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“Whoever wishes to take up the problem of a Christian ethic must be confronted at once with a demand that is without parallel. He must at the outset discard as irrelevant the two questions which alone impel him to concern himself with the problem of ethics, ‘How can I be good?’ and “How can I do good?’, and instead of these he must ask the utterly and totally different question ‘What is the will of God?'” (Ethics, 188).
When we last left our fearless ethicist, we found ourselves faced with a somewhat startling assertion: the first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate the knowledge of good and evil. If you are anything like me, you might have finished our previous post with a certain sense of unease. How, you might ask, is one to discard the knowledge of good and evil without falling headlong into moral relativism? What is to govern our ethical decision making if not the knowledge of good and evil?
As the above quote indicates, for Bonhoeffer Christian ethics ought not to be concerned with the knowledge of good and evil, but rather with the will of God. The vast difference between these two approaches can be apprehended most clearly in Bonhoeffer’s reflections upon the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees.
According to Bonhoeffer, “the Pharisee is not an adventitious historical phenomenon of a particular time. He is the man to whom only the knowledge of good and evil has come to be of importance in his entire life… For the Pharisee every moment of life becomes a situation of conflict in which he has to choose between good and evil” (26, 27, emphasis added). As such, life for the Pharisee is ultimately comprised of logical alternatives: right/wrong, lawful/unlawful, sin/virtue. In refusing to be drawn into these conflicts (such as in his response to the Pharisees concerning the keeping of the Sabbath in Matthew 12), Jesus refuses to limit himself to the law of logical alternatives. “In this freedom Jesus leaves all laws beneath him; and to the Pharisees this freedom necessarily appears as the negation of all order, all piety and all belief… For the Pharisee, [Jesus] is a nihilist, a man who knows and respects only his own law, an egoist and a blasphemer of God” (29, 30).
Despite the Pharisees objections to the contrary, however, the freedom which Jesus displays in his life and teachings can hardly be considered arbitrary or uncertain. Rather, “His freedom gives to Him and to His followers in all their actions a peculiar quality of sureness, unquestionableness and radiance.” For Bonhoeffer, this is precisely what sets Jesus apart form the Pharisees.
The freedom of Jesus is not the arbitrary choice of one amongst innumerable possibilities; it consists on the contrary precisely in the complete simplicity of His action, which is never confronted by a plurality of possibilities, conflicts or alternatives, but always only by one thing. This one thing Jesus calls the will of God. He says that to do this will is His meat. This will of God is His life. He lives and acts not by the knowledge of good and evil but by the will of God (30, emphasis added).
All of this, of course, begs the important question: what is the will of God and how can we possibly know it? To this, Bonhoeffer offers the following reflections:
(1.) “The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be” (38).
The will of God, therefore, is not something at our disposal in the manner of concrete propositions and/or legal ordinances. It is neither timeless nor universal, but is wholly indivisible from the ‘here’ and the ‘now.’ This is certainly one of the most provocative and highly contested aspects of Bonhoeffer’s ethical program. For Bonhoeffer, however, this is precisely what differentiates a Christian ethic from the pharisaic knowledge of good and evil. This is also what distinguishes Bonhoeffer’s program from the rationalist ethic of Immanuel Kant and his followers (see previous post). For Kant, there are certain things which are inherently right and others (such as lying) which are inherently wrong. As such, Kant is so bold as to suggest “that I must even return an honest ‘yes’ to the enquiry of the murderer who breaks into my house and asks whether my friend whom he is pursuing has taken refuge there” (245). For Bonhoeffer, such self-righteous, law-abiding adherence to one’s own conscience actually stands in opposition to the will of God, which often demands that the individual incur guilt for the sake of the other. For Bonhoeffer, therefore, “it is precisely in the responsible acceptance of guilt that a conscience which is bound solely to Christ will best prove its innocence” (ibid).
(2.) “Proving what is God’s will is possible only on the foundation of the knowledge of God’s will in Jesus Christ. Only upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, only within the space which is defined by Jesus Christ, only ‘in’ Jesus Christ can man prove what is the will of God” (39).
This is without question the nexus of Bonhoeffer’s uniquely Christian approach to ethics. For Bonhoeffer, the crucial precondition for discovering the will of God is a complete metamorphosis, a ‘renewing of the mind’ (Rom. 12:2), a ‘walking as children of light’ (Eph. 5:8). “This metamorphosis of man can only be the overcoming of the form of the fallen man, Adam, and conformation with the form of the new man, Christ” (38). The individual who is being conformed to the image of Christ, therefore, is the individual who leaves behind the knowledge of good and evil in an attempt to know only Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). As such, for Bonhoeffer,
The knowledge of Jesus Christ, metamorphosis, renewal, love, or whatever other name we may give it, is something living, and not something which is given, fixed and possessed once and for all. For this reason there arises every day anew the question how here, today and in my present situation I am to remain and be preserved in this new life with God, with Jesus Christ (39).
For Bonhoeffer, the knowledge of good and evil is replaced with the knowledge of God’s will as revealed in the person and works of Jesus Christ. We shall return to this, the foundation of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, in our next post.
(3.) Given the previous two reflections, “it is still necessary really to examine what is the will of God, what is rightful in a given situation, what course is truly pleasing to God” (40).
For Bonhoeffer, to affirm that the will of God is something new and different in each different situation is not to deny the tremendous importance of ethical examination. The ethical task embraces and demands intelligence, discernment, and attentive observation of the given facts.
In other words, the whole apparatus of human powers must be set in motion when it is a matter of proving what is the will of God. But in all this there will be no room for the torment of being confronted with insoluble conflicts, or for the arrogant notion that one can master every conflict, or even for the enthusiastic expectation and assertion of direct inspiration. There will be the belief that if a man asks God humbly, God will give him certain knowledge of His will; and then, after all this earnest proving, there will be the freedom to make a real decision, and with it the confidence that it is not man but God Himself who, through this proving, gives effect to His will (40).
Christian ethical reflection, therefore, while demanding serious examination, is always pervaded by prayer. As such, the task of ethical reflection is utterly dependent upon the mercy of God and absolutely contingent upon God’s gracious self-revelation.
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What do you make of Bonhoeffer’s reflections upon the will of God. Does Bonhoeffer’s approach to ethics escape the charge of moral relativism?