“Mennonite Systematic Theology”: An opportunity whose time has passed?

Ted Grimsrud

David Cramer’s recent interesting Conrad Grebel Review article, “Mennonite Systematic Theology in Retrospect and Prospect” (31.3 [Fall 2013], 255-73) has stimulated my thinking quite a bit. He surveys the past thirty years, discussing the rise of interest in doctrinal theology among Mennonites and suggesting that while it has been good for Mennonite theologians to engage the broader Christian tradition it is still necessary for Mennonites to develop “more radically particularistic, integral Mennonite Systematic Theologies” (p. 257).

Though I have quite a bit of sympathy with Cramer’s suggestion (and I hope to say a bit more about a “particularistic” approach to Mennonite theology at the end of this post), his discussion triggered some thoughts that leave me feeling a bit discouraged. One response I have to this essay is to wonder if it might actually be too late for Cramer’s proposal. I hope not….

A theological attraction to Mennonites

Not long before Cramer was born (he cites his year of birth, 1983, as coincidentally the moment when it seems Mennonite academics made a self-conscious turn toward doctrinal theology), I had first encountered the Mennonite tradition. Drawn to Mennonites’ pacifism as mediated through the writing of John Howard Yoder, I made the move from being a generic evangelical to joining the Mennonite church in 1981. This step of formal membership followed a year of residence at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

From the start, my attraction to the Mennonite tradition had everything to do with Mennonite theology. Like many evangelicals at the time and since (I think this may be true of David Cramer himself, at least to some degree), I read Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and felt a strong attraction to the tradition that had generated such a profound perspective on the gospel. I was fortunate soon to discover a generous-spirited small Mennonite congregation in my home town that sought, with significant success, to embody that peaceable message.

The people, the relationships, the social ethics, the service work, the tradition and practices of “nonresistance” and conscientious objection, all attracted me powerfully. However, I was also passionate about the ideas, the intellectual grounding, the theology of peace that I discovered among Mennonites. It wasn’t just Yoder. I avidly read Norman Kraus’s writings along with the 1976 festschrift for Guy Hershberger, Kingdom, Cross, and Community, that contained any number of rich essays. My wife Kathleen and I went to hear Myron Augsberger preach when we visited her family in Phoenix in March 1977. We were beside ourselves in excitement that evening. Here was a perspective that promised to make sense of what it means to think as Christians in our violent world.

When I graduated from college in 1976, I faced kind of a theological crossroads. I had just recently emerged from a sojourn among Baptist fundamentalists. The emergence was facilitated by discovering what British evangelical writer Harry Blamires called “the Christian mind.” I had been motivated from the time of my turn toward Christianity as a teen-ager by a desire to make sense of things. The first door that opened for me was that of Baptist fundamentalism, but by the end of my college years I had become restless. Yoder’s Anabaptist/Mennonite peace theology had its attractions, but so too did the neo-Reformed thinkers I had discovered who were heavily influenced by Herman Dooyeweerd’s philosophy.

The summer of 1976, I took a bit of a pilgrimage to celebrate graduation and spent time in Toronto at the Institute for Christian Studies with the Calvinists and then at Reba Place Fellowship in Chicago among the Anabaptists. I returned home with a box full of books. Yoder won that debate, and Kathleen and I decided to throw our lot in with the Mennonites. As I say, the people were crucial, but it was ultimately also very much about the theology.

The end of an era

In retrospect, now, stimulated in part by Cramer’s essay, I wonder if my entry into the Mennonite world just happened to occur during a crucial moment among North American Mennonites. I still need to think about this a lot more, but I wonder if we could perhaps discern a two-decade period, say from the time of the publication of The Politics of Jesus in 1972 until the final Mennonite Central Committee Peace Theology Colloquium in 1994 when Mennonites were particularly open to doing the work of self-conscious theologizing. But it seems that that time may have passed. If so, Cramer might be a little bit late in his raising the issue of Mennonite systematic theology.

That’s not to say that theological reflection among those attracted to Anabaptist ways of thinking is not crucial and does not have potential to contribute significantly to the broader Christian world and to the broader world in general. I believe more than ever that such work is needed—and that it should be “particularistic” in the way Cramer seems to be advocating. However, I fear that the time for this work to be done as a Mennonite task may have passed by.

