Are we better off without God and Christianity? Thoughts on healing the world

Ted Grimsrud—April 15, 2019

I believe that human beings do have a purpose in life. That purpose is to do what we can to help bring healing to the world. Another way of saying this is to say that what matters most in life is that we live in love and that we resist the idols that undermine love. A big question for me is: Does belief in God, and in particular the Christian God, aids or hinders fulfilling this purpose?

Where does this question come from?

Let me give a little background on how I come to this question. I grew up in an interestingly conservative area of the United States—rural southwestern Oregon. What is interesting about rural Oregon is that people tend to be conservative in values and lifestyle, but they also tend not to be religious. Oregon has traditionally been the least “churched” state in the country. While the urban areas are pretty liberal, the countryside tends not to be.

My parents were schoolteachers who moved to our small town from the outside. They lived pretty conservative lives in many ways, but they were well educated and open-minded about most things. So they were a bit different from their surrounding community. I grew up attending church until the church closed when I was eight years old. I can’t say that I was explicitly taught that my purpose in life was “to help bring healing to the world.” But I would say that the values I absorbed from my family provided the framework for me to affirm that sense of purpose when I got older.

As a teenager, due to the influence of a close friend, I had a conversion experience and became a fundamentalist Christian. As I look back now, I see the influence of that experience and its aftermath as being quite a mixed blessing. It did get me in the door, so to speak, to serious Christianity, which meant (in part) a serious engagement with the Bible, especially with the life and teaching of Jesus. In those initial years, while I was part of a fundamentalist church, I was not encouraged to think much about loving the world, though. I would say now that I experienced two sides to belief in the Christian God—both how such belief can encourage working for healing the world and how such belief can undermine such work.

My sense, for some years after my conversion, was that my primary loyalty was to Christianity and that only because of my Christian faith was I then also to care about healing the world. Two types of experience worked to complicate this sense of loyalty to Christianity. One was learning to know people (and about many other people) who weren’t Christians yet were deeply committed to loving their neighbors and healing the world. The second type of experience was to see how Christians could be quite unloving. What made this second phenomenon especially difficult for me was seeing that often the “unlovingness” was not in spite of Christian convictions but because of them. Continue reading “Are we better off without God and Christianity? Thoughts on healing the world”

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“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part two]

Ted Grimsrud—April 10, 2019

The purpose of this “thought experiment,” as I see it, is to reflect on how “Anabaptist” might work better than “Christian” or “Mennonite” as a descriptor of the radical faith that offers the best possibilities for responding creatively to the challenges of life in North America in the early 21st century. In Part One I described why I have problems with the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” ways of interpreting the Bible and our world and our faith. In what follows, I will describe more what I mean by “Anabaptist” as an alternative way of interpreting.

A way to think about Anabaptism

I believe that in approaching the topic of “Anabaptism” we should be straightforward about the kinds of questions we have in mind in approaching it as well as recognizing the need to be as accurate as possible in discussing the 16th century phenomena themselves. My questions have most of all to do with what resources might we find in the story of the original Anabaptists that might inform our lives today. I also wonder whether we might discern an Anabaptist approach to faith that could serve as a corrective to the interpretive angles we find in what I call the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” approaches.

A key theme for me in taking up this project of discernment is how these various angles relate to how we read the Bible. A central criterion for me is how helpful, accurate, and authentic the angles are to the message of the Bible. In fact, though the 16th century is of great interest in evaluating the Anabaptist take on faith, what matters even more is the first-century in that the truly normative “vision” that followers of Jesus should be concerned with is the one presented in the New Testament (and the Old Testament read in relation to the New). Is it possible that the Anabaptist angle gets us closer to Jesus’s take on things than the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” angles?

I have taken a cue from studies of Jesus for how I want to approach the Anabaptists—and seek for a sense of coherence among the diverse expressions of radical Christianity in the 16th century. It is common among historians of the Jesus movement to suggest that maybe the central question to ask for understanding what happened back then is this: Why was Jesus executed by the Romans? This is the version I ask of the Anabaptists: Why did they get into trouble? One thing that seems clear is that in their various iterations, just about all the Anabaptists got into trouble, and in their various locations they died by the thousands.

