Tuesday 25 September 2007

The wrong tree? Barth, Bonhoeffer, and knowledge of good and evil

A guest-post by Eric Meyer (who is currently researching Bonhoeffer’s ethics)

The glimmering moment of theological rapture that eventually launched my thesis found me buried in an armchair, well equipped with pens and coffee. Bonhoeffer’s phrase struck like Newton’s apple. “The knowledge of good and evil appears to be the goal of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to supercede [aufzuheben – cancel, dissolve] that knowledge” (Ethics, 299). The temerity required to dismiss a tradition that includes Kant and Mill still gives me shivers. Who knows if this bit of bravado would have been tamed for the final publication—it outlived its author in this form.

Accustomed to bucking the modern liberal establishment, Barth readily put similar audacity in print. Nigel Biggar’s book on Barth’s ethics begins, “When the serpent promised Adam and Eve that they would become as God, what he had in mind, according to Karl Barth was ‘the establishment of ethics’” (The Hastening That Waits, 7).

Here is the argument: Ethical systems of thought illegitimately put justification in human hands (to get the right effect you should almost spit the word “system”). To conclusively mark an action or person as right or wrong is to shove God off the judgment throne and presume to take a seat. Any abstract principle capable of substantial moral guidance is destructively deceptive because it promises the soothing self-sufficiency we have all been seeking since Adam and Eve strapped on fig leaves. We shelter ourselves by recruiting our own consciences to anticipate and obviate God’s judgment. “Why wait for God to sort things out when we’ve got the knowledge of good and evil right here – we’ll just get started and do it for him, eh?” Modern ethics, as an autonomous enterprise cut loose from “metaphysics and superstition,” is a wholehearted embrace of idolatry.

After thus taking the wheels off ethical casuistry, both Barth and Bonhoeffer tender a similar alternative. The fundamental ethical reality is God’s calling and command (and before that, his triune personality and character(s)). Ethics is obedience. As the positive response to God’s life-transforming call, ethics is a theological activity before it is anything else.

Put this simply, Bonhoeffer’s and Barth’s ethics are much easier to teach in Sunday School than Kant’s, but are unlikely to get positive attention anywhere else. Yet Bonhoeffer wrote Ethics as a pacifist involved in an assassination conspiracy; subtlety outstrips platitude by far.

An ethic centered on hearing and obeying God’s command is fodder for cynics, and I’m not sure that Bonhoeffer can (or should!) overcome all the criticism. The concreteness of God’s command (and tracing the epistemology behind it) remains thorny for both Barth and Bonhoeffer. The revelational alternative to modern ethics launches a host of questions:

How do we receive God’s command? Where do we go to listen? Given that direct epiphanies are rare (at best), how do we discern God’s voice from the multitude of other voices? Who speaks for God? How and when do I presume to speak God’s command? What ethical accountability do we have at hand when someone acts destructively with the conviction that they are following the command of God? Can there be any ethical conversation between Christians and those outside the church? On what common ground would such a conversation even begin?

The majority of Bonhoeffer’s writing life was devoted to these questions. The questions lurk beneath the surface of Discipleship, Life Together, Ethics, and even the Letters and Papers. Bonhoeffer strains to discern God’s command concretely, to proclaim it where he dares, and to describe the means by which others might take up the same labor.

Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran heritage (while he received it intermarried with hostile ideologies), encouraged him to recognize God’s commands concretely, perhaps more so than Barth. Luther’s affirmation that, by grace, the finite is capable of bearing the infinite undergirds all his writing, from the identification of the church as “Christ existing as a community” in his first dissertation, to his later conception of the “four mandates” – marriage, culture, government, and church as places to encounter Christ. His redefinition of the “natural” enables him to speak about human rights and the value of political and economic order without resorting to abstract or non-theological principles. Rather than a normative vestige of Eden, the natural is that which stands open to Christ’s return; the unnatural closes itself off or hides. Where there is hunger, injustice, pollution, alienation, or disregard for life, the gospel is hindered and Christ left unwelcomed. For Bonhoeffer, God’s command is inextricably social; ethics is no prayer-closet activity.

