LETTING REALITY BECOME REAL On Mystery and Reality in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics

Ulrik Becker Nissen



ABSTRACT In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics the notion of reality plays a central role. The present article focuses on the ethical implications of the Chalcedonian Christology underlying this concept. This approach is tied to the debate on the relationship between the universal and specific identity of Christian social ethics in public discourse. In the opening section the article outlines the pertinence of this debate with regard to Bonhoeffer’s Christological ethic. In the following section the article analyzes Bonhoeffer’s concept of reality and the implied Chalcedonian traits. With this foundation established the article raises the question about its social ethical implications. The final part of the article argues that Bonhoeffer’s ethics and ecclesiology cannot be separated from each other, explaining why Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality leads to an assertion of the church’s role in letting reality become real. In the light of Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality the last section argues for the reconciliation of Christian witness and participation in public discourse.
KEY WORDS: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reality, social ethics, liberal democracy, Chalcedonian Christology, Christian witness, universality, specificity

1. Introduction
“The foundations of Christian ethics must be evangelical foundations; or, to put it more simply, Christian ethics must arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Otherwise it could not be Christian ethics” (O’Donovan 1994, 11, emphasis in original). Forthright in its designation of the identifying signature of Christian ethics, O’Donovan makes a point one is well advised to consider. At one level it is simply a logical point, but at another, deeper level, it is a fundamental and substantial claim. Logically, it does not make sense to separate any ethical position from its identifying origins, in this case Christian ethics from the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. More substantially, this claim points to the foundation of Christian ethics and implies the material dimension of this identifying signature. Even if
JRE 39.2:321–343. © 2011 Journal of Religious Ethics, Inc.


Journal of Religious Ethics

only stated implicitly, the argument is that one cannot show the meaning and significance of Christian ethics if it is isolated from the Christ event. Even if one may agree with O’Donovan on this point, it also raises the question of the universality of the Christian ethic—a point which is also of central concern to O’Donovan in his Resurrection and the Moral Order. Throughout this book O’Donovan argues that the resurrection of Christ implies an affirmation of created order. For O’Donovan the “ethics of the kingdom” and the “ethics of creation” are not to be understood in contrast to each other. Rather, the former implies an affirmation of the latter.
[T]he very act of God which ushers in his kingdom is the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the reaffirmation of creation. . . . In the resurrection of Christ creation is restored and the kingdom of God dawns. Ethics which starts from this point may sometimes emphasize the newness, sometimes the primitiveness of the order that is there affirmed. But it will not be tempted to overthrow or deny either in the name of the other [1994, 15].

This discussion of the relationship between the specific and universal dimension of Christian ethics is both a classical and a contemporary debate. One of the reasons for the renewed necessity of this debate in a contemporary context is the question about the role of religious voices (in this case Christian ethics) in public discourse, which has been a highly debated issue in recent years. Some of the most prominent contributors to this debate are John Rawls (1996; 1997) and Stanley Hauerwas (for example, Hauerwas 1981)—each marking polar opposites. Whereas Rawls argues for a liberal democratic assertion of public reason, Hauerwas emphasizes the formative role of the church and how this role may be at odds with the fundamental premises of liberal democracy. The present article aims to contribute to this general debate about the role of Christian ethics in a public discourse. Its point of departure, however, is the Lutheran tradition, as Lutheranism is particularly prone to a potential dichotomy between Christian ethics and public discourse.1 This article wishes to argue that it is an essential challenge to the truthfulness of Christian ethics to neglect either the universal or specific dimension of a religious voice in the public discourse. Part of this argument is to contribute to a position where it is possible to maintain both at the same time. Hereby the article seeks to place itself close to the positions delineated by, for example, Jeffrey Stout and
See, for example, Ulrik B. Nissen 2004 and Tage Kurtén 2007 for relatively recent analyses and critique of dichotomous approaches to Luther and the Lutheran tradition on this question.

the article furthers the contribution by Franklin Sherman (1964). Biggar’s recent book (2011) is highly relevant for the article. Chalcedonian Christology is used in a general sense. In making the distinction between the universal and specific. who argued for a similar understanding. where Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran background and theology is endorsed (Krötke 2008). Biggar opts for a polyglot liberalism (2009b). 2 . a reading of Bonhoeffer as Lutheran.3 The focus will be his Ethics as the culmination of his theology and thereby a hermeneutical key to his theology in general. change. Even if their argumentative premises are different. of course. nor is it concerned with different church traditions’ understandings of this issue.” nor am I drawing a sharp line between the “specific” or “particular” aspect of Christian ethics. Whereas Stout argues for a discursive or expressive rationality shaped by the virtues of democracy (2005. the latter is seen as that which is derived more explicitly from a Christian foundation and possibly differs from other views. inspired by the central formulation that the two natures of Christ are without confusion. 4 The references to Bonhoeffer primarily refer to the volumes in the German original edition of his collected works in the series Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke (DBW). Rather. It would lead too far in the present context to make this argument. the article hopes to contribute to what may be called a Chalcedonian understanding of Christian social ethics. In pursuing this universality and specificity at the same time. 10–11). I do not differentiate sharply between the terms “universal” or “common.Letting Reality Become Real 323 Nigel Biggar. however.4 Other writings See also Biggar’s critical discussion of Stout and others in a recent essay (2009a). both of these authors argue for a conversational model for public discourse. which I am striving to reconcile. but unfortunately it appeared too late to be included in any substantial way. the article does not go into detailed historical or dogmatic analyses of a Chalcedonian Christology. Instead. I refer the reader to a recent article. or separation. division. Quotations in the text are taken from the English translation (DBWE) currently under publication. The following discussion of the universal and specific identification of Christian ethics will be raised in the light of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In pursuing this Chalcedonian motif. The article uses this formulation as an inspiration in its argument for a unity and difference of the universal and specific identity of Christian social ethics at the same time. In taking this approach to the notion of Christian social ethics. Whereas the former is simply seen as that which a Christian ethic shares with worldviews or viewpoints different from itself. 3 Including Bonhoeffer in the aim of critically assessing the Lutheran tradition’s understanding of the relation between universality and specificity in its social ethics presumes.2 Both authors maintain a position between liberalism and traditionalism—terms that may be viewed as somewhat similar to universalism and specificity.

