From Bonhoeffer to the Evangelicals, with Love

Edit: I edited this paper, the final paper for my Christian Ethics class that started this whole blogging and Bonhoeffer adventure.  It’s now one page longer, but I hope you find that it is more complete.  Be challenged, as I am.

To the Evangelicals,

I am writing to you about, and I am sure you will agree on this, a matter of great concern to the Christian faith: the matter of judgment.  This issue is not unknown to you, but I feel that some review and examination may be edifying; bear with me, and with one another, as we examine ourselves in relation to it.

In the Garden of Eden, humankind was in right standing and relationship to God in all respects, including their knowledge of the world and all that is in it.  In the garden, creation was known intimately as the created things of God; humankind’s knowledge of creation was only in relation to God, and through God.  We knew nothing but God, and through him, all things.  This is important, because we must understand that the eating of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil did not grant us new knowledge, but only shifted our source of knowledge: where once we knew all things only through God, we now know all things only in relation to ourselves.  In eating that fruit, we have claimed divine knowledge, the very role and status of creator, and therefore it is upon us (or so we think) to judge whether the created things are good or evil.  Where once we looked to God and saw that he declared creation to be good, now we must decide this for ourselves.  “The knowledge of good and evil is thus disunion with God.”[1] Because we are in disunion with God, we are not only able to judge but obligated to do so: because God is no longer our frame of reference, we measure creation by the “good”; because we are in disunion with the True Good (God), we must judge what is good by our own reckoning.  Whenever we do this we testify to the disunion between God and humankind: our judgment proves that we are fallen.

It is of some concern, then, that the Evangelical tradition, so named for your focus on the proclamation of the gospel, has garnered a reputation for the proclamation of judgment.  Morality has become a driving force of the Evangelical ethic.  This seems on the surface to be quite logical: God is good, and therefore when one is moral one is more like God.  Morality is seen as the standard of godliness, and to some extent, even the measure or evidence of one’s salvation.  This understanding is of course flawed, because it is founded upon a human judgment of the good, which we have already identified as being the very evidence of the fall of humanity.

When this moral standard is applied within the Church, its results can be quite harmful.  The Church, charged with proclaiming the reconciliation of the world with Christ, continues to judge one another and thus exposes their actual disunity with God; the gospel message is compromised by those who most seek to proclaim it.  Equally disastrous to the Body of Christ is that such judgment within the Church creates a false guilt, which is based on the judgment of the community rather than on being confronted by the majesty of Christ.  When the one is confronted by Christ, one’s sin is made evident by the very perfection of Christ, and one understands their complicit guilt in all sin; such guilt leaves no room for looking at others, no room for comparison or self-justification.  “Why does it concern me if others are also guilty?  Every sin of another I can excuse; only my own sin, of which I remain guilty, I can never excuse.”[2] The fruit of such guilt is repentance and reconciliation, the essence of the gospel.  Morality, on the other hand, is not based on Christ at all but only on ourselves, and is therefore based on comparison with others.  Guilt is not brought about by confrontation with Christ, but by social forces; it leads sometimes to repentance and reconciliation, but more often to outward shows of conformity and secret sin.

When this moral standard is applied outside the Church, the results are no less disastrous.  First of all, because the moral standard is based upon human judgment of the good it has no constant foundation or application: one church’s moral standard may differ from another’s, and once again our practice of judgment has served to reveal disunity; not only with God but now with each other.  The hearing we receive from the world is brief as it is, and such disunity among us shortens that hearing even further.  We must ask ourselves what message (in the short hearing the world will give us) we want to deliver: a message of moral judgment based on the human judgment of our community, or the gospel message of Jesus Christ.  The world judged Christ in our worldly sense, and hung him on a cross; but the very action of the innocent Christ dying on the cross affected divine judgment upon the world.  We gave a human “no” to Christ, revealing the very depth of our disunion with God and eliciting a divine “no” from God; the gospel message is precisely that on the cross Christ not only pronounced judgment on humanity (the divine “no”), but also took that judgment upon himself and paid it for all of humanity, thus declaring a divine “YES!” to humanity and reconciling all creation to himself.  This is the nature of Christ’s judgment: it redeems, rather than condemns.  If Christ, while experiencing our human “no” which demanded a divine “no”, has overshadowed that divine “no” with a divine “YES!”, then why do we who proclaim Christ continue to proclaim a human “no” upon one another?  We have obscured the radiance of God’s mercy with less than a shadow of God’s judgment (i.e. our own judgment), and done so in God’s name.

