[This essay was published in the Anabaptist Scholars Network Newsletter 4.1 (May 2001). It originated as a “discussion starter” that I emailed to various Mennonite academic friends for their responses. We had a lively discussion; edited responses from the discusion may be found here. A shortened and revised version was published in DreamSeeker Magazine, Autumn 2001, with a response from the then president of Eastern Mennonite University, Joseph Lapp.]
For over one hundred years, Mennonites in North America have been in the higher education business. As was no doubt inevitable, as time has passed, Mennonite colleges and seminaries have adopted many of the values and practices of their surrounding culture’s higher education milieu. And yet, we still want to think of our “product” as in some sense distinctively Mennonite.
One area where these two communities (North American higher education and the Mennonite churches) perhaps most obviously have potential for being in tension is the area often referred to as “academic freedom.” Should academics who work for Mennonite schools operate in terms of “academic freedom?” Partly because I teach in theology and partly because this question seems especially pointed in relation to theology (broadly defined to include biblical studies, ethics, and other related disciplines), I will focus on theology in this essay. I believe my reflections, though, could to a large extent apply to all disciplines in our Mennonite colleges and seminaries. What constraints, if any, should be placed on the freedom of expression in the classroom for Mennonite theologians? What about our publications? What place is there for censorship on the part of Mennonite institutions? How about self-censorship?
I address these issues from the perspective of one who has taught at a Mennonite college for nearly five years, and who for ten years before that pastored in three Mennonite congregations. I also address these issues as a person who did not grow up as a Mennonite, but rather grew up in the “Wild, Wild West” in a milieu strongly influenced by rugged frontier individualism. So, while I write out of lengthy experience in Mennonite institutions, I also write as one who does not have the traditional Mennonite, community-first ethos in my bones.
Equivocal about Enlightenment rationales
However, individualist that I may be, I also write as one not fully comfortable with Enlightenment-centered rationales for individual rights and freedoms. I do not find the ideal of “academic freedom” that attractive when couched in terms of Enlightenment individualism. Or rather, in reflecting about the responsibilities of theologians who work at Mennonite institutions, I do not look at Enlightenment freedom as the main source of reasoning. At the same time, I need also to state that I have deep appreciation for how Enlightenment influences have fostered personal freedom in our culture.
As a Christian, though, I find it more helpful to place the issues of appropriate expression for theologians in the context of spiritual gifts. I believe that it is because of the gifts theologians have been given and have nurtured and are hired to exercise that open expression is something our schools should cultivate (more than because of the ideal of “academic freedom”). However, in practice open expression in a Mennonite college and “academic freedom” in a state university might not look noticeably different.
Respect giftedness, encourage open quest for truth
So, this is my central argument: Mennonite churches and colleges and seminaries must respect the giftedness of their theologians. They should expect those theologians to be honest and open in the responsible expression of their gifts in teaching and scholarship.
As well, I believe that Mennonite churches and colleges should expect their theologians to be active members in the Mennonite Church. I believe that Mennonite theologians should understand their vocation as being one of service to the Mennonite Church (and as such, service to the broader Christian church and to the world).
However, this membership and this vocation should not be constraining factors. Rather, they are the precise factors that give theologians the responsibility to speak freely and forcefully, openly to articulate the fruits of our research. Like all members of the church, we are called boldly to speak the truth as we discern it. This may mean challenging, or it may mean reaffirming, old orthodoxies. It may mean resisting superficial fads, or it may mean pushing in new directions. That is, we are called to encourage our fellow Christ-followers toward maturity in faith.
When a person joins the Mennonite Church, that person vows to be part of the process within the church of giving and receiving counsel. Our responsibility is to make our contribution to the discernment of the body. We believe that the church is a living organism, made up of varieties of people with varieties of spiritual gifts – some teachers, some comforters, some prophets, some counselors, some artists, some artisans. The body is healthy only when those gifts are exercised. Pity the church that quenches the Spirit by ignoring the contributions of any of its gifted members.
Theologians as gifted members of the church
When we understand theologians as gifted members of the church, we will see that our called-out work is not in tension with the church’s mission but an essential part of it. Theologians are recognized as people with spiritual gifts in the areas of teaching and scholarship. We are not more important than other members with other gifts, but we do have an authentic role to play.
The Mennonite tradition is especially compatible with this notion of the place of theologians in the church. We rightly are skeptical of creating an elite hierarchy of “experts,” where a few tell the many how to think. However, we also place a high priority on the on-going need for the church to be about its work of discerning the signs of the times, always applying the timeless truths of the gospel to particular places and issues. Theologians (broadly defined) have an important contribution to make in this on-going discernment process. For example, biblical scholars help us with the always necessary (and always evolving) work of biblical interpretation. Ethicists help us better understand the issues at hand in our day and age. Doctrinal theologians help us, when necessary, to revise old and to construct new understandings of God and the biblical message that may be applied to these current issues. That is, the task of all different types of theologians is to be attentive to God’s truth and to help the church grow in faithfulness to that truth.
I believe the central tension we face today, then, is best seen in terms of the church’s openness to understanding its mission in the framework of the centrality of on-going discernment and dynamic engagement with a changing world. When the church understands its work in this creative way, it will welcome the contributions of all its members, each exercising one’s gifts in service of the discerning work of the church. These needed contributions include the work of our theologians. If the church, instead, takes on the task of simply defending past orthodoxies and protecting its social status, then it will stifle many of its gifted members – not only theologians.
I am suggesting that we seek to understand our calling as Mennonite academics as part of the work of the church, done within the circle of church life. I resist the kinds of separation that appear to be, on the one hand, seeking to protect the church from the academy, or, on the other hand, seeking to protect the academy from the church.
Our ecclesiology has, at its best, understood that we all are responsible to share in the work of discernment. All voices within the fellowship must be heard. The church must not censor or squelch those within the fellowship (including theologians) who raise questions and suggest new directions. At the same time, all within the fellowship (including theologians) are called to do their work in service of the work God is doing through the community of faith, not as autonomous individuals.
Today, as always, the Mennonite Church (the Christian church in general) faces the enormously difficult and important task of embodying and articulating a living gospel that speaks to the people of our day. As near as I can tell, our schools have been doing a terrific job in training young people for this task (even if many in the Mennonite Church seem not to appreciate this).
The challenge of articulating a living faith
However, we face a major challenge. We need always to be attentive to our language, to find ways to articulate a living faith. Perhaps this task now takes on a new urgency for Mennonites, traditionally inarticulate about faith convictions, more comfortable with lived-out faith than with talked-about faith. However, as the support systems of the old ethos of Mennonite communities wither, one wonders if the faith convictions might also wither if they cannot find better articulation. Too easily, even at our schools, we settle for the jargons of other traditions (maybe most notably, the jargon of rigid, doctrine-centered evangelicalism on the one hand, and the jargon of pop humanism on the other hand).
The work of articulating a living faith, using language that is meaningful and authentic in the present while also faithful to the message of the Bible, is precisely what Mennonite theologians are called to. We are being irresponsible if we shrink from this work. Many in the church may not welcome it, may even try to squelch it. Our calling, I believe, is to press on anyhow. Not in the name of academic freedom so much as simply as a responsible exercising of the gifts God has given us and that the Spirit empowers us freely and courageously to use, for the sake of the church.
[Here are nine responses to this article—written in 2001]