I suggest that we do find a sense of commonality when we ask this question. I think we may see four broad themes that were key reasons the large majority of them got into trouble—most of these themes are present in most of the Anabaptist communities, diverse as they might otherwise be. Continue reading ““Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part two]”

“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part one]

Ted Grimsrud—April 9, 2019

I have a good friend who is, shall I say, a little more conservative theologically than I am. We have some great conversations. Recently, he brought up the possibility of the two of us having a public conversation on the current state of Anabaptist theology. As we are both Americans, we recognize that we would be talking about Anabaptist theology in our context, acknowledging that there are many Anabaptist-oriented communities around the world with their own takes on Anabaptist theology.

My initial response was somewhat negative. Not that I would not enjoy having a friendly public “disputation” with my colleague, but I haven’t been thinking much about “Anabaptist theology” in any direct way for some time. However, after our talk I kept considering his suggestion. I doubt that we will have a public conversation (though it’s possible), but I have started thinking about Anabaptist theology again.

I realized that I am still interested in thinking about Anabaptism, though I look at it now from a bit of a different angle from when I wrote a book called Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the 21stCentury back in 2007. To frame it, as I do in the title of this blog post, as a question“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)?is to be intentionally provocative and a little facetious. However, carefully stated this is a genuine question for me.

So, I want to do a little thought experiment here, not make a profound pronouncement. Let’s reflect on hermeneutics—comparing an “Anabaptist” way of interpreting things, especially the Bible, with a “Christian” way and with a “Mennonite” way. When I pose them as alternatives (which they are not, literally, of course), I am asking about a basic way of interpretation that can be seen to contrast with other ways. What are the basic biases we wantto be a part of how we interpret?

Why “Not Christian”?

Before I explain what “Anabaptist” means in this conversation, I will say a little about why I would say “not Christian” and “not Mennonite.” By “Christian” here (noting that in trying to be a bit provocative I will make some big generalizations) I have in mind the mainstream Christian theological tradition dating back to the fourth century. This is the tradition that I would call “doctrine-oriented” (see my essay, “Practice-oriented vs. doctrine-oriented theology: An Anabaptist proposal”) in the sense that it places creeds, confessions, and formal doctrines at the heart of its construal of Christian faith. Continue reading ““Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part one]”

Looking West – Introducing a Blog Series

Ted Grimsrud—February 15, 2019

I was born in Eugene, Oregon, back in the mid-1950s and lived my first eighteen years in the tiny town of Elkton, Oregon, about an hour’s drive southwest of Eugene. After a couple of years going to college in Monmouth, Oregon, I ended up back in Eugene at the University of Oregon and except for a couple of excursions for graduate school spent the next twenty years there.

It’s now been almost twenty-five years since our family moved away from the West Coast, the last twenty-two being in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Part of my soul remains in Oregon, though. When I raise my eyes from my computer right now, I look west. I do that a lot, often for minutes at a time. Sometimes, I’m just taking a break. But often my mind moves to the years gone by and to the sensibilities of the world in which I grew up. I’m still that person in so many ways.

The lure of writing

For as long as I remember, I wanted to be a writer. I decided in middle school to major in journalism, thinking at the time of being a sportswriter. I got the degree but decided against the career path. My writing energies turned in a more, I guess I could call it, ecclesial and academic direction. As a pastor and college professor, I did write a lot, some of which was published. I imagined when I retired from teaching a couple of years ago that the writing would come easier and my productivity would ratchet up. So much for the best laid plans. It’s been kind of interesting for me in that the ideas have continued to bubble up as much as ever, but the actual effort to turn the ideas into something concrete has not been as easy to generate as I had hoped.

Continue reading “Looking West – Introducing a Blog Series”

Exorcising the ghosts of fundamentalism

Ted Grimsrud—February 27, 2017

It is common in my circles of friends and acquaintances to encounter people who are former fundamentalist or evangelical Christians and who now distance themselves from that past faith perspective. Often, the rationales for the changes have to do with the Bible. For the sake of opposition to violence, to religious arrogance and exclusivism, to judgmentalism and the like, my friends will say the Bible is so hurtful, so damaging. Maybe they will add that they like Jesus but they see the Old Testament as profoundly problematic—and maybe Paul and Revelation too.

