Ethics by Dietrich Bonhoeffer Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics focuses on the relationship between God and humanity. God has become fully human in Jesus Christ; thus, he has experienced humanness in his own God-human nature. The Resurrection signaled the birth of a new world, one readmitted into paradise. All separation, fragmentation, and binary thinking must now be overcome. The practice of ethics, therefore, is not the division of the world into good and evil; instead, the goal of ethics is the full reintegration of all humanity into the divine reality revealed in Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer thus sees the merging of secular reality and divine reality as imperative; separate, they, too, form a binary conceptualization to be overcome.

In Bonhoeffer’s view, humans stand at a point of transition toward “God-reality.” In their penultimate state, people act according to nature; in their ultimate state, people act in God-reality, as manifested in Jesus Christ. In the face of death, for example, people acting according to nature express a silence of helplessness; in their God-reality, people express consolation. Both stages are necessary for the full experience of humanness, which takes place in a social context.

God’s becoming human in Jesus Christ was the ultimate act of deep love and the end of the rift between God and humans. Such a relationship entails complete human freedom in terms of the new God-reality. Quoting Martin Luther, Bonhoeffer says that following the Ten Commandments is the way of obedience; however, in freedom, Christians create their own set of commandments. Being “good” is to “live,” overcoming any good-evil dichotomy. Jesus does not love a moral codex; he loves all people of all backgrounds, particularly those moved by just causes. However, one should not emulate moral heroes: Everyone must create his or her own moral behavior within the frame of his or her own Jesus-Christ consciousness. Such a morality relies on a dynamic process-orientation; it is not static and rule-based. While one is aware of the consequences of one’s actions, one must mainly attempt to live the fullness of life from the center of life, not from its rule-defined periphery.

Ultimately, therefore, good people do not know or worry about being good; they will eventually need Jesus to tell them that they have been good. Only fragmented people pass judgment on self and others; people living in God-reality simply live, making choices that are relatively better than other choices, but without making absolutist claims. Christians always recognize the autonomy of others. For Bonhoeffer, one must be more ready to forgive others than to forgive oneself. Such responsibility goes hand in hand with ethical self-determination and freedom. God’s new commandment is a life in deep love toward one...

(The entire section is 1146 words.)