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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
“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.
” 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 article furthers the contribution by Franklin Sherman (1964). I do not differentiate sharply between the terms “universal” or “common. Rather.2 Both authors maintain a position between liberalism and traditionalism—terms that may be viewed as somewhat similar to universalism and speciﬁcity. change. where Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran background and theology is endorsed (Krötke 2008). 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. Even if their argumentative premises are different. Chalcedonian Christology is used in a general sense. but unfortunately it appeared too late to be included in any substantial way. In pursuing this universality and speciﬁcity at the same time. 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.4 Other writings See also Biggar’s critical discussion of Stout and others in a recent essay (2009a). It would lead too far in the present context to make this argument. the latter is seen as that which is derived more explicitly from a Christian foundation and possibly differs from other views. In making the distinction between the universal and speciﬁc. which I am striving to reconcile. of course. who argued for a similar understanding. 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). In taking this approach to the notion of Christian social ethics. Biggar opts for a polyglot liberalism (2009b). a reading of Bonhoeffer as Lutheran. nor is it concerned with different church traditions’ understandings of this issue. division. or separation. Instead. Biggar’s recent book (2011) is highly relevant for the article. however. The following discussion of the universal and speciﬁc identiﬁcation of Christian ethics will be raised in the light of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. the article does not go into detailed historical or dogmatic analyses of a Chalcedonian Christology. 10–11). inspired by the central formulation that the two natures of Christ are without confusion.3 The focus will be his Ethics as the culmination of his theology and thereby a hermeneutical key to his theology in general. Whereas the former is simply seen as that which a Christian ethic shares with worldviews or viewpoints different from itself. 2 . the article hopes to contribute to what may be called a Chalcedonian understanding of Christian social ethics. I refer the reader to a recent article. both of these authors argue for a conversational model for public discourse. In pursuing this Chalcedonian motif. Quotations in the text are taken from the English translation (DBWE) currently under publication.Letting Reality Become Real 323 Nigel Biggar.
” As such. and ontological dimension) imply for Bonhoeffer’s social ethics? After pondering this question.6 In the analysis of Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. This is the question in the third part. 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. for example. but more speciﬁcally how Bonhoeffer understands this notion. which is an issue closely linked to the two previous parts. 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. That section raises the question. the overarching idea is the Chalcedonian differentiated unity of the universal and speciﬁc identity. the second part of the argument turns to an assessment of these inferences. The argument for this thesis comes in three steps: The ﬁrst part of the argument is an analysis of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality. In the ﬁrst part of the article the main concern is to determine what Bonhoeffer means by “reality. and ontological). where the focus is on the church’s role in the world. for example. Krötke 2005 and Janke 2004. 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 last part of the article 5 See. If Bonhoeffer argues for a differentiated unity of the universal and particular dimension of Christian ethics. Clifford Green 2002 for a substantiation of this hermeneutical approach to Bonhoeffer. can Bonhoeffer argue for a positive role of the church in the public realm and yet maintain the universal dimension? Methodologically. . temporal. the reader is kindly referred to. where we will ask. what does the Chalcedonian understanding of reality found in part one (exempliﬁed in the spatial. this implies that one can also take a particular stance and yet see this as an affirmation of the universal dimension. 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. 6 The focus in this article is not on the concept of reality in general. the article turns to the third and last step of the argument. this part is based on an immanent reading of Bonhoeffer’s own writings. As this differentiated unity holds fundamental implications for the identity of Christian ethics in a public discourse.5 Within the discussion of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics the focal point will be his understanding of reality. the present article employs both an analytic and a more constructive approach. temporal. For an overview of reality as a concept more generally.
