Faith and reason: Bonhoeffer and bioethics

I am currently reading the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. As I have been reading about his early life, I have been struck by how his family impacted his development as a theologian. He inherited from his parents a brilliant mind and a gift for music. From his father who was a prominent psychiatrist/neurologist, research scientist, and professor in Berlin he learned a rigorous use of reason and appreciation for truth. From his mother he learned a deep personal faith in God expressed in music and worship. All the Bonhoeffer children were very capable and great things were expected from them all. His oldest brother was an eminent nuclear physicist. Dietrich surprised his family with his choice of theology as his field of study. He surprised even more as he forged his own path very different from that of the prominent theologians of Berlin as he completed his PhD by age 21.

Bonhoeffer pursued an intellectually rigorous study of the truth about God. Unlike his professors who saw the Bible from the prevalent view of historical textual criticism as something that was man-made and in need of being torn apart and put back together, Bonhoeffer saw the Bible as God’s revelation of the truth about himself to us. His study of theology combined reason and logic with a personal relationship with the God who he studied. He astounded the leading theologians of Germany with a well-reasoned position that they had to respect even though it totally contradicted their own positions, and yet he was very capable of expressing that truth to children that he taught as an associate pastor.

Reading about Bonhoeffer’s life has made me think of how we combine faith and reason in bioethics. Application of God’s moral truth to the complex issues of medicine and biotechnology requires us to reason clearly and rigorously, yet our pursuit of bioethics is not just an academic endeavor. The reason that we are concerned about what is right and wrong is that we know and worship God who is by his nature good and desires his children to live according to what is good. He desires for us to care for those who are hurting and to protect the weak and oppressed. He wants us to have his heart for them. We should be as academically rigorous as young Bonhoeffer’s challenge to the theologians of Berlin and as compassionate as his caring for the lives of the boys he taught in the toughest part of inner city Berlin.

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Cody Chambers

It’s interesting to compare the erosion of theology in Germany during Bonhoeffer’s day and that in the prominent denominations in the US. Bonhoeffer was a bulwark against such trends.