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On Mystery and Reality in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethicsjore_479 321


Ulrik Becker Nissen


In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics the notion of reality plays a central role. The present article focuses on the ethical implications of the Chalce- donian 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 Bonho- effer’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 founda- tions; 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 designa- tion 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 sub- stantially, 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.

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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

tion 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].

In the resurrec-

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 oppo- sites. 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

1 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.

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Nigel Biggar. Even if their argumentative premises are different, both of these authors argue for a conversational model for public discourse. Whereas Stout argues for a discursive or expressive rationality shaped by the virtues of democracy (2005, 10–11), Biggar opts for a polyglot liberalism (2009b). 2 Both authors maintain a position between liberal- ism and traditionalism—terms that may be viewed as somewhat

similar to universalism and specificity, which I am striving to reconcile. In making the distinction between the universal and specific, I do not differentiate sharply between the terms “universal” or “common,” nor am I drawing a sharp line between the “specific” or “particular” aspect of Christian ethics. Whereas the former is simply seen as that which

a Christian ethic shares with worldviews or viewpoints different from

itself, the latter is seen as that which is derived more explicitly from

a Christian foundation and possibly differs from other views. In pur-

suing this universality and specificity at the same time, the article hopes to contribute to what may be called a Chalcedonian understand- ing of Christian social ethics. In pursuing this Chalcedonian motif, however, the article does not go into detailed historical or dogmatic analyses of a Chalcedonian Christology, nor is it concerned with dif- ferent church traditions’ understandings of this issue. Rather, Chalce- donian Christology is used in a general sense, inspired by the central formulation that the two natures of Christ are without confusion, change, division, or separation. 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, the article furthers the contribution by Franklin Sherman (1964), who argued for

a similar understanding. The following discussion of the universal and specific identification of Christian ethics will be raised in the light of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 3 The focus will be his Ethics as the culmination of his theology and thereby a hermeneutical key to his theology in general. 4 Other writings

2 See also Biggar’s critical discussion of Stout and others in a recent essay (2009a). Biggar’s recent book (2011) is highly relevant for the article, but unfortunately it appeared too late to be included in any substantial way. 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, of course, a reading of Bonhoeffer as Lutheran. It would lead too far in the present context to make this argument. Instead, I refer the reader to a recent article, where Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran background and theology is endorsed (Krötke 2008). 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). Quotations in the text are taken from the English translation (DBWE) currently under publication.

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of Bonhoeffer will be discussed only when necessary. 5 Within the discussion of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics the focal point will be his understand- ing of reality, 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. 6 In the analysis of Bonhoeffer’s notion 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. The argument for this thesis comes in three steps: The first part of the argument is an analysis of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality. Here I attempt to demonstrate that even if we can find particular aspects of this concept (such as the spatial, temporal, and ontological), the overarching idea is the Chalcedonian differentiated unity of the universal and specific identity. As this differentiated unity holds fundamental implications for the identity of Christian ethics in a public discourse; the second part of the argument turns to an assessment of these inferences. That section raises the question, what does the Chalcedonian understanding of reality found in part one (exemplified in the spatial, temporal, and ontological dimension) imply for Bonhoeffer’s social ethics? After pon- dering this question, the article turns to the third and last step of the argument, where the focus is on the church’s role in the world, which is an issue closely linked to the two previous parts. If Bonhoeffer argues for a differentiated unity of the universal and particular dimen- sion of Christian ethics, this implies that one can also take a particular stance and yet see this as an affirmation of the universal dimension. This is the question in the third part, where we will ask, can Bonho- effer argue for a positive role of the church in the public realm and yet maintain the universal dimension? Methodologically, the present article employs both an analytic and a more constructive approach. In the first part of the article the main concern is to determine what Bonhoeffer means by “reality.” As such, this part is based on an immanent reading of Bonhoeffer’s own writ- ings. 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. The last part of the article

5 See, for example, Clifford Green 2002 for a substantiation of this hermeneutical approach to Bonhoeffer. 6 The focus in this article is not on the concept of reality in general, but more specifically how Bonhoeffer understands this notion. For an overview of reality as a concept more generally, the reader is kindly referred to, for example, Krötke 2005 and Janke 2004.