What Does “Reality” Mean for Bonhoeffer? When we turn to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality in his Ethics. . in which the reality of God and the reality of the world are united [DBWE 6. nor is the world separated from Christ. 58. It is this indivisible whole. For Bonhoeffer the Christ-reality is a differentiated unity of the reality of God and the reality of the world. we stand at the same time in the reality of God and in the reality of the world. emphasis in original]. 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. emphasis in original]. The understanding of the inseparability of the reality of God and the reality of the world is closely related to Bonhoeffer’s anthropology. The reality of Christ embraces the reality of the world in itself. Therefore. this reality grounded and recognized in God. Hence there are not two realms. This approach will be undertaken in a dialogue with contemporary contributions to a Christian social ethic. 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. the Christian is never separated from the world. . Neither is understood separate from the other or identiﬁed with the other. 43. but only the one realm of the Christ-reality [Christuswirklichkeit]. . Partaking in Christ. but also as members of the human and created community to which they belong. As the reality of Christ embraces the reality of the world. DBW 6. that the question of good has in view. . and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world. it is an appreciation and affirmation of both realities in the same reality at the same time. The world has no reality of its own independent of God’s revelation in Christ. 38. but only one reality. 2. To participate in the indivisible whole of God’s reality is the meaning of the Christian question about the good [DBWE 6.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. 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. 53. 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. Rather. not only as individuals in both their person and work. Bonhoeffer argues that one cannot be “Christian” without being “worldly” simultaneously. that is. DBW 6.
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. DBW 6. where the good has become reality. Bonhoeffer also rejects the idea that is and ought are to be regarded as opposing categories. Bonhoeffer does not make it explicit here. Rather. 327–36). the spatial.7 Here. however. let us turn to more speciﬁc aspects of Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. that is. DBW 8. Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the Christ-reality implies that he cannot follow the traditional separations also so common in contemporary Christian ethics. In the German original Bonhoeffer uses the word Raum. to see if we can ﬁnd this same differentiated unity. This distinction is overcome in Jesus Christ. Here the analogy to the Chalcedonian Christology becomes quite clear.” but only one Christ-reality (DBW 6. Turning to the spatial understanding of reality. Bonhoeffer does not believe the reality of God and the reality of the world are in opposition. “All concepts of reality that ignore Jesus Christ are abstractions” (DBWE 6. 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. 54.8 With this general understanding of reality in mind. As we have seen. Consequently. 55. However. This is an important aspect of Bonhoeffer’s ethics. at least at a general level. The notion of reality is fundamentally linked to the reality of God and God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. 39).326 Journal of Religious Ethics Following a summary critique of the “positivist-empiricist” and “idealistic” approach. in ultimate reality. 8 See also Nissen for an analysis of this Chalcedonian Christology as an underlying structure in Bonhoeffer’s ethic as a whole (Nissen 2006b. DBW 6. we see that for Bonhoeffer it is important that there are not two “realms. for example. at the same time he does not give up on the differentiation between these concepts of reality. that is a differentiated and tense unity where the differences are maintained and yet not separated. Bonhoeffer turns to the Christian ethical perspective. To participate in this reality is the true meaning of the question concerning the good” (DBWE 6. they are held together in what he calls “a polemical unity” (DBW 6. “The irreconcilable opposition of ought and is ﬁnds reconciliation in Christ. In the present article. Bonhoeffer claims that in Christian ethics reality is understood as an ultimate reality [letzte Wirklichkeit] beyond and in all that exists. temporal. Bonhoeffer refers to the Christological hymn in St. 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. 45). and ontological. Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:17) to suggest that in Christ all things exist. but does elsewhere (see. Therefore. 463–66). 7 . it makes no sense to speak of reality separate from Jesus Christ. 43). 40). 440–41 and DBW 12.
43). this type of thinking is a denial of the unity in the one Christ-reality in which we stand. 43). One can place oneself in either one or the other. the reality of God and the reality of the world are one in the Christ-reality. Rather. In the section “Heritage and Decay” he reﬂects on the Western Christian heritage. he seems to be using the word primarily in a negative sense.” Bonhoeffer returns to this temporal understanding of reality. 109. the Jewish people. and what he calls the pre-Christian past in tracing the roots of Western heritage. 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. With regard to Christianity. History moves only from this center and toward this center [DBWE 6. 109. There are two distinct spaces that can be seen as confronting each other. 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. 99. DBW 6. the fact that Jesus was a Jew. DBW 6. as if this question of boundaries was always the decisive one. Bonhoeffer rejects the theme of two realms [das Thema der zwei Räume] and says that this contradicts both biblical and Reformation thought (DBW 6. “Jesus Christ has made the West into a historical unit” (DBWE 6. He reﬂects on a central passage of his ethic—“Good is the action that is in accordance with the reality of Jesus Christ. 44). 58.” When Bonhoeffer uses the term Raum to describe the relationship between the worldly and the Christian reality. This is where he uses the concept of reality in a temporal sense. Bonhoeffer also uses the concept in a temporal sense. my emphasis). everything is to be seen from the worldly reality as drawn into and held together in Christ. 44].Letting Reality Become Real 327 English rendering “realm. Thinking in two realms in this way seems to imply that one can move from one space to the other. “History and Good . In the later section of his ethic. action in accordance with Christ is . 99). claiming that “[t]he unity of the West is not an idea. DBW 6. Consequently. According to Bonhoeffer. Rather. In addition to the spatial understanding of reality. Rather. When Bonhoeffer relates the unity of the West to Christ in this context. or one can try to stand in both realms at the same time (DBW 6. Christianity. the whole reality of the world has already been drawn into and is held together in Christ. it is the historical continuity between the Old Testament. but a historical reality whose only foundation is Christ” (DBWE 6. Bonhoeffer differentiates between antiquity. 58. DBW 6. In this Christ-reality any attempt to think in different Räume is rejected. There are not two competing realms [Räume] standing side by side and battling over the borderline. he argues that this is a historical heritage and a common Western heritage.
