Becoming Simple and Wise: Moral Discernment in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Vision of Christian Ethics. Joshua A. Kaiser. Eugene OR: Pickwick Pub , 2015. ISBN: 978-1-62032-741-8. $24.00
Straightforward and tightly argued, Joshua Kaiser’s Becoming Simple and Wise is a significant contribution to studies of Bonhoeffer’s ethics. In this volume he attends to the often problematic tensions in Bonhoeffer’s writings between human moral deliberation and simple obedience to the call of Christ. Kaiser ably demonstrates that these tensions persist throughout Bonhoeffer’s corpus – calling into question challenges to the unity of Bonhoeffer’s ethical legacy – and proceeds to suggest how these tensions are resolved through careful attention to Bonhoeffer’s Christology.
While Kaiser demonstrates a deep knowledge of Bonhoeffer’s entire body of work, it is unsurprising that Ethics and Discipleship are the main texts with which he interacts. These two works, and the ethical “methodologies” each suggests are often presented in contrast to one another. Discipleship is replete with appeals to simply follow Christ, looking away from oneself. Ethics, on the other hand, creates space wherein human agents are made responsible for ethical reflection, even self-reflection, as they respond to God in the world. Having traced postures of simplicity and wisdom through both texts, Kaiser astutely determines that Bonhoeffer’s vision for Christian habitation of the world must be more complex than an either/or of discernment or discipleship, positions between which Bonhoeffer supposedly vacillates. He suggests instead that Bonhoeffer’s project is to combine both discernment and discipleship together, suspended in one another in the manner of a Hegelian dialectic. The two postures, he argues, are synthesized in Christ.
In particular, Bonhoeffer’s concept of Christuswirklichkeit, Christ-reality, proves helpful in Kaiser’s argument. As Christ is the God-man, the one in whom Creator and creature are reconciled, Christ exists as the ontological center by whom all things are made and through whom the truth of all things are known. It is Christ who calls one into true being, turning one outward to follow him in simple obedience. Christ forms those who follow him, conforming them into his image. Thusly formed, disciples are rendered able to discern the presence and call of Christ more faithfully; their natural faculties are freed from bondage to the self because of their formed obedience to Christ. All relations become mediated through Christ, and ‘simplicity becomes wisdom’ (82). The former does not pass away; the two become one.
Another matter of great import to Kaiser is spiritual practices. Prayer, scripture meditation, and mutual confession are all human practices taken up by Christ and become moments of formation. Additionally, Christians encounter Christ in his three-fold form: in Word, sacrament, and church-community. Christ becomes concrete in these historical and natural forms, calling Christians to
Participate in his work to redeem the historical and natural world.
On this last point, Kaiser potentially leaves the reader wanting more. For example, while he writes about the significance of Christ’s sacramental form, he only glosses what it may mean to be one who encounters Christ in at the Lord’s Supper. What did Bonhoeffer think was happening when Christ deemed to be present to form those who have baptismal promises made on their behalf? What did he think it meant concretely to kneel beside another person as bread is broken and wine is poured for communion? These are where Christ is supposed to be concrete, and yet Kaiser leaves these descriptions startlingly abstract. Of course one should be careful that Bonhoeffer’s own reflections not be abstracted into general principles. Yet Bonhoeffer’s own reflections on the content of Christ’s call sent forth in preaching, baptism and the Eucharist, or communal participation could prove edifying to those tasked with discerning Christ’s call today. It would be for readers to discern whether the call Bonhoeffer heard still echoed Christ in the present.
All told, Kaiser’s contribution is forceful. His clear writing style will make it accessible to a wide range of readers with interest in Bonhoeffer or moral theology more broadly. His elegant argument is almost as simple as it is wise. In a remarkable feat, scholarly rigor and approachability are made to coexist. While some may wish the work were more concrete in places – concrete to Bonhoeffer’s own time and reflections even if not one’s own – it is a mark of Kaiser’s success that one wants to hear more.
University of Aberdeen