Bonhoeffer, Ethics, and “Scruples”

Bonhoeffer, Ethics, and “Scruples” October 16, 2018

Bonhoeffer, Ethics, and “Scruples”

Foreward to this blog post: I make no claim to being an expert on Bonhoeffer, but over the years, since seminary (1970s), I have read many books by him and about him. These are my musings; I make no claim to infallibility and I would appreciate it if no one would nit-pick in responses. For example, if I say Bonhoeffer is “widely regarded as a martyr,” I do not invite correction. Yes, I know there are different approaches to defining martyrdom and deciding who is and who is not a martyr. I am not placing Bonhoeffer in a technical category but simply acknowledging a popular perception of him. My focus here will be on his Ethics and especially the book by that title created by Bonhoeffer’s close friend Eberhard Bethge out of manuscripts collected and organized after Bonhoeffer’s death in 1945. Bonhoeffer did not write it; it contains his writings on ethics—some of which were found only after his death.

Now, my musings about Bonhoeffer….

My first “encounter” with Bonhoeffer happened during seminary (1974-1978) although I probably had heard his name before that. During my seminary education I read several of Bonhoeffer’s books including (English title) The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. My contemporary theology professor Dr. Al Glenn had a special interest in Bonhoeffer and made us listen to a rather lengthy and somewhat boring lecture on tape by a Lutheran Bonhoeffer scholar. Dr. Glenn’s enthusiasm for Bonhoeffer piqued my curiosity and I read some more—after graduation and during my doctoral studies: Letters and Papers from Prison, Christ the Center, Act and Being, and Ethics among them. However, I was disappointed to discover that Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics was not as “scientific” (in the German sense of “Wissenschaftlich”) as I wished. His writings seemed to me rather ad hoc and I could not really find a system there—not even one “in the making,” so to speak. Yet, I was inspired by Bonhoeffer’s life, career, and death—like so many people especially in the English-speaking world. I read Eberhard Bethge’s magisterial biography of his mentor and have since discovered no biography that matches it in terms of authority and detail. One of my favorite books about Bonhoeffer is a biographical novel entitled The Cup of Wrath.

When I studied theology in Germany (1981-1982) I discovered a distinct lack of interest in Bonhoeffer as a theologian. The general attitude toward him among theology students and many professors of theology was one of indifference if not disdain. And it wasn’t because of his involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler; it was because his theology was not “Wissenschaftlich” and seemed not so very different from that of Karl Barth. “A Lutheran Barthian” is how one theology graduate student described him.

Back in the good old U.S., however, I discovered a constantly rising interest in Bonhoeffer. It came about that, over my years of teaching modern/contemporary theology, Bonhoeffer was the subject of choice for term papers—among my students. I began to have to restrict him as a topic to no more than five students in a class of twenty to thirty—due to lack of library sources. Left to their own devices probably half would choose Bonhoeffer as their topic.

Over the past thirty years I have watched many documentaries about Bonhoeffer—some excellent and some not so excellent. I have shown some of them to my students. Probably “Agent of Grace” is the most popular. But one of the first was an episode of Malcolm Muggeridge’s documentary series “The Third Testament.” I think that has largely disappeared now.

Just recently I have taken up again Bonhoeffer’s (or Bethge’s) book entitled simply Ethics. This time I have read the English translation of the sixth edition (1962). And I am currently reading an excellent volume of essays about Bonhoeffer’s ethics entitled New Studies in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics (1987). Some of the authors of these “studies” are now renowned Bonhoeffer scholars.

Now to “Scruples.” “Scruples” is the name of a parlor game my family and I used to play at family reunions. I havn’t seen it in stores for a long time; I’m not sure it is still being produced. The game revolves around questions and answers. The person “on the spot” (to gain or lose points) has to proffer a guess about what another player would do in an ethical dilemma situation (what Hauerwas calls a “quandry”). There are three kinds of cards to be played: “yes,” “no,” and “it depends.” Here’s an example. The person whose turn it is chooses a card that says “Would he or she lie in such-and-such a situation?” It is always about one player. The player who drew the card has to say (with a card) “yes,” “no,” or “it depends.” We found that the “it depends” card was being played too often so we discarded them and played only with “yes” and “no” cards. As I recall (my memory may be faulty) the other players vote about whether the player the question is about is telling the truth when he or she either agrees or disagrees with the player whose turn it is. Of course, this led to some epic arguments: “Yes you would!” And “No I wouldn’t.” Etc. On the brink of total family war we gave up the game forever.

