The Ego’s Good

Martin Kavka
Florida State University

On August 3, 1944, the German Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer sent his friend Eberhard Bethge a brief sketch for a book, one that he was unable to finish before he was executed the following year for his participation in anti-Hitler activities within the Reich’s intelligence service.1 Its second chapter, whose title asked “What is authentic Christian belief?”, would have argued that the Christian life has nothing to do with the abstract discourse of  theology. This would have been a great argument, and it still remains powerful even in its abbreviated form.2 Discourse, after all, only takes place in relation with other people, and it is never abstract. (It may shock the reader to know that even academic conferences are concrete things, although those who speak at them tend not to realize this.) As a result, for Bonhoeffer, any encounter with Jesus as Christ was an encounter with Jesus embedded in his ministry of being with others. This realization transforms the possibilities and the horizons of human life: “The ‘existing-for-others’ of Jesus is the experience of transcendence [Transzendenzerfahrung].”3

To wish that Bonhoeffer had not been executed is, among other things, to wish that he could have narrated this experience more fully. It is a puzzling account to me. Do I experience transcendence when I read about Jesus’ being with other people? Or do I only experience transcendence in a certain form of life? Do I experience transcendence when I see Christians exist for others—and if I do, do I experience (with some kind of fullness) the Christian reality in which they participate? These are not questions that can be answered simply by asserting that God’s incarnation is an act of love and, therefore, that humans are intrinsically lovable (as Bonhoeffer claims in Ethics).4 And, on a nerdier note, what are the stakes of Bonhoeffer’s choice of the German word Erfahrung—suggesting an experience in history—as opposed to Erlebnis, a deeply felt inner experience?

I am not a scholar of Protestant theology, and so I have little confidence of being able to answer these questions, or any of the others I have when I read Christian theology, which seems like an alien tongue to me now that it has been over a quarter of a century since I ceased identifying as a Christian. But even if I were that kind of scholar, I’m not sure that answers would be coming. Bonhoeffer, after all, is dead, and there are few systematic writings from this period of his life that could substitute for his absence. The best clue is later in the same paragraph of the sketch, when Bonhoeffer writes that the transcendent (das Tranzendente) manifests itself not in some kind of neo-Kantian infinite striving towards an inaccessible ideal, but in the always given, and accessible, neighbor.5 But even that is not much of a clue. What does it mean for the neighbor to be accessible? Certainly, there are usually people around. (Sometimes that can be frightening, and computer and television screens make other people safe, two-dimensional, and unable to cause us physical harm.) But do I see the transcendent when I see Jo Schmo staring at an array of sunglasses in the window at Gucci? Do I see the transcendent when I see her suffering? Do I see the transcendent when I see that my act of care for her, in her suffering, has sustained her in some small way? Bonhoeffer doesn’t answer.

In his recent biography of Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory, Charles Marsh quotes the relevant lines from this section of the sketch but does little to explain them.6 The reader with some knowledge of twentieth-century philosophy and theology will see, on a couple of pages, that Marsh briefly links Bonhoeffer with Jewish thinkers that have been associated with other-centered ethics: Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95), Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929), and most importantly Martin Buber (1878–1965).7 This is not new: Marsh linked Bonhoeffer and Buber two decades ago in Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and David Ford and others have linked Bonhoeffer and Levinas.8

It is true that these three thinkers say that they are opposed to abstraction (even, and perhaps especially, when they are at their most abstract). In this respect, they have something in common with Bonhoeffer. Yet, it seems to me that this commonality does not go very far—and indeed, that linking Bonhoeffer with these three thinkers covers up a genuine problem in Bonhoeffer, and specifically Marsh’s Bonhoeffer.