Some of you have become known for not only preaching a message of judgment, but of heaping condemnation upon sinners and even claiming God’s hatred for them.  This is not the gospel: it is decidedly anti-Christ, as those who preach it preach against Christ.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son,” that Son being Jesus Christ, whom we preach.  Taking on human flesh, Christ showed his love for us by becoming not just one of us, but our ultimate representative; if one is to judge or condemn a human being, one judges and condemns Christ – and thus calls judgment on himself.  “Judge not, lest you be judged” and “let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Even among Jews, Christ spoke in this way; how much more so should we, being among Gentiles who were not given the Law, do likewise?  But as we have already noted, we cannot stop judging: this is a sign of our disunity with God.  Because of this disunity, we remain the judges of the world.

But we are not without hope, dear fellows!  Just as the disunity between God and humanity has resulted in our unceasing judgment of all things, so too the reconciliation of all things to Christ has allowed us to stop judging in this human sense.  We are united in Christ whether we recognize it or not; this means that we are able to stop judging and return to our pre-fall knowledge of the world only through God, though we have failed to recognize it.  Like the freed slave who knows no life but slavery and returns to it over and over again, so too we return to judging the world as good or evil in spite of the reality that we can recognize all creation in relation to its creator, who has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ.  We were once the judges of the world, but now we can and must acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the one and only judge of the world; the only judge who redeems and reconciles us by his very judgment of us.

If we return to knowing the world only through knowing Jesus Christ, not only do we not need to judge, but we are unable to.  In recognizing Christ as the creator and judge of the world, we recognize him as the creator and judge of ourselves; being so confronted by the lordship of Christ elicits confession; and having received grace from him, we are unable to point to others.  “Looking on this grace of Christ frees us completely from looking at the guilt of others and brings all people to fall on their knees before Christ with the confession: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”[3]

If we return to knowing all things only through Christ, and recognizing him as the creator and judge of all things, then we must re-evaluate our understanding of the “good”.  If Christ is creator and judge, and we know all things only through him, then we must only recognize him as the source of the “good”.  In different terms, the true good is only what Christ is doing, and we can only be good or do good by participating in that true good.  If we no longer judge the world by our standard of good but rather look to Christ for the good, then our morality loses its very foundation and is exposed as being based on nothing of any account – that is, it is exposed as being based only on human judgment.  Just as we are no longer able to judge others when we recognize Christ as judge, so too do we lose any basis upon which to justify ourselves; where once we could call ourselves good based on our actions, now we must look to Christ for such a judgment, and in so doing become aware of our own sin.  Our only hope for goodness is to participate in the good that Christ is doing, something about which we may never be sure in the moment.  After all, who can say how Christ will use or arrange human actions, as he uses even the worst evil at times to accomplish his good works?  By what human standards can we call the betrayal by Judas “good”?  Yet we recognize that Christ used such an evil for the greatest good the world has ever known, and thus that we can never know how our own actions will relate to the good work that Christ is doing.  Such a statement may seem hopeless, unless one remembers that it is not on the basis of our goodness that we are saved, but based entirely on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  We often seek justification by our own actions, because we judge our actions to be good; if we cannot be assured whether or not our actions are good, we must recognize that justification comes only as a gift from God through Jesus Christ, and all of our actions – even those we would formerly call “good” – are good only in relation to Christ.  This was good news for Judas, and it is good news for sinners such as you and I; for we need not seek assurance that our actions are good, but only assurance that Christ is good, of which we are much assured!

If Christ is the creator and judge of creation, we must recall that he declared creation to be good.  We recite the rhetoric that God loves the sinner but hates the sin, which affirms God’s judgment on creation: what God has made is good, but human actions can be evil, and cause evil.  This brings up a crucial point: action.  Action and judgment are mutually exclusive.  We recognize that the true good is to participate in what Jesus is doing – acting along with and in accordance with his good action.  “The good that Jesus speaks of consists entirely in doing, not in judging.  Judging another always entails an impediment to my own activity.”[4] Jesus criticized the Pharisees not because they were not doing good things, but because their judgments and their actions were mutually exclusive.  Jesus, on the other hand, refused to judge in human ways, insisting instead on acting – insisting on actually doing good, rather than judging evil.  Christ’s good action is itself a judgment: the true judgment, by which he judges the world and in which we can take part.

