Monday, April 25, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (1)

I'm going to attempt to turn Monday posts into a slightly more detailed and reflective look at part of a book I'm reading.  (This also means I am going to attempt to write regular Monday posts!)  Since I've waxed lyrical about it a few times on here, I thought I'd start with a re-read of Bonhoeffer's Ethics.  A word of introduction about the book: it was never completed, and so we don't know exactly how Bonhoeffer would have presented it.  The edition in his Works presents a plausible reconstruction, but it has to be acknowledged that there could be gaps, and there certainly isn't as much of a conclusion as we might like.  In this edition, Ethics is presented as a series of relatively discreet manuscripts, since this is all we have - but that in itself makes it easier to read, like a collection of related but not quite joined essays.  The reason it is unfinished, of course, is the author's imprisonment and subsequent execution by the Nazis.  That knowledge in itself provides key background for understanding the book: it is a theologian wrestling with the question of the future for the world, and the church, given the Nazi tyranny (and it's hoped-for demise).

So without further ado - manuscript one: Christ, Reality, and Good.

The title captures the key concern of this section perfectly, which is to show the relationship between reality and goodness, and moreover to show that this relationship exists in Christ.  Ethics is about ontology.  "When the ethical problem presents itself essentially as the question of my own being good and doing good, the decision has already been made that the self and the world are the ultimate realities" (47).  If ethics is about my good will, I have already decided that I myself represent the ultimate reality; if it is about my ability to have a good effect on the world, then the world is my ultimate reality.  The question of Christian ethics is instead: what is God's will?  This must be so, because God is in fact the ultimate reality.  To consider any ethical question apart from him is to make a dangerous abstraction.  The best moral laws, considered apart from God, are abstractions; so, to, is the idea of the good will.

But the concept of God can itself be an abstraction - so we must be very clear that we are talking about the God revealed in Christ, and therefore the one who has (in Christ) reconciled the world to himself.  "The subject matter of a Christian ethic is God's reality revealed in Christ becoming real among God's creatures" (49).  Doctrinal theology describes God's revelation in Christ; ethical theology describes how that revelation comes to take shape here and now in creation.  The distinction between is and ought in moral philosophy equates in Christian ethics to the names of Christ and the Holy Spirit (50) - which is interesting, because of course there is often a seeming gulf between is and ought, but there can be none between Jesus and his Spirit.

God is not just interested in our motives, nor is he only interested in the works which flow from them.  "Human beings are indivisible wholes", not only in themselves but also in relation to the world and specifically the human communities of which they are a part.  It is this whole reality with which the ethical question is concerned - the whole which is called, in reference to its origin, 'creation', and in reference to its goal 'the kingdom of God'.  "Both (creation and kingdom) are equally far from us and yet near to us, because God's creation and God's kingdom are present to us only in God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ" (53).  In Christ, we see God and the world reconciled; in him there can be no living for God which is not also living for the world, and vice versa.  "What matters is participating in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today" (55).  This is a very this-worldly ethic, and yet absolutely grounded in the being and will of God, because in Christ we see that one cannot really have God without the world, or the world without God.

This leads into a discussion of the unity of reality, so important in Bonhoeffer's immediate context.  It will not do to divide reality, as twentieth century Lutheranism did, into two spheres, two kingdoms.  The world is not an autonomous kingdom set up against Christ - no matter what it might think about itself!  Neither is the church to be regarded as an especially Christian sphere, set over against the reality of the world.  We must resist the teaching that these "two realms bump up against each other" (56).  There can be no question of the church just letting the world be the world (which in Bonhoeffer's context meant letting the Nazis get on with it so long as they left the church in peace); neither can the church wish to be imperially exalted above the world.  Both routes are a denial of reality as it is in Christ.  Both deny the reconciliation which has really occurred in him.   As an alternative to this sort of 'two realms' thinking, Bonhoeffer expounds his own doctrine of mandates, deriving from God and decisively shaped by his revelation in Christ - family, work, state, church: each has a different role to play, but they are united in their derivation from and relation to Christ.  This also means that they are united in the individual Christian, who of course exercises these different mandates concurrently in life, thus relating all of life back to Christ.

I find this all quite compelling, but I can see a big theological point which my fellow evangelicals are likely to struggle with.  For Bonhoeffer, the world is only to be viewed through Christ, and therefore cannot be seen as unreconciled to God.  Reconciliation is really accomplished in Jesus.  There is a sort of universalism here, although it does not of necessity lead to universalism proper, understood to mean the salvation of all.  It is a powerful relativising of all opposition between world and church - even the kingdom of the devil, in the end, is not an absolute sphere.  "For it is just the 'evil world' which is reconciled to God in Christ and has its ultimate and true reality, not in the devil, but again in Christ" (65).  There is no room for any dualism in Bonhoeffer's thinking, and therefore no ethical room to concede to the devil: everything is united in Christ.  That's much more radical than the average evangelical view; but does it conform to Scripture?  I'd need to do some more thinking here.

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to further shiny thoughts on this issue!