Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived in a time of stark evil, during the rise of fascism in Germany. In Ethics he writes this description:
“Today there are once more villains and saints, and they are not hidden from the public view. Instead of the uniform of greyness of the rainy day we now have the black storm-cloud and brilliant lightning-flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness.” 66
Bonhoeffer observed that there were many approaches to attempting to oppose such stark evil. He was critical of many of them, particularly of the theoretical ethicist for whom evil was a theory, an abstraction. The moral theorist fails to reckon with the reality of evil and is therefore ineffective.
Then he moves on to the failure of others.
The reasonable man. Those who attempt to oppose evil through reason alone “neither perceive the depths of the evil nor the depths of the holy.” They believe that reason is enough to hold the sinking ship together. They are end up disappointed by the ultimate unreasonableness of the world and withdraw.
The ethical fanatic. The ethical fanatic believes that he can oppose evil through “the purity of his will and of his principle.” But Bonhoeffer notes that it is the nature of fanaticism to aim wide of the mark, to be like a bull charging at the red flag instead of the one holding it. The fanatic, however ideal and noble his cause, is undone by his superior opponent.
The man of conscience. Here Bonhoeffer refers to the person who is most concerned with maintaining a clean conscience and who is primarily guided by that inner voice. But Bonhoeffer worries that evil will also overwhelm him. “Evil comes upon him in countless respectable and seductive disguises so that his conscience becomes timid and unsure of himself, till in the end he is satisfied if instead of a clear conscience he can have a salved one.” The man only concerned with conscience falls easily into self-deception.
The man of duty. But perhaps one can keep oneself clean by claiming duty. “Responsibility for the command rests upon the man who gives it and not upon him who executes it.” So the argument goes (to disastrous consequences we now know through our historical lens.) No, the man of duty “will end by having to fulfil his obligation even to the devil,” becoming not an opponent of evil, but party to it.
The man of absolute freedom, or what we might call the realist. This person is not bound to their conscience. They are willing to “sacrifice a fruitless principle to a fruitful compromise.” And, “he will easily consent to the bad, knowing full well that it is bad, in order to ward off the worse.” But Bonhoeffer knows that this, too, is foolish. This man ultimately blinds himself to what is bad or worse and also becomes party to evil.
Bonhoeffer’s final critique is of the man of private virtuousness. If one cannot fight evil in the public sphere at least this person can seek refuge here. “He does not steal. He does not commit murder… Within the limits of his power he is good.” But this can only go so far. Eventually for this man to avoid all public conflict he must blind himself to the injustice around him through a process of self-deception. He will either face internal conflict or will become a Pharisee, easily judging others while himself steering clear of that which makes him uncomfortable.
So what is Bonhoeffer’s solution?
“A man can hold his own only if he can combine simplicity and wisdom.” 70.
By simplicity Bonhoeffer means “to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted and turned upside down.” In other words, simplicity means to be wholeheartedly fixed on and committed to God, to be single-minded and single-hearted.
By wisdom Bonhoeffer means to “see reality as it is” and to “see into the depths of things.” Wisdom and simplicity go hand-in-hand because “it is precisely because he looks only to God, without any sidelong glances at the world, that he is able to look at the reality of the world freely and without prejudice.” And again, “only that man is wise who sees reality in God.” In other words, we can’t see into the depths of the reality of the world unless we can look squarely at God, since the reality of the world rests in God. This is what it means to combine simplicity and wisdom.
But Bonhoeffer admits that this all sounds theoretical and, indeed, impossible. “No man can look with undivided vision at God and at the world of reality so long as God and the world are torn asunder. Try as he may, he can only let his eyes wander distractedly from one to the other.” But all hope is not lost, for Bonhoeffer sees one, and only one, solution to this: Jesus.
In Christ “there is a place at which God and the cosmic reality are reconciled, a place at which God and man have become one. That and that alone is what enables man to set his eyes upon God and upon the world at the same time.” Furthermore, the reality of Christ is not a principle and is not theoretical. It is not love in the abstract. It is the God-man entering into reality, into history, and into the starkly evil world in which we actually live, bearing the evil of the world upon his shoulders, healing the wounds of the world through his stripes.
To live with simplicity and wisdom then, is to keep our eyes and our hearts fixed on Christ. And it is only Christ who is the “Reconciler of the world.” Bonhoeffer concludes, “It is not by ideals and programmes or by conscience, duty, responsibility and virtue that reality can be confronted and overcome, but simply and solely by the perfect love of God.”