Monthly Archives: July 2011

Mennonite Theology and War: Kaufman and Yoder

Ted Grimsrud—July 31, 2011

With Gordon Kaufman’s passing, an era in the Mennonite world is nearing an end. Kaufman, like his contemporaries, was decisively shaped by his personal experience with World War II and its immediate aftermath. (The era isn’t quite over given the still-productive pen of the remarkable Norman Kraus, an exact contemporary of Kaufman’s and John Howard Yoder’s—here’s Norman’s most recent book.)

In an interview given near the end of his life, Kaufman talked briefly about how as a young adult he was planning to pursue a career in mathematics. Then he was drafted in the midst of World War II and chose to be a conscientious objector. He served for several years in Civilian Public Service in lieu of entering the military. By war’s end, he had redirected his aspirations.

John Howard Yoder, the other Mennonite theological giant of the 20th century, also had his life’s aspirations redirected by World War II-based service. Yoder, who was a couple years younger than Kaufman and thus not liable to the draft during the war, went to war-devastated Western Europe on a service assignment shortly after the end of the war, an assignment that determined his educational and vocational pursuits.

With all their differences, Kaufman and Yoder shared something quite profound. They both obviously were brilliant and ambitious young men who had multiple options for career paths. Both also were deeply committed Mennonites. Contrary to the stereotype of Mennonites as withdrawn, “sectarian,” and purity-focused, both of these two extraordinarily gifted people decided to devote their lives to grappling with the world’s most complicated and relevant issue: how to live humanely in a war-devastated environment still in thrall to the myth of redemptive violence. Continue reading

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Filed under Empire, Gordon Kaufman, John Howard Yoder, Mennonite, Moral philosophy, Pacifism, Theology, U. S. foreign policy, World War II

Gordon Kaufman, R.I.P.

Ted Grimsrud—July 24, 2011

Gordon Kaufman, a giant among 20th century Christian theologians, died at his home in Cambridge, MA, this past Friday. Kaufman, an emeritus professor at Harvard Divinity School, was 86.

Kaufman was well known in theology circles as a theological liberal (he’s featured prominently in Gary Dorrien’s authoritative history of liberal theology in the U.S.). Not so well known, he was also a Mennonite. His father, E.G. Kaufman (also a theologian) was long-time president of Bethel College, a Mennonite school in Kansas.

Gordon was a conscientious objector during World War II, serving in Civilian Public Service. After graduating from Bethel, he went on to graduate studies at the University of Chicago and Yale Divinity School. One of his main teachers was H.Richard Niebuhr. After completing his doctorate, he taught at Pomona College in southern California for a few years. At that time he was ordained for the ministry in the General Conference Mennonite Church, an ordination he kept current the rest of his life. He moved on to Vanderbilt Divinity School and in 1963 joined the faculty at Harvard Divinity School, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Beginning in 1960, Gordon published a series of important theology books, most notably his In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Harvard University Press, 1993) which won an American Academy of Religion award of excellence in 1995. He kept writing well into his retirement years. His last book was Jesus And Creativity"" (Fortress Press, 2006). Continue reading

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Filed under Mennonite, Moral philosophy, Pacifism, Theology, World War II

Mercy All the Way Down?

Ted Grimsrud—July 18, 2011

One of my favorite books, Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers, begins with a most challenging question: “How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?”

I wonder often about the role of vengeance in our society and in our personal lives. (I have posted a longer essay on this topic, “Beyond Vengeance”, on my website.) So much violence (think of our criminal justice system and of so many embittered former spouses and friends) accelerates the spiral of revenge/retaliation following violation.

The simple answer, of course, is to replace revenge with forgiveness. Stop the spiral of violence in its tracks. Well, yes….But, if we are honest, we know things are not that simple.

When we are violated, we experience damage that creates needs. To jump straight to forgiveness short-circuits those needs. For this reason, often people who “forgive” too soon end up repressing their pain, over time leading to many more problems. Continue reading

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Changing Convictions About the Holy Spirit? 1996/2011 (2)

[How, if at all, have my views about the Holy Spirit changed in the past 15 years? This is the sixth of a series of six posts on how my faith convictions have changed (or not) since I have been a college professor. Not long before leaving congregational ministry to begin teaching I did a series of sermons describing in concise terms what I understood to be key Christian beliefs. I posted an excerpt from my sermon on the Holy Spirit here. Now I will reflect on my current convictions about the Holy Spirit. Here are links to the first four posts—the first two are on my views of God 15 years ago and on present-day thoughts about God. The third and fourth are on, first, my thoughts from 15 years ago and then some current thoughts on Jesus.]

