This is Part 4 of a 4 Part series comparing the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard. In Part 1 we looked at the evidence that Bonhoeffer knew Kierkegaard’s work on ethics. In Part 2, we looked at Bonhoeffer’s ethics. Last time in Part 3, we looked at Kierkegaard’s ethics. Finally, here in Part 4, we will compare their approaches to ethics and draw our conclusions.
THE ETHICS OF BONHOEFFER AND KIERKEGAARD
Last time in Part 3, we examined Soren Kierkegaard’s approach to ethics. In sum, his ethics were (1) Existential and (2) had three progressive stages, namely the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious, the last of which he defines as a “teleological suspension of the ethical” which means that the ethical thing to do is to obey the will of God even if the action is unethical (e.g. Abraham sacrificing Isaac). In short, ethics for Kierkegaard was about the will of God. Now in Part 4, we will compare and contrast Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard’s approaches to ethics making our final conclusions.
COMPARISON AND CONTRAST
With regard to their similarities, Bonhoeffer’s foundational question, “What is the will of God?” in Ethics is quite similar to Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical in Fear and Trembling. The preoccupation with obedience to God’s will in both approaches is inestimably noteworthy. This is by far the most important point of contact between their two approaches. Second, they both critique the traditional approaches to ethics; Bonhoeffer in explicitly naming and calling out the bankruptcy of these approaches and Kierkegaard in suspending them for the sake of the end goal.
With regard to their differences, Bonhoeffer’s approach is very communal – particularly seen in his for-othersness – whereas Kierkegaard’s is almost wholly individual – seen in his focus on Abraham the knight [singular] of faith. Second, their historical contexts are totally different. Bonhoeffer is reacting to one of the most extreme ethical dilemmas known to human history – Hitler and Nazism – while Kierkegaard is somewhat safe and sound in Denmark during a time void of world-wide war and calamity. Thirdly, Kierkegaard’s ethics are notably existential, whereas Bonhoeffer’s are Christocentric, ontological, and situational.
Overall, while there may be more differences between Bonhoeffer’s and Kierkegaard’s approaches to ethics, the two similarities carry far more weight than the differences. Thus, for this reason, we deduce that there is a strong similarity between the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sǿren Kierkegaard approach ethics, particularly in relation to their preoccupation with obeying the will of God.
In conclusion, we have explored three questions concerning the points of contact between Bonhoeffer’s and Kierkegaard’s approaches to ethics. First, we asked “To what degree did Bonhoeffer interact with and know Kierkegaard’s works and in particular, are there any places where he speaks about Kierkegaard’s ethics?” To that we have answered definitively that Bonhoeffer did know and interact with Kierkegaard’s works and there is one place in particular where he even critiques Kierkegaard’s ethics.
Our second question followed as such: “What were Bonhoeffer’s and Kierkegaard’s approached to ethics?” To that we have answered that Bonhoeffer approached ethics Christologically, ontologically, situationally, perhaps apocalyptically, vicariously, and non-traditionally, whereas Kierkegaard did so existentially, progressively, non-traditionally, and teleologically.
Lastly, we asked the question: “What similarities and differences exist between their approaches?” To that we have answered and demonstrated that there are two robust similarities between their approaches and several minor points of dissimilarity.
But the question still remains, “Did Kierkegaard’s approach to ethics influence Bonhoeffer’s approach?” In light of this study, I think that it is safe to conclude that Kierkegaard did in fact influence Bonhoeffer’s approach to ethics, though the degree of influence seems somewhat indeterminate and ambiguous. The stark similarity of their emphasis upon obedience to the will of God seems to be the strongest indicator of influence. Moreover, the similarity of disregarding traditional approaches to ethics could be due to Kierkegaard’s influence upon Bonhoeffer; however it seems more probable that Bonhoeffer’s own situation is what sparked an intrigue to devise a new approach. In addition, the fact that Bonhoeffer so clearly critiques Kierkegaard’s stages in his letter to the Bethge’s may suggest that he in fact did not hold to Kierkegaardian ethics. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer does not mention Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical there and thus we do not have enough evidence to say that he did not hold to the ethical suspension. That would be an argument from silence. In light of this somewhat conflicting evidence, we can therefore conclude that to some degree Kierkegaard probably influenced Bonhoeffer’s approach to ethics, particularly regarding obedience to the will of God, though this influence was not without evaluation, critique, and contextualization to Bonhoeffer’s own needs in his own historical situation.
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