[from Steven Schroeder. Between Freedom and Necessity: An Essay on the Place of Value. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2000, pp. 93-107.]
John Sayles’s Lone Star opens with two characters in a field somewhere in Texas. One is wearing headphones attached to a metal detector, searching for old bullets that, as we learn later, he melts down and turns into objects of art. The other is identifying as many different varieties of cactus as he can find. The character identifying the cactus says “If you’re going to live in a place, you need to learn something about it.” Shortly thereafter, they uncover a skeleton that becomes a major element in development of the plot. The end of the film is a scene that again includes two characters, one of whom (she is Latina) says to the other, “Forget the Alamo.” This is a plot that exposes several key themes for ethics:
• If you are going to live in a place, you need to learn something about it.
• To learn something about a place, you are going to have to dig into it.
• If you start digging in the place where you live, you are going to uncover some skeletons. The bad news in that is that exposing buried skeletons is almost always painful. The good news is that buried skeletons almost always make good stories.
• We live between memory and forgetfulness: to understand what we mean by “we,” we have to remember—but to get on with our lives, we also have to forget.
Toni Morrison reminded us in Beloved that every step we take in this country is a step into a place of buried skeletons saturated with a thousand intersecting histories of violence. Though we cannot not remember—because the blood of our brothers and sisters cries out from the ground, some stories are not stories to pass on.
It is serendipitous — a gift of grace — for ethicists reflecting in a “Western” context that the Greek word (ethos) from which ethics derives originally designated a dwelling place for animals and that Christianity has been constructed around a story of the birth of God in a stable. In the case of Christianity, the stable has served as a symbol for the condescension or self-emptying (kenosis) of God and as a reflection of God’s solidarity with the poor. As the locus for the story of the Incarnation, it is a potentially significant answer to a question that is probably as old as humankind: Where do we meet God? Christianity’s foundation myth suggests that we meet God with the poor, the outcast, and the homeless on the edge of civilization, where non-human animals are more at home than human ones.
The stable, a dwelling place for animals, is a human construction that is both in and out of the human world of civilization. In the story of Jesus’s birth, the stable becomes home for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus only because there is no room for them in the inn. Jesus’s birth takes place where animals are at home; but what is home for animals is a temporary shelter on the periphery of a temporary home for human beings who are in the middle of a journey.
Another place where animals dwell is their haunt, a place to which they habitually return. This is not a human construction at all; what makes it home is the act of habitual return.
Robert Frost once described home as “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Ethics is connected with home, but it is also connected with temporary shelter on the edge of the human world in the middle of a human journey. It is connected with custom, habit, habitual return, and—as Frost’s image suggests—necessity. And it is connected with a taking in that directs our attention to the edge, where we meet God and other strangers.
To begin, as Christian ethics does, with the question of where we meet God and the intuition that the meeting takes place “on the edge” puts us in the paradoxical position of beginning at the end of the world rather than at the beginning. This is not only paradoxical but also, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer was aware, dangerous. By beginning at the end, we run the risk of absolutizing ends that are not absolute. However, by not beginning at the end, we run the risk of absolutizing the “middles” in which we live and forgetting that they have ends. It is on this basis that Bonhoeffer (1965) asserted that the first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate the knowledge of good and evil, making Christian ethics “a critique of all ethics simply as ethics.”
Beginning at the end results in a critique of all ethics simply as ethics for reasons similar to those summarized by Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat in conversation with a bewildered (and lost) Alice searching for an answer to one of the most important variations on the “standard” ethical question of action, “Which way ought I to go?”:
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘—so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’
Alice felt that this could not be denied, so she tried another question. ‘What sort of people live around here?’
‘In that direction,’ the Cat said, waving its right paw round, ‘lives a Hatter: and in that direction,’ waving the other paw, ‘lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.’
‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here’ (Carroll, pp. 88-89).