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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 approach will be undertaken in a dialogue with contemporary contributions to a Christian social ethic.

2. What Does “Reality” Mean for Bonhoeffer?

When we turn to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality in his Ethics, 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. 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, but only one reality, and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world. Partaking in Christ, we stand at the same time in the reality of God and in the reality of the world. The reality of Christ embraces the reality of the world in itself. The world has no reality of its own independent of God’s revelation in Christ. 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. Hence there are not two realms, but only the one realm of the Christ-reality [ Christuswirklichkeit], in which the reality of God and the reality of the world are united [DBWE 6, 58; DBW 6, 43, emphasis in original].

For Bonhoeffer the Christ-reality is a differentiated unity of the reality of God and the reality of the world. Neither is understood separate from the other or identified with the other. Rather, it is an appreciation and affirmation of both realities in the same reality at the same time. Therefore, Bonhoeffer argues that one cannot be “Christian” without being “worldly” simultaneously. As the reality of Christ embraces the reality of the world, the Christian is never separated from the world, nor is the world separated from Christ. The understanding of the inseparability of the reality of God and the reality of the world is closely related to Bonhoeffer’s anthropology. 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, not only as individuals in both their person and work, but also as members of the human and created community to which they belong. It is this indivisible whole, that is, this reality grounded and recognized in God, that the question of good has in To participate in the indivisible whole of God’s reality is the meaning of the Christian question about the good [DBWE 6, 53; DBW 6, 38, emphasis in original].

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

7 The mentioned critique could be developed in more detail as a critical thrust of Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. This is an important aspect of Bonhoeffer’s ethics. In the present article, however, 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. 8 See also Nissen for an analysis of this Chalcedonian Christology as an underlying structure in Bonhoeffer’s ethic as a whole (Nissen 2006b, 463–66).

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English rendering “realm.” When Bonhoeffer uses the term Raum to describe the relationship between the worldly and the Christian

reality, he seems to be using the word primarily in a negative sense. 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, 58; DBW 6, 43). Thinking in two realms in

this way seems to imply that one can move from one space to the other. There are two distinct spaces that can be seen as confronting each other. One can place oneself in either one or the other, or one can try to stand in both realms at the same time (DBW 6, 43). According to Bonhoeffer, this type of thinking is a denial of the unity in the one Christ-reality in which we stand. In this Christ-reality any attempt to think in different Räume is rejected. Rather, the reality of God and the reality of the world are one in the Christ-reality. Consequently, Bon- hoeffer rejects the theme of two realms [das Thema der zwei Räume] and says that this contradicts both biblical and Reformation thought (DBW 6, 44). Rather, everything is to be seen from the worldly reality as drawn into and held together in Christ.

There are not two competing realms [Räume ] standing side by side and battling over the borderline, as if this question of boundaries was always the decisive one. Rather, the whole reality of the world has already been drawn into and is held together in Christ. History moves only from this center and toward this center [DBWE 6, 58; DBW 6, 44].

In addition to the spatial understanding of reality, Bonhoeffer also uses the concept in a temporal sense. In the section “Heritage and Decay” he reflects on the Western Christian heritage. Bonhoeffer differentiates between antiquity, Christianity, and what he calls the pre-Christian past in tracing the roots of Western heritage. With regard to Chris- tianity, he argues that this is a historical heritage and a common Western heritage. This is where he uses the concept of reality in a temporal sense, claiming that “[t]he unity of the West is not an idea, but a historical reality whose only foundation is Christ” (DBWE 6, 109; DBW 6, 99, my emphasis). When Bonhoeffer relates the unity of the West to Christ in this context, it is the historical continuity between the Old Testament, the Jewish people, the fact that Jesus was a Jew, 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. “Jesus Christ has made the West into a historical unit” (DBWE 6, 109; DBW 6, 99). In the later section of his ethic, “History and Good [1],” Bonhoeffer returns to this temporal understanding of reality. He reflects on a central passage of his ethic—“Good is the action that is in accordance with the reality of Jesus Christ; action in accordance with Christ is

