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

Ben Myers at Faith and Theology, was kind enough to post a piece on Barth and Bonhoeffer in a venue where it would attract a few more comments than it would here (and therefore hold a bit more value in my ongoing research). He even found pretty pictures! At the moment I find myself impersonating that loathesome creature, the solitary theologian, stranded on the East coast and far from my theologically-minded cohorts in Vancouver. The dialogue is much-appreciated. The text appears below.
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.

6 Replies to “The wrong tree? :: Barth, Bonhoeffer, and knowledge of good and evil”

  1. You wrote, “Can there be any ethical conversation between Christians and those outside the church? On what common ground would such a conversation even begin?” This is a question that I’ve been mulling over ever since I took the “Ethics and International Relations” seminar last fall. I still need to devote more thought to it, but I am interested in the way in which Martin Luther King went about seeking this common ground in his public life, calling the United States NOT to stop discriminating because it was wrong or un-Christian to do so, but because equality was built into the Declaration of Independence. In his private life as a minister and a Christian, he no doubt had other reasons for thinking that discrimination was wrong, but a lot of the time in public speeches he presented the issue as a promise by the founders of the United States that had not been followed through.

  2. Thanks Elliot,

    Good to hear from you.

    Bonhoeffer was all for working together on whatever common ground might be available, but I think that he would have insisted on doing so for theological reasons. Working with the conspiracy, for example, he allied himself with people who shunned faith, yet worked for the good of their country. Christians ally with the “defenders of penultimate values.”

    It seems that there are two extremes:

    1. Express God’s command in Christian language to an exclusively Christian audience, and let the world listen if they care–otherwise we’ll try to out-number/shout/argue them. The Dobson approach.

    2. Dress Christian values up in whatever moral concepts will get them the most milage in Washington DC/Rome/Ottowa. A “pragmatic” approach. You place King on this side of the spectrum.

    I wonder if there isn’t a way to express our convictions about God’s commands to human beings in such a way that they aren’t written off as cliche, but also don’t feel the need to don the fake-moustache in order to be heard.

    I think that Bonhoeffer would be uncomfortable with the public/private distinction that you read in King. I’m only familiar with King’s most famous speeches, so I can’t say much there. Bonhoeffer did not participate in the conspiracy because it was the action required of him as a good citizen (though the case could certainly be made for that as well). He thought that was the responsible thing for a follower of Jesus in his shoes to do.

    Which direction have your thoughts inclined?

  3. I agree with you that we ought to “express our convictions about God’s commands to human beings in such a way that they aren’t written off as cliche,” while at the same time being honest about those convictions in public.

    I do read a public/private distinction into King, but I’m not sure that he was conscious of it. I read a couple of biographies 3-4 years ago, and neither of them dealt explicitly with this issue. It is just an impression that I got as I read his public speeches and compared them to his sermons. It may well be that he wasn’t aware of such a distinction, and if he wasn’t, a possible reason for that would be the liberal environment of his education. Come to think of it, if he wasn’t aware of such a public/private distinction, this could help to explain the reasons for him becoming more depressed toward the end of his life as he found himself increasingly marginalized because of Black Power and his controversial denunciation of the Vietnam War. It may be that he didn’t expect things to turn out the way they did because he had an underdeveloped conception of human sin, both individual and corporate.

    But I digress. My own thoughts have inclined toward something of a public/private distinction, but one that I hope Bonhoeffer would approve of. I think that Christians ought to be honest about our convictions and our reasons for holding them in public discourse, but at the same time I don’t think that is enough (that would be to adopt the “Dobson” approach). In public discourse, I think that Christians ought to use arguments that secular people, or people of other faiths, would regard as valid. For example, we may think that murder is wrong because of revelation, but we ought not to shy away from sociological and psychological arguments that would lead to the same conclusion.

    That works for a lot of issues, but I realize at some point it will break down. Not everything God says is good for humanity is good for American society. And that’s why I’m still thinking about it. . .

  4. Elliot,

    To bring the conversation back to Bonhoeffer and his repudiation of the knowledge of good and evil, I believe that he would caution the “public” arguments on one point.

