The wrong tree? :: Barth, Bonhoeffer, and knowledge of good and evil
by Eric Daryl Meyer
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.