This is the judgment by which we can and must judge the world: participating in the judgment of Christ on the world, which is to participate in the good by actually doing it.  Our judgment of evil divides, and gives evidence of division; our good actions reconcile and restore, giving evidence of the unity and reconciliation of all creation with Christ – the gospel message.  In his good action, Christ brought true judgment upon those who judge and do not act; so too our good actions can expose the evil in the world, not to bring condemnation upon it but to act in accordance with the judgment of Christ which brings repentance and reconciliation with Christ to the world!

Therefore I urge you dear fellows, in view of God’s mercy, to return to a knowledge of only Christ, and all things through him, recognizing him as creator and judge of all things.  When we judge, we testify to disunion with Christ, even as we preach union with him.  We must recognize that Christianity is basically amoral, since it is not at all concerned with morality but only with Christ and what Christ is doing.  He has created, judged, and reconciled all things to himself; and this without our help.  We must give testimony only to what Christ is doing, and that by doing it along with him, so that in seeing our good deeds others might be drawn to Christ, be judged, and repent and be reconciled.  Put away your old habits of judging from disunion, and with Christ participate in the judgment that brings reunion.  Take action, knowing only Christ, for his glory’s sake; this is the call of your namesake as Evangelicals.

Grace and peace,

Dietrich Bonhoeffer


[1] Bonhoeffer, “God’s Love and the Disintegration of the World”, in Ethics (Fortress Press, 2005), 300.

[2] Bonhoeffer, “Guilt, Justification, Renewal”, in Ethics (Fortress Press, 2005), 137.

[3] Bonhoeffer, “Guilt, Justification, Renewal”, in Ethics (Fortress Press, 2005), 136.

[4] Bonhoeffer, “God’s Love and the Disintegration of the World”, in Ethics (Fortress Press, 2005), 314.

A Double-Morality

I apologize for the seemingly ever-increasing size of my posts.  I think this one’ll bring me back to a readable level.  On a side note, today is November 27th, and we began playing Christmas music.  Glory Glory Hallelujah has a fantastic, epic version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, and it instantly takes me away.  Now, back to Bonhoeffer, and an interesting note he makes in his essay On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World.

“God’s entire law and the entire gospel belong to all people in the same way.  One might object that in the world the church demands the safeguarding of the rule of law, of property, and of honour, whereas it demands that Christians renounce all these things; that in the world, retribution and force must be exercised, whereas Christians ought to practice forgiveness and bear injustice.  This widely held objection, which leads to a double Christian morality, comes from a false understanding of the word of God…the orders [i.e. government] are not a second divine source of authority alongside and in addition to the God of Jesus Christ.  Instead, they are the place where the God of Jesus Christ establishes obedience.  God’s Word is not concerned with the orders as such, but with the obedience of faith rendered within them.”

I’ve been thinking about my eventual master’s thesis, and it’s going to be on the separation of church and state and the integration of faith and politics required for personal and religious integrity within political participation, and I think this is a prime example of where we’ve gone wrong in this regard.  These days (and in Bonhoeffer’s day), even the religious folk are secularists!  We’ve a notion that reality is divided, that there is a realm in which God is the King of everything, and a realm in which there are laws by which we all go about our daily business, and these realms only slightly overlap – that is, they overlap in the Church, and in the Church alone.  We think that the law (and the gospel!) were given to Christians and for Christians, and everyone else has no relationship with God.  He will be our God, and we will be his people, and everyone else can just go about their business, answering only to the law of the land.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not for some sort of Christian sharia law.  I don’t think we should start stoning adulterers, or anything of the like: the law, the government, these are what Bonhoeffer calls “divine orders”.  They’re instituted by God, for the governing of the people and the safeguarding of order.  In their own way, whether they recognize God or not, they are both his servant and representative.  And that’s just the point: whether they recognize him or not, everyone has a relationship to God.  The Law is for everyone, as is the Gospel, and when we separate the Church from the rest of the world, we create a false division within reality, or as Bonhoeffer mentions here, within morality.  There is no double-morality, and we need to let it go.

So what do we do instead?  That’s a very good question; perhaps I’ll write my master’s thesis on it.