    There are certainly sociological, psychological, and political arguments that can be brought to bear on any number of issues, and the Christian employs these in support of God’s command–as discerned by the larger community. The danger lurking in cutting public arguments free from their moring in God’s intentions is the risk that they accumulate undue bulk, or get employed in inappropriate contexts. The considerations employed to argue against a certain action may be distorted into sine qua non in other venues. These arguments can become the knowledge of good and evil–an ethic of our own! Having a bevy of principles in the pocket to be applied and interpreted in every new situation is a powerful position to occupy, but there is no accountablity for those principles, nor do they necessarily correspond to reality for long once abstracted from their context.

    An example of this might be the American notion of freedom. Certainly there is an element of self-direction, dignity, and personal integrity evident in God’s intentions for human beings, no question. But when “freedom” is employed as a panacea, or abstracted into an eternal value without regard for its original meaning, it sours quickly. Freedom from commitment, freedom from obligation, freedom from the demands and needs of others–these certainly were not in the minds of many of our predecessors who argued passionately and gave their lives for a greater measure of freedom. Neither, I would argue, were these included in God’s gift of freedom nor in the command that helps to preserve that good freedom. Freedom is a concept with limits, those limits are lost when the bounded concept is taken “out-of-bounds” into abstraction.

    All that to say, the public/private distinction breaks down where the “public” arguments are broken off from their underlying “private” motivators because in abstraction they are increasingly susceptible to corruption. On that basis, I would argue that the revelatory foundation of our ethic–God’s command–must be expressed in compelling language, and not relegated to the perpetual linguistic ghetto of church-speak. That can be done in the midst of all manner of arguments.

    What do you think?

  5. I do agree that there is the possibility of public arguments being cut free of their revelatory moorings and becoming a rootless ethic of their own. This may well be what has already happened in the western world.

    But if this is true, I still struggle with the issue of how to present arguments based in God’s revelation when revelation is not a very well-received basis for public discourse in 21st century North America. Should we always take a step back to show revelation is legitimate? To say, to cite your example: “First, the Bible is a legitimate source for learning about the nature of freedom, and second, the American notion of freedom is not the same as the freedom God gives in the Bible”?

    What are your thoughts?

  6. I think that you’ve got to argue persuasively, present compelling reasons, and speak well–and while doing so, cite revelation as a major source for your convictions. Revelation shouldn’t be left out simply because many find it distasteful. On the other hand, revelation ought to be referred to in a tasteful manner. We shouldn’t reference Scripture in public arguments as if everyone listening considered it a normative moral source. The argument from authority only works when the authority is recognized as legitimate. But where we see reality in a certain manner, we shouldn’t hesitate to provide the reasons why we see it that way.

    To return to the freedom example:

    The common-sense American notion of freedom is delusional and destructive for social reasons, political reasons, economic and ecological reasons [insert brilliant analysis here…]. It is destructive because it functions on the basis of a reductive anthropology. When we operate in a truncated self-understanding that excludes our purpose, calling, and spiritual center, we are bound to end up delusional and destructive. We will feel purposeless, guilty, and shallow, and we will take that out on others and creation in a misuse of the gift of freedom.

    The second stage, I imagine, if you caught anyone’s ear with the first, would be to offer a compelling picture of an alternative notion of freedom. If we can make that picture compelling for social, political, and economic reasons, yet simultaneously demonstrate that it is rendered powerless when separated from the revelation that grounds it, we may provide cause for folks to take a second look at revelation itself.

    It becomes more difficult on sticky issues where the position we become convinced of on the basis of revelation is an immensely unpopular one, or one that has decisively negative implications. Urging pacifism on a national scale comes to mind pretty quickly in this category. But, even so, King’s movement showed us how much people are willing to suffer for what they genuinely believe to be just and true.

    I am rambling a bit. The real point is to elaborate my instinct that the best way to proceed in this matter is to give careful arguments that are convincing from a number of different perspectives, and simultaneously refuse to separate those arguments from the revelation that motivates them. It is not merely a spoonful of sugar for the medicine if the arguments are well constructed. And the real medicine of revelation is more likely to do good if people are opened to it by careful argument.

    I’m left thinking that there is likely an unresolvable tension here–one which demands wisdom to navigate with grace and good effect. But I’m not quite ready to give up looking for “the right way” yet…

    Go well,

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