Monday, July 11, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (9)

The ninth manuscript gathered in the Works edition of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is entitled God's Love and the Disintegration of the World.  It might clarify the meaning to write 'dis-integration', with the hyphen.  The point is that the world and the people in the world exist in a state of disunity; neither as individual persons nor as societies are we 'integrated'. 

In a sense, the existence of ethics as a discipline reflects this dis-integration.  Ethics is about knowing good and evil, distinguishing between them, and plotting a course accordingly.  But of course in the Biblical narrative, the knowledge of good and evil is a result of the fall.  "For Christian ethics, the mere possibility of knowing about good and evil is a falling away from the origin" (300).  In an unfallen state, human beings "know everything only in God, and God in all things" (300) - that is to say, they know everything in an integrated way, as it is given to be known in and through God.  But in claiming or trying to know good and evil, "human beings understand themselves not within the reality of being defined by the origin, but from their own possibilities, namely, to be either good or evil" (300).  They seek to live as if it were up to them to decide what their own lives could and should be, and then they work at living up to the ideals they discover or construct.  This is inevitably to live "in opposition to God" (300), and therefore Christian ethics "can be considered an ethic only as the critique of all ethics" (300), as an attack on the presupposition that it is the task of human beings to discern what is good and evil and to make the choice between them.

Bonhoeffer gives a helpful and important theological exposition of some of the consequences of this dis-integration.  Because we no longer know ourselves and others in an integrated way in God, we experience shame as something that tinges our whole existence, especially with other people (303-6); because we no longer live with the simple knowledge of God's perfect will, we experience conscience as the sign of our internal dis-union, as we stand as judges on our own lives and behaviour, judging and justifying ourselves, standing in the place of God (307-9).

The Pharisees - both the historical Pharisees and those who are like them - give the clearest, because the best and most noble, example of what it means to know good and evil.  "Pharisees are those human beings, admirable to the highest degree, who subject their entire lives to the knowledge of good and evil and who judge themselves as sternly as their neighbors - and all to the glory of God, whom they humbly thank for this knowledge" (310).  The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is the conflict between those who live in disunity, who live in the knowledge of good and evil, and therefore must judge - themselves and others - and Jesus, who lives an integrated life and knows only the will of God.  In Jesus, we who are reconciled to God - and so brought back into unity with ourselves and others - are called to live from his will and not our own decision.  We recognise ourselves as those who are elect in Christ, and therefore fundamentally as chosen, not as choosers.  If we are elect in Christ, we are elect to do God's will.

An interesting theme: in the fallen state, our thinking and doing become reflexive.  Even in doing good, we are continually referred back to our own internal sense of what is good and evil, and thus pushed back against our own disunity.  It is impossible for us not to be self-judging - that is what we are at our best, in the dis-integrated state in which we live!  But reconciled to God in Christ, and thus to ourselves and others, our actions lose that reflexive nature.  What is good is for God to decide.  The judgement on our own actions is not only not necessary, but is forbidden; God will judge.  We are thus freed for genuine action in the world, action that is not just a curiously externalised sort of introspection.

This does not mean that we need not think - we do still need to discern what God's will is, and there is a legitimate self-examination under the gospel.  But this discernment and judgement takes place within the knowledge of Christ - within the event of reconciliation to God.  Fundamentally, we know the shape of God's will - by loving us, he has shown us how to love.  God's love in Christ overcomes our disunion, and sets us on the course of reconciling love ourselves.  "It is as whole human beings, as thinking and acting human beings, that we are loved by God in Christ, that we are reconciled with God.  And as whole human beings, thinking and acting, we love God and our brothers and sisters" (337-8).

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