 I am sympathetic with such sentiments. I spent a period of my life in my late teens and early twenties as first a fundamentalist and then evangelical Christian. Starting with my embrace of pacifism at the time of my 22nd birthday, I fairly quickly came to distance myself from those traditions (I tell the story of that evolution here). And I agree that the way the Bible is used by many conservative Christians is problematic and helps underwrite violence and other hurtful attitudes and actions. And I do think it is true that there are materials in the Bible that do lend themselves to hurtful uses.

However, at the same time I love the Bible and most of my theological work consists of engaging the Bible as a positive resource for peace (several of my books focus on the Bible and peace: see, for example, Triumph of the LambGod’s Healing StrategyInstead of Atonement; and Arguing Peace). I often have been told by post-fundamentalist friends (and others) that while they admire my attempts to wring some peace from the Bible, they think I am engaged in spin, at times even in ways that seem dishonest or at least overly and misleadingly optimistic.

I had one such conversation just recently after preaching a sermon. As we talked, I realized that my friend was actually still reading the Bible in a quite conservative way. It’s just that now she disagrees with what she finds there. So I suggested that it would help if she could move past her fundamentalist hermeneutic. She agreed, but also noted that such a move is very difficult. Not so much because she still wants to believe in that approach, but that it is so deeply ingrained in her psyche that she can’t simply by a quick and easy decision get rid of it.

One small aid to help a post-fundamentaist move away from a fundamentalist biblical hermeneutic might be simply to articulate what a post-fundamentalist approach to affirming the Bible as a peace book might look like. Continue reading “Exorcising the ghosts of fundamentalism”

Are we in debt to God?

Ted Grimsrud—October 10, 2016

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the first in a series on salvation and human flourishing.]

My agenda here is to talk about Jubilee. I believe that Jubilee is a central theme throughout the entire Bible, even if the term itself isn’t used very often. A key text is Luke 4, which tells of when Jesus opens his public ministry with words that would have associated him with the Old Testament’s year of Jubilee—which is one of three levels of Sabbath regulations in the book of Leviticus.

Sabbath theology

There is the Sabbath day, the seventh day, a day of rest—which when first instituted was radical for the Hebrew people who had recently been liberated from slavery where there was no rest. Every seventh day should be a time to stop, to recuperate, and to remember how God, in God’s mercy, had given them freedom.

Then there is the Sabbath year, the seventh year. During the Sabbath year, the land was to be allowed to rest, to not be cultivated but to recuperate. The Sabbath year was also a time for the forgiveness of debts, including the release from service for indentured servants, temporary “slaves,” you could say, who worked for others to pay off their debts. Part of the idea here, too, was the reminder of God as a God of mercy and generosity; and part of the idea as well was to prevent a long term separation between various classes of people—no indefinite indebtedness, no separation of the wealthy from the poor, of debtors from debtees.

Then the third level was the year of Jubilee. Here, after 7 sets of 7 years, the 50th year, land was to be returned to those who had originally owned it. There was to be a redistribution—or, we could say, an end to the redistribution—of the land. Instead of being redistributed to the big landowners, it goes back to those who first owned it. It would be as if in the United States all the wealth that has been redistributed from the lower and middle classes to the 1% would be returned every 50 years.

The year of Jubilee was a profound statement about God’s intentions for the community and, more than that, even, a profound statement about the character of God. Prevent having a few push the many off the land; have a society that cares for the vulnerable. Continue reading “Are we in debt to God?”

What does hope even mean?

Ted Grimsrud—Sermon at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—June 26, 2016

I’d like to start with a bad analogy; it links having a strained back with having grandchildren. This is how it goes. About 25 years ago, for the first time I got laid up with a bad back. My distress was triggered when I played in an alumni basketball tournament at my old high school. Before that I had never had back trouble and was not very aware of anyone else having a bad back—I would have thought it was quite rare. But then, as I was gradually recovering, people I knew who had bad backs seemed to come out of the woodwork. Many people kindly commiserated with me, sharing my pain.

Then, almost exactly ten years ago I became a grandparent. Before that I thought very little about people I knew being grandparents. Certainly, I knew that other people were grandparents. But I hadn’t felt it. Then, boom, I had this big thing in common with other people—kind of like having a fragile back….