this implies that one can also take a particular stance and yet see this as an affirmation of the universal dimension. the overarching idea is the Chalcedonian differentiated unity of the universal and specific identity. for example. Here I attempt to demonstrate that even if we can find particular aspects of this concept (such as the spatial.324 Journal of Religious Ethics of Bonhoeffer will be discussed only when necessary. the second part of the argument turns to an assessment of these inferences. This is the question in the third part. The last part of the article 5 See. If Bonhoeffer argues for a differentiated unity of the universal and particular dimension of Christian ethics. This will serve as the background for the second part of the article—the analysis of the social–ethical implications Bonhoeffer draws from this understanding of reality. I hope to shed light on the thesis that Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality is shaped by a Chalcedonian Christology and as such implies an affirmation of the universal and specific dimension of Christian ethics at the same time—and that this understanding holds essential implications for the understanding of social ethics and the role of the church’s witness in a public sphere. what does the Chalcedonian understanding of reality found in part one (exemplified in the spatial. As this differentiated unity holds fundamental implications for the identity of Christian ethics in a public discourse. where the focus is on the church’s role in the world. temporal.6 In the analysis of Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. the present article employs both an analytic and a more constructive approach. where we will ask.” As such. the reader is kindly referred to. can Bonhoeffer argue for a positive role of the church in the public realm and yet maintain the universal dimension? Methodologically. Krötke 2005 and Janke 2004. For an overview of reality as a concept more generally. That section raises the question. . as this is both an essential concept for his ethics and a concept fundamentally shaped by the Christological understanding underlying the entirety of his works. temporal. Clifford Green 2002 for a substantiation of this hermeneutical approach to Bonhoeffer. and ontological dimension) imply for Bonhoeffer’s social ethics? After pondering this question. but more specifically how Bonhoeffer understands this notion. In the first part of the article the main concern is to determine what Bonhoeffer means by “reality. for example. 6 The focus in this article is not on the concept of reality in general. and ontological). which is an issue closely linked to the two previous parts. the article turns to the third and last step of the argument. The argument for this thesis comes in three steps: The first part of the argument is an analysis of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality.5 Within the discussion of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics the focal point will be his understanding of reality. this part is based on an immanent reading of Bonhoeffer’s own writings.

Bonhoeffer argues that one cannot be “Christian” without being “worldly” simultaneously. . but only one reality. in which the reality of God and the reality of the world are united [DBWE 6. Therefore. 53. this reality grounded and recognized in God. . not only as individuals in both their person and work. In this notion Bonhoeffer finds the reality of God and the reality of the world affirmed at the same time: There are not two realities. 2. we will not go far before seeing that a central concern for him is to argue that there is only one reality—the Christ-reality. 38. As the reality of Christ embraces the reality of the world. and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world. emphasis in original]. Partaking in Christ. The reality of Christ embraces the reality of the world in itself. For Bonhoeffer the Christ-reality is a differentiated unity of the reality of God and the reality of the world. This relationship is apparent when he relates these deliberations to his understanding of human beings as indivisible wholes and links his understanding to the concept of reality as the source of good: Human beings are indivisible wholes. The world has no reality of its own independent of God’s revelation in Christ. we stand at the same time in the reality of God and in the reality of the world. but also as members of the human and created community to which they belong. that is. The understanding of the inseparability of the reality of God and the reality of the world is closely related to Bonhoeffer’s anthropology. It is this indivisible whole. This approach will be undertaken in a dialogue with contemporary contributions to a Christian social ethic. What Does “Reality” Mean for Bonhoeffer? When we turn to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality in his Ethics. DBW 6. . nor is the world separated from Christ. that the question of good has in view. Neither is understood separate from the other or identified with the other. Hence there are not two realms. It is a denial of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ to wish to be “Christian” without being “worldly” or [to] wish to be worldly without seeing and recognizing the world in Christ. it is an appreciation and affirmation of both realities in the same reality at the same time. To participate in the indivisible whole of God’s reality is the meaning of the Christian question about the good [DBWE 6. emphasis in original]. 43.Letting Reality Become Real 325 will turn to a more constructive reflection on the significance of Bonhoeffer’s views in a contemporary context and how the social and ecclesiological motifs in Bonhoeffer’s ethics substantiate the idea of letting reality become real. 58. the Christian is never separated from the world. Rather. DBW 6. . but only the one realm of the Christ-reality [Christuswirklichkeit].

55. Bonhoeffer refers to the Christological hymn in St. at the same time he does not give up on the differentiation between these concepts of reality. To participate in this reality is the true meaning of the question concerning the good” (DBWE 6.7 Here. This is an important aspect of Bonhoeffer’s ethics. 40). This distinction is overcome in Jesus Christ.8 With this general understanding of reality in mind. DBW 6. “All concepts of reality that ignore Jesus Christ are abstractions” (DBWE 6. DBW 8. which holds more explicit spatial connotations than the The mentioned critique could be developed in more detail as a critical thrust of Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. 43). 327–36). however. Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:17) to suggest that in Christ all things exist. at least at a general level. Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the Christ-reality implies that he cannot follow the traditional separations also so common in contemporary Christian ethics. Bonhoeffer claims that in Christian ethics reality is understood as an ultimate reality [letzte Wirklichkeit] beyond and in all that exists. to see if we can find this same differentiated unity. However. “The irreconcilable opposition of ought and is finds reconciliation in Christ. 8 See also Nissen for an analysis of this Chalcedonian Christology as an underlying structure in Bonhoeffer’s ethic as a whole (Nissen 2006b. for example. the emphasis is on the Chalcedonian traits in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality and what this implies for the relationship between the universal and specific dimension of a Christian social ethic. it makes no sense to speak of reality separate from Jesus Christ. let us turn to more specific aspects of Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. Bonhoeffer does not make it explicit here. Bonhoeffer turns to the Christian ethical perspective.326 Journal of Religious Ethics Following a summary critique of the “positivist-empiricist” and “idealistic” approach. Here the analogy to the Chalcedonian Christology becomes quite clear. The notion of reality is fundamentally linked to the reality of God and God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. 45). In the German original Bonhoeffer uses the word Raum. Bonhoeffer also rejects the idea that is and ought are to be regarded as opposing categories. Turning to the spatial understanding of reality. As we have seen. we see that for Bonhoeffer it is important that there are not two “realms. but does elsewhere (see. Therefore. and ontological. 440–41 and DBW 12. Rather. that is a differentiated and tense unity where the differences are maintained and yet not separated. that is. In the present article. in ultimate reality. 54. where the good has become reality. 39). temporal. 463–66). Consequently. 7 . the spatial. DBW 6. It is in the reality of God as it has been revealed in the real world in Jesus Christ that the reality of God proves not to be just another idea.” but only one Christ-reality (DBW 6. Bonhoeffer does not believe the reality of God and the reality of the world are in opposition. they are held together in what he calls “a polemical unity” (DBW 6.