For one thing, there no longer seems to be an infrastructure in place that could facilitate broadly representative theological conversations among Mennonites. In the 1970s and 1980s, Mennonites were publishing several magazines and journals that no longer exist. They also operated a number of book stores. Mennonite Central Committee sponsored triennial peace theology conferences beginning in the late 1970s that were discontinued after the 1994 conference.

Pre-merger, the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church included both Canadians and Americans. The respective church conventions (and especially the occasional joint GC/MC conventions) provided opportunities for theological conversations—most notably the landmark christology conference that was part of the joint general assembly in Normal, Illinois in 1989 and drew upwards to 1,000 attendees for a series of solid, thoughtful, and provocative papers and breakout discussions. Now we have MC Canada and MC USA, with little apparent cross fertilization.

It’s seems difficult to say for sure if the breakdown of this infrastructure was the cause or effect of a lack of interest in theological work. I tend to think it was more the effect. But it seems impossible to imagine a general assembly now would try to gather 1,000 people to a set of fairly deep theological papers and discussion groups (though I sure wish an attempt would be made!).

I believed from the start of my time among Mennonites that the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries is a particularly important time in the history of our tradition. For many generations following the solidifying of the 16th century Anabaptist movement into stable Mennonite communities, the tradition was sustained most of all by the on-going life of essentially separated and autonomous communities, mainly rural and agricultural, where Mennonites lived together on the land and carried on their faith tradition mainly through practical living, with little need for self-conscious theological reflection.

Perhaps the final impetus away from that traditional way of sustaining community came in North America with the trauma of World War II and stimulus toward widespread acculturation. During this time of transition, the importance of articulating core faith convictions grew tremendously. To sustain this distinctive (and, I would say, extraordinarily important) expression of Christian faith, Mennonites would have to learn to be self-reflective and articulate about their basic convictions (unfortunately Cramer does not say much about what he means by “systematic theology”—I think [hope!] that a big part of what he has in mind is what I am calling “articulating core convictions”).

John Howard Yoder surely has been the most important figure so far who helped meet this need for articulation. His Politics of Jesus was only one of his numerous important publications. It could be that that book ushered in this (brief) era of theological conversation. The first MCC Peace Theology Colloquium was devoted to a wide-ranging ecumenical conversation of Politics. Sadly, the papers from that conference were never published. I have been able to track down several, and they would certainly be worth reading still today.

The other landmark publication in this process was Norman Kraus’s Jesus Christ Our Lord: Christology from a Disciple’s Perspective in 1987. Kraus’s book received the kind of attention from the broader Mennonite world that seems almost unthinkable today. The 1989 christology conference that was part of the Normal ’89 General Assembly was largely a response to the ferment that Kraus’s book stimulated.

Looking back now, though, it appears that Jesus Christ Our Lord was more of a coda to this short period of openness to theologizing than the harbinger of a new era of thinking self-consciously and creatively about core faith convictions. Kraus certainly made a serious contribution to helping Mennonites think about our convictions concerning the meaning of Jesus Christ in the context of the modern world, but as it turns out not that many Mennonites (including Mennonite theologians, church leaders, and other academics) were interested in following up his pathbreaking work.

Already by 1991, when Kraus published a one-volume systematic theology applying his insights on christology in relation to the whole spectrum of Christian doctrines, interest in his work had waned. God Our Savior: Theology in a Christological Mode, received only a fraction of the attention its predecessor did and went out of print fairly quickly.

Lessening of interest in theology

In general, these past 20 years have been characterized by a lessening of interest in theologizing among Mennonites. It’s been a long time since we have had the kind of theology conferences that were common in the 1970s through 1990s. Mennonite publishing is at a nadir with the demise of Good Books and Pandora Press, the near-hibernation of Cascadia Publishing House, and the great reduction of theology titles produced by Herald Press.

Interestingly, Cramer’s examples of “Mennonite systematic theology” actually seem to confirm this loss of interest. He is not, of course, trying to be exhaustive in his account, but though he has examples in his “first wave” of genuinely comprehensive theological works written by Mennonites (Kraus, Tom Finger, and Gordon Kaufman) in the 1980s, his “second wave” (books published since 2000) is notable in how skimpy it is.