Ted Grimsrud—July 17, 2011

When I addressed convictions about the Holy Spirit in my 1996 sermon, I followed what I imagine is a common pattern. I did that sermon not so much because of any deep-seated interest that I might have had in that particular topic but mainly because I assumed one shouldn’t talk about convictions about God and Jesus without also including the Holy Spirit.

We see this pattern as far back as the Apostles’ Creed. After statements on God and Jesus that contain significant, if tightly packed, content about those two themes, the Creed turns to the Holy Spirit with a statement remarkable for how little it actually says about the Holy Spirit: “I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”

I did say a bit more about the Holy Spirit in my sermon than the Apostles’ Creed does. I like what I said, as far as it went. But more recently, I have some more substantial thoughts. I have been trying to think more deeply about what actually our understanding of the Holy Spirit might contribute to our broader theological perspective. Rather than being a kind of add on to a theology grounded in other motifs, what if we genuinely took our understanding of the Holy Spirit as one of our generative themes? Continue reading

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Convictions About the Holy Spirit 1996/2011 (1)

[This is the fifth of a series of six posts on how my faith convictions have changed (or not) in the past 15 years that I have been a college professor. Not long before leaving congregational ministry to begin teaching I did a series of sermons trying to state in concise terms what I understood to be key Christian beliefs. I am posting an excerpts from my sermon on the Holy Spirit here. I will follow this post from 1996 with a post looking briefly at changes (and the lack thereof) in my convictions about Holy Spirit in the past 15 years. Here are links to the first four posts—the first two are on my views of God 15 years ago and on present-day thoughts about God. The third and fourth are on, first, my thoughts from 15 years ago and then some current thoughts on Jesus.]

What Do We Believe About the Holy Spirit?

Ted Grimsrud—January 21, 1996

When I was a fairly young child, my imagination was stirred by the thought of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  I’m sure I must have read stories about people finding the pot of gold, maybe I even saw drawings of it.  It seemed like it must be pretty simple to find that pot.  So, one spring day we had a thunder shower, and the sun poked through.  There was a rainbow!  And it looked like it came to an end in the field near our house!  I set off to where the rainbow came down, visions of a pot of gold running through my head.

But something strange happened.  As I approached the end of the rainbow, it seemed to move.  So I went a little further.  The rainbow moved again. Then it disappeared.  I searched the ground and found no trace of a pot of gold.  I was pretty disappointed.  My older sisters laughed at me.  They did not tell me about rainbows scientifically, explaining the refraction, reflection, and dispersion of light in rainfall. They simply told me that everyone knows that it’s impossible to find the end of the rainbow, that’s why we all don’t have pots of gold.  They made me feel pretty dumb.

The elusiveness of the rainbow’s end is kind of like how I feel in trying to get a handle on this topic—“What Do We Believe About the Holy Spirit?”  This belief is difficult to pin down.  What do we believe about the Holy Spirit?  The quick answer is that the Holy Spirit is one-third of the Trinity.  After that, though, we need to do some thinking. Continue reading

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Changing Convictions About Jesus? 1996/2011 (2)

Ted Grimsrud—July 3, 2011

[How, if at all, have my views about Jesus changed in the past 15 years? This is the fourth of a series of six posts on how my faith convictions have changed (or not) since I have been a college professor. Not long before leaving congregational ministry to begin teaching I did a series of sermons trying to state in concise terms what I understood to be key Christian beliefs. I posted an excerpt from my sermon on Jesus here. Now I will reflect on my current convictions about Jesus. Here are links to the first two posts—one on my views of God 15 years ago and the second on present-day thoughts about God.]

 A standard way to begin a conversation about convictions about Jesus is to cite the story from Mark 8 where Jesus talks with his disciples about who the various people they encountered that day said Jesus was. Then he puts them on the spot: “Who do you say that I am?” I think Mark would welcome this use of his story. He has the agenda throughout his gospel of challenging his readers with this question.

I find it ironic, though, that many who use this question today make a similar mistake to the one Peter made when he responded to Jesus’ original question. Peter stated with firm conviction, “You are the Christ.” This, Mark wants us to know, is on one level the correct answer. Mark also believes Jesus is the Christ. But the story continues with Peter showing that his notion of “Christ” is not the correct one—in fact, he is so off the mark that Jesus rebukes him about as sharply as one could imagine: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Continue reading

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