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.