“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.