see DBW 6. Also Feil 2005. According to Bonhoeffer. the founder of a religion. the tendency of an “ethic of Jesus. it exceeds the aim of the present article to examine these implications. With regard to the ﬁrst misunderstanding. Bonhoeffer argues that “[t]he relationship 9 For a further elaboration on this distinction. both misconceptions are grave misinterpretations of the relationship between. taking on historical reality in the reality of Jesus Christ. however. it is important that both of these misunderstandings are reminded of the concrete historical responsibility implied in the “ethic of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is the word of the very one who is the lord and law of reality. for example. 2006b for further analysis of theses issues. 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. on the other hand.328 Journal of Religious Ethics action in accord with reality” (DBWE 6.9 With regard to reality. See. Bonhoeffer relates this to his understanding of history and claims that it would be a negation of historical reality. 228). God’s entering history. 228–29. 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. 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.” as Bonhoeffer calls it. but as the one who bore and experienced the nature of reality in his own body. 230–31. or it can be seen as an accommodation to this same reality (DBW 6. That is the issue at stake when the question of historical action is raised. Therefore.” Just as the ﬁrst misunderstanding tends to separate the two. . 229–30. 297–303 may be consulted. The Sermon on the Mount is to be understood and interpreted as the word of the God who became human. 229). The ontological dimension also holds fundamental epistemological implications. on the one hand. and here it must prove true that action in accord with Christ is action in accord with reality [DBWE 6. It can either be seen as an endorsement of a new ethical ideology that is in constant contrast to historical reality. namely. DBW 6. 137–62. the second misconception tends to regard the historical reality as autonomous and thereby as essentially different from the Christian ethic. In Bonhoeffer’s view. historical reality and. God’s becoming human. The ontological dimension of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality is apparent in his distinction between the ultimate and penultimate things. a reformer. 228. my emphasis]. who spoke out of the depth of reality as no other human being on earth ever before. to ignore the historical setting may lead to a privatization of Christian ethics and thereby a disregard of historical responsibility (DBW 6. 227). a fanatic. DBW 6. emphasis in original)—and explains how this can be misunderstood in two ways.
35]. it excludes and disregards the penultimate and is expressed in exclusive categories of all or nothing. DBW 6. the ontological foundation of human reality is given in the unity and differentiation of the two natures of Christ. through whom the world will be preserved until it is ripe for its end” (DBWE 6. 144). 146). Bonhoeffer formulates the central concern of a Christian ethic as “the relation between reality and becoming real” (DBWE 6. . Ontologically speaking. 155. . In Jesus Christ God’s reality and human reality take the place of radicalism and compromise. Good is never without this reality. “[t]here is only the God-man Jesus Christ who is real. to followers of the compromise solution it must likewise be said that Christ does not make compromises” (DBWE 6. It is no general formula. one ‘radical’ and the other as compromise” (DBWE 6. 145). but the real that has its reality only in God.” Rather. “To advocates of the radical solution it must be said that Christ is not radical in their sense. 144–45). In his rejection of both the radical and compromising positions. DBW 6. 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. 50. this means that the good is not separate from what exists. 49. 50. Good is the real itself [das Wirklichke]. According to the radical position. what is important is “God’s reality and human reality as they have become one in Jesus Christ. what happens to the world is not interesting (DBW 6. The radical solution is concerned only with the ultimate and endorses a complete break with the penultimate. According to Bonhoeffer. 146). The relation to the ultimate is rejected. Such an understanding would imply an exclusion of God. And this reality is never without the good [DBWE 6.Letting Reality Become Real 329 between the penultimate and ultimate in Christian life can be resolved in two extreme ways. on the other hand. human reality and human being cannot be understood rightly as separated from this foundation. but it is done to maintain the penultimate as having a right in itself. 34). What is important for Bonhoeffer is neither the understanding of “a pure Christianity as such nor the idea of the human being as such. The compromising solution. The world stands as it is and human beings are held accountable for it (DBW 6. In Bonhoeffer’s view. 154. DBW 6. . 34). For Bonhoeffer both of these extremes are false. that is. not the abstractly real that is separated from the reality of God. also separates the ultimate from the penultimate. In its emphasis on Christ as the ultimate. 153. DBW 6. Therefore. he argues that there is no human being as such. . DBW 6. DBW 6.” This is the point where Bonhoeffer moves into an ontological understanding of the notion of reality. Rather. Christian ethics becomes a question of participating in the reality of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ.