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action in accord with reality” (DBWE 6, 228–29; DBW 6, 228, emphasis in original)—and explains how this can be misunderstood in two ways. It can either be seen as an endorsement of a new ethical ideology that is in constant contrast to historical reality, or it can be seen as an accommodation to this same reality (DBW 6, 228). With regard to the first misunderstanding, Bonhoeffer relates this to his understanding of history and claims that it would be a negation of historical reality. 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, 227). Therefore, the tendency of an “ethic of Jesus,” as Bonhoeffer calls it, to ignore the historical setting may lead to a privatization of Christian ethics and thereby a disregard of historical responsibility (DBW 6, 229). In Bonhoeffer’s view, it is important that both of these misunderstandings are reminded of the concrete histori- cal responsibility implied in the “ethic of Jesus.” Just as the first misunderstanding tends to separate the two, the second misconception tends to regard the historical reality as autonomous and thereby as essentially different from the Christian ethic. According to Bonhoeffer, both misconceptions are grave misinterpretations of the relationship between, on the one hand, historical reality and, on the other hand, 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, namely, God’s becoming human, God’s entering history, taking on historical reality in the reality of Jesus Christ. 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, a reformer, a fanatic, the founder of a religion, but as the one who bore and experienced the nature of reality in his own body, who spoke out of the depth of reality as no other human being on earth ever before. The Sermon on the Mount is the word of the very one who is the lord and law of reality. The Sermon on the Mount is to be understood and interpreted as the word of the God who became human. That is the issue at stake when the question of historical action is raised, and here it must prove true that action in accord with Christ is action in accord with reality [DBWE 6, 230–31; DBW 6, 229–30, my emphasis].

The ontological dimension of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality is ap- parent in his distinction between the ultimate and penultimate things. 9 With regard to reality, Bonhoeffer argues that “[t]he relationship

9 For a further elaboration on this distinction, see DBW 6, 137–62. Also Feil 2005, 297–303 may be consulted. The ontological dimension also holds fundamental epistemo- logical implications; however, it exceeds the aim of the present article to examine these implications. See, for example, 2006b for further analysis of theses issues.

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between the penultimate and ultimate in Christian life can be resolved in two extreme ways, one ‘radical’ and the other as compromise” (DBWE 6, 153; DBW 6, 144). The radical solution is concerned only with the ultimate and endorses a complete break with the penultimate. In its emphasis on Christ as the ultimate, it excludes and disregards the penultimate and is expressed in exclusive categories of all or nothing.

According to the radical position, what happens to the world is not interesting (DBW 6, 144–45). The compromising solution, on the other hand, also separates the ultimate from the penultimate, but it is done to maintain the penultimate as having a right in itself. The relation to the ultimate is rejected. The world stands as it is and human beings are held accountable for it (DBW 6, 145). For Bonhoeffer both of these extremes are false. “To advocates of the radical solution it must be said that Christ is not radical in their sense; to followers of the compromise solution it must likewise be said that Christ does not make compromises” (DBWE 6, 154; DBW 6, 146). What is important for Bonhoeffer is neither the understanding of “a pure Christianity as such nor the idea of the human being as such.” Rather, what is important is “God’s reality and human

reality as they have become one in Jesus

God’s reality and human reality take the place of radicalism and

compromise.” This is the point where Bonhoeffer moves into an onto- logical understanding of the notion of reality. In his rejection of both the radical and compromising positions, he argues that there is no human being as such. Such an understanding would imply an exclusion of God. Rather, “[t]here is only the God-man Jesus Christ who is real, through whom the world will be preserved until it is ripe for its end” (DBWE 6, 155; DBW 6, 146). According to Bonhoeffer, the ontological foundation of human reality is given in the unity and differentiation of the two natures of Christ. Ontologically speaking, human reality and human being cannot be understood rightly as separated from this foundation. The ontological aspect of his understanding of reality is also appar- ent 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, 49; DBW 6, 34).

