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Will the Real Bonhoeffer Please Stand Up? Part 3

Kant’s Copernican Revolution might have been better described as a theological warhead aimed directly at theology. The immediate epistemological carnage caused by Kantian Transcendentalism can be witnessed initially in Schleiermacher’s theology of Gefühl (feeling). After all, Kant had rendered any and all cognitive knowledge of God impossible. Barth’s reaction to Schleiermacher had not helped. According to Bonhoeffer, Barth had established the majesty of God on the basis of Kantian Transcendentalism. In other words, Barth’s conception of God as Wholly Other looked a lot like the unknowable Noumena dwelling god of Kant.

Bonhoeffer’s Dilemma

Kant had to be answered. According to Bonhoeffer, Kant had posed the problem and now it was incumbent upon theologians to find a solution. However, rather than taking his stand upon the self-authenticating Bible, Bonhoeffer sought make room in Kant’s Transcendentalism for God’s self-revelation.[1] However, if the Kantian god of the Noumena cannot be accessed because he is not a percept that can be cognitively constructed by human mental categories, then, according to Bonhoeffer, the only place for theology to begin is in the realm of phenomena: the realm of percepts and concepts. So, according to Bohoeffer, the problem to be dealt with lay in “the relationship between ‘the being of God’ and the mental act which grasps that being.”[2] Not surprisingly, Bonhoeffer’s Act and Being has been described as a theology of self-consciousness.

So, where was Bonhoeffer to begin? He took his starting point with what Kant called the transcendental unity of apperception or the supposition of self-identity based on a unity of experience. Ewing, a Kantian scholar, summarized Kant’s view of transcendental unity of apperception this way:

The true or transcendental self has no content of its own through which it can gain knowledge of itself. It is mere identity, I am I. In other words, self-consciousness is a mere form through which contents that never themselves constitute the self are apprehended as being objects to the self.[3]

Now, for Kant that meant identity can never be discovered through experiences; it can only be a condition for them. Thus, a self-conscious person is merely identifying his bundle of experiences as his own. There is a “gap” between the I and experience.

Bonhoeffer’s Solution

It was at this point that Bonhoeffer saw an opportunity to find God in Kantian Transcendentalism. He wrote, “I discover God in my coming to myself; I become aware of myself. I find myself—that is, I find God.”[4] And again, “God is the God of my consciousness. Only in my religious consciousness ‘is’ God.”[5] However, Bonhoeffer understands his own dilemma. This means that God “becomes objectified in consciousness and is thereby taken into the unity of transcendental apperception, becoming the prisoner of consciousness.”[6]

Consequently, Bonhoeffer provides two possible solutions and adopts the latter saying, “God ‘is’ in the pure process of completion of the act of consciousness but evades every attempt on the part of reflection to grasp God.”[7] Bonhoeffer continues, “In this manner the danger of identifying God and the I is averted. God is the supramundane reality transcending consciousness…. But, on the other hand, it can also be said that God is existent only in, or for, the consciousness of human beings.”[8]

Now, do you see what Bonhoeffer has done? He, like Barth, has accepted Kantian categories and conclusions as his starting point. Thus, if Barth had established the transcendence of God on Kantian Transcendentalism, then Bonhoeffer had established the immanence of God on the same foundation. Consequently, even the God of Bonhoeffer’s theological construction remains out of reach—or does he? On the contrary, according to Bonhoeffer, this view makes God present and “haveable.”[9] The question is how? To this we will return in our next post.

[1] Cf. “The Theology of Crisis and its Attitude Toward Philosophy and Science” in No Rusty Swords.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Acts and Being (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 27.

[3] A. C. Ewing, A Short Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 82.

[4] Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, 50.

[5] Ibid., 51.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 54.

[8] Ibid., 57.

[9] Ibid., 91.


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