Part of the Conversation? “Neo-Mennonites” and Mennonite Theology

Ted Grimsrud

[This essay was written about twenty years ago while I was pastoring a small “neo-Mennonite” congregation in Eugene, Oregon, for a festschrift honoring Gordon Kaufman. By the time the essay was published in 1996, I had left Eugene, co-pastored with my wife, Kathleen Temple, in a large, rural, pretty traditional Mennonite congregation in the midwest for two years, and gotten a job as theology professor at Eastern Mennonite University. I revised the essay in 2002 hoping to have it published again in a theological journal. That didn’t work out. I’m putting it up now mainly because I realized I hadn’t posted it on my site yet. I also think the ideas are still relevant as Mennonites continue to struggle with the future of their tradition.][1]

The early years of the 21st-century are a time of challenge for Mennonite faith.  Mennonite churches are engaged in an intense conversation (not always self-consciously) concerning the meaning of Christianity in a tumultuous, rapidly changing world.  One of the central issues in this conversation is simply whose voices will be heard.  How will Mennonites define their faith, order their communities, prepare their young people – and who will have voices in this defining?

We face the challenges of defining major new ecclesiastical structures with the formation of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.  This time of defining new structures has thus far been fraught with stress as various kinds of fault lines have been exposed and unprecedented conflicts have emerged.

This essay reflects on this issue of who partakes in Mennonite conversations about the future of their faith.  I believe our best approach is to affirm that all the voices within the current broad community of Mennonites are to be respected parts of the conversation.  To make such allowance requires an awareness of the identity of these voices.

I want to speak of one set of voices in particular, what I will call the voices of “neo-Mennonites.”  I am a bit unsure of the best shorthand term for the general perspective to which I am referring.  I will use “neo-Mennonite” as a non-value laden term[2] to refer to people who affirm at least many of the elements mentioned by Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman in his 1979 book Nonresistance and Responsibility:

Many persons – especially younger professional people, well-educated and living in settings quite far removed, at least culturally, from traditional rural Mennonite communities – feel the need for an interpretation of the Mennonite perspective which breathes more freely the atmosphere of the contemporary life and culture in which they are so deeply involved.  They do not wish to give up some of the basic insights and convictions of the faith in which they were raised, but the only interpretations of that faith which are readily accessible do not seem to address the questions and problems they are facing. [3]

I will argue in this essay that “neo-Mennonites” should be seen as a legitimate part of Mennonite conversations on all levels concerning the big issues that face Mennonites in the new millennium.  I will focus my concern mostly on theology, but I mean to suggest that church-wide conversations on all aspects of church life should welcome the “neo-Mennonite” perspective as a legitimate part of the Mennonite “circle.”

I do not argue that the “neo-Mennonite” perspective should be privileged, but simply that it be respected as part of the conversation.  That is, the process of discernment Mennonites are required to enter into will be most fruitful if understood as a process in which all the appropriate voices are heard and taken into account.  One of Mennonites’ biggest danger in facing our contemporary challenges is to ignore or silence voices from within our existing communities.

The “neo-Mennonite” perspective exists now within the circle of the Mennonite church.  Even if not well understood, or even acknowledged by many in the churches, it is part of what the Mennonite faith community has become.  Rather than seen as an alien perspective, or one to be resisted, it should be seen as one voice in the Mennonite choir.

To help clarify the “neo-Mennonite” theological perspective, in this essay, I will reflect on some central theological themes and briefly summarize the perspectives of four “mainstream” Mennonite theologians[4] – not intended to critique those perspectives so much as to illumine the distinctives of the “neo-Mennonite” perspective by noting contrasts.  I will conclude with a more straightforward summary of the “neo-Mennonite” perspective on these themes.

Since my intent is primarily to introduce the general “neo-Mennonite” perspective and to argue that it should be respected as part of the Mennonite theological conversation, I will not be concerned in this essay with articulating a critique of “neo-Mennonites”.  Such critique certainly is fully appropriate – but not in the context of attempts to exclude “neo-Mennonites” from the conversation.  Rather, part of the conversation among mutually accepted and respected participants should include debate and critique, between fully legitimate conversation partners.

I pastored a “neo-Mennonite”-oriented congregation in the university town of Eugene, Oregon, from 1987-1994.  Based on my experience in Eugene, as well as numerous conversations over the years with “neo-Mennonites” throughout North America, and continued theological reflection in the context of teaching young adults (mostly Mennonite) at Eastern Mennonite University and participating in Shalom Mennonite Congregation (a “neo-Mennonite”-oriented congregation in Harrisonburg, Virginia), I have become convinced that the neo-Mennonite perspective deserves to be taken seriously by all Mennonites as part of the Mennonite faith circle.

I am attempting in this essay to be mostly descriptive.  I am trying to reflect on a way of thinking that exists already in the churches, more than argue that people in the churches should think in a certain way.  My references to mainstream theologians focuses primarily on how they might be read in the kind of congregation I was part of, more than serving as a general critique.  If I am advocating anything, it is simply that mainstream Mennonites should be aware of the ways of thinking characteristic of “neo-Mennonites.”