DBW 6. There are not two competing realms [Räume] standing side by side and battling over the borderline. In this Christ-reality any attempt to think in different Räume is rejected. 99. 58. my emphasis). Rather. 109. and the foundation of the West in this same historical setting that makes it possible for him to say that this is a historical reality founded in Christ. and what he calls the pre-Christian past in tracing the roots of Western heritage. Consequently. He reflects on a central passage of his ethic—“Good is the action that is in accordance with the reality of Jesus Christ. as if this question of boundaries was always the decisive one. 58. Rather. In the section “Heritage and Decay” he reflects on the Western Christian heritage. Bonhoeffer differentiates between antiquity. DBW 6. Rather. According to Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer rejects the theme of two realms [das Thema der zwei Räume] and says that this contradicts both biblical and Reformation thought (DBW 6. DBW 6. This is where he uses the concept of reality in a temporal sense.Letting Reality Become Real 327 English rendering “realm.” Bonhoeffer returns to this temporal understanding of reality. Thinking in two realms in this way seems to imply that one can move from one space to the other. In addition to the spatial understanding of reality. he argues that this is a historical heritage and a common Western heritage. or one can try to stand in both realms at the same time (DBW 6. 44). There are two distinct spaces that can be seen as confronting each other. In the later section of his ethic.” When Bonhoeffer uses the term Raum to describe the relationship between the worldly and the Christian reality. “History and Good [1]. “Jesus Christ has made the West into a historical unit” (DBWE 6. the Jewish people. 44]. the fact that Jesus was a Jew. Bonhoeffer also uses the concept in a temporal sense. 43). One can place oneself in either one or the other. claiming that “[t]he unity of the West is not an idea. 43). this type of thinking is a denial of the unity in the one Christ-reality in which we stand. When Bonhoeffer relates the unity of the West to Christ in this context. 109. 99). but a historical reality whose only foundation is Christ” (DBWE 6. With regard to Christianity. History moves only from this center and toward this center [DBWE 6. the reality of God and the reality of the world are one in the Christ-reality. action in accordance with Christ is . the whole reality of the world has already been drawn into and is held together in Christ. Christianity. he seems to be using the word primarily in a negative sense. everything is to be seen from the worldly reality as drawn into and held together in Christ. He refers to the position from which he distances himself and says that this position is under “the spell of this conceptual framework of realms [Raumdenkens]” (DBWE 6. it is the historical continuity between the Old Testament. DBW 6.

see DBW 6. 228–29. for example. 230–31. What is overlooked here is the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is the word of the one who did not relate to reality as a foreigner. 227). it exceeds the aim of the present article to examine these implications. 137–62. Bonhoeffer relates this to his understanding of history and claims that it would be a negation of historical reality. 228. 228). The ontological dimension of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality is apparent in his distinction between the ultimate and penultimate things. taking on historical reality in the reality of Jesus Christ.” Just as the first misunderstanding tends to separate the two. According to Bonhoeffer. It can either be seen as an endorsement of a new ethical ideology that is in constant contrast to historical reality. my emphasis].” as Bonhoeffer calls it. the founder of a religion. or it can be seen as an accommodation to this same reality (DBW 6. The Sermon on the Mount is to be understood and interpreted as the word of the God who became human. however. The ontological dimension also holds fundamental epistemological implications. emphasis in original)—and explains how this can be misunderstood in two ways. God’s entering history. The good cannot be separated from its historical setting without ignoring the affirmation of reality which is implied in the incarnation of Christ (DBW 6. a fanatic. a reformer. the tendency of an “ethic of Jesus. the “ethic of Jesus”—that is the Sermon on the Mount and the incarnation of Christ: [W]hat is overlooked here is the decisive fact from which alone the structure of what is real can be understood. on the one hand. Therefore. who spoke out of the depth of reality as no other human being on earth ever before. Also Feil 2005. on the other hand. In Bonhoeffer’s view. God’s becoming human. 2006b for further analysis of theses issues. 297–303 may be consulted. DBW 6. DBW 6.328 Journal of Religious Ethics action in accord with reality” (DBWE 6. both misconceptions are grave misinterpretations of the relationship between.9 With regard to reality. 229). 229–30. historical reality and. the second misconception tends to regard the historical reality as autonomous and thereby as essentially different from the Christian ethic. namely. but as the one who bore and experienced the nature of reality in his own body. See. and here it must prove true that action in accord with Christ is action in accord with reality [DBWE 6. With regard to the first misunderstanding. That is the issue at stake when the question of historical action is raised. Bonhoeffer argues that “[t]he relationship 9 For a further elaboration on this distinction. The Sermon on the Mount is the word of the very one who is the lord and law of reality. . to ignore the historical setting may lead to a privatization of Christian ethics and thereby a disregard of historical responsibility (DBW 6. it is important that both of these misunderstandings are reminded of the concrete historical responsibility implied in the “ethic of Jesus.

