The Herb Of Grace

Theology and Poetry, Politics and Prose

Ethics August 21, 2008

“The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection.

The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pg. 17

With these two sentences, Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his famous Ethics. Of course, he did not necessarily mean to begin this way. Ethics is a compilation of papers found hidden after Bonhoeffer’s execution by the Nazis. The collected papers were meant for a large book about ethics so the question of the form that he intended can only be surmised from the clues of the writing we have. It is thus amazing that the scrapings of this young german pastor have made such a beautiful piece of work. I will say with honesty that I have never read such wonderful lines as the above in all my interactions with theology.

That of course brings us to the question of the above passage and to the reason why I am focusing on it in this wee paper. I think most of us, were we to read only the first sentence, would agree heartily with it. “The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection.” It makes sense of our experience; anytime one is engaged in any kind of ethical debate, the support one person or another will usually call to their aid is that the ethical issue in question is right or wrong, good or evil. they may couch it in language that seeks to give the impression of openness and universality but that too is a value which they accepted based on their perception of it as right and good. I don’t think we think about this much, it’s fair to say we assume that our ‘conscience’ is a universal we all share. This is further assumed to be a good thing. After all, how many of us were brought up by our parents in hopes that we would acquire the knowledge of what was right and what wrong? If we could grasp it, this knowledge was thought to be an adequate tool to paddle us through life.

Because of this I deeply understand why one would react negatively to the second sentence with which Bonhoeffer follows up the first, “The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” (the knowledge of good and evil) How could this be true? Aren’t Christians supposed to be in support of good and right things? indeed, I understand why someone would be slightly afraid to see what Bonhoeffer considered ‘ethics’ at all if it’s first task was to make ideas of right and wrong unimportant or invalid.

But to understand Bonhoeffer’s amazing point, we must see that even our parent’s best intentions at teaching ‘morals’ and ‘values’ may have been misguidedly handed down to them from their parents. Perhaps that conscience which ‘everyone’ supposedly has is not as universal as we have been taught. The core of this thought is that ideas of right and wrong are rooted ultimately in the story of the original fall of humanity. Our governments and schools have attempted this sin again in our time, suggesting that we really all know good and evil regardless of whether we know God. The separation of ‘good’ and ‘right’ from God is not a problem for those outside the Christian community, at least they have something to help them navigate life’s sometimes murky waters. (because of this, we should not fight for prayer in schools but fight first for our Christians to learn how to pray)

But if we cannot, from one side of the debate, know clearly what is right and what is heinous (and thereby win our point, whatever it is) and if we cannot, from the other side, see clearly that all ideas of right and wrong are relative (and thereby win our point, whatever it is), then why fight for anything at all? But we do have a fight, a fight for Christians to realize their own heritage, golden and blooming. We have an ethic for our lives so strong and so resilient, so flexible and unchanging, that we will never be the same once we have begun to realize it. This ethic is a person and a life, it is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are not to be concerned so much with what is right and what is wrong but rather that we would live and die like Jesus did. Yes in fact, the life and death of Jesus, and God’s raising him from dead, and the Holy Spirit’s presence on earth, all make available the resources of God we need to live as His community in the world.

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5 Responses to “Ethics”

  1. lunch lady Says:

    I love your post and I’ve got things to say, but I’m not sure if they’re right!

  2. R.O. Flyer Says:

    Whoopee! Great post, Joel. The fall of humanity is precisely the search for the knowledge of good and evil, that is, it is the attempt to usurp the place of God.

    “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman ‘Did God say, You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:1-5).

    It is humanity’s desire to “pursue one’s own happiness” apart from God and to become the god of one’s own life. The search for the knowledge of good and evil is the attempt to secure control over one’s own life and the lives of others.

    If Christian ethics were to follow what is commonly the task of ethics, for Bonhoeffer this would amount to sin. The key here is that Christian ethical reflection is more a matter of listening that searching -it is the subordination of one’s own “search” to the will of God.

  3. masonmusic Says:

    lunch lady: please share them! I know you’ve got a sharp brain. whether we agree or not, perhaps we can have a good conversation

    R.O.: yes, listening instead of searching. of course, one could say that Christian listening is our kind of search. What you say also reminds of Bonhoeffer putting the search for the knowledge of good and evil as a false proclamation of “possibilities.”

    We are so far into this ideology of the self made person and innate freedom of choice that we cannot see how imagining our own possibilities could often be sin.

  4. lunch lady Says:

    Joely:
    I’m not sure about the idea of invalidating the knowledge of good and evil – perhaps because without reading more of Bonhoffer in this area I don’t have good clarity about what he is suggesting. Could it be that he is eschewing the “knowledge” of good and evil – the pursuit of such distinctions which give rise to a freedom from choosing and discerning – the resting on predetermined and perhaps illdetermined distinctions. Do we really labor over what is right and wrong in our present culture? I would suggest that the laboring is usually a wrestling with a burden of guilt related to doing what one believes is wrong, not the struggle to determine what it right. I wonder if we were to focus on what we believe to be honorable, true, right, just – if we were to go about doing what we have been called to do – if we were to take steps everyday to walk the path we know – we would find that it foundationally is about loving others through responding to the heart of God. If Jesus is alive and the Holy Spirit blowing – if we are listening – we will know but that knowledge will not be an end in itself.

  5. masonmusic Says:

    Thanks for your post, good stuff.

    I actually think you have gotten Bonhoeffer quite well here. When you say
    “if we were to go about doing what we have been called to do – if we were to take steps everyday to walk the path we know – we would find that it is foundationally about loving others through responding to the heart of God. If Jesus is alive and the Holy Spirit blowing – if we are listening – we will know but that knowledge will not be an end in itself.”

    That’s what he’s saying. we act from our inter-actions with God, not our supposed freedom to know, the power to know actually, what is right and what it wrong. Knowledge is not a beginning or an end, only God is those things. So by disagreeing with him, you’ve said it perfectly.

    The other clarifier is that bonhoeffer is speaking to Christians attempting to live in the world, not to non-Christians. As I’ve said, for a non Christian to say what is right and what is wrong may still be pride but it is unknowing pride and God may use it to resonate the person’s inner stirring back to Him.


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