The Cat begins with an awareness of the importance of where we are and describes it as a situation which is madness by definition. He moves through the commonplace that to be is to be somewhere and to the assertion—at Alice’s prompting—that “somewheres,” the places where we are, are defined in large part by the characters that inhabit them. The places where we are are connected by our action—our movement from one to another—and the places, the action, and the characters contribute to who we are and where we are going.
In the tradition of confessional theology, particularly as embodied in Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) and Karl Barth (1886-1968), situations that are so distorted as to be structurally synonymous with madness have been labeled “times for confessing” and considered under the rubric of status confessionis. They have given rise to confessions that struggle to deal with the condition rightly imposed by the Cheshire Cat (which way we ought to go depends a great deal on where we want to get to) while taking seriously the condition necessarily imposed by a distorted world (Lutheran World Federation, 1983; Barndt and Schroeder, 1988). Status confessionis is an eschatological image of trial in which one’s present is viewed in terms of one’s end; existence is being in the presence of God, being called to testify of the presence of God in a fallen world. That vision of a distorted present in terms of an end that is “where we want to get to” is both ethically and politically transformative.
2. Reading the West
For Bonhoeffer, the vision of a distorted present involved a reading of the history of “the West” analogous to the Cheshire Cat’s reading of the place and time in which Alice encountered him. His most extended versions of that reading are “Ethics as Formation,” which appears in the posthumously published Ethics (and which Clifford Green has convincingly argued should be read as the beginning of the second of three blocks that make up the book, the one that constitutes the bulk of the text), and a series of letters to Eberhard Bethge written from prison during 1944 (Bonhoeffer, 1972, pp. 324-329; pp. 335-337; pp. 339-342; pp. 343-347; pp. 357-363; pp. 369-370).
“Ethics as Formation” begins with a reflection on the absence of concern for theoretical ethics precipitated by Bonhoeffer’s conviction that most people at the time he was writing (around 1940) were too deeply embroiled in the pressing problems posed by practical ethics to concern themselves with the theoretical. Preoccupation with the practical, to the extent that it means giving precedence to the concrete rather than the abstract, is critically important to Bonhoeffer’s own approach to ethics. But he is concerned with the extent to which the popular preoccupation was entangled with a “failure of reasonable people to perceive either the depths of evil or the depths of the holy” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 65). Writing from the depths of Hitler’s Germany, Bonhoeffer himself is preoccupied with the failure of ethics, as understood by “reasonable” people, to sustain resistance. There are obvious reasons for that preoccupation, which became the basis for a “realistic” ethic grounded in a careful reading of history, in the last years of his life.
Bonhoeffer points to the failure of reason, will, conscience, duty, freedom, and private virtue as bases for ethics, then proposes a “Christological” alternative (Bonhoeffer, 1978; Bonhoeffer, 1988; Yerkes, 1978). The only adequate basis for Christian ethics, he insists, is Christ; and this means that it is grounded not in a general or abstract principle but in a particular and concrete encounter with God in humankind. God, Bonhoeffer insists, did not become an abstract principle; God became a human being.
This is an important point of distinction between Bonhoeffer’s reading of Hegel and what has come to be known as Hegelianism. For Bonhoeffer, the emphasis is on the human being; for Hegelianism, it is often on the human being as embodiment of an abstract principle, Reason. The Christological alternative is thus also incarnational, and it is this incarnational character of ethics that makes it so important to read history rather than simply being swept along by it. If human history is where we meet God, then it is of central importance from a theological as well as an anthropological perspective.
Bonhoeffer understands the failure of that long list of noble bases for human ethics in the context of the struggle that ensues when “an old world ventures to take up arms against a new one and when a world of the past hazards an attack against the superior forces of the commonplace and mean” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 68). The patron saint of this struggle is Don Quixote, and there is good reason to take a second look at that patron of impossible causes. The second look, as Kirkpatrick Sale has suggested, might lead us to read Don Quixote rather than the Aeneid as the foundation myth of “Western” culture.
