Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Will of God

I've made it through the first chapter of Ethics, and it's one of those things that's so rich in ideas that I knew I wouldn't retain any of it if I didn't try to make some notes. Here's what I've understood of it (my apologies beforehand for the gender-biased language, it's in the translation I'm reading and it's all I can do to keep up with this thought as it is without remapping this). If anyone is familiar with Bonhoeffer's thought, please let me know what I've understood or not understood.


In the knowledge of good and evil man knows himself apart from God. He knows his own possibility of being good and evil. He sees himself as something separate from God. As such, the knowledge of good and evil creates disunion between man and God (also between man and man and man and the world). To use Martin Buber's language, man develops an I-It relationship with God, others and the world.

"Instead of seeing God," Bonhoeffer says, "man sees himself."

Man experiences this separation as shame, shame at the union he has lost, shame at not being covered by God. So, he seeks a covering. He seeks to create his own good.

Jumping now to the Pharisee (largely as a type, though based on the Biblical class by that name)... Bonhoeffer has a very realistic image of the Pharisees. He refuses to demonize them or trivialize what they hoped to accomplish in their lives. He recognizes that their life was a sincere attempt to live a life pleasing to God, but they did so by seeking to create their own good.

The Pharisee sees every moment as a conflict in which he must choose good over evil. Jesus, by contrast, does not allow himself to be drawn into these conflicts (see Matthew 22). Jesus sees only one thing: the will of God. The Pharisee tries to navigate through disunion. Jesus lives in union.

The goal of Christian ethics then is to live in the will of God, not to choose good over evil. So how do we find the will of God? The will of God, according to Bonhoeffer, does not force its way into the human heart. It is not simple or obvious. It is not a system of rules that can be known before hand. "The voice of the heart is not to be confused with the will of God." "Direct inspirations must not be heeded or expected."

Instead, intelligence, discernment, observation and whatever other powers the human possesses, pervaded by prayer, must be used to seek the will of God. Past experience warns and corrects. In the end, one acts in the confidence that God acts in him. The presence of Christ is decisive.

Jesus Christ, Bonhoeffer says, occupies exactly the same space in the believer that was previously occupied by his knowledge of good and evil.

"It is evident that the only appropriate conduct of men before God is the doing of his will."

Hearing and doing must not be separated as though the word of God could be stored for later use. This always becomes judgment. Hearing and not doing is seeking knowledge of good and evil. Hearing and doing is the only way of doing the will of God.


I'm not entirely satisfied with his resolution of how one may know the will of God, but I think it is meant as a thing to be experienced, not a thing to be understood. Objectively, it can never be true, it can never be recommended as a step-by-step plan for knowing the will of God. It must be lived. It requires faith.

3 comments:

Scott said...

Thats pretty much the same way I understood it. Later on Bonhoeffer, if I remember correctly (it's been 3 years I think), develops the idea of call and Christian duty, very small catechism-esque. Given the circumstances I don't think he tied everything together as neatly as may have been expected if he had been given more time, but he certainly does a great job of fleshing out the basic structure of his thought.

LutheranChik said...

You'll make my bookseller very happy...now I have to buy this book.;-) (I tried reading it in college, but frankly I think at the time it was a bit over my head...and may well be now as well.;-))

*Christopher said...

This sounds about right. His thought has parallels with James Alison's Original Sin through Easter Eyes.