how this reality of God and of the world that is given in Christ becomes real in our world. in other words. Rather. 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. understood as the reality revealed in Jesus Christ. But I ﬁnd the reality of the world always already borne. accepted. 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. that we share in the good. emphasis in original]. As we have seen in the spatial. reality is only rightly understood in close connection to God as the source of reality. It is only by participating in reality. However. Nissen. With this concrete formation of the Christ-reality in the world. 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 ontological aspects of reality outlined in this section. 10 In Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics the notion of mystery plays a central role. This simultaneous unity and differentiation is related to a Christological understanding of reality shaped by a Chalcedonian view of the two natures of Christ. how life is to be lived in it. temporal. 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. . for a Christian ethic it is not sufficient to point to this mystery of reality. 40]. the one not without the other.330 Journal of Religious Ethics Bonhoeffer believes that the good is ontologically given with reality as that which exists. nor the reality of the world without the reality of God [DBWE 6. 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. That is the mystery of the revelation of God in the human being Jesus Christ [DBWE 6. 55. but rather has concrete. 55. and doing so in such a way that I never experience the reality of God without the reality of the world. . What matters is participating in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today. formative implications for human life and reality. . In this sense. DBW 6. For Bonhoeffer it is important that this Christreality is not just an abstract idea. and Tietz 2007 for a collection of essays on various approaches to this concept. . and reconciled in the reality of God. but this is not a reality separate from God. See the recent anthology by Busch Nielsen. 40. .
11 . 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. The main question here is: What does the Chalcedonian understanding of reality found in part one (exempliﬁed in the spatial. 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. The reader is kindly referred to. The subject of the action is no longer the isolated individual. Clifford Green argues that the concept of sociality is an underlying structure throughout Bonhoeffer’s theology (Green 1999). we now move to the next question of concern: the social–ethical implications of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality. According to Bonhoeffer. 37). 36). for example.” as Bonhoeffer is quite critical of this concept and regards it as an ethical aporia (DBW 6. but the one who This approach focuses the reading on foundational issues in Bonhoeffer’s social ethics. 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. we will see that the dimensions of reality just outlined also play an important role in his social ethics.Letting Reality Become Real 331 With this challenge to Christian ethics. 3. in which he argues that reality is constituted in the moment of accepting the responsibility for another person. Nissen 2009 for more concrete implications of Bonhoeffer’s political thought. we have to indicate what we mean by “social ethics. This is really something different from the abstract way in which people usually seek to come to terms with the ethical problem. 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. 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. 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. temporal. In his classical work on Bonhoeffer. it is important that the question of the good is derived from the very concept of reality including all of God’s creation. In this moment the ethical “situation” arises. the human person. Therefore. and ontological dimensions) imply for Bonhoeffer’s social ethics?11 Before we can engage more directly with this question. and his motives and actions (DBW 6.
