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]”

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?”