In 1996, in Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Marsh turned to Buber for aid in interpreting Bonhoeffer’s first dissertation, Sanctorum Communio.9 This seems to have been somewhat controversial—or, at least, Clifford Green’s introduction to the volume in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series takes pains to emphasize the differences between Bonhoeffer and Buber.10 In Strange Glory, however, Marsh links these Jewish thinkers to the anti-egoism found in Bonhoeffer’s second dissertation, Act and Being. On Marsh’s narrative, Act and Being is a riposte to the account of subjectivity found in modern German philosophy—which privileges the ego as the site of knowledge, thereby demanding naturalist takes on the world, in comparison to which God could be nothing other than a postulate.11 The Christian life demands something different. As Bonhoeffer wrote in Act and Being, “being-in-Christ means being oriented towards Christ.”12 This meant that “reflection on the self is obviously not part of that being.” This understanding of the Christian life as thoroughly and fervently opposed to egoism is longstanding in the Christian tradition, going back at least to Augustine’s account that only when the self participates in a divine reality can it not use neighbors for its own ends.13 Bonhoeffer’s attitude towards the ego is common in the Christian ethical tradition. Think of Paul Ramsey’s statements in Basic Christian Ethics, for instance: “Christian love means…love for self inverted,” or “no more disastrous mistake can be made than to admit self-love onto the ground floor of Christian ethics.”14

The secondary literature on the relationship between love of self and love of God—implied in Bonhoeffer’s assertion that being in Christ knows no such thing as reflection on the self—is vast, and it would be foolish to try and summarize it here. However, it strikes me that the Jewish thinkers to whom Marsh attempts to link Bonhoeffer know little of this problem. In part this is because, not working with a thought of the incarnation, they have no choice but to live with a robust notion of the subject that cannot be filled with (much less replaced by) a God whose transcendence cannot be manifest in the world. To be blunt, the first word in the title of Buber’s I and Thou (originally published in 1923) is…“I.”

It is true that Buber, near the end of that book, wrote of revelation as the receiving of a “presence as strength.” But there are two things to note about this. First, Buber was clear that revelation is not an experience;15 there is no “experience of transcendence” in Buber of the sort that Bonhoeffer wrote about in his August 1944 account of authentic Christianity. Second, to the extent that hearing revelation is possible, the ability for humans to change the world upon hearing revelation is limited for Buber, since our relationship to God (what Buber described as “the eternal You”) always others God from God’s self, simply because we humans are not God and receive God through our own conceptual matrices: “the eternal You is You by its very nature; only our nature forces us to draw it into the It-world and It-speech,”16 objectifying the divine in a way that violates divine transcendence. As such, the reader of Buber’s I and Thou can only, in my view, offer a vague story about religious belief: there seem to be some natural events in which the subject is challenged, surprised, and awed by other persons or objects in the world; we have the right to hypothesize some divinity that serves as the condition for the possibility of those events and the ground of a meaningful existence; and then we who have made that hypothesis try to live our lives trying to verify it (what Kaufmann’s translation of I and Thou sometimes calls “putting to the proof in action”). The puzzle is epistemological and existential. The subject simply does not know what makes life worth living. She has not experienced anything that answers that question, although she might have somehow received the strength to go through life on the assumption that meaning exists, in the face of evidence to the contrary. No revelation, no knowledge, comforts her in her task of verifying her hypotheses, the way it seems to do for Bonhoeffer.

This situation is also common to Rosenzweig and Levinas. As Benjamin Pollock has masterfully shown, Rosenzweig’s magnum opus The Star of Redemption (1921) only begins to talk about revelation as a way to explain whether the self can know anything outside itself;17 if such knowledge were to be possible, revelation would have to take place, and Rosenzweig narrates the structure of that revelation with various references to God’s covenant with Abraham in the Book of Genesis, as well as the Song of Songs. And when Levinas first linked the encounter with the other person to religion, there was no experience of transcendence here either. As in Buber, there is a mundane fact that poses an epistemological problem, namely that “the person with whom I am in relation I call being, but in so calling, I call to him. I do not only think that he is, I speak to him.”18 There is something that precedes my consciousness; there is an exterior that transcends it, and if that were not the case, I would not need to speak to others, or at least my conversations would be predictable. This means that discourse is not simply the expression of something that I have already mastered; for this reason, Levinas says that “the essence of discourse is prayer.” Nevertheless, this is either a naturalizing take on religion—one that insists that “nothing theological, nothing mystical, lies hidden behind the analysis that we have just given of the encounter with the other”19—or it is one that protects divine transcendence by refusing it any presence that could be experienced, as is the case with the account of divine “illeity” in his 1974 book Otherwise than Being, which can only be referred to as having already passed.20

