Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 3: Ethics as Formation

While I’m away Dan is guest blogging through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US (part of the new Dietrich Bonhoeffer Series which I recently reviewed). Dan has served with Wycliffe in Papua New Guinea and is currently spending some time with us in The Crowded House.

In good Bonhoeffer style, this manuscript relates two issues to the main topic being discussed (here, formation): the need for an active stance against Hitler’s Nazism and the centrality of Christ.  Christ is the new humanity and therefore a Christian ethic needs to ask the question, ‘How can Christ take form among us today?’

First Bonhoeffer lays out the problem of his day, that ‘Seldom has a generation been as uninterested as ours in any kind of ethical theory or program. … This does not come from any ethical indifference in our times, but rather the reverse, from the pressure of a reality filled with concrete, ethical problems such as we have never had before in the history of the West.’ (76)

Bonhoeffer describes six ethical orientations and their failures.  Reasonable people cannot discern between evil and holiness, so wanting to be fair to both sides they (mistakenly) ‘believe that that, with a little reason, they can pull back together a structure that has come apart at the joints.’ (78)  Ethical fanatics lose sight of the whole and so ‘sooner or later they are caught in small and insignificant things and fall into the net of their more clever opponent.’ (78).  Men of conscience fail because, ‘The countless respectable and seductive disguises and masks in which evil approaches them make their conscience anxious and unsure until they finally content themselves with an assuaged conscience instead of a good conscience…’ (79).  Those who fall back on duty ‘will never venture a free action that rests solely on their own responsibility, the only sort of action that can meet evil at its heart and overcome it.’ (79)  Those who value their very own freedom (or ‘free responsibility’) value necessary action more highly than conscience.  They are ‘prepared to sacrifice a barren principle to a fruitful compromise…[but] should take heed lest precisely their presumed freedom ultimately cause them to fall.  They will easily consent to the bad, knowing full well that it is bad, in order to prevent the worse, and no longer be able to recognize that precisely the worse choice they wish to avoid may be the better one.  Here lies the raw material of tragedy.’ (79-80)  And some retreat into a sanctuary of a private virtuousness, not stealing, murdering, committing adultery, etc, but doing good.  However, ‘They must close their eyes and ears to the injustice around them.  Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep their private blamelessness clean from the stains of responsible action in the world.’ (80)

So if the best (those described above) ‘with all they are and can do go under’ (80) what are we to do?  ‘We must replace rusty weapons with bright steel.  Only the person who combines simplicity with wisdom can endure. … A person is simple who in the confusion, the distortion, and the inversion of all concepts keeps in sight only the single truth of God. … Not fettered by principles but bound by love for God, this person is liberated from the problems and conflicts of ethical decision, and is no longer beset by them. … The person is wise who sees reality as it is, who sees into the depth of things. … Wisdom is recognizing the significant within the factual.  Wise people know the limited receptivity of reality for principles, because they know that reality is not built on principles, but rests on the living, creating God.’ (81)

Bonhoeffer then moves on to considering Christ, repeating the refrain ‘Ecce homo’ throughout the rest of the manuscript.  He considers Christ the reconciler (82-83), God’s love (84) and the incarnation (84-85).  Specifically, he advocates standing up and speaking out against those who do not love that which God has loved through Christ, i.e. humanity.  Bringing theology back to his day, he writes, ‘The message of God’s becoming human attacks the heart of an era when contempt for humanity or idolization of humanity is the height of all wisdom.’ (85)  Addressing those who do not take action against Hitler, ‘the tyrannical despiser of humanity’ he says, ‘Good people who see through all this…[but] would rather tend to their own gardens than debase themselves in public life, fall prey to the same temptation to contempt for humanity as do bad people. … Faced by God’s becoming human, this contempt will stand the test no better than that of the tyrant.’ (87)  And again, ‘For various reasons one shies away from a clear No, and finally agrees to everything.’ (87)

Pages 92-102 focus on the issue of formation.  ‘The form of Jesus Christ alone victoriously encounters the world.  From this form proceeds all the formation of a world reconciled with God.’ (92)  ‘Formation occurs only by being drawn into the form of Jesus Christ, by being conformed to the unique form of the one who became human, was crucified and is risen.  This does not happen as we strive “to become like Jesus,” as we customarily say, but as the form of Jesus Christ himself so works on us that it moulds us, conforming our form to Christ’s own (Gal. 4:9).  Christ remains the only one who forms.’ (93).

‘To be conformed to the one who has become human—that is what being really human means.’ (94)  ‘To be conformed to the crucified—that means to be a human being judged by God.’ (94)  ‘To be conformed to the risen one—that means to be a new human being before God.’ (95)  ‘So the church is not a religious community of those who revere Christ, but Christ who has taken form among human beings.’ (96)

Bonhoeffer claims that we need to consider how Christ may be formed among us today, not to create principles that are supposed to hold for all time (99).  Creating principles is abstraction; we need to instead address our situation (99-101).

Finally, ‘Ethics as formation, then, is the venture of speaking about the form of Christ taking form in our world neither abstractly nor casuistically, neither programmatically nor purely reflectively.  Here we must risk making concrete judgements and decisions.  Here, decision and deed can no longer be shifted onto the individual’s personal conscience.  Here concrete commandments and guidance are given, for which obedience will be demanded.’ (102)
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