong, demanding to know the immutable moral will of God isn’t “wrong” in some absolute sense. They’re just the wrong questions to ask, the wrong matters with which to be concerned should one be seeking an authentic Christian life.

This is one reason why I find so much of our current moral discourse, whether it’s political or within the churches, so appalling. Rather than seeking in prayer what it is we are called to do, we pronounce eternal judgment upon those with whom we happen to disagree (regardless of which “side” one finds oneself taking), ignorant of how such actions are antithetical to real Christian ethical reflection. Despite Bonhoeffer’s status as a contemporary martyr, so little is known about his thought even among those who praise his courage in the face of Nazi tyranny that bringing this particular bit of his thought to light might well cause far more problems than it solves.

I read this at the same time I’d been reading Rorty. What I saw in Bonhoeffer, this emphasis upon our limited, contingent existence; a refusal to seek universal answers to particular questions; an opening to particular possibilities rather than general demands and laws; all this I understood was also part of Rorty’s ethical and political and antiepistemological agenda. I had long since become comfortable with a kind of general acceptance of the contingency of all that is as well as the necessary limits such contingency places upon us in our understanding. Now I had encountered a Christian thinker who seemed equally comfortable rejecting the long-running notion that the moral life was a set of hard-and-fast rules either revealed to humanity or accessible to human reason therefore accessible to all human beings at all times and places. Embracing human contingency of life, of thought, of language, and of action, Bonhoeffer offers the freedom from precisely all those phony and ridiculous “moral laws” and “ethical demands” that has so exercised western thought for millennia.

Few things taste and smell as sweet as that first breath of free air.

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