The relation to the ultimate is rejected. 153. 144–45). DBW 6. In Bonhoeffer’s view. Bonhoeffer formulates the central concern of a Christian ethic as “the relation between reality and becoming real” (DBWE 6. 146). DBW 6. Rather. 34). 50. It is no general formula. “To advocates of the radical solution it must be said that Christ is not radical in their sense. he argues that there is no human being as such. DBW 6. not the abstractly real that is separated from the reality of God. also separates the ultimate from the penultimate. Good is never without this reality. human reality and human being cannot be understood rightly as separated from this foundation. In its emphasis on Christ as the ultimate. through whom the world will be preserved until it is ripe for its end” (DBWE 6. what is important is “God’s reality and human reality as they have become one in Jesus Christ. one ‘radical’ and the other as compromise” (DBWE 6. it excludes and disregards the penultimate and is expressed in exclusive categories of all or nothing. For Bonhoeffer both of these extremes are false. The compromising solution. The world stands as it is and human beings are held accountable for it (DBW 6. . but it is done to maintain the penultimate as having a right in itself. the ontological foundation of human reality is given in the unity and differentiation of the two natures of Christ. 50. 34). on the other hand.” Rather. DBW 6. DBW 6. . 49. . Ontologically speaking. 146). Christian ethics becomes a question of participating in the reality of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. 145). this means that the good is not separate from what exists. The radical solution is concerned only with the ultimate and endorses a complete break with the penultimate. 35].” This is the point where Bonhoeffer moves into an ontological understanding of the notion of reality. Good is the real itself [das Wirklichke].Letting Reality Become Real 329 between the penultimate and ultimate in Christian life can be resolved in two extreme ways. DBW 6. but the real that has its reality only in God. 144). that is. Therefore. According to Bonhoeffer. The ontological aspect of his understanding of reality is also apparent when Bonhoeffer speaks about the subject matter of a Christian ethic being an issue of “God’s reality revealed in Christ becoming real [wirklichwerden] among God’s creatures” (DBWE 6. 155. to followers of the compromise solution it must likewise be said that Christ does not make compromises” (DBWE 6. And this reality is never without the good [DBWE 6. In his rejection of both the radical and compromising positions. 154. . According to the radical position. what happens to the world is not interesting (DBW 6. What is important for Bonhoeffer is neither the understanding of “a pure Christianity as such nor the idea of the human being as such. Such an understanding would imply an exclusion of God. In Jesus Christ God’s reality and human reality take the place of radicalism and compromise. “[t]here is only the God-man Jesus Christ who is real.

how this reality of God and of the world that is given in Christ becomes real in our world. . and ontological aspects of reality outlined in this section. and Tietz 2007 for a collection of essays on various approaches to this concept. It is only by participating in reality. nor the reality of the world without the reality of God [DBWE 6. how life is to be lived in it. 55. but this is not a reality separate from God. temporal. For Bonhoeffer it is important that this Christreality is not just an abstract idea. . But I find the reality of the world always already borne. the one not without the other. Bonhoeffer once again stresses that the reality of God and the reality of the world are affirmed at the same time: The Christian ethic asks. reality is only rightly understood in close connection to God as the source of reality. This simultaneous unity and differentiation is related to a Christological understanding of reality shaped by a Chalcedonian view of the two natures of Christ. . in other words. DBW 6. With this concrete formation of the Christ-reality in the world. emphasis in original]. The Christian ethic must also ask how the reality of Christ becomes concrete in human experience and how life should be lived in this reality. but rather has concrete. DBW 6. one can point to a certain “mystery” (Geheimnis) in Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality:10 In Christ we are invited to participate in the reality of God and the reality of the world at the same time. As we have seen in the spatial. See the recent anthology by Busch Nielsen. that we share in the good. and doing so in such a way that I never experience the reality of God without the reality of the world.330 Journal of Religious Ethics Bonhoeffer believes that the good is ontologically given with reality as that which exists. 40. Nissen. for a Christian ethic it is not sufficient to point to this mystery of reality. The reality of God is disclosed only as it places me completely into the reality of the world.the question is how the reality in Christ—which has long embraced us and our world within itself—works here and now or. In this sense. Rather. formative implications for human life and reality. . a continuous theme in Bonhoeffer is the affirmation of the reality of God and the reality of world as they are both one and yet differentiated in the Christ-reality. and reconciled in the reality of God. However. What matters is participating in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today. 55. 10 In Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics the notion of mystery plays a central role. 40]. . understood as the reality revealed in Jesus Christ. That is the mystery of the revelation of God in the human being Jesus Christ [DBWE 6. accepted.

and ontological dimensions) imply for Bonhoeffer’s social ethics?11 Before we can engage more directly with this question. The main question here is: What does the Chalcedonian understanding of reality found in part one (exemplified in the spatial. 11 . Bonhoeffer criticizes this notion for its implicit dissolution of the unity between the good and the real or the person and his or her works. in which he argues that reality is constituted in the moment of accepting the responsibility for another person. The belief that all of humanity is united in this common sociality has fundamental implications for the understanding of ethics and is particularly clear in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of responsibility. temporal. What Does the Notion of Reality Imply for Bonhoeffer’s Social Ethics? When we turn to our second question about Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. The subject of the action is no longer the isolated individual. In his classical work on Bonhoeffer. Therefore.Letting Reality Become Real 331 With this challenge to Christian ethics. we now move to the next question of concern: the social–ethical implications of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality. According to Bonhoeffer. Nissen 2009 for more concrete implications of Bonhoeffer’s political thought. 3. it is important that the question of the good is derived from the very concept of reality including all of God’s creation.” as Bonhoeffer is quite critical of this concept and regards it as an ethical aporia (DBW 6. One of the reasons why Bonhoeffer is reluctant about the concept of social ethics stems from his understanding of human existence as characterized by a fundamental sociality. but the one who This approach focuses the reading on foundational issues in Bonhoeffer’s social ethics. for example. It is the concrete encounter with the other that is the source of ethical responsibility: The moment a person accepts responsibility for other people—and only in so doing does the person live in reality—the genuine ethical situation arises. The reader is kindly referred to. we will see that the dimensions of reality just outlined also play an important role in his social ethics. the human person. This is really something different from the abstract way in which people usually seek to come to terms with the ethical problem. In this moment the ethical “situation” arises. the use of “social ethics” in what follows is merely a convenient way to refer to issues related to ethics in the political and social dimensions of human life. 37). 36). we have to indicate what we mean by “social ethics. and his motives and actions (DBW 6. Clifford Green argues that the concept of sociality is an underlying structure throughout Bonhoeffer’s theology (Green 1999).