None of the three books Cramer mentions is a wide-ranging systematic Mennonite theology in the same sense as the “first wave” books. One of the books, Kirk MacGregor’s rather obscure A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology, was not written by a Mennonite (Cramer identifies MacGregor as coming from a Brethren background, p. 266). The other two, Tom Finger’s A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology and Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement, are both more narrowly focused. Plus they are written by older scholars who are now retired from their academic appointments.

That there are not comprehensive Mennonite systematic theologies being produced does not necessarily signal a general lack of interest in theologizing. Certainly interest in John Howard Yoder’s work continues apace. However, though the work of both Finger and Weaver is important and engaging (note as well that Weaver just published a major new work that furthers his peace theology efforts, The Nonviolent God [Eerdmans, 2013])—and directly related to the needs for Mennonite articulation of core faith convictions—it seems in important ways to reflect a kind of last gasp from a remarkable generation of Mennonite theologians who followed up on the groundbreaking work of Yoder and Kaufman (besides Finger and Weaver, we could include Ray Gingerich, Duane Friesen, Jim Reimer and Harry Huebner as contributors to this flowering of Mennonite theologizing). There is little indication of similar work being produced now at Mennonite academic institutions.

Is Mennonitism dying?

Is it indeed the case that the viability of the Mennonite tradition is now reliant upon the ability of Mennonites to be self-conscious about their convictions in ways they have not had to be for hundreds of years? This is what I happen to think, though I am not aware of Mennonites in general discussing this question much.

But if what I suggest is the case, and if it is also the case (as I suggest above) that after a creative period from ca. 1972–1994 Mennonites are not making a priority of such self-conscious faith conviction articulation, then it would be expected that the Mennonite tradition might well as a consequence undergo a kind of identity crisis.

It’s a discussion for another setting, but I do think that there are reasons to suspect that the Mennonites under the umbrella of Mennonite Church USA may indeed be struggling with a sense of who they are, with what is central and distinctive about their tradition, and what their vision for future growth and ministry should be.

It’s not obvious that to the extent we are in the midst of an identity crisis this follows from a loss of interest in theologizing. I tend to suspect there might be some connection. I would be interested in what others think.

Regardless, in my own experience the Mennonites I know and know about do not seem to be putting a lot of energy into the work of theology. I fear that this makes the tradition pretty vulnerable to absorption in the broader American milieu, be it evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity on the right or the more general “spiritual but not religious” dynamic of American culture.

Though it has been years since I was very engaged with Mennonite denominational politics, I do have the impression that our institutions are struggling right now. The colleges (such as the school where I teach) are facing a steady decrease in enrollment of Mennonite students (when I began at EMU in 1996, we had about 60% Mennonites; this year’s class of first-years is about 33% Mennonites). If nothing else, the decrease in Mennonite enrollment will likely lead to less of a link between Mennonite colleges and their denomination.

Sociologists have been warning lately of a problematic demographic dynamic where the average member of MC USA congregations is getting steadily older. This dynamic is exacerbated by a general lessoning of denominational loyalty among American Christians in general. So the future does not necessarily look particularly rosy for MC USA—or, perhaps for the Mennonite tradition in general, at least insofar as it remains linked with Anabaptist distinctives.

Why theology matters

Back about 20 years ago, I presented some lectures to the congregation I co-pastored with my wife Kathleen. I taught a winter Sunday evening class on the Anabaptist movement. I concluded with the statement that Anabaptist “ideals will not die, just as they have not died since the time of Jesus. The big question facing Mennonite churches is not whether we can keep these values alive—God will see to that. The big question is whether we will continue to be used by God as a carrier of these values” (Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus, p. 107—this book, published in 2007, was one attempt I have made to try to address the concerns of this blog post in much more detail).

The task of constructive peace theology, which is what I take to be the same as the task of “Mennonite Systematic Theology,” remains of vital importance regardless of what happens to institutional Mennonitism. It would be sad, even tragic, were MC USA to continue to shrink and fade away. However, the point of our doing theology is not to sustain a particular structure. Rather, it is to bear witness to the transforming love of God that Jesus embodied for the sake of healing creation.