Bonhoeffer formulates the central concern of a Christian ethic as “the relation between reality and becoming real” (DBWE 6, 50; DBW 6, 34). Therefore, Christian ethics becomes a question of participating in the reality of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. In Bonhoeffer’s view, this means that the good is not separate from what exists.

In Jesus Christ

Good is the real itself [das Wirklichke], that is, not the abstractly real that is separated from the reality of God, but the real that has its reality only in God. Good is never without this reality. It is no general formula. And this reality is never without the good [DBWE 6, 50; DBW 6, 35].

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Bonhoeffer believes that the good is ontologically given with reality as that which exists, but this is not a reality separate from God. Rather, reality is only rightly understood in close connection to God as the source of reality. It is only by participating in reality, understood as the reality revealed in Jesus Christ, that we share in the good. As we have seen in the spatial, temporal, and ontological aspects of reality outlined in this section, 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. 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 this sense, one can point to a certain “mystery” (Geheimnis) in Bon- hoeffer’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, the one not without the other. The reality of God is disclosed only as it places me completely into the reality of the world. But I find the reality of the world always already borne, accepted, and reconciled in the reality of God. That is the mystery of the revelation of God in the human being Jesus Christ [DBWE 6, 55; DBW 6, 40].

However, for a Christian ethic it is not sufficient to point to this mystery of reality. 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. For Bonhoeffer it is important that this Christ- reality is not just an abstract idea, but rather has concrete, formative implications for human life and reality. With this concrete formation of the Christ-reality in the world, Bonhoeffer once again stresses that the reality of God and the reality of the world are affirmed at the same time:

.how this reality of God and of the world that

is given in Christ becomes real in our

reality in Christ—which has long embraced us and our world within itself—works here and now or, in other words, how life is to be lived in it. What matters is participating in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today, and doing so in such a way that I never experience the reality of God without the reality of the world, nor the reality of the world without the reality of God [DBWE 6, 55; DBW 6, 40, emphasis in original].

.the question is how the

The Christian ethic

10 In Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics the notion of mystery plays a central role. See the recent anthology by Busch Nielsen, Nissen, and Tietz 2007 for a collection of essays on various approaches to this concept.

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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.

3. 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, we will see that the dimensions of reality just outlined also play an important role in his social ethics. The main question here is: What does the Chalcedonian understanding of reality found in part one (exemplified in the spatial, temporal, and ontological dimensions) imply for Bonhoeffer’s social ethics? 11 Before we can engage more directly with this question, we have to indicate what we mean by “social ethics,” as Bonhoeffer is quite critical of this concept and regards it as an ethical aporia (DBW 6, 36). 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. According to Bonhoeffer, it is important that the question of the good is derived from the very concept of reality including all of God’s creation, the human person, and his motives and actions (DBW 6, 37). Therefore, 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. 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. In his classical work on Bonhoeffer, Clifford Green argues that the concept of sociality is an underlying structure throughout Bonhoeffer’s theology (Green 1999). The belief that all of humanity is united in this common sociality has fundamental implications for the understanding of ethics and is par- ticularly clear in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of responsibility, in which he argues that reality is constituted in the moment of accepting the responsibility for another person. In this moment the ethical “situa- tion” arises. 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. This is really something different from the abstract way in which people usually seek to come to terms with the ethical problem. The subject of the action is no longer the isolated individual, but the one who

11 This approach focuses the reading on foundational issues in Bonhoeffer’s social ethics. The reader is kindly referred to, for example, Nissen 2009 for more concrete implications of Bonhoeffer’s political thought.

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is responsible for other people. The action’s norm is not a universal principle, but the concrete neighbour, as given me by God [DBWE 6, 221; DBW 6, 220].