What does it even mean?

So, the punch line to my sermon this morning ultimately will be about grandchildren—keep that in mind. In a sense, any talk about hope comes down to our grandchildren (real or potential, literal or metaphorical). But for now, I want to mention something else about my grandchildren; that is, grandchild #2, Marja.

Last summer when we were hanging around with 5-year-old Marja, we drove by a bright orange “detour” sign and orange road barriers. “What’s that?” she asked. “A detour sign.” “Detour; what does that even mean?” We chuckled and noticed that she was using that phrase a lot, “what does X even mean?” We later realized that her mother uses that phrase a lot, too—so it’s kind of hipster idiom, I guess. As in, “what does it even mean” when a certain presidential candidate says let’s “make America great again”?

Brian asked me to share this morning about the major transition that’s happening in my life. I wasn’t sure how to do that. I decided that to reflect on how, in my first month of retirement, I suffered from major sciatica pain wasn’t exactly sermon material—nor, even, the joys of greatly reduced sciatica pain. So, instead I want to talk about one of the main ideas I’ve been thinking about. This is a kind of guiding focus for these coming years of theological work in my post-teaching career—the notion of hope.

Continue reading “What does hope even mean?”

It’s time for a change….Reflections on a transition

Ted Grimsrud—May 3, 2016

It’s time for a change
I’m tired of that same ol’ same
The same ol’ words the same ol’ lines
The same ol’ tricks and the same ol’ rhymes

Days precious days
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend I got planks to nail
I got charts to make I got seas to sail

I’m gonna build me a boat
With these two hands
It’ll be a fair curve
From a noble plan
Let the chips fall where they will
Cause I’ve got boats to build

Guy Clark, “Boats to Build”

Last Friday, I turned in my grades for the last time. I gave my last exam last Wednesday. It was about a year ago that I decided that this would be my final year teaching at Eastern Mennonite University and that  I would take an early retirement. Or, as Kathleen and I see it, I will transition from being a full-time college professor who writes on the side to being a full-time writer.

Last Sunday morning in church, I shared about my plans. I mentioned that EMU does not put a lot of pressure on faculty to publish; it’s not really a “publish or perish” place. But now, the pressure will increase. As Kathleen will be taking on a more central role in providing our income, she’s telling me that it will be “publish or perish.” I think she’s kidding (a little, at least), but we both certainly are excited about this transition and have high expectations.

The past year since I “gave my notice” moved quickly, and I am excited for it to be over. It’s been a good year in many ways, but not for a second have I doubted that it is time for this change—even if I am not entirely sure what to expect in these years to come. As Guy Clark sings, “Let the chips fall where they will, ’cause I’ve got boats to build.”

A time of transition like this may be a good time to look back and to look ahead. How did I get here? What clues about what’s to come may be discerned in the trajectory what what has gone before? How have I been prepared for this new stage?

It is a bit unsettling to notice a pattern in my life. Things fit pretty much into 20 year segments. I have my younger years of formal education and a kind of meandering in terms of getting a sense of my life’s vocation and passion. That period ended, it seems to me now, in the Spring of 1976, my last term in college when I took my first philosophy classes (I never did take a religion class in high school or college). I was primed for the classes (“Philosophy of Religion” and “Existentialism”). The previous couple of decades had prepared me, in a way, so those classes turned out to be a gateway to a life of a theologian. Continue reading “It’s time for a change….Reflections on a transition”

Does God have a “design” for marriage—that excludes gays?

Ted Grimsrud—January 5, 2015

 A recent book, Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage (Baker, 2014) by Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet, makes the case that Christians should reject same-sex marriage. The main reason for this rejection is that God has an ironclad “design” that allows only for male/female marriage. This “design” is revealed in scripture and in the nature of human intimate relationships, most importantly in the possibility for procreation that only male/female partners have.

How persuasive is this book’s argument?

Some good points

One of the main strengths of the book is that it strives for and largely achieves an irenic tone. While it is hard to imagine the main argument of the book being persuasive to someone who doesn’t start out agreeing with it (which to me is not necessarily a flaw; I don’t think the authors are necessarily trying to convert same-sex supporters), those who don’t agree with the book’s argument might, nonetheless, well find the book readable and interesting. If someone who accepts same-sex marriage wants to understand the arguments against it, this book would be a good choice. And certainly those who don’t like same-sex marriage will find in this book strong bases for their opposition.