Historical Consciousness

One important element of the contemporary world within which “neo-Mennonites” live and think is “historical consciousness.”  By this I mean the self-awareness that we are all always part of history, and that, consequently, our awareness of meaning, truth, values, and spirituality has a relative cast because we are unable to separate ourselves from this historicity.

Within Christian theology, the emergence of historical consciousness caused turmoil.  Part of the dynamic has been an attempt by those who resist historical consciousness to continue to do theology as if the traditional “house of authority” of objective, even absolute, authorities such as scripture, church tradition, and church hierarchies still held sway.[5]  Such theology seems inadequate for people who think self-consciously within the context of historical consciousness.

For people who see the world through eyes shaped by historical consciousness, the dogmatic method has little value.  That method bases its authority on absolute “facts” existing outside historical relativity.  For people who live in the world historical consciousness, such “facts” simply do not exist.

I believe this immersion in the thought-world shaped by historical consciousness greatly affects the dynamics of “neo-Mennonite” congregations.  I will mention three typical attitudes.

(1) Historical consciousness denies that outside, objective authorities (e.g., Edward Farley’s three-pronged “house of authority”: scripture, tradition, church hierarchies) are determinative of belief and practice.  In particular, “neo-Mennonites” resist citing such authorities as a means of ending discussions.  Such citations assume that the absolute “truth” cited resolves any possible disagreement.

Such use of the “way of authority” has often occurred among Mennonites recently with several controversial issues.  All three prongs are used among Mennonites, even in spite of our claim not to be a hierarchical church.  Certainly scripture is cited authoritatively, in particular verses which are said once and for all time to proscribe certain behaviors.  However, tradition is also a major authority, as in “the Church has always believed this.”  Perhaps even more surprisingly, current church pronouncements (what we could call, in a sense, church hierarchies) are also utilized to end discussion.

As Farley argues, such use of authority is doing theology by citation, not inquiry.[6]  Historical consciousness leaves many “neo-Mennonites” quite suspicious of such a method.  If everything which comes into the heads or out the mouths or pens of human beings is historically relative, then we have no authorities which we can simply cite as an end to theological and ethical conversation.

I am intending simply to be descriptive here.  This hermeneutics of suspicion based on the principle of criticism is simply part of how many people think.  Part of what makes so many church controversies seemingly interminable is the utter lack of weight many “neo-Mennonites” give to citations that people still operating within the way of authority make.  These authorities are cited as if they obviously will bring closure to the debate.  However, to people in heart, soul, and mind dwelling outside the house of authority, they carry no such weight.

(2) Many “neo-Mennonite” congregations, influenced by historical consciousness, show a much greater interest in issues of spirituality and ethics than classical creeds and dogmas.  They experience life in the concrete and practical realm – that is, in history.  They see abstract theological constructs as having little relevance to the concrete and practical realm – as such constructs mostly emerge from a way of thinking that tries to transcend historical being.

Contemporary uses of doctrines such as the trinity, the deity of Christ, and the divine inspiration of the Bible do not emerge so much from practical historical life in the present as from past constructs that perhaps at one time emerged from practical life.  However, for many shaped by historical consciousness, by now these have become abstract, ahistorical intellectual constructs long ago disconnected from the original ancient controversies and ways of life.

These doctrines may be interesting to think about.  And, with some work, they can be shown to relate to actual life.  However, “neo-Mennonites” doubt the concrete relevance of these doctrines.  That is not to say they reject them, so much as question their centrality and their use as boundary markers.

“Neo-Mennonites” find it difficult to see in actual life how belief in the Trinity has made a practical difference.  Many Trinitarian Christians has supported imperialistic wars, nuclear weapons systems, economic exploitation of poor people, and sexism.  On the other hand, many non-Trinitarian Christians, Jews, even agnostics and atheists have come much closer to following the teachings of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus against violence and in favor of care and compassion for the poor and oppressed.

(3) For “neo-Mennonites,” sensitivity to historical consciousness leads to openness to other expressions of faith.  If one believes that Christian theological distinctives are historically conditioned; and if spirituality and ethics take priority over abstract, precise, doctrinal theology in determining our faith expression, then one will tend to be much more open to common ground with other expressions of faith.

It is simply a reality of life among “neo-Mennonites” that they spend little energy on defining how they are different from other religious or even non-religious people.  Few “neo-Mennonites” concern themselves with converting others to their religion, though they always happily welcome people to walk with them should they so choose.  They find common ground within the community based on a sense of tolerance for different views, similar ethical ideals, an enjoyment of singing, and a respect for traditional Mennonite emphases such as pacifism, service concerns, potlucks, and quilting projects.

“Neo-Mennonite” communities do find ways to facilitate a meaningful expression of faith.  Historical consciousness does not lead to total relativism or individualism.  These communities still come together, many people show great commitment of time and finances to keep them going.  Worship, a sense of community, encouragement for faithful living, do not require residence within the house of authority.

