Saturday, March 08, 2008


Sifting my way through the media, which I do on a regular basis as part of my work, can be pretty dispiriting. In the true meaning of that word, it can suck the life out of you. Accusation, aspersion and condemnation is so frequently the overriding currency of analysis. Little space is available for attending to what is good, true, honourable, worthy and life-giving. And when it is, you can be sure someone will try to have a pop at it.

There are, of course, plenty of things in this world that deserve to be condemned. But the tendency to see who can be blamed for what actions, to assess the worth of a person purely on one headline, and to form general judgments on the basis of who did what in very particular circumstances can result in a pretty thin moral environment. To put it mildly. Much more attention needs to be paid to the culture we are creating (not least through the media, which is the nexus of transaction for human affairs these days) and the character of persons and communities as foundational for assessing what is being advocated or contested.

This is one of the issues that Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed in his distinctly contemporary and yet distinctly old-fashioned lectures on Ethics. Douglas Huff from the Department of Philosophy, Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter, Minnesota, prepared a useful little summary of the resulting posthumous book for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy a couple of years ago. He puts it like this:

'To lie is wrong, but what is worse than the lie is the liar, for the liar contaminates everything he says, because everything he says is meant to further a cause that is false. The liar as liar has endorsed a world of falsehood and deception, and to focus only on the truth or falsity of his particular statements is to miss the danger of being caught up in his twisted world. This is why, as Bonhoeffer says, that "(i)t is worse for a liar to tell the truth than for a lover of truth to lie" (Ethics, p.67). A falling away from righteousness is far worse that a failure of righteousness. To focus exclusively on the lie and not on the liar is a failure to confront evil.'

Bonhoeffer, remember, was writing out of the context of the monumental lie that was the Nazi state, where good people regularly had to lie to preserve the truth, and liars could speak truths of no import to the overall scheme of the things that they were actively party to. The questions that must follow on from this are: how can truthful character be formed? and what is truth in politics? These are the focus of a fine essay by the joyously irascible Stanley Hauerwas published by the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton.

American Public Media has a good feature (in 'Speaking of Faith', with Krista Tippett) on Bonhoeffer, ethics and the will of God available here.

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