“Becoming Simple and Wise; Moral Discernment in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Vision of Christian Ethics” by Joshua A Kaiser – a review

The best way to read “becoming Simple and Wise”, a scholarly book of subtly developed distinctions based on a doctoral thesis, is to take it personally.

Kaiser proposes that in his life and works Dietrich Bonhoeffer is trying to understand how can I as  a Christian understand God’s will for me. It can’t be as simple as letting the pages of the Bible fall open on a passage at random and then take it literally. Karl Barth, with whom all Bonhoeffer’s work is in an intense critical dialogue suggested that the key to a Christian life was to hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, holding scripture and our times in strategic relation. Essentially we are invited to respond not to an ‘idea” but to a personal ‘call” from God.

The question is how do we recognise and interpret and properly respond to that call. Bonhoeffer insists that we can not just rely on the role of reason or conscience. As Christians we have to keep close to the “Word of God”  located in the Scriptures not least in the Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount . He could not escape from the pressure of his own context of an emerging Nazi Germany that had stepped beyond  “general moral principles’ and rationality. In other words we are expected to read the Bible but not to collect ideas or information.  The central point is one of the need to “stop discussing and start obeying” the imperatives of the Sermon of the Mount.

Kaiser’s detailed analysis of what ‘discernment’ is  and how it could work moves into a clear recognition of the need to give time to practice a time of daily meditation, prayer and silent reflection. That need to ‘press the pause button’ in our hectic and over stressed world helps us to learn not to make “every day events and routines into ethical crises” but to get on with ‘doing’. Bonhoeffer’s deep challenge is to  work at changing our ‘mindsets”  The heart of this book is “the place of spiritual exercise” from which we all can learn, bearing in mind that Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted that “Jesus calls his disciples not only when they directly confess his name but also when they suffer for a just cause” and in his “Ethics” this blessing is extended to those who are not Christian.

Kaiser’s book takes us through the complex theology of discernment but to a place of practical daily reflection and consequent action in the context of our own world. It could be a personal hand book.