“Neo-Mennonite” communities, do, however, tend to find it difficult to articulate a positive expression of belief.  Many people in such communities operate within the thought-world of historical consciousness.  They find the old way of authority to be untenable as a means to express their beliefs.  They mourn this loss little.  With all its tensions and even pain, Christian living within the modern thought-world is possible, even exhilarating.  The question is not whether “neo-Mennonites” can be Christians outside the house of authority.  “Neo-Mennonite” communities show that they can.  But they do suffer from not having a widely understood and expressed theological language that might help them better to make sense out of their Christian experience.

For people who live in the thought-world of historical consciousness, a moral-theological language based on the house of authority will not be viable.  However, that does not mean that no language is possible.  Nor does it make the construction of such a language less crucial.

Mainstream Perspectives

“Neo-Mennonite” communities, deeply influenced (consciously and unconsciously) by historical consciousness, must grapple with some key theological issues:  (1) How do we characterize life?  More in terms of “abundance” or “scarcity”?  (2) What is the nature of theology?  More “construction” or “citation”?  (3) How do we approach the Bible?  More as a “dialogue partner” or as an “authority”?

I will briefly mention some perspectives of several contemporary mainstream Mennonite theologians in relation to these questions.  Then I will focus on how these contrast with “neo-Mennonite” perspectives and outline a “neo-Mennonite” approach to these issues.

A. James Reimer

(1) How do we characterize life?  For Reimer, the present world is an unfriendly place for genuine Christianity.  Two “phenomena combined – the conflicting diversity of theological options…and the absolutizing technological monolith” greatly hinder “any faith in and experience of that which is eternal and transcendent.”[7]

He denies that genuine meaningfulness can emerge from historical relativities.  “If humankind’s knowledge is radically historical, how can one speak of truth and knowledge at all, how can one speak of universal norms by which the relativities of human history can be judged?”[8]

(2) What is the character of theology?  Theology ultimately has to do with accurately representing the absolute truthfulness revealed in the Bible and early creeds.  Reimer rejects the notion of our constructing our theology anew in the modern world.  “Rather than deliberately setting out to ‘construct’ a new concept of God on the basis of modern historicism, it seems that we ought to recover the profundity of the classical trinitarian view and put fresh meaning into it in the context of our age.”[9]

Reimer emphasizes that the trinitarian conception of God corresponds with the eternal realm, as does the deity of Christ.  Because of this correspondence, these doctrines are not relativized by history, but remain objectively true.  Hence, our job is, essentially, finding meaningful ways to cite these once-for-all, outside of time, truths.  “A trinitarian understanding of God and his ways with the world is more than simply an approach; it is in some sense the content of truth itself.”[10]

(3) How do we approach the Bible?  Reimer is suspicious of attempts to synthesize the biblical materials with present-day life and thought.  We need “jealously [to] guard the distance between the biblical world and the contemporary world.”[11]  Otherwise we will have no transcendent authority.

“The underlying affirmations embedded in the church’s confessions, doctrines, creeds, and dogmas assert something fundamental (call it ontological, metaphysical, whatever you like) about God.”[12]  Ultimately, these are truths before which we must bow in submission.

Thomas N. Finger

(1) How do we characterize life?  A central theme in Finger’s theology is a future-oriented eschatology.  The present world is the location of continuing evil.  The continued existence of evil is evidence that God’s kingdom is not yet completed.  “To me, evil is still appallingly real and active enough that I cannot see how Jesus’ return can manifest the reality of his prior victory unless that evil is also somehow destroyed.”[13]  Finger’s argument implies that when we compare the present, with its continued manifestation of evil, to the promised and assured completed kingdom, it will be seen as incomplete and characterized by scarcity.

Finger also resists historical consciousness.  The New Testament, according to Finger, goes beyond history in establishing Jesus’ identity.  The transcendent/eternal realm, outside of history, ultimately more genuinely determines Jesus’ identity.  God resides in this eternal realm, and it is from this realm that absolute truths are revealed in the context of human history.[14]

(2) What is the nature of theology?  Finger attempts to do systematic theology primarily as reporting on biblical truths.  He certainly recognizes the need to communicate in the language of the modern world.  However, Christian theology is essentially a matter of interpretation of past, once-for-all-time revealed truth.

“Theology’s critical and constructive norms cannot be derived simply from [the communities it represents], their histories and their practices, but only from truth claims which it believes transcend and critique all human communities whatsoever.”[15]

(3) How do we approach the Bible?  “The biblical writers express a unique perspective on reality – one that will undergo distortion if subordinated to, or reinterpreted in terms of, other language games.”[16]

Finger understands the Bible to be our absolute norm.  Theology that speaks of ultimate reality and meets human needs requires such a norm.  “To distinguish between the ephemeral and the permanent, between the misleading and the trustworthy in experience, theology requires a norm by which to test it.  How can Jesus and the kingdom be apprehended so that we might test our implicit convictions and our contemporary language about them?  To apprehend them with any concreteness, scripture is our only norm.”[17]

C. Norman Kraus

(1) How do we characterize life?  In his understanding of human nature, Kraus makes two assertions.  He emphasizes the significance of our being created in God’s image, creatures hence with the potential for relating personally with God.  And, he asserts that we are unable in our present state fully to realize that potential.  Kraus understands the present world to be both a place loved by God and a place in need of transformation.[18]