The problem posed by Don Quixote’s struggle on behalf of the old world against the new is how to see the world as it is. Bonhoeffer asserts that the wise person is the one “who sees reality as it is, and who sees into the depths of things” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 68). This raises the question of the relative wisdom of Don Quixote and Aeneas. Was Don Quixote wise when he saw dragons and princesses where others saw only windmills and servants? Was he wise when he looked back and saw those visions as delusions? Was Aeneas wise when he looked at the shield of Pallas in Turnus’s hand and saw the murder of Pallas? All of these questions suggest that what we see and what we do are inextricably connected.
For Bonhoeffer, to see reality as it is, to see into the depths of things, is to see reality in God. There are hints here both of the Hegelian shape of Bonhoeffer’s historical and epistemological outlook and of the limitedness of that shape: though Bonhoeffer is reluctant to follow Hegel in explicitly affirming that without the world, God would not be God, he is more than willing to insist that without God, the world would not be the world. His reluctance to follow the seemingly more radical version of Hegel’s assertion stems from a clear-sighted understanding of the dangerous tendency to deify the world; it does not prevent him from later recognizing that the hypothesis of God may have no place in a world come of age. If one is to see God, one must look at the world; and if one is to see Jesus, one must look at humankind. “Jesus,” Bonhoeffer writes, “is not a man. He is man” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 72).
That this is an ethical as much as an epistemological problem becomes progressively clearer over the four or five year span from the composition of this text to the last of the prison letters to Bethge. The problem is not how to be redeemed from the world or to be given a place outside the world from which to move it but how to be redeemed into it. And that means both how to be empowered to live in it and how to be enabled to recognize it. For Bonhoeffer, “to be conformed with the Incarnate is to have the right to be the man [or woman] one really is” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 81).
Bonhoeffer is inclined to insist that the end is in the beginning (Bonhoeffer, 1997). We live from the end of time because the eschatological event of incarnation, God’s taking on of human flesh, has already happened. This means that “the point of departure for Christian ethics is the body of Christ” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 83). And it means, because “the Church is nothing but a section of humanity in which Christ has really taken form,” that the point of departure is “the form of Christ in the form of the Church.”
The latter form became increasingly problematic for Bonhoeffer in the course of the Kirchenkampf, and this problematization of the form of the Church is one of his great strengths. To the extent that the Church is the body of Christ, it is a living being, that, like all living beings, is not only formed but also in formation. The important thing, as Bonhoeffer wrote in one of his letters from prison, “is that we should be able to discover from the fragment of our life how the whole was arranged and planned, and what material it consists of” (Bonhoeffer, 1972, p. 219). Remember the first of Luther’s 95 theses: the real problem is not so much the meaning of “repentance” as the possibility of a “whole” life. We confront the Church in the world; it is not an Archimedean point. We confront it both as a crucified, broken body that challenges us to discern the whole in the parts and as a resurrected body that “takes form among us here and now” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, pp. 84, 85).
Bonhoeffer reads history because that is where we meet God. He also reads it with the consciousness that “our” history sets us “objectively in a definite nexus of experiences, responsibilities and decisions from which we cannot free ourselves again except by an abstraction. We live, in fact, within this nexus, whether or not we are in every respect aware of it” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 87). Bonhoeffer reads history because that is where we—both as individuals and as communities—become who we are.
Those are not two reasons for reading history, but two ways of speaking about one reason. In our encounter with history, we encounter God, and it is that encounter that empowers us to be who we are.
When he later speaks about the penultimate and the ultimate, Bonhoeffer explains that the penultimate must always precede the ultimate temporally; that the ultimate is not, however, to be understood as resulting from the penultimate; and that the penultimate (even though it comes first) is entirely dependent on the ultimate. Without God the world would not be the world—nor would “we” be “we.” But before we encounter God, we encounter the world in history, and it is in the encounter that we become—the encounter is the becoming.
