Ethics and dualism

Many hold a two-spheres view of reality, with one sphere that is separate from God (the secular world) and one that is united with God (the sacred world). This dualistic worldview colors everything else, including one's perspective on ethics.

According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Ethics, a two-spheres worldview runs contrary to the core message of the gospel, which declares that the whole world has been taken up in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit and there reconciled to the Father.

Bonhoeffer asserts that when Christians embrace a dualistic approach to ethics (or call it Christian living), they place themselves in an "irreconcilable struggle against the world," which keeps them from participating actively in Jesus' redemptive activity in the world. He continues:
Ethical thinking in terms of invalidated by faith in the revelation of the ultimate reality in Jesus Christ.... There is no place to which the Christian can withdraw from the world, whether it be outwardly or in the sphere of the inner life.... Whoever professes to believe in the reality of Jesus Christ, as the revelation of God, must in the same breath profess his faith in both the reality of God and the reality of the world; for in Christ he finds God and the world reconciled. And for just this reason the Christian is no longer the man of eternal conflict, but, just as the reality in Christ is one, so he, too, since he shares in this reality in Christ, is himself an undivided whole. His worldliness does not divide him from Christ, and his Christianity does not divide him from the world. Belonging wholly to Christ, he stands at the same time wholly in the world." (p198).
We are reminded here of Jesus' prayer to God the Father concerning his followers: "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one" (John 17:15). Though Jesus is not positing a dualistic view where one "sphere" of reality is dominated by the devil and another by God, he is acknowledging the devil's continuing activity in the world and warns his followers to be on guard.

However, to be on guard against the wiles of the devil, does not mean withdrawal from the world. To withdraw would be to embrace the lies that God does not love all the world and has not reconciled all the world to himself. Believing such lies overlooks the reality that Satan's operations are entirely "beneath the feet of Jesus Christ." Indeed, "the world is not divided between Christ and the devil, but whether [the world] recognizes it or not, it is solely and entirely the world of Christ" (p201).

What Jesus intends for his followers is not separation from the world, but that they should be in the world, summoning the world into fellowship with the body of Christ (p203). Rather than withdrawing from the world, the church is to be "the the world, at which the reign of Jesus Christ over the whole world is evidenced and proclaimed" (p199). We, the church, cannot possibly be this place if we withdraw from the world as though there was a second world into which we could withdraw.

A Trinitarian, Christ-centered view of ethics (and of mission, which is fundamental to Christian living) is grounded in and flows from the core message of the gospel--"that God loved the world and reconciled it with Himself in Christ" (p202). This truth is ultimate reality--the way things actually are in the cosmos. And thus a Christian ethics is a real ethics.

A word of caution is needed here. Bonhoeffer reminds us that there is "a love for the world," which according to James 4:4 is "enmity toward God." This is not the type of love that Bonhoeffer advocated. The love that we are to have for the world is the love that God himself has for it. We must not place some sort of borderline separating ourselves, as Christians, from the world. To participate in God's love for the world, necessitates that we join with him as he ministers to the world.

There is much to think about here, and the implications for ethics are numerous. In this series on Christian ethics, we've considered some of these. Let's close the series for now with some thoughts from Bonhoeffer about the need that we all have for repentance (a change in our thinking):
It is hard to abandon a picture which one has grown accustomed to using for the ordering of one's [ethical] ideas and concepts. And yet we must leave behind us the picture of the two spheres [dualism], and the question now is whether we can replace it with another picture....
We shall need above all to direct our gaze to the picture of the body of Christ Himself, who became man, was crucified and rose again. In the body of Jesus Christ God is united with humanity, the whole of humanity is accepted by God and the world is reconciled with God. In the body of Jesus Christ God took upon himself the sin of the whole world and bore it. There is no part of the world be it never so forlorn and never so godless, which is not accepted by God and reconciled with God in Jesus Christ. Whoever sets eyes on the body of Jesus Christ in faith can never again speak of the world as though it were lost, as though it were separated from Christ. He can never again with clerical arrogance set himself apart from the world. The world belongs  to Christ, and it is only in Christ that the world is what it is. It has need therefore, of nothing less than Christ Himself. Everything would be ruined in one were to try to reserve Christ for the Church and to allow the world only some kind of law, even if it were a Christian law. Christ died for the world, and it is only in the midst of the world that Christ is Christ (pp. 202-203).
 For a list of all the posts in this series on ethics, click here.