The key here, for my purposes, is our decision to discard all the “It depends” cards. In almost every case both the person whose turn it was and the person the question is about said “It depends.” No problem then—until we discarded the “It depends” cards. Then near war broke out. You can only imagine (if you never played the game).

Bonhoeffer covers a lot of ground in Ethics. And it’s difficult to tell what he is actually saying—sometimes. Often his statements (extremely long sentences and paragraphs!) are enigmatic and one suspects he is really talking about the situation in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s. (He began the writing of the documents that make up this volume in 1940–intending to put them together into a coherent book which never happened.) (No one is even sure of the correct order of the documents/chapters.)

Many things stand out about Ethics. Bonhoeffer rejects “abstract ethics” and “casuistry.” His only concern (so he says) is “the will of God.” But, of course, how does one discern the will of God? The most shocking thing about Ethics is that, at least occasionally, Bonhoeffer says the will of God cannot be known (if it can ever be known) in abstraction from a particular situation and set of relationships.

Just to avoid any unnecessary corrections here, I admit the following about Bonhoeffer’s ethics: Christocentric, deferential to government, strong emphasis on “mandates” (church, family, labor, government), aversion to what has come popularly to be called “situation ethics.” For Bonhoeffer, Christian ethics is not rudderless or even left with only one overriding principle (e.g., “agape”). On the other hand, hear these statements: “God’s commandment is the speech of God to man. … God’s commandment cannot be found and known in detachment from time and place; it can only be heard in a local and temporal context. … Either God does not speak at all or else He speaks to us as definitely as He spoke to Abraham and Jacob and Moses and as definitely as in Jesus Christ He spoke to the disciples and through His apostles to the Gentiles.” (273) Also, “The simple fact is that the ethical cannot be detached from reality, and consequently continual progress in learning to appreciate reality is a necessary ingredient in ethical action. … If my utterance is to be truthful it must in each case be different according to whom I am addressing, who is questioning me, and what I am speaking about.” (360) On pages 362-363 Bonhoeffer does something rare: he gives a concrete example. There he justifies lying—given a context of unreality. “Indeed here already it becomes apparent how very difficult it is to say what actually constitutes a lie.” In a footnote Bonhoeffer seems to ridicule Kant for saying that he would feel himself obliged to give truthful information even to a criminal looking for a friend of his who had concealed himself in a house. (363)

One cannot help but think of Corrie Ten Boom’s anecdote about a family argument about whether to lie to Nazis searching for Jews hidden in their Dutch hiding places.

I cannot read Bonhoeffer’s Ethics without thinking of Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical.” And yet, throughout Ethics Bonhoeffer talks about “responsibility” and “guilt” and implies that lying, for example, brings guilt. And yet, he also implies, sometimes it is justified—given certain circumstances. (For example when a teacher asks a pupil it’s true that his father comes home drunk every night.)

I have to think that at least portions of Ethics were written in the context of Bonhoeffer’s knowledge of his brother’s and brother-in-law’s involvement in a plot to kill Hitler and overthrow the German government—and possibly his own dawning awareness that he could not avoid joining them in that conspiracy.

What makes things complicated, though, is Bonhoeffer’s also clear dismissal of any “right of revolution” and his strong emphasis on government as always being from God even when it is evil. Disobedience to government—yes. But overthrow of government—no. And yet….? Questions remain. Ethics is not systematic. Paradoxes abound. But what really jumps out as especially intriguing is Bonhoeffer’s occasional clear justification (not without guilt) of violations of normal Christian ethics.

”God’s will.” “It depends.” Responsibility. Guilt. Context. Decision.

Over riding and surrounding all of it is Bonhoeffer’s absolutely clear declaration that in Jesus Christ God has reconciled all of reality to himself and entered into our reality. Clearly (!) for him, CHRISTIAN ethics cannot be done apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ because ethics has to do with reality and God’s will and these ARE Jesus Christ in us.

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