Bonhoeffer is closer to Luther and the Hebrew prophets at this point than was Hegel to the extent that Hegel saw the “abstraction” by which we “free ourselves” as the “point” of our historical-philosophical inquiry. To the extent that Hegel saw history as a process within which consciousness becomes conscious of itself and thereby “transcends” itself, he departed from the profound “this worldliness” that Luther appropriated from Hebrew Scripture. Bonhoeffer would be more inclined to describe the process as one of conformation in which human being comes into being in encounter with the fully human reality embodied in Christ. This, I think, is what he must have had in mind in the prison letters when he told Eberhard Bethge that Christianity is not a religion of redemption. “Redemption myths,” he wrote, “arise from human boundary experiences, but Christ takes hold of a man [or woman] at the center of his [or her] life” (Bonhoeffer, 1972, pp. 336-337).
That our reading of history is an encounter may identify it as an action or as a passion. As an action, it is formation: we make history, and we are most likely to make it in our image. Bonhoeffer, like Kierkegaard, was critical of Hegel’s tendency to see his own time and place as the end point toward which all previous history had developed and in which all previous history took shape. But, like Kierkegaard, he was also conscious of the fact that to the extent that we become subjects of history we can only see it—and make it—from the places and times in which we stand. We cannot step outside the world, and to claim that we have done so is to deify our place and time while despising humanity in a way that Bonhoeffer, following Luther, identifies as decidedly unchristian. As a passion, it is conformation: we are made by history, and to the extent that God is the subject of history we are made in God’s image. Bonhoeffer was acutely conscious of the extent to which the deification of the human as subject of history could result in profound deformation and dehumanization of the human as its object. For evidence, he had only to look at the Total State of Nazism.
Bonhoeffer’s consciousness of the profound deformation and dehumanization so prevalent as a product of the historical nexus within which he lived is the backdrop against which he speaks of “the Christian west.” For Bonhoeffer, that backdrop is one in which God’s action in history is obscured and which therefore poses two practical questions: What is it about the history of the “Christian west” that has obscured God as the subject of history? and What can be done to facilitate encounter with God in the context of this history?
Both questions contribute to a definition of the Church and its work, though the first does this only by defining the larger context within which the Church and its work exist. Bonhoeffer’s answer to the first question goes some way toward describing what he sees as the order of the old world that struggles against the new world constituted by the form of Christ in the Church. Bonhoeffer’s reading of the old world is shaped in part by that world, as indicated, perhaps, in his choice of the word “inheritance,” Erbe, which had both biological and historical dimensions in the ideology of National Socialism, and it is predicated on the assumption that the old world renders responsibility difficult to the extent that it places obstacles in the way of encountering and therefore responding to God. The form of the Church, for Bonhoeffer, is that space in the world that enables encounter with and therefore response to God. It is the response to God in the world and therefore in humankind that constitutes responsible action (Bonhoeffer, 1965, pp. 222-254).
Bonhoeffer distinguishes “the west” from the rest of the world by suggesting that we look back to our forbears not as “ancestors who are made the object of worship and veneration” but as “witnesses of the entry of God into history” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 89). This tendency to think of only “the West” as having a history is characteristic of the German historiography with which Bonhoeffer was familiar, both in its Hegelian and Spenglerian forms. It raises questions about the meaning of “myth” and “history” that I will return to later. Jesus, according to Bonhoeffer, is “the continuity of our history.” This obviously involves a degree of exclusivity that demands reexamination and repudiation: it is not a story to pass on. But, to Bonhoeffer’s credit, it does not lead him to an exclusive focus on Christian Scripture that excludes, devalues, or simply subsumes Hebrew Scripture, a focus that was undeniably tempting to Christian theologians in the Nazi context (Ericksen, 1985). Instead, it leads first to a Christocentric then to a more broadly incarnational interpretation of Hebrew Scripture and to a reminder that “an expulsion of the Jews from the west must necessarily bring with it an expulsion of Christ. For Jesus Christ was a Jew” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 90; Kuske, 1976).
This is important not only as a repudiation of Hitler’s attack on the Jewish community of Europe but also because it establishes one source of the “inheritance” of “the west” in Bonhoeffer’s reading of history. He looked to Hebrew Scripture and to Judaism as one of the sources out of which this entity called “the west” was born. It is, significantly, the Jewish community to whom we look first as witnesses. And when we look, one of the skeletons we uncover is a long history of Christian anti-Semitism.
