where do we stand? :: Bonhoeffer and Lewis on ethical ground

C.S. Lewis makes several impassioned pleas for the universality of moral instinct in his writings. I’m most familiar with his appeal to the sense of “fairness” in an argument for God’s existence in Mere Christianity, along with his defence of what he calls the “Tao” in The Abolition of Man. At any rate, in both locations, Lewis is appealing to something like conscience or intuition as the ground of ethics. Ethics are built-in. Right and wrong find their foundation in some innate sense within us. That sense is God’s gift, and is ultimately grounded in God’s own moral character.

Of course, acknowledging the lingering wastes of sin in humanity, Lewis argues that our consciences, as well as our inclination to listen to them, are “bent.” We are not whole and healthy, but twisted and shadowy representations of what we were meant to be.

Working on Bonhoeffer’s moral epistemology, it struck me how different the picture that he describes is. For Bonhoeffer, conscience is only the voice of self-defence. Conscience is the tool by which we usurp God’s judgment, and employ it against ourselves and others. With our consciences–our personal knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3)–we alternately declare ourselves righteous and then cast ourselves on to the dung pile. Either way, this is an attempt to shield ourselves from God’s voice rather than God’s voice itself. The natural knowledge of good and evil, is nothing less than captivity to death in Bonhoeffer’s estimation.

For Bonhoeffer, the root of legitimate ethical thought is spoken rather than implanted. Ethical life is obedience to God’s command, and God’s command comes to us as fallen creatures. God’s voice is not innately present to creatures in any reliable way, it requires a reorientation of our being. Ethics is obedience, following Jesus. The command of God is to be found in Christ, not in each of us. Only in Christ is the command of God to be found unsullied in the world.

Bonhoeffer encountered Lewis’ argument in a twisted form in the settled liberal theologians who were his professors at the University of Berlin. Further twisted and coupled with Lutheran theology gone haywire, it was part of the worldview that enabled the majority of German Christians to dutifully serve Hitler. Bonhoeffer regarded the notion of an innate ethic to be theologically naive–and subject to disasterous perversion.

But, four years after writing the hyper-rigorous Discipleship (originally “Cost of…” in English), Bonhoeffer found room for “noble pagans,” and argued that the church must work together–for Christ’s sake–with all the promoters of peace, security, and well-being. This was not based on any re-evaluation and more positive assesment of natural knowledge of good and evil. Rather, Bonhoeffer expected to see Christ in strange places, at work for the good of the cosmos he joined himself to in love. Working side by side with atheists in the conspiracy, he found the project viable not on his own estimation of good and evil, but out of a theological intuition that this was where he might be most likely to find Jesus.

The ground of ethics is a crucial question. Locating the origin of our sense of right and wrong is a difficult and contentious task. The choice to legitimate it as it stands or distrust it and look to another model determines the entire shape of our ethical discussions, the shape of our culture, and the way we treat one another. While Lewis’ account is apologetically attractive, and very compelling, I wonder if it is grounded concretely enough in God’s self-revelation in Christ to avoid the kinds of abberations that the National Socialists and thier sympathizers were able to foist on Germany.

I’d be very interested to hear someone take the other side.

5 Replies to “where do we stand? :: Bonhoeffer and Lewis on ethical ground”

  1. Eric – hope you are enjoying the East Coast. You are sorely missed over in Vancouver…
    I stumbled upon your blog through the article on the faith and theology website. I actually read through Lewis’ Abolition of Man yesterday and though i concur with what you have said i think it is possible to offer an alternative argument. The Abolition of Man reminded me of Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of modernity. In response he argues for tradition in ‘general’. He then works from tradition in general to the Aristotle-Aquinas tradition in particular. It seems that Lewis does a similar thing in arguing for the Tao in general then Christianity in particular. You are right to point out that this is attractive apologetically – allowing for conversation between traditions. Perhaps something similar was argued by some of the early apologists such as Justin Martyr, with the notion of Christ as logos, the same logos that was sought after and known to an extent by Plato and Aristotle. It seems as if Justin Martyr and later, Origin recognized that Aristotle has a vision of virtue as if seen through a glass dimly. Christ is the real presence of that vision. This was written at a time where the ethical life of the Christian community was offering significant resistance to a totalitarian state. However, whether it is the logos, or the Tao, the argument falls short regarding the uniqueness of God’s self revelation in Christ. However much there is a continuity between Plato, or the Tao and Christ there is also a radical discontinuity. The vision of the good life portrayed in the sermon of the mount produces a radically different community or Polis than that of Aristotle. In Lewis there is a danger of over-emphasizing the continuity which inevitably softens the sharper edge of discontinuity.