(2) What is the character of theology?  Kraus strongly emphasizes the need to do theology within history.  “A disciples’ theology must have a specific location in time and space.…[We] should [not] expect our statements of truth to be timeless.  This does not mean that ultimate reality changes, but only that our partial knowledge and experience of it changes.  Theology is inevitably tied to our experience of reality.”[19]

Theology, for Kraus, does not simply interpret past materials.  Nor does it primarily abstractly intellecutalize or speculate about the future.  “Theology should describe and point to a present reality and not present theory, past experience, or eschatological prediction.”[20]  Kraus has little interest in abstract speculation, opting instead for reflection which relates to communal Christian living.  “Theology should be a functional discipline in the life of the congregation.  There is little value, for example, in rational speculation about the essential nature of the Godhead, which in any event must of necessity remain a mystery.”[21]

(3) How do we approach the Bible?  Kraus sees the Bible as the core material for doing theology.  He does emphasize the Bible as interpreted more than the Bible as an objective, outside-of-us absolute norm.

“I consider systematic theology to be essentially a hermeneutical discipline, not a speculative one.  This means that one begins with the biblical text as the basic document and attempts to transpose it into a new cultural context.”[22]  This centrality of the Bible as source remains true everywhere.  “In crossing cultures with the gospel we must adhere radically to the sola Scriptura principle.”[23]

In placing highest priority on a pre-creedal reading of the Bible, Kraus places the strongest emphasis on the story of Jesus as the key for understanding the whole.  “I think that theology as a hermeneutical discipline should begin with the definitive self-revelation of God in Christ as it has come to us in the biblical tradition.”[24]

J. Denny Weaver

(1) How do we characterize life?  On the one hand, Weaver strongly emphasizes the possibilities of faithfulness to God’s will in the present.  He sees life in the here and now as the locus for meaningful, ethically fruitful living.  “We should take seriously the world and its history as God’s arena.”[25]

On the other hand, he also sees the here and now as the locus of a major confrontation between two worlds, that of God’s mercy and love as expressed in Jesus and his followers, and that of the forces of hostility to God’s mercy.  “The church is a sign and a witness to the world that the kingdom of God is different from the world.  The church lives with the goal of transforming all of society into the kingdom of God.”[26]

(2) What is the character of theology?  Weaver makes Jesus central more radically than the other three theologians.  “It is the story of Jesus – and not the Bible or theocentrism or trinitarianism – which Christian faith claims as the particular point in history which reveals God’s presence and will most fully.”[27]

(3) How do we approach the Bible?  For Weaver, the Bible very much plays the authoritative role, specifically the Bible as witness to Jesus.  “Jesus or the Jesus story is the regulative principle for a Mennonite systematic theology.…To be Christian is to take Jesus…as the norm and the beginning point for theology.”[28]

The Bible retains central significance for contemporary theology, and contemporary theology faces the challenge of interpreting the biblical message anew in the context of our modern world.  “The Bible…contains the narratives with which any christology must begin and with which any christology must be compatible, and it also has a number of examples of the development of christologies.  It is thus indispensable.  At the same time, awareness of the worldviews depicted in it means that no modern theology can limit its vocabulary or its images to the biblical language and images.  Even less can theological language and images begin with or be limited to or require compatibility with the fourth and fifth century creedal formulations.”[29]

Points of Contrast

Reimer and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Finger most strongly express theological perspectives that contrast with emphases of “neo-Mennonite” perspectives self-consciously affirming historical consciousness.  However, Kraus and Weaver also contrast with such perspectives in key ways.

(1) How do we characterize life?  These four theologians, in their general, overall perspective see life in the here-and-now world as essentially characterized by scarcity more than abundance.

We see this most clearly in their negative language about “the world.”  Reimer articulates this the most strongly.[30]  He seems to accept an Augustinian/Hobbesian notion of the nature of human reality being dog-eat-dog.  We compete to prove the truth.  “Neo-Mennonites” question this portrayal.  Do we need to arbitrate between competing systems as if they were mutually exclusive?  Might we not better think of learning from all and working together to learn better?  Might not attitudes of competition actually undercut spiritual growth?[31]

Reimer’s negative perspective also finds expression in his antipathy toward what he calls “historicism,” an antipathy essentially shared by Finger.  They understand God’s ultimate reality to be located outside history.  They thus see the here-and-now as secondary, transient, suspect.  They do not find genuine abundance in everyday human life but believe it must come from the outside, where the divine realm is located.

Reimer’s negative attitude toward the human reality also finds expression in his perceiving in God a dark, wrathful, judgmental side.  Finger, in emphasizing the centrality of evil in the present in contrast to the future, eschatological paradise, also reflects a negative attitude toward present human reality.  Finger’s eschatological focus implicitly minimizes the present possibility for human experience of abundance.

Kraus and Weaver, in positing discipleship as more central in their theology reflect more optimism about the possibilities of present life.  We may also see this in each expressing a much more positive view of the historical locus of God’s salvific work.  Nonetheless, both qualify their positive attitudes toward present life in significant ways.