McDowell and Stonestreet (henceforth, M&S) recognize that evangelical Christianity faces a public relations problem with its opposition to same-sex marriage. So they want to counter the impression that “anti-homosexual” is an accurate description of present day evangelical Christians while nonetheless making the case for opposing same-sex marriage. This is a delicate balance to try to achieve, and they are not particularly successful in doing so. But in their effort, they do mute the typical negative rhetoric a great deal.

As well, they (fleetingly) make a number of concessions that earlier evangelicals on the restrictive side (most notably Robert Gagnon in his widely circulated book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice—tellingly not referenced in Same-Sex Marriage) were loathe to. For example, they write: “Many Christians insensitively repeat over and over that [homosexuality is a choice], but to many of the men and women we have talked with who struggle with same-sex attraction, it isn’t. They look at their lives and say, ‘I would have never have chosen this. I can’t choose not to feel this way. I’ve tried to feel straight, but nothing has changed.’ We believe them.” (p. 118). M&S don’t actually wrestle much with the implications of this concession, but it is progress that they have made it.

The basic argument the book makes against the acceptance of same-sex marriage seems pretty straightforward. The basic rationale for M&S opposing same-sex marriage is clear and hence can be wrestled with.

The core argument

This is what M&S present as the heart of their concern: Christians—and everyone else—should reject the notion that people of the same sex can enter into a marriage relationship. Churches should not bless such marriages, and the state should not recognize them as legal unions (there are a couple of hints that M&S would not oppose “civil unions” as long as they are not called marriages; it’s too bad they don’t address that issue more thoroughly). Continue reading “Does God have a “design” for marriage—that excludes gays?”

Pacifism when “life happens”: Further thoughts

Ted Grimsrud—October 2, 2014

Christian pacifism seems to be an issue that people care about a lot, even if they aren’t always very sympathetic toward it. I’m still trying to figure out how to think about it and talk about it, and I’ve been working on that for a long time and with a lot of energy.

I appreciate the stimulus to thought that the exchanges concerning Christian pacifism this week have provided. Thanks to Rachel Held Evans for her initial brief but stimulating Facebook comments that pushed me to write the blog post I put up on Monday (“Is pacifism for when life happens? A response to Rachel Held Evans”). And thanks to her for putting up a link to that post on her Facebook page, to those who commented there, and especially to those who commented directly on my blog and my Facebook page.

As always, when this kind of thing happens, my mind races. I have a few thoughts that seem like new thoughts for me that I would like to add to the conversation.

The meaning of “Christian pacifism”

In my “Is pacifism…” post I tried to make two main points—that (1) Jesus does call Christians to pacifism, which is for all times and places according to his teaching, and that (2) since the United States military is not an agent for genuine justice, Christians should not look to it as a possible answer to the question of what to do about ISIS (which is what I understood to be the trigger for Rachel’s original Facebook comments last week).

This is what I mean by Christian pacifism: Basically, in my mind, thinking of myself as a Christian pacifist is the same thing as thinking of myself as a Christian. Not because I want to add a pacifist ideology onto basic Christian faith. Rather, I believe that “pacifism” is simply a shorthand way to say “Christianity as if Jesus matters.”

I explain this in the other day’s post where I use the story of the Good Samaritan as the central image for summarizing Jesus’s teaching (and his living). What matters the most? What is the ultimate “salvation issue” for Jesus? It’s the call to love God and neighbor. And who is the “neighbor”? Anyone in need and anyone who cares for someone in need—even if one or the other might be considered an enemy.

The term “pacifism” is useful because it reminds us that the kind of love Jesus calls us to is love that does not allow for exceptions. It is love that does not allow for killing, preparing to kill, or supporting those who kill others (that is, it does not allow for warfare). However, it appears that at times this term can be misunderstood. The point for Christian pacifism as I understand it not to insist on the necessity of the term “pacifism” but to remind Christians of the core message of our faith. Continue reading “Pacifism when “life happens”: Further thoughts”