without knowing good and evil :: Bonhoeffer’s moral epistemology

Flipping pagesAt long last, I put the final touches (and blows) to the thesis today, and it is ready to be shipped off for grading. Quite a relief to have this monkey off my back and to be on to other projects. Below I’ve posted the abstract to the thesis; if you are interested in a copy of the whole thing then drop me an email.

Knowing the difference between good and evil seems central to any account of ethical thought. Yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that Christian ethics’ “first task” is to supercede this knowledge. Rejecting the knowledge of good and evil, Bonhoeffer regards modern ethics as continuous with Adam and Eve’s illegitimate meal in the garden of Eden. Grasping at wisdom apart from God, the earliest humans brought death and division into the world. Bonhoeffer’s account of Christian ethics is inimical to the self-justification, judgment of others, and autonomous notions of individual freedom that the knowledge of good and evil provides. Human beings employ their knowledge of good and evil in efforts to unify their lives and communities, but Bonhoeffer sees that these actions spring from the divided state of fallen humanity. Yet if Christian ethics really involves “un-knowing” good and evil, on what basis can Christians confront the complex and difficult decisions that they face daily? How are Christians to respond to violence, destruction, and immorality—both in their own lives and in the acts of people around them? How are Christians (and others) to teach their children how to behave without recourse to some conception of good and evil? This thesis explores the knowledge of good and evil in Bonhoeffer’s writings and traces the development of his ethics as an alternative account of moral knowledge. The ethics of the church, in Bonhoeffer’s understanding, is grounded in the knowledge gained through being incorporated into the body of Jesus Christ, through extending his mission, and through proclaiming his gospel.

Originally posted at: a few words.

Bonhoeffer Blog Conference

Halden announced yesterday the beginning of what is sure to become a long and illustrious tradition—a Bonhoeffer blog conference. The profundity of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics lies in its insistence on pushing theological meditations toward the most concrete expression possible. Unlike many, his drive toward concreteness was not the result of an insipid focus on the “practical,” falsely contrasted to the abstract and theoretical; rather, he saw that proper theological work underlay the faith that leads to action. He is a tremendously attractive figure to so many of us because we have a sense that his life held together with a unity and integrity that most of us only strive to imagine.

In the last couple of years we have witnessed a substantial rise in collaborative theological scholarship via the blogosphere. The recurring Karl Barth Blog Conference promises to be an excellent staple among theo-bloggers, as does the forthcoming Balthasar Blog Conference. In the spirit of fostering further substantial theological scholarship in the blogosphere, I am happy to Bonhoefferannounce the First Annual Bonhoeffer Blog Conference. The topic for this conference will be: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Contemporary Theology. The aim of this conference is to foster sustained reflections on Bonhoeffer’
s last major theological work, Ethicsand to explore its implications within contemporary theological, ecclesial, and political contexts. While some spots are already filled (which will be announced later), there is plenty of room for submissions and proposals. Any submission related to this general focus would be open to consideration. Creative approaches to the work of Bonhoeffer is encouraged.

This conference will likely take place in early November, 2008. Submissions can be emailed to Halden at halden-at-wipfandstock-dot-com. Halden encourages you to promote this event on your own blog, if you are so inclined.

Larry Rasmussen podcast on Bonhoeffer

Union Theological Seminary’s podcast includes Larry Rasmussen’s August 6 lecture on Bonhoeffer offered in two parts. I downloaded it and found it to be an excellent addition to Rasmussen’s book Reality and Resistance. His stories from Bonhoeffer’s brother at the end of part two are particularly interesting.

New Bibliographic Page

I have just added a new “Recommended Reading” page to this blog with the deatails of recommended secondary literature on Bonhoeffer. This is no means an exhaustive list (intentionally so) but if you feel there are important books omitted that you can vouch for as being very good then please feel free to let us know.

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.

Review of “Bonhoeffer & King: Speaking Truth to Power”

Review of J Deotis Roberts, Bonhoeffer & King: Speaking Truth to Power, Westminster John Knox, (2005). ISBN: 0664226523.

