Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 11: The “Ethical” and the “Christian” as a Topic

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.

What is ethical should normally be self-evident and should not be a topic of constant debate. Humans should not be constantly wondering what they ‘ought’ to do; most moments of our lives don’t require a conscious decision between right and wrong.  Many moments of our lives are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; some moments have no ‘higher purpose’ and we should not always be seeking a higher meaning or duty in life’s day-to-day events.  Limiting ‘the ethical phenomenon’ to its time and place ‘does not imply its rejection but, on the contrary, its validation.  One does not use canons to shoot sparrows.’ (366)  ‘Viewed sociologically, the persistent effort to hold on to the ethical as a topic beyond its appropriate time springs from the frustrated desire for continued prestige by those who have excellent attitudes but who are ineffectual in life.’ (369)  There will, however, be occasional times when what is ethical is not clear but after those needed times of debate, one should return to a time where what is moral is, again, self-evident (269).

Ethics is not about creating a rule book for life ‘that guarantees flawless moral behaviour’ (370) and it’s not about judging every human action.  Rather than constantly meddling in life, describing being good, the ethicist is to ‘help people learn to live with others’.  ‘Living with others means living within the boundaries of the ought—though not motivated at all by the ought—in the midst of the abundance of the concrete tasks and processes of life with their infinite variety of motives.’ (370)

Also, the validity/authorisation of an ethic depends on who says it.  Youth, for example, have less authority than those who have experienced life (371).  This authorisation is bestowed on people, rather than claimed by them.  Bonhoeffer calls this ‘the orientation from above to below’ where certain people (e.g. the old person, the parent, the teacher) have authorisation for ethical discourse and others don’t (the young, the child, the student) (372-377).  Again, ethics is not about cold principles removed from reality, but certain times, places, people and events.

Bonhoeffer concludes with a discussion of ‘the only possible subject matter of a “Christian ethic,” namely, the “commandment of God.”’ (378)  The commandment of God encompasses all of life; it is unconditional, total; it binds but also sets free (by binding); it prohibits and commands but also gives permission.  ‘The commandment of God is the total and concrete claim of human beings by the merciful and holy God in Jesus Christ. (378)  The concreteness of this commandment is in its historicity.  It comes from above to below and is revealed in Jesus Christ.  God’s commandment is spoken by God to us and is absolutely clear and specific, to the extent where there is no dispute about interpretation ‘but only the freedom of obedience or disobedience’ (381).

‘The commandment of God is permission to live before God as a human being.’ ‘It means certainty, calm, confidence, equanimity, joy.  I honor my parents, keep my marriage vows, and respect the life and property of others not because of a menacing “You shall not” at the boundaries of my life, but because I myself affirm the given realities of parents, marriage, life, and property that I find in the center and fullness of life as God’s holy institution [Setzung].’ (382)
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