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for your thoughts – it is wonderful to hear from you. I hope that things are going well for you in Vancouver this semester. Give a shout on my behalf to the atrium-dwellers…

    I resonate in particular with your last point. It is not as if one can take the general category of “transcendently revealed things” and then look at a criminal naked and bleeding on a cross and recognize that this event contains both the beginning and the end of the world. The cross is not the final destination of wisdom, but the point of its humbling.

    Lewis was hardly one to ignore this. He certainly preaches that everything must die to be put right. I’m trying to understand how that works out in his ethics… Any ideas?

    Take care,

  3. Perhaps Lewis is doing what many thinkers, particularly in the Reformed tradition, have attempted to do – locate the source of ethics in protology, in creation. As already said, this has a significant benefit for apologetics. However, to locate the source in the crucified and risen Christ is to have an eschatological rather than protological source (a few of us are reading A Theology of Hope together!!). Moltmann sees that there is a contradiction between our present experience and that of the eschatological promise, and we are to live in that contradiction, oriented by an active and responsible hope. Perhaps this is an unhelpful digression in the conversation but it seems that if you are to locate ethics in the category of ‘transcendental revealed things’ you have to answer the question of eschatology. If creation is the appropriate framework for ethics, then this suggests the eschaton is a return to creation – which in a way cancels out eschatology as a useful category.
    A few rambled Moltmann thoughts…
    There was some pretty rocking football played this afternoon – you were missed,

  4. Mark,

    The trouble that I see with attempting to root ethics in protology is one of access. We simply don’t have a way to get “around” the event of the fall to see how things were intended. What we know of the original intentions for creation, the real “beginning,” is only mediated to us at second hand. The danger with an ethic whose roots are sunken entirely into the doctrine of creation is that it fails to take account of the degree to which what is “natural” is still twisted. It raises questions about just how well we are able to distinguish what is fallen and in need of redemption from the goodness that is preserved through the fall. An ethic based in creation puts pretty high stock in our ability to do that–and perhaps more than I’m comfortable with.

    Calling something “natural” is already a rhetorical strategy equivalent to calling something a “right” or just plain “good.” I’m not sure that this trajectory needs any more encouraging at the moment.

    Thus, I’m more inclined to Moltmann or Bonhoeffer’s approach, but an ethic focused on Christ’s reconcilliation must always keep its eyes on the ground. We must always focus on the shape of that reconcilliation in the present, lest ethics turn into quietist cloud-gazing. So, to turn your suggestion around, wouldn’t the eschatological return to the original intentions for creation render creation-as-we-know-it a less useful category?

    Thanks for your thoughts. I wish that I were there reading Moltmann with you all. I’m actually working through his God in Creation at the moment. Wonderful stuff…

    Do keep in touch,

  5. Lewis’ view of the human condition is a tragic from a moral perspective. His full explanation is in the form of an appeal to a common deeply disturbing experience that: a person is (2) aware of the necessity of moral obligation and simultaneously is (2) aware of the failure to consistently fulfill this obligation. This internal conflict is resolved in the gospel of God’s grace and power revealed in the crucified and risen Christ. If Bonhoeffer rejects the validity of the fundamental experience of human guilt as described by Lewis, I cannot conceive how he can make a meaningful rational or emotional appeal to the gospel.

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