When Bonhoeffer says that one lives in reality in the very moment that the individual accepts responsibility for the other, it is important to note that he is not speaking of a philosophically understood constitu- tion of ethical reality. Rather, Bonhoeffer states that in this very moment one lives in reality, meaning that at this very point one lives in accordance with reality as it really is (DBW 6, 221). For Bonhoeffer, this responsive affirmation of reality is closely linked to the Christo- logical character of reality. (Here we find the return of our Chalce- donian motif.) It is the incarnation of Christ which makes it possible to act in accordance with reality. Only through this incarnation is it possible for the world to remain, as God has taken care of the world and declared it under his rule (DBW 6, 223). In this understanding of the reality of the world, the actual [faktische] is both affirmed and limited. The affirmation and contradiction of the world is based on the reality of the reconciliation of the world with God in Christ. Therefore, action in accord with reality is only possible in Christ. “In Christ, all human reality is taken on. 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, 224; DBW 6, 223). 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 pseudo- Lutheran Christ whose only purpose is to sanction the status quo, nor the radical, revolutionary Christ of all religious enthusiasts who is supposed to bless every revolution, but rather the God who became human, Jesus Christ, who loved human beings, judged them, and reconciled them with God [DBWE 6, 224; DBW 6, 223].

If we return to the earlier-mentioned dimensions of reality, we see that reality as the immediate encounter with the other is also reflected in Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the two-realms thinking. When Bonhoeffer is pondering the spatial dimensions of his notion of reality, he argues that the church takes up space in the world. This affirmation of the spatial dimension of reality is part of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. But rather than mistaking this as strictly empirical, 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. The Church is not competing with the world, but rather testifying to the world that it is still a world, loved and reconciled by

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God (DBW 6, 48–49). As such, the task of the church is to carry a witness of Jesus Christ to the world. The Holy Spirit will equip God’s church-community of sanctified life to this task. Bonhoeffer even makes the point that it is a sign of the Church’s true life that it maintains this witness. “Where that witness has become silent it is a sign of inner decay in the church-community, just as failure to bear fruit is a sign that a tree is dying” (DBWE 6, 64; DBW 6, 50). 12 Therefore, 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. The church cannot be confined to a narrow self-understanding where it exists only for itself and forgets its witnessing role in the world. 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, one must be aware that this space has already been broken through, abolished, and overcome in every moment by the witness of the church to Jesus Christ. Thus all false thinking in terms of realms is ruled out as endangering the understanding of the church [DBWE 6, 64; DBW 6, 50].

In his rejection of two-realms thinking, Bonhoeffer points to an alter- native image in which the relationship between the church and the world can better be described—the body of Jesus Christ (DBW 6, 52–53). It is in the body of Jesus Christ that “God is united with humanity, all humanity is accepted by God, and the world is reconciled to God” (DBWE 6, 66–67; DBW 6, 53). There is no part of the world that is not in Christ; therefore, it makes no sense to withdraw the church from the world. “The world belongs to Christ, and only in Christ is the world what it is” (DBWE 6, 67; DBW 6, 53). Bonhoeffer considers the relation between Christ and the world so close that just as the world is the world in Christ, Christ is also Christ only in the midst of the world. The world and Christ cannot be understood rightly if one is separated from the other. A further argument for Christ’s inseparableness from the world can be found in the temporal motif, as we saw earlier in the article. When we turn to the social–ethical implications of this view, it is important to observe that it does not entail a political conservatism in Bonhoeffer. An example is apparent in his notion of guilt. In the section titled “Guilt, Justification, Renewal,” Bonhoeffer argues that a core issue in Christian ethics is the formation of Christ among human beings. As human beings can only be understood rightly in relation to Christ, they

12 See, also, Bonhoeffer’s remarks on the dangers of Reformation theology in its focus on the preaching of the word in its ecclesiology. This understanding implies the risk of forgetting the role of the church in relation to the world (DBW 6, 410).