Creation, Science, and Unity (and Bonhoeffer)

Today I attended a series of lectures by Dr. Glen Klassen, a microbiologist, on the topic of Theistic Evolution.  I found it highly interesting, not least because I’ve never actually heard someone defend the position before, much less argue for it.  I was always under the impression that Theistic Evolution was a cop-out, the easy out for those who didn’t want to fight the good fight against Creationism, or better yet, Intelligent Design.  Let it be known from the get-go that I know very little about these topics except what I’ve been told by people who probably know at least as little.  I’m also well aware that I’ve changed camps on this issue just about every time I’ve heard someone actually articulate their position (and cut the other positions down).  This lecture had something different though, something that appealed to the theologist in me (and the Bonhoeffer in me), so much so that I’ve decided to write my Ethical Reflection paper on the subject.  This is my dry run, so here goes:

For the past 150 years or more, the debate has raged between scientists, theologians, politicians, schoolteachers, and preachers about the origin of species, and quite often specifically about The Origin of Species.  Were human beings created ex nihilo, or did they evolve over millions of years?  Is the earth 6,000 years old, or 4 billion?  What does the Bible say, and what do scientists say, and is there any middle ground?  Should one carry more weight than the other?  What are the ethics involved in our stance on these issues?  Is it ethical to limit school curriculum to one side of the issue or another?  What effect do these views have on the way we live our lives?  The questions raised by this issue are too numerous to address here, so instead I’ll attempt to single out one view that I am coming to believe is scientifically favoured and theologically and ethically superior and consistent as compared to the other views.

Intelligent Design is a rising star in this debate, earning new loyalty from the disenfranchised Creationists who are still stinging from the Scopes trial and the new crowd that’s too young to know what the Scopes trial was.  Mainstream scientists, on the other hand, call ID the new Creationism, and maintain that it’s exactly the same thing trying to pretend that it’s not.  I’m no scientist, so I won’t even try to comment on the scientific issues at hand, but I can tell that Intelligent Design (ID) and Creation Science (CS) have one thing in common: they make a pivotal assumption about God and the way He interacts with the world.

Intelligent Design has made a discipline out of finding evidence of God in nature, or as Dr. Klassen referred to it, “catching God in the act.”  They recognize that much of the natural world is so complex and specific that its design is quite evident; they see the obvious design in nature as obvious evidence of a designer (which is a much simpler explanation than random mutations over billions of years that lead to increasingly complex creatures).  So they continue to look for these “fingerprints” of God, or some other designer (who the designer is has little relevance to their discipline, as they seek only to show that things have been designed).  Creationists, on the other hand, generally start with the assumption of a six-day creation by God ex nihilo (out of nothing), just as is stated straightforwardly in Genesis.  As any other person with an obvious bias, they champion evidence that fits their bias and downplay evidence that challenges their bias (evolutionists do it too).  They work to figure out the science of biblical events like creation and Noah’s flood.  The thing that Creation Science and Intelligent Design have in common is that they both assume that God stands outside of creation, occasionally reaching into it to do something miraculous, something outside the rules of this world, whether that be performing miraculous healings or raining down sulfur and brimstone or creating the world.

This is a very common viewpoint, so it didn’t hit me right away what was wrong with it.  I mean, of course God is outside of creation; he’s up in heaven, right?  Jesus ascended into the sky!  And when miracles happen, they obviously break the laws of physics or chemistry or biology.  It makes perfect sense, except that that’s completely different from what the Bible teaches.  Paul said “in him we live and move and have our being.”  Christian theology maintains that God is still actively creating in this world, and that he actively sustains everything that exists.  He’s here, and he’s busy.  This raises the obvious question: if he wasn’t here, sustaining everything by his providence, then where is he and what’s he up to?  What does God do, in a given day, if he’s not interacting with his creation?  This might sound incredibly anthropocentric, but it is; everything we know about God and the universe is focused on how he relates to us, and from what he’s told us we get the idea that we’re very, very important to him.  The ID and CS assumption that God is somewhere else and occasionally checks in to do something wild and “supernatural” is actually quite a lot like Deism, except Deists don’t even expect God to show up and do anything at all.

