The “Anabaptist sensibility” and Mennonite signifier [Theological memoir #10]

Ted Grimsrud—February 2, 2021

I first learned about Mennonites back in the late 1970s. I had two points of entry—pacifism and Christian community. In the summer of 1976, right after I graduated from college, I met my first Mennonites when I visited a Christian community called Reba Place Fellowship in the Chicago area. At the about the same time, a close friend of mine was taking a summer school class at Regent College in British Columbia on Christian pacifism from Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.

Finding connections with Mennonites

Over the next four years, I tried to learn more and more about Mennonites. One of the things I learned was that Mennonite origins went back to the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century Protestant Reformation. In the Fall of 1980, my wife Kathleen and I took things up a notch and enrolled at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (now called, interestingly in the context of what is follow in this post, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary).

It was our first deep immersion in a Mennonite community. We talked a lot with our many new friends about the relationship between the original radical 16th century Anabaptists and contemporary Mennonite communities. In retrospect, it feels only somewhat facetious to say that we experienced a bait-and-switch operation. We loved AMBS and through it were drawn into the Mennonite world. Then, when we experienced more of that Mennonite world, we saw an entirely different—and much less attractive—face of Mennonitism. Of course, no one was actually trying to mislead us, but the contrast between our first and our later impressions became pretty painful.

Still euphoric from our time at AMBS, we did become Mennonites in 1981. That is, we joined a Mennonite congregation and committed ourselves to working in the Mennonite world. We embarked on parallel careers that led both Kathleen and I to become pastors in Mennonite congregations and professors at a Mennonite college. We still belong to a Mennonite congregation, but by now our feelings about Mennonites are very complicated. Most of the time, we would say we don’t feel like we ever did truly “become Mennonites,” try as we might.

The question of the relationship between “Anabaptistness” and “Mennoniteness” has remained a vexing one for us during all these past 40 years. I’d say that a big part of my complicated relationship with Mennonites has been my desire to influence Mennonites to draw more heavily on our Anabaptist heritage. My perspective now that my career as a paid professional Mennonite religionist has ended is possibly a bit jaded and even cynical. I’m still interested in the questions (hence this essay), but my sense of urgency is greatly diminished. I’m no longer seeking the embodiment of the “Anabaptist vision” so much as wanting to ease into an “Anabaptist sensibility.”

Continue reading “The “Anabaptist sensibility” and Mennonite signifier [Theological memoir #10]”

Does Christianity prepare people to be misled by those in power? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #3]

Ted Grimsrud—January 23, 2021

Many Americans have been disturbed since the November election at how gullible so many in our nation seem to be about former President Trump’s claims that the election was stolen. A shocking number of people believe that Biden stole the election—including, it appears, quite a large number of professing Christians. That so many Christians believe such an outrageous thing seemingly simply because Trump has told them to has made me think. Is there a connection between Christian theologies and ways of thinking and being misled by people in power.

As I have thought about this question of a special Christian susceptibility to such gullibility, it occurred to me that this is not an issue only in relation to conservative Christians. Take the mostly unquestioned acceptance over the past 75 years of American warism and the nuclear weapons regime. There have occasionally been moments of opposition to these suicidal societal commitments (I’m thinking especially of the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late-1960s and early 1970s and the nuclear Freeze movement of the 1980s —both of which petered out in spite of little success), but the generally positive attitude about the politics of death has spanned the theological spectrum from right to left. And what is this positive attitude other than gullibility in relation to people in power?

The big question

Is there something inherent in Christianity that makes Christians especially susceptible to such manipulation? I’m not ready to claim that Christians are more easily misled than other people, but I do suspect that there might be dynamics within Christianity that do enhance the possibilities of this.

Part of my motivation is my own sense of disappointment. Back in the mid-1970s I became very interested in what we called “radical Christianity.” I became a pacifist and affirmed many other countercultural causes such as environmentalism, feminism, racial justice, and anti-capitalism. I believed that it was because of the Bible and Christian convictions that I took such stands. I believed that Christianity made that kind of difference. I still have most of the same convictions—both politically and theologically—but am much less sanguine about the significance of Christianity for making a big difference in the world. My suspicion now is that being a Christian in this country makes a person more likely to be pro-war, white supremacist, sexist, and pro-capitalism. Behind that likelihood, perhaps, is a willingness among Christians to accept uncritically what powerful people say.