When Bonhoeffer says that one lives in reality in the very moment that the individual accepts responsibility for the other. 223). who loved human beings. This affirmation of the spatial dimension of reality is part of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. In this understanding of the reality of the world. “In Christ. Rather. 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. but the concrete neighbour. as God has taken care of the world and declared it under his rule (DBW 6. it is important to note that he is not speaking of a philosophically understood constitution of ethical reality. But rather than mistaking this as strictly empirical. 221. The action’s norm is not a universal principle. 220]. 224. we see that reality as the immediate encounter with the other is also reﬂected in Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the two-realms thinking. loved and reconciled by . 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. but rather testifying to the world that it is still a world. action in accord with reality is only possible in Christ. judged them. (Here we ﬁnd the return of our Chalcedonian motif. as given me by God [DBWE 6. When Bonhoeffer is pondering the spatial dimensions of his notion of reality. DBW 6. and reconciled them with God [DBWE 6.332 Journal of Religious Ethics is responsible for other people.) It is the incarnation of Christ which makes it possible to act in accordance with reality. DBW 6. but rather the God who became human. 223). The affirmation and contradiction of the world is based on the reality of the reconciliation of the world with God in Christ. 223]. meaning that at this very point one lives in accordance with reality as it really is (DBW 6. revolutionary Christ of all religious enthusiasts who is supposed to bless every revolution. all human reality is taken on. he argues that the church takes up space in the world. For Bonhoeffer. the actual [faktische] is both affirmed and limited. Bonhoeffer continues further with a dialectical understanding of the affirmation and contradiction of the worldly reality. nor the radical. If we return to the earlier-mentioned dimensions of reality. Jesus Christ. 221). 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. Therefore. DBW 6. The Church is not competing with the world. this responsive affirmation of reality is closely linked to the Christological character of reality. 224. Only through this incarnation is it possible for the world to remain. Bonhoeffer states that in this very moment one lives in reality.
the task of the church is to carry a witness of Jesus Christ to the world. all humanity is accepted by God. also. As such.12 Therefore. There is no part of the world that is not in Christ. When we turn to the social–ethical implications of this view. Bonhoeffer’s remarks on the dangers of Reformation theology in its focus on the preaching of the word in its ecclesiology. An example is apparent in his notion of guilt. This understanding implies the risk of forgetting the role of the church in relation to the world (DBW 6. they See. and overcome in every moment by the witness of the church to Jesus Christ. 66–67. DBW 6. 52–53). 53). abolished. it is important to observe that it does not entail a political conservatism in Bonhoeffer. DBW 6. 50]. “The world belongs to Christ. The world and Christ cannot be understood rightly if one is separated from the other. just as failure to bear fruit is a sign that a tree is dying” (DBWE 6. A further argument for Christ’s inseparableness from the world can be found in the temporal motif. it makes no sense to withdraw the church from the world. In the section titled “Guilt. 64. as we saw earlier in the article. In his rejection of two-realms thinking. Bonhoeffer considers the relation between Christ and the world so close that just as the world is the world in Christ. Thus all false thinking in terms of realms is ruled out as endangering the understanding of the church [DBWE 6. 53). The Holy Spirit will equip God’s church-community of sanctiﬁed life to this task. and only in Christ is the world what it is” (DBWE 6. “Where that witness has become silent it is a sign of inner decay in the church-community. Bonhoeffer even makes the point that it is a sign of the Church’s true life that it maintains this witness. DBW 6. The church cannot be conﬁned to a narrow self-understanding where it exists only for itself and forgets its witnessing role in the world. therefore. and the world is reconciled to God” (DBWE 6. DBW 6. As human beings can only be understood rightly in relation to Christ. 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.Letting Reality Become Real 333 God (DBW 6. 50). one must be aware that this space has already been broken through. 64. It is in the body of Jesus Christ that “God is united with humanity. Christ is also Christ only in the midst of the world. 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. 67. Justiﬁcation.” Bonhoeffer argues that a core issue in Christian ethics is the formation of Christ among human beings. 410). 12 . Renewal. 48–49).