Kraus emphasizes our need for Jesus’ intervention in order for us to live in God’s presence.  “He accomplished for us what we could not do for ourselves.”[32]  Weaver uses the language of church versus world as a way to minimize present possibilities for abundance and points toward the future for the full manifestation of human possibilities.

These emphases on the need for outside intervention; on the need for future, eschatological fulfillment of God’s purposes; on a clear categorization of the “world” as not the place of God’s expressions of abundance, all reflect a more negative attitude toward present life than many “neo-Mennonites” have.

A perspective affirmative of historical consciousness tends not to understand God to be outside human history, tends not to think of an apocalyptic future as the locus of human possibilities, and tends not to divide present human existence between a place called “world” and another place distinct from “world.”

(2) What is the character of theology?  For all four theologians, again recognizing different emphases, theology often has more the character of citation than construction.  The main content for theology comes from the past, and the present-day theologian has the job of interpreting, perhaps even translating, that ancient body of material into present-day usefulness.  Reimer especially emphasizes the early church’s creeds and confessions, Finger the entire biblical corpus, and Kraus and Weaver the accounts of Jesus.

All would agree, though, in understanding theology to be “essentially a hermeneutical discipline” in which classical texts are interpreted for the present.[33]  They understand theology’s task being to interpret pre-existing truths more than constructing new understandings.

The approach essentially is deductive, not inductive. Farley’s characterization fits, by and large, the approach of all four theologians.  “Theological judgments (and contents) themselves are established not by demonstration but by citation, by appeal to authority…Classical theological thinking occurs not in the mode of science but in the mode of authority…The theologian relates to the location of divine-human identity not by inquiry but by exposition.”[34]

Theology by citation places the issue of normativity at the center.  However, “neo-Mennonites” understand part of the problem with telling people what they should believe (especially if this belief requires anachronistic or foreign thought-forms) to be that even when they assent to the “should,” mystification (making affirmations which are not fully understood and often do not connect with life) and ressentiment (internalizing extrinsic values resulting in deep-seated antipathy toward actual reality) likely result.[35]

Even though Finger and, especially, Reimer, align their theological construct with “classical Christianity,” in actuality they seem, for “neo-Mennonites,” to be claiming special authority for what is every bit as much a contemporary formulation as the “relativistic historicisms” of a “neo-Mennonite” theologian such as Gordon Kaufman.  For “neo-Mennonite” theology, no formulation of theology can help but be a contemporary construct no matter how much old language is used.  None of us can transcend our location in our day and age.

A desire to avoid “anthropocentrism” lies behind much of the desire to find outside authorities on which to base theology.  However, a “neo-Mennonite” perspective argues that because we are limited to human language in articulating our theology, our theology is in some sense by definition anthropocentric.  The question is not how can we escape this but how do we think within our limits, which relativize all theological constructs.  Then, we must ask what values our constructs are serving – those that enhance humaneness and creativity or those that enhance hierarchies and the status quo.

(3) Bible as authority, not dialogue partner.  Finger asserts the need for “truth claims which transcend and critique all human communities.”[36]  Reimer also sees absolutes that tell us which truth claim is correct as crucial.

In contrast to these appeals to outside authority, Daniel Liechty (a “neo-Mennonite” theologian) speaks from a point of view within historical consciousness when he speaks of authority.  In introducing his book, Theology in Postliberal Perspective, he writes,  “The question of authority in theological writing is with me at every point in this presentation.  Authority, authorship, the author.  I have finally come to the conclusion that authority must reside with the author.”[37]  The central authority we may appeal to is that of our own argument, not something outside of us that provides coercive force to buttress our assertions.

This contrasts with Reimer’s claim that his view of God is more than “an approach”, but corresponds with Reality.[38]  One who thinks in terms of historical consciousness finds this latter view incomprehensible.  For historical consciousness, all reality is filtered through human perspectives to such a degree that we simply can not speak of reality as Reality.

Kraus and Weaver do not make quite the same exalted claims regarding biblical authority.  They both clearly argue for seeing the biblical materials as historical.  However, the way they privilege the Jesus story reflects a viewpoint that appeals to a transcendent authority more than “neo-Mennonites” are comfortable with.

Sketching a “Neo-Mennonite” Perspective

As I understand key aspects of “neo-Mennonite” thinking, this is how I believe a “neo-Mennonite” alternative might begin in constructing a different approach to theology.

(1) World as abundant.[39]  An attitude of trust toward life in the concrete world as created by God characteristizes theology that affirms the reality of historical consciousness.  This kind of theology can refer to God without positing “classical” notions of Transcendence, Eternity, and Ontology.  “Neo-Mennonites” make a choice for one understanding of present particular “metaphysics” over other possible particular “metaphysics,” including those such as Reimer’s that claim Authority.

“Neo-Mennonites” understand the central criterion for one’s own theology to be that it be meaningful for the theologian’s community, that it address their reality in terms that they understand and can relate to.  Scripture and creeds must serve this criterion or one engages in mystification.