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

Letting Reality Become Real


consequences nor one of motives can ensure the realization of the good, because they both make an abstraction out of it and separate it from reality (DBW 6, 37). For Bonhoeffer it is important that the good is reality itself, as it is seen and recognized in God. 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. Rather, good is reality, reality itself seen and recognized in God. Human beings, with their motives and their works, with their fellow humans, with the creation that surrounds them, in other words, reality as a whole held in the hands of God—that is what is embraced by the question of good. The divine “behold, it was very good” meant the whole of creation. The good desires the whole, not only of motives but also of works; it desires whole persons along with the human companions with whom they are given to live [DBWE 6, 53; DBW 6, 37].

Here Bonhoeffer seems to imply a more concrete understanding of reality than we find in other passages. In the immediately preceding passages, Bonhoeffer has given an account of Christ as reality, where the central concern has been how God’s reality revealed in Christ can become real among God’s creatures (DBW 6, 33–35), but in the present passage Bonhoeffer seems to understand reality as the created reality. It is important, however, to notice that this emphasis is made in order to avoid severing reality into separate parts. Therefore, in subsequent passages Bonhoeffer argues for human beings as being “indivisible wholes,” in both person and work, as members of the human and created community (DBW 6, 38). Even if Bonhoeffer speaks about reality in a more concrete sense in the passage cited above, he still maintains a close link between this notion of reality and the under- standing of Christ as the real one. In his section on the responsible life, Bonhoeffer argues that reality is not something impersonal. Rather, it is “the Real One [ der Wirkliche], namely, the God who became human” (DBWE 6, 261; DBW 6, 261). The link between the two seemingly different understandings of reality becomes apparent, 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. Both of these are “equally far from us and yet near to us, because God’s creation and God’s kingdom are present to us only in God’s self- revelation in Jesus Christ” (DBWE 6, 53; DBW 6, 38). In this section we have seen that Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality has important social–ethical implications. The very understanding of reality is linked to his concept of responsibility and thereby the indissoluble relatedness to the needs of the other. Further, this is connected to both an affirmation and contradiction of worldly reality as an expression of a Chalcedonian Christology. This understanding is

336 Journal of Religious Ethics

closely related to spatial, temporal, and ontological dimensions. The spatial understanding implies an emphasis on the church’s witness to the world and an endorsement of the essentially social–ethical meta- phor of the church as the body of Jesus Christ. The temporal motif implies an appreciation of the understanding of guilt as an individual and corporate concept, the call to carry the guilt of the other, and the church as the place where this guilt is confessed and forgiven. Finally, the ontological motif implies an understanding of reality as fundamen- tally linked to Jesus Christ. The good is derived from reality itself, and this cannot be understood separate from Jesus Christ. Throughout this analysis of the social–ethical implications of Bonhoeffer’s understand- ing of reality, we have seen the Chalcedonian Christology as an underlying mode of thought. Just as the two natures of Christ are united and yet differentiated, the reality of the world and the reality of Christ are united and yet differentiated from each other. Bonhoeffer considers this a unity and differentiation given in the Christ-reality. The human being is within this reality and as such is in the world and in Christ at the same time, implying that all human beings share a fundamental Christological condition of being. We have also seen how this Chalcedonian understanding of reality implies an ecclesiological outlook, and how this is derived from the social–ethical implications of Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. The following section provides a more explicit consideration of these ecclesiological motifs.

4. Letting Reality Become Real

As we have seen in the two preceding sections of this article, Bonhoeffer stresses the notion of reality both in his ethic in general and in his social ethics. His notion of reality is closely linked to his understanding of the presence of Christ in the world. The reality of Christ and the reality of the world cannot be separated from each other. In this section we turn to what can be considered the epitome of the particularity of a Christian ethic in a public discourse. In order to test the thesis that Bonhoeffer maintains the differentiated unity of the universal and particular dimension of Christian ethics, we now examine the issue of the witness in the public context. It is important to note that the following argument claims the specificity of a Christian social ethic without giving up on the uni- versality. The argument could also have taken the opposite posi- tion and argued for the common dimension without neglecting the particularity. 13 It is a central aim hereby to assert the complete affirmation of both dimensions without disregarding either, in the