We need theology in order to grow in our understanding of this transforming love, in order to communicate to others about it, in order be self-critical about our attempts to practice it, in order to adapt to a changing world. For the Mennonite tradition to remain vital, it must embrace the work of theology.

As I discuss in my book, Theology as if Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions (Cascadia Publishing House, 2009), the “work of theology” is something all people of good will should be engaged in—the work of becoming self-aware about what convictions matter the most and how we might best embody those convictions. Christians do this work in light of the message of Jesus—summarized most concisely as “love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.”

In Theology as if Jesus Matters, I discuss each of the major traditional Christian areas of doctrine in light of Jesus’s call to neighbor love. My intent is to encourage readers to think about their own core convictions in light of that call—and to seek to put those convictions into practice. Self-conscious theological reflection is important for this effort—to be aware of what we value most and of how our lives might reflect those priorities.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that reading David Cramer’s fine essay actually triggered a sense of discouragement for me. My discouragement stems from a sense that Mennonites have not done as good a job as one would hope for in encouraging the kind of theological reflection needed to sustain a commitment to Jesus’s call to neighbor love. I hope Cramer’s work as an emerging Mennonite theologian can help stimulate a renewal of interest in such reflection. The state of the world we live in shows that such work is more needed than ever.

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25 Comments

Filed under Anabaptism, Mennonite, Theology

25 responses to ““Mennonite Systematic Theology”: An opportunity whose time has passed?

  1. Allan Rudy-froese

    Ted,

    Thanks for this excellent short history of Menno attempts at systematic theology in historical (NA anyway) perspective. I wonder what could be added here by taking Canadian Mennonites of Russian ancestry more seriously. You mention Jim Reimer and Harry Huebner only parenthetically. One could add Helmut Harder. While we did not get systematics from these theologians, they certainly spoke and wrote from a deep appreciation of the systematic work of those in Reformed, Evangelical, and Catholic traditions. In these efforts, we have some sense of key doctrines and they helpfully categorize various topics in ways that not only help us converse with other traditions but also help us state our own case for X doctrine or category.

    As a (so-called) practical theologian who works with preachers and worship planners, I cannot live without systematic theology and I wish for continuing work in this area from Ana-Menno scholars and others. I am constantly asking students/pastors to note the implicit doctrine or category of theology they are working on in their sermons, teaching sessions, and worship. Ex. Is this sermon focused on salvation, baptism, forgiveness, or eschatology? A sermon, for instance, will be heard with more clarity if the preacher (given their biblical text) is clear about which ONE doctrinal or systematic theology category they are working with.in a given 20 minute sermon. My students go to many places to find out what, for example, salvation or eschatology might mean for this text and in this time and place. Easier to go to the big Berkhof book than an assortment of Menno books on various topics. Yet, you are right – having the one place to go may be impossible at this time, and likely not desirable. But it seems impossible for the Lutherans or even the Catholics to have one systematic these days – given postmodern splintering.

    Thanks. I look forward to further discussion on this!

    • Thanks, Alan. I totally agree that we need to take “Canadian Mennonites of Russian ancestry more seriously.” I don’t mean to imply that they (you) are peripheral. I have had the sense for the past 30 years since I first learned to know such folks that there was a more vital theological conversation going on among Canadians. My reference to the merger and the split between American and Canadian Mennonites had that in the background. The vital conversations that used to happen at various denominationally-sponsored events were often enriched greatly by the Canadian presence—which is now mostly lacking.

      Partly due to this split, I have lost touch with Canadian Mennonites by and large, so I don’t know how my current analysis of the American Mennonite context would apply to you all. Hopefully (as reflected in your own teaching) theological reflection has more traction among Canadians. I’m glad you are having an influence among American Mennos now!

  2. Jonathan Swartz

    Thanks Ted, these reflections are helpful. And Cramer’s article is also interesting. I tend to share the suspicion that the lack of theological work is somehow connected to an identity crisis of sorts. Though I would begin by thinking that the lack of overt theological systematizing is due to the identity crisis of the denomination (is it really worth the effort right now?) I also wonder if the identity crisis could be an outworking of the lack of theological work.

