For Bonhoeffer, it is the willingness to live and act in relation to the reality of Christ which grants the title “individual” to humans. “To be conformed to the Incarnate One, that is to be truly human. It is our right and duty as persons that we should be human… To be conformed with the Incarnate One means to be allowed to be the person we truly are.” It is in the renunciation and obedience to Jesus we engage in as Christians which provides us access to a fuller reality. In his exploration of the Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer suggests that those who live in “renunciation and want” are living in the truest form of human life. It is in the “[renunciation of] all rights of their own for the sake of Jesus Christ,” that we discover freedom. Knowing Jesus is how we move from a place of abstract questioning to a place of Christian Ethics.
For Bonhoeffer, the fundamental question of Christian Ethics is simply: “What is the will of God?” To him, beginning with the the old questions of “What is good?” and, “How can one do it?” presupposes a finite reality. In a Bonhoefferan worldview, the cosmos is not a story about you as an individual moral operator, but it is about someone else entirely. Furthermore, the drama of ethical discourse cannot be limited to our plane of existence. For Bonhoeffer, reality has a name, and its name is Jesus.
The task of ethics had thus far been to become a better person, and in doing so, make the world a better place, but in the mind of Bonhoeffer, that is an offering far too small. The chief aim of Christian Ethics is to make the goodness and justice of God known to the world, even if doing so reveals that the actor is not good or just. Bonhoeffer writes, “Where there is faith in God as the ultimate reality, all concern with ethics will have as its starting-point that God shows Himself to be good, even if this involves the risk that I myself and the world are not good but thoroughly bad.”
If we are to reveal the ultimate reality of goodness to the world, we must have some claim or connection to it. This is found only in revelation. When we, as Christian persons, make revelatory contact with this high and true reality of God, we are confronted with an infinitely broadening horizon of truth. “When this is so, the relation to this reality determines the whole of life.” The arms of this reality spread outward cruciform until they circumnavigate our existence. In this way the first reality (the first cause) becomes one in the same with the ultimate reality (or ultimate cause). Alpha reaches out to Omega, for those with the eyes to see, the cosmos has been consumed in the power of this divine reality. For Bonhoeffer, any attempt at rules, principles, or conviction outside of this truth is now an “abstraction.” For we, as humanity and specifically the Church, have encountered the graceful presence of this reality in the person of Jesus Christ. From the point of that meeting on, all ethical pursuits are to be processed through the lens of the Triune God whom Jesus revealed. For good is found only there in the midst of the Trinity, and “only if we share in [this] reality can we share in good.”
If we seek to practice good, we must seek it at its source. Bonhoeffer makes it clear that a good action can come from a heart of darkness and good intentions can produce evil deeds. If we want to live righteously we cannot start with a premade ethical “yardstick.” We must start at the source, we must journey to the place from which the river of justice springs, and perfect goodness finds its genesis; we must begin with God. When we do ethics from the place of a revelatory relationship with God, the good we encounter will cost us. “The good demands the whole, not only the whole of a man’s outlook but his whole work, the whole man, together with the fellow-men who are given to him (that is creation).” When we take up the ethical mantel of the real in seeking the revelation of the Holy Spirit, and following after Jesus Christ, our goal is set, in one way or another, upon the target of the Kingdom of God.
The manifestation of the Kingdom of God is in fact the purpose of all Christian Ethics, and the purest lens through which to see the Kingdom of God reality is the person of Jesus Christ, who in the hypostatic union, embodies both the full reality of the creation, and the full reality of God. Because of this, it is impossible for the Christian to speak of the world or of God without speaking of Jesus Christ. “All concepts of reality that do not take account of him are abstractions.” In similar fashion, any ethical worldview that is exclusively focused on the world, or the world to come, is also a frivolous waste of time and intellectual energy. In Jesus we have the opportunity to engage with both, but never one without the other. “The reality of God discloses itself only by setting me entirely in the reality of the world, and when I encounter the reality of the world it is always already sustained, accepted and reconciled in the reality of God.”
This reality, this individuality, this new way to live in the world is not something we can enter into of our own volition, but only in response to the Christ. “Jesus’ call to discipleship makes the disciple into a single individual. Whether disciples want to or not, they have to make a decision; each has to decide alone.” The call issued by the
incarnate one to individuals is the only thing that can initiate the transformation into an actualized individual. “Christ makes everyone he calls into an individual.” When we make a Kierkegaardian leap of faith towards this call, which Bonhoeffer understands precedes belief, we find ourselves falling into the freedom of incarnation.