13 See, for example, Nissen 2006a for such an approach.

Letting Reality Become Real


Chalcedonian motif previously detailed. Arguing for the witness of a Christian social ethic does not mean that common public discourse is ignored. Rather, I argue for a differentiated unity of the universal and specific dimension of a Christian social ethic. As previously mentioned, the intention is to place the argument close to the communicative and conversational positions of, for example, Stout (2005) and Biggar (2009a; 2009b). The affiliation with Biggar’s position is apparent, for example, when he speaks of his “polyglot liberalism” as reconcilable with the witness:

What this polyglot liberalism requires is not a single tongue, but a responsible manner—not so much public reason, as public reasonable- ness. This amounts to an ethic of communication, and it depends on a certain anthropology, namely, 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, to discern what is right, and to bear witness to them [2009b, 168, my emphasis]. 14

In arguing for a Chalcedonian position, I also attempt to stress the polemical and contradictory nature of this stance. 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. It is my aim to argue that each dimension affirms and yet is different from the other. The specificity affirms the uni- versality and vice versa—and, at the same time, it maintains the respective differences. Therefore, even if there are many common concerns with Robin Lovin’s study of Bonhoeffer’s ethics and his argument for a Christian realism, the present article deviates from the argument for “middle axioms” (Lovin 1984, 173). I argue for the differentiated unity of the specific and universal dimension of a Christian social ethic based on a Chalcedonian Christology, and contend that there is a communicative exchange between these two dimensions. This exchange makes it possible to maintain either dimension and, at the same time, see the other affirmed. 16

14 The affinity to Stout 2005 can be seen when he, for example, argues for conver- sation as a description of his aim (10) and when he argues for the inclusion of religious views in the democratic conversation (84–85). 15 In this polemical position there is a certain affinity to “Christ and Culture in Paradox,” as depicted in Richard H. Niebuhr’s classical work, Christ & Culture (Niebuhr 1951). For a more recent assertion of a paradoxical position along the same lines, see Robert Benne’s The Paradoxical Vision (Benne 1995). 16 Consequently, the present article does not see the Christian witness and partici- pation in public discourse as opposites, as Lovin tends to in his recent book on Christian realism (Lovin 2008, 119). Even if I share the emphasis on Bonhoeffer and wish to argue for a Christian realism, I contend that it is possible to maintain a paradoxical unity of universality and specificity without giving up on either of them. In continuation of a

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. It is a well-known characteristic of Bonhoeffer’s theology that ethics, anthropology, and ecclesiology cannot be understood as separate from each other (see, for example, Rasmussen 1972, 20). The unity of ethics, anthropology, and ecclesiology accounts for why Bonhoeffer’s understanding of reality has fundamental implications for the indis- soluble link between his ecclesiology and his social ethics. Earlier we looked at the spatial motif and its social–ethical implications for Bonhoeffer’s notion of reality. This motif implies an understanding of the church as the body of Jesus Christ that is visible and takes up space in the world. The understanding of reality, the church, and the social– ethical implications are fundamentally linked to each other. 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. 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, 55–72). Hauer- was is quite right in his emphasis on the church and the witness in Bonhoeffer. Among other places, the emphasis is particularly clear in Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, where he stresses the visibility of the church community and the notion of the church taking up space in the world. 17 We also find this emphasis in Ethics, when Bonhoeffer reflects on the church taking up space in the world. For Bonhoeffer this understand- ing does not imply that the church is separate from the world. Rather, the church is called to be in the world and witness to the world about its reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ (DBW 6, 49). 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.” But this role cannot be separated from the church, 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, 64; DBW 6, 50). Bonhoeffer believes that the notion of the

communicative approach, I argue that it is possible to maintain both the specific witness and the claim of universality implied in public discourse. 17 DBWE 4, 225: “The body of Christ takes up physical space here on earth. By

becoming human Christ claims a place among us human beings

up space is visible. Thus the body of Jesus Christ can only be a visible body, or else it is not a body at all.” See DBWE 4, 225–52 for further elaboration on Bonhoeffer’s view on the visibility of the church in his Discipleship. See also Hauerwas 2004, 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, for example, DBWE 6, 63. Bonhoeffer repeatedly uses the German zeugen or bezeugen, but this is rendered into, for example, “demonstrating” or “testifying,” which is something quite different.