The ultimate goad toward concreteness in Bonhoeffer’s ethic of command remains the incarnation. Ethics means becoming conformed to the incarnate, crucified, and risen paradigm of real humanity; ethics is discipleship. Because God entered the complexity of human life in order to redeem and reconcile it, Christians cannot abandon any aspect of reality as irredeemable. In Christ, we can see God and the world clearly at the same time. Motives, principles, and consequences are all factors to be considered together in obedience (not isolated as single criteria). The “ultimate question” then is not one of moral justification – “how am I to heroically extricate myself from this situation without blame” – but of total responsibility – “how is the coming generation to live?” (Letters and Papers, 7).

As imago Christi, the responsible person acts for others without knowing her own good or evil. By joining the conspiracy, Bonhoeffer modeled his own enigmatic assertion that responsibility entails bearing guilt for others in trust and submission to God’s final judgment.

In his death, no less than his life, Bonhoeffer’s conformity to the Crucified witnesses to an ethic of courageous trust in God’s mercy rather than his own scruples. We can all be thankful that Barth’s witness took a less tragic shape. Both theologians help us begin to think ethically without biting into the knowledge of good and evil.


Anonymous said...

“The knowledge of good and evil appears to be the goal of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to supercede [aufzuheben – cancel, dissolve] that knowledge” - thanks, I haven't seen this quote before. It's an amazing way of putting it.

Fred said...

Hans Urs von Balthasar takes a similar approach, as does Luigi Giussani. And my Confirmation text includes the word heteronomity (!), so 7th graders are getting (more than) their share of Kant...


And Perelandra comes close to this also.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough I used Bonhoeffer's example in a sermon on Mark's gospel this past sunday concerning Jesus' cruciformity, up to a literal crucifixion and our own following in his stead.

Thank you for this, you

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this very suggestive post, Eric. Your paragraph of questions succintly locates the problems of a Barth/Bonhoeffer divine command ethic, the logic of which is essentially situationist, if of a more profound and theomorphic kind than that of Joseph Fletcher's insipid "do the loving thing" pragmatism (let alone that of nutcases with a hotline to heaven!). If you are right that Bonhoeffer went some way towards answering your questions in a way that Barth did not, I suspect it's because Bonhoeffer had a thicker ecclesiology than Barth, i.e. a basis, at least in principle, to account for moral agency and formation in the context of the community of faith.

Still, I am unconvinced that Bonhoeffer pulled it off either. Like Barth with his obsession with safeguarding the freedom of God, I wonder if Bonhoeffer over-egged the concept of the Grenzfall, the exceptional case, and, further (following Yoder), if both Barth and Bonhoeffer were right in their blanket rejection of casuistry. They feared that casuistry functioned merely as a salve to a good conscience, but might it not help to shape cruciform obedience in the present moment precisely through a conversation with the witness of the communio sanctorum of all times and places?

In short, I am sure that Barth and Bonhoeffer were right that Christian ethics cannot be an autonomous enterprise proceeding on the basis of abstract principles. It is just that I think that their impressive Deus loquens hic et nic, cut loose from history, and notwithstanding Bonhoeffer's mandates, floats too free for any practical purchase in meeting the challenge of "How is the coming generation to live?"

Anonymous said...

Oops - that should, of course, be hic et nunc (fifth line from the bottom)!

Kjetil Kringlebotten said...

When discussing why God didn't want man to eat of the three of knowledge, I tend to point to Aristotle.

He pointed out that the speculative sciences, whose end is knowledge of the truth for its own sake, stand above the practical and productive sciences, whose end is knowledge for the sake of practice (action) or production (making).

Thus before man could eat of the three of knowledge, they should learn how to know God --- Truth --- and thus learn how to discern right from wrong. One could say that to eat of the three of life would mean to gain wisdom and not just knowledge. And Wisdom is, as wee see in Proverbs 3:18, "a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed."