The effect of this view of God’s activity on our actions and understandings is surprisingly enormous.  It means that God set up “nature”, and that nature pretty much takes care of itself except when we get ourselves into pretty big trouble – which means that God only shows up when we’re in trouble (if then), which is a very unhealthy relationship.  Even if we think that God is somehow close to us in all of this, it’s a strange close-but-far-away relationship, in which God is far away but we have free long-distance and can call him anytime.  It means that we feel like God is close to us when we’re in trouble and call on him, but that he’s not close to us when things are going well – which means we can feel free to take credit for the good things in our lives, or at best that we think God sends great care packages.  It means that the miracle of the Incarnation focuses on the fact that God showed up at all, as if he wasn’t here and then, BAM!  Jesus shows up to save the day, after letting the Romans and the Greeks and the Persians and the Babylonians and the Assyrians mess with Israel for five hundred years to teach them a lesson.  It means that we, like the psalmist of Psalm 74, must beg God: “Remember how the enemy has mocked you, O LORD…do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever.”  We get defensive, and start defending our god, when the real God needs no defense.

If you don’t know what I mean, talk to a Creationist about evolution.  I don’t mean to be a jerk, and I say this knowing full well that for the majority of my life, I was the most defensive creationist I knew.  I criticized my high school biology teacher in class about it, and he didn’t bother to respond.  Creationists, like ancient Israel, often think that everyone is against them, and that God isn’t here to defend his own honour – and well, if God isn’t here to defend himself, he isn’t here to defend us either.  So much depends on God making a big splash, coming into creation from somewhere else in order to do anything, in order to prove that he’s there, that life becomes a search for that evidence of the thing that you swear exists, if you could only prove it in a way that people would believe you.  What more could we expect in a world where our knowledge is founded on a claim that we are gods?

If you read my last post, you know that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the knowledge of everything, they were claiming that they had that knowledge, and even that they were the source of that knowledge (all knowledge).  They once knew all things only in relation to God; we now know all things only in relation to ourselves, which means we know God not at all, except the dim knowledge that we need him.  So we search, thinking that he’s not here, and creating a false duality; that there is a here where God is not, and a there where God is, and we want him to come here.  We’re perpetually waiting for God to “come back”, to “return”; we divide reality.  While we’re waiting for Christ to return, we forget that Christ is God, and “in him we live and move and have our being”; he is the centre of reality, and all reality is reconciled to himself.  The psalmist says “there’s nowhere I can go and you’re not already there.”  The miracle of the Incarnation was not that God showed up, because he’s always been here; the miracle there was that he became one of us.  The miracle of the parousia will not be that God “comes back”, but that he will come back in physical form to rule.  The miracles of the New Testament were not telegrammed to Peter and Paul from the distant cosmos, or even from up in the clouds; they were an act of God the Holy Spirit within themGOD IS HERE!

I highly, highly recommend reading Job 38-42, in which God describes what he does in a day.  He talks about how he created the world, but mostly he talks about how that job’s still going on, and what he’s been up to since.  “Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions…who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food?  Do you know when the moutnain goats give birth?  Do you watch when the do bears her fawn?…Do you give the horse his strength, or clothe his neck with a flowing mane?”  You know God could go on (and he does), but I think the point is made.  God is here, and he’s busy (as busy as God could really be, I guess).  He’s busy with providing for all of his creation, sustaining its very existence.  I can draw my next breath because he gives me the ability to do so; when he stops giving me that ability, I will die.  I can use my muscles until they wear out, and they’ll get better – because he makes them to.  I can use my mind and my body for great things, or for terrible things, and both are a miracle of the God who gave me such power (not to mention choice).  God didn’t set up a self-reliant system and then walk away; if humanity has learned anything in our years of existence, it ought to be that we’re not very self-reliant!  Everything continues to live and move and breath because God provides the life and motion and breath, without prejudice, to all of his creatures.

This means that there is no division in reality.  There is no place where God is not.  There is no false duality.  We can count on a God who is very near to us – and we can know that he’s very near and paying attention to us because we’re still here.  Dr. Klassen today made a very interesting point that has stuck with me: God is completely consistent.  Everything we know about God tells us that he’s completely consistent.  And if God is consistent, then it stands to reason that his creation is also consistent.  We can trust that gravity will not disappear overnight, and that the sun will rise tomorrow, because nature is consistent.  Science, he said, is taking note of these consistencies.  Miracles may seem inconsistent, but knowing the God who performs them, we can trust that they are in fact consistent (jury’s still out for me on that one).  Science is not opposed to God, because science is simply taking note of God’s consistency, the way he rolls (if you will).

