Out of the books I've read in 2009, Bonhoeffer's Ethics has stuck with me more than any other. I'm not all that well-acquainted with the discipline of ethics, but I thought it was curious when I saw that Bonhoeffer had written a book on the subject. I associated books of the type with analytic philosophers, not 20th century neo-Orthodox, German theologians. I was right to be intrigued, for Ethics contains a radical re-framing of the whole discipline--a deconstruction, even, of modern ethics. Bonhoeffer saw this work as his one major, unique contribution to the field of Christian theology and I have to agree, so I will take some space here to provide summaries and reflections on the work in the coming weeks. I would encourage you to grab a copy of Ethics and read along. Bonhoeffer is always edifying and, in this case, very stimulating.
The key, in my opinion, to understanding the whole work is to get the first few pages (nay, the first few lines) in your head as the hermeneutical guide. Bonhoeffer writes, "The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge." When I read this, I was both excited and scared; who in their right mind would want to "invalidate" all ethical reflection? Bonhoeffer isn't motivated, however, by any postmodern quest to deconstruct for deconstruction's sake. His goal is to be true to the biblical narrative of Genesis 1-3. He goes on to provide an interpretation of the Fall, in categories of existential estrangement. In our original state, he writes, we were one with God and we knew only God, and knew all things in God and God in all things. God was our "origin" and we lived our lives in dependence upon him. God knew good and evil, but we knew only God and this was a felicitious existence. In our uprising and deception, the eating of the forbidden fruit, we took this knowledge of good and evil upon ourselves and became our own source and origin and this meant the total dissolution of our life. "Man's life is now disunion with God, with men, with things, and with himself."
One of the effects of this existential estrangement is shame, something which permeates all of human life and endeavor. Shame is simply awareness of our separation from our origin, and a longing to return. The human response to shame is both concealment and exposure and both serve to confirm our shame. In all relationships, art, and communication we both expose our shame as we show forth our longing for unity and restoration, but we also must continually cover this shame. (Interesting aside: Bonhoeffer seems to posit that our subconscious self is the fruit of our covering ourselves from ourselves.) This shame cannot be overcome except through the final shaming of forgiveness of sins, where our sin and estrangement are both exposed and done away with in restoration to God and man.
Distinguished from shame is conscience, which Bonhoeffer defines as the estranged man's desperate attempt to maintain unity with himself. Disunited with his origin, conscience summons the man to a false type of unity with himself, by categorizing everything in terms of what is forbidden and what is permitted. What is permitted is good and what is forbidden is evil, and there is no real, positive commandment. In a sense, conscience operates wholly on the presupposition of disunity and shame--it claims to be the judge of good and evil. This achieved knowledge of conscience becomes the basis for relationship to God and others, whereas in our original state this relationship was reversed.
It is in the New Testament, with Jesus as the central point of discussion, that Bonhoeffer sees a "world of recovered unity." The Pharisees (men of conscience in every age) are essentially ethicists, and not shabby ones at that. They take their duty to make decisions and judgments with utter strictness, and they are not beyond refined, nuanced reflections on ethical matters. These men define themselves by the decisions they make and so they must force Jesus to be similarly defined. Jesus will have none of it and this, Bonhoeffer says, is why Jesus so often seems out of touch with his questioners--evasive, missing the point, detached. Jesus leaves the world of conflict behind him, according to Bonhoeffer, and lives in unity with God, doing the will of God. While the Pharisees are humans par excellence, taking conscience with utter seriousness, Jesus lives in humble and simple obedience to the will of God (like Adam and Eve before the Fall). Bonhoeffer explicates this contrast in terms of judging, proving, and doing.
Jesus commanded his followers not to judge (Matt 7:1). The Pharisees do not merely judge unrighteously; in fact, their judgment may be in line with sound principles. However, the fact that they are judges is the essence of man's disunity with God. The Pharisees had actions, too, they were not passive. Springing from disunity as their deeds did, however, meant that they were hypocrites. True action is action that recovers the lost unity, action that does "the will of God." With each ethical pronouncement, the Pharisees served to further confirm the disunity.
With the call to judge not, Jesus is essential summoning man back to his origin. Rather than make pronouncements, we live in a simple obedience to the will of God.
The New Testament also exhorts us to prove the will of God (Rom 12:2). This answers the question that was naturally raised at the end of the last paragraph: "Are we supposed to just say a prayer and do the first thing that comes to our mind? Is this what Bonhoeffer would have us think ethical reflection is now to consist in?" No, the Bible says we must "prove" the will of God. And here Bonhoeffer gets to the crux of the matter:
"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. The heart, the understanding, observation and experience must all collaborate in this task."
For Bonhoeffer, the will of God is not something that can be codified nor does it come from our own hearts or minds. It is the directive for action (or passivity) that comes to us from the living, personal God. Too "prove" the will of God, we must first be located in Christ, being conformed to His nature. This is not something that happens gradually or permanently, but we must every day raise the question anew: "how here, today and in my present situation I am to remain and be preserved in this new life with God, with Jesus Christ"? And once having raised this question, having humbly sought God, we must take action, believing that God gives us knowledge of His will. Having taken action, we can do nothing to assure ourselves or others that we have done the right thing in an ethically-sticky situation. Instead, we submit ourselves to the (gracious!) judgment of God. This is what Bonhoeffer calls the "simplicity of doing."
What exactly does this "doing" consist in? Bonhoeffer makes a series of distinctions. 1. True Doing vs. False Doing: Man's deed must be set within the deed of God, or it is not to be regarded as doing (Bonhoeffer interprets the "nothing" in John 15:5 as literally as possible). 2. Action vs. Judgment: these are irreconcilable opposites. The judge places himself above the law, and applies it to others. The doer of the law submits to the law and takes action. 3. Hearing vs. Doing: These are no irreconcilable opposites, but rather inseparable realities. It is impossible to separate doing from hearing and hearing from doing. No one can possess the word other than in doing it. So there is both a false doing (action apart from the will of God) and a false hearing (hearing the Word of God that doesn't issue forth in true action).
Bonhoeffer closes this section with a reflection and summary entitled "Love." He asks, what is love? His answer is that "God is love." Who is God? Where do we find Him? In Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ reconciliation comes to man and happens to him, in Jesus Christ we come to know the love of God. We did not know it before, but we know it in Jesus. In Jesus we return to our origin and, presumably, Bonhoeffer has set us up for what ethics will look like for the man who has recovered his unity with God (or perhaps, the man who has been recovered to unity by God).
I'm curious for those who have read this far: what are your initial thoughts about a book on ethics that tries to negate ethics as a "system" and instead summons us to a daily quest after the will of God that is different in every situation, different for every individual? What theological or philosophical questions does this raise?