At the age of thirty nine both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr were murdered on account of the fact that both spoke (and acted out this speech) to power. Bonhoeffer was murdered by in a Nazi concentration camp in April 1945; Martin Luther King, Jr, like Bonhoeffer, also murdered in April, this time April 1968 whilst campaigning for fair wages for Blacks.

 

The author of this book, J Deotis Roberts, is himself a significant Black and Liberation theologian and hence a joint study of both of these theologians makes a certain sense. While I am not well-read in Black Theology (although I have read Cone) but I find it hard to imagine Black Theology would be anything like the same as it is today were it not for the efforts of MLK, even if some motifs of Black Power thought are developed against MLK’s nonviolent method. Likewise, it is clear that early Liberation Theology, as a reading of Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation will make apparent, has used Bonhoeffer’s theology as an important resource in early Liberation Theology, particularly in regards to theological methodology.

 

J Deotis Roberts begins his study with a brief synopsis of his “biography as theology” approach by which he analyses the biography of both MLK and DB. As a brief historical introduction to these two figures then this is helpful, however, I do not think that Deotis Roberts really offers anything revealing as regards to the relationship between these two theologians. In fact, this comment probably applies to the the rest of the book. As a brief introduction to the different theologies of DB and MLK then this is probably going to be a useful book. However, there is little in the DB sections, which is more my specialism that is particularly new, it is instead a summary of Bonhoeffer from the secondary literature. As a Black theologian who was at least peripherally active in the Civil Rights movement it is possible that Deotis Robert’s discussion of MLK is more interesting, although my impression is that the same applies to these sections. Similarly, this book is weak the relation of the respective theologians to the wider theological context.

 

That said, I do not think Bonhoeffer and King is a bad book. While it may not be an original contribution to theology it is a good introduction to the social theology of both of these theologians and with it to some of the central themes of political theology. Where J Deotis excels is in two of the main issues on which the theological visions of DB and MLK coalesce, namely in the issues of religion and the influence of Gandhi. It is not surprising that Deotis Roberts places significance on Bonhoeffer’s observation of the racist treatment of Blacks while he was a student in America. It is with the Church’s complicity in the anti-Jewish racism in Germany that the links between DB and MLK’s struggle in America are apparent and Deotis Roberts does a very good job of delineating these. Similarly, both of these theologians had a a profound respect and learned a great deal from the mission of Gandhi, although with DB’s involvement in the anti-Hitler conspiracy it is perhaps questionable whether this influence continued to the end of his life, something which the author does not adequately address.

Blogging Bethge links

Here is a link outline for my Blogging through Bethge Series. In looking over these again it occurs to me that at some point I got really serious with this, having started out just as an experiment. I had no idea how much time I’d really have to accomplish it. Then my job changed almost overnight and I had so much more time than I thought. Then I became really invested in it, considering it one of the more monumental things I’ve done with my life. I do plan to review the book after the series. If you notice some glaring errors or just want to help with some insights, please post comments. I haven’t had many of those. My hope is that this, in some small way, will spark new interest in this book, beyond it’s use as a reference within the academic community. This can be a very difficult book for those outside the theological world. I hope musings from an armchair dilettante like me will open new doors.

—Chris L. Rice

 

The “Blogging Bethge” series: A journey through Eberhard Bethge’s monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Part One: The Lure of Theology

1. Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923 pg. 3

2. Student Years: 1923-1927 pg. 45

3. Assistant Pastor in Barcelona: 1928 pg. 97

4. Assistant Lecturer in Berlin: 1929-1930 pg. 125

5. America 1930-1931 p. 147

Part Two: The Cost of Being A Christian

6. Lecturer and Pastor: 1931-1932, pg. 173

7. Berlin: 1933, pg. 257

8. London: 1933-1935, pg. 325

9. Preacher’s Seminary: 1935, pg. 419

10. Finkenwalde: 1936-1937, pg. 493

11. The Collective Pastorates: 1938-1940, pg. 587

Part Three: Sharing Germany’s Destiny

12. Travels: 1940-1943, pg. 681

13. Tegel: 1943-1944, pg. 799

14. In the Custody of the State: 1944-1945, pg. 893