Monday, May 02, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (2)

The second manuscript of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is entitled Ethics as Formation.  Here we go...

"Seldom has a generation been as uninterested as ours in any kind of ethical theory or program" (76).  This is not because there are no serious ethical problems, but because we are inundated with ethical problems.  (Remember when he is writing!)  The sheer volume and intensity of the ethical issues renders ethical reflection very difficult.  In more ordered times, one can analyse ethical issues; in times when order is subverted, and "evil appears in the form of light, of beneficence, of faithfulness, of renewal,... of historical necessity, of social justice", "ethical theorists... are blinded" (77).

A catalogue of specific ways in which ethical people fail in the face of evil: reasonable people fail because in their desire to be even-handed and their belief in the essential rationality of the world, they are betrayed, and eventually withdraw in bitterness; fanatics fail because in their desire to tackle evil head on they end up chasing presenting issues instead of seeing the heart of things; people of conscience fail because their over-riding desire to have a good conscience ends with them assuaging their conscience, "until they deceive their own conscience in order not to despair" (79); the way of duty fails because it does not take personal responsibility, and "people of duty must finally fulfil their duty even to the devil" (79); those who value their own freedom to do what is necessary are ultimately liable to fall into choosing the bad simply because it is not the worst, betrayed by their own freedom into aiding and abetting evil; those who seek to escape evil times by their own private virtue fail because they will not take responsible action in the public sphere.

None of this failure is to condemned; it is simply all to human.  The only way through is to "keep in sight only the single truth of God" (81), which concretely means Christ.  "Only that person is wise who sees reality in God.  Knowledge of reality is not just knowing external events, but seeing into the essence of things...  Wisdom is recognising the significant within the factual" (81).  This must mean Christ, because it is only in Christ that we can consider God and the world together.  Everywhere else, to focus on God is to lose the world, and vice versa.

It is only in Jesus Christ as incarnate, crucified and risen that we see God and the world clearly.  "The human being accepted, judged, and awakened to new life by God - this is Jesus Christ, this is the whole of humanity in Christ, this is us" (92).  It is only the form of humanity presented here which can answer the ethical questions of the world.  Ethical formation occurs only as this form of Christ is formed in us.  (Note that this is not the imitation of Christ, or indeed any sort of formative programme that springs from us; rather, it is Christ himself, taking his form in us, and thus conforming us to his form).  As Christ is the true human, the form of Christ is the true form of humanity.

One implication of this is that the church is at the heart of the ethical question.  It is in the church that this form of humanity is accepted.  It is valid for all humanity, but only in the church is it actually seen.  "'Formation' means, therefore, in the first place Jesus Christ taking form in Christ's church" (96).  I might take issue with the language used here (which has it's roots in Sanctorum Communio), but the ethical implications are clear: the church is the one place where the new humanity is already known, because Christ is already known, and therefore it is the one place where there can be a response to the ethical problems of the here and now on the basis of Christ, which is to say on the basis of reality.

A further implication is that ethics cannot be based on eternal principles, or a general definition of the good.  Such things inevitably degenerate into "formalism or casuistry".  But "while formalism and casuistry proceed from the conflict between the good and the real", i.e. they seek to show how the good can be applied to the real, or how the real can be conformed to the good, and in this way show that the divergence of goodness and reality is their insoluble problem, "the Christian ethic can proceed from the reconciliation of the world with God in the human Jesus Christ" (99-100).  The essential question then becomes not 'what is good?, but 'how may we see Christ formed today, in the here and now?'

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