anything that takes

Letting Reality Become Real


church’s witness dissolves any attempt to think in separate realms and isolated spaces of the church. 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, 67; DBW 6, 54). Even if it is a call where the church community will experience itself as strange to the world, it is still a witness that calls the world to let the reality of its true nature become real. The role and place of the witness in Bonhoeffer’s social ethics is also made quite clear in his understanding of the mandates. Again we see that the church’s witness fundamentally has an ethical character. 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, for example, DBWE 6, 74n93). Even if Bonhoeffer was right in this critique, it is worth noting that Luther’s own understanding of the three estates holds similarities to Bonhoef- fer’s notion of the mandates. Luther would also argue that there is close connection between these estates, just as it is not part of Luther’s doctrine to argue for a division of the individual between these estates. A significant difference between Luther and Bonhoeffer seems to be Luther’s theological foundation, whereas Bonhoeffer develops a more christological position, but in the relationship between the estates or the mandates the difference does not seem to be very strong. 19 For Bonhoeffer it was important to argue for the divine mandates of work, marriage, government, 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. 20 What is important for the present purpose is the role of the church in the affirmation of reality. 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], church order, and Christian life” (DBWE 6, 73; DBW 6, 60). The mandate of the church reaches into the other mandates, as all the mandates overlap with each other. This overlap is closely linked to Bonhoeffer’s spatial understanding of reality, as he rejects any division into separate realms [Räume]. 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, 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. 20 See DBW 6, 54–61 and 392–412 for an account of the mandates.

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. 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, 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, Reconciler, and Redeemer—that reality in all its manifold aspects is ultimately one in God who became human, Jesus Christ [DBWE 6, 73; DBW 6, 59–60].

Rather than seeing the human person as the place where the mandates are in mutual conflict, Bonhoeffer understands the mandates to be directed at the whole person standing in reality before God. It is in the human person, in concrete human life and action, that the mandates are united. For Bonhoeffer this point again is closely related to recon- ciliation in Christ, 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, the reality of the world that was reconciled to God in the manger, the cross, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (DBWE 6, 73; DBW 6, 60). According to Bonhoeffer, 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. With specific reference to the social–ethical implications of this view, Bonhoeffer reminds the church of its calling not to withdraw from the world, 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. It is important to bear in mind that, for Bonhoeffer, the very core of Christian ethics is related to the concept of reality. The essential concern is how the reality of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ becomes real among God’s creatures. The pivotal issue is the relation- ship between reality and becoming real (DBW 6, 34). Bonhoeffer connects the issue of reality to the Holy Spirit. 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, 35). When Bonhoeffer writes on the will of God elsewhere, this theme is also intimately related to the realization of the one Christ-reality. It is a reality revealed in Jesus Christ that is to become real in the world. 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 Christ- reality among us in and in our world. The will of God is therefore not an idea that demands to be realized; it is itself already reality in the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The will of God is neither an idea

Letting Reality Become Real


nor is it simply identical with what exists, so that subjection to things as they are could fulfill it; it is rather a reality that wills to become real ever anew in what exists and against what exists [DBWE 6, 74; DBW 6, 61].

In the affirmation and transformation of what exists, the mystery of the Christ-reality implies a confirmation of both the universal and particular dimension of Christian ethics. In its verification of all that exists, this understanding of the Christ-reality recognizes the univer- sality of Christian ethics, and yet at the same time the contradictory transformation involves the affirmation of the particular. 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 under- standing of the identity of Christian ethics. 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, it is worth noting that fact. Bonhoeffer’s Chalcedonian-inspired under- standing 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. The contribution stemming from Bonhoeffer’s ethics leads to an under- standing that affirms the worldly reality and yet maintains the Chris- tian specificity at the same time, and this position is a much-needed contribution in our contemporary setting. 21

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