Greco-Roman antiquity is a second source in Bonhoeffer’s reading that is subsequently transformed into several sources with distinct implications. As he tells the story, the Roman Hellenistic world is important because it is the “time when the time of God was fulfilled” and because it is “the world which God took to Himself in the incarnation” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 90). This suggests that God became incarnate not just in a particular person but also in the world within which that person lived. That the second part of this suggestion would follow from the first may seem obvious, but it has important implications: when God became human, God took on the whole world. This parallels the theme repeated several times in Ethics of Jesus as man [sic] rather than a man. It also amounts to a reaffirmation of the characteristically Hegelian and characteristically Lutheran connection between God and the world.
Though Bonhoeffer gives special significance to the Greco-Roman heritage of “the west,” he splits it by identifying the Roman heritage as coming to represent “the combination and assimilation of antiquity with the Christian element” and the Greek heritage as coming to represent “opposition and hostility to Christ” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 90). Given the role of the Roman government in the crucifixion, this may seem a bit odd, but Bonhoeffer appears to have in mind the identification of the Church with Rome that gradually occurred over the first several centuries of Christianity. And he appears to have in mind the tendency of “Western” thinkers who wanted an alternative to Christianity to look to the Greeks and their mythology as a pre-Christian and often anti-Christian option. This had particular importance in his context because of Nietzsche’s appropriation of Greek philosophy and its employment by some architects of Nazi ideology.
Bonhoeffer traces this approach to the Greek tradition back to the German Reformation. The Roman tradition had been passed on to Europe in general and Germany in particular in a more or less unbroken line. In fact, Bonhoeffer points out with some justification that the histories of Europe began in the encounter with Rome and that, as Rome became inextricably identified with Christianity in the West, those histories began in the encounter with Christ transmitted through the medium of Rome. Western Europe saw itself as the inheritor of Roman antiquity and therefore appropriated Roman Christianity and Roman foundation myths, including the Aeneid, reinterpreted through Christian eyes. Luther’s turn away from Rome meant a turn toward Greece because there were only two “Western” alternatives—though one might ask why the alternative had to be “Western” and what “Western” could possibly mean in this context.
In Bonhoeffer’s reading, there is one inheritance with four sources, three of which are joined together in the historical figure of Jesus and one of which is viewed as “pre-Christian”:
• first is the Jewish tradition, particularly the tradition of the Hebrew prophets;
• second is the Greek tradition, particularly the tradition of Greek philosophy and tragic drama interpreted as “humanistic”;
• third is the Hellenistic tradition, which is a melding of Greek and Roman tradition and which is the world into which Jesus was born;
• fourth is the Roman tradition, which is the tradition of Roman Christianity.
Bonhoeffer could argue that the person of Jesus ties all these sources together to the extent that the Greek tradition is appropriated through the Hellenistic world. But he is interested in the “consciously anti-Christian” (not just anti-Roman) conjuring up of the Greek heritage that he sees as characteristic of Germany’s attitude toward antiquity.
The Reformation shattered “the corpus christianum, the historical order of the Christian west, which was ruled and held together by Emperor and Pope in the name of Jesus Christ” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 94). Bonhoeffer attributes this to Luther’s conviction that the unity of the faith could not reside in any political power, which gave rise to the Lutheran understanding of “two kingdoms.” He insists that, while Luther did not lose sight of the fact that God is the sovereign of both kingdoms, many Lutherans and others misunderstood the two kingdoms as implying “the emancipation and sanctification of the world and of the natural” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 96). Bonhoeffer sees the Lutheran Reformation as providing the background against which a proper distinction of two spheres of God’s activity in the world could be transformed into a vision of the world as consisting of one sphere in which God is sovereign and one sphere in which God is not. This split becomes an important theme for his ethical analysis and has been an important tool with which to explain the “Lutheran” and more broadly Protestant tradition of withdrawal into quietism and personal piety that played so disastrously into Hitler’s hands in Germany.