and reconciled them with God [DBWE 6. 223). this responsive affirmation of reality is closely linked to the Christological character of reality. If we return to the earlier-mentioned dimensions of reality. he argues that the church takes up space in the world. 223]. When Bonhoeffer says that one lives in reality in the very moment that the individual accepts responsibility for the other. DBW 6. For Bonhoeffer. “In Christ. Bonhoeffer continues further with a dialectical understanding of the affirmation and contradiction of the worldly reality. which in the present context is read as a possible basis of the universal and specific dimension of the Christian ethic at the same time: The origin of action that is in accord with reality is neither the pseudoLutheran Christ whose only purpose is to sanction the status quo. it is important to note that he is not speaking of a philosophically understood constitution of ethical reality. The Church is not competing with the world. In this understanding of the reality of the world. The action’s norm is not a universal principle. but rather the God who became human. but rather testifying to the world that it is still a world. the actual [faktische] is both affirmed and limited. nor the radical. all human reality is taken on. Rather. loved and reconciled by . Bonhoeffer views this as an act of God’s embracing of the whole reality of the world in this narrow space and revealing its ultimate foundation in Jesus Christ. judged them. (Here we find the return of our Chalcedonian motif. But rather than mistaking this as strictly empirical. Bonhoeffer states that in this very moment one lives in reality. 224.332 Journal of Religious Ethics is responsible for other people. revolutionary Christ of all religious enthusiasts who is supposed to bless every revolution. When Bonhoeffer is pondering the spatial dimensions of his notion of reality. Only through this incarnation is it possible for the world to remain. 221).) It is the incarnation of Christ which makes it possible to act in accordance with reality. 220]. That is why it is ultimately only in and from Christ that it is possible to act in a way that is in accord with reality” (DBWE 6. This affirmation of the spatial dimension of reality is part of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. as given me by God [DBWE 6. who loved human beings. 224. 221. Therefore. DBW 6. but the concrete neighbour. meaning that at this very point one lives in accordance with reality as it really is (DBW 6. 223). DBW 6. action in accord with reality is only possible in Christ. we see that reality as the immediate encounter with the other is also reflected in Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the two-realms thinking. The affirmation and contradiction of the world is based on the reality of the reconciliation of the world with God in Christ. as God has taken care of the world and declared it under his rule (DBW 6.

52–53). A further argument for Christ’s inseparableness from the world can be found in the temporal motif. it is important to observe that it does not entail a political conservatism in Bonhoeffer. Renewal. As human beings can only be understood rightly in relation to Christ. “Where that witness has become silent it is a sign of inner decay in the church-community. 53). therefore. DBW 6. all humanity is accepted by God. The world and Christ cannot be understood rightly if one is separated from the other. 50). and only in Christ is the world what it is” (DBWE 6. 12 . 64. 66–67. An example is apparent in his notion of guilt. 48–49).Letting Reality Become Real 333 God (DBW 6. just as failure to bear fruit is a sign that a tree is dying” (DBWE 6.12 Therefore. one must be aware that this space has already been broken through. When we turn to the social–ethical implications of this view. 67. Thus all false thinking in terms of realms is ruled out as endangering the understanding of the church [DBWE 6. DBW 6. as we saw earlier in the article. it makes no sense to withdraw the church from the world. 64. 53). Christ is also Christ only in the midst of the world. DBW 6. In the section titled “Guilt. This understanding implies the risk of forgetting the role of the church in relation to the world (DBW 6. The Holy Spirit will equip God’s church-community of sanctified life to this task. 50]. abolished. and overcome in every moment by the witness of the church to Jesus Christ. and the world is reconciled to God” (DBWE 6. Bonhoeffer even makes the point that it is a sign of the Church’s true life that it maintains this witness. The church cannot be confined to a narrow self-understanding where it exists only for itself and forgets its witnessing role in the world.” Bonhoeffer argues that a core issue in Christian ethics is the formation of Christ among human beings. “The world belongs to Christ. There is no part of the world that is not in Christ. also. Bonhoeffer points to an alternative image in which the relationship between the church and the world can better be described—the body of Jesus Christ (DBW 6. According to Bonhoeffer the two-realms thinking endangers the very concept of the church whereby the church forfeits its prophetic role in public discourse: When one therefore wants to speak of the space of the church. In his rejection of two-realms thinking. Bonhoeffer’s remarks on the dangers of Reformation theology in its focus on the preaching of the word in its ecclesiology. As such. they See. Justification. 410). for Bonhoeffer it is very important that one does not understand the role of the church defined within a narrow realm without a role for the world. Bonhoeffer considers the relation between Christ and the world so close that just as the world is the world in Christ. It is in the body of Jesus Christ that “God is united with humanity. DBW 6. the task of the church is to carry a witness of Jesus Christ to the world.