    I just finished reading “The Limits of Perfection: A Conversation with J. Lawrence Burkholder” and was interested to see that the book was drawn together from a gathering of various Mennonite theologians (In Laurelville, I think) in 1992 — which would have been a few years before the end of the “first wave.” As a seminary student these are the kinds of gatherings that I wish happened more now, but I don’t see them happening, or perhaps I’m just not a part of the circles in which they happen. I might not have much to offer at this point but I would value the listening and modeling by mentors.

    Reading “The Limits…” also reminded me again that there was a pretty significant “pre-first-wave” contingent of theologians that were at least doing self-conscious theological reflection — but perhaps not MST in the way that Cramer is suggesting.

    How much of the lack of MST has to do with the drive towards specialization in any number of fields? If we were to look at other denominations would we also find there a lack of (or decrease in) systematic theological reflection? These are genuine questions, I really don’t know.

    I would be interested to hear a little more from you about what you consider to be the “work of theology.” Is this work inherently systematic, or is it generally ad-hoc? Or is that a dualism that we do well to avoid? :)

    Thanks again Ted.

    • I appreciate your response, Jon!

      I do suspect the struggle with identity does have to do with the failure of this time of the flowering of theological reflection to be sustained. The causes and effects are surely quite complicated. One thing I wonder, thinking especially of the ferment around christology in the late 1980s (maybe also of homosexuality which interestingly arose as an issue at this same time), is how much fearfulness of conflict and controversy led to a backing away. I think I heard that one of the main reasons MCC quit their Peace Theology Colloquia was anxiety that emerged with the 1994 meeting over the discussion of religious pluralism and the presence of Gordon Kaufman as a speaker.

      The example of the consultation on J. Lawrence Burkholder’s theology is an excellent one to support my point. I’m sure there have been and continue to be occasion similar meetings, but they seem to have tapered off—at least as far as I know.

      I guess there are two different issues here. The issue of self-conscious theological reflection in general and the issue of systematic theology more specifically. I’m more concerned with the lack of the former than the latter. I, like many Mennos, have ambivalence about systems.

      In my book, Theology as if Jesus Matters, I address your final question. I would say that the dualism is well avoided, but that ultimately the “work of theology” has to do with empowering love of neighbor. “Systematic” theology can serve that work, I try to show in that book, but the systems dare not become separated from the call to love.

    • Hey Ted & Jon – Remember that “#Occupy Empire” conference in 2012? That was pretty cool, right? ;)

  3. David L Myers

    Ted,

    Thanks for this personally moving and provocative post. These issues are terribly complicated, so what I’m about to say is written in a spirit of acknowledging its lack of sophistication and nuance, but also in a spirit of provocation. The 20-year period of interest in systematic theology was preceded by the Concern movement in the 1950s and the Vietnam / civil rights engagement in the 1960s, both of which were high water marks for Mennonite engagement in the world. Perhaps the keen interest in theology from 1972 to 1994 was born out of a desire to theologically make sense of a generation of often confusing but robust engagement. During that same 22-year period of trying to make theological sense (’72-’94), there was an alarming disengagement and assimilation, so that in the last 20 years there’s not been much theologizing because there hasn’t been a whole lot to make sense of. Is the domination of the doxologists a reflection and natural outgrowth of a community turned toward existential angst, of “wanting to learn to pray better”? Perhaps a way to revive a robust Mennonite theological conversation is to reawaken the community expectation that its youth will do a stint in voluntary service here or abroad. It’s not as if the world no longer needs our engagement.

  4. I have to make a quick response right now, David. But I think almost completely agree with what you say. Certainly the two great Mennonite theologians who were at the center of this time of “flowering,” Yoder and Kaufman, devoted their energies to this work as a direct expression of their engagement with the world right after World War II.

    This notion of “engagement” surely is complicated, but I strongly agree that only out of a passion for direct involvement in peacemaking in the wider world can authentic theology be forged.

  5. For those nostalgic for Mennonite theology conferences, there is still time to submit to this one: https://uwaterloo.ca/toronto-mennonite-theological-centre/sites/ca.toronto-mennonite-theological-centre/files/uploads/files/winnipeg_2014_call_for_papers_0_1.pdf. If all goes well, I’ll plan to see/meet you there!