The misunderstanding of “two kingdoms” as an “emancipation and sanctification of the world and of the natural” is seen as the basis for emergence of western technology as mastery rather than service. To the extent that “the natural” becomes independent of God, there is a renewed western emphasis on dominating it, as though the issue of sovereignty is in doubt and must be established primarily through technological means. Bonhoeffer does not reject western technology and is in fact critical of those who do. He asserts that “the age of technology is a genuine heritage of our western history. We must come to grips with it. We cannot return to the pretechnical era” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 99). This poses the obvious problem of how, precisely, to come to grips with it, a problem that still plagues us.
For Bonhoeffer, then, the Lutheran Reformation is the starting point of an independent secular sphere from which God is excluded and a religious sphere to which the Church is increasingly confined. It is also the moment of birth of a western technological tradition of dominance over nature in the name of humankind as opposed to service to humankind through nature in the name of God. This is not to say that Bonhoeffer believed Luther intended these consequences; he expressly denied this in a Reformation Day letter to his parents written in 1943 (Bonhoeffer, 1972, p. 123). But he became increasingly conscious of the power of unintended consequences and secondary motivations during his time in prison.
Bonhoeffer cites the French Revolution as the moment of birth of modern nationalism (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 100). He distinguishes the “nation” (which is organic) from the “state” (which is institutional) and identifies France with the former, Prussia with the latter. “Prussia,” Bonhoeffer asserts, wished to be neither nationalistic nor international. In this respect its thought was more western than was that of the Revolution” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, pp. 100-101). In the defeat of Prussia by France, Bonhoeffer sees the triumph of technology, mass movements, and nationalism which became the inheritance bequeathed by the Revolution to the western world. His reading suggests that the Reformation opened the way to a misunderstanding that was then transformed by the French Revolution into this deadly inheritance. That it is deadly in Bonhoeffer’s eyes results in part from the bitter conflict it contains: “The masses and nationalism,” he writes, “are hostile to reason. Technology and the masses are hostile to nationalism. Nationalism and technology are hostile to the masses” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 102).
It is no more surprising that Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, would read the French Revolution through the lens of the German Reformation than that Burke, a British MP, read it earlier through the lens of England’s “Glorious Revolution.” “Luther’s great discovery of the freedom of the Christian man,” he writes, “and the Catholic heresy of the essential good in man combined to produce the deification of man. But, rightly understood, the deification of man is the proclamation of nihilism” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 103). That nihilism is embodied for Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany.
In his Ethics, it is clear that Bonhoeffer sees the Christian Church as the guardian of the western inheritance against the nihilism embodied in Nazism. The “Western inheritance” he has in mind is the form of Christ, the dwelling of God with humankind that is communicated by both Hebrew and Christian Scripture and which “the west” first encountered in the Roman Church. The “decay” of the west derives from its refusal “to accept its historical inheritance for what it is” (Bonhoeffer, 1965, p. 108). That this vision continues in the prison correspondence is evidenced by the fact that the “worldly Christianity” Bonhoeffer was struggling to articulate there was directed toward enabling humankind to encounter God in the world, even when the hypothesis of God had been discarded. This reading suggests an interpretation of the theologia crucis which would insist that we encounter God in the death of God and provides an important background against which to read subsequent “death of God” theology.
3. Embracing the World
Bonhoeffer’s reading of history is Hegelian, but it is also radically Christocentric, incarnational, and concrete. These characteristics, I believe, gave it a critical edge that the later Hegel and many of his followers lost in their absolutization of the System and their virtual sanctification of the existing state of affairs (Marcuse, 1960). Bonhoeffer’s critical edge, the ground under his feet that sustained and supported his resistance, consisted in his willingness to embrace the world rather than attempting to overcome or transcend it.