This is the thesis I want to consider: Christianity can be epistemologically crippling because its theological system and the practices that follow have often stemmed from beliefs that are not based on evidence, at times not even based on rationality. I wonder if the willingness to ground Christianity on non-evidential, non-rational, even at times magical thinking and mystification, has also led Christians to accept claims from political leaders that are non-evidential, non-rational, and even magical thinking.

Continue reading “Does Christianity prepare people to be misled by those in power? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #3]”

A social gospel for the 21st century: Drew Hart’s creative synthesis

Ted Grimsrud—September 3, 2020

In his new book, Who Will Be a Witness? Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance (Herald Press), Messiah College theology professor Drew Hart has given us a much-needed theological resource for embodying the way of Jesus in our troubled times.

A theology for Christian social engagement

The most attractive aspect of this engagingly written book is how Hart synthesizes three streams of Christian theology: (1) a Jesus-centered biblical radicalism that has a visionary suspicion of the mainstream Christian tradition, (2) a socially-engaged sensibility shaped by the black experience in America (a legacy Hart calls “the black prophetic tradition”), and (3) an Anabaptistic orientation that emphasizes the call to transformative nonviolence.

While Hart writes explicitly as a black theologian, what he provides is not a narrowly focused “contextual theology.” His first book, the well-received Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, focuses on the African American context. This new book, Who Will Be a Witness?, may in turn more accurately be understood as a much broader Christian theology of social engagement that Hart constructs through the lens of the black Christian tradition.

Thus, Hart’s book may be seen as a contemporary expression of what theological historian Gary Dorrien presents as “the black social gospel” in his recent magisterial two-volume history of that tradition in the United States. Dorrien argues that the black social gospel has been a perspective that speaks to all Christians with a profound awareness of the concrete relevance of the Christian gospel for life in this world. Like the great practitioners of the black social gospel such as Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr., Hart gives us a powerful challenge for all Christians to understand that at the very core of our faith lies a call to be an active presence in the world witnessing to God’s work of justice and healing. Continue reading “A social gospel for the 21st century: Drew Hart’s creative synthesis”

Why God doesn’t intervene (theological memoir #5)

Ted Grimsrud—November 18, 2019

You would think that given how important most people think God is that it would be easier to talk about God. But it often seems that people act as though, of course, God is real and we all know what we mean by God, very people are very articulate when they actually try to talk about God. It’s even difficult to find good jokes about God—when I searched the internet, this is the best I could do:

God was talking to an angel and said, “I just figured out how to rotate the Earth so it creates this really incredible 24-hour period of alternating light and darkness.” The angel said, “That’s great. So, what are you going to do next?” God says, “I think I’ll call it a day.”

Talking about God

I suppose for most of us, our understanding of God has evolved quite a bit as we have gone through life. I know mine has. One of the things I have come to believe is that we too easily forget that our language about God is always metaphorical. We are saying what we think God is like, not what God for a fact is. It is our concept of God that we talk about. But we have the habit of saying simply, “God is this or God is that.” I will share about the evolution of my thinking about God—and it seems more authentic to use the kind of language about God that I used in the past. But I recognize that all I say here is metaphorical, even if I don’t use qualifiers such as “God is like…”.

I was stimulated to think about how my thinking about has changed recently when I heard a helpful sermon on God from a Unitarian minister, Paul Britner. What do I think about God, especially about God’s power?

As a starting point, I think most of us would actually agree that God hardly ever (if ever) directly intervenes in the affairs of human beings. Even most pious Christians have experienced enough tragedy and brokenness to know that God simply does not step in and stop bad things from happening. My buddy Rod getting killed in a car wreck at age 17. My dad dying suddenly of a brain aneurism at age 67. My mom’s sister having a fatal appendicitis attack when she was four. Not to mention wars, famines, pestilences.

We know God lets things go. So, the question, then, for many of us is: Why? Why does God allow so much terrible stuff to happen? At least this is the question for those who believe that God is loving and good. And most of us who believe in God do believe that. I suspect as well that for most of those who don’t believe in God, the God that is not believed in is a God who allows terrible things to happen.  My thinking about this issue has evolved a lot…. Continue reading “Why God doesn’t intervene (theological memoir #5)”

What grief teaches us about God (Theological memoir #4)

August 18, 2019—Ted Grimsrud

As I reflect back on how I have understood God, I have recently noticed a connection that I had not thought of before. Though I have not thought of there being a lot of continuity between how I thought of God fifty years ago and the present, the moment that got me started back then turns out to be closer to what I think now than I have realized. The key connecting point is grief.

