Bonhoeffer’s View of Reality and Good

Reading Bonhoeffer’s Ethics for Christian Ethics class is a hearty challenge.  The reading itself is quite easy: even translated, Bonhoeffer was a good writer.  The difficult part of reading Bonhoeffer is prepping your mental stomach to take on so much meat.  Just when you think that you’ve wrapped your mind around a thick, meaty thought, dripping with the hearty juices of implications, you’re faced with an entirely new haunch to chew on.  It’s dilectible, certainly, but when you have to cram it down in time for a deadline, it makes for a heavy stomach…or brain, as the metaphor has clearly gone too far.

The great thing about Bonhoeffer is that he has a very different worldview than traditional Christianity tends to teach, despite the fact that he is quite thoroughly orthodox.  He changes the meanings of common words, with epic results.  I’m sure this is to some degree due to the difference between theological German and common English, but I’ll offer an example: reality.

Bonhoeffer doesn’t believe in reality as we commonly see it.  If it exists to him, it certainly isn’t relevant.  When B. talks about reality, he’s talking about the reality of God as revealed in Jesus Christ: the ultimate, and only, reality.  All other conceptions of reality are, seemingly, false.  The reality of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is the ultimate reality, whithin which the reality of everyday life is contained.  So, while the fact that you’re getting older every minute and you just stubbed your toe and you’re concerned about your friend and you don’t understand Bonhoeffer are all quite real, you must understand that they are only a part of the reality that is God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  That is the foundation and culmination, the start and end, of all reality.  There is no reality without God, and there is no reality apart from God, and there is no reality outside of God, and God has revealed himself, in reality, through Jesus Christ.

It makes sense, but requires a fundamental rearranging of our categorical thought process.  We like to put everything into different mental bins: political, religious, private, public, good, evil, Church, World, etc.  I’m currently a postal worker, and am beginning to understand just how handy having bins with different labels on them can be; but while those bins help me to sort through the mail, they do nothing to show me the significance or contents of the mail.  Labels are great for arranging our life, our thoughts, and even our worldview: but what good is having a well-labeled, yet incomplete or incorrect, worldview?

Reality, to Bonhoeffer, is the foundation of Christian Ethics.  In fact, his definition of Christian Ethics is to participate in reality.  Since reality is God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, then something is only good if it is taking part in what Jesus Christ is doing in reality.  For example, God declared creation, as a whole, to be good.  Now, all Creation as a whole and undivided in any way, is reconciled to God in Jesus Christ, and is therefore good.  To take part in reality (which is revelation in Jesus Christ), i.e. to take part in what Christ is doing in the world, is to be a part of that good.  To try to find the good outside of what Jesus Christ is doing in the world is to miss the mark; in fact, to try to live in any way outside of the relation of Christ and his actions in the world is, quite naturally, the opposite of good – it is to deny reality itself, and is therefore quite obviously bad.

As you can see, Bonhoeffer’s ethics have a completely different foundation than typical ethics, even typical Christian ethics.  Instead of being preoccupied with the question “what is good” in every situation, Bonhoeffer starts with an understanding of exactly what it is that makes something good, and can therefore focus on what is really a much more interesting question: “What is Jesus Christ doing in the world?”  When you can find the answer to that question, then you have found both the Good and the Real; all you must do is take part in it.dietrich_bonhoeffer-gross


8 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer’s View of Reality and Good

  1. I do think Bonhoeffer is on to something with his “first question” position (ie: don’t ask ‘what is good’ but ‘what is Christ doing.’) Barth also takes this up in part–or, at least, it sure sounds like he should! I guess this is all tied up in that “we sure don’t want to be Natural Theologians trying to find God in human Reason (Kant) anymore!”
    Deep down I think Bonhoeffer and Barth are right to do this, but I really wish they would then reconcile with a good ol fashioned Calvin “two-book” (Bible + Nature) theology.

    Also, yay Jeff for this blog. I will post frequently!

    • I think you’ve hit on something about Kant there; before this course, I hadn’t heard of his heresy. I’ll definitely have a post on Kant, probably soon.

      My instinct is to uphold and support the Bible + Nature theology as well (or Special Revelation + General Revelation), but I think that what Bonhoeffer has done here is simply deny the false dichotomy between them. Reality is not fractured or divided in any way: it is cohesive. While the “two-book” theology does not intend to divide reality, by categorizing it in two major camps it does tend to create that artificial division, and over time the division is seen less and less as artificial.

      As relates to ethics, we see this on a grand scale. I think my prof’s purpose in teaching this course (and probably a major thesis of the book he’s working on) is to erase the divide between theology and ethics, the gap between what we believe and what we do; I know that that’s the stated thesis of one of our textbooks, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics. Our society today doesn’t allow people to base their actions on their beliefs – when you think about it, this is quite possibly the most assininely stupid thing human society has ever come up with!

      • I suppose the question is, with Bonhoeffer trying to swing ethics back into harmony with theology by de-emphasizing natural theology, does he lay the groundwork for denying natural theology completely. Some may argue that we’ve swung too far in the other direction and we have worked hard to cut out the idea of God-given reason, or the idea of conscience or any other “natural” human abilities.

    • I dunno tho. With Bonhoeffer’s insistence that the only way to know truth is through revelation–“When B. talks about reality, he’s talking about the reality of God as revealed in Jesus Christ”–then we have to assume that he means that we can’t know what is true unless we know revealed Jesus. This seems to be the death bell for any sort of natural theology–ie: knowing God by observing the world.

      • Perhaps so. Too bad we can’t ask him 😉

        My prof explained it by drawing a stick figure: this is you, your reality. Then he drew a circle around the stick figure: the circle is the reality of Jesus Christ, within which all other reality is to be found. Another way I thought of explaining it is that Christ is the foundation of all reality: there is nothing that is not built upon the basic fact of his existence, and thereby also his nature and character – which makes sense, as the creator of all things. This does not stop us from using reason to see the evidence of God in the “natural” world, but certainly means that a natural theology cannot be complete.

    • At least, natural theology is contained within revealed theology. One can know little bits about God by observing the world, and through reason; but one does not know the source or foundation of that theology until it its larger context is understood.

      It’s probably a terrible analogy, but imagine that God is like dark matter: we know that there’s tons of it in space, and in fact that it is the majority of the universe, but we can’t see it. We know much about matter, and have hints about anti-matter and dark matter, but scientists today say that understanding dark matter could open us up to a whole new world of knowledge.

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