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Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906—1945)
For Bonhoeffer, the foundation of ethical behaviour lay in how the reality of the world and the reality of God were reconciled in the reality of Christ. Both in his thinking and in his life, ethics were centered on the demand for action by responsible men and women in the face of evil. He was sharply critical of ethical theory and of academic concerns with ethical systems precisely because of their failure to confront evil directly. Evil, he asserted, was concrete and specific, and it could be combated only by the specific actions of responsible people in the world. The uncompromising position Bonhoeffer took in his seminal work Ethics, was directly reflected in his stance against Nazism. His early opposition turned into active conspiracy in 1940 to overthrow the regime. It was during this time, until his arrest in 1943, that he worked on Ethics.
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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau on February 4, 1906. Dietrich and his twin sister, Sabina, were two of eight children born to Karl and Paula (von Hase) Bonhoeffer. Karl Bonhoeffer, a professor of psychiatry and Neurology at Berlin University, was Germany’s leading empirical psychologist. Dietrich received his doctorate from Berlin University in 1927, and lectured in the theological faculty during the early thirties. He was ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1931, and served two Lutheran congregations, St. Paul’s and Sydenham, in London from 1933-35.
In 1934, 2000 Lutheran pastors organized the Pastors’ Emergency League in opposition to the state church controlled by the Nazis. This organization evolved into the Confessing Church, a free and independent protestant church. Bonhoeffer served as head of the Confessing Church’s seminary at Finkenwalde. The activities of the Confessing Church were virtually outlawed and its five seminaries closed by the Nazis in 1937.
Bonhoeffer’s active opposition to National Socialism in the thirties continued to escalate until his recruitment into the resistance in 1940. The core of the conspiracy to assassinate Adolph Hitler and overthrow the Third Reich was an elite group within the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence), which included, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Head of Military Intelligence, General Hans Oster (who recruited Bonhoeffer), and Hans von Dohnanyi, who was married to Bonhoeffer’s sister, Christine. All three were executed with Bonhoeffer on April 9, 1945. For their role in the conspiracy, the Nazis also executed Bonhoeffer’s brother, Klaus, and a second brother-in-law, Rudiger Schleicher, on April 23, 1945, seven days before Hitler himself committed suicide on April 30.
Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy was one of courier and diplomat to the British government on behalf of the resistance, since Allied support was essential to stopping the war. Between trips abroad for the resistance, Bonhoeffer stayed at Ettal, a Benedictine monastery outside of Munich, where he worked on his book, Ethics, from 1940 until his arrest in 1943. Bonhoeffer, in effect, was formulating the ethical basis for when the performance of certain extreme actions, such as political assassination, were required of a morally responsible person, while at the same time attempting to overthrow the Third Reich in what everyone expected to be a very bloody coup d’etat. This combination of action and thought surely qualifies as one of the more unique moments in intellectual history.
Bonhoeffer’s critique of ethics results in a picture of an Aristotelian ethic that is Christological in expression, i.e., it shares much in common with a character-oriented morality, and at the same time it rests firmly on his Christology. For Bonhoeffer, the foundation of ethical behavior is how the reality of the world and how the reality of God are reconciled in the reality of Christ (Ethics, p. 198). To share in Christ’s reality is to become a responsible person, a person who performs actions in accordance with reality and the fulfilled will of God (Ethics, p.224). There are two guides for determining the will of God in any concrete situation: 1) the need of one’s neighbor, and 2) the model of Jesus of Nazareth. There are no other guides, since Bonhoeffer denies that we can have knowledge of good and evil (Ethics, p.231). There is no moral certainty in this world. There is no justification in advance for our conduct. Ultimately all actions must be delivered up to God for judgment, and no one can escape reliance upon God’s mercy and grace. “Before God self-justification is quite simply sin” (Ethics, p.167).
Responsible action, in other words, is a highly risky venture. It makes no claims to objectivity or certainty. It is a free venture that cannot be justified in advance (Ethics, p.249). But, nevertheless, it is how we participate in the reality of Christ, i.e., it is how we act in accordance with the will of God. The demand for responsible action in history is a demand no Christian can ignore. We are, accordingly, faced with the following dilemma: when assaulted by evil, we must oppose it directly. We have no other option. The failure to act is simply to condone evil. But it is also clear that we have no justification for preferring one response to evil over another. We seemingly could do anything with equal justification. Nevertheless, for Bonhoeffer, the reality of a demand for action without any (a priori) justification is just the moral reality we must face, if we want to be responsible people.
