Bonhoeffer, Being Human and Being Christian

‘Human beings are called to share the suffering of God in a godless world. Therefore we must really live in the godless world; and may not make the attempt to somehow conceal, to transfigure its godlessness religiously; we mus live in a “worldly” fashion, which means we are liberated from false religious attachments and inhibitions. ‘Being a Christian does not mean being religious in a certain way, or, on the basis of some methodology, to make something out of ourselves (a sinner, a penitent, a saint); rather, it means to be a human being. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world. This is the reversal: not to think first of our own needs, questions, sins, and anxieties, but to let ourselves be pulled into the way of Jesus, into the messianic event that is now fulfilled (Isa. 53:4-5).’
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Here Bonhoeffer goes beyond grounding responsible action in the reality of Christ – here he grounds being human in Christ. To be a Christian is to truly be a human, and to be human is to be a Christian. One must be in Christ to participate in reality and to participate in the suffering of God. For Bonhoeffer this is the only way to truly even live in any meaningful way – the reality of Christ is his starting point and grounding presupposition. So not only is responsible action grounded in Christ, but the very state of being human is as well.

This is a pretty radical view – Bonhoeffer doesn’t take the easier route of saying that existence is meaningless without God; he denies that one can even exist in any meaningful sense without God. In a way Bonhoeffer also connects human being to suffering – God’s suffering in the world.

Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Responsible Action and Reality

Dietrich Bonhoeffer grounds his ethics in the participation of reality – one must participate in reality in order to do any kind of responsible action or make any kind of ethical or moral judgement. He grounds reality in Christ (see for an overview of Bonhoeffers grounding of reality in Christ), and thereby ground participating in reality in participating in Christ, and therefore grounds any kind of responsible/ethical/moral (hereafter referred to as ‘responsible action) in Christ. The interesting thought here is this: does this mean that atheists are, with regard to responsible action, helpless?

Bonhoeffer never answers this question (if he even thought of or had it brought to his attention) – so this leaves some room for speculation. I would say that for Bonhoeffer, atheists and the like would indeed be unable to truly participate in reality – which isn’t to say that they can’t in some measure be responsible – obviously non-believers can do responsible actions, but they would be of no real value, it seems, since they would not be participating in reality. So they would be capable of some measure of responsible action – no one including Bonhoeffer would deny that non-believers can be and are good upstanding citizens. But it seems that ultimately on Bonhoeffer’s view, they really wouldn’t be doing much at all.