234. The Christian is called to follow Christ in carrying the guilt of the other. we turn to the ontological motif in Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. 135. This understanding of the church’s formative role is in itself a significant social–ethical motif. just as the church as a whole is burdened with the guilt of the Western world. Elsewhere in his Ethics. The human being understood as the self-creator has fallen away from the true nature of the human being. In this confession the social–ethical mandate of the church is repeatedly emphasized (DBW 6. DBW 6. The recognition of guilt is an acknowledgment which takes place in the church as the place of the preaching of the grace of Christ. but also the place where the Western world’s falling away from Christ is acknowledged. DBW 6. Thereby. as he calls them “an ethic of consequences” and “an ethic of motives”—are insufficient (see. as the church as a social reality is not separated from the world. It is at this crucial point where Bonhoeffer also links individual and corporate guilt. 233).334 Journal of Religious Ethics are called to be conformed to him. the church is the place where Jesus makes his form real in the midst of the world. Here. 126). In this being burdened with human guilt. 233). Neither an ethic of . Christ enters into human guilt and is burdened with the guilt of human beings as real human beings (DBW 6. but is ascribed a highly significant role. Jesus becomes guilty” (DBWE 6. According to Bonhoeffer. and thereby also the place where the formation of Christ in the world takes place. Bonhoeffer adds that the classical utilitarian and deontological ways of thinking about ethics—or. Lastly. Following from Bonhoeffer’s understanding of discipleship. the historical dimension of human reality is also affirmed: “As one who acts responsibly in human historical existence. for example. 35–39). As “the place of personal and corporate rebirth and renewal” (DBWE 6. structured around the Decalogue. This point is made even clearer in the following parts of this section in his Ethics. in the historical situation of his contemporary Germany. the only way to return to the true foundation of human nature is to acknowledge one’s guilt to Christ. Bonhoeffer writes a confession of the church. The church is not only the place where the individual guilt is acknowledged. in his love for human beings he is burdened with their guilt. the church is the place where guilt is both acknowledged and forgiven. DBW 6. Therefore. the individual Christian is also called to carry the guilt of one’s neighbor. 129–36). as a human being having entered reality. Rather. This concept is a central notion in his argument for the ethical responsibility of human beings toward each other. the historically acknowledged guilt (the Western world’s falling away from Christ) serves in Bonhoeffer to argue for the formative role of the church in the realization of Christ in the world. The ontological motif is initially evident when Bonhoeffer reflects on the good as being reality itself. Christ does not introduce a new human being.

DBW 6. namely. when Bonhoeffer maintains that the undivided whole is to be understood as “creation” in terms of its origin and as the “kingdom of God” according to its goal. it was very good” meant the whole of creation. The link between the two seemingly different understandings of reality becomes apparent. Both of these are “equally far from us and yet near to us. but in the present passage Bonhoeffer seems to understand reality as the created reality. not only of motives but also of works. in subsequent passages Bonhoeffer argues for human beings as being “indivisible wholes. Human beings. The very understanding of reality is linked to his concept of responsibility and thereby the indissoluble relatedness to the needs of the other. Bonhoeffer has given an account of Christ as reality. Rather. DBW 6. because God’s creation and God’s kingdom are present to us only in God’s selfrevelation in Jesus Christ” (DBWE 6. For Bonhoeffer it is important that the good is reality itself. where the central concern has been how God’s reality revealed in Christ can become real among God’s creatures (DBW 6. 261). reality as a whole held in the hands of God—that is what is embraced by the question of good. the God who became human” (DBWE 6. In his section on the responsible life. Here Bonhoeffer seems to imply a more concrete understanding of reality than we find in other passages.Letting Reality Become Real 335 consequences nor one of motives can ensure the realization of the good. to notice that this emphasis is made in order to avoid severing reality into separate parts. In this section we have seen that Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality has important social–ethical implications. 261. 33–35). DBW 6. Bonhoeffer argues that reality is not something impersonal. It is created reality as a whole as it is held in the hands of God: Good is not the agreement of some way of existence that I describe as reality with some standard placed at our disposal by nature or grace. in other words. The divine “behold. Rather. because they both make an abstraction out of it and separate it from reality (DBW 6. 53. as it is seen and recognized in God. Therefore. reality itself seen and recognized in God. Further. The good desires the whole. It is important. it desires whole persons along with the human companions with whom they are given to live [DBWE 6. 38). 53. 37). Even if Bonhoeffer speaks about reality in a more concrete sense in the passage cited above. In the immediately preceding passages. it is “the Real One [der Wirkliche].” in both person and work. with their fellow humans. This understanding is . this is connected to both an affirmation and contradiction of worldly reality as an expression of a Chalcedonian Christology. however. with their motives and their works. with the creation that surrounds them. 37]. as members of the human and created community (DBW 6. good is reality. he still maintains a close link between this notion of reality and the understanding of Christ as the real one. 38).

the call to carry the guilt of the other. Bonhoeffer considers this a unity and differentiation given in the Christ-reality. The following section provides a more explicit consideration of these ecclesiological motifs. The temporal motif implies an appreciation of the understanding of guilt as an individual and corporate concept. We have also seen how this Chalcedonian understanding of reality implies an ecclesiological outlook. 4. Finally. the ontological motif implies an understanding of reality as fundamentally linked to Jesus Christ. in the 13 See.13 It is a central aim hereby to assert the complete affirmation of both dimensions without disregarding either. The good is derived from reality itself. The human being is within this reality and as such is in the world and in Christ at the same time. Nissen 2006a for such an approach. It is important to note that the following argument claims the specificity of a Christian social ethic without giving up on the universality.336 Journal of Religious Ethics closely related to spatial. Throughout this analysis of the social–ethical implications of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality. implying that all human beings share a fundamental Christological condition of being. The spatial understanding implies an emphasis on the church’s witness to the world and an endorsement of the essentially social–ethical metaphor of the church as the body of Jesus Christ. Just as the two natures of Christ are united and yet differentiated. In order to test the thesis that Bonhoeffer maintains the differentiated unity of the universal and particular dimension of Christian ethics. In this section we turn to what can be considered the epitome of the particularity of a Christian ethic in a public discourse. we have seen the Chalcedonian Christology as an underlying mode of thought. His notion of reality is closely linked to his understanding of the presence of Christ in the world. we now examine the issue of the witness in the public context. for example. temporal. Bonhoeffer stresses the notion of reality both in his ethic in general and in his social ethics. The argument could also have taken the opposite position and argued for the common dimension without neglecting the particularity. Letting Reality Become Real As we have seen in the two preceding sections of this article. and this cannot be understood separate from Jesus Christ. the reality of the world and the reality of Christ are united and yet differentiated from each other. and ontological dimensions. and how this is derived from the social–ethical implications of Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. The reality of Christ and the reality of the world cannot be separated from each other. and the church as the place where this guilt is confessed and forgiven. .