There are four facets to Bonhoeffer’s critique of ethics that should be noted immediately. First, ethical decisions make up a much smaller part of the social world for Bonhoeffer than they do for (say) Kant or Mill. Principally he is interested only in those decisions that deal directly with the presence of vicious behavior, and often involve questions of life and death. Second, Bonhoeffer’s own life serves as a case study for the viability of his views. Bonhoeffer is unique in this regard. His work on ethics began while he was actively involved in the German resistance to National Socialism and ended with his arrest in 1943. He fully expected that others would see his work in the conspiracy as intrinsically related to the plausibility of his ethical views. When it comes to ethics, Bonhoeffer noted, “(i)t is not only what is said that matters, but also the man who says it” (Ethics, p.267).
Third, like Aristotle, Bonhoeffer stays as close to the actual phenomenon of making moral choices as possible. What we experience, when faced with a moral choice, is a highly concrete and unique situation. It may share much with other situations, but it is, nevertheless, a distinct situation involving its own particulars and peculiarities, not excluding the fact that we are making the decisions, and not Socrates or Joan of Ark.
And finally, again like Aristotle, Bonhoeffer sees judgments of character and not action as fundamental to moral evaluation. Evil actions should be avoided, of course, but what needs to be avoided at all costs is the disposition to do evil as part of our character. “What is worse than doing evil,” Bonhoeffer notes, “is being evil” (Ethics, p.67). To lie is wrong, but what is worse than the lie is the liar, for the liar contaminates everything he says, because everything he says is meant to further a cause that is false. The liar as liar has endorsed a world of falsehood and deception, and to focus only on the truth or falsity of his particular statements is to miss the danger of being caught up in his twisted world. This is why, as Bonhoeffer says, that “(i)t is worse for a liar to tell the truth than for a lover of truth to lie” (Ethics, p.67). A falling away from righteousness is far worse that a failure of righteousness. To focus exclusively on the lie and not on the liar is a failure to confront evil.
Nevertheless, the central concern of traditional ethics remains: What is right conduct? What justifies doing one thing over another? For Bonhoeffer, there is no justification of actions in advance without criteria for good and evil, and this is not available (Ethics, p.231). Neither future consequences nor past motives by themselves are sufficient to determine the moral value of actions. Consequences have the awkward consequence of continuing indefinitely into the future. If left unattended, this feature would make all moral judgments temporary or probationary, since none are immune to radical revision in the future. What makes a consequence relevant to making an action right is something other than the fact that it is a consequence. The same is true for past motives. One motive or mental attitude surely lies behind another. What makes one mental state and not an earlier state the ultimate ethical phenomenon is something other than the fact that it is a mental state. Since neither motives nor consequences have a fixed stopping point, both are doomed to failure as moral criteria. “On both sides,” Bonhoeffer notes, “there are no fixed frontiers and nothing justifies us in calling a halt at some point which we ourselves have arbitrarily determined so that we may at last form a definite judgement” (Ethics, p.190). Without a reason for the relevance of specific motives or consequences, all moral judgments become hopelessly tentative and eternally incomplete.
In the final two years of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote several letters from Tegel prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge in which he spoke of the need for what he referred to as a “religionless Christianity.” “I shall not come out of here a homo religiosus!,” he declared vehemently in a note dated November 21, 1943. “My fear and distrust of ‘religiosity’ have become greater than ever here. The fact that the Israelites never uttered the name of God always makes me think, and I can understand it better as I go on.” On April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer offered one of his most famous and controversial statements on the meaning of discipleship in what he elsewhere called a “world come of age.” “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today,” he wrote. “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore.”
Piety and religiosity had not vanished from German society in Bonhoeffer’s day (any more than they have from American society in the present, confounding the secularization theories of several generations of sociologists of religion). Yet this very fact, Bonhoeffer concluded, was itself ironically symptomatic of the irrelevance of religion to the problems facing most men and women. “Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it,” he wrote, “and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’” Under these circumstances, what did it mean to be a follower of Christ? In the aftermath of the failure of the institutionalized churches and self-professing believers in Europe to withstand the onslaught of totalitarian ideologies—indeed, in the light of the church’s own authoritarianism and its ability to carry on uninterrupted even as the ground fell out from under it, with hymns being sung and sermons preached without pause amid the march to war—the question that now confronted Christians was one of first things.