Questions and faith

I grew up in Oregon in rural Oregon. Though conservative and very rural, it was quite a non-church oriented environment. As a kid, I always had questions; I always wanted to understand better. That quest led to a Christian conversion when I was a teenager that dropped me into a fundamentalist Baptist congregation that, ironically, didn’t welcome questions. But I began a long process of learning and opening up, and I moved on quickly from fundamentalism. I eventually found Mennonites and had a career as a Mennonite pastor and theology professor. I have continued to “open up” and have moved right to the very margins of the Mennonite world.

I started my journey in my mid-teens with a sense of the presence of the divine that came to me in the midst of grief—as I was attending the funeral of a friend who had died in his late twenties of cancer. In a time of prayer, I felt that God was real and was with us. I had been thinking a lot about whether I believed in God or not, and from that point on I affirmed that I did. I find it interesting now, that what could have been an insight into the characteristics of God (as one especially present in sharing our grief) essentially passed by me. For years, I would look back at the moment and say that my sense of God was pretty vague and needed my education in Christian theology (such as it was in those years) to understand who God is. Now I think it is too bad that I couldn’t have pursued the insight about God’s close connection with grief.

From that funeral on, I was trying to understand what to believe about God. The Baptists gave me some answers. I never quite felt comfortable with what they told me, but they did help me begin. I have gone in directions I would never have expected back fifty years ago. Now I think grief is one of the best ways to get a sense of how to think about God. Continue reading “What grief teaches us about God (Theological memoir #4)”

How reading Hans-Georg Gadamer prepared me for heartbreak (Theological memoir #3)

Ted Grimsrud—July 29, 2019 

When, at the age of 17, I decided to become a Christian, the main motivation that I remember was that I wanted to know the truth. I realize now that that was more an emotional than intellectual motive. It took me some time, though, to discern the nature of this “truth” that I sought. From the start, I did not focus on finding a secure resting place nearly so much as on understanding more and more. As it turns out, of course, a quest for truth-as-understanding never ends.

Glimmers of uncertainty

The first lessons I learned on this quest had to do with Christianity being the one true faith. I didn’t have objections to that notion; I really did want to be part of the truth faith and if there was only one I was okay with that. However, I did not instinctively gravitate toward Christianity because of exclusive truth claims; I just didn’t know there were different notions of “true religion.”

At some point I did learn that indeed, the truthfulness of Christianity is contested. At first, I learned that from Christian exclusivists who insisted that their version of Christianity was the only true faith in contrast to other versions. They did inform me, though, that theirs were not the only views (even if the other views were wrong). I have mentioned Francis Schaeffer, the “evangelist to intellectuals,” as an important thinker for me at that time. Schaeffer taught me about the “Christian” notion of absolute and exclusive Truth.

I remember a couple of moments that opened my eyes a little. A mentor of mine in the small non-denominational church I had recently joined talked with me about end-times theology. He introduced me to what he presented as the two main options: “dispensational” and “covenant” theologies. These were new terms for me, but I was clearly in the dispensational camp (though I had thought it was simply the only true view; it was kind of like going through life and only later on learning that one speaks in “prose”—you’d been doing it all along but never had a word for it). The stunning moment came when my friend told me that in fact most Christians followed the covenant view. Whoa! This was the first time I realized that what I had been taught was not the only viewpoint, not even the majority viewpoint. That realization was an important step in coming to realize that my quest for understanding truth actually meant that things were pretty wide open. I didn’t simply have to accept the one view I was taught. As it turned out, I soon realized that I no longer wanted to accept the dispensational perspective as truthful. Continue reading “How reading Hans-Georg Gadamer prepared me for heartbreak (Theological memoir #3)”

Questions from the wrong side of Easter

Ted Grimsrud—April 24, 2019

Easter weekend was interesting for me this year. To be truthful, it left me feeling a bit uneasy. Usually I like Easter, at least if the weather is nice (as it was this year). But this time, the celebrative notes seemed consistently off key. I wonder if I have reached a tipping point where Easter imagery has the net effect of discouragement more than inspiration. Continue reading “Questions from the wrong side of Easter”

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”

“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]”