The Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard (Part 3)

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This is Part 3 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. Last time in Part 2, we looked at Bonhoeffer’s ethics. Here in Part 3, we will look at Kierkegaard’s ethics. Finally, in Part 4, we will compare their approaches to ethics and draw our conclusions.

THE ETHICS OF BONHOEFFER AND KIERKEGAARD

Last time in Part 2, we examined Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approach to ethics. In sum, Bonhoeffer’s ethics were (1) Christocentric, (2) Virtue-Based, (3) Situational/Contextual, (4) Apocalyptic, (5) “for-others”, and (6) distinctly different from the traditional approaches to ethics, asking the question, “What is the will of God?” instead of “What is good?” Now in Part 3, we will move to exploring Kierkegaard’s approach to ethics.

KIERKEGAARD’S APPROACH TO ETHICS

First and foremost, Kierkegaard approached ethics as an existentialist and thus his ethics are classified as existential ethics.[1]

Secondly, Kierkegaard speaks of progressive stages of human morality and growth: (1) the aesthetic, (2) the ethical, and (3) the religious.

The first aesthetic stage is characterized by a love for pleasure and the sensuous, and is therefore the lowest of the three.[2]

The second ethical stage for Kierkegaard is better than the aesthetic stage, though is still somewhat disparaging in comparison to the religious stage. Here the person does their duty to what they know to be right or wrong.[3] This Kierkegaard says is good but falls short of the ultimate.

The third and ultimate stage then for him is the religious.[4] This is the stage that we find at work when we turn to his classic book called Fear and Trembling. In this religious stage, Kierkegaard addresses the issue of Abraham’s faith and God commanding him to offer his son Isaac on the altar. For Kierkegaard, Abraham in this OT story is “either at every moment a murderer or we are at the paradox that is higher than all mediations” (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 58). Thus, he fervently seeks to present a positive account for the morality of Abraham. In doing so, Kierkegaard concludes that there is a “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Fear and Trembling 49) [5]. This means that what would normally be classified by traditional approaches to ethics as murder – and thus unethical – is not the case with Abraham from Kierkegaard’s perspective. For starters, Abraham was commanded by God to do this. Thus, in this situation he says that Abraham is faced with a temptation to disobey God’s command. He says Abraham’s temptation here “is the ethical itself, which would keep him from doing God’s will” (Fear and Trembling 52). Further, he says, “what then is the duty? Well, the duty is precisely the expression for God’s will” (Fear and Trembling 52). Thus, Kierkegaard asserts that the ethical thing for Abraham to do is to obey God’s will in sacrificing his son even though traditional ethics condemn such an act. In this way, “the ethical” is suspended or momentarily set aside for the sake of the end goal, namely, to obey God.[6]

Thus, Kierkegaard denigrates the traditional approach to ethics, at least in regard to the issue of Abraham. To Kierkegaard, Abraham is the individual “knight of faith” who is a true hero of life and ethics, a model for humans to follow, one who obeys the will of God at all costs.

Next time in Part 4, we will compare and contrast Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard’s approaches to ethics and draw our conclusions.

End Notes

[1] See George J. Stack, Kierkegaard’s Existential Ethics (University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1977) for a monograph on the assessment of Kierkegaard’s existential ethics.

[2] See Regis Jolivet, Introduction to Kierkegaard (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co: 1946), 124-133 for a chapter on the aesthetic stage.

[3] See Jolivet, Introduction, 134-142 for a chapter on the ethical stage.

[4] See Jolivet, Introduction, 143-201 for two chapters on the religious stage.

[5] He clearly states this at the telos of the discussion: “The story of Abraham contains, then, a teleological suspension of the ethical” (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 58).

[6] Some scholars critique Kierkegaard’s use of the biblical Abraham saying that his view is anachronistic. See Robert Gordis, “The Faith of Abraham: A Note on Kierkegaard’s ‘Teleological Suspension of the Ethical,’” Judaism 25:4 (1976): 414-419 for a short and unique article which does this very thing.

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