This concept is a central notion in his argument for the ethical responsibility of human beings toward each other. the historical dimension of human reality is also affirmed: “As one who acts responsibly in human historical existence. Thereby. as the church as a social reality is not separated from the world. In this confession the social–ethical mandate of the church is repeatedly emphasized (DBW 6. Christ does not introduce a new human being. This point is made even clearer in the following parts of this section in his Ethics. Bonhoeffer writes a confession of the church. we turn to the ontological motif in Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. This understanding of the church’s formative role is in itself a signiﬁcant social–ethical motif. the church is the place where Jesus makes his form real in the midst of the world. in his love for human beings he is burdened with their guilt. the individual Christian is also called to carry the guilt of one’s neighbor. According to Bonhoeffer. 233). 35–39). Bonhoeffer adds that the classical utilitarian and deontological ways of thinking about ethics—or. but is ascribed a highly signiﬁcant role. 233). 234. 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. Christ enters into human guilt and is burdened with the guilt of human beings as real human beings (DBW 6. the only way to return to the true foundation of human nature is to acknowledge one’s guilt to Christ. Here. DBW 6. In this being burdened with human guilt. as he calls them “an ethic of consequences” and “an ethic of motives”—are insufficient (see. The human being understood as the self-creator has fallen away from the true nature of the human being. Jesus becomes guilty” (DBWE 6. and thereby also the place where the formation of Christ in the world takes place. Neither an ethic of . The Christian is called to follow Christ in carrying the guilt of the other. for example. The church is not only the place where the individual guilt is acknowledged. Following from Bonhoeffer’s understanding of discipleship. Elsewhere in his Ethics. as a human being having entered reality. The recognition of guilt is an acknowledgment which takes place in the church as the place of the preaching of the grace of Christ. It is at this crucial point where Bonhoeffer also links individual and corporate guilt. The ontological motif is initially evident when Bonhoeffer reﬂects on the good as being reality itself. just as the church as a whole is burdened with the guilt of the Western world. structured around the Decalogue. Rather. but also the place where the Western world’s falling away from Christ is acknowledged. DBW 6. Therefore. 129–36). 135. the church is the place where guilt is both acknowledged and forgiven. Lastly.334 Journal of Religious Ethics are called to be conformed to him. As “the place of personal and corporate rebirth and renewal” (DBWE 6. DBW 6. in the historical situation of his contemporary Germany. 126).
38). it desires whole persons along with the human companions with whom they are given to live [DBWE 6. 33–35). Rather. Bonhoeffer has given an account of Christ as reality. 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. in subsequent passages Bonhoeffer argues for human beings as being “indivisible wholes. good is reality. In his section on the responsible life. reality as a whole held in the hands of God—that is what is embraced by the question of good. however. as it is seen and recognized in God. The divine “behold. It is important. Even if Bonhoeffer speaks about reality in a more concrete sense in the passage cited above. because God’s creation and God’s kingdom are present to us only in God’s selfrevelation in Jesus Christ” (DBWE 6.” in both person and work. DBW 6. Both of these are “equally far from us and yet near to us. not only of motives but also of works. where the central concern has been how God’s reality revealed in Christ can become real among God’s creatures (DBW 6. 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. 38). it is “the Real One [der Wirkliche]. Further. The very understanding of reality is linked to his concept of responsibility and thereby the indissoluble relatedness to the needs of the other. to notice that this emphasis is made in order to avoid severing reality into separate parts. namely. DBW 6. because they both make an abstraction out of it and separate it from reality (DBW 6. 53. For Bonhoeffer it is important that the good is reality itself. in other words. this is connected to both an affirmation and contradiction of worldly reality as an expression of a Chalcedonian Christology. as members of the human and created community (DBW 6. Here Bonhoeffer seems to imply a more concrete understanding of reality than we ﬁnd in other passages. Bonhoeffer argues that reality is not something impersonal. This understanding is . Therefore. but in the present passage Bonhoeffer seems to understand reality as the created reality. 261. reality itself seen and recognized in God. DBW 6. 261). The good desires the whole. the God who became human” (DBWE 6.Letting Reality Become Real 335 consequences nor one of motives can ensure the realization of the good. The link between the two seemingly different understandings of reality becomes apparent. In this section we have seen that Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality has important social–ethical implications. 37]. Rather. with their motives and their works. Human beings. with their fellow humans. he still maintains a close link between this notion of reality and the understanding of Christ as the real one. 37). In the immediately preceding passages. 53. with the creation that surrounds them.