And in Hebrews 5:12-14 we learn that some, who have gotten the milk, the basic things of Christianity, are mature because that have "their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil." (v.14)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this excellent post. With regard to the divine command, I find that Barth does not require a free-floating command disconnected from extensive ethical deliberation. He allows the deliberation in its fulness, but then does reserve the final place for the command, which may, but does not necessarily, overturn provisional conclusions reached by reflection. What his method does require, however, is the centrality and priority of worship and prayer in the ethical decision. This, surely, is an oft-forgotten characteristic of Christian ethical reflection.


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your comments.


I think that you are right. The connection to situation ethics has come to mind frequently as I've been working on this project. The end result, at least for Bonhoeffer, is a theocratic situation ethic of a sort. He tries to incorporate all possible deliberation under the catch-phrase of "responsibility" and "responsible action." In the end, responsible action looks alot like the ethical deliberation that both he and Barth push away from. But there are a few key differences.

Once set in proper theological context, the ethical person can no longer imagine himself as the final authority concerning the matter at hand. Ethics as obedient responsibility is disconnected from justification. He is responsible-to, as much as he is responsible-for. That means that every ethical decision is set before God's jugdment in humility, "Lord have mercy." Second, because of the "inconclusive-ness" of human ethical thought, there must always be the assumption that God might command what lies beyond our understanding - Barth's grenzfalle. Third, the myth of the solitary ethical thinker who arrives at the right answer by imitating Descartes in his living room explodes. Obedience, and ethical living is hidden in the midst of relationships and complex situations--it does not magically appear in abstraction.

That, perhaps, is where Bonhoeffer outdoes Barth. Barth's notion of the grenzfalle does indeed preserve God's freedom, but at the cost of relegating God's concrete command to the periphery of life. When God commands (and we know it), it is the exception rather than the norm. Bonhoeffer's rather bulky mandates carry out his conviction that God must be proclaimed at the center of life, in the thick of things where we are most sure and not in our weaknesses where our knowledge runs thin.

As for whether Bonhoeffer "succeeded," I think that we can say that he succeeded in his time in a way that might fail now. He "over-egged" (a great phrase, btw) the exceptional case because Germany was an exceptional case. A clear conscience was more likely to lead you to contribute to Hitler's war machine than to love of neighbor. Perhaps our culture is "sick" in some analogous ways, but we can safely say that it took a great strength to overcome the collective conscience and social pressure that swallowed so many otherwise well-meaning Germans.

Michael, I like your connection to worship and prayer, perhaps that is where ethics really happens--where our lives are conformed to the life of Christ. Indeed, if this is the "center" of life, then the command on the periphery that "overturns our provisional conclusions" might be closer than we thought.

God's peace,

Matthew said...

"The revelational alternative to modern ethics launches a host of questions..."

Hrm. I don't see why these epistemological questions are superior to -- or even substantially different from -- the ethical questions.

Anonymous said...


Good point... I suppose that Barth and Bonhoeffer commit us to one side of the Euthyphro dilemma. The presupposition is that God's command determines good-ness, rather than good-ness being rationally accessible by other means. In other words, the ethical questions are substantially settled once the epistemological questions are answered.

It seems to me however, that any ethic faces an epistemological challenge--some ethics are simply more conventional.

Care to elaborate your question further?


Anonymous said...

I you are onto it Kim with your comments on Barth and Bonhoeffer. It is a powerful rhetoric that overstates by painting all ethical reasoning as self-justification. But we need to think carefully about such powerful rhetoric. The contextually situated ethic of B & B means that 'ought' implies can't (ultimately)and thus self-justification is out of the question if moral reasoning epistemologically in the context of the divine command.

Anonymous said...

oops I missed out an 'is situated' before epistemologically.

James Rovira said...

I think the proper context for this discussion is Kierkegaard's critique of the Ethical sphere of existence and its limitations. The idea isn't really that radical in the light of the Sermon on the Mount--the point is that ethics are supposed to be internalized, not exist as a philosophical system.

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