  6. One word: The Internet.

    You mention the diminishing amount of conferences, publications, and publication houses that used to crank out Mennonite theology. It seems to me this tailing off came just as the Internet was mainstreaming in North America in the mid- to late 90s. That was only 15-20 years ago, and the ramifications of the “Internet shakedown” in all parts and pockets of American society is by no means complete. So the “infrastructure” you name as being the conduit for all this theologizing is what’s now on shaky ground…not theologizing itself (Mennonite or otherwise). – Heck, look here in the comments and on your Facebook post to this story: there’s plenty of interest in the blogosphere and on social media. (Get a Twitter account – there are TONS of academic theologians hashing it out there…)

    It also seems like the sorry state of higher education and academic publishing might have a lot to do with academic theology dropping off in the forms that it used to take. There are probably a whole boatload of recent PhDs or students in the works from the Anabaptist tradition, but who among them are going to get the kind of tenured positions that allow them to produce high-quality scholarship if they have to take on indentured servitude as adjuncts and have night jobs as baristas?

    So I would point to broader sociological phenomenon for any drop-off to Mennonite theologizing, thought he “in-house” sociology you cite is also certainly a factor as well (fewer Mennonite students in Mennonite schools, etc.).

    • Thanks for the reality check, Brian. I want to see this all as nefarious and you show that it is really quite benign….

      You do give me something to think about—which I will do and get back to you.

      • Scott Holland

        I think Brian is quite right. Think about it Ted. Don’t you find yourself having far more engaging exchanges today in the age of the Internet than we had twenty years ago when we had only the occasional forum of a theology conference or the inscribed venue of a journal article and long awaited occasional book?

  7. Scott Holland

    Interesting reflections, Ted. I need some time to ponder their depths.

    As one who organized the Burkholder consultations along with friends Levi Miller and Rod Sawatsky (of blessed memory) I would note that the style of these conversations were was the genres of narrative theology or theology as biography, not systematic theology.

    Three additional brief comments to add to your engaging reflections:

    One: The scholarly shift from understanding Anabaptism in light of polygenesis rather than monogenesis reminds us that “Anabaptism is an Imaginary Homeland.” Thus, future experiments in anabaptist theology must be artful moves of theology as imaginative construction, not ventriloquism.

    Two: The late modern and postmodern turns in epistemology and hermeneutics have collapsed the high walls between literature, philosophy and theology. Theology is a kind of writing, THEOLOGY IS A KIND OF WRITING, thus, there is no such thing as as systemic theology that is not a poetics, a story-theology, a comparative literature. [In this context, spiritual seekers will find much more in the theopoetics of Jeff Gundy's new book, SONGS FROM AN EMPTY CAGE than from a stack of John Howard books. But even Yoder insisted that his work was ad hoc, not systematic].

    Three: Denominational theology is an old man’s dream. This fall and Advent I filled the pulpit for a growing, vibrant, urban Mennonite congregation currently between pastors. The largest demographic in this church is under the age of 35. With few exceptions (and these exceptions are Naked Anabaptists seeking some doctrinal clothes), there is a resistance to any formal Mennonite theologizing, and even to theology proper, which is seen as a dated attempt to underwrite an impossible identity politics in a new intercultural, ecumenical, interfaith age of pluralism and happy polydoxy. It is not at all surprising that at this year’s American Academy of Religion, Wendell Berry won the award for the best work in public religion/theology. Berry is not jazzed by either clerics or theologians.

    In this era of the twilight of the old gods, we are not only living after Christendom, but after Mennonitism as well.

    WHAT COMES AFTER THEOLOGY?

    • Thanks, Scott. A few quick thoughts.

      (1) The embrace of the “polygenesis” thesis seems to coincide chronologically pretty directly with the loss of 16th century Anabaptism as a resource for the present day. I don’t know which was cause and which effect.

      (2) While I don’t accept your put-down of Yoder, I strongly affirm your affirmation of “theology as a kind of writing.” Some of us, though, find it more difficult to turn a phrase that you theo-poets. So we write in the “plain style” favored by Robertson Davies’s characters. My struggle is how to articulate convictions in ways that are clear and useful, accessible but also profound.