His notion of reality is closely linked to his understanding of the presence of Christ in the world. the call to carry the guilt of the other. and how this is derived from the social–ethical implications of Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. The temporal motif implies an appreciation of the understanding of guilt as an individual and corporate concept. In this section we turn to what can be considered the epitome of the particularity of a Christian ethic in a public discourse. The following section provides a more explicit consideration of these ecclesiological motifs. Nissen 2006a for such an approach. 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. Letting Reality Become Real As we have seen in the two preceding sections of this article. 4. implying that all human beings share a fundamental Christological condition of being. in the 13 See. we have seen the Chalcedonian Christology as an underlying mode of thought. the reality of the world and the reality of Christ are united and yet differentiated from each other. we now examine the issue of the witness in the public context. temporal. Finally. Throughout this analysis of the social–ethical implications of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality. Bonhoeffer considers this a unity and differentiation given in the Christ-reality.13 It is a central aim hereby to assert the complete affirmation of both dimensions without disregarding either. We have also seen how this Chalcedonian understanding of reality implies an ecclesiological outlook. The argument could also have taken the opposite position and argued for the common dimension without neglecting the particularity. . and the church as the place where this guilt is confessed and forgiven. the ontological motif implies an understanding of reality as fundamentally linked to Jesus Christ. Just as the two natures of Christ are united and yet differentiated. The reality of Christ and the reality of the world cannot be separated from each other. Bonhoeffer stresses the notion of reality both in his ethic in general and in his social ethics. The good is derived from reality itself.336 Journal of Religious Ethics closely related to spatial. and ontological dimensions. It is important to note that the following argument claims the speciﬁcity of a Christian social ethic without giving up on the universality. In order to test the thesis that Bonhoeffer maintains the differentiated unity of the universal and particular dimension of Christian ethics. The human being is within this reality and as such is in the world and in Christ at the same time. for example. and this cannot be understood separate from Jesus Christ.
and it depends on a certain anthropology. as Lovin tends to in his recent book on Christian realism (Lovin 2008. to discern what is right. I contend that it is possible to maintain a paradoxical unity of universality and speciﬁcity without giving up on either of them. For a more recent assertion of a paradoxical position along the same lines. This amounts to an ethic of communication. for example. Niebuhr’s classical work. the intention is to place the argument close to the communicative and conversational positions of. Even if I share the emphasis on Bonhoeffer and wish to argue for a Christian realism. I argue for the differentiated unity of the speciﬁc and universal dimension of a Christian social ethic based on a Chalcedonian Christology. Christ & Culture (Niebuhr 1951).16 14 The affinity to Stout 2005 can be seen when he. and to bear witness to them [2009b. but a responsible manner—not so much public reason. Arguing for the witness of a Christian social ethic does not mean that common public discourse is ignored. when he speaks of his “polyglot liberalism” as reconcilable with the witness: What this polyglot liberalism requires is not a single tongue. for example. 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. it maintains the respective differences. the present article deviates from the argument for “middle axioms” (Lovin 1984. Therefore. It is my aim to argue that each dimension affirms and yet is different from the other. 173). I also attempt to stress the polemical and contradictory nature of this stance. see the other affirmed. The speciﬁcity affirms the universality and vice versa—and.14 In arguing for a Chalcedonian position. 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). The affiliation with Biggar’s position is apparent. at the same time. Stout (2005) and Biggar (2009a. at the same time. my emphasis]. As previously mentioned. In continuation of a . 16 Consequently.Letting Reality Become Real 337 Chalcedonian motif previously detailed. and contend that there is a communicative exchange between these two dimensions. Rather. the present article does not see the Christian witness and participation in public discourse as opposites. 15 In this polemical position there is a certain affinity to “Christ and Culture in Paradox.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. 168. I argue for a differentiated unity of the universal and speciﬁc dimension of a Christian social ethic. as public reasonableness. 2009b). namely. even if there are many common concerns with Robin Lovin’s study of Bonhoeffer’s ethics and his argument for a Christian realism.” as depicted in Richard H. for example. see Robert Benne’s The Paradoxical Vision (Benne 1995). 119). This exchange makes it possible to maintain either dimension and.
