ground beneath our feet: Bonhoeffer and Lewis on ethical roots

C.S. Lewis makes several impassioned pleas for the universality of moral instinct in his writings. I’m most familiar with his appeal to the sense of “fairness” in an argument for God’s existence in Mere Christianity, along with his defence of what he calls the “Tao” in The Abolition of Man. At any rate, in both locations, Lewis is appealing to something like conscience or intuition as the ground of ethics. Ethics are built-in. Right and wrong find their foundation in some innate sense within us. That sense is God’s gift, and is ultimately grounded in God’s own moral character.

Of course, acknowledging the lingering wastes of sin in humanity, Lewis argues that our consciences, as well as our inclination to listen to them, are “bent.” We are not whole and healthy, but twisted and shadowy representations of what we were meant to be.

Working on Bonhoeffer’s moral epistemology, it struck me how different the picture that he describes is. For Bonhoeffer, conscience is only the voice of self-defence. Conscience is the tool by which we usurp God’s judgment, and employ it against ourselves and others. With our consciences–our personal knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3)–we alternately declare ourselves righteous and then cast ourselves on to the dung pile. Either way, this is an attempt to shield ourselves from God’s voice rather than God’s voice itself. The natural knowledge of good and evil, is nothing less than captivity to death in Bonhoeffer’s estimation.

For Bonhoeffer, the root of legitimate ethical thought is spoken rather than implanted. Ethical life is obedience to God’s command, and God’s command comes to us as fallen creatures. God’s voice is not innately present to creatures in any reliable way, it requires a reorientation of our being. Ethics is obedience, following Jesus. The command of God is to be found in Christ, not in each of us. Only in Christ is the command of God to be found unsullied in the world.

Bonhoeffer encountered Lewis’ argument in a twisted form in the settled liberal theologians who were his professors at the University of Berlin. Further twisted and coupled with Lutheran theology gone haywire, it was part of the worldview that enabled the majority of German Christians to dutifully serve Hitler. Bonhoeffer regarded the notion of an innate ethic to be theologically naive–and subject to disasterous perversion.

But, four years after writing the hyper-rigorous Discipleship (originally “Cost of…” in English), Bonhoeffer found room for “noble pagans,” and argued that the church must work together–for Christ’s sake–with all the promoters of peace, security, and well-being. This was not based on any re-evaluation and more positive assesment of natural knowledge of good and evil. Rather, Bonhoeffer expected to see Christ in strange places, at work for the good of the cosmos he joined himself to in love. Working side by side with atheists in the conspiracy, he found the project viable not on his own estimation of good and evil, but out of a theological intuition that this was where he might be most likely to find Jesus.

The ground of ethics is a crucial question. Locating the origin of our sense of right and wrong is a difficult and contentious task. The choice to legitimate it as it stands or distrust it and look to another model determines the entire shape of our ethical discussions, the shape of our culture, and the way we treat one another. While Lewis’ account is apologetically attractive, and very compelling, I wonder if it is grounded concretely enough in God’s self-revelation in Christ to avoid the kinds of abberations that the National Socialists and thier sympathizers were able to foist on Germany.

I’d be very interested to hear someone take the other side.

Originally posted at: a few words I want to thank the administrator of this illustrious blog for a generous invitation to leave a reflection here every now and then.


3 responses to “ground beneath our feet: Bonhoeffer and Lewis on ethical roots

  1. I always found here in the USA that Evangelicals find CS Lewis’s ethical path much more attractive than Bonhoeffer’s. But in South Africa and Korea, they really “get” Bonhoeffer. To me this speaks of how a national people’s domestic experience speaks to their collective ethic. Americans call Bonhoeffer a crisis theologian, and in this way seem to say that his ethic only relates to the worst possible situations.

    I think Bonhoeffer’s work in kenosis and the theologia crucis is just what our self-satisfied society needs. We need an ethic that is not so inwardly focused and is much more Christocentric.

  2. I purchased Cost of Discipleship years ago along with Ethics for my personal orientation to Bonhoeffer. As it turns out, I chucked them in a box to be read later. Years passed and my church affiliation changed form LCMS to ELCA Lutheranism and my personal outloook concerning ministry and humanity are starting to change to. Last evening I broke out Cost of Discipleship and after reading the Memoir I became fascinated by Bonhoeffer as defining what a Christian is and how they act out their Christianity.

    As far as Lewis Vs Bonhoeffer (if I can do that), like most Anglos, Lewis thinks more abstract, almost putting Credal formulas to illustration via imagination. Bonhoeffer takes The Faith from the Credal of the past and the imagination of Lewis to the practical, where the rubber met the road. God’s revelation of Himself thru Christ is more than Creed and more than absract thought of what “ought to be”, it requires action. For the first time in my Christian walk I am seeing “Ethic” as being something that is lived out in the concrete, something that requires inconveniencing myself by forcing to take a step away from book theology and theory that is argued in text in chat rooms to practical theology that is lived amongst God’s creation.

  3. I recently finished a dissertation which traces Bonhoeffer’s concept of ‘Religionless Christianity’ as both a ‘Theo-Ethical’ and ‘Cristo-ethical’ term, from the influences of his historical situation and ‘teachers’ all the way through his writings. I believe it deals with alot of the stuff you talking about here. If you would be interested in reading it please send me an email at

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