Theistic Evolution was always presented as the weakest of the options in this great debate.  I was always led to believe that they are the great wafflers, who are atheists in the lab and Christians in the Church.  Dr. Klassen actually said today: “Theistic evolutionists are methodologically naturalistic; we do our work in the lab with a naturalist view of it” (or something of the like), and I pegged him…until he explained it with a fantastic analogy.  “If everything in the world was red, red wouldn’t stand out.”  To phrase it another way, God is so present in creation that he appears absent.  ID and CS are looking for evidence of God in creation, but it’s like looking for red in red.  To look for evidence of God in creation is to assume that he isn’t consistently evident in everything.  Theistic Evolutionists are free to look at science and know that it belongs to God, not fearing that they must defend against it, or even claim it.  It belongs to him.

What are the effects of this view of God on the way we live?  Well, first of all we must begin to understand God’s omnipresence once again.  Jesus didn’t just leave, for crying out loud; God is HERE!  How does that affect your view of the world?  It makes me realize just how important all of creation is to God; not just me, not just Christians, not even just human beings, but ALL of creation is his and the object of his love.  Which means that I ought to take care of creation.  The great thing is that I can believe that when I’m taking care of creation I’m not working against a God who’s out to destroy the world (eschatology is for another day though) nor am I a caretaker in the absence of the owner; rather, I can look after the planet alongside God, and with his empowerment.  Relievingly, it also means that I can put this awful debate to rest, because I’m not concerned about sticking up for the very God who is so present that I can’t find where he’s not, and I’m not worried that someone else will find that he’s not here either.  This means that I don’t need to worry about tieing my theology to a scientific position (or a political position either!).  It means that the rain will fall on the just and the unjust alike, and I can count on that, and on the fact that God knows about it and knows my woes and feels my pain.  It means that God loves the killer as much as the victim, and gives them both the power to direct their own actions for good or for evil; this one isn’t so comforting…unless you’re that killer.

I think I’ve gone on for too long, but I hope I got my point across.  It has certainly helped me get my thoughts in order.  I don’t know the science of the issue, and most scientists aren’t very good theologians no matter which camp they’re in, but it seems that ID and CS have made a poor assumption that ruins their view of God in the world.  Like Gretta Vosper, they’re searching for God.  Once again I’d like to assert with as much force as I can muster, GOD IS HERE, AND HE HAS FOUND US!  Hallelujah!

Knowledge of Good and Evil and Bonhoeffer

Last night I went to bed angry at Deitrich Bonhoeffer for how he ended his manuscript God’s Love and the Disintegration of the World (which is to sa y, not at all – it stops seemingly mid-point through an explanation of a concept that, up to that point, left me in despair for my very salvation).  Hopefully next week I’ll have an explanation for what the heck he’s talking about, and it’ll turn out to be something fantastic.  Today, let’s talk about Adam and Eve and the knowledge of good and evil, some good stuff from the midst of this same manuscript.

As near as I can reckon it, Bonhoeffer points out that in Eden, mankind knew nothing apart from God.  Everything they knew, they knew in relation to its source, which of course is God.  Their knowledge was based entirely on God and his relationship to all of creation – so that, through their knowledge of God, they could actually know about everything else, and know about it as it truly is, in relation to its creator.  So, if they knew all of these things about creation, why would they seek “the knowledge of good and evil”?  As Konkel points out, “good and evil” is a merism, like “night and day” (which means “all the time”) or “great and small” (which means everything).  What they sought was knowledge about everything – but Bonhoeffer maintains that they already had that.  The difference then is the source of the knowledge.  Eating that fruit was claiming a new source of all knowledge – themselves.

Before, Adam and Eve knew all things only in relation to God, and apart from God they knew nothing.  Now, having claimed themselves as the source of all knowledge (really, claiming themselves as creators, as gods), they know all things only in relation to themselves.  At the same time, their rebellion and usurping of God’s position as creator and centre of all things has created a disunion with God; so they now know all things only in relation to themselves, and they no longer relate with God, and thus know him not at all.  They sought the knowledge to judge things; and since now their knowledge of all things is only in relation to themselves, they create or become the standard by which they judge all things.  Thus, humanity begins to judge things as good and evil, with good and evil being terms relative only to themselves.  We are the judges of what is good and evil, and by that standard we will judge all things!

