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.

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3 thoughts on “Knowledge of Good and Evil and Bonhoeffer

  1. Love it. Again… so good. Really helped me develop my thoughts further on my next sermon. The desire for us to sit in Jesus’ chair and judge is so strong, interesting to see these ideas coming through in your post.

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