“From the moment in our lives at which we learn to speak we are taught that what we say must be true. What is meant by “telling the truth”? What does it demand of us?
In the first place it is our parents who regulate our relation to themselves by this demand for truthfulness; but this demand cannot simply be reversed. The life of the small child lies open before the parents, and what the child says should reveal to them everything that is hidden and secret, but in the converse relationship this cannot possibly be the case. In the matter of truthfulness, the parents’ claim on the child is different from the child’s claim on the parents.
From this it emerges that “telling the truth” means something different according to the particular situation in which one stands. Account must be taken of one’s relationships at each particular time. The question must be asked whether and in what way a man is entitled to demand truthful speech in others. Speech between parents and children is, in the nature of the case, different from speech between man and wife, between friends, between teacher and pupil, government and subject, friend and foe.
“Telling the truth,” therefore, is not solely a matter of moral character; it is also a correct appreciation of real situations and of serious reflection upon them. The more complex the actual situations of a man’s life, the more responsible and the more difficult will be his task of “telling the truth.”
Telling the truth is, therefore, something which must be learnt. This will sound very shocking to anyone who thinks that it must all depend on moral character and that if this is blameless, the rest is child’s play. But the simple fact is that the ethical cannot be detached from reality, and consequently continual progress in learning to appreciate reality is a necessary ingredient in ethical action.
It is only the cynic who claims to “speak the truth” at all times and in all places to all men in the same way. Every utterance or word lives and has its home in a particular environment. The word in the family is different from the word in business or in public. The word which has come to life in the warmth of personal relationships is frozen to death in the cold air of public existence. The word of command, which has its place in public service, would sever the bonds of mutual confidence if it was spoken in the family. Each word must have its own place and keep to it.”
This final chapter of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics (my edits) came as a surprise indeed, given the absolute absolutism of his Christianity. I’d have had him down for advocating eye-watering honesty in every encounter…
But perhaps I shouldn’t have. Throughout the book there are limpid, concise, practical and very worldly takes on ethics; alongside pages and pages of dense, impenetrable and almost ranting theology.
When it comes to “the truth” this is about the best account I’ve read of how I’ve intuitively ‘felt’ about it for years – with work being the hardest place of all to strike the right balance.
Many people in the public service workplaces I’ve worked in for the last fifteen years feel they are owed – and regularly demand – a full account of everything which is known and under consideration by the senior management. I’ve often felt I couldn’t, in good conscience, give them that. Some truths have to be held tightly to oneself, however uncomfortable that feels.
Bonhoeffer has eloquently put into words for me why.