Clark J. Elliston’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Ethical Self is a fascinating look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer in conversation regarding the concept of oneself in relation to the other, as well as one’s commitments to oneself. It is also an exposure to some writings and engagement with them that I suspect most readers of Bonhoeffer have yet to engage. As complex as Bonhoeffer’s philosophical writings were, Elliston manages to connect them to the reader in ways that make sense and holistically bring together Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on the self.
Before diving into this deep work, it is worth asking the question of why it is important. Most simply put, it is nearly impossible to accurately interpret Dietrich Bonhoeffer without coming to some understanding of his concept of the self and how one relates to the “other.” To do so, however, requires engagement with the deepest and most difficult of Bonhoeffer’s writings. Elliston’s book is just such an endeavor.
Clark J. Elliston engages the topic of the “ethical self” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s body of work through the lens of Emmanuel Levinas and Simone Weil. Who? Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. But Elliston introduces these thinkers and summarizes their thoughts to the extent that it not only makes sense for them to be the dialogue partners with Bonhoeffer but that I as a reader enjoyed the engagement. With Levinas and Weil, Elliston is able to approach Bonhoeffer’s thought from a two-pronged approach.
Levinas’s approach to the self is largely focused on the self in relation to the other. Elliston notes that this may present a “challenge for both theology and philosophy” by noting the interplay between self-other and the way responsibility forms. Bonhoeffer, however, Elliston argues, is able to meet the challenge and provide a holistic self in ethical relations to the other, allowing for theology to remain coherent as well. While Levinas believes that theology neutralizes the “other,” Bonhoeffer provides a corrective that preserves “otherness” without reducing it to the self.
Weil’s perspective is interesting becuase it is so other-oriented. The self exists “for” the other (Kindle location 2568). Weil’s thought included the concept of “decreation” which sees people as obstacles to God’s becoming. Creation is a kind of “renunciation” for God to provide other “selves” outside of himself. Decreation, though, is the act of total orientation of the self towards God. Attention is another central theme for Weil, and the attention towards the other is a way to engage with decreation and God. While Levinas and Bonhoeffer would surely be at odds regarding theology, he and Weil would be much closer. Many points of intersection exist between the two on the self. They share the notion that the self must limit its ego in order to better engage with the other.
I was particularly surprised when I saw that Elliston had utilized Adolf Eichmann as an example in the last chapter. Yes, that Eichmann. But it made sense in that Eichmann was a contemporary of Bonhoeffer’s and Elliston makes it quite clear that Eichmann is not being used positively. Instead, Eichmann is, Elliston argues, a good example of irresponsibility regarding the personal self. Eichmann demonstrated a defective view of the self and this undercut greatly his capacity to engage in proper ethics.
From all of this, it should be clear Elliston’s work is deeply philosophical. Much like reading Bonhoeffer’s Act and Being, reading Elliston here is a deep engagement on tough issues which demand much reflection.
On a side note, it would be remiss to not mention how excellent Elliston’s notes are throughout the book. Often paragraph-length themselves, these notes direct the reader to many different and intriguing topics, as well as providing insight into the details of Elliston’s theses.
Elliston’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Ethical Self is a deep, thoughtful, and sometimes surprising book. It takes a careful reading to fully engage with the topics here, and it warrants re-reading several sections. I recommend the book for those who are looking to go more deeply into their study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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