Bonhoeffer: Beyond the two realms

I spent some time last night looking again at the opening sections of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics.  What struck me with renewed force was the clarity of his attempt to re-conceptualize the dominant paradigm of Christian ethical reflection, which is rooted (so he claims) in a fundamental distinction between the reality of God and the reality of the world and which thereby creates the all too common dualisms of sacred/profane; church/world; grace/nature. Here is the passage that took hold as I thought about the ubiquity of such two realms thinking within churches:

As long as Christ and the world are conceived as two realms, bumping against and repelling each other, we are left with only the following options.  Giving up on reality as a whole,  either we place ourselves in one of the two realms, wanting Christ without the world or the world without Christ … Or we try to stand in the two realms at the same time, thereby becoming people in eternal conflict, shaped by the post-Reformation era, who ever and again present ourselves as the only form of Christian existence that is in accord with reality….

There are not two realities, but only one reality, and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world.  Partaking in Christ, we stand at the same time in the reality of God and in the reality of the world.  The reality of Christ embraces the reality of the world in itself. … There are not two competing realms standing side by side and battling over the borderline, as if the question of boundaries was always to be the decisive one.  Rather the whole reality of the world has already been drawn into and is held together in Christ.  History moves only from this center and towards this center.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (DBWE 6; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 57-58.

The hermeneutical implications of this understanding of the one reality of God-in-Christ, which is not set against the reality of the world, but which constitutes the world’s true reality, are multiple.  When giving the Whitley Lecture last year, and insisting that we take seriously the human work of interpretation, the most common objection was that I left no room for the work of the Holy Spirit, as if in so doing we could bypass the interpretive act.  This kind of thinking betrays traces of the two realms understanding that Bonhoeffer seeks to challenge, and it inevitably leads, as I noted in a previous post about debates within the Anglican communion, to what Bonhoeffer calls here a ‘battle over boundaries’ (your reading is the result of you imposing your own context onto the text and is therefore ‘worldly’, whereas my reading is the result of Spirit-led insight, and is therefore truly of God).