And so in all three of these figures, even when language that appears to refer to God or the divine shows up, it is the case that these philosophers thought about subjects who wagered—and had good reasons to wager—on the possibility that they were nonetheless not self-grounding subjects. Their subjectivity might arise in the wake of the divine (Levinas); they might have a hunch about the divine (Buber); they might look forward to envisioning the divine at the moment of their death (Rosenzweig). But they are subjects all the same, and this means that their philosophies are nothing other than the “reflection on the self” that Bonhoeffer prohibited to Christian theology in Act and Being.

Now, to speak up for the difference between Bonhoeffer and Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century can seem like making a mountain out of a molehill, focusing on difference for its own sake…or perhaps for the sake of protecting a Jewish-Christian difference that one might fear is threatened by the continued invocation of these figures in secondary scholarship on Christian theologians (including but certainly not limited to Bonhoeffer). I would like to think that I am not engaged in either of these activities. Instead, I hope that I might persuade the reader that I am invoking this same troika of Jewish thinkers, as Marsh does, in order to advance the argument that there is something healthy about subjectivity.

Jacob Goodson has ably analyzed a 2002 article by Marsh that claimed to defend the ego against the annihilation of the ego into community that Marsh takes to be characteristic of Stanley Hauerwas’s theology.21 I remain unsure that Marsh is on firm ground when he points to Bonhoeffer’s Act and Being as a solution to this problem.22 If Bonhoeffer in that book saw revelation as God’s binding “God’s self to human beings,”23 as Marsh pointed out in 2002, it still remains the case that this constrains subjectivity, since Bonhoeffer goes on to claim that “the existence of human beings can only be encountered through the community of faith.”24 So much for Jews and other non-Christians!

To the extent that Marsh’s biography of Bonhoeffer has made the popular press, it has been because of the suggestion that Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Eberhard Bethge—one that Marsh consistently refers to as a “relationship”—had some elements of same-sex desire to it.25 Marsh’s conclusion, frequently cited in newspaper articles and blog posts, is that while Bonhoeffer “would never acknowledge a sexual desire for Bethge,” their relationship “had always strained toward the achievement of a romantic love.”26 For some readers, this has been a cause for celebration, adding a queer figure to the Christian theological past. Other readers have gone out to buy pearls just so they could clutch at them. I have little interest in the question of “was he or wasn’t he?” However, I will note that a photo of Bonhoeffer as a child with his mother and siblings is one of the campiest images I know, suggesting nothing so much as Little Lord Fauntleroy joining a bad regional-theater production of The Sound of Music.27

What I think ought to be of interest to all readers of Bonhoeffer, no matter where they stand on the issue of his sexual life, is the question of why he could not acknowledge desire—neither for Bethge nor for anything worldly. At the end of August 1944, Bonhoeffer sent Bethge a poem he had written entitled “The Friend,” which begins “Nicht aus dem schweren Boden / wo Blut und Geschlecht und Schwur / mächtig und heiling sind / … / wird der Freund dem Freunden geschenkt.”28 The old edition of Letters and Papers from Prison translates this as “Not from the heavy soil, where blood and sex and oath rule in their hallowed might…is friend bestowed on friend.”29 Marsh follows the newer critical edition’s translation of Geschlecht as “race,”30 which is legitimate, although the failure to translate it as “sex” or “gender” also evades one of the points that Marsh rightly takes the poem to be making, which is that friendship is something that transcends marriage, as well as work and the sword and all those activities that have to do with what the poem calls “the necessary.” Friendship is freely given; it is not something that one could pursue like the satisfaction of the other needs of life. As a result, we should have gratitude for friendship. However, according to the logic of the poem, friendship can never be the object of desire.