They would say that the best “governor” for theology is not some external authority – even the “Bible” or “God.”  These types of things do not prevent differences, and they invest those differences with “absolute” authority, leading to violence.  The best “governor,” rather, is the on-going, ever-evolving quest for truth.  If one seeks truth, one will be open to the validity of arguments and will be willing to adjust one’s viewpoint accordingly.  Doing theology then becomes a process of working together better to understand rather than working against each other to win arguments and/or defend one’s ideology.  Seeking truth fits well with a trust in Reality/God that does not need us to fight for it or coerce others on its behalf.

A basic issue is whether one believes God (and, hence, life) to be trustworthy or not.  If one does, then one will not feel the anxiety to “change the world”/ “protect the truth” that seems, at times, to characterize “mainstream” Mennonite theologians.  One will focus more on understanding/respecting/listening to what is than on changing/fearing/confronting.

This all relates to anthropology, our views of human beings.  “Neo-Mennonites” would suggest that most violence results from negative anthropology, not provides evidence for such a view.  A positive anthropology is based on  (1) a doctrine of creation as good;  (2) a doctrine of providence, including concrete expressions of God’s involvement in human history; and (3) an awareness of human responsiveness to love.

Martin Buber articulates an anthropological perspective quite close to “neo-Mennonites.”  He affirms the human being and he affirms the world in which we live as where we will encounter God.  “I know nothing of a ‘world’ and of ‘worldly life’ that separate us from God.  What is designated that way is life with an alienated It-world, the world of experience and use.  Whoever goes forth in truth to the world, goes forth to God.  Only he that believes in the world achieves contact with it; and if he commits himself he cannot remain godless.  Let us love that actual world that never wishes to be annulled, but love it in all its terror, but dare to embrace it with our spirit’s arms – and our hands encounter the hands that hold it.”[40]

(2) Theology as Construction.  We best understand “neo-Mennonite” theology as inductive theology, flowing out of their experience in life and expressed in their language.[41]    They would say all people do this anyhow.  Attempts to do theology deductively (traditional orthodoxy) often result in mystification due to the gap between archaic religious language and one’s actual experience and what actually in practice provides meaning in one’s life.

“Neo-Mennonite” theology remains committed to Anabaptist/Mennonite distinctives.  In fact, “neo-Mennonites” believe, many of these distinctives fit better with this approach to theology than an approach remaining within the house of authority.  The construction of “neo-Mennonite” theology includes a positive attitude toward the world, consistent with Anabaptist/ Mennonite pacifism (it is possible in life to live consistently in non-coercive love) and adult baptism (infants are not born condemned to Hell needing sacramental intervention).  This theology is dialogical, consistent with the Anabaptist/Mennonite emphasis on community.  It is concrete in history, consistent with the Anabaptist/ Mennonite low-church worship patterns that emphasize human immediacy more than sacramentalism.

This construction takes place in conversation with the Bible.  Each affirmation can and should utilize biblical motifs and images because the Bible has genuine authority for all Christians – it has a special connection with life and provides a common language for Christians.  However, the authority of the Bible works best in this view when it is seen as a conversation partner that shapes our construction.  The authority of the Bible is not authoritarian but as the key source of language that must always merge with our horizon in ever-evolving ways.

For “neo-Mennonites,” to say our theology must be done in terms of our thought-forms is mostly a descriptive statement.  We cannot do theology otherwise.  What “neo-Mennonites” would call for is honesty and self-awareness about what we in actuality cannot help but do.  Trying to think “Classically” (Reimer) and “biblically” (Weaver, Kraus, Finger) is at most finding sources (creeds and confessions, Bible, story of Jesus) that provide language and ideas that we use to make sense of our world.

When these sources become an alternative to paying attention to life in the present instead of a means to help us be attentive to life in the present, they primarily heighten one’s lack of perception of God’s presence in the world.

(3) “Authorities” are Dialogue Partners.  “Neo-Mennonites” believe the mainstream theologians claim too much for the Bible.  This over-claim contributes to many thoughtful “neo-Mennonites” distancing themselves from the Bible altogether.  They have been taught authoritarian hermeneutics as the only approach.  When that proves unhelpful, they jettison the Bible itself.  “Neo-Mennonites” need a constructive, non-authoritarian biblical hermeneutic that allows them to utilize the Bible in ways that connect with their lives.

“Neo-Mennonite” theology rejects fearfulness toward the actual world.  A theology that will be genuinely “congregational” has a great deal to gain by turning back to the Jesus story as a central source, reading it and its broader biblical context non-fearfully and non-foundationally.  In that story we find useful content: God’s compassion, the “divinity” of everyday life, the rejection of conventional wisdom and power politics, abundance over scarcity, etc.[42]  We need to return to the Bible via historical consciousness.  Excellent work already exists to point the way.[43]

Reading the Bible together as a witness of openness to God and life provides a way to converse together.  Is the biblical story, especially regarding Jesus, in itself authoritative enough or do we need external claims to buttress that authority (e.g., doctrines of inspiration; an absolute, transcendent God; church hierarchy)?  Is the awareness of the truthfulness of biblical stories arrived at inductively or deductively?  Do we connect with the Bible through our experience of life/self-awareness or through submission to external authorities/doctrines/creeds that tell us what the Bible must be?