And so it began, the incessant need for Pharisees like us to judge every aspect of the world, every person and place and thing, as either good or evil.  It is how we live our lives, consciously and unconsciously, forever judging others and ourselves and the world around us by our own standard of good and evil.  Bonhoeffer points out that this knowledge of good and evil, this standard, is one that we have created, one that centres on us, and thus is in opposition to God.  What is really good and evil is defined by God; our standards and knowledge are in opposition to him and disunion with him.  So as long as we continue to judge everything as good and evil, we continue to live in opposition to God.  Pharisees were the poster child for this, not because they judged poorly but because they judged exceptionally well; they were the champions of judging good and evil, and in a world based on our knowledge of good and evil, they were superstars.  They were the champions of a system that is fundamentally in opposition to and disunion with God.  Jesus’ beef with them wasn’t even so much that they judged, but that judging and actually doing are mutually exclusive: they did not (and could not) practice what they preached.

I’ve often noticed in my own life that when I take the time to really think about what is good, I rarely actually get around to doing it.  Even when I do so, my heart isn’t really in it, because I’d much rather be thinking about what is good, musing about ethics, blogging about right practices and theories of ethical thought.  Judging is in direct opposition to doing, and Bonhoeffer would say that they are mutually exclusive, that you cannot do both.  It is quite telling that Christ, the only truly qualified judge, did not judge others by the law, but only acted to fulfill the law.  He knew the world only in relation to God, and his ethics included only one option: to fulfill the will of God – which is not a judgment on anything or anyone, but an action.

Christ makes it possible for us to return to the original system of knowledge, to go back to knowing all things only through God.  Paul said “I know nothing except Christ crucified”; in knowing Christ crucified, in knowing the full representation of God, in knowing God through Jesus Christ his son, we can know everything without needing to judge it.  We can see the world without the constant framework of “good or evil” hanging over it.  We can resolve not to do good, but to do God’s will, and actually act instead of judge.  Without judging things we can act in response to God’s will rather than in response to our own will and our own judgment of something.  But obviously there still must be good and evil, right and wrong, right?  Our very abstention from judging is a judgment, just as it was for Christ; our direct action in fulfillment of the word of God reveals the word of God to the world, and acts as a judgment against the world, revealing right and wrong in relation to God’s will, which is the true measure of good and evil.

I’m still trying to figure out how all this fits together (it’s been the most difficult chapter for me thus far) but the gist of it is that “a little less talk and a lot more action” is actually a calling for us.  Resolve to know less and do more, so that in our actions we can return to knowing things only in relation to God – the only true knowing.

Responsibility and Christian Ethics

Ethics is consumed with the question “what is good”  and “how can I do good”, questions that Bonhoeffer demands we throw out in the very first sentence of his volume on Ethics.  The question of the good, he says, is impossible to answer – and jugding by the fact that no ethical norms can be agreed upon in our society, I’d say he’s right.  The question is not what is good, or how can I do good – the question is, what is Christ doing in the world?

Someone once called Jesus “good teacher.”  Jesus responded with “Why do you call me good?  You know that there is only one who is good.”  Jesus, of course, is here referring to God, the one who is good – and a little tongue in cheek, too, since he goes on to claim divinity, identifying himself with God completely.  Jesus is the One who is Good, and so quite naturally the question of “what is good” is answered by the question “what is Jesus doing?”  The question of “how can I do good” then can only be answered by participating in what Jesus is doing.

Does this mean that Bonhoeffer is a good Christian who wears his WWJD bracelet at all times?  Not really.  Bonhoeffer would, quite likely, be a bit purturbed by such an ethical system, as the question “what would Jesus do” misses the fact that Jesus is in fact still doing! Christian ethics cannot be reduced to the principle of always doing what Jesus would do in the same given situation, or to any principle at all.  Principles are not universally applicable, and they’re founded in an ideal rather than reality.  Jesus did not choose to act based on an ideal; rather, Jesus (the ideal and reality in one) came into the world, messy as it is, and became a part of it.  Jesus, though he is the ideal, is also concrete, he is real, and he acts in the real world with real decisions that affect real people.  He’s not merely some moral exemplar, though I think it would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we deny that he is a prime example of right living; rather, he is the foundation of reality: all things hinge upon Jesus Christ.  The existence of the world depends on he who created and reconciled it to himself, and it cannot be understood without reference to him who is its origin, its centre, and its end.  Thus, to act in accordance with Christ and what Christ is doing is to act in accord with reality.

Bonhoeffer makes the controversial claim that only Christians see reality as it truly is, and embrace it as it truly is, and that an ethical action is to act in accordance with that reality.  But how are we to act in accordance with reality?  It’s a pretty vague instruction.  What constitutes an ethical situation or issue?  For Bonhoeffer, this comes down to responsibility.

