I spent the latter half of last week at a Canadian Mennonite Brethren study conference in Saskatoon, SK where the topic under discussion was what it means to “confess Jesus” in a pluralistic world. It was a good conference on many levels. If provided a chance to see my brother and many other friends (old and new) from around Canada, to listen to intellectually stimulating lectures, and participate in many interesting conversations. All in all, it was four days very well spent.
So today I’m sitting here trying to distill the events and topics of the conference into something I can actually pin down and translate into terms that mean something “on the ground.” The “so what?” question always looms large after these kinds of conferences, at least for me. Much as I enjoy and value ideas for their own sake, I do feel that ideas—especially the best and most important ideas—have deep significance for specialists and non-specialists alike, and that it is part of my job to figure out what this might be. Presumably, those who spent three days in Saskatoon last week ought to have something to say if asked, “So how do we confess Jesus in a pluralistic world?
One of the peculiarities of this particular conference was that, for many in attendance, the main topic wasn’t really the main topic. As I’ve mentioned before (here, here and here), the nature of the atonement has become a bit of a lively issue in the MB Conference and some folks in attendance certainly seemed to come to Saskatoon seeking clarity/resolution on what, exactly, Canadian MBs believe about this. Some sought an assertion of the primacy of penal substitution as the “controlling metaphor” of how we understand what was accomplished by the cross of Christ. An important part of “confessing Jesus in a pluralistic world,” for some, seemed to involve achieving greater doctrinal precision as a denomination on this question.
The guest speaker at the conference was Thomas Yoder Neufeld and I found his perspective on Christology immensely helpful (and attractive). In his final lecture, he talked about the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25:31-46. There are many unsettling and destabilizing implications of this passage, but one theme that comes through quite clearly is that whatever else “confessing Jesus” might mean (in a pluralistic world or any other kind of world), active service to the “least of these” is a crucially important part of it. We perhaps tend to think of “confession” primarily in terms of the words we say, the propositions we affirm, the creeds we recite, etc. According to Yoder Neufeld, though, “our confession is null unless it is tethered to service of the other.”
Null. Not, “less authentic,” not “requiring application.”
Lofty Christologies or theories of the atonement might make us feel good or religious or faithful to Scripture or some other thing. But the Jesus of the gospels seems less interested in people thinking exalted or precise enough thoughts about his identity or about the mechanics of what his death and resurrection accomplished than he is with them following the pattern of his life—a life devoted to the love of God and neighbour, to the breaking down of barriers between people, to suffering and weakness as the ironic and triumphant display of the wisdom of God. One of the haunting questions Yoder Neufeld left us with is this: “Is our Christology too high to go as low as Jesus did?”
A while back I came across an image that, while spoken about the American evangelical context, seemed relevant to me as I listened to Yoder Neufeld’s last lecture in the context of some of the things we get worked up about in our little denomination. The image is this: if Christ is represented by his church, and if the church is Christ’s body, and if the body is comprised of many different (essential) parts, then for the last fifty years or so, the “body” of Christ has looked like a giant mouth with atrophied arms and legs, hands and feet. In a pluralistic world, which is very familiar with the mouth of Christ’s body, perhaps the time has come for the church to confess with some of the recently under-utilized parts of the body.
I interpreted Yoder Neufeld’s challenge to Canadian MBs along these lines. I interpreted his call as one to “confess” Jesus in a manner more faithful to the pattern of Jesus himself—a pattern where orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not separate entities, with the latter a result of the former, but two essential components of any faithful confession of Jesus in a pluralistic world.