Jesus and Paul (and Old Testament prophets) themselves embody the power of immediate awareness of God.  They challenged conventional wisdom and received theological method in their own times, giving priority to God’s word spoken directly to them in their context of their own world.  They modeled creativity in how they respected and worked within the faith as passed on by their forebears while also responding in new and at times iconoclastic ways.  Through their honesty and courage, they became channels for new, life-giving gifts of God’s Spirit.  They serve as models for “neo-Mennonites” – and all other Christians.

Certainly the “neo-Mennonite” perspective should be critiqued.  My comments in the previous four paragraphs point to a criticism concerning “neo-Mennonites” distancing themselves from the Bible.  However, my intent with this essay has been to attend sympathetically to the “neo-Mennonite” perspective.  I do so with hope that the broader Mennonite community would learn better to understand and respect the possible contribution “neo-Mennonites” might make to contemporary Mennonite faith communities.

[1] This essay is revised from Ted Grimsrud, “Mennonite Theology and Historical Consciousness: A Pastoral Perspective” in Alain Epp Weaver, ed., Mennonite Theology in Face of Modernity: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Kaufman (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1996), 137-153.

[2]Other terms I considered and discarded as too value-laden, too vague, or otherwise potentially misleading include: “Muppie,” postmodern, universalist, professional, historically-conscious, urban, educated, critical, culturally-open, liberal, and progressive.

[3] Gordon D. Kaufman, Nonresistance and Responsibility and Other Mennonite Essays (Newton, KS:  Faith and Life Press, 1979), 7-8.

[4]By “mainstream Mennonite theologians” I simply mean theologians who have been teaching at Mennonite institutions and whose writings mostly have been published under Mennonite auspices.  I will be considering Thomas N. Finger, until recently of Eastern Mennonite Seminary; A. James Reimer, of Conrad Grebel College; C. Norman Kraus, retired from Goshen College; and J. Denny Weaver, of Bluffton College.

[5]For a description and powerful critique of this three-pronged “house of authority” see Edward Farley, Ecclesial Reflection:  An Anatomy of Theological Method  (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1982).

[6]Farley,  Ecclesial, 109.

[7]A. James Reimer,  “Toward Christian Theology From a Diversity of Mennonite Perspectives” in Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics (Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press, 2001), 235.

[8]A. James Reimer,  “The Nature and Possibility of a Mennonite Theology,”  The Conrad Grebel Review  1 (1983), 33.

[9]Reimer,  “Nature,” 34-35.

[10]A. James Reimer, “Response to Glenn Brubacher,” The Conrad Grebel Review 5 (Winter 1987), 73.

[11]A. James Reimer,  “Biblical and Systematic Theology: Two Parallel and Related Activities,” in Mennonites and Classical Theology, 388-389.

[12]Reimer,  “Biblical,” 391.

[13]Thomas N. Finger,  “Response to J. Denny Weaver,”  The Conrad Grebel Review  6.2 (Spring 1988), 163; see also Thomas N. Finger,  Christian Theology:  An Eschatological Approach, vol. 1  (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 1985), 152.

[14]Thomas N. Finger,  “Is ‘Systematic Theology’ Possible from a Mennonite Perspective?” in Willard M. Swartley, ed., Explorations of Systematic Theology: From Mennonite Perspectives  (Elkhart:  Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), 46.

[15]Finger, “Response to Weaver,” 164.

[16]Thomas N. Finger, “Biblical and Systematic Theology in Interaction: A Case Study on Atonement,” in Ben C. Ollenburger, ed., So Wide a Sea: Essays on Biblical and Systematic Theology  (Elkhart: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1991), 4.

[17]Finger, “Is ‘Systematic Theology’ Possible?” 46.

[18]C. Norman Kraus, God Our Savior: Theology in a Christological Mode (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991), 102-130.

[19]C. Norman Kraus, “Toward a Theology for the Disciple Community,” in J. R. Burkholder and Calvin Redekop, eds., Kingdom, Cross, and Community: Essays on Mennonite Themes in Honor of Guy F. Hershberger  (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1976), 114-115.

[20]Kraus, “Toward a Theology,” 114.  (Kraus’s italics)

[21]Kraus, “Toward a Theology,” 114.

[22]C. Norman Kraus,  “Reply to Interpretations and Criticisms,” in Richard A. Kauffman, ed., A Disciple’s Christology Appraisals of Kraus’s Jesus Christ Our Lord (Elkhart: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1989), 77-78.

[23]C. Norman Kraus, “Response to Thomas N. Finger,” The Conrad Grebel Review 9 (Spring 1990), 209.

[24]Kraus, “Reply to Interpretations,” 78.

[25]J. Denny Weaver,  “Perspectives on a Mennonite Theology,”  The Conrad Grebel Review  2 (Fall 1984), 194.