Did the very language of spiritual inwardness, of evangelism, of apologetics, and of churchly authority that had marked Western Christianity from its beginning still make any sense? Was it the task of believers to somehow refill the vessels of a failed Christendom project that had been thoroughly corrupted by political evil with lost or forgotten meanings? Or were believers now called to bear witness to Christ in a secular age in radically new ways, and not as “religious” persons at all? Did “religion” itself need to be left behind as a historical stage, a human construct and sociological phenomenon, that was in no sense synonymous with the presence of the living Christ in the world and in history? But if so, what would such a “religionless Christianity” even begin to look like?
“Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world,” Bonhoeffer wrote to Bethge on July 18, 1944. Three days later, after learning of the failure of the Officer’s Plot to assassinate Hitler—a plot in which he had been complicit and for which he would be executed at the age of 39 when his role was uncovered by the Gestapo—Bonhoeffer wrote of the “this-worldliness” of the Christian faith:
“During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not ahomo religiosus, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man…I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian.”
We do not know how Bonhoeffer might have developed these highly allusive ideas had his life not been cut short. His enigmatic and provocative words have often been pressed into the service of agendas Bonhoeffer himself would have resisted, from liberal death-of-God theologies to highly conservative forms of evangelical Protestantism. Yet there are perhaps a few lessons we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s witness as we face the abuses of power, the smallness of heart and mind, and the betrayals of leadership that have led to mounting crises in our own day—both inside and outside of the church.
How can we be faithful disciples of Jesus in the midst of unsettling new realities, in which by faith we trust that God is still at work? How can we be certain of Christ and speak meaning into the lives of our fellow human beings when we can no longer put our trust in church officialdom or attach our confidence in the Holy Spirit to the outworn habits of religious thinking and speech that mark our church structures? How can we testify to the living Christ when “religion” itself turns the Word of God into a dead letter and takes on the marks of dehumanizing “kingly authority”?
For Bonhoeffer, the answers to these questions lie not in any nostalgic retreat to the past. He ultimately refused the path of shoring up decaying institutions and exhausted forms of piety. Rather, Bonhoeffer insisted, believers must now repent of the power and control game that they have been playing for far too long. They must instead enter with fear and trembling into the dangerous drama of Christ’s kenosis—his self-emptying and co-suffering identification with all of humankind.
“No man can look with undivided vision at God and at the world of reality so long as God and the world are torn asunder. Try as he may, he can only let his eyes wander distractedly from one to the other. But there is a place at which God and the cosmic reality are reconciled, a place at which God and man have become one. That and that alone is what enables man to set his eyes upon God and the world at the same time. This place does not lie somewhere out beyond reality in the realm of ideas. It lies in the midst of history as a divine miracle. It lies in Jesus Christ, the reconciler of the world.”
For Bonhoeffer, the foundation of ethical behaviour lay in how the reality of the world and the reality of God were reconciled in the reality of Christ. Both in his thinking and in his life, ethicswere centered on the demand for action by responsible men and women in the face of evil. He was sharply critical of ethical theory and of academic concerns with ethical systems precisely because of their failure to confront evil directly. Evil, he asserted, was concrete and specific, and it could be combated only by the specific actions of responsible people in the world. The uncompromising position Bonhoeffer took in his seminal work Ethics, was directly reflected in his stance against Nazism. His early opposition turned into active conspiracy in 1940 to overthrow the regime. It was during this time, until his arrest in 1943, that he worked on Ethics,
In previous posts, we began to answer the question if Dietrich Bonhoeffer should be considered a “martyr” in the traditional way that Christians understand martyrdom?
Even while the dust of was settling, Reinhold Niebuhr was hailing Bonhoeffer as a martyr whose story belonged amongst “the modern Acts of the Apostles.” Bishop George Bell of Chichester, Bonhoeffer’s chief contact in the ecumenical movement, echoed Niebuhr’s sentiments as he recounted the background of the Hitler plot (30).
Ultimately, it was the allegiance which he owed to God and his master which forced upon him the terrible decision, not merely to make a stand against National Socialism (all the underground movements in the German-occupied countries did that), but also–and this in contradistinction to all the underground movements which appealed to nationalism–to work for the defeat of his own country, since only thus could Germany as a Christian and European country be saved from extinction. For this very reason Bonhoeffer and his friends were tortured, hanged and murdered. It was Bonhoeffer and his friends who proved their resistance unto death that even in the age of the nation-state there are loyalties which transcend those to state and nation.