” See DBWE 4. 49).” But this role cannot be separated from the church. and the social– ethical implications are fundamentally linked to each other. I argue that it is possible to maintain both the speciﬁc witness and the claim of universality implied in public discourse. Rather. where he stresses the visibility of the church community and the notion of the church taking up space in the world. 43–48. 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. By becoming human Christ claims a place among us human beings.” which is something quite different. 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. for example.17 We also ﬁnd this emphasis in 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. Bonhoeffer believes that the notion of the communicative approach. anything that takes up space is visible. anthropology. This motif implies an understanding of the church as the body of Jesus Christ that is visible and takes up space in the world. Hauerwas is quite right in his emphasis on the church and the witness in Bonhoeffer. DBW 6. See also Hauerwas 2004. Bonhoeffer repeatedly uses the German zeugen or bezeugen. 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. 17 DBWE 4. 225–52 for further elaboration on Bonhoeffer’s view on the visibility of the church in his Discipleship. but this is rendered into. when Bonhoeffer reﬂects on the church taking up space in the world. for example. Thus the body of Jesus Christ can only be a visible body. “demonstrating” or “testifying. 55–72). and ecclesiology cannot be understood as separate from each other (see. For Bonhoeffer this understanding does not imply that the church is separate from the world. Rasmussen 1972. Among other places. the emphasis is particularly clear in Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship. DBWE 6. 64. The understanding of reality. It is a well-known characteristic of Bonhoeffer’s theology that ethics. 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. or else it is not a body at all. for example. 20). . .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. 225: “The body of Christ takes up physical space here on earth. the church. anthropology. . 63. The unity of ethics. . and ecclesiology accounts for why Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality has fundamental implications for the indissoluble link between his ecclesiology and his social ethics.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. Earlier we looked at the spatial motif and its social–ethical implications for Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. 50).
government. whereas Bonhoeffer develops a more christological position. and Christian life” (DBWE 6. Even if it is a call where the church community will experience itself as strange to the world.19 For Bonhoeffer it was important to argue for the divine mandates of work. DBWE 6. DBW 6. Luther would also argue that there is close connection between these estates. marriage. Again we see that the church’s witness fundamentally has an ethical character. church order. In Bonhoeffer’s work the church plays a crucial role in letting reality become real. as “the divine mandate of the church is the commission of allowing the reality of Jesus Christ to become real in proclamation [Verkündigung]. . 20 See DBW 6. DBW 6. 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 all the mandates overlap with each other. 73. 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. 74n93). as he rejects any division into separate realms [Räume]. The church maintains its social–ethical responsibility by witnessing to the world. 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. 54).20 What is important for the present purpose is the role of the church in the affirmation of reality. 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. for example. 60). The role and place of the witness in Bonhoeffer’s social ethics is also made quite clear in his understanding of the mandates. 67. but in the relationship between the estates or the mandates the difference does not seem to be very strong. A signiﬁcant difference between Luther and Bonhoeffer seems to be Luther’s theological foundation. Even if Bonhoeffer was right in this critique. 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. 54–61 and 392–412 for an account of the mandates.Letting Reality Become Real 339 church’s witness dissolves any attempt to think in separate realms and isolated spaces of the church. The mandate of the church reaches into the other mandates. it is still a witness that calls the world to let the reality of its true nature become real. just as it is not part of Luther’s doctrine to argue for a division of the individual between these estates. it is worth noting that Luther’s own understanding of the three estates holds similarities to Bonhoeffer’s notion of the mandates. This overlap is closely linked to Bonhoeffer’s spatial understanding of reality.
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. Bonhoeffer understands the mandates to be directed at the whole person standing in reality before God. that the mandates are united. this theme is also intimately related to the realization of the one Christ-reality. The will of God is neither an idea . in concrete human life and action. Only in full response to the whole of this offer and this claim can the human person fulﬁll this reality. This is the witness the church has to give to the world. DBW 6. Bonhoeffer connects the issue of reality to the Holy Spirit. The essential concern is how the reality of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ becomes real among God’s creatures. 73. 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. It is in the human person. and the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (DBWE 6. When Bonhoeffer writes on the will of God elsewhere. for Bonhoeffer. The pivotal issue is the relationship between reality and becoming real (DBW 6. Jesus Christ [DBWE 6. Rather than seeing the human person as the place where the mandates are in mutual conﬂict. 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.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. and Redeemer—that reality in all its manifold aspects is ultimately one in God who became human. it is itself already reality in the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is a reality revealed in Jesus Christ that is to become real in the world. For Bonhoeffer this point again is closely related to reconciliation in Christ. DBW 6. According to Bonhoeffer. 34). the cross. the very core of Christian ethics is related to the concept of reality. Bonhoeffer reminds the church of its calling not to withdraw from the world. 60). 35). With speciﬁc reference to the social–ethical implications of this view. 59–60]. It is important to bear in mind that. 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. 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. 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. Reconciler. the reality of the world that was reconciled to God in the manger. 73. The will of God is therefore not an idea that demands to be realized.
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