      (3) As you know, I am not a defender of “denominational theology.” Nor am I particularly invested in the survival of Mennonitism. Nor am I a supporter of “theology proper” insofar as it is an exercise akin to Robert Pirsig’s “philosophology” (philosophy as the study of philosophers) or an exercise in scrutinizing inscrutable Christian mumbo-jumbo. But I do think faith communities need to find ways to name convictions, to converse about them, and to adapt them to life.

      • Scott Holland

        Actually, my quoting Yoder himself that his work was “ad hoc” and “not systematic” was not a put down but an affirmation of an answering style of theology. Yoder and I have different questions to answer but I do affirm the ad hoc style.

  8. Scott Holland

    PS: In my post I noted Jeff Gundy’s new title, but Ted, consider also the new style of Mennonite-inspired theologizing in your colleague Peter Dula’s book, CAVELL, COMPANIONSHIP & CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY. This is the new intellectually and spiritually satisfying face of theology.

  9. Stephen Penner

    I always appreciate your writing, Ted.
    I’m no theologian but to me it seems that over the past couple of decades we’ve understandably and rightly given more attention to matters of inclusivity. Who is really welcome at this Mennonite table, anyhow? When the conversation tilts this way (emphasizing “all are welcome”) a sudden pivot to stress Mennonite theological particularities strikes some ears as exclusive, arrogant, or worse. (“I thought the table was big, but maybe not”) We need people who can gracefully speak both languages.
    Finally, I think the future of our church will in part hinge on the conversation between Mennonite college graduates and the children of immigrants who have deliberately chosen to be part of the Mennonite Church. This assumes that these twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings decide to hang around long enough to talk, whether in person or in a forum such as Brian describes.

    • Thanks, Steve. I think this statement is pretty profound: “I think the future of our church will in part hinge on the conversation between Mennonite college graduates and the children of immigrants who have deliberately chosen to be part of the Mennonite Church.”

      I think one of the key elements of this conversation is to be able to articulate convictions not as “Mennonite beliefs” but as “Christian beliefs.” We embrace the call to peace not because it’s Mennonite, but because it’s what God wants for all Christians—and all other people as well, of course (which is why we need also to be able to articulate these convictions as “humane beliefs” too).

  10. Scott Holland

    Ted, Would there be any interest in THE RETURN OF THE LAURELVILLE THEOLOGICAL CONSULTATIONS as Jon suggests?

    We could easily pull this together. The Laurelville venue is far superior to throwing “a conference” at one of our official academic institutions.

    We had great conversations there back in the day! In addition to the Burkholder conversations noted by Jon, the gathering of the old Amsterdam Seven was amazing. These were the seven Anabaptist-Mennos doing academic and service work in post-WWII Europe. John Howard Yoder was the intellectual ring leader and first called the group together in Amsterdam — then in other locations in Europe for mutual theologizing and support.

    At the Laurelville event there was a gathering of “the seven” and others related to “the seven” along with scores of we younger academics interested in this rich intellectual history. Late in the planning process, however, Yoder sent regrets that he could not attend due to the conditions of the Indiana-Michigan (and AMBS) church discipline process. Some of these Proceedings were written up in Conrad Grebel Review.

    There were many happy and memorable moments. For example, when Paul Peachy was narrating his intellectual adventures in Paris, he told the story of being in a Parisian cafe when Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir walked in and said hello. Jim Reimer, of blessed memory, declared with wild excitement, “Paul, I am green with envy!!!”

    • Nice idea, Scott. I would be up for working on something like this. I’ve been to Laurelville a couple of times and found it to be a fine setting for good, extended conversations.

      How would something like this be funded?

  11. Scott Holland

    Generally by three sources:

    Registration fees from participants.

    The Laurelville program budget.

    Supplemental grants from sponsoring institutions.

  12. Scott Holland

    Further note: the question, is think, is whether we could identify “a topic” that would draw a large and diverse circle from the US & Canada. It wouldn’t be “systematic theology” but it might be, “The End of Theology?” Or not!

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