[26]J. Denny Weaver,  “Response to Walter Klaassen,” in Leo Driedger and Leland Harder, eds.,  Anabaptist-Mennonite Identities in Ferment  (Elkhart:  Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1990), 30.

[27]J. Denny Weaver,  “Mennonites:  Theology, Peace, and Identity,”  The Conrad Grebel Review  6 (1988), 127.

[28]J. Denny Weaver,  “Mennonite Theological Self-Understanding:  A Reply to A. James Reimer,”  in Calvin Redekop, ed.,  Mennonite Identity:  Historical and Contemporary Perspectives  (Washington, DC:  University Press of America, 1988), 55.

[29]Weaver,  “Perspectives on a Mennonite Theology,” 198-199.

[30]Reimer,  “Biblical,” 391.

[31]From a non-theological perspective, see two books by Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1986) and The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 1990).

[32]C. Norman Kraus, “Jesus Christ, the Servant-King,” in Dieter Götz Lichdi, ed., Mennonite World Handbook: Mennonites in Global Witness (Carol Stream, IL: Mennonite World Conference, 1990), 184.

[33]Kraus,  “Reply to Interpretations,” 77.

[34]Farley,  Ecclesial Reflection, 116, 117, 112 (italics Farley).

[35]Cf. James Breech’s penetrating discussion of ressentiment in The Silence of Jesus: The Authentic Voice of the Historical Man (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), utilizing insights of Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Scheler.

[36]Finger,  “Response to J. Denny Weaver,” 164.

[37]Daniel Liechty,  Theology in Postliberal Perspective  (Philadelphia:  Trinity Press International, 1990), ix.  A revised edition of this book with commentary from a number of theologians is called: Reflecting on Faith in a Post-Christian Time (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2003).

[38]He writes: “A trinitarian understanding of God and his ways with the world is more than simply an approach; it is in some sense the content of truth itself.”  Reimer, “Response to Glenn Brubacher,” 74.

[39]I use the term “abundant” of the world here based in part on the distinction between “abundance” and “scarcity” made by Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life: Wisdom for Work, Creativity, and Caring (San Francisco:  HarperCollins, 1990), 124-125:  “The quality of our active lives depends heavily on whether we assume a world of scarcity or a world of abundance.  Do we inhabit a universe where the basic things that people need from food and shelter to a sense of competence and of being loved are ample in nature?  Or is this a universe where such goods are in short supply, available only to those who have the power to beat everyone else to the store?  The nature of our action will be heavily conditioned by the way we answer those bedrock questions.  In a universe of scarcity, only people who know the arts of competing, even of making war, will be able to survive.  But in a universe of abundance, acts of generosity and community become not only possible but fruitful as well.”

By “world,” I mean the realm of creation, our present historical existence.  In this sense, “world” has positive moral connotations: that which is loved by God, which is the place where human beings encounter God.  This is not to deny that there is also a sense in which “world” can appropriately be used with negative moral connotations: that realm of existence which is in rebellion against God.  The Gospel of John reflects both usages: John 3:16 in the positive sense and John 1:10 in the negative sense.

[40]Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Scribners, 1970), 143.

[41]This kind of theology is not objective, authoritarian, foundational.  However, it is also not relativistic.  It hopes to speak to something that is real and exists outside individual whims and subjectivities.  Many modern-day philosophers and theologians have struggled with finding a way that goes “beyond objectivism and relativism.”  One of the more successful has been Richard J. Bernstein, in, among other books,  Beyond Objectivism and Relativism:  Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis  (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983).  See chapter nine below, “Pacifism and Knowing: Truth in the Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder” for an argument that Yoder also goes beyond objectivism and relativism.

[42]Cf. Marcus Borg,  Jesus:  A New Vision  (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1987).

[43]A brief list: Bruce C. Birch, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991); the numerous books by Walter Brueggemann, including, Interpretation and Obedience: From Faithful Reading to Faithful Living (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991); Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988); Old Testament Theology: Approaches to Structure, Theme, and Text (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992); The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978); Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997); Douglas W. Frank, Less Than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth-Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987); Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996); Gabriel Josipovici,  The Book of God:  A Response to the Bible  (Yale University Press, 1988);  Herbert Schneidau,  Sacred Discontent:  The Bible and Western Tradition  (Berkeley:  University of California, 1976);  Walter Wink,  Engaging the Powers:  Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination  (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1992).

I have written a brief, constructive proposal for biblical theology: Ted Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Main Themes of the Bible (Telford, PA: Pandora Press US, 2000).

2 thoughts on “Part of the Conversation? “Neo-Mennonites” and Mennonite Theology

  1. Don Clymer

    Thanks for these thoughts. I’m curious if these trends within “Neo-Mennonites” are part of a wider cultural shift to post-modernity and as such can be found within all Christian denominations, with varying emphases. I’m particularly aware of a “Neo-Calvinist” movement, but know little about it. I also wonder if there is (will be) a strong black lash in parts of the church(es) to uphold the former three-pronged authority you identify. The back lash, IMV comes about as a way to deal with ambiguity–a general trait of post-modernity.

  2. Pingback: Damaging the Christian faith? Questions about some anti-gay sentiments | Thinking Pacifism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s