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.


Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. II, Part 1: Knowledge, Faith, Mediation

Moses & The Burning Bush, 1890, The Holman Illustrated Bible

Moses & The Burning Bush, 1890, The Holman Illustrated Bible

Adoration Of The Trinity, Albrecht Durer, 1511

Adoration Of The Trinity, Albrecht Durer, 151








Thus, to the particularity of this event which, in contrast to all other objects, is grounded in the nature of God, there corresponds the particularity of one such object which, in the sphere of creaturely reality, points to the nature of God, a uniqueness which does not belong to this object in itself and as such, but which falls to its lot in this event in which it is now effective.   But it is effective, not on account of its own ability, but in virtue of the institution to the service which this object has to perform at this point.  In other words, it is effective in virtue of the special work to which God has at this point determined and engaged it, because it has become the instrument of this work and has been marked off and is used as such. – Karl Barth, CD, Vol II, Part 1, p. 17

Of all the things about Barth’s writings that I simultaneously adore and detest, his insistence on the specificity of the event of God’s revelation stands out more than any other.  I adore it precisely because it is the correct answer to the on-going question regarding God’s existence that do not rely upon the actual testimony offered in Scripture, let alone the traditions of the church, the church’s experience, or the peculiar and particular ratio of the church.  I detest it because he spends what I find to be an inordinate amount of time on matters of knowledge, and particularities of Christian knowledge of God as faith, and the matter of mediate versus immediate knowledge of God that could be dispensed with had Barth not been looking back at Schleiermacher, Kant, and the liberal tradition and instead focused on developments in 20th century philosophy a bit more closely.  Specifically, the whole matter of knowledge, the specificity of that knowledge, and the question of mediation become, to an early 21st century person, superfluous matters that can be addressed as we discuss the “who” of God, which always begins with God’s self-revealing act.

In particular, the matter of the distinction between God’s immediate knowledge of the Divine Life within the Trinitarian interpenetration of the Godhead, and our mediated faith in this same Three-Persons-In-One-God as not only an important distinction to hold, but a necessary distinction to make before we move forward strikes me as so much nit-picking.  We can and do have knowledge of the Trinitarian Life of the Christian God only because that is our understanding of our experience of the human encounter with God.  We come to understand the inner Trinitarian life, what is usually called the immanent Trinity, through our experience (and reflection upon the experience) of God’s gracious condescension to us.  To begin with this distinction before we have become clear how such a distinction is even possible begs many questions.

Furthermore, the matter of mediation and how human beings come to know and understand their experience, while certainly prevalent through the 19th century, became less and less so as it became clear all human knowledge and understanding is mediated: through language, through how our brains interpret (and sometimes misinterpret) sensory information, through filtering experience through our previous experiences.  Furthermore, immediate self-knowledge has been questionable, at least on a philosophical level, at least since Hegel made clear that we only come to know who we are through our interactions with others.*  Precisely because Barth insists that the Trinitarian life provides the Godhead with immediate knowledge, he confuses his terms while muddying the waters of what is and is not understood by “immediate” and “mediate”.  Claiming that the Father and Son know one another “immediately” only means there is no creaturely object that “stands in” for one or the other in their encounter.  Yet, as distinct persons, their knowledge of one another is indeed mediated by their mutual love for one another, which is the Third Person of the Trinity, the Love that binds the Trinitarian Life together, and brings human beings in to relationship with this God.

To attempt the distinction Barth makes here between the particularities of human knowledge, human knowledge of God as a specific kind of knowledge called “faith”, and a knowledge that is mediated, leaving creaturely understanding always at a remove from the object of faith while also allowing human declarations about the inner life of this object which we can and do only know through mediate knowledge not only leaves a hole large enough to drive a truck through.  It also leaves me wondering about the necessity of insisting on these distinctions, at least at this point.  Precisely because of the demand for specificity in the self-revelation of God to humanity as testified in Scripture, the mechanisms by which human beings understand and come to know themselves to be the subject of faith, and faith the object of their relationship with God, who is both subject and object of faith, becomes superfluous.  Barth has already made clear the source and norm for faith, defined it, and in defining it already said something about who God is.  The distinction between the inner Trinitarian Life and the human encounter with God not only becomes superfluous, it introduces terms that muddy the waters, rather clarify answers, leaving Barth open to the just criticism that he allows knowledge of God to stand and fall precisely upon a particular form of human ratio rather than the criteria he as already asserted is the sole criteria for judging human knowledge of God: God’s Word.

*Hegel is often the unmentioned source of much of Barth’s approach to matters of human understanding. I’m not quite sure why he felt it necessary to leave out his debt to Hegel, but a close study of both shows Barth works within a Hegelian framework without ever once saying that is what he is doing.  I owe this insight to Dr. Kendall Soulen.