Bonhoeffer is Hegelian to the extent that both he and Hegel are philosophically and theologically Lutheran: they interpret the world and the Church, which is a subset of the world, Christocentrically by way of a theologia crucis in which the absolute negation of God’s self-identification with humankind is central. At the heart of Bonhoeffer’s appropriation of Hegel and Hegel’s appropriation of Luther is God’s death on the cross. That death, understood as kenosis, is the center of the Church and of the world. God’s kenotic act, the death of God on the cross, is the source of the world’s being; and it is the foundation of the Church, which, as Bonhoeffer argued early in his theological career, is the unity of act and being. In a distinctly Lutheran fashion, both Hegel and Bonhoeffer assert that God alone acts, or, more accurately, that God alone is a single action: what is commonly understood as human action, whether faith or sin, is passion. The being of human beings is toward God (faith) or toward self (sin)—but, in either case, God is subject (the one who acts) while human beings are objects (the ones acted upon).
But a distinctly Lutheran qualification is attached to this assertion in both Hegel and Bonhoeffer, a qualification that was most famously articulated between Hegel and Bonhoeffer by Søren Kierkegaard: God’s action is a passion, and it is the structure of human passion that makes it possible for human beings to become subjects. Kierkegaard criticized Hegel for forgetting that human beings (including Hegel himself!) exist; Bonhoeffer appropriated this criticism, and both suggest that the most un-Lutheran thing about Hegel is his inclination toward Absolute System.
That, too, requires qualification. To the extent that Luther placed the cross at the center of his theology, he was anti-systematic, and his thought was radically open. His later thought, however, and the thought of many of his followers, particularly in the various incarnations of Lutheran orthodoxy, tended toward the closure of System. Bonhoeffer rightly pointed out that reason itself tends toward closure, so that all thought, to the extent that it is scientific and philosophical (that is, rational), is an exercise in system building. It is not, therefore, surprising that Hegel (and, through him, Luther) spawned apparently contradictory philosophical approaches to the world.
There is a radical Hegel and a radically conservative one, just as there are radical and radically conservative Luthers. This, I think, is a crucial point in understanding Bonhoeffer’s work (which is not just his writing but his living): the radical and the radically conservative Hegel (or Luther or Bonhoeffer) are not two persons, but one. Dialectical thinkers and dialectical philosophies (and this includes Bonhoeffer and his work) routinely embody contradictions. Luther’s thought is revolutionary to the extent that it is a theology of the cross, the negation of every affirmation: as long as the cross is at the center, the system building tendency of reason is held in check, and system building does not degenerate into System. Hegel’s thought is revolutionary to the extent that it is a philosophy of absolute negation: as long as absolute negation is at the center, systematization remains open, and we are not banished to the gatehouse. Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, as interpreters of Hegel and of Luther, repeatedly remind us of the center: they do not allow us to forget that we exist.
To call Bonhoeffer’s work “dialectical” raises the question of his relationship to Barth. Given the close personal and intellectual association between the two, some Bonhoeffer interpreters have tended to read him through Barth, almost as though Barth, who, unlike Bonhoeffer, survived the war and therefore continued developing his thought for some time afterward, completes Bonhoeffer. This is a mistake, both because it devalues Bonhoeffer’s contribution and because it overvalues completion. Regardless of one’s attitude toward Barth, the overvaluation of completion in interpretation of Bonhoeffer leads to devaluation of the anti-systematic aspects of his thought. Whether one is reading Kierkegaard or Bonhoeffer, if one sees System as strength, one is likely to discover nothing but weakness.
That may be appropriate in understanding Hegel’s contribution through Bonhoeffer to formation of communities of resistance. If one discovers nothing but weakness, one may well have discovered the kenotic center that is constitutive of resistance and community. This insight has been shared by artists, mystics, and poets who have found Nothing in gifts and words that (in Emily Dickinson’s image) are “homely” and “hindered,” who have continued to seek among those words and gifts because Nothing has a rarely recognized world-renewing power.
This requires one more word about Barth and Barthian interpretations of kenosis, which is usually understood as “self-emptying.” Reformed theology, including Barthian neo-orthodoxy, has been inclined, I think, to place the emphasis in its understanding of kenosis on “self,” to the extent that it is interpreted as an act willed or chosen by God: at the center, then, is God’s will.