There is undoubtedly something to the claim that we are lucky to have the friends that we have, and as well to the claim that we cannot always narrate how our friendships began and so they are marks of transcendence. However, I see nowhere in the poem any expression of a desire to maintain friendship, to work on it through the changes in one’s life and/or station. There simply is trust between friends. If it ebbs, it is only because one person is far away from the other (as the imprisoned Bonhoeffer was from Bethge). The only options for life here are the needs (marriage, work, and sword) that enslave us, and that which finds us by grace and brings us to a freedom that we cannot have on our own.

What would it mean to desire something that one does not need? What would it mean to work to achieve that desire and not to depend on grace? These are questions that I am not entirely equipped to answer. Still, they are questions that belong to an ego. And there is no hope at all for answering them when one is so deeply oriented to Christ that one refuses to reflect on one’s self.

If Marsh is correct that Bonhoeffer simply did not know how to give proper words to his relationship with Bethge, then it is possible that the reason for this inability was the very Christian theological tradition that formed him. Marsh writes that when Bonhoeffer was a fellow at Union Theological Seminary in 1930, he was shocked to learn “they preach about virtually everything except the gospel of Jesus Christ.”31 Perhaps had he been not so shocked, had he not thought that he had a theological necessity for Christ to take over his subjectivity, he would not have written such a bad poem about friendship.

All of this is to say that Christian theology and ethics customarily assumes that it possesses the answers to human questions and that it knows that they are true. (It is not unique in this regard.) But theology can also get in the way of forming the answers that make for the flourishing of subjects, of egos. This is what Bonhoeffer teaches us, and it may very well be the only thing that Bonhoeffer teaches us. Christians want Bonhoeffer to teach us much more. But if Christians really need to keep Bonhoeffer’s memory alive as a way to remind themselves not to kill Jews or to undo the remnants of the Jim Crow regime that keep African Americans unequal to others—well, such weakness makes me pity them.


1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald Fuller et. al. (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 380.
2. Ibid., 381ff.
3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Series (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2010), 8:558. (Henceforth DBW.)
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss et. al. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 84.
5. DBW 8:559.
6. Charles Marsh, Strange Glory, (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), 377.
7. Ibid., 92.
8. See David Ford, Self and Salvation, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
9. Charles Marsh, Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Oxford University Press), 76.
10. Introduction to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, trans. Reinhard Klauss and Nancy Lukens, ed. Clifford J. Green (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 76.
11. Marsh, Strange Glory, 93–94.
12. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, trans. H. Martin Rumscheidt, ed. Wayne Whitston Floyd, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 155.
13. Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 329.
14. Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993), 101.
15. Hilary Putnam, Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life: Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 7.
16. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), 68.
17. Benjamin Pollock, Franz Rosenzweig and the Systematic Task of Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 173.
18. Emmanuel Levinas, “Is Ontology Fundamental?” In Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak et. al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 7.
19. Ibid., 8.
20. Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981), 119.
21. “Autonomy, Exteriority, and Scriptural Authority,” Journal of Textual Reasoning 7, no. 1 (March 2012),
22. Charles Marsh, “In Defense of a Self: The Theological Search for a Postmodern Identity,” Scottish Journal of Theology 55, no. 3 (August 2002): 253-282.
23. Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, 112.
24. Ibid., 114.
25. Marsh, Strange Glory, 308.
26. Ibid., 384.
27. Ibid., 5.
28. In Who Am I? Bonhoeffer’s Theology Through His Poetry, ed. Bernd Wannenwetsch (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 92.
29. Ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1971).
30. Trans. Isabel Best et. al., ed. John W. De Gruchy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 526.
31. Marsh, Strange Glory, 111.