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.