It would certainly be possible to read Kierkegaard or Bonhoeffer in this way as well. In Fear and Trembling, for example, Kierkegaard outlines an “anti-ethic” of sorts that depends on the immediate (or transparent) relationship of Abraham with God: either there is a teleological suspension of the ethical, or Abraham is a murderer. The teleological suspension of the ethical assumes that a (human) act is good because God commands it. The salient feature is God’s will, and that is the center around which the whole world takes shape.
Bonhoeffer is critical of this reading, however, for two reasons, both of which are important here. First, the reading is radically individualistic, and Bonhoeffer (following Hegel) insists that God is present in community. Where there is no community, there is no God. As Kierkegaard was aware, this renders Abraham’s silence problematic and defies any attempt to incorporate the story into a System. God’s will is not the salient feature, but Abraham’s silence. Which leads to the second criticism: a Lutheran understanding of kenosis emphasizes not self, but emptiness. It is not God’s will that matters, but God’s death.
Karl Marx, another Lutheran interpreter of Hegel, developed this with great clarity in the section of his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 entitled “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole.” There he described absolute negation not as an act of will but as a process of recognition:
abstraction comprehending itself as abstraction knows itself to be nothing: it must abandon itself—abandon abstraction—and so it arrives at an entity which is its exact opposite—at nature. Thus, the entire Logic is the demonstration that abstract thought is nothing in itself; that the Absolute Idea is nothing for itself; that only Nature is something.
For Marx, this means that “the mystical feeling which drives the philosopher forward from abstract thinking to intuiting is boredom—the longing for a content.” While Marx’s critique was developed primarily in response to the Logic and Bonhoeffer’s 1933 Hegel seminar was a close reading of the Philosophy of Religion, both would agree at this point in the assessment of religion as “applied logic.” The feeling that drives the philosopher forward may be described as boredom, but it is also a longing for content, for the concrete, the same longing that undergirds religion.
Whether the emphasis in kenosis is on self or on emptiness has far-reaching consequences for the understanding and constitution of community, including communities of resistance. Emphasis on self tends toward community constituted by will, while emphasis on emptiness tends toward community constituted by abandonment. The former implies strength, the latter weakness. The former implies a crisis to be resolved by choice, the latter a chronic condition—a condition of need and incompletion.
The distinction, I think, drove much of Bonhoeffer’s witness, both in his life and in his writings. The chronic condition grounded in abandonment reveals God’s human weakness at the center of the human world. It suggests that human beings form communities, not because we choose to but because we have to. No act of will can “complete” any human being, meaning that there is never a resolution, never a System, in reality. The abandonment communicated by the cross at the center of the world makes all resolutions and all Systems equally false. This means that resistance is not a freely chosen act, incidental to being human, but a human necessity.
It also means, as Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer were all aware, that we cannot get to the beginning any more than we can get to the end, precisely because we are always in the middle. Bonhoeffer’s argument, in his Biblical interpretation as well as in his ethics, made this “being in the middle” even more radical than the one articulated at about the same time by Heidegger. It is not just that we are in the middle, with no Sein other than Dasein. It is that we are always equally in the middle of the beginning and in the middle of the end.
That we are not only in the middle but also in the middle of the beginning and in the middle of the end means that every act in which we engage is simultaneously beginning, middle, and end. Hence the significance of everydayness in Bonhoeffer (and, earlier, in Kierkegaard). God’s absolute absence in identification with humankind transforms time: it directs our attention away from the extraordinary (a theology of glory) toward the ordinary (a theology of the cross). It makes us fundamentally suspicious of heroes (and, by extension, saints).
It is action in the middle of time, in the ordinary, that matters: if you are going to live, you are going to live in a place—and if you are going to live in a place, you need to know something about it. If in getting to know something about it you turn a few bullets into objects of art or beat a few swords into plowshares, so much the better: that is a story we might want to pass on.
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