my emphasis].15 By the assertion of the simultaneous universal and specific dimension I attempt to go beyond positions where these dimensions are simply contrasted or merely reconciled. I argue for the differentiated unity of the specific and universal dimension of a Christian social ethic based on a Chalcedonian Christology. a view of human beings as endowed with a special dignity—the dignity of beings who are equal in their capacity to open themselves to what is good.Letting Reality Become Real 337 Chalcedonian motif previously detailed. Niebuhr’s classical work. the present article does not see the Christian witness and participation in public discourse as opposites. Stout (2005) and Biggar (2009a. at the same time.16 14 The affinity to Stout 2005 can be seen when he. the present article deviates from the argument for “middle axioms” (Lovin 1984. and contend that there is a communicative exchange between these two dimensions. It is my aim to argue that each dimension affirms and yet is different from the other. Therefore. Arguing for the witness of a Christian social ethic does not mean that common public discourse is ignored. This exchange makes it possible to maintain either dimension and. In continuation of a . for example. see the other affirmed. when he speaks of his “polyglot liberalism” as reconcilable with the witness: What this polyglot liberalism requires is not a single tongue. 2009b). 168. and it depends on a certain anthropology. 173). as Lovin tends to in his recent book on Christian realism (Lovin 2008. but a responsible manner—not so much public reason. at the same time. I argue for a differentiated unity of the universal and specific dimension of a Christian social ethic. For a more recent assertion of a paradoxical position along the same lines. Rather. as public reasonableness. the intention is to place the argument close to the communicative and conversational positions of. namely. The specificity affirms the universality and vice versa—and. 15 In this polemical position there is a certain affinity to “Christ and Culture in Paradox. Even if I share the emphasis on Bonhoeffer and wish to argue for a Christian realism. to discern what is right. even if there are many common concerns with Robin Lovin’s study of Bonhoeffer’s ethics and his argument for a Christian realism. Christ & Culture (Niebuhr 1951). 119). As previously mentioned.14 In arguing for a Chalcedonian position. I also attempt to stress the polemical and contradictory nature of this stance. it maintains the respective differences. I contend that it is possible to maintain a paradoxical unity of universality and specificity without giving up on either of them. This amounts to an ethic of communication. and to bear witness to them [2009b. see Robert Benne’s The Paradoxical Vision (Benne 1995).” as depicted in Richard H. 16 Consequently. The affiliation with Biggar’s position is apparent. argues for conversation as a description of his aim (10) and when he argues for the inclusion of religious views in the democratic conversation (84–85). for example. for example.

and the social– ethical implications are fundamentally linked to each other.17 We also find this emphasis in Ethics. It is a well-known characteristic of Bonhoeffer’s theology that ethics. . the church is called to be in the world and witness to the world about its reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ (DBW 6. 64.” which is something quite different. 55–72). for example. By becoming human Christ claims a place among us human beings. 63. Thus the body of Jesus Christ can only be a visible body. and ecclesiology cannot be understood as separate from each other (see. . for example. 225: “The body of Christ takes up physical space here on earth. the emphasis is particularly clear in Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship. for example. 225–52 for further elaboration on Bonhoeffer’s view on the visibility of the church in his Discipleship. anything that takes up space is visible. I argue that it is possible to maintain both the specific witness and the claim of universality implied in public discourse. 50).” See DBWE 4. 20). This motif implies an understanding of the church as the body of Jesus Christ that is visible and takes up space in the world. 43–48. or else it is not a body at all. The unity of ethics. The understanding of reality. as Bonhoeffer emphasizes that it is the Holy Spirit which equips Christians to fulfill this task as it “comes out of sanctified life in God’s church-community” (DBWE 6. 18 In the English edition of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics the prophetic role of the witness of the church is not as explicit as in the German original—see. Hauerwas argues that the visibility of the church was crucial to Bonhoeffer and that the church can never give up on the truthful proclamation of the Gospel (Hauerwas 2004. Earlier we looked at the spatial motif and its social–ethical implications for Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality.18 It is a task of the church which is extended to the members of the Christian church—they are called “to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to the world. Rather. anthropology. . For Bonhoeffer this understanding does not imply that the church is separate from the world. but this is rendered into. DBWE 6.” But this role cannot be separated from the church. and ecclesiology accounts for why Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality has fundamental implications for the indissoluble link between his ecclesiology and his social ethics. Hauerwas is quite right in his emphasis on the church and the witness in Bonhoeffer. where he stresses the visibility of the church community and the notion of the church taking up space in the world. Bonhoeffer believes that the notion of the communicative approach. Bonhoeffer repeatedly uses the German zeugen or bezeugen. Among other places. anthropology. . The link is also apparent in a chapter on Bonhoeffer’s ethics where Hauerwas speaks of the call to the church to live faithfully and witness to the truth. when Bonhoeffer reflects on the church taking up space in the world. 17 DBWE 4.338 Journal of Religious Ethics The link between Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality and his ecclesiology was already apparent in his endorsement of a spatial motif in his concept of reality. Rasmussen 1972. the church. See also Hauerwas 2004. “demonstrating” or “testifying. 49). DBW 6.

