The third manuscript of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is entitled Heritage and Decay. It is worth remembering here that although Bonhoeffer was partly driven by the need to establish the Christian response to the Nazi crisis, he was also looking beyond this: it seems that for him the ultimate defeat of Nazism was an article of faith, and he wanted to think about rebuilding. What would survive, and how would it survive? What would the world look like - especially for the church - after the war? Heritage and Decay in many ways provides the framework for addressing those questions; it is, if you like, a zooming out from the immediate situation to survey the wider crisis of Western civilization.
The manuscript begins controversially - at least, for a modern reader; I am not sure how controversial it would have been in the 1940s. "One can only speak of historical heritage in the Christian West". Why is that? Because other nations have no traditions of their own? Certainly not - indeed, some have much older traditions. But these are bound up with, and tend to revert to, myth. They are about the eternal, the timeless. Only in the incarnation of Christ is history itself guarded against mythologising: because Christian thought "is determined by the entry of God into history at a definite place and time" (104), history itself gains significance, and therefore the present moment gains significance, not being lost in the timeless, but presenting the prospect of present accountability to the God who has claimed history in Jesus.
I think this is distinctively Christian; Bonhoeffer's tying together of 'Christian' and 'Western' strikes me as highly problematic. The problem underlies the whole of this manuscript.
For Bonhoeffer, "the unity of the West is not an idea, but a historical reality whose only foundation is Christ" (109). In so far as this is a historical point, there is some value in it. The heritage of the West is Christianity, whether it likes it or not, and that is a unifying heritage. Bonhoeffer sees the history of the Western world as largely a struggle over that unity - despite the unity itself being a given. The wrestling between Pope and Emperor, or between different Christian nations, takes place within that generally acknowledged unity. The unity collapses at the Reformation - "not that Luther wanted it so" (111). Luther's initial hope was the Pope would submit to Scripture; and then that the Emperor would safeguard the unity of the corpus christianum. Both hopes were dashed, and the church and the world went their own ways. The corpus christianum was shattered, and yet the West in some sense endured.
The more recent history of the West is one of decline. Through a process of secularisation, involving the growing rule of technology, mass movements, and nationalism, the West has rejected its Christian heritage. But it cannot jettison that heritage, or the unity it brings. "The new unity... is Western godlessness" (122). This is not just atheism. It is "a religion of enmity toward God" (122), decisively shaped by its Christian heritage even in its rejection.
"Having lost its unity that was created by the form of Jesus Christ, the West is confronted by nothingness" (127). This is not just a dying civilization; it does not have the feel of a death from 'natural causes'. "Instead, it is again a specifically Western nothingness: a nothingness that is rebellious, violent, anti-God, and anti-human... It is nothingness as God" (128). This is, of course, the language of a man surveying Nazism at the zenith of its power. But is it so different in our more polite age?
"Only two things can prevent the final fall into the abyss: the miracle of a new awakening of faith; and the power which the Bible calls 'the restrainer'... (2 Thess. 2:7)" (131). Bonhoeffer understands the restrainer to be the remaining authority of order within the world, represented imperfectly but nonetheless somewhat effectively by the state. It is fascinating that he could write this in 1941! The Nazi state has not persuaded him of the overall evil of the state; rather the state itself is God's instrument for preservation. Nonetheless, the state can only preserve; it cannot revivify. "The Church has a unique task... The Church must bear witness to Jesus Christ as living lord, and it must do so in a world which has turned away from Christ after knowing him" (132). That makes the Church the bearer of the genuine historical tradition of the West. The world, which has turned to nothingness, does not know what to do with its heritage; the very idea of receiving and passing on has become strange to it. But the church does know.
Still, the church is not interested in just passing on history. Rather, it must preach Christ as the living lord. "The more the church holds to its central message, the more effective it is" (132). Bonhoeffer saw the remaining forces of order in his society beginning to look to the church as an ally - and the church can be an ally in that way. But that is not its central business. It must proclaim Christ. It is "the miracle of a new awakening of faith" that the church looks for amidst a culture bent on annihilation.