No man is an island, not even Garfunkel.  We all live in relationship, and it is precisely in relationship that we are faced with ethical decisions, because in relationship we have a responsibility to another and for another.  Bonhoeffer uses the example of a father: due to his relationship to his children, he is responsible for those children: to act in accordance with that concrete responsibility is to act ethically.  To ignore that responsibility and that relationship does not relieve him of being a father; he is simply a bad father.  When he acts out of responsibility for his children, he acts in accordance with concrete reality, acknowledging the reality of his relationship and thus his responsibility, and thus he has acted ethically and is a good father.  We don’t make up these responsibilities, and they cannot be avoided; they are inherent to human relationship.

Another aspect of responsibililty in ethics is that human beings act in complete freedom when they act ethically.  We think, act, and face the consequences of those actions without depending on anyone else, or on any principle or ideology.  When we act ethically, we do so without a safety net.  We cannot attempt to apply some ideal or principle universally and be justified by that ideal.  For example, when someone’s ethics depend on a principle, so long as they keep to the principle their actions are “justified”, regardless of the actual motivations or consequences of that principled action.  Someone can declare themself fully justified in their actions because they have conformed to a principle based on an ideal.  Real life isn’t like that: the concrete situations we find ourselves in do not allow us to enter a vacuum in which there is a choice between an obvious good and an obvious evil.  We don’t have that to fall back on.  Instead, we must make a decision based on the reality of Jesus Christ, based on our responsibility to our neighbour (who is given to us, not chosen by us) and based on the love of Christ, and take responsibility for the consequences of our action.  This is both daunting and liberating: daunting because we can never really know if we’re in the right or not; liberating because we can never really know if we’re in the right or not.  We need not conform to some abstract principle, and be damned if we do so incorrectly; rather, we can act in accordance with concrete reality, acting out of responsibility for others and taking responsibility for our actions, relying entirely on the grace of God for our justification.  Our actions are not justified by some abstract ethic, but justified by the action of Jesus Christ, who alone is doing good.  The good of our action is determined by how it aligns with what Christ is doing, with how Christ uses us and our actions.  The amazing thing is that Christ uses all actions for the good, even actions intended for evil (cf. Joseph, Judas).  Hallelujah!

I’ve been thinking about why we prefer ethical systems based on principles and maxims, and look down so much on “situational ethics”.  I think we dislike “situational ethics” because they are subjective, and do not offer us a chance of being objectively right or wrong.  In response, I think that concrete reality doesn’t offer us many chances of being objectively right or wrong either, and a retreat to principles based on ideals is a bit of a vain hope of justifying our actions.  The thing is, Christ has justified us already, Justified with a captial “J”, so we don’t need to justify ourselves or our actions.  The other thing is, Christ has Justified us at least in part because we are incapable of justifying ourselves or our actions.  So, we can’t justify ourselves, and we don’t need to anyways…so why do it?  Is this another symptom of human pride, that we need to find new ways for us to be right, and to be able to tell who is right and who is wrong?  Who is good and who is evil?  “Why do you call me good?  You know that there is only One who is good!”

Of course, for the purpose of laws in human society we need to, to some degree, label some actions as objectively good and objectively bad.  Don’t we?  After all, even God has 10 Commandments, right?  In OT Theology we’ve been talking about the 10 Commandments a bit recently, and the interesting thing is that they’re not called “The 10 Commandments” in the Bible, or even in Jewish tradition: they are the 10 Words.  In class, my prof pointed out that commandments, rules, and laws are quite specific in their application and usually involve some penalty for transgression.  The 10 Words, on the other hand, are confessions of the Covenant, and confessions of covenant values, universal in their application.  There is no “punishment” in the 10 Words for those who do not follow them, except perhaps exclusion from the Covenant, of which the 10 Words are merely a confession and affirmation – i.e. if you don’t confess the 10 Words, if you don’t share the covenant values and commit to the covenant, you’re not really a part of it are you?

If the 10 Words are rules and laws, then Jesus would have been as guilty as the Pharisees claimed he was; because they are values, the Pharisees were as guilty as Jesus claimed they were because they reduced those values to specific rules that completely devalued the original values.  Likewise when we reduce our ethics to a mere principle or code, we reduce our justification to that which can be offered by such a principle, or that which can be offered by those who agree with us, rather than basing our actions and our justification on Jesus Christ, who alone is Good and does Good.