and the church as divinely imposed tasks and thereby move beyond a static notion of the orders of creation where they are seen as determinate forms of being. it is worth noting that Luther’s own understanding of the three estates holds similarities to Bonhoeffer’s notion of the mandates. as he rejects any division into separate realms [Räume].Letting Reality Become Real 339 church’s witness dissolves any attempt to think in separate realms and isolated spaces of the church. 73. The church maintains its social–ethical responsibility by witnessing to the world. whereas Bonhoeffer develops a more christological position. Luther would also argue that there is close connection between these estates. and Christian life” (DBWE 6. church order. This overlap is closely linked to Bonhoeffer’s spatial understanding of reality. . government. Again we see that the church’s witness fundamentally has an ethical character. 60). it is still a witness that calls the world to let the reality of its true nature become real.19 For Bonhoeffer it was important to argue for the divine mandates of work. as all the mandates overlap with each other. 54n70 for an explanation of how Bonhoeffer’s mandates grow out of a traditional Lutheran understanding and yet how he emphasizes the “commissioning word of God” in his more dynamic understanding of the mandates. A significant difference between Luther and Bonhoeffer seems to be Luther’s theological foundation. He claims that this witness calls the world “into the community [Gemeinschaft] of the body of Christ to which the world in truth already belongs” (DBWE 6. as “the divine mandate of the church is the commission of allowing the reality of Jesus Christ to become real in proclamation [Verkündigung]. In Bonhoeffer’s work the church plays a crucial role in letting reality become real. The mandate of the church reaches into the other mandates. 20 See DBW 6. 54). 67. just as it is not part of Luther’s doctrine to argue for a division of the individual between these estates. Human beings as whole persons partake in the one reality of Jesus Christ and are called to fulfill this reality and thereby carry the witness of the church to the world: 19 See DBW 6.20 What is important for the present purpose is the role of the church in the affirmation of reality. for example. Even if Bonhoeffer was right in this critique. but in the relationship between the estates or the mandates the difference does not seem to be very strong. 74n93). DBW 6. marriage. Bonhoeffer’s view of the mandates is an indirect critique of the Lutheran understanding of the orders of creation among some of his Lutheran contemporaries (see. The role and place of the witness in Bonhoeffer’s social ethics is also made quite clear in his understanding of the mandates. Even if it is a call where the church community will experience itself as strange to the world. 54–61 and 392–412 for an account of the mandates. DBW 6. DBWE 6.

Reconciler. it is itself already reality in the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ [DBWE 6. For Bonhoeffer this point again is closely related to reconciliation in Christ. and the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (DBWE 6. It is important to bear in mind that. The essential concern is how the reality of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ becomes real among God’s creatures. It is a reality revealed in Jesus Christ that is to become real in the world. that all the other mandates are not there to divide people and tear them apart but to deal with them as whole people before God the Creator.340 Journal of Religious Ethics Human beings as whole persons stand before the whole earthly and eternal reality that God in Jesus Christ has prepared for them. The pivotal issue is the relationship between reality and becoming real (DBW 6. the role of the church is to proclaim this reality of the world and thereby witness to the world that the mystery of reality implies that all of reality is one in Christ. the cross. the reality of the world that was reconciled to God in the manger. 59–60]. It is in the human person. for Bonhoeffer. but to let the world be what it really is and bear witness to the world of its true reality—the world as reconciled to God in Jesus Christ. According to Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer reminds the church of its calling not to withdraw from the world. 73. and Redeemer—that reality in all its manifold aspects is ultimately one in God who became human. DBW 6. With specific reference to the social–ethical implications of this view. This is the witness the church has to give to the world. in concrete human life and action. Bonhoeffer connects the issue of reality to the Holy Spirit. The reality both affirms and transforms the world at the same time: [T]he will of God is nothing other than the realization of the Christreality among us in and in our world. as he argues that the unity of the mandates in the human person happens “when people allow themselves to be placed through Jesus Christ before the completed reality of God’s becoming human. Only in full response to the whole of this offer and this claim can the human person fulfill this reality. Rather than seeing the human person as the place where the mandates are in mutual conflict. When Bonhoeffer writes on the will of God elsewhere. Bonhoeffer understands the mandates to be directed at the whole person standing in reality before God. The will of God is neither an idea . The relationship between Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit is so close that Bonhoeffer considers it to be synonymous with the relationship between reality and becoming real (DBW 6. 60). 35). 34). this theme is also intimately related to the realization of the one Christ-reality. The will of God is therefore not an idea that demands to be realized. that the mandates are united. DBW 6. the very core of Christian ethics is related to the concept of reality. 73.

1: 159–78. so that subjection to things as they are could fulfill it. Minneapolis. 2009b “Saving the ‘Secular’: The Public Vocation of Moral Theology. and yet at the same time the contradictory transformation involves the affirmation of the particular. 61]. it is worth noting that fact. Biggar.” In Religious Voices in Public Places. 74. edited by Nigel Biggar and Linda Hogan. B. Bonhoeffer’s Chalcedonian-inspired understanding of the simultaneous identity and difference in the relationship between the worldly and the Christian seems to point to a viable course in the contemporary debate on Christian ethics in a public discourse. I would like to express my gratitude to Peter Speiser and Christian Scharen for help on revising the language of this article.” It was first presented in March 2009 in a research seminar at The Faculty of Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. but Conversation: Theology in Public Debate about Euthanasia. Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality demands a polemical unity between the universal and particular and thereby points to a source of Christian ethics that moves beyond a futile dichotomy between the universal and specific understanding of the identity of Christian ethics. 151–93. and this position is a much-needed contribution in our contemporary setting. DBW 6. Nigel 2009a “Not Translation. In the affirmation and transformation of what exists. 2011 Behaving in Public: How to Do Christian Ethics.Letting Reality Become Real 341 nor is it simply identical with what exists. Aarhus University. . The contribution stemming from Bonhoeffer’s ethics leads to an understanding that affirms the worldly reality and yet maintains the Christian specificity at the same time. it is rather a reality that wills to become real ever anew in what exists and against what exists [DBWE 6.” Journal of Religious Ethics 37.21 REFERENCES Benne. 21 The article is part of a larger research project on Lutheran social ethics entitled “Social Ethics Between Universality and Specificity: A Study of the Identity of Theological Social Ethics with Particular Emphasis on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. Minn. Even if Bonhoeffer’s approach to the question of identity and the role of Christian ethics in the public realm only provides us with a step in the right direction. Eerdmans. the mystery of the Christ-reality implies a confirmation of both the universal and particular dimension of Christian ethics. Robert 1995 The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Grand Rapids. this understanding of the Christ-reality recognizes the universality of Christian ethics